If you thought no one from Microsoft really cared about anything other than selling you the next version of Windows and the latest XBox Kinect controller you couldn’t be more wrong. The company has a number of people whose (lucky) job it is to understand how technology can help society and have conversations about what author and conductor Benjamin Zander would call the ‘Art of the Possible‘. These are not really jobs in the traditional sense, more ‘a calling’, or a place to put those who just won’t shut up about how technology can really make a difference in society. Whilst most people concentrate on how technology impacts their lives, these people focus on how technology can positively help others’ lives. This is a critical difference, because a lot of their time will be spent campaigning for disadvantaged groups, arguing for the voice of the excluded and generally making a nuisance of themselves. And good luck to them, because through each one of their meetings, presentations and discussions they really do make a difference. Not that they will admit this, or those who change their minds will admit to being influenced.
The UK has one of the leading exponents of this role in Dave Coplin. I’m not sure what his title is these days, but it will have the word ‘evangelist’ in there somewhere. If you haven’t seen him, you can find his work on The Envisioners website. If you get a chance to see him speak, then I recommend it. Firstly, he doesn’t really fit the typical ‘look’ for Microsoft, but more importantly if you want to know what Microsoft really thinks about the bigger issues around technology, then speaking to Dave is a great way to understand this. I promise you that you will not be disappointed.
So why does this matter?
Why are Dave and his role important?
Whilst we often see so called ‘technology evangelists’, most are nothing more than salesman. They care about selling you a product, about closing a deal and about signing a contract. Real evangelists don’t. They care about selling you an idea. They don’t care about closing the sale because they know that if they sell you the idea, then you will come knocking on their door asking for the product, not just once, but again and again. In fact they won’t sell you a product, they will point to a sales guy. If an evangelist does want to close the deal, then he isn’t an evangelist, just a good salesman. So now you know.
A good evangelist will become a trusted advisor in the way that a salesperson can only dream of (and never achieve). Selling an idea or a vision transcends any single product. More importantly though, what they will have done is enrol you not just as a fan, but a passionate supporter. If an evangelist does their job right, they light a fire in your imagination. They don’t tell you how their product or service is better, they help you understand how lives can be better. Seriously, an evangelist focuses on the person, not as something to sell to, but as a human being; the most important, most valuable asset imaginable. What an evangelist will do is help you how understand how to make lives better.
Take one of the most famous evangelists, Guy Kawasaki. He started with Apple, but his passion and vision was always bigger. He is now a best selling author and a highly in-demand speaker. The common factor in everything he has done is that it is all about making things simpler/better/easier for the person. Whether selling, planning their lives, developing their career, it is all about the person. The human being. Take any great speaker and you will see the same thing. What matters is the focus on the human. Listen to President Clinton speak about the improving the developing world, Bill Gates about eradicating malaria. Take Ghandi, Mandela, Dr Martin Luther King – it always comes down to people. To humans. The narrative is always about people.
It is a pity that more companies don’t recognise this and invest in people who care about making their products and their company matter by having a real dialogue with customers and society at large. This is not about giving your company a cool spokesperson. In fact the opposite. The best evangelists can go and do go off-script. They will be brutally honest about failures in a way that has PR people cringing, but through this they show their honesty. They know the risks in speaking out – and those risks are real. So when they do this, they are saying, “you matter, because my job may be on the line over this“. How many people that you meet from a company can you say that about? Certainly too few CEOs. Again, if we look to CEOs who care about people, who were willing to speak out and take a position, you find them leading great companies. Richard Branson and Virgin, the late Dame Anita Roddick and the Bodyshop, and Yvon Chouinard the head of Patagonia, a company that not only promotes its green credentials, but lives them daily by supporting protests and risking its name by challenging corporations and governments. More recently we have Blake Mycoski, the founder of Toms Shoes, a company that gives a pair of shoes away for everyone that it sells.
Are you starting to see a pattern here?
The reason that evangelism is important is because it is always about something bigger than the company. It is about people. About human beings. Not sales targets, but real people.Whether that evangelist is the CEO themselves or a role like Dave’s what matters is the willingness to have the dialogue.
Change takes time, and not all companies are founded or grounded in the ethics of Patagonia or Tom’s Shoes, but starting a dialogue is absolutely possible. Appointing an evangelist may not change the world overnight, but it will show that you are at least prepared to talk about things that matter and listen and engage with your most vocal critics to understand what is possible.
Benjamin Zander would approve.