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23 Oct. 2012 | Comments (0)
William was a contractor with Canada's largest credit union, Vancity, when he stuck his neck out — way out — to drive the creation of ChangeEverything, the first online community in the financial services industry. This was before the term social media had even been coined, let alone budgeted, and companies like Vancity had only a tiny budget for online marketing.
Driving the development of the company's social network — What's a social network? was still a frequent question — was hardly a fast track to employment in a company where nobody had a line item for the guy who was all about digital. But while some in the company were baffled by the idea of an online community, William got enough support to keep the project alive. His high risk tolerance and deep commitment to community building helped him press on with his vision of ChangeEverything (with the help of our firm), despite the fact that it shunted him onto the then-unpromising digital track.
William's story encapsulates the challenges and the opportunities of the "stranded evangelist": the often-lonely organizational entrepreneur who pushes a company to embrace social media, mobile media or other new digital arenas. I wrote about stranded evangelists in 2009, offering tips for those early social media adopters who were often still hard-pressed to sell their organizations on the merits of Twitter or Facebook.
Three years later, many of those evangelists, including William, stand vindicated as the visionaries who saw the power of social media long before it became a buzzword and a boom. ChangeEverything's success led to Vancity embracing social across the organization, and succeeding with it. William himself became a recognized industry expert. Far from career killing, it has led William to become Vancity's Director, Business & Community Development.
But success doesn't necessarily help people like William feel less stranded. The widespread embrace of social media means that instead of enjoying the freedom that comes from collegial disinterest, they are accountable to colleagues who now recognize the importance of social media without really understanding how it works, or what its limitations are. It's easier to get people to believe you than to understand you.
But it can be done, and William is doing it. I've noticed 8 ways that he and other effective social evangelists cope with disinterest and disbelief, and ill-founded expectations. Here they are:
Share your joy...Nobody joins a church because of depressing sermons. Effective evangelists' passion for technology is contagious. It infects others. Share your delight in what technology does for you, and you'll model and inspire excitement about what it can do for others.
...but be gentle... If you're a hard-core geek, it's tempting to show your colleagues the way you've got your Twitter client set up with 14 different columns. And that's awesome...if they ask. Otherwise, you're liable to scare them off from new tools by showing the deluxe turbo-charged version before they've even learned to drive.
...and get an escape valve. You will scare away colleagues with geekiness, but you shouldn't suppress that part of yourself. Channel the intensity of your enthusiasm by having a place where you can seriously nerd out for an audience that cares about how to edit their MySQL tables, without scaring those who don't know what MySQL is. That might be a blog, a podcast or a meetup group. Just make sure it's an escape valve you access regularly so that you don't leak your nerdiness onto innocent bystanders.
Find a buddy. When you're out ahead of the rest of your organization, it's hard not too feel nuts. That's why you need someone outside with enough distance to help you talk through your ideas, formulate a vision, and turn that into a game plan for moving your organization forward.
Play to (almost) the lowest common denominator. If learning new tools is easy for you, you may be happy to use forty-five different pieces of software in the course of a week, so that you're using the right tool for each job. But if you work with a team, you have to adjust your workflow to their comfort level. Limit the number of tools you expect your colleagues to adopt, and adapt your own working style to do everything via email if that's the only way you can actually get a timely response.
Rewrite your job description. Maybe your formal job title includes a word like "digital" or "technology" or "social media." But you need to recognize that your actual job isn't about configuring servers, or blogging, or providing tech support: it's change management. Rewrite your job description, at least in your head but preferably on paper, to prioritize the projects, relationships and professional development opportunities that allow you to play this role effectively. Focus your description on the strategic, project management and people skills that will help you move others towards an embrace of the key technologies and ways of working that enable success in the digital realm.
Legitimize the digital. Share too many YouTube cat videos, kid pictures or Internet memes, and you reinforce the image of the Internet as the land of the trivial and frivolous. Fall into the common usage of "real life" to refer to life offline, and you're endorsing the idea that what happens online is somehow second-best. See yourself as an ambassador and advocate for the digital realm, and ensure that all your communications focus on the worthwhile parts of digital and social.
Recognize that you're never done. If you're the kind of person who told your organization five years ago that they had to get on Twitter, or ten years ago that they had to change to a content-managed website, or twenty years ago that they needed to get an internal email system, you're always going be the kind of person who is looking around the curve to the next tech opportunity. If you're thinking that all you need now is to get them on mobile, or get them using analytics, or get them using Salesforce, and then you'll have them all set...well, it's a safe bet that there will be a next thing. The curse — and the joy — of being a stranded evangelist is that you're destined to live in the gap between what your organization is today, and what it could be tomorrow.
Accept that this gap can be a deeply uncomfortable, exasperating and even painful place to live, and you will be freed to do what you do best: inspire your organization with contagious excitement about technology's potential to transform your communications, your customer relationships and your core value proposition. Like William does at Vancity.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 10/01/2012.
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