Monday, December 29, 2014

Resolve to be authentic, not animatronic

I didn't know you could buy surplus animatronic figures from Disney parks. Let alone install one from the Hall of Presidents as a company CEO.

Animatronic at Disney Hall of Progress
By SteamFan (own work (Nikon D80)) [GFDL
CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
via Wikimedia Commons
You'll read countless New Year's resolutions in the coming week. Some will be preposterous or hard to keep.

But if you're a CEO or executive director of an organization, and you don't wish to be mistaken for an animatronic historical figure, there's an easy resolution to keep -- one that will help your internal communications far more than any newsletter or video message.

It's simple:

Be authentic. Be human. 

Not every CEO is a "people person." The leader I'm describing -- call him Gerry -- was a good strategist and a charismatic sales leader. But he was never at ease talking about himself, his values, or his family. Ask about such topics, and he'd go semi-rigid. As one of his speechwriters, I struggled to get Gerry to share glimpses of his background, or anecdotes of events that informed his leadership style today. 

Eventually, I cobbled together a few stories that helped create a public persona for Gerry. But it was somehow incomplete, and further complicated by another PR manager who insisted on painting the boss as a business visionary. 

Yawn. The business visionary fable only works when the business you lead is wildly successful. Gerry's was struggling. No one bought the "visionary" story. And it told the company's employees that their leader was disconnected from the realities of the business.

Contrast this with the legendary honesty of Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco. He engaged with employees, had a modest cubicle of an office, and connected in shirtsleeves. When employees' health care costs rose, he defied logic and decided that Costco would bear about 90 percent of their costs.

But, even with financial challenges, Gerry could have found ways to show his human side. During his tenure, we learned that Gerry had a close relative who was seriously ill. Gerry let down his guard during a meeting with a small group of employees. Serious illness touches everyone, and we understood his anguish. He momentarily lost his composure. We all empathized.

Suddenly, he was human.

You needn't have an emotional moment to be authentic, either. A newly named department head I know took the time to write hand-written thank-you's to her team, and included a scratch-off lottery ticket. Cost? Miniscule. 

Had Gerry shared a moment of being human now and then, prior to this emotional moment, it would have resonated far more than any "business visionary" fable. We all recognize and appreciate authenticity. Sometimes, it enables us to rally around a leader in difficult circumstances. 

Gerry didn't succeed, although his shortage of humanity wasn't the only reason. Had he broken out from his animatronic facade, he'd have connected with employees -- who might have rallied to help the business succeed.