Want to Inspire ? Show the fire in your eyes

Inspirational people are everywhere.

On a recent visit to Singapore, my cab suddenly stopped just short of the hotel. It was raining and the area in front of the hotel was gridlocked. Taxis, buses and limousines were all blocking each other — it was a mess. A moment later, the hotel porter Jerry came out to take over from his colleague. He started guiding the cars, apologizing to guests, and nudging drivers to clear the way. He was everywhere all at once, and he was smiling. Less than 5 minutes later, everybody was moving again.

“Welcome to Singapore, Mr. Barta”, he said when he opened the door to my cab. “How did you manage to get the cars moving so quickly?” I wanted to know. “Well, I take care of everybody here. I don’t see the cars, I see the people. If your arrival goes well, you’ll have a good stay.” I saw pride in his eyes when he said this. Jerry is just one of the many people who inspire us every day.

Inspiring people starts with one person: yourself. If you have the spark of inspiration, you can inspire others. That’s the key. — Thomas Barta

Inspiring other starts with yourself

“How can I inspire people?” Some people believe inspiring is all about storytelling techniques or about picking a bold topic. Others think: Some leaders “just have it” (in fact early leadership theories propagated this idea). Today we know different: Inspiration comes from a spark deep inside you. Together with INSEAD Business School, we have recently researched how over 8,000 global leaders see themselves versus how their superiors and team see them. The picture on inspiration is pretty clear — those leaders who feel inspired themselves inspire their teams and superiors. Inspiring people starts with one person: yourself. If you have the spark of inspiration, you can inspire others. That’s the key.

Inspiration is easy to spot, and hard to fake. Think about it: replacing humans in movies with digital lookalikes doesn’t work (yet), however perfectly computer-animated they are. Human expression and body language is so complex, it’s hard for even the most powerful computers to simulate. People can spot a flicker of inspiration in seconds. They pick up your movements, your tone of voice, even your smallest facial expressions. You can see this for yourself: repeat a recent, boring conversation for a minute in front of a mirror and watch your face. Next, for another minute, talk about something you really care about (such as a hobby, a dream, or a strong belief). I’m certain your face will show more excitement and energy. It’s what I call the flicker of inspiration. If you show others this flicker behind your eyes, they too will be inspired.

You need to find your flame

Do you need the grand ideas of a Henry Ford, a Steve Jobs or a Mahatma Gandhi to inspire people? Not necessarily. The following experiment shows: People are inspired by very different things, and often by small things. In my leadership workshops I always ask people to write a card to all the other participants who have inspired them, saying why they are so inspiring. We then slip these cards under the addressees’ hotel doors late at night. Some participants get lots of cards, while others get none. What’s on these cards has been surprisingly consistent over the years, and falls into three categories:

  • The flame of optimism: “you have so much energy”, “you always see the opportunities”, “you give me hope that you can do it”, “you believe you can change the market”
  • The flame of courage: “you stand up for what you believe”, “you don’t give up even if it’s not popular”, “you are not afraid to take a risk”
  • The flame of care: “you are so committed to your family”, “you listen to me”, “you supported me”, “you really care for your team”

Why not ask five people today how you inspire them? I’m sure you have flickers of inspiration showing already. Don’t pick a random idea to inspire others. Instead, start with the spark inside you, and let people see it. If it matters to them, it will turn it into a flame.

Inspiring others is your job as a leader

Even if you have the spark of inspiration, it takes energy to show the flicker in your eyes consistently. Some years ago I led a large global team; but despite major business success, the team was not fired up with excitement. I soon realized that I needed to provide them with more spark: They always needed to see the flicker of my own inspiration, especially when things got busy. It seemed odd at first to try and set people alight with every interaction, but it did help me build inspired teams. How about reminding yourself of that, too? If you want to lead, set others alight with your inspiration in each interaction you have.

Whether you want to change the world, lead a company or just clear the road in front of the hotel: let people see the flicker of inspiration in your eyes, and turn it into a flame!

(This is a version of my Huffington Post article on the topic).

Are you a Jobs or a Wozniak?

Apples former boss Steve Jobs still gets many more Google hits than Steve Wozniak, his former partner and ingenious developer of the legendary Apple I computer of 1976. Why? Because expertise is not enough to inspire people and excite markets. Jobs succeeded in taking the ideas of companions like Wozniak and giving them a competitive edge in such a way to revolutionize markets (from my cmo.com column).

Jobs lives on as a role model for many marketers. But when CEOs were asked to state how they rate their marketing leaders in my recent global study, many didn’t describe a “Jobs” but a “Wozniak”–people who are experts at finding their way through the jungle of media, campaigns, and market segments. This obsession with details often causes directors a mixture of confusion and frustration.

Of course: the world needs people like Wozniak (he contributed substantially to Apple’s success). The question is just: do you want to shape the agenda – like Jobs did – or only contribute to it?

There’s no doubt a company can survive the digital revolution intact through obsessive focus on detail. At the same time, however, there is a need for marketing leaders to see the big picture and develop strong leadership skills. So how can marketing experts gain more influence? This much is clear: Superior marketing expertise is not enough in itself.

Together with experts at the INSEAD Business School I have been researching success factors for marketing leaders since 2011–possibly the biggest worldwide study of its type to date. In spite of all of the differences, a surprisingly clear picture emerges: Outstanding marketers are highly adept in their field. They work toward results and motivate others to achieve great things. Anyone with these skills can do a good job, but more is needed to be the best. In addition to expertise (“do”), influential CMOs also have two other qualities: an ambitious goal (“dream”) and the courage to gain power to achieve it (“dare”).

Dream: “I Want To Get There”
Simon Kang is one of Asia’s most successful marketing leaders. When he took charge of LG Appliances in the U.S. in the late 1990s, few people would have put money on his rise to success. “Lucky Goldstar,” the brand name at the time, was launched in the U.S. with a small number of products, a shoestring budget, and no established distribution chain. But Kang had a dream to see the LG neon sign in Times Square, right in the middle of the world’s biggest brands. It was an ambitious target, but, for Kang, this dream was a powerful source of creative product ideas (colored fridges) and guerrilla marketing campaigns. Most of all, it carried him through numerous meetings where he convinced his team, the factories, and the LG board of his vision. LG is now one of the leading household appliance brands in the U.S. And what about the neon sign in Times Square? Go take a look!

Successful CMOs set themselves ambitious goals and inspire others to achieve them. They tell a story, the story of a better future, of more success and greater prestige. If it comes down to it, they will even put their jobs on the line for this vision. Follow in the footsteps of these visionaries and ask yourself three questions:

1. What do I want to achieve–in the market, for my company, and for myself? And if I left the company today, what would the press release say about my departure? Think big. Only when you are inspired by your dream will you also be able to inspire others. Family, friends, and coaches can help you find and sharpen your vision.

2. How do I inspire others with my vision? Just think about it. The best stories are short and positive. Concentrate on the central message of your story, and give others free rein to spread your message.

3. How do I create points of contact? Prepare yourself for the long haul. Great success is rarely achieved overnight. And even the best message needs to be consistently repeated. Don’t be afraid of telling your story often enough.

Dare: “I Am Free To Do As I Please”
Jobs was passionate and obsessed with details, but most of all he sought power and held onto it. His courage inspired investors, and his willingness to face conflict head-on ensured that only the best ideas reached the market. Aware of his own shortcomings, he surrounded himself with only the best–from engineers to creative minds. For example, when it came to the Next logo, he paid $100,000 to get a top designer. When you are successful, it no longer bothers anyone if the budget overruns slightly. Managers gain more power through visible, top-class performance.

Many marketing managers complain: “If only I had more influence, I could really make a difference!” But they fail to recognize that, in most companies, influence is not awarded according to position, but is acquired through courage. In confidential interviews, many CEOs say that “marketing is much too quiet.” Be like Jobs and use the three sources of power in marketing:

1. Lay your cards on the table. Many marketing managers fail because of their need for harmony. But managers are not paid to keep everyone happy. Lay your cards on the table when your convictions are at stake. Show you have the courage to face conflict head-on. The best people have minds of their own. The CMO of one big automotive manufacturer puts it this way: “If they don’t like my vision, let them fire me.”

2. Be relevant. Not many CEOs find details about the gross reach of a campaign exciting, but if you tell them how you can increase profit, now that’s exciting. It is astonishing how few marketing managers are aware of their CEOs’ priorities. Get the attention of decision-makers by showing how your work adds value to the company.

3. Work with the best. Are you really surrounding yourself with the best team and the best service providers? If not, start today. It’s tough because the best don’t always do what you want. But the best drive you forward.

A top job will not just fall into your lap, particularly in marketing where success is often more difficult to measure and results often depend on the work of others. If you want to get to the very top, then you need constant training–just like in any top sport. Marketing managers are often surprised when they hear that many CEOs and CFOs are helped by professional coaches. Marketing also needs more characters at the top because this is where decisions are made. Expertise is important, but an ambitious goal (“dream”) and the courage to gain power to achieve it (“dare”) make experts into real leaders (“do”).

Wozniak or Jobs? The choice is yours.

Customer focus matters most for growth

It takes a mix of talent to pursue a variety of growth strategies simultaneously. Companies looking for growth should focus on leaders with a capacity to understand customers’ evolving needs.

Is there a link between growth and specific leadership traits? McKinsey and Egon Zehnder tried to shed some light on this question by integrating two unique databases: McKinsey’s granular-growth database, with information on the growth performance of more than 700 companies, and a database created by the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International that contains performance appraisals of more than 100,000 senior executives.

The overlap between the two databases—a group of 5,560 executives (1) at 47 companies across a broad range of industries (2)—allowed us to examine in detail the relationship between leadership competencies and revenue growth. We found that leadership quality is critical to growth, that most companies don’t have enough high-quality executives, and that certain competencies are more important to some growth strategies than to others. Companies that know how they want to grow can use these insights to cultivate the right skills in top

Great leaders are hard to find but vitally important
Excellent leaders are few and far between. Only 1 percent of the executives in our sample achieved an average competency score of 6 or 7 out of 7 (although excellence in a single competency was more frequent). Just an additional 10 percent had an above-average score of 5. That’s a challenge for growth-oriented corporations because leaders with high competency scores appear to make a difference: for every competency we reviewed, executives at companies in the top quartile of revenue growth scored higher than their counterparts at companies in the bottom quartile.

Customer focus first
If your company is seeking a launching pad to improve performance, the analysis shows that one competency drives the greatest gains: delivering customer impact (defined as the capacity to understand customers’ evolving needs). Companies that had a critical mass of executives who got excellent (6 or 7) scores in this competency recorded superior growth consistently—both organically and through acquisitions.

What constitutes critical mass? Companies where at least 19 percent of the senior executives excelled at customer impact were also the most likely to achieve above-average revenue growth (in the top half of our database). For a company to be highly likely to have superior growth (the top quartile), 40 percent of its senior executives needed to be highly skilled in that area (3). So all of an organization’s leaders don’t need to be top flight at customer impact, but when a substantial number are, the impact on growth can be significant.

Tailor talent strategies to growth priorities
At most large companies, of course, there isn’t just one growth strategy. Rather, companies rely on a diversity of approaches that vary by business segment and by circumstance: at times executives might place more weight on acquisitions, while at others they focus on stealing share from competitors, for example. Our analysis shows that high growth rates for these different strategies are associated with excellence in a range of leadership skills wielded by managers at various levels of the organization.

Consider portfolio momentum growth, which flows from market growth across a company’s existing business segments. To drive this type of growth, senior managers beyond the top team typically need to execute a strategy effectively across often far-flung organizations. Senior managers at companies in the top quartile of this growth category were highly rated in competencies relating to dynamic people and organizational leadership: developing organizational capability, change leadership, and team leadership.

By contrast, companies in the top quartile of M&A-driven revenue growth had top-leadership teams that excelled at a broad range of skills. The first is market insight—in other words, looking beyond a company’s current business landscape to discern future growth opportunities. That competency no doubt supports the identification of deals, while another competency crucial for M&A-driven growth—a well-honed orientation toward achieving results—helps in post merger integration.

If your company pursues multiple growth strategies, the talent bar is even higher. Our study shows that the average skill level of top teams at companies with a dual-growth strategy—defined as top-quartile performance in two of the three strategies (portfolio momentum, stealing share from competitors, or growth through acquisition)—was almost one and a half times that of their single-growth-strategy counterparts on key competencies.

In short, to achieve stronger growth, companies must not only assemble a critical mass of talent, which will require attracting and retaining an “unfair” share of excellent leaders, but also align these leaders’ roles and skills with the companies’ growth strategies. In our experience, the best companies conduct detailed assessments of the talent required—across the organization and by business unit and geography. They then create clear leadership-development targets for executives and managers and incorporate these targets into performance-management, recruitment, succession, and reward processes. In this way, top companies systematically build excellent leaders with the skills needed to drive growth.

Autor: Asmus Komm is a partner in the Hamburg office and a leader of McKinsey’s European HR initiative. Focus of his consulting work is talent-management and HR.

The original article can be read on McKinsey Quarterly.


The original article was written in collaboration with Sven Smit, director in the Amsterdam office of McKinsey and Magnus Graf Lambsdorff of Egon Zehnder International.

(1) We grouped the executives into top executives (those at the C-level and one level below that) and senior managers (at the next two levels).

(2) All of the companies studied are large and public; no public-sector or nonprofit organizations are included, nor are family-owned or other privately owned organizations. Some 70 percent of companies in the sample are headquartered in Europe, with the remainder spread across Australasia and the United States. The median number of employees at these companies is 55,000.

(3) The critical mass varies among competencies: in “collaboration and influencing,” for example, having just 22 percent of managers scoring 5 or above makes it likely that the company is in the top quartile of performers in portfolio momentum growth.