You're Already a Role Model; Choose to Be a Good One

I was lucky enough to see Oprah Winfrey receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes this year. I don’t watch much television, but it happened to be on and, as I have taken a conscious decision recently to challenge myself and do new things (more on that another time; the changes are fundamental and truly delightful), I watched. I’m so pleased I did.

As I heard Oprah speak, I started thinking about the criticality of role models in society. When social change happens, it’s caused by people becoming role models through their behaviors, through their discrete though very noticeable practices that contrast with what has gone before, and they become recognized for the changes they are making and the impact they are having. Oprah talked about how few role models there were for her as a child, and frankly, still are, and how we’ve got to change that. The same is true outside of that industry and across all walks of life.

As parents, adults know that their children are watching. Children pick up behaviors – the good, the neutral, and the ugly – and it shapes so much of who we become as we grow, especially if we don’t consciously analyze it and choose different behavior. My mother smoked when I was a child and it repulsed me. I’m very anti-smoking as a result, and now, for what it’s worth, it has been years since she smoked and she’s very proud of that every day. As am I, to be honest. (Well done, miss you!)

In organizations across the world, the same holds true, though it is less well-accepted and regarded. I remember from my early consulting years how I was given a career coach on a project and how he would day trade, often hiding in the bathroom of all places to close deals. Had I not consciously asked myself whether they were the right behaviors, I could well be in a very different position now. (I’m risk averse financially, so that path would never have worked.) Instead, I challenged my own thinking and decided he was being the opposite of what I wanted a coach to be, at least for me, and it’s partly thanks to him that I am now in my role, leading a behavior change company that relies on one-to-one and group coaching at the core of how we deliver accretive business value to our clients.

So, here are a few points of note relative to role models that might well help you personally and professionally:

  • Role models are everywhere, and we don’t know who is regarding whom as a role model. Someone is always watching what you put out there so be careful and make sure you always put your best foot forward, with intentionality.
  • Second, people can have both good and bad role models. In the case of the latter, they only understand the behavior to be negative if they appreciate that there may be a better way, subject to each individual’s values. How often have you heard someone say, “Well, if he/she can get away with leaving early, or not doing his/her work, then I can too!” Role models often stand out because they are doing something so different, or so much more effectively than what has been done before, but the reverse is also true. As I said, people are always watching.
  • Third, role models are not just the most senior people in the room. When I look back at the most successful teams I’ve worked on, I see people who are challenging behaviors, norms, and the status quo at all levels of the organization. Be inclusive, give permission, and you’ll find those role models everywhere. The same has been true in societal change, too.
  • At the organizational transformation level, it’s entirely possible, and also very effective and efficient, to create change through the use of role models in teams. With the right mix of visibility, specific practices that others can emulate, and celebration when people change their behaviors and get better results, our research shows that it’s a great way to supplement or even short cut the traditional change management approaches. Faster and more efficient transformation? Yes, please.
  • Finally, and I notice this a lot with more senior leaders, it’s never too late to ask people how they perceive you. I’ve seen in our research that when you create an environment where candor is a central pillar, it’s easy to do this. Where it isn’t present, or this kind of request is perceived as threatening, it’s certainly harder, but you can turn that around if you choose to do so. It’s about taking action, which might mean you’re becoming a role model for your own changes, of course.

The bottom line here—for parents, society, and organizations—is that the function of role models is critical, but not always immediately understood, nor properly utilized. Role models drive powerful change and results when used effectively. People from all walks of life, within and outside of the entertainment industry, will look at Oprah and will see a role model for change who came from a very difficult upbringing and who now seeks to “pay it forward” through philanthropy.

Oprah said during her acceptance speech, “A new day is on the horizon.” I’d argue that we can make that new day happen whenever we consciously choose to be the role models for the changes we want to see in our families, organizations, and society. What will you do today to be that change you are looking for in your personal and professional life? Feel free to share, so we can celebrate your successes with you.

Rob Whitfield

Rob Whitfield


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