Friday, 20 November 2009

Integrity, trust and management

I recently attended a job interview at a bus company where I was asked to make a presentation on:

"What positive impact can a Revenue and Marketing Manager have on our reputation ?"

It’s very tempting to give people quantifiable answers to questions like this but to be honest, I don’t know enough about buses to make very specific suggestions but I was guessing the purpose of this question was for them to find out what I know and how I think.

The operative word here is reputation. That was an interesting choice. They could have asked me about delivering revenue or quality of service. I understand marketing to be much more than advertising and PR.

Even though that question is pretty specific, my response was to ask, “a reputation for what and with which stakeholders?” as there are many.

And I asked "what’s wrong with your reputation now?" while also telling them what I thought it was.

I have become fond of Bartlett and Ghoshal’s concepts of Purpose, People, Process. If you have the right people inspired by the right purpose, you can find the right process. 

Considering process: a bus company is an open-ended proposition. It is not the Olympics with a goal to reach in 2012 but there to deliver a service today, tomorrow and the day after. To keep a complex system running forever needs constant repair, renewal and maintenance, so change is naturally a constant state of affairs, let alone the changes that rapid company growth brings. No sooner than you have established services and people create expectations, these expectations may not be fulfilled. So, rather than be linear and finite, the processes of service improvement tend to be circular. Like the seasons, good practise goes through a cycle of growth and decay and then renewal.

I don’t have much experience myself but evidently the reputation of this bus company has taken a few hits in many of the cities it operates in.

The Green Party – which has some clout in one city – says that its fare policies drive people off buses into cars so there is likely some work to be done in this area.

What the critics are probably complaining about is that the bus company doesn’t want to run at a loss – and why should it?

The issue may be that there is no sympathy for this bus company. A useful analogy; it seems some people are not onboard with the company’s purpose. Articulating the company’s purpose would clearly be the marketing manager’s remit, while actually, in my mind, it’s in everybody’s remit. The marketing manager should be articulating that purpose to staff as much as customers.

When thinking about ‘People’: the bus company said, amongst other things in the person specifications, that they were looking for a person in this role who is dynamic, customer-focussed and in so many words a leader of people. I am sure those were carefully chosen qualities.

Let’s take that first quality: dynamic. That means energetic and something or someone that has drive and drives others. These are people that push for change. But dynamic people can be wreckers just as much as builders.

Being ‘dynamic’ is quality of leadership. Not many dynamic people aren’t leaders but there are some. Ellen Macarthur sails around the world alone but leads by setting an example. 

You don’t have to be a people-person to be a leader either. Shackleton, Monty, Orson Welles were all difficult people that were good leaders.

I consider leadership something that is not easy to define or let alone do. I could discuss forever the theories of leadership but many say one quality of a leader is ability to influence or persuade - like a salesperson if you will – but then a persuasive person is not always a leader either.

The car salesperson is persuasive in that they will convince us they are giving us the best car we can afford (so we won’t buy one elsewhere) but we never really buy a car thinking we got the better of them do we? So influence alone is not the only qualification for leadership.

But skill at persuasion is necessary because every interaction in a society is an exchange. Communication is an exchange. We exchange our money for services. We exchange our free will and taxes in return for our safety given by our government. When you’re selling something, to win at it, you must convince people they’re getting value for their exchange.

Presentation can influence our perception of whether we get a fair deal or not. Then the question to me is how can this manager influence this perception?

I believe it can only influence and not steer, because the organisation’s reputation is not really totally in its hands. It can’t turn the rudder against the wind. 

Ellen Macarthur doesn’t steer her boat through the wind and waves, she harnesses them; she manages the natural forces to get her where she wants to go.

My belief is that for many things, a reputation for anything, a person, a company, a brand, is mostly dependent on what is actually done more than what is said. 

Some in advertising might disagree with me but I believe that for many things you can’t buy a reputation unless you spend it on the things that actually deliver what that reputation is for. 

Clever advertising and PR can’t convince the audience of something contrary to their experience, their evidence of the truth. Passengers ride buses frequently so they get plenty of opportunity to test the message they hear and form opinions on its integrity.

The tradecraft of advertising or PR can only promise what the customer doesn’t know better or ensure that any false messages are driven away. 

You wouldn’t believe a holiday brochure saying ‘come to Zimbabwe for idyllic safaris’ if it didn’t acknowledge the present truth. You might be intrigued though if it said ‘come and see the new Zimbabwe’. What would make the difference to Zimbabwe is when people came back and verified that promise.

In my mind, the key to being a leader, and having influence on reputation, is delivering on promises. When you have reputation for that, you have trust, even when the message is bad. A trusted source is listened to above all the other background noise.

Trust is critical. You simply can’t legislate around not having trust. Even the most powerful nation on earth cannot avoid having to trust in something. It says so on the back of the dollar bill.

Building - and importantly defending – trust, is what I deduce is one of the key roles and impacts that a revenue and marketing manager could make on this bus company's reputation.

So, that’s the intention, the ambition, the purpose that needed the person. Now how do you achieve it? How do you make and build trust? What’s that process entail?

I believe trust building is best done by attention, example and integrity to your promises. We can call it ‘courtship’.

If you make people feel good about themselves, they’ll follow you and make you a leader. They’ll buy your products. Show people you care about them, they’ll follow you. Set a good example, they’ll follow more. 

Crucial to all of that is integrity; integrity to delivering the rewards of that trust. As I've said, it’s all about exchange.

Trust is a fragile gift though. Take advantage of someone’s trust and not deliver on your promised exchange and heaven help you. Just ask an MP lately.

The process the manager has to fulfil is to ensure the integrity of the promises of the company they represent. I think that was a purpose I could have signed up to.

But alas they went and hired someone else.

©Nat Bocking