Provocation 101

Larry Weber is trying to provoke you. He wants to take your tired cliché-ridden definition of leadership and turn it upside down. Here?s a look at the leader of today: the provocateur.

Larry Weber is tired of military metaphors. Not that he's a pacifist. He appreciates the contributions of men and women in the armed forces especially in times of clear and present danger. He just doesn't think that giving orders is the best way to run a business.

Weber is founder of Weber Shandwick International, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, a $7 billion advertising and marketing conglomerate. He believes that a new generation of leaders is succeeding in business because they have ditched the military management style personified by a group that he calls "the generals." Instead, Weber sees a new model of leadership: the provocateur. Where generals are rigid and closed, provocateurs are flexible and open. Where generals favor command and control, provocateurs operate through sense and response. Where generals view a company as a pyramid with one person at the top, provocateurs see it as a circle with the customer at its center.

Weber's new book, The Provocateur (Crown Business, January 2002), details the attributes of today's leaders, building on his observations as a public-relations guru to the leaders of some of the most successful technology companies — people like Steve Case, the chairman of AOL Time Warner; Jim Manzi, the former CEO of Lotus Development Corp.; and Jeff Taylor, the founder and CEO of Monster.com.

Given the events of the past few months, will the future — at least for a while — belong to generals, and not provocateurs?

No. Even with these horrific terrorist attacks, it's more important than ever to avoid the management style of generals in business. Isolating an enemy, maintaining secrecy, quickly formulating strategy to dominate a threat to our security — those are all necessary elements of winning a war. But they aren't ways to establish a company in our global economy.

These days, a better model for business leaders is Rudy Giuliani, New York's former mayor. His ability to bring together teams that had never worked with one another before, his calm in the face of crisis, his ability to be there when people needed him, to create a common goal, even to express a sense of healing — those are the kinds of leadership skills that will drive successful businesses.

A successful provocateur acts like a great mayor, reaching out to customers, partners, employees — sometimes even to competitors — and making them feel a part of something that's important, useful, and exciting.

What is the core of a provocateur?

Provocateurs see themselves as community builders, with the customer at the center. These days, most customers are nomads who are looking for places to camp out. The more engaging, useful, or attractive provocateurs can make their communities, the better their chances are of attracting and keeping customers.

Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, is a new-style provocateur inside an old-economy company. Every day, he has to deal with a dozen or more constituencies that he can't control, from customers to employees, strategic allies, business partners, legislators, and labor unions. Wagoner sees it as his job to get those constituencies to work together for the benefit of the GM community. If he can strengthen the GM community, then GM will succeed.

Provocateurs understand that a CEO's primary job is to engage in deep, constant dialogue with all of the company's constituencies to benefit one group: its customers. That means that a leader's most important task is marketing. Marketing has become pervasive, like oxygen.

Does that require new marketing tools?

Mainly, it requires a change in attitude. Provocateurs have to reach out all the time and incorporate what they pick up through dialogue into their company's focus on customers.

A company's brand has almost nothing to do with its products or services anymore. Branding is really a function of the dialogue between a company and its constituents. The more meaningful that dialogue, the stronger the brand.

Can a company have provocateurs in the ranks if there is a general at the top?

If a general is smart and observant, he'll recognize the importance of encouraging provocateurs — even if the general can't manage that way himself.

Take Lou Gerstner. He marched into IBM like a general. But the first thing that he did was to sit down with customers and ask, What are IBM's strengths and weaknesses? He made a real assessment, and then he decided that IBM would own e-business, at a time when people didn't know what e-business was. A lot of generals don't take that kind of risk.

How do generals and provocateurs differ in their approach to the marketplace?

Generals usually have a hard time overcoming their aloofness and getting out on the street to see what's really happening. When Jill Barad was CEO of Mattel, she figured that she could connect with the next generation of children who wanted educational software instead of Barbie dolls. So she bought the Learning Company for $3.6 billion in 1999. But she was just snorkeling: She hadn't really done a deep dive into the market for educational software, or even into exploring the Learning Company. It turned into a disaster, and Barad resigned. Provocateurs work from the ground up and know what's happening on the streets of their communities. If you're too far from your customers, you can mistake what your community wants and needs.

Let's go back to the current environment. Will we embrace authority again?

If we go back to that kind of an arrangement, then the real talent, innovation, and creativity within companies will suffer. Ultimately, the greatest companies won't be those that rely on central control. The greatest companies will show more openness, more freedom, and more innovation. Those are the keys to a long-lasting community — and it's the best way for provocateurs to succeed as leaders.

Paul C. Judge (pjudge@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Larry Weber by email (lWeber@Webergroup.com).

Sidebar: Lessons for Provocateurs

Here are some of Larry Weber's provocative rules for new-style leaders. The rules are taken from his new book, The Provocateur.

Build a community, not a company. The strength of a business is measured by the strength of its relationships. Provocateurs involve customers, partners, and employees in the business, allowing them to feel that they are important players in the enterprise's success.

Roll out the welcome mat for nomadic customers. Customers are footloose; loyalty is rare. But a community that appeals to nomads can attract and keep customers even when they can find a better price elsewhere.

Good communities are not built on monologues. Provocateurs try to create a feeling that no walls separate the company from the outside world. The goal is constant interaction — with customers and prospects, with other businesses, and with suppliers and regulators.

Act like a great mayor. Who better than former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani knows how to bring constituents together and create a common goal? Successful provocateurs, like great mayors, create excitement, engagement, and a sense of belonging.

Marketing is job one. Communicate with customers to benefit the company, and put the brand before everything else that a CEO does. The stronger the communication, the stronger the brand.

Love your competitors. Even your toughest competitor serves to validate your ideas and to generate interest in your community.

Provocateurs know that they can learn from competitors. And they don't worry that their competitors might learn something from them.

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