Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible

In this article, former White House advisor, Guy L. Smith, now Executive VP of Diageo North America, offers management strategies to help teams achieve the impossible. The key, Smith believes, is providing your team with the critical motivation to achieve more than others think is reasonable or possible. Below, Smith outlines exactly how managers and team-leaders can make this happen.

By: Guy L. Smith

Posted: 04 April 2012

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It won’t take you long to recall the last time at work somebody resisted changing something. From the mundane and unimportant like changing the stationary, the look of the bulletin board, the type of coffee in the coffee machine or the traditional venue for the office holiday party to much more serious like changing the organization’s name, dropping a product line, merging to survive or closing regional offices.

How many times has someone said to you, “Oh, you can’t do that. In this organization that’s just impossible.” Workplace inertia is so common it is parodied everywhere, from popular TV shows to comic strips.

In part the impossible is held back by risk aversion and fear of change. Change is feared everywhere, but nowhere more than in the workplace. Corporations everywhere are littered with mediocrity, a mediocrity that is simply accepted “because doing that is just impossible.” So, organizations are run within ever-narrowing parameters with grudging acquiescence to never achieving what others see as impossible.

I believe ordinary, accomplished people in organizations, often those in middle management, can achieve the impossible. That belief is grounded in the experience of my Corporate Relations team at Diageo North America.

Instead of focusing on what’s possible, this team has spent the last 10 years striving for the impossible and making it a reality, proving it is not always the Nobel Laureates or Apollo 13 astronauts who have the power to impact real change. Ordinary, accomplished people in organizations, especially those in middle management, can achieve anything. They can and do achieve the impossible.

The first step is simple: eliminate personal beliefs and social pressures that new ideas, large-scale changes, and innovations cannot be achieved by ordinary people. Reframe what is possible. To do this, I believe all we need to give our teams is the motivation – and the support – to strive to achieve more than others think is reasonable or possible.

I’ve worked in the White House; had to get stuff done in Baghdad, Kabul, Sarajevo and Pyongyang; and in some of the biggest companies in the world I’ve seen this idea in action. Now, as Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations for the North American operations of Diageo, I am privileged to lead an incredible group of individuals who initiated fundamental change in our industry that many deemed impossible from the start. Through the use of simple motivational tactics that provide critical structure and support, this team has confounded an entire industry through its achievements.

By utilizing the The Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible” my team has been the driving force behind some of the largest scale, transformative changes the beverage alcohol industry has seen since Prohibition, remaking the social and regulatory landscape of their industry – something believed impossible just a decade ago.

Managers and their teams can apply these essential ideas by personally connecting to The Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible:

  1. Believe in yourself. Life-changing and market-leading achievements require individuals and team members to believe in their ability to accomplish the task. This creates a critical starting point, giving one a sense that there are no barriers too big to overcome.
  2. Believe in the Mission. From the start, everyone on the Diageo Corporate Relations team understood what we were working toward, creating a common goal that supersedes all else. But we didn’t stop there. Everyone carried the fundamental belief that what he or she needed to accomplish was of enduring value, even when others refused to believe achieving it would be possible.
  3. Be willing to change the rules of the game. Change is one of the most common and most feared concepts – in business and in life, especially in corporate America. Yet one of the keys to achieving the impossible is being willing to change the rules of the game. It takes the ability to look into the future and see that “the game” can be played differently. Diageo first changed the rules of the game when we stopped treating critics as “the enemy.” Instead, Diageo shifted to a practice of openness and “constructive engagement” that created real dialogue and progress.
  4. Have the humility to ask for and use help . Athletes are trained to support their teammates with an RBI, an assist, a pass, whatever. This is a natural part of teamwork and working against a common opponent. In the business world, however, “the team” and “goal” are often not nearly so obvious. To make corporate teams truly effective, they need to develop a clear, shared vision and identify the issues that truly require shared focus and effort. But asking for help does not come naturally to all people. In addition, many corporate teams are not structured to engage in this way, and in actuality, are not really a team at all. The Diageo North American Corporate Relations team clearly held a shared purpose, and many of its projects required true collaboration, starting with asking for help from others who have the knowledge, skills or resources that you do not, taking that help freely to accomplish the task at hand.
  5. Focus all available assets against a single objective. To make substantial change, the individual and the team have to assemble a broad range of resources and commit these resources to the shared goal. This is when the impact is most evident.
  6. Have the tenacity to relentlessly, tirelessly persist . Making fundamental changes in any complex environment takes a great deal of persistence. One has to have a vision for the future and persevere toward that vision, working day after day, week after week, year after year, to accomplish the end goal.
  7. Use your knowledge, skills, experience and training. People with training in a profession or skill have changed their definition of impossible because they have learned and practiced the component skills necessary to achieve seemingly impossible tasks. Even when a new situation appears impossible to the well-trained individual, his or her training “kicks in” and helps that person figure out how to create success out of certain failure.

Over the last decade, Diageo’s Corporate Relations team has consistently worked toward the goal of changing the social, legal and regulatory landscape for beverage alcohol. All along the way, each of us – individually and collectively – knew we were capable of this task, because we were personally connected to each one of these guideposts. It is through accepting and following these tactics any team can achieve the impossible.

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About Guy Smith

Guy L. Smith has been Executive Vice President of Diageo North America, the world’s leading premium drinks company, since 2000. He is responsible for all internal and external communications, government affairs, reputation management, public policy and corporate social responsibility. Smith was previously in the Clinton White House as Special Advisor to the President. Prior to that he spent more than 25 years in senior corporate, NGO and government roles.

Guy Smith and the entire Diageo North America Corporate Relations Team have just released a new book, If It’s Not Impossible, It’s Not Interesting: Leveraging Personal Experience to Create a High Performance Team, a compilation of 41 empowering stories of overcoming personal obstacles to achieve the impossible; the stories illustrate what can be accomplished by following ‘The Seven Guideposts to Achieving the Impossible’.

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David Dejewski

Nicely written, Guy. Many of the most successful people I know have made a career out of doing what others have said was impossible.