John A. Daly: An interview by Bob Morris

John Daly is the Liddell Professor of Communication and TCB Professor of Management at The University of Texas at Austin. While at the university, he has won every major award given on campus for undergraduate teaching. Daly has been the president of the National Communication Association, and served on the Board of Directors of both the International Customer Service Association and the International Communication Association. He is one of fewer than 70 scholars in the world who is a Fellow of the International Communication Association. Fellows are recognized for their major scholarly contributions.

Daly has published numerous research articles in scholarly periodicals and produced eight books. His work has also appeared in any number of popular outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Investor’s Business Daily, and the New York Times. He has also worked with many organizations on topics related to communication, advocacy and leadership. These include such major firms as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Merck, Pfizer, USAA, Union Pacific, Kraft, Apple, IBM, Shell, ExxonMobil, Texas Instruments, 3M and Dell. In addition, he worked at the White House some years ago.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Advocacy, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Daly: Honestly, my wife. She is far wiser than anyone else I know.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Daly: My students who ask brilliant questions on a regular basis.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Daly: In terms of my work on advocacy, the turning point was when I was working with a company and one brilliant employee complained he didn’t get the credit he deserved for his ideas. He was right. This prompted me to start exploring what it takes for people, like this scientist, to get their ideas adopted.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Daly; All of it has mattered. I was at different stages of personal growth at different points in my career. MY undergraduate years were lots of fun and thanks to some splendid faculty I pursued graduate school. And graduate school offered me brilliant mentors and the opportunity to do what I like the most—research and teach.

Morris: What do you know now about business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Daly: The politics are very real. It isn’t your accomplishment that matter alone; it is your ability to market those accomplishments that often makes the real difference. There really [begin italics] is [end italics] a politics to ideas.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Daly: An old movie—Twelve O’clock High comes to mind…it is about leadership, teamwork, delegation.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Daly: Two answers: For general knowledge—biographies; for my interest in advocacy—Machiavelli’s The Prince

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Daly: General personal principle: You are generally successful to the degree others want you to succeed. So get adopted! And, even more importantly, it’s amazing how much you can get done when you let other people take credit for it…..not sure who said it first, but it’s true

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Daly: Kindness and truth are not always aligned. There are no unambiguous goods in the world

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Daly: My take may be a tad different—every great leader is a great actor.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Daly: No but we can certainly learn from them. It’s what you don’t know that matters

Morris: And then from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about anyone stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Daly: Love it….maybe ram is a bit much but you do have to sell them. One caveat—if you are going to have only one idea in your life make sure you get credit for it. If you are sure you’ll have many great ideas, don’t worry too much.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Daly: Yep, but it good be a lot of fun. Useless is sometimes the best part of our lives.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Daly: Perhaps, but the Collective can be terribly wrong and the Great Man amazingly correct.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Daly: Yep, as long as you learn from them. But be careful…in some organizations, it is easy to say mistakes are okay when in truth it is a zero-defect organization. You will be remembered more for your mistakes than your successes in those organizations.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegation work to others?

Daly: They are so competitive they can’t help but compete with their teams. To the detriment of the team.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Daly: I have an entire chapter about that in the book. I agree wholeheartedly!

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Daly: Make it their idea. Give them ownership….and make it easy for people to change.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Daly: It’s up to student. For many people, MBAs are mostly certification programs nowadays. They are increasingly technical in nature and that is what many students are seeking. But they are also incredible opportunities to learn interesting ideas and rebrand oneself in the process.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Daly: In today’s world—the financial crisis will continue for a while and technology will move faster and faster. Most importantly, global issues will matter more and more.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Advocacy. When and why did you decide to write it?

Daly: I’ve always been interested in influence and innovation, What did it take for great innovators to get people to buy into their notions? The book is a culmination of years of inquiry into that question. Victor Hugo was 100% wrong when he said an idea whose time has come cannot be stopped.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain

Daly: Yep, how even in the most structured societies of the world, advocates can successfully buck the system and successfully get their ideas adopted.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Daly: I didn’t really have an entering vision. So, the final book is probably close to what I had in mind. Would have loved to include a lot more graphics (e.g., pictures) but you have to stop at some point.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter 1’s title, “The Politics of Ideas.”

Daly: Ideas really do matter. But in any organization a good idea will only go so far unless its proponents are willing to fight the political games to get the idea adopted.

Morris: Briefly, what is the “Idea-Advocacy Matrix” and what are is most valuable functions and benefits?

Daly: The matrix highlights a couple of things: (1) that good ideas need to be “sold” if they are ever going to see the light of day and (2) bad ideas sometimes do quite well because of the skills of the proponent to sell them.

Morris: Please answer this question posed in Chapter 1: “What is advocacy?”

Daly: It’s all about selling ideas. Getting buy-in to your notions.

Morris: How best to communicate ideas with high impact?

Daly: Be clear, give great examples, be redundant about important issues. Use powerful language.

Morris: How do schemas shape increased understanding?

Daly: How you frame an issue shapes how it is viewed by others. Great advocates frame their ideas as problems that need solutions.

Morris: You assert, “Whoever defines the problem wins.” Please explain.

Daly: You have back problems—who do you go see? A neurologist, surgeon, or chiropractor?

Morris: In your opinion, what is the best process by which to solve problems, especially the most serious problems?

Daly: Break them down into smaller chunks but always keep your eye on the final goal. Sometimes, the best thing to do is redefine the problem—what causes crime? Unemployment, opportunity, values, education. Each of these options leads to very different ways of combatting crime. This example explains why I say the job of leaders is to define problems.

Morris: You provide ten ways in which advocates “can exceed decision makers’ perceptions of their competence and burnish or achieve an insistence brand name. Two questions: How so “insistence? Also, which of the ten seems to be most difficult to master? Why?

Daly: Insistence is a double-edged sword. When it comes to technical skills, you don’t want an insistence brand name. You will get stuck. Instead, you want a preference brand name. When it comes to people skills—leadership, teamwork, advocacy—you want an insistence brand name. What’s most difficult to master among the ten is being ready and able during a crisis.

Morris: What are the greatest barriers to forming alliances and how best to avoid or overcome them?

Daly: Not figuring out what would make others want to join with you. Assuming that what excites you excites others. Spend more time assuming people have good reasons for what they do or say and then figure out those good reasons.

Morris: Please explain the title of Chapter 6, “Your Idea Is Only as Good as Your Story.”

Daly: Each life is a collection of stories. Stories engage us. So great advocates sell by story-telling.

Morris: With rare exception, the greatest leaders throughout history were great storytellers. How do you explain that?

Daly: Stories match the way our species thinks. Equally important, stories are something we share – everyone everywhere tells stories and oddly enough, in the same way. It all probably started around some campfire a million years ago…..

Morris: When attempting to convince decision-makers, what are the most important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Daly: Answer for them the “why now?” question. Why should we adopt this idea now and not wait. Answer the WIIFT question—what’s in it for them? Make sure they see they’ll win something with your idea. Focus on both people who can say yes and those who can say no. they are often very different people.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “serial entrepreneur”?

Daly: They like, simultaneously, both risk and control.

Morris: Why is timing “everything”?

Daly: Even the best idea, at the wrong time, will falter

Morris: You encourage “grabbing the right moment.” Two questions: How best to know when a moment is. Also, how best to take full advantage of it?

Daly: Be able to answer the “why now?” question. If you can tell me why this is the perfect minute to adopt your idea, it’s the right moment. To take advantage, be ready.

Morris: How best to make an idea matter?

Daly: Show people how the idea will give them (or people or organizations they care about) a win. Show they what happens if they don’t adopt your idea. People fear missing out far more than they are excited about getting something.

Morris: How best to make a case memorable?

Daly: Aside from narrative, use catchy metaphors, similes, and analogies. Come up with some striking examples. Generate some factoids that make your idea memorable.

Morris: I agree about the importance of presenting oneself with confidence. Are there any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Daly: Confident people are viewed as competent people. The book has many examples of how to sound confident. A few include making declarations, sounding organized, using intense language, being more specific when presenting numbers.

Morris: How important are charisma and presence to effective advocacy? Please explain.

Daly: How do you separate the dancer from the dance. It’s hard to separate the proponent from her or his idea.

Morris: Of all the public figures you have observed over the years, who best exemplifies the core principles of advocacy that you affirm in your book? Please explain your choice.

Daly: George Marshall was a brilliant advocate, Hyman Rickover, Jean Monnet. All three of these people changed the world we live in and they did that by being fantastic advocates for their ideas.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Advocacy and wants to establish and then develop programs during which participants learn how to “champion ideas and influence others” much more effectively, guided and informed by the material in your book. Where to begin?

Daly: Call me! Actually, it is especially important for people who are just starting out in a firm to know these skills. So I would suggest a training program for people like engineers, beginning lawyers, novice scientists, young advocates. Indeed, we’ve done exactly that in some companies.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Advocacy, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Always be selling and not just to your customers but also to your employees.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Daly: You hit a homerun. Great questions.

* * *

John cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His faculty page.

Communication Studies page.

John’s Amazon page.


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.