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Driving the Billboard: Appearances Matter in Leadership

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

There isn’t much I miss from my time in EMS. I did a lot, saw a lot, and my addiction to adrenaline has waned as I have gotten older. There was always one thing that I enjoyed, though. Running code 3 (lights & sirens). I have always enjoyed driving, and running code 3 was an additional challenge where we had to balance our patient’s life with the risks to ourselves and everyone else on the road.

I was always astounded at the behavior I would see the moment we lit up the rig – what seems like a simple thing for drivers to do becomes an insurmountable task. Instead of pulling over and stopping so that we could pass safely, we would see anything from brake checks right in front of our 13,000 lb. ambulance to motorcyclists trying to race us.

Despite all that, I loved it. I was really good at getting through traffic, avoiding the bad spots and navigating my way around the city. And, those times when I was driving back with a really sick patient in the back with my partner attending, I could make haste, yet if you set a glass of water on the floor of the treatment area, it would still be (mostly) full when we arrived.

The thing that we always were taught to remember was that we were driving a giant, loud, flashing billboard. Regardless of what was actually happening, what people thought they saw would become the reality, and if it was negative, it would come down on us. A perfect example happened in the middle of my career, when we were canceled on the middle of a response, and so we had to shut it down while we were in the middle of traffic. By pure chance, it was also breakfast time, and a favorite bagel chain was right there. So, I shut it down, caught the left-turn arrow, and pulled into the bagel shop for breakfast – code 7.

A few minutes later my partner and I were approached by a very upset woman who berated us for running lights and sirens to breakfast, and how it was unreasonable for us to be endangering and inconveniencing other drivers because we wanted a meal. Fortunately we were able to talk her down, explain what happened, and provided her our dispatch number in case she wanted to verify. Had she not spoken to us but just called and complained, it could have been a harder conversation with my shift supervisor.

I keep the rolling billboard in mind at work for any number of scenarios. One of the most obvious scenarios is something that none of us want to have to manage as leaders – how we or our employees appear. When I entered the world of consulting, I was given the expectation that I should be dressed just a bit above where the culture is where I am working – just slightly more formal. That expectation has allowed me to be sure that my appearance is not preventing my success or keeping my consulting work from being taken seriously.

Finding that line isn’t so easy, especially depending on what industry you find yourself working in. One client for which I have worked has a policy, yet I find different groups have created their own cultures despite that policy – engineers in casual dress, project managers in button downs and slacks, and other groups wearing suit jackets and blazers. None of these groups are customer-facing. As long as there is no business need, and performance isn’t suffering, perhaps this works out well.[1]

Not as obvious for us to think about, yet as bright as the red and blue strobes on the ambulance are the inconsistencies in messaging that we provide as leaders – effectively unreadable billboards. Sometimes we use clichés or vagaries – feel good messages that don’t actually say anything and end up doing more damage as those who we mean to lead try to figure out what in the world we meant.[2]

I can think of more than one time where anything from the next quarter’s goals to our overall corporate strategy were so vague and poorly communicated that no two employees would state them the same, nor be able to provide the same results for a critical strategy dependent on that messaging. A clear, concise message that is prominent and repeated and uses appropriate language, metrics, and symbols is necessary to ensure communication of these important concepts to employees, especially in larger organizations with distance between the messenger and the recipients.

Perhaps the most important way that we all need to make sure that we are not just doing the right thing, but ensuring that our billboards are providing the right message, as in our ethics in how we conduct our business. The news regularly reports on ethics failures that cost businesses and consumers many billions, yet still more than 40% of workers report seeing misconduct in the last year, and 10% felt pressure to actually violate ethics standards.[3]

Even if we are not actually violating standards, the appearance thereof can be incredibly harmful, to our reputations, our effectiveness, and ultimately to the business that we are trying to accomplish.[4] Setting an example leads subordinates to believe that such behavior is acceptable, and can lead to actual conflicts of interest or other ethical lapses.[5]

Ultimately, it isn’t about paranoia. We are being watched, but as leaders it is about being inspiring. We must lead by example, communicate clearly, and project the correct image at the correct time for the eyes that are upon us. And, we must inspire ourselves so that we continue to do the right thing, being aware of how our actions and words may be interpreted, for we are billboards and can be misread.

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