The Power Of One Audacious Person

One of my favorite speaking topics is about the power of one person. 

One person, or a small group of likeminded individuals, can accomplish anything. Likely, they have more power than mega-organizations, due to their nimbleness and ambition.  One of the greatest impacts a conference can have on an organization is to unleash this type of thinking!  Leaders then align this energy towards the mission and vision – and presto, big things happen.. 

It’s not just a matter of enthusiasm.  That’s necessary for the change-the-world person, but not sufficient.  This was my study focus for a few years, while writing my third book, Saving The World At Work.  There are three key ingredients that all roll up to unlimited power: 

1. Be Audacious – When Martin Luther pinned his note to the church door, he defined the concept. Ask for the seemingly impossible. Challenge the wrong headed and unjust.  Risk all by asking for all. Consider, what’s the worst that can happen? 

In 1989, City Year officials asked Timberland for 50 pairs of boots for a local project in Boston. Intrigued with the program, CEO Jeffrey Swartz Jr. approved the donation. When Jeffrey visited with City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, he had no idea what he was about to be pitched. Jeffrey commended Alan on how City Year was saving and improving lives, pining that he wished Timberland could do the same. Alan pounced on this with an audacious request: “Let me show you how you can…” then he pitched a merger of sorts, where Timberland made a deep investment in City Year by giving all employees a week off annually to volunteer there.  Ever audacious Alan asked for City Year to office at Timberland, and have access to its resources: Legal, HR, etc.  

Since then, City Year’s strength has increased exponentially, due to an audacious request. 

2. Be Judicious – Alan Khazei showed good judgement, striking while Swartz was waxing philosophical. That’s the next ingredient – ask for the impossible very intelligently.  For Joyce Lavalle, at the time a regional director for sales at Interface, it was the key to her success.  

More than timing, she understood protocol.  If you want to ask for the impossible in order to change the world, make sure you ask the right person! Her daughter had sent her a great book on business and ecology at a time when Joyce’s sales reps were telling her that Interface (a carpet company) needed to form a sustainability program to attract future clients.  

Ray Anderson, the founder and CEO of Interface, wasn’t a fan of the green movement at the time. He bristled at the social-responsibility arguments that looked like cost drivers to him. But Joyce just knew that if she got this book into his hands, he’d realize it was a smart long-haul move.  She knew that if she tried to deliver it, she’d fail. He didn’t know her and it would be takent wrong.

So she asked her boss, a VP back at corporate, to arrange for the book to appear on his desk.  It did, Ray read it, and Interace was transformed in less than three years into the most sustainable carpet company in history.  

3. Be Tenacious – It’s going to take some time, and some serious persistance if you want to change the world.  You’ll need a long term plan, and a thick skin to withstand criticism and adversity. For Louise Young, that was her secret – along with her audacity and judiciousness.  

She was a quality assurance manager at defense contractor Raytheon.  Her mission was to bring domestic partner benefits to the company; where it would acknowledge same-sex unions by offering health, club and death benefits to partners.  Imagine how hard of a sale that would be to a mostly-military executive group.  For several years, she served on the GLBT stakeholder group and built relationships with VPs from different parts of the company.  

She developed a reputation as a warrior for this cause.  She also built up a business case for it in two areas: Productivity & Recruing Talent.  In 2001, SVP at the time, Bill Swanson, invited her to speak at the company’s first diversity/hr summit. There were 400 business managers in the room, and you could her a pin drop as she made her simple plea for business-sanity. (See a clip of it here).  

After the talk, she handed out cards and forged relationships.  Within a year, Raytheon stunned the business community by enacting a comprehensive domestic partner benefits program.  The Dept of Labor gave them an award for diversity and inclusion a few years later.  She combined all three of the ingredients into a winning way to accomplish what most of us would think of as impossible.

In her remarks, she quotes Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”