The importance of tackling the right problem
Let me close this chapter by giving you an example of defining a problem in a way that can improve the chances of achieving a much more effective solution. Some years ago, before the big recession, I was in conversation with some army officers over a growing problem they were facing. The number of new recruits applying to join the Army was declining, and this was exacerbated by the fact that more people than usual were leaving. The annual spend of many millions of pounds worth of recruitment advertising was having a decreasing effect and, no matter how they tweaked the message, numbers were still declining. They were clear that doing the same thing was no longer an option.
We started by trying to articulate exactly what they were trying to achieve. Their answer was obvious: ‘Drive up the number of recruits!’
It was said with such vehemence that I decided to move onto the next stage, even though I was unhappy with the broadness of the statement at this stage. We started examining who it was the Army most needed to influence in order to achieve this goal. Obviously, they needed to reach young men and women who could be potential recruits into the Army. They needed to reach the general public, so that such a move would be seen as an acceptable career option for youngsters. They needed to ensure the Army was seen as a good thing, supported by the general public.
As we probed harder, this court of public opinion began to widen. When thinking about the people who most influenced potential recruits, we then looked at parents (and mothers in particular), teachers, mentors, career guidance centres, family and friends, and even former soldiers now in the community and unrestricted about what they could tell people about life in the Army.
When I asked what they were most proud of in terms of the recent communications, they talked about a very popular TV show called Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. They said that research among potential recruits had shown that this show was effective in attracting youngsters into the Army. Why? The reality of active duty actually appealed to many of them was the answer.
But what effect did that TV show have on the key people who most influenced potential recruits? What effect would such a show have, for example, on mothers? The answer was, they didn’t know. My assertion was that this would have a far from favourable effect, as mothers, friends and relatives would be made even more acutely aware of the danger of their son or brother or friend dying while on active service. If this different perspective was true, and these people were now more actively dissuading youngsters from going into the Army, then a very different communications approach would be needed.
What possible benefits would those people see in advising youngsters to pursue a career in the army? What could possibly mitigate the risk of dying on active duty? We needed to know much more about how these people were feeling before we could design an appropriate communications programme. We simply didn’t know enough to define the real problem. This led to a programme of research among these stakeholders, which verified the conclusions we had come to as we answered Questions 2 to 4 of the process. In order to persuade these people to consider a career in the Army, it was going to be necessary to do a great deal more about talking up the merits of training and career-enhancing skills that youngsters might receive in the Army. Mothers did worry about the Army as an option, and needed strong mitigating reasons to support such a choice. This was, indeed, going to have to be a very different communications campaign. We had to redefine the objective. It now became: to persuade the key influencers of potential recruits of the benefits of a career in the Army.
While the Ross Kemp programme was still suitable for potential recruits themselves, something very different was required for the influencers. A much more targeted, sophisticated and persuasive campaign would be required to overcome the inherent fear any mother would have about encouraging her child to take up a career that involved the very real risk of dying on the battlefield. Without such a campaign, it was likely that parents and relatives would continue to dissuade recruits and the Army’s leaders would continue to see dwindling numbers.
However, before we were able to start working with the Army to help write a communications plan, an entirely new circumstance arose. The recession. In a market where jobs were suddenly and dramatically being terminated and job security in industry became a thing of the past, young eyes turned more readily to a career in the Army. For the next six or seven years, the Army’s recruitment problem went away.
If as a leader you truly want to inspire behaviours that will help you achieve your goals, then be clear about this: you have not successfully communicated if people have not understood you, or felt motivated to think differently and act differently as a result of your words.
That means that you need to be crystal clear about the nature of your problem, the solution you need to put in place, the benefits this will bring to all parties involved, and how to communicate with them in a compelling and resonating way.
It is by influencing how other people feel that you influence their behaviours. You have to know the people in your audience, you have to know how they act and feel, and most important of all, you have to know what you want them to feel and do instead.
At the heart of good relationships, is good listening. The way you listen during conversations, the way you listen to your direct reports in one-on-one meetings, the way you listen to the outside world and all of your external stakeholders, will be one of the key determinants of whether you are seen as an inspiring leader. Sometimes, giving people a damn good listening to can be the most inspiring communication of all.
Let us examine how to be a brilliant listener in the next chapter…