As I exited Amtrak at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and made my way to the escalator destined upward to the grand train lobby, the oddest thing happened. The moving staircase that was still packed with people heading down to the train platform suddenly changed directions and headed up. Like a scene from a bad You Tube clip, surprised passengers stumbled over their own feet trying to walk down the up staircase while spectators laughed out loud when suddenly, the irony of the situation struck me.
How often do we step backward when trying to move forward? How frequently are our personal and professional goals thwarted with unanticipated hurdles that threaten to prevent us from accomplishing our goals? The lesson is not in the answers to these questions but rather how we learn to turn these mis-steps to our advantage. I believe some of the best examples can be found in political campaigns which can teach leaders’ volumes about communicating more effectively in today’s fast-paced attention challenged workplace.
More than a decade ago, I ran for the Pennsylvania state house and lost in one of the closest state races in the Commonwealth’s history. At the time, I was hard at work building my own business which included coaching and training members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The state representative in my district had received a lot of negative press for allegedly smacking his girlfriend in public so opposing party leadership saw a good opportunity to reclaim the seat and thought tapping a former television reporter with name recognition was a great strategy. When I was first approached, I laughed out loud as the conversation went something like this.
Leadership: “How would you like to run for PA House?’
Me: “Not a chance.”
Leadership: “Why not?”
Me: “Should I tell you the truth or tell you what you want to hear?”
Leadership: “Oh please, we want the truth.”
Me: “For starters, I’ve interviewed hundreds of politicians and was never that impressed so no offense, but I have no real desire to be like any of you.”
Then I signed up.
Like any product, promise, service or idea, the key is to inspire and motivate so people believe in what you’re selling. As an example, politicians have to sell themselves every time they speak. Let’s say a candidate appears warm, friendly and sincere but when you meet them in person, they are scowling, not as happy as they appeared on TV, offer a droopy handshake and seem distracted as you speak to them. You would probably re-think your decision to vote for that person just as you would probably not be inclined to follow their lead in the workplace.
While social networks were not as prominent when I ran for office, they were already forcing people to have conversations in order to motivate and empower others. That meant talking with listeners instead of at them as I had learned form a twenty year career in television news. When we interviewed people, they wanted to share their stories. When we edited it for broadcast, we wanted snippets of information that made our viewers and listeners feel what it must have been like to be at the scene of that story. That meant making information relevant to others.
Step One: Keep the Conversation Real
When I ran for office, urban sprawl was a hot issue and my opponent was a member of the township planning commission and a self-proclaimed topic expert. Every time we were both questioned about it, she talked from experience and was usually quoted. I was not. That’s when I realized I needed to keep the conversation real and speak people’s language so I changed my approach. The next time I was interviewed I said: “Traffic has gotten so bad out here in Montgomery County, that I could balance my checkbook on the way home from work.” Granted, you don’t need a college education to come up with that one, but it resonated with readers and every time I said it, I got quoted so of course, I said it all the time.
Politicians understand the importance of using real life examples and storytelling to impact listeners but business communicators often lag behind fearing what’s appropriate in other settings is not appropriate in the workplace. Quite the opposite is true. In medicine, it’s the stories of sick patients that inspire researchers to search for cures. In war time, we cling to stories that offer hope about people who have overcome insurmountable odds. The stories of grief, hope and optimism that immediately followed the horrific events of September 11, 2001 are forever etched into our personal and national psyche. Stories are real and create rapport communicators need to share if they hope to drive the message home.
Step Two: Be Accountable
In my campaign office, we had a young woman in charge of our door to door walking campaign. It was up to her to determine what neighborhoods we canvassed and how many times we returned. There was a big map in the office with colored pins stuck on streets that illustrated where we had trudged. Shortly before the election, I noticed we missed an entire section of the district. When I questioned her, she became very defensive and claimed her strategy never included campaigning in this area. As it turned out, she made a mistake and was embarrassed to admit it. If she had taken responsibility, we could have changed course and potentially secured additional votes.
When people are unaccountable, they often make excuses, blame others or play dumb which can create an atmosphere of mistrust. In campaigns as well as business, accepting responsibility and not being afraid to say you erred in judgment makes you real and can actually increase confidence in your ability to lead.
Step Three: Have Heart
My older son was only nine during my short lived political career but he taught me a lesson I will never forget. It was a very competitive race where many people said they would only vote their party regardless of personal beliefs. On election night, my son and husband were assigned to hand out literature at a polling place. Every time someone would walk in the door, he would run up to them, hand out my flyer and scream “vote for my mom”. On the way out of the voting booth, an older man grabbed my husband’s arm and said: “I’ve never voted for another party in my life until tonight and I did it because of your son.”
Without knowing it, this nine year old instinctually knew that politicians can’t win races without good grassroots organizations, but more importantly, he cut through the politics and grabbed at their hearts.