Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

Leadership Lessons from Ex-Cons

The biggest impediment to success is rarely a lack of ideas or strategies—it’s an inability to influence people to carry out those ideas or strategies. In others words, it’s a failure of leadership.

Leadership is intentional influence. It is a systematic process of influencing the behavior of others in order to achieve important results. If at the end of your “leadership” people aren’t behaving differently, then you didn’t lead.

I’ve never seen a more potent example of influence than at the Delancey Street Foundation. Over the years, I’ve heard leaders around the world complain that the people they lead are especially challenging to influence. I’ve heard if from management who were stumped about how to influence recalcitrant union employees or from union leaders trying to get more consideration from management. I’ve heard complaints about how tough it is to change school systems, physicians, independent selling agents, long-tenured government employees, or even political systems. But I give the prize to Mimi Silbert—she has successfully run top performing businesses with hardened criminals as her employees.

Mimi and 1,500 drug addicts, convicts, and gang members run several dozen Delancey Street businesses. And these aren’t just piteous nonprofit make-work shops. These are stellar organizations that grab market share and wow customers. For example, The Delancey Street Moving Company in the San Francisco Bay Area has been the top-rated mover in that high-end market for decades. Imagine that! Mimi laughs at the thought. “These are people who in their previous lives had extensive experience moving your valuables, but at that time they were imprisoned for doing so!”

What can we learn from Mimi about creating a high-performance organization from people who have an average of sixteen felonies? Quite a bit. If you’re interested, join me, along with David Durocher and Lola Zagey—two long-time Delancey leaders—to find out how to revolutionize your organization.

In the meantime, here are a couple of lessons Delancey can teach all of us.

Imagine your employee is a twenty-six-year-old heroin addict named Eli. Two months ago, Eli had most of his large intestine removed as a result of his long-time heroin use. He lay in his hospital bed filled with self-loathing and swore to himself he would never use drugs again. Ten minutes later, a friend entered his room with a small packet filled with white powder. Twenty minutes later, Eli was high. So much for his resolution.

After two more months of homelessness and addiction, Eli sat on the bench at Delancey Street and asked for an interview. That’s when Delancey’s prodigious influence went to work on Eli.

The most oft-squandered leadership moment is the first conversation. The purpose of this conversation is not small talk. It isn’t about making friends. It’s not about impressing them. It’s about influencing them.

Delancey’s first conversation with someone who “sits on the bench” (indicating they want in) is an interview with three senior residents. They want you to know at the outset that Delancey will work your tail off and drown you in feedback. If you don’t want that, or can’t take it, there is no room for you. Many are stunned in this interview as they expect the kind of mollycoddling and sympathy lots of rehabs or social service agencies they’ve frequented offer. Delancey wants you to experience from the get-go the kind of culture you’ll be expected to uphold. For example, as Eli begins to tell his life story, he might say, “My Dad introduced me to marijuana when I was 11. From there I got into harder and harder stuff.” Your interviewer then says, “I see. Seems like we’ve got the wrong person here then.”

“What do you mean?” Eli says.

“Seems like we should be interviewing your Dad. He’s the one with the problem.”

“No,” Eli stutters, confused, “That’s not what I said.”

“I thought you said your Dad got you into drugs.”

“Of course he did.” Eli defends.

“Well, then we’ll wait for him.”

Eli is speechless now. He is quiet for a while. Then says, “Okay, I get it. Yes, my Dad gave me marijuana. But then I took it. And I decided to try harder stuff.”

“Oh, that’s different,” the interviewer says. “Maybe you’re the one who needs help, then.”

An hour into the conversation you’re clear about two things:

1. They don’t want you if you don’t want to be there.
2. This is a place where people will challenge your thinking.

Three months into his time at Delancey, Eli is working at the moving company. This is when the intentional way Delancey leaders first spoke with Eli pays additional dividends. He hates the moving company. It’s hard work. He has to get up early. It’s tedious. It’s predictable. His former life was unstructured and he did as he pleased. Now others depend on him and bark at him if he malingers.

One morning he sleeps in—refuses to get out of bed. When his crew boss yells at him to get moving he says, “Screw this. I’m leaving.”

Now, if Delancey had set the wrong expectations in that initial conversation, they’d be in a corner. If they had allowed themselves to be in the position of selling Eli on Delancey, they’d forever be accepting responsibility to keep him sold. His motivation would be their job. But that’s not how it worked then—and that’s not how it works this morning.

“Okay,” the crew boss says levelly.

Eli sits up, surprised. All his life others have tried to get him to change. But in spite of Eli’s best efforts the crew boss isn’t taking that role.

“Seems stupid to me to throw away the last three months work. But if you want dope, go get it.”

“That’s not what I said,” Eli shoots back.

“I don’t care what you said. That’s what you meant. So go get it.”

Eli hesitates. “You mean I can just leave?”

“Of course you can leave. The door isn’t locked. You know that. But don’t come back either. You leave, you’re gone. We only want you here if you want to be here . . . ”

Now here’s the magic moment that the initial interview prepared for.

“You sat on the bench. You asked us to take you in. We didn’t go looking for you. If you’ve changed your mind, there’s the door.”

So, what’s the lesson for leaders, here?

Real leaders don’t “give assignments”—they ask for commitments. They understand that the initial conversation is a chance to frame the entire subsequent experience. When people make a commitment—a choice—they feel a far deeper connection to their work. When it is assigned to them—or others sell them on it—a subtle and insidious agreement is made: that the leader is responsible for their motivation. The worker is consenting to this work as a favor to the leader.

We hope you join me, Dave, and Lola October 15, for a powerful leadership conversation. Learn how you can create stellar results by influencing in even the toughest of circumstances.

I’m also excited to share our vision for The Other Side Academy—an effort to make opportunities like Delancey Street available to all who need them across the world. We would love your help in this life-changing venture and hope we can help you become a more influential leader as well.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

2 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from Ex-Cons”

  1. Steve Acevedo

    Wow! What an amazing article. I’ve never read a more spot-on, concise article highlighting the principles of leadership and accountability. If I’m ever in San Francisco, I’d love to meet some of the amazing people at Delancey Street. Great job, Joseph!

  2. Peg Birmingham

    Powerful messages in this article. Accountability our own decision. Facing our own internal messages and confronting ourselves. It makes me questions how I as leader and my coaching support that versus providing another crutch for others? Thanks.

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