The Case for Advocacy

Good leaders advocate for their own initiatives. And sometimes help others advocate for them

A few years ago, a large company was seeking to reinvigorate its brand image. The company decided it should enlist the support of employees and its franchise network to help do that. Both constituents could advocate for the company in their unique ways, not only as people with vested interests but also as representatives of the communities in which they lived. It was a great idea, but sadly it never gained traction. The initiative became lost in the mix of other pressing issues; as a result, the company lost an opportunity to elevate its public profile in a positive way.

By contrast, Wal-Mart has taken advocacy to a new level. For years, the giant retailer prided itself on flying under the radar, but when it became the largest retailer in the world, stealth was impossible. In response to perceived negative publicity about Wal-Mart's destroying mom-and-pop retail operations, and genuine negative reaction to sexual discrimination lawsuits, Wal-Mart became more aggressive in its public relations as well as its advertising. More recently, the CEO of Wal-Mart has become vocal about articulating his company's point of view - for example (as reported in the New York Times), on providing employee health- care, something that the company does not offer most of its employees. The company has also enlisted the support of bloggers in its public relations efforts. Regardless of where you stand on Wal-Mart, you have to admire the company's response to public criticism: confronting it rather than dismissing it, and then seeking to advocate its own point of view.

General Motors may wish to borrow a page from Wal-Mart's playbook. As reported by The Wall Street Journal not long ago, GM's newly elected director, Jerry York, posed a question to the fellow directors on GM's board: "Why leave it to the union to communicate with our workers?" In the past, management feared "agitating union leaders during labour talks". York advised the company to send its position statements directly to workers. No word on whether they obliged, but the intention is clear. Communicate directly with your constituents.

Advocacy is a leadership proposition. It involves standing up for what you believe in. If individuals or organizations never take a stand, it suggests they have little to offer. For example, if you launch a product but fail to support it with advertising or public relations, then you are demonstrating you have little faith in it. Likewise, if you as CIO launch an initiative inside your company, perhaps a new systems architecture or a revised help desk process, but you fail to support it with communications to employees, then that initiative - no matter how important - is dead on arrival.

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How to Enlist Others to Help You Advocate

Advocacy is a form of communication, and as such it requires great energy and commitment. If the issue is important enough, you may wish to enlist the support of employees and key stakeholders. Before you can advocate, however, you must ensure understanding of issues and create proper platforms for action. That includes three key steps:

Inform. Provide information about the issue and how it affects the organization. If it involves legislation, talk about the impact the law will have on the business. If it involves pushing for reform, discuss the expected benefits. Translate the benefits into personal terms - that is, how the issue affects individuals. Does the legislation make work safer, or threaten job security? Does the reform initiative mean cleaner air for everyone? Whatever the issue, make it real. The military does a good job of communicating its point of view on issues related to the local communities in which it has bases. It looks at everything from employment and noise control to economic impact on local businesses when advocating for changes.

Teach. Once people know the issue and how it affects them, share with them how to articulate their point of view. Some may wish to speak only to friends; others may be excited to write a letter to the editor or even speak at a community meeting. Encourage them to speak from the heart and put the case into their own words. Otherwise they will sound like automatons, and that will do more harm than good. Hold classes in how to articulate the advocacy case. One pharmaceutical company has adopted this approach, and in doing so enabled employees who wish to lobby for issues to do so. The act of teaching is good practice for those who must articulate the case. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once said: "If you cannot persuade your colleagues of the correctness of your decision, it is probably worthwhile to rethink your own." That is, you better know your stuff.

Prepare. If you expect employees to advocate on your behalf, you must prepare them for adversity. Give them instruction as well as materials on how to handle objections. Again, speaking from the heart is better than speaking from a briefing book. Encourage them to translate their personal commitment into organizational action. The civil rights movement of the 1960s took great effort to teach non-violence as well as to teach participants how to react when being clubbed or gassed by hostile police forces. Fortunately, few corporate advocates will ever face anything so dire, but the lesson of preparation holds. Know the objections you may face, and be ready for them.

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Stick to Your Knitting

When you ask employees to advocate for something, especially outside the organization, you must do so carefully. Keep in mind the chief function of your organization is to provide a product, a service or combination thereof. That is what you do. If everyone is off advocating, be it a request for tax abatement or a testimony on product quality, a question may arise: Who's minding the store? When advocating, make certain it is focused on business issues and, when not handled by a senior leader or public relations professional, participation should be discreet and minimized. Never pressure an employee to participate. It will backfire. Advocacy must come from the heart; if the person does not feel compelled by the issue, or is reluctant for other reasons, back off. Your case will be better for it.

Caring enough about the issues that face the organization to voice an opinion is a demonstration of a commitment to values. When done in ways that present a point of view that promotes the livelihood of stakeholders as well as commitment to corporate citizenship, it is very much a leadership proposition. At times, the point of view will be unpopular with certain constituents, but making tough choices in tough times is always the challenge of leadership. Leaders need not be too artful when arguing their case. "If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever," said Winston Churchill. "Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then a third time - a tremendous whack!"

Advocacy is not for the faint of heart, but it is something that leaders must embrace. John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant and a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results. He invites readers to visit his leadership resource Web site at www.johnbaldoni.com

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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