Updated: Jul 30, 2019
Evangelism = Sunscreen?
Evangelism is like sunscreen. If you don’t put it on and you go in the sun you will get a serious sunburn. And if you keep going in the sun without it, you could eventually contract cancer and die. You might get tan sometimes and other times burn, but the accumulation of damage over time can eventually kill you. Everyone has sunscreen in their bag when they go to the beach, but if they don’t remember to put it on they know what will happen. Many times, we think we don’t need to put it on because it isn’t that sunny. Sometimes, we don’t put it on everywhere and we get burned in certain places. Sometimes we just are too lazy to look for it in our bag. And sometimes we remember it's there but we just don’t take it out of our bag. So why this line of thinking?
Because if we are smart when we are in the sun and keep putting sunscreen all over ourselves we get tan. And when we get tan the right way we love the way it looks. We love the way others perceive us when we are tan and we also feel it makes look better and in some ways represents a healthy look we present to the world.
This is evangelism. Evangelists are all around you. They are the sunscreen in your bag, there to protect you from your own complacency. Companies know they must continue to compete and strategically drive towards an uncertain future, but it is very easy to rest on the success they have today forgetting to keep on top of the things that can destroy their business. They are there to give you the courage to move in directions you might shy away from because they appear fraught with risk. They are there to help you think bigger when you are held back by your need to operate and drive revenue. Evangelists are there to see around the corners others don’t see, to see potential futures that represent their leaders’ interests because they extrapolate to a place you want to go but don’t quite know you need to. They are there to give the benefits of a tan and there to make sure you don’t get burned.
Building Unassailable Bridges: What is an Organization Evangelists' Job?
One time when I was on my heels, I met a man named John. He was there at a time in my career as an evangelist when I had been knocked down harder than ever before. And as I have learned playing the culture warrior, change agent junkie, innovation navy seal and muse over my career, that if you don’t keep looking for people to take you in from the cold you will really struggle to explain to people what you can do for them.
You see, I had just finished up a very disastrous but successful run as a Global Vice President of Innovation who was killed in a political coup. My boss has decided to leave even though he was thought to be in line for CEO. In fact, in a goodbye email to his executive vice president peers, he tried to protect what I was doing by making a plea to them to step up and take care of me. Ironically, he jested with them that even though my work was critical to the company, that he figured I would be gone before he ate his first salmon dinner in Seattle (where he moved). He wasn’t wrong. Within 5 days of him leaving, they fired me. Fortunately, serendipity had me heading out to spend time with a leadership consultant who I was hoping to bring in to help the culture of the company that had just sacked me.
As I found myself with John the following Tuesday after being let go, we spent time talking. He asked me to describe to him what I did in my job. I shared with him why I thought my role was important and how I added value. But like many people I have known my career, he could see my conviction and the wisdom of what I told him, but that my ability to describe it was all over the place.
Trying once more, John could see the pain on my face as I again struggled to really tell him concretely and tangibly why I was valuable. Here I was, someone who had successfully sold himself as an executive change agent, but still struggled to give a concrete definition of what I believed I brought to any organization. I was fortunate that day, because John donated his day to help me figure out how to communicate what I did for a living. And as we talked back and forth we came up with this. Is it the definition of evangelism? No, it isn’t. But it is a definition that brings things down a level to describe some of the work we do in any organization. This description is a very concrete way to describe the “sunscreen’s” job for your business.
All companies have two things; their products and services they create and their balance sheet. You need one to drive the other. What many miss is that living between these two incredibly important things is a hole. This hole is filled with the softer things things that make business go like culture, processes and new ideas. All of them build both your products and services and the balance sheet, but when you don't have them you end up having a mess. My job has always been to make sure that hole is filled and a bridge is built. I work on making that bridge strong and unassailable.
Does this help? You say why you should care about any of this and I would challenge anyone who owns an organization of any kind that the above thought is true. If you work in a capitalistic economy whether you own a non-profit, your own business, work at a company or whatever it takes resources to drive your well...whatever. Without people whose passion it is to mind the bridge you will fail. And in most cases you will fail utterly.
There are two reasons it's important that you believe organizational evangelism isn't bullshit. It is why this aspect of the role's definition is an important addition to the story.
Reason #1: The first is to help those looking for people with the Evangelists’ gene to learn to find them, to learn to protect and care for them and to learn to recognize the value they bring to making your bridge unassailable so they can be given the proper authority in the proper situations to help you win.
Reason #2: The second is to help those who just read what I wrote and are saying, “that’s me and I understand” that you must take responsibility for the fact that most of the world doesn’t understand you and that it’s your fault they don’t.
Everyday I make sure to remind myself that I know I am a kook who doesn’t makes sense to the world I work in. I have just become comfortable enough with my own failing to know it's my job to demonstrate that by keeping me around they never have a sunburn only a deep dark tan.