Companies that listen are new harbinger for success

The new year will bring a growing realization among corporate executives everywhere that the underlying catalyst behind Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and other forms of protest will actually begin to impact the private sector.

The new year will bring a growing realization among corporate executives everywhere that the underlying catalyst behind Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and other forms of protest will actually begin to impact the private sector. What is that catalyst? Let's call it the expectation of engagement.

A recent New York Times column by Tom Friedman referred to our living in a “democratization of expectations,” the new expectation that all individuals should be able to participate in shaping their own careers, citizenship, and future.  

The column quoted Dov Seidman, a leading authority on the subject, who said, “The days of leading countries or companies via a one-way conversation are over. The old system of command and control – using carrots and sticks – to exert power over people is fast being replaced by ‘connect and collaborate' to generate power through people. Leaders and managers cannot just impose their will.”

Want proof? Think Netflix and pricing, Bank of America and debit fees, Gap and its new logo, and so on.

The companies we admire these days tend be those that really engage with their employees and customers. They actively listen and co-create the future with these constituents in order to assure robust times ahead. They tend to empower their people to engage with customers on a real-time basis. Think Home Depot, IBM, and P&G.

Companies that run in a traditionally hierarchical fashion have futures that will get very bumpy. Corporate employees are no different than public citizens – they want to be heard and respected and their expectations are changing. They see the world around them changing and not only in high-profile political events, but in the way their friends and colleagues are increasingly being engaged by progressive employers. How long will it take for them to find ways to activate their own peers to demand more engagement from their management?

The digital and social media revolution has forever changed the communications requirements of leaders. Successful leaders embrace a transformative approach in which they fully understand the ecosystem in which their stakeholders operate.

Real engagement in the new digital world requires more than just retooling existing messages for electronic distribution. It requires a fundamental belief that listening to, partnering with, and even occasionally crowdsourcing ideas with key stakeholders ultimately results in better decision-making, which leads to more satisfied customers, motivated employees, and so on. The only catch: you really better believe this because this is where stakeholder expectations now reside.

Is there risk associated with this new way of conducting business and the associated absence of control? Of course, but it is a new world and control no longer exists (if it ever did). The more enlightened leaders realize that open, public conversations about their brand, their work environment, etc., are taking place regardless and will continue to do so.

The question is will these leaders engage in that dialogue or stay back? For sure, risk is associated with either choice, but risk cannot be avoided – it is to be managed.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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