Ari on Business

The Role of Belief, part three

This essay is an excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Volume 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Yourself by Ari Weinzweig (coming in the Fall of 2013). Stay tuned for the next few days to read the whole essay.

Kieron-ScratchThe Role of Belief in Building a Sustainable Business

3. Belief in What We’re Working On

Even when people believe in what the organization at large is going after, there’s still a whole separate issue to address about whether they actually believe in the work in which they themselves, in the moment at least, are engaged in. When the people who are doing the work don’t really believe that it’s worth doing, or has a reasonable shot at success . . . guess what? The project is pretty much doomed to failure. At best it stalls, at worst it makes things worse. In any case, it’s really wasted effort, and none of us can really afford much of that.

I don’t know why I never quite fully grasped this before. But in hindsight, with Anese’s intellectual assistance, it’s pretty glaringly obvious. Now that I’m aware of it, I see it over and over again, even in our own organization. Well meaning, caring people will, when they think they “should,” or when they succumb to organizational pressures, agree to do something that they don’t believe in. I don’t mean the project runs radically counter to their entire value system—it’s just work they don’t really believe is going to work. So they sign on, but steadily, still tune out over time.

This (lack of) belief problem could be around a new product line they don’t love, but that someone else (like me) wants to put in place; it might be a work group they’re skeptical about, but agree to lead anyways; or a new hire that they don’t think is likely to be very good but others around them are advocating for. I know all these because I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to the problem by pushing people to do work that I believe (rightly or wrongly, is actually almost irrelevant) that they don’t believe is going to be of benefit.

I hardly think these “non believers” are malicious, lazy or evil. They’re good people in a pretty good organization. Nor do I believe that my vision for the work and its impor- tance is necessarily incorrect. But that’s the problem—I believe in it, they don’t.

My job as a leader then is to be sure to work on building belief, not just on getting agreement, to proceed. I know that product quality won’t magically get better just because people believe. But low levels of belief will almost always bring down the effectiveness of what we’re doing, no matter how logically sound a supposition it might seem to be. A technically terrific strategy, in the hands of non- believers, is pretty much guaranteed to fail; by contrast, a B- strategy, put in place by people who are passionate about what they’re doing, I think, a far better way to go.

4. Belief in the product

Without question, this issue is also at play when it comes to sales. If people don’t believe in what they’re selling . . . you don’t need to be a PhD social scientist to suss out that sales are going to suffer. Ann Lofgren, currently at ZingTrain (but who’s worked in most every part of our organization over the last 11 years) told me that, “I can’t go out and sell a product I don’t believe in. And when I do believe in it then the experience for me isn’t ‘selling,’ it’s sharing. I get paid for it, but it’s really about sharing something I totally believe is great. I have never, ever thought of myself as a salesperson and of course, now the reason why is clear.” Emily Hiber added, “I believe that at Zingerman’s I’m selling something good. When people are upset because they think our prices are too high, I’m OK because I believe in what we’re doing.”

In many places, however, staff aren’t believers in what they’re supposed to get our customers to buy. Many times, it’s because we as leaders have failed to share with them why our products are so special, or to make clear how much impact their work has on the quality of life for their customers and coworkers, and on the organization overall. A bit of support, reinforcement, teaching the big picture and . . . . voila, people can get on board in a hurry!

That said, there are other times where we’re trying to get people to sell something that, for good reasons they don’t believe in. In my experience there are two broad categories at play here. First there are times where we have a product or service that simply . . .isn’t all that great It’s not, as it needs to be per Natural Law of Business #2, compelling. When we don’t care about it, when it’s not great, when we don’t believe it’s worth what we’re charging or that the buyer will benefit from it, the problem is pretty clearly with the us and the business. We need to improve our offering, or we’ll never get the level of belief we’re after.

The other area of trouble is when our product or service is seriously excellent, but falls outside the comfort zone of the staff member. It could be that it’s a luxury item they can’t afford and wouldn’t buy; a design they think is doofy, or a service that they’d never pay for because they’d just do it themselves. Now, of course, I understand that we all have products and services about which we’re more, or a bit less, excited. But, if the core of what we’re doing, our signature lines or our future breadwinners, aren’t things the staff believes in, the odds us arriving at a successful, mutually rewarding future are small. Clearly, everything I’ve advocated above about free choice means that they’re well within their personal purview to suspend belief. But we need to be clear that we’re not just asking them to recite our sales pitch from rote, or grudgingly follow “orders” with so-so vibrational energy; we expect them to believe in what we (i.e., they) are making, selling and serving. And if they don’t, we respect their different beliefs, but that we, in turn, don’t believe that we’ll be able to work well together.

Check back tomorrow for Part Four (conclusion) of this essay!