Influencers of Change: When a powerful person is not powerful enough

On the 10th of December, a “Go to College” Music video featuring the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, rapping about the significant advantages of a College degree (alias “University” for those of us outside of the US) was published on YouTube. The video is light hearted and powerful  –  the choice of Michelle humourously rapping out of her comfort zone instead of delivering  a staid speech about a boring  topic (“Stay in College”) was obviously deliberately done so as to grab the attention of, and influence, the young demographics whom the message is aimed at. At the time of writing this, the video has just under 4.5m hits.

But is it effective?

One of the most effective change models for influencing people to do something new states that key stakeholders are best engaged, not by the Change Leader, but by and through other stakeholders. The Everett Rogers Innovation adoption model defines 5 classifications of stakeholders along a bell curve he called the ‘Innovation of adoption curve’.


Quickest to adapt                                                                                                                                     Slowest to adapt

Each of the stakeholders have different characteristics which determine the relevant ease/difficulty with which they adapt to something new. Rogers advises that the key is to actively engage the “Early Adopters” stakeholders (which make up 13.5% of the population) in the merits of the desired change, win their hearts and in turn watch them provide the vital endorsements needed to engage the “Early Majority” crowd of 34%, who in turn will persuade the “Late Majority” population of a further 34%. Even if only half of the Late Majority crowd have been bought over, the overall implication/output is a significant ground swell of stakeholders in total (circa 70%) who are bought into the change initiative. This is enough to create a tipping point which will lead to success.

A Change Leader, no matter how powerful or how well positioned, is not enough to create the tipping point.

Ranked No 10 in “Forbes The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” 2015, Mrs Obama is certainly influential and powerful. However, her change message faces some peculiar types of challenges:

  1. A lack of street kudos

Michelle Obama is, I respectfully argue, not the right person to appeal to the demographic for her message. Her message appeals to the parents who no doubt greatly welcome her support in their personal crusade to sell the merits of University to dependants amid rising education debts and the formidable opponents of the super star ‘drop-outs’ (see no 2 below).

  1. The high profile superstar ‘drop- out’ role models V the regular invisible struggling ‘drop- out’

The superstar drop- outs have spectacularly defied the argument for going to University and have gone on to build vast fortunes in technology, music, sports etc. in spite of their limited tertiary education. They live the lives that most of us can only dream of and create the illusion of easy wealth. They are high profile, articulate and rightly proud of their relative humble beginnings. They are role models for the ‘University is not cool’ brigade. Each and every one of us (young and old) can name at least one person who fits this bill. On the flip-side, no one notices the struggling drop- out and even if they do, the tendency is for one to believe that their suffering is the exception rather than the rule. The connection between a lack of education and a lack of options is not so clear cut for many of our young people.

  1. The old fashioned University branding

I recently spent a very enjoyable 30 minutes at the back of a London black cab in discussion with the charming and articulate driver who argued that Universities were a waste of time and money: not only are they extremely expensive now, but that a majority of graduates do not pursue professions related to their University degrees. In a nutshell he said, we are forcing our children to take on life- long debts for purchases that they will not use later on.  I didn’t agree with him but I certainly saw his point.

So what’s the responses to these challenges?

I suggest we start by deliberately creating some stronger driving forces to counteract the resisting forces/barriers to staying in College. As a starter for 10:

  1. Enlist the services of successful high profile University graduates (who are within close proximity of the demographics being targeted – i.e. under 35s). These people are effectively Rogers’ Early Adopters and the ambassadors for staying in College. The strategy should be for them to sell the message of the successes that they have achieved and the options that they have had because of their College/University qualifications.
  1. Enlist the services of some of the superstar drop- outs to endorse the message of College/University education. This sounds counter-intuitive but it seems as though there is an assumption that not going to University, or dropping out is a prerequisite for success. However, this is not the case, and superstar “drop-outs” should explain this to young people. They could say something along the lines of, “If only I had gone to University, I would have learnt vital business management skills which would have helped me  pay attention to the numbers part of my business and therefore enabled me to be in better control of my business”. Or “When I dropped out of University, I had a vision, incredible opportunities and connections which enabled me to start my business. I also had significant financial support from xxx whom I relied on. Without these, things would have been more difficult.”
  1. Re-brand our Colleges and Universities. With the changing landscape in the professional world, it is to be expected that University graduates pursue other disciplines after graduation. This should not be seen as negative or an endorsement that Universities don’t work. We need to re-brand the services that our Universities and Colleges provide – discipline, determination, flexibility and adaptability; all key ingredients for success in the evolving professional landscape.
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