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The Provocateur: How a New Generation of Leaders are Building Communities, Not Just Companies

The Provocateur: How a New Generation of Leaders are Building Communities, Not Just Companies

by Larry Weber

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What's the difference between CEOs like Lou Gerstner of IBM and Larry Ellison of Oracle? Between basketball coaches Phil Jackson and Bobby Knight? Or media entrepreneurs Oprah Winfrey and Rupert Murdoch?

Gerstner, Jackson, and Winfrey are provocateurs, leaders who are successful not just because they have built a company or an organization, but because they


What's the difference between CEOs like Lou Gerstner of IBM and Larry Ellison of Oracle? Between basketball coaches Phil Jackson and Bobby Knight? Or media entrepreneurs Oprah Winfrey and Rupert Murdoch?

Gerstner, Jackson, and Winfrey are provocateurs, leaders who are successful not just because they have built a company or an organization, but because they have created a community. Provocateurs are changing both the form and the content of leadership and are in sync with a world being turned upside down by technology, the global economy, and the social landscape.

Success has traditionally been based on command and control, and the model for many leaders was the general who marshaled people and resources to get the product out the door and onto the shelf.

Early in his career, Larry Weber had the opportunity to meet or work with people like Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, and Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple. He saw that they were more like the leaders of rock bands (or the directors of theater groups or circus ringmasters), who encourage innovation and individuality. A rock band does have a leader—think of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones—but one who promotes the group and encourages individuality. And when a rival band comes to town, it's not cause for head-to-head competition but an opportunity to increase the size of the pie by creating more fans, or customers, for their genre of music.

Provocateurs think and act differently because they put the customer at the center of everything. They are:

  • Educators like Patrick McGovern, who built IDG into a publishing and research powerhouse by empowering his employees to think globally and act locally;

  • Entertainers like Jeff Taylor, who managed to build a bond with Monster.com employees and customers through talent and charisma;

  • Sherpas like Rick Wagoner, who is guiding General Motors into new territories;

  • Concierges like Lou Gerstner of IBM, who believe the product is important but so are customer service, delivery, financing, and every other element. They keep everything running smoothly from check-in to check-out.
So, if someone says, "Your company is like a circus," Larry Weber wants you to take it as a compliment. After all, who wouldn't want to be compared with Cirque du Soleil, an organization that combines creativity, artistry, and caring for its people with success and profit. The people running organizations like this circus are provocateurs at the cutting edge of business.

Editorial Reviews

bn.com Review
The Barnes & Noble Review
Larry Weber, CEO of Weber Shandwick Worldwide and author of this compelling new book, isn't the first to note that the business world has undergone seismic shifts during the past few years, but he is one of the first to offer a substantive and incisive analysis of the new mode of leadership that's emerged to meet the challenges of today's technocentric, global, and fragmented environment. I have to confess that when I first picked up Weber's book, I felt suspicious: Much has been written about the virtues of a nonhierarchal, "new economy" management ethos, and most of that writing has proved to be as ephemeral as the companies that inspired it. I suspect that like most readers, I wanted a book that would try harder to rise above some of the easy formulas and paeans to entrepreneurship or teamwork that, until recently, reigned supreme in the business press. Fortunately, Weber delivers the goods -- a book that honestly speaks to the new realities of our time and that provides guidelines without indulging in the excessive generalizations or modish posturing that sometimes characterizes the genre.

Weber introduces his argument by contrasting the behavior of the Provocateur (think Oprah Winfrey, Phil Jackson, or Steve Jobs) with that of the old-world General (Rupert Murdoch, Bobby Knight, Larry Ellison). While the General sits atop a militaristic command-and-control structure that values obedience, secrecy, and compartmentalization, the Provocateur leads an organization by facilitating creative thought, openness, and the sharing of information. While these traits might sound idealized, I liked the fact that Weber grounds his discussion in a commonsense approach to business: He understands that companies exist to turn a profit, and he champions the characteristics of the Provocateur not merely because they sound nice but because they enhance profitability by developing better performance from workers and better relationships with customers. I should add that as the book progresses Weber sketches different roles that Provocateurs can take -- educators, entertainers, concierges, and yes, Sherpa guides. The virtue of this approach is that it provides readers with a number of different starting points from which they can choose, depending upon their personal strengths and existing management style.

At times, some of the book's comments can sound a little hokey: Do we really need to call CEO's "Chief Encouragement Officers"? But there's a valuable message underlying even these cute asides -- it's the human factor, the ability to connect people with each other and with whatever your company produces, that will be the measure of success in the new world of commerce that awaits us. (Sunil Sharma)

Jim Mullen
Timeless entrepreneurial wisdom, company-building management tips, hard-nosed Internet savvy, and a hard jolt for aspiring 21st-century leaders.
Stan Rapp
The generals of the mass marketing business world are at a loss when it comes to surviving and prospering at a time when customer relationships—not product—create wealth. The new Relationship Age requires new leaders. Now Larry Weber has provided a marvelously useful road map for tomorrow's business leaders to follow. The Provocateur provides the answer to how a new generation of 247 managers can handle the challenging trade-off between control and creativity. Whether you are the leader of a company or of a project team within the company, you can profit greatly from the skills spotlighted in this brilliant, insightful, and very enjoyable book.
Bruce Journey
Larry's experience of more than two decades interacting with most of the important business and educational leaders of our time lends The Provocateur an air of practical reality that blends thoroughly with the brilliance of its vision. It should be required reading for all current and aspiring CEOs, and those that work for the good and the bad.
Geraldine Ferraro
Like Larry himself, The Provocateur is engaging, insightful, and slightly irreverent. It is a book all current and aspiring leaders should read, and read again.
Publishers Weekly
Despite its great title, interesting (although somewhat dated) stories and good writing, most business readers will be disappointed with this book for one simple reason it emphasizes the wrong material. The new ground broken by Weber, the founder of what Crown describes as "the world's largest public relations firm" (Weber Shandwick Worldwide), deals with how leaders can build communities both inside and outside their companies. But how to do that gets short shrift. Instead, Weber emphasizes an old argument: that the command-and-control structure no longer works inside businesses, and what is needed is decentralization, empowering managers and concentrating on doing everything possible to create a relationship with a customer. There is nothing wrong with Weber now heading Advanced Marketing Services within the Interpublic Group arguing for senior managers to become "provocateurs... [people who] believe that the relationship with the customer is at the center of the business, not The Product or The Service." But that has been accepted wisdom by even semi-enlightened executives for years. What all managers want is specific examples of how to do it and a way of quantifying the returns once they do. Weber comes close to providing that a number of times by stressing that senior managers need to be everything from entertainers to educators and sherpas, but the discussion loses force as he veers back to attack an ever-shrinking class of executives who still lead as if they were commanding an infantry battalion. Agent, Jill Kneerim. (Jan. 2) Forecast: Weber has the PR connections to get his book everywhere, and that's just what Crown's planning to do. An 11-city author tour, online promo to Weber's own firms and advertising are all in the works. Whether that will help the book sell, though, is debatable. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Random House, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 9.44(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Organizations today require a new kind of leadership because technology, the global economy, and the social landscape are altering the very nature of business. I call these new leaders Provocateurs to distinguish them from the Generals who successfully led companies in the past.

Provocateurs build communities; Generals build companies. Provocateurs put the relationship with the customer at the company's center; Generals put the product (or service) at the center. Provocateurs know that a brand is based on communication with customers; the stronger the communication, the stronger the brand. Provocateurs empower employees; Generals establish hierarchies with command and control. Provocateurs value openness, interchange, and innovation; Generals maintain secrecy, control communication, and distrust novelty.

In business, Steve Jobs, the president of Apple Computer is a Provocateur; Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, is a General.

In sports, Phil Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, is a Provocateur; Bobby Knight, former head coach at Indiana University, is a General. Phil Jackson has said that every successful coach needs "the intuitive ability to change a conflict situation into a team-building one." Knight, says Bill Walton, is a coach "whose success is based on bullying and intimidating people. His style is rooted in boorish behavior, with which he psychologically terrorizes his players for his own benefit."

In education, Charles Vest, president of MIT, is a Provocateur; John Silber, chancellor of Boston University, is a General. Vest recently announced that MIT will be making the materials for nearly all of its courses freely available on the Internet. In 1997, BU dropped its 91-year-old football program "largely through the efforts of despotic chancellor John Silber."

In media, Oprah Winfrey, chairman and CEO of Harpo Productions, is a Provocateur; Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp. is a General.

Provocateurs, as we'll see, are riding the tide of history. They, not Generals, will build tomorrow's great companies. They will do so because their beliefs are more suitable for today's business realities than the Generals'.

Customer Relationships Are Key

Provocateurs believe that the relationship with the customer is at the center of the business, not The Product or The Service. The product is important, but so is after-sale service and delivery and labeling and financing and every other element of the customer's contact with the company. Provocateurs say, "Our goal is to build trust, to make the experience of dealing with us great." A Provocateur's goal is to have the customers so involved in the business they feel they are important players in the enterprise's success, which of course they are. Some people who purchased an Apple computer are so engaged with the Apple mystique, they put Apple decals on their cars. Some people who own Harley-Davidson motorcycles have the brand's logo tattooed on themselves.

Provocateurs believe they should build a community in which the members take care of each other. David Hayden, the founder of Magellan, the first search engine, as well as CEO of Critical Path, a San Francisco-based firm that provides email services to large companies, said, "I think leadership has changed in the last eight years in a marked way. Today's successful business world is about creating communities, which really ties into a collaborative ethic, rather than a competitive ethic. The issue that the CEOs or leadership teams in all new successful companies have addressed to some extent-and I think is tied directly to the extent of their success-is that they are more collaborative, not only within the company, but within the marketplace. They are community builders."

Generals believe that hierarchy, the chain of command, is the best structure. The General gives orders to the colonels, who give the orders to the lieutenant colonels, who give the orders to the majors, who give the orders to the captains, who give the orders to the lieutenants, who give the orders to the troops. In this order, the person closest to the situation-in business, the customer-has the least authority to make a decision.

Provocateurs believe that employees should make decisions themselves through dialogue and example. Patrick McGovern, the founder and chairman of International Data Group, told me, "We call our CEOs the Chief Encouragement Officer"-IDG has 105 companies (and more than 12,000 employees) around the world-"and their role is to encourage and empower people by the trust they have. I always observed that if you go through the 'Prove-this-to-me, prove-that-to-me' exercise, managers feel, 'Well, I guess my competency is distrusted here.' If you expect people to do well, they will believe they will do well. They actually execute in ways to get that success, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

With the military as their model of organizational structure, Generals believe the way to keep people in line is through command and control. Since many Generals see people as motivated only by greed and fear (Napoleon's observation), they use bonuses and threats-with an occasional public execution-to maintain control.

Provocateurs believe that employees will be motivated if they understand and subscribe to the organization's goals and needs. As a result, the leader who is a Provocateur keeps very few secrets from employees or the outside world. (As a fringe benefit, Provocateurs tend to receive more and better press coverage for their businesses since reporters like straight-talking, knowledgeable sources.)

Generals believe secrecy is vital. Since loose lips sink ships, a General is disposed to be highly secretive about sales, product strategies, and every other single thing the company does. Former Ford CEO Alex Trotman was secretive and once became so angry that Fortune was going to publish an article identifying Bill Ford as a candidate for chairman that Trotman ordered the company's general counsel to find out if someone had leaked the story. "Company lawyers, along with attorneys from Ford's Washington law firm O'Melveny & Myers, formally interviewed members of the board, including Bill Ford, as well as some top executives. They also searched business and personal phone records looking for calls to news organizations." The investigation was inconclusive, and it is hard to believe these tactics improved Trotman's relations with his board.

Leadership Cannot Be Separated from Marketing

Provocateurs believe the leader's most important task is marketing. Since the relationship with the customer is the business's center, one cannot separate leadership from marketing or marketing from leadership. In the world of the Generals, a business leader could have come out of finance, manufacturing, or operations; marketing was just a department down the hall. Provocateurs understand that a CEO's primary job is communicating with customers to benefit the company, the brand, and all their constituencies. The stronger the communication, the stronger the brand.

Leadership and marketing are no longer two separate facilities. They are entwined because you cannot separate a company's marketing from its brand and leadership. The relationship with customers is the essential company center now. The business builds on that relationship through a concept I call dialogue data, which involves collecting and analyzing information about customers to learn their wants and needs. A company can collect valuable data about its customers through ongoing dialogues across all communications media-online, phone, mail, surveys, focus groups, and more. This data goes beyond simple facts and figures (i.e., his favorite color is green; she is 37 years old) to habits and behaviors that can help determine how best to reach the customer. Provocateurs understand that these are not conversations just to build a relationship (although they help do exactly that); they are designed to pinpoint the needs, wants, and desires of a specific consumer or business customer.

Provocateurs believe that markets are more than their demographic characteristics. A 23-year-old woman and a 60-year-old man can share an interest in four-wheel-drive vehicles. A high school dropout and a Ph.D. can share an interest in woodworking . . . antique outboard engines . . . gardening. People are joined by their interests, values, hopes, and dreams, and any individual belongs to dozens of different communities.

Generals believe that business is a zero-sum game. If someone else wins a sale (or a client, or a patent, or a bid), the General loses. If he wins, someone else loses. The pie is only so big, and the bigger my piece, the smaller yours must necessarily be. It is a worldview that still makes sense in some situations, such as the competition between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS to set the standard for videocassette recorders, but those situations are far fewer than the General assumes.

Provocateurs believe that business is not always a zero-sum game. Because knowledge and ideas are abundant, it is possible for everyone-customers, suppliers, employees, and even competitors-to come out ahead. Provocateurs do not believe that if they win, someone else automatically loses; they believe the pie can grow. More competitors are cooperating to buy items like auto parts, office supplies, airline tickets, cleaning services, and other goods and services that do not affect the business's core competency.

Provocateurs believe that the farther you are from the scene of action the more difficult it is to know what's happening. A leader from the traditional military/church hierarchical structure risks losing touch with customers and their concerns. In contrast, the flatter the structure, the closer the business leader is to the customer, where everything happens. The Provocateur still recognizes the need for some hierarchy, but believes that the fewer the levels, the better for everyone.

The Provocateur still needs control. The orchestra conductor has to establish the beat and cue the timpani. The theater director has to tell the actor he's rushing his lines, tell the set designer the door is in the wrong place, tell the costume head the dress is the wrong color.

Provocateurs work continually to tear down the walls between departments and divisions within the company, between the company and customers, and between the company and suppliers. They thereby create an atmosphere in which employees trust themselves and their decisions. (How many executives complain, "I can't get my people to take any risks"? They don't take risks because the fear of punishment is greater than any expectation of reward.)

A Provocateur starts with a premise, such as

  1. * Personal computers are useful (Apple)
  2. * Women have questions about their health (iVillage)
  3. * All-natural packaged macaroni and cheese is healthy (Annie's Homegrown)

and builds a community of customers, employees, and suppliers around that premise. A successful Provocateur acts like a great mayor for the community, creating excitement, momentum, and engagement. The community is inclusive rather than exclusive. It encourages more communication, not less. And, to a greater or lesser degree, it involves every stakeholder in as many elements of the business as possible.

Provocateurs are still capitalists. They embrace the idea that a capitalistic system is the best way we have found to harness human ambition, creativity, and greed. It simply works better than socialism or communism or statism. Provocateurs embrace the 1960s ideal of a shared openness and a democratic way of doing things, so they do not espouse unbridled capitalism with its attendant ills such as child labor, sweatshops, and environmental abuse.

Copyright Copyright 2002 by Larry Weber

Meet the Author

Larry Weber, widely recognized as a visionary in the converging worlds of technology and communications, is the founder of the world's largest public relations firm, Weber Shandwick Worldwide. He is also chairman and CEO of the Advanced Marketing Services group at The Interpublic Group of Companies, the world's largest organization of marketing communications and services companies. Mr. Weber is a founder and chairman of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Interactive Media Council and he sits on the boards of several technology start-ups and nonprofit organizations, including The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Museum of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness.

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