There's nothing like a good story to motivate people to act.
Stories are how we humans have communicated meaning for millennia. When we find out what whales are talking about, my guess is it will have something to do with story-telling. When managing change, I encourage clients to figure out the story -- not the PowerPoint, not the business case, but the actual story that communicates what is changing and why it's important. The story you want repeated peer to peer, that crystallizes real meaning for people.
John Wood, the guy who started Room to Read, and has now written a book about his experiences, reminded me of this. Room to Read is a charity dedicated to building schools and putting books in the hands of the world's poorest children. He's been profiled in FastCompany, and the organization has won all kinds of social capitalist awards.
His book, "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World", contains some interesting examples of change management and leadership. Some of the things Wood thinks are important for success, like working ridiculous hours, probably aren't important.* But through luck or intention, he did a lot of things right.
Using a Good Story
Wood tells some great stories that illustrate the hunger for learning of children in developing countries, and the ingenuity and commitment of their families in acting as the charity's local partners. And he hears some pretty amazing stories, too, that people have told him -- because they saw someone they thought might be able to help. They didn't make the case for books -- they took him to visit a school that had none.
If you want to change the culture in your organization, start by listening to the stories people tell, and listening to the stories you yourself tell -- you'll learn a lot about the culture, about what is important, and about what people are paying attention to.
"Nobody Ever Washed a Rented Car"
I'm not sure who said this first, but Wood says it again in his book, and he's so right. For Room to Read, this means asking the local village to raise half the funds for a new school or library before construction starts. These are called "challenge grants", and they give the village a commitment to the project that far exceeds what an outright gift would create.
It works the same way in business. Ever wonder why so many head office projects die in the field? Maybe it's because there was no room left to create. There is great joy in creating, in solving problems, in adding our own brushstrokes to a project. If you let people do that, they have real ownership in both the project and the results. If it's all about you, your plan, your goals, your year-end bonus, why should anyone else care?
"Stop Talking, Start Acting"
Don't wait to get everything completely right. Just get moving. This is one of the great lessons that Jim Collins told in Good to Great, and it comes up again in Wood's story. Once you know the direction, start building momentum.
An executive I used to work with told me something amazing once. He said: "We'll figure out how to do it after we land the deal." A great sales manager once joined my weekly sales team meeting. A couple of our reps didn't have a lot of appointments booked for the week. His first question? "What are you doing this afternoon?"
I'm working on a book right now, and I can tell you something: there's no amount of planning that is a substitute for sitting at the keyboard and writing. You want to make something happen? Just start.
Tying Investment to Results: the Donor Experience
I think most people who grew up in a large, successful corporation learned to stay on top of their numbers. I know I did. And Wood has brought this discipline to the charity, which tracks and reports how many schools, how many books, how many scholarships.
Even better, in the early days, if you gave them enough money to fund a school, they actually put your funds toward a specific school, which contained a plaque with your name on it. Someday you might trek to it and have a look for yourself. This has been very important to donor motivation.
A look at their web site made me wonder if they are still doing that, and if they can still do that now that they are bigger. It was a brilliant strategy and I'm sure was a factor in their early successes.
When you think about motivating your own team, consider whether they can see the chain that ties their efforts directly to results. The more visible the link, the more ownership you will have. No matter what the role, find the link to the big goals and results for the organization, and people will feel part of something more important that will help them survive the drudge that goes with all roles.
One definition of leadership is that a leader is someone to whom you will give your discretionary effort. People need a reason to make that particular donation. Did you give them one this week?
"If you ask people to reach deep, to think creatively, and to produce extraordinary results, they usually will. Too often in our modern world, they are simply not asked."
~ John Wood
*Something about Wood's verbal style reminded me a lot of Bill Rancic, the guy who won the first Apprentice contest: it's that same frenetic optimism unsullied by irony, untouched by failure. Or perhaps I'm just jealous because I haven't founded a global charity success story, and haven't yet finished my own book.