Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible in Business
Written by Guy L. Smith
It won’t take you long to recall the last time at work somebody resisted changing something. From the mundane and unimportant like changing the stationary, the look of the bulletin board, the type of coffee in the coffee machine or the traditional venue for the office holiday party to much more serious like changing the organization’s name, dropping a product line, merging to survive or closing regional offices.
How many times has someone said to you, “Oh, you can’t do that. In this organization that’s just impossible?” Workplace inertia is so common it is parodied everywhere, from popular TV shows to comic strips.
In part the impossible is held back by risk aversion and fear of change. Change is feared everywhere, but nowhere more than in the workplace. Corporations everywhere are littered with mediocrity, a mediocrity that is simply accepted “because doing that is just impossible.” So, organizations are run within ever-narrowing parameters with grudging acquiescence to never achieving what others see as impossible.
I believe ordinary, accomplished people in organizations, often those in middle management, can achieve the impossible. That belief is grounded in the experience of my Corporate Relations team at Diageo North America.
Instead of focusing on what’s possible, this team has spent the last 10 years striving for the impossible and making it a reality, proving it is not always the Nobel Laureates or Apollo 13 astronauts who have the power to impact real change. Ordinary, accomplished people in organizations, especially those in middle management, can achieve anything. They can and do achieve the impossible.
The first step is simple: eliminate personal beliefs and social pressures that new ideas, large-scale changes, and innovations cannot be achieved by ordinary people. Reframe what is possible. To do this, I believe all we need to give our teams is the motivation – and the support - to strive to achieve more than others think is reasonable or possible.
I’ve worked in the White House, had to get stuff done in Baghdad, Kabul, Sarajevo and Pyongyang, and in some of the biggest companies in the world where I’ve seen this idea in action. Now, as Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations for the North American operations of Diageo, I am privileged to lead an incredible group of individuals who initiated fundamental change in our industry that many deemed impossible from the start. Through use of simple motivational tactics that provide critical structure and support, this team has confounded an entire industry through their achievements.
By utilizing the “The Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible” my team has been the driving force behind some of the largest scale, transformative changes the beverage alcohol industry has seen since Prohibition, remaking the social and regulatory landscape of their industry – something believed impossible just a decade ago.
Managers and their teams can apply these essential ideas by personally connecting to The Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible:
- Believe in yourself. Life-changing and market-leading achievements require individuals and team members to believe in their ability to accomplish the task. This creates a critical starting point, giving one a sense that there are no barriers too big to overcome.
- Believe in the Mission. From the start, everyone on the Diageo Corporate Relations team understood what we were working toward, creating a common goal that supersedes all else. But we didn’t stop there. Everyone carried the fundamental belief that what he or she needed to accomplish was of enduring value, even when others refused to believe achieving it would be possible.
- Be willing to change the rules of the game. Change is one of the most common and most feared concepts – in business and in life, especially in corporate America. Yet one of the keys to achieving the impossible is being willing to change the rules of the game. It takes the ability to look into the future and see that “the game” can be played differently. Diageo first changed the rules of the game when we stopped treating critics as “the enemy.” Instead, Diageo shifted to a practice of openness and “constructive engagement” that created real dialogue and progress.
- Have the humility to ask for and use help. Athletes are trained to support their teammates with an RBI, an assist, a pass, whatever. This is a natural part of teamwork and working against a common opponent. In the business world, however, “the team” and “goal” are often not nearly so obvious. To make corporate teams truly effective, they need to develop a clear, shared vision and identify the issues that truly require shared focus and effort. But asking for help does not come naturally to all people. In addition, many corporate teams are not structured to engage in this way, and in actuality, are not really a team at all. The Diageo North American Corporate Relations team clearly held a shared purpose, and many of its projects required true collaboration, starting with asking for help from others who have the knowledge, skills or resources that you do not, taking that help freely to accomplish the task at hand.
- Focus all available assets against a single objective. To make substantial change, the individual and the team have to assemble a broad range of resources and commit these resources to the shared goal. This is when the impact is most evident.
- Have the tenacity to relentlessly, tirelessly persist. Making fundamental changes in any complex environment takes a great deal of persistence. One has to have a vision for the future and persevere toward that vision, working day after day, week after week, year after year, to accomplish the end goal.
- Use your knowledge, skills, experience and training. People with training in a profession or skill have changed their definition of impossible because they have learned and practiced the component skills necessary to achieve seemingly impossible tasks. Even when a new situation appears impossible to the well-trained individual, his or her training “kicks in” and helps that person figure out how to create success out of certain failure.
Over the last decade, Diageo’s Corporate Relations team has consistently worked toward the goal of changing the social, legal and regulatory landscape for beverage alcohol. All along the way, each of us – individually and collectively – knew we were capable of this task, because we were personally connected to each one of these guideposts. It is through accepting and following these tactics any team can achieve the impossible.
About the Author: Guy L. Smith has been Executive Vice President of Diageo North America, the world's leading premium drinks company, since 2000. He is responsible for all internal and external communications, government affairs, reputation management, public policy and corporate social responsibility. Smith was previously in the Clinton White House as Special Advisor to the President. Prior to that he spent more than 25 years in senior corporate, NGO and government roles.
Smith and the entire Diageo North America Corporate Relations Team, have just released a new book, If It's Not Impossible, It's Not Interesting: Leveraging Personal Experience to Create a High Performance Team, a compilation of 41 empowering stories of overcoming personal obstacles to achieve the impossible that illustrate what can be accomplished by following ‘The Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible’. It is available through www.amazon.com.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.