Good leaders advocate for their own initiatives. And sometimes help others advocate for them
A few years ago, a large company was seeking to reinvigorate its brand image. The company decided it should enlist the support of employees and its franchise network to help do that. Both constituents could advocate for the company in their unique ways, not only as people with vested interests but also as representatives of the communities in which they lived. It was a great idea, but sadly it never gained traction. The initiative became lost in the mix of other pressing issues; as a result, the company lost an opportunity to elevate its public profile in a positive way.
By contrast, Wal-Mart has taken advocacy to a new level. For years, the giant retailer prided itself on flying under the radar, but when it became the largest retailer in the world, stealth was impossible. In response to perceived negative publicity about Wal-Mart's destroying mom-and-pop retail operations, and genuine negative reaction to sexual discrimination lawsuits, Wal-Mart became more aggressive in its public relations as well as its advertising. More recently, the CEO of Wal-Mart has become vocal about articulating his company's point of view - for example (as reported in the New York Times), on providing employee health- care, something that the company does not offer most of its employees. The company has also enlisted the support of bloggers in its public relations efforts. Regardless of where you stand on Wal-Mart, you have to admire the company's response to public criticism: confronting it rather than dismissing it, and then seeking to advocate its own point of view.
General Motors may wish to borrow a page from Wal-Mart's playbook. As reported by The Wall Street Journal not long ago, GM's newly elected director, Jerry York, posed a question to the fellow directors on GM's board: "Why leave it to the union to communicate with our workers?" In the past, management feared "agitating union leaders during labour talks". York advised the company to send its position statements directly to workers. No word on whether they obliged, but the intention is clear. Communicate directly with your constituents.
Advocacy is a leadership proposition. It involves standing up for what you believe in. If individuals or organizations never take a stand, it suggests they have little to offer. For example, if you launch a product but fail to support it with advertising or public relations, then you are demonstrating you have little faith in it. Likewise, if you as CIO launch an initiative inside your company, perhaps a new systems architecture or a revised help desk process, but you fail to support it with communications to employees, then that initiative - no matter how important - is dead on arrival.
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