Images can build leadership
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog Rivers of Thought under the title: 1,000 Words vs. An Image – Snapshots from #RooseveltRiver.
The room fell silent as I walked in. I got the feeling I had interrupted a joke or a story. It was my first time at the table. The proverbial table. The table at which we all talk about being seated. The table of power. Here were gathered, the ten most powerful people in our company, sans the owner himself. It was intimidating, to say the least. I was nervous. Nervous? Hell, I was scared shitless. I had 20 minutes to lay out the IT Strategic Plan. 20 minutes to convince them to invest a boatload of cash. THEIR cash. 20 minutes to convince the strategy was the RIGHT strategy. Clutching my notes in one hand and the “clicker” in the other, I went through the slides. There were a few clarifying questions, but mostly there was silence. As I closed with my summary and stopped, all eyes were focused, not on my slides, but on me. Was this going to be the nightmare from my childhood all over again? That terrified sixth grader wanted to scream and run. Breathe. Breathe deep. Then…then it happened…
The President of our company, leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his head and said, more to me, than the room, “THAT is the first time I have EVER understood technology!” Suddenly that petrified sixth grader wanted to jump for joy, wanted to slap high five with someone, anyone. Even now as I write this, I get chills. How did it happen? How did we get our point across? An image…permit me to go back in time a bit.
One of my first duties as the new CIO (my first CIO role, by the way), was to develop a three year technology strategic plan. Work on this had started before I even joined the company with me working behind the scenes to select the 3rd Party consulting firm as a partner in developing the plan. Once I officially started, work began in earnest. Weeks went by. The consultant did a yeoman’s job of gathering data, meeting with me and other stakeholders, working with the team to flush out the details. Weeks turned into months. We had a lot of great stuff, but nothing was coming together. The document being produced had a lot of words…much more than 1,000 trust me. It just wasn’t conveying the message. We needed something…but what? Something to pull it all together. An idea began to form. We needed a way to convey some very complex messages to an audience that was, by their own admission, not technical. (I knew I was in trouble when one SVP looked at me during a discussion and said “Technology? We don’t need technology, we used to design buildings with pencils and drawing paper, we can do it again.”)
This was a company that made multi-million dollar decisions every day. How did they get comfortable with the risk versus the reward? They used a very tried and true process. The development group would envision a project, do their research and then build what was called internally “an Investment Memo”. The Investment Memo had 20 or 21 distinct sections, The Executive Summary, the elevation drawings, market surveys, risks, financial proforma and others. What if we put the strategic plan in the form of an Investment Memo? We could use the analogy that building IT systems are like building a building. But…no one on my team, myself included, had ever written an Investment Memo, we didn’t even know all the sections or the lingo. I reached out to a coworker who worked in the construction department. He had an interest in IT, was young and passionate. Would he help me?
I flew to his hometown of Charlotte. He and I literally locked ourselves in my hotel room for three days. The result? An image! The image of a building, complete with elevation drawings and a proforma. An image that everyone in the room would understand. (Thanks to Matt Cashatt, for working his day job and burning the midnight oil with me for three days…and thanks to his wife for letting me impinge on their family time!)
It is true, an image IS worth a 1,000 words (or, in this case, several thousand words). A few years after the strategic plan presentation, as I explored the #RooseveltRiver, time and time again I discovered Theodore Roosevelt understood this, as well. Sometimes he created the images, sometimes others created them, but he always leveraged them. On a hunting trip, he and his group came upon a small bear chained to a tree. Even at the urging of some around him, he would not shoot the bear. Within days the image of the Teddy Bear was all over the press. During a speech he quoted an African proverb about “walk softly but carry a big stick”. The next day hundreds of people turned out at a speech carrying baseball bats and clubs. Later as he introduced the “Square Deal”, held up scales to convey he wanted all people to have fair deal and make a fair wage. These images were burned in the minds of his constituents.
Images can be a powerful tool. They can be intentional, as in the case of the scales, or unintentional like the Teddy Bear. What images are emblazoned on your mind? What images can you use to communicate to your team? to your peers? to your management? What intentional images can you create? What un-intentional ones can you leverage to get your point across?
#RooseveltRiver is my year long exploration with Dan Miller of Historical Solutions into leadership using the backdrop of history and the life of Theodore Roosevelt.