The Secret of Inspiration


During an interview for my new book, I was speaking to Dilbert creator Scott Adams about the failure of most managers to inspire their employees. Adams is very funny and extremely insightful. In his opinion, most business professionals fail to articulate a compelling vision because they don't have anything to say.

Simple enough and probably true in many cases. But if you're like most entrepreneurs, you do have something to say -- and a vision that will inspire your employees, colleagues, and customers. You might just need a little help getting it across.

Here's the deal: Most employees are uninspired by their work and by the people for whom they work. How do I know? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist. Just look at the face of the person next to you on the train during rush-hour commute. Pay attention to the bank teller's demeanor. Note the lack of enthusiasm from the department store sales clerk.

COMMON TECHNIQUES. A recent Conference Board survey finds that only half of U.S. workers are happy with their jobs, and of those who are happy, only 14% are "very satisfied." When people are uninspired at work, it shows -- customer-service surveys have revealed a marked decline in satisfaction in recent years.

My goal in writing 10 Simple Secrets of the World's Greatest Communicators was to identify business leaders who truly inspire those in their personal and professional lives, and to share their techniques with my readers. After interviewing more than two dozen contemporary CEOs, executives, and experts, I found a common technique among all those considered among the most inspiring. Are you ready for it? The secret to inspiring your listeners is to paint a picture of a world made better by your service, product, company, or cause.

Think about it. Cisco (CSCO) CEO John Chambers doesn't sell routers and switches when he communicates to employees, colleagues, or customers -- he sells a vision of an Internet that changes the way we "live, work, play, and learn." Starbucks (SBUX) founder Howard Schultz doesn't sell coffee beans -- he sells the concept of a community, a "third place" between work and home. Suze Orman doesn't sell irrevocable trusts -- she sells the vision of a life free of burdensome debt.

In much the same way, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger won the hearts and minds of voters not by outlining specific policies but by selling his vision of a state that's a better place to raise a family and do business.

"MAKING A DIFFERENCE." Intuit (INTU) founder Scott Cook told me, "It's important to communicate a bold vision for many reasons, but primarily for internal reasons, for the people in your company. Your people want to know that their work is adding up to a great cause. They want more than a paycheck. They want to know that they are making a difference in the world."

Are you communicating a bold, captivating vision? Do the people who work for you feel as though their work is adding up to more than a paycheck? Once they do, the results could be extraordinary. Remember the famous story of how Steve Jobs convinced former Pepsi (PEP) President John Scully to take the helm at Apple (AAPL)? On a balcony overlooking New York's Central Park, Jobs turned to Scully and asked, "Do you want to sell sugared water all your life, or do you want to change the world?"

It worked. In much the same way, articulating a big mission will help you win over employees, customers, and colleagues -- especially in a small business, where you can have direct and frequent contact with them.

WALK THROUGH FIRE? Last year, one of those traveling motivational conferences came rolling through my town in Silicon Valley. Its roster was made up of athletes, authors, and celebrities. I couldn't help but feel sorry for those business professionals who may have been fired up to do their best work by the end of the conference only to be deflated by their uninspiring supervisors the next day at the office.

CNBC money guru Jim Cramer once commented that people would walk through fire for Cisco's Chambers. Would they do the same for you? If not, why? Is it possible that you're failing to communicate the big mission behind your service, product, or company? In his autobiography, My American Journey, former Secretary of State Colin Powell writes that a great leader, "[makes] individuals feel important and part of something larger than themselves."

Sound familiar? The simple secret to inspiring those around you is to communicate a vision, a roadmap, of where you're heading and why it's important to your listeners. This technique applies to your conversations with employees, colleagues, customers, or investors.

START WITH YOURSELF. I hope I've already got you thinking about the mission you wish to convey. In my last column, I invited readers to share their "30-second pitch" with me (see BW Online, 5/4/05, "Mastering the 30-Second Pitch"). Many of you responded. Well, this time I'm asking that you share your "big mission." Let me know how you've inspired those who work for you or how you plan to do so based on the above information. I would be happy to send you feedback.

But just one more thing before you head out to articulate your big mission. Suze Orman once told me that people can only inspire when they're inspired themselves. Good point. If you're not inspired by your own vision, then it might be time to reevaluate the road you're heading down. After all, if you're not out to change the world, plenty of others are.


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