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Living (and Learning) Under Influence

Always remember, consider what is right and then take action, deliver in your own unique way, whatever your role.

You pass by a house and it’s burning. You don’t stop to ask who lives there, what they believe, what they look like or figure out how they speak. You rush in to help them. You find someone to help. You try to save them. No one has to teach you the right thing to do. You just know. That’s the approach we should apply to life, community and career. Often, it is clear what the right thing is to do; therefore, it should be our goal to do it. That’s my belief anyways. And frankly, I don’t always succeed. Life does not always seem this simple in the midst of the fire. But, when I can remind myself, I do, because it undoubtably strips away the other stuff, the noise, that is often less relevant. It allows me to focus on what’s pure and what is right. Then, slowly, if necessary, I build from there.  And sometimes, that means I just take one small piece of that right thing and do it really well.

Of course, I also know what gets in our way. We read, watch and listen to people and content that, whether we choose to admit it or not, is slowly, but surely, influencing what we believe about ourselves and the world around us. In fact, I’d go as far to say, we are entirely more vulnerable to messaging than we care to admit. How do I know this? I’m a marketer (yes, yes, blame us for that delicious burger, large fries and soda that you didn’t mean to consume so soon into your #newyearnewme). I’m not just a marketing executive though, I am a philosopher – which leads me to ponder the capacity that we have to influence, to be influenced by others, and yet, still stand for something true, even when voices around us are pointing in another direction. To stand on pure points, the saving-people-from-a-burning-house-without-hesitation kind of pure point.

In my career, I have the privilege of facilitating the growth of our next class of leaders. In those meetings, classes and conversations, I am grooming people to reach a new level of consciousness about their own impact. I’m Mark Goodman, Chief Marketing Officer at Vistage, and I am a person living and learning under the influence.

At Vistage, the world’s leading executive coaching organization, we occupy some rarefied air. We work with SMB leaders and companies that, by definition, are creating 3 out of 4 net new jobs in America. Our Chairs, or executive facilitators, are people who desire to lead leaders to a higher level. We coach these executive clients to become the best corporate leaders around. With the direction that society is moving and how our demographics are rapidly changing, Vistage aims to attract and develop leaders of the future. When it comes to influence, we sit at the fabric of America.

Thinking about how I came to this position, the first thing that comes to mind is my grandmother. Grandma Goodman. She was an entrepreneur in the 1950s in Michigan and she brilliantly managed to open one of the first black-owned clothing shops. To set the stage, this was at a time, not all that long ago, when black women could buy clothes at the store, but they couldn’t try them on in the store because of forced racial separation. However, Grandma Goodman couldn’t accept that forever, so she started her own store called Goodman Fashion Center. During our rocking chair chats when I was just a boy, she would talk about it this way, “Just do the right thing. And if people aren’t doing the right thing, you make sure they do the right thing”.  

She took action to do the right thing in her own way, and thus, she created value and provided a positive influence for others around her. With a sly look, she’d say, “That’s not acting in line with Jesus! That’s not ‘help thy neighbor’! You didn’t hear Jesus say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Wait one minute. What’s your zip code? I’m not coming over there to help unless it’s a different zip code’. No, you didn’t, did you?”

In fact, I don’t mean to effuse about my family, but I was truly blessed with a good tribe. I was raised by the best parents on Earth. They are loving, wise, and they taught us values through their own actions. And not just us, everyone. In the tumultuous early 70’s, my father became the first African-American elected mayor of Ypsilanti, Michigan; he still holds the title as the longest serving elected mayor in the city’s history. And he is still the best leader I know.

At the same time, my mother dedicated herself to an academic and administrative profession at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business for 20 years, serving as the first African-American female assistant dean. These were people who blazed trails, looked out for others and then they got to work creating opportunity for those that were left off of the table completely. They are retired now, but not finished. They still find ways to continue the good fight of doing what is right for everyone around them.

It’s from this perspective of influence that I reflect. They are business leaders AND people leaders. Growing up, I watched them decide what is right, and without hesitation, jump into the act of doing something about it. Again and again. And it was no easy task. As you might imagine, there is a lot of internal rage and disappointment that builds up from the injustice of regular individual and institutional discrimination (which is still present today). However, in consistently doing this hard work day-to-day, there’s also so much beauty and freedom that gets unearthed. People that didn’t have access to the opportunities to advance themselves, get opportunities. People who didn’t have a voice or influence, now are heard and seen. When people are doing what’s right, you unearth fresh opportunity that benefits everyone. In today’s language, we talk about it in terms of diversity and inclusion, but this work has been going on for some time. It takes a sincere and mature measure of selflessness, awareness of others, and courage.

No matter where you are, ask yourself, how can your leadership reflect a more positive influence?

For me, value-based leadership is all about identifying and being willing to stand in the gap.  And there are always gaps. I believe it comes down to one’s ability to say, “I’m going to be the one to stand right in the middle of this and fix it, and at the very least, work on it to the best of my ability.” That’s hard, because in the gap is controversy and criticism, there are rough waters, and in the gap is uncertainty. Watching the leaders within my family, I’ve learned not to shy away from those things. Experienced leaders know, that gap is also where all the magic is hiding out. The easy stuff, anybody can do!

Be committed in a very uncommitted world. Progress is made when we seek out opportunity to get involved. Meet in the messy middle. We have to be willing to stand, fight, argue diplomatically and push hard when needed. Marketers do this daily for product attention and dollars. However, as marketers, we can do the work we are called to do to grow business, but also, promote social good. In this way, there can be an intersection between marketing and public service. And there is an intersection between your career and social good as well. This is not only for individuals either, great brands have to do this more — the Apples of the world, the McDonald’s of the world, this should be the primary way they ensure that they are relevant. Companies are realizing that being relevant means they need to have a whole lot of people, in all parts of the company, who look and have experiences like you, me and everyone.

That part fuels me; knowing that there are marketing and business leaders today who will say, “No. We have to continue to make ourselves deeply relevant, and being relevant means we have to be relevant to the consumer, and the consumers just doesn’t stem from a homogenous background.” Leaders need the courage to continuously put their own brand under an MRI. How healthy are we? What are we missing? These questions then unearth other value and opportunity. That is the philosophical tradition of asking, inquiry, Socratic-dialogue, making certain you’re really getting at the truth. That’s the pure point.

Like my parents, I can’t help but ask: if I am going to have an influence, what do people really need and want? And what might be different from what Cathy wants versus what Thomas needs? And then, in my own marketing way, I do something about it. And we can all take that question beyond, not just for own jobs, but access in society and how we think about developing the workforce. How might we develop and encourage a healthy, diverse workplace that is tied to our business objectives and where we win as a society? For this reason, I have one of the most diversified teams in my company at every level (age, race, gender, experiences, etc.). I’ve learned that simply because you have a title it doesn’t mean you have all the finest ideas. So, to the best of my ability, I diversify with intent and by design. It helps us be more creative and positively impacts our results. We can all do this, from wherever we are.

So, I’ll leave you with a piece of advice: To develop your positive influence as a value-based leader, seek out ways in which you can become the best facilitator possible. It doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. Instead, how do you make a group of people, like an orchestra conductor, come together to create great music? How do you make sure those around the table have an opportunity to offer a perspective? When a facilitator can do this well, the table itself is then imbued with trust, respect and becomes a place where people want to participate in progress.

And always remember, consider what is right and then take action, deliver in your own unique way, whatever your role. Remove the noise, get down to the pure point of the matter. You can build from there. With this, approach, you will develop the kind of influence that matters, generate positive impact – and perhaps make your grandma really proud.

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