Haters Really Can Be Huggers

Guest Writer Dave Barthmuss

We often think of leadership as the act of leading our own teams to victory and success. But what about those who lie outside of our chain of command? How do we convince people to think as we do?

In a word? Advocates. Let me give you an example.

What would you think if you read this on the cover of the latest Iggy Pop album?

“This is the best damn album I’ve heard in a decade.” — Iggy Pop

It’s ridiculous, right? I mean, what else would Iggy think of his own work?

And yet that’s the kind of thing we – as marketers, advertisers and public relations practitioners – are often called on to do for our companies. We tout the merits of our products and policies, but is anybody listening? More importantly, does anybody believe us? After all, we’re being paid by the companies we promote.

Now imagine that you saw this quote on the cover of Iggy Pop’s latest album:

“This is the best damn album I’ve heard in a decade.” — Dave Grohl

You probably don’t have a problem with that quote, do you? For some reason, praise like that is a little more palatable coming from someone you trust who really doesn’t have any skin in the game.

This gets to the heart of a concept I call Advotocracy — the act of leading through advocacy

In my 20-plus years in PR, I’ve learned that most difficult situations involving outside detractors are best solved by being transparent and trying to understand your critic’s point of view. By finding common ground with your detractors — even the most determined ones — you can actually turn them into your partners and, eventually, your most vocal advocates. That’s what Advotocracy is all about.

As the Advotocracy roadmap shows, there are three basic steps to engage and transform a detractor into an advocate (or a “hater into a hugger” as my daughters would say): identify the issue, open up and be transparent, and keep your foot on the gas. Persistence, perseverance and determination are also key. They are tools that can be found in every effective leader’s toolbox, and are among the key building blocks of any successful Advotocracy.

Identifying the issue is the most critical and often the least understood part of the equation. I’ve counseled many leaders who falsely think they know the real issues behind the challenges they face with hostile audiences. All too often, however, they fail to fully consider the other point of view, and don’t really fully understand the reasons folks don’t see the world as they do. Frankly, it’s an easy mistake to make; it can be considered basic human nature to look at the world through your eyes alone. But if you want to build a successful Advotocracy, you really have to set aside preconceived notions, unconscious bias, and fully look at things from as many different perspectives as possible. And that can be very uncomfortable.

Enter the Southern California Leadership Network (SCLN), a terrific organization offering four civic leadership fellowships designed for working professionals, exposing cohorts to the inner workings of Los Angeles, the region and the state. I’m a graduate of two of them: Leadership L.A. and California Connections. The SCLN journey opened up and challenged my Detroit-based, Midwest mindset from many different perspectives, and really helped me identify and grow an ability to build the kinds of engaging bridges that have turned the most determined of detractors into proactive third-party advocates.

My preconceived notions were challenged by an amazing diversity of opinions and worldviews presented by my fellow classmates, guest speakers, and many of the remarkable places we visited across the state. My SCLN experience, which continues to this day, given my role as the Board’s vice chair, made me a better leader by showing me how others think and the different values that are placed on issues, products and behavior.

And with the addition of the Riordan Leadership Institute to SCLN’s portfolio, early- to mid-career professionals will have access to the tools they need for lifelong engagement with the nonprofit community through board service. As SCLN gears up to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, there’s no better time to enroll in the fellowship that best meets your needs, and become a part of a growing alumni network that represents many of the region’s current and future movers and shakers.

SCLN taught me to be humble, how to understand and show empathy for folks I used to consider adversaries, embrace transparency, and the value of persistence. Frankly, I found that my most vocal detractors weren’t all that different from me, and once I learned to find our common ground, I was able to build something great with them. And so will you.

About David Barthmuss

Dave Barthmuss was group manager of communications for General Motors until early 2016, and now serves as an independent consultant and senior counsel for clients and agencies. He also serves as vice chair of the Southern California Leadership Network, and is a bronze member of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, vice president/secretary of the Public Relations, Society of America (Los Angeles Chapter), and president of Advotocracy, where he builds proven communications strategies to improve image and reputation, develop brands, engage influential stakeholders and change conversations.