You probably can think of something in your company that should change. We all can — but often look the other way. There are plenty of good reasons for inaction: It's not my responsibility, I have lots of other things to do, someone might get angry at me for stepping on their turf. While we value the concepts of making active decisions and empowering ourselves to make a difference, they're often ignored. In fact, most of the time we wait for someone else to empower us first.
But every once in a while, someone doesn't wait. This kind of person doesn't focus on the excuses and tries to change something anyway, no matter how long the odds. Understanding someone like that can give us clues (and maybe some inspiration) about what it really takes to be self-empowered.
In this case, the person I'm referring to is Dirk Beveridge, who has a small firm that creates sales strategies for wholesale distribution companies. In the United States, wholesale distribution is a $4.8 trillion industry that employs 5.6 million workers — but is mostly comprised of entrepreneurial, family-run businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Over the last few years, Dirk began to realize that the business model for wholesale distribution was dramatically changing as manufacturers increasingly sell direct to consumers, and large firms like Amazon and Grainger use their technology and scale to squeeze out the traditional middlemen. Yet most industry leaders were either in denial or didn't know what to do. As one of his clients said to him, "A train wreck is coming at us."
Obviously Dirk could have simply observed this phenomenon, commiserated with his clients, and continued to run the traditional work of his business. Instead, Dirk decided that it was time to bring new thinking to the wholesale distribution industry through a series of conferences and videos that he called "Unleash WD." The idea, as he described it, was to catalyze industry leaders into action by giving them exposure to ideas outside of their traditional world.
After bouncing the concept off of several industry CEOs, but still unsure whether he could pull it off, last summer Dirk began to recruit speakers for what he called a Provocation Summit. Offering not much more than the chance to make a difference (and travel expenses) his line up eventually included Fast-Company Founder Bill Taylor; Saul Kaplan, who runs the Business Innovation Factory in Providence; Whitney Johnson, founding partner of Rose Park Advisors; Lara Lee, the Chief Innovation and Operating Officer of Continuum; and a dozen others (including me). The main criteria were that the speakers came from outside the industry, and would be able to tell stories (sort of like TED-talks) about how other companies went about innovation and reinvention.
Based on this roster of speakers (which he called "storytellers"), Dirk found a company to partially underwrite the conference and ended up with over 40 senior industry leaders in Chicago in November — not a great turnout, but what he calls a "good start." And the participants agreed: "I might be an old dog, but your event has my tail wagging," "I feel I can truly be a disruptive agent," and "You have changed my mindset."
Of course, this one event didn't change the wholesale distribution industry, and it cost Dirk a fair amount of time and money. But the experience seems to have made him even more committed. He's distributing videos of his "storytellers", sending around whitepapers, and getting ready for a second and larger Provocation Summit (now called the Innovation Summit) later this year. As he says, "It's the right thing to do."
Most of us see opportunities that are "the right things to do," but unlike Dirk don't have the courage, energy, or time to do anything about them. But imagine what could be accomplished if that pattern was reversed and more of us empowered ourselves instead of waiting to be empowered? According to several CEOs who I've worked with, this is the most significant cultural and business challenge that they see in their organizations.
So perhaps it's time to try a modest experiment: Identify one possible improvement in your organization. Pick something easy such as changing a meeting or streamlining a report; or find something more challenging, such as speeding up customer response time. Whatever the issue, make a commitment to do something about it in the next week. Join forces with other colleagues. Reconfigure your workload so that you can carve off some time. Identify all the reasons why you can't do this little project, and then do it anyway. Then learn from your experience and do it again. Just remember: Nobody can empower you as much as you can empower yourself. In that way, everyone can be a Dirk Beveridge.