Like the Griswolds of National Lampoon's Vacation fame, my parents took me and my brother across the country in a trip complete with clunker car, and motels with vibrating beds and blinking neon lights. We hit all the national parks—the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Zion, and Yosemite. Yosemite will always be my favorite park. The Half Dome and giant sequoia grove shine bright in my memory bank. But it's the "moonbow" at Yosemite Falls that triggered this boy's imagination.
A moonbow is a rainbow that appears at night. It's only visible when moonlight catches the mist of a waterfall. The naked eye just sees a thin silvery band, but a long exposure with a camera can capture the moonbow's color. In the right environment, with the right equipment and a specific setting, you can actually see the full spectrum of colors in a rainbow. In a word, spectacular!
The moonbow could be a metaphor as powerful as a regular rainbow, with its promise of a better day. Indeed, the moonbow is an apt metaphor for truth- seekers and truth-tellers.
In business, people who can see the moonbow interrogate everything from a company's product and services to its leadership and culture. They understand when things are in balance and when something goes awry. They've got the right camera, the right lens and they know how long to set the exposure. These are the people who enable a leader to succeed.
People who see the moonbow are a different breed. Every company in every industry has, or tries to find, top-tier talent—people who are, visibly, outstanding at their jobs. In advertising, it’s the creative geniuses, the big brains in strategy, analytics and code, the tastemakers, rainmakers and trendsetters. But being great at your job doesn’t necessarily enable you to see a moonbow. These "seers" are great at their jobs AND care deeply about their company. They’ve got the intellect and the emotional sensitivity to both solve problems and finesse solutions within their organization. They don’t just raise issues, they solve them and, when they can’t solve them, they get help. "The most critical issue we are all going to face in marketing is attracting and retaining people who hold new beliefs and values, who want to work in different ways," said Dana Anderson, CMO of Mondelez.
Many leaders of companies think they can see and know everything about their organization but they're at the top looking down. They must rely on unique people who can see what others don't. They can give leaders the perspective they lack. It's the only way a company can develop and grow and it's critical for leaders to identify them and tap into their knowledge and perspective. This applies to the most ambitious and successful companies. "Our mission is to make the world more open and connected," said Carolyn Everson, Facebook's VP Global Marketing Solutions, "and that means we need to find people who have different perspectives, who are bold and full of ideas and incredible problem solvers."
People who can see the moonbow keep their bosses honest about the culture, help to identify rising stars who may be quietly working behind the scenes, breathe new life into worthy embryonic projects and provide clarity around issues that may be troubling people in different corners of the office. They can also carry forward messages that need to be disseminated to the troops with credibility and authenticity.
Once, there was a woman behind every successful man, or so we were told before feminism pushed women to the forefront. Today, there is someone who sees the moonbow behind every successful person. They are usually introverts, people who provide a notably sharp opinion when asked but rarely offers unsolicited views, which makes it a challenge to detect them. They are quiet experts, often from the more cerebral or technical specialties like business or digital strategy. Senior managers often overlook them because of their reserve, their inability or unwillingness to "hold the room." What a costly oversight!
My colleagues who embody the moonbeam ideal keep their views sheathed at larger forums. They insert into our private conversations insights that enable me to perform at a higher level, and they do it so unobtrusively that I barely know what is transpiring. Thanks to them, I will more often acknowledge people who are working harder and smarter than most of their peers and find the most promising young talent. Thanks to them, I can fine tune our go-to market strategy and focus on the gravest competitive threats. Thanks to them, my timing is better when it comes to injecting fun into the office to fend off a sag in the morale of our over-worked staff. They can do this for me and for our culture because they have a unique ability to really see that culture.
With all credit to my parents who tried to teach wisdom to the misbehaving boys in the back of their car on family vacations, you capitalize on moonbows if you look, listen and learn:
Look: Find these unique people like your success depends on it since it probably does. Celebrate their honesty, let them know you think they’re special, and establish a sense of trust. Work quietly behind the scenes with them to implement their recommendations.
Listen: Hear things you may not want to hear. The better you listen the better you can avoid potential disasters and convert unseen opportunity.
Learn: Out of the moonbows' insights you can shape new lasting ideas to improve your organization as part of a vigilant exercise to always follow the light, at any time of day.
Bradley Kay is president/partner at SS+K.