In writing my book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life, I spent the last year researching what I call Wave Makers—people who started a change in their organizations, communities or the marketplace.
Think of a “wave” as any change that begins with your decision to act and ripples outward, or the transfer of energy that creates momentum and ultimately a positive impact. It may be a tiny decision at first, but the common denominator is that one person saw a need or opportunity and decided to be the one to start a change.
But how do you get someone else, especially within your organization or among your peers, to notice your idea or action? Here are three key habits shared by entrepreneurial Wave Makers:
1. Move quickly—even without all of the answers.
Wave Makers are predisposed to action, even when they don’t have all the answers. Beginning before you know exactly where you’re going can run against conventional wisdom about leadership. It’s counterintuitive for those who love to have all the answers or who like detailed planning before acting. But moving quickly is essential when making waves.
Many of us earned our reputations and progressed in business because we are problem-solvers. If you were the one in grade school waving your hand wildly from the back of the classroom, you’d understand. And if you have perfectionist tendencies, remember that starting a wave isn’t the same as earning an A or tackling your to-do list. It’s about initiating movement toward your goal and engaging others to be part of it. It’s not a command-and-control effort.
Wave Maker Brett Hurt, an entrepreneur and co-creator of leading customer input network Bazaarvoice, stressed the importance of movement in a recent conversation with me. “You’ve got to get going. Surround yourself with other people who are incredibly passionate about your cause, and move. If you have a dream, you have to get moving or it’s never going to happen,” Hurt says. “If I’m looking to invest in an entrepreneur, I’m looking for motion—someone who is really going after their dream and is passionate about it. If you really believe in it, why not? Why aren’t you acting?”
When you do begin, start by learning everything you can. Lois Melbourne, the co-creator of the human resources software firm Aquire, did everything she could to gather facts and then take action. “I want to learn and feel like I can make a very educated decision,” says Melbourne, who read everything she could find about talent management and analytics. “Ask tons of questions,” she advises. “Do the research. Don’t wait for perfect data—or even all of the data. But at the same time, I don’t make uneducated decisions. Gut instinct comes from assimilating a lot of information and then making the decision that you need to make to make an educated guess. That is enough.”
Taking the first step can be the hardest, but Wave Makers have a bias for movement and progress. It takes confidence in yourself, your idea and others.
2. Tell everyone.
Many Wave Makers described talking with “hundreds of people” about their business idea. They viewed themselves as the personal advocate and interest builder for their wave. No one I interviewed for my book mentioned the savvy email campaign or the jaw-dropping marketing presentation they used to get others on their bandwagons. It all came back to personal conversations with people they trusted and who trusted them.
Share what you are up to with everyone. Ask for other people’s thoughts. This is an essential part of building positive word-of-mouth while accelerating learning.
Allen Stephenson, who founded clothing company Southern Tide while he was still a college student, shared his first actions and where he chose to spend his energies: “I talked to people who used to own apparel manufacturing companies, financial people and so many others. I was taking people out to lunch like crazy—every day like three, four or five people. And some of them are still involved today. I didn’t and still don’t know how to do all this stuff, but I did know how to say, ‘This is the vision, the dream. We’re going to do this and make clothes in the way that I’m describing, and we can do this together.’”
When I started my business, I met with dozens of people individually and told them my plans. I asked for their advice and words of wisdom. Gibbs Mood, a successful business leader and mentor, gave me the same advice I’m giving you: “Don’t get too clever and overthink it. Just tell everyone you meet what you are doing and your goals for your business. It’s the hands-down best way to get others interested in your plans.”
3. Make it easy to say yes.
When Allen Stephenson started out, he took his prototype shirts to M. Dumas & Sons, a premier clothing store in Charleston, South Carolina, in a Gap bag—nothing was even branded yet.
“I asked to talk to the store manager and said, ‘I have these shirts I’d like to show you.’ He told me that the last thing he needed was another polo shirt,” Stephenson said. “I said, ‘I know—you’re right. I’m not trying to sell you polo shirts.’ He was confused and wasn’t clear where I was going. I said, ‘I’m going to give you these. I made them and I’m really impressed with them, and I want to see if you are, too—or if your customers are. Here are a dozen shirts in different colors and sizes. Just take them. Here’s my number. Give me a call if you get a chance and let me know what you think.’”
After a few weeks, Stephenson received a phone call from the manager at M. Dumas & Sons. Not only did the store want to order shirts, but management was also interested in creating a small wall to feature them. “And that was it. That was when I knew it was happening,” Stephenson says.
Allen Stephenson’s wave started because he made it easy to say yes at the first step.
What’s your wave? And how can you start—even without all of the answers?
This article was published in July 2014 and has been updated. Photo by @k.sebe.nezgno/Twenty20
Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.