When I was in graduate school, I worked as the Nutrition Coordinator for an Adult Fitness/Cardiac Rehab program associated with the university I attended. It was a fairly new position in the organization without a lot of structure and process in place. Bright-eyed, naïve, and optimistic, I brought forward a lot of new ideas to enhance and expand the nutrition services. Phil, the director, who was also my major professor, would grin and say, “Jean, you can do anything you want, as long as you bring in enough revenue to cover your costs.” Even though I worked in a non-profit academic institution, early on I learned to think like a entrepreneur. But as much as Phil supported my ideas, I experienced the opposite from Cliff, the adult fitness program manager, who was also a P.E. professor at the latter stage of his career. He resented my ideas and resisted the changes they brought about. At the time, I didn’t understand why and took it all way too personally. Later, when it came time to assemble my thesis committee, which would provide oversight to a weight control program I was creating, Phil proposed that I put Cliff on my committee. I said, “Why would I appoint Cliff to my thesis committee? He hates me.” With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Phil responded, “Well, you’re a lot better off having him spit from the inside out than the outside in.”
I have never forgotten this advice and used it throughout my career when leading change and building consensus across organizations. While it seems counter-intuitive and risky to invite the entrenched resisters into a change initiative, I’ve watched miracles come out of this approach. First of all, hearing opposing points of view during the formative stage allows you to strengthen your ideas before you hit prime time. Second, by showing that you respect your detractors enough to invite them into the inner circle, you might win their respect in return. Third, when in a team or committee setting, the detractor’s voice will be balanced with other perspectives and become less threatening – and it’s better for them to hear the voices of support from people other than you! Finally, once your detractors have some vested interest in the success of your project, they may set their ill-will aside and work hard for the project to succeed. Not always, but sometimes I even witnessed this approach turn adversaries into some of my strongest advocates.
Putting this experience into a leadership context, my story about Cliff is an example of stakeholder management. Phil knew intuitively that, because of his position, Cliff could block or even derail my success and that getting him onto my team was the best way to win his support – or at least neutralize his resistance. Even though Phil had positional power over Cliff, he knew the outcome for the organization would be much stronger if I could figure out a way to engage Cliff in the changes I was leading. This was a big lesson for a 23 year old, and I’ve been forever grateful for the wisdom it taught me. And his one-liner is a great example of using metaphor – an element of storytelling – in a leadership moment!
President Lincoln said it even better, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”