Someone to Look Up To


Role models: the theory

Role: Any conspicuous part or task in public life

Model: To copy from a pattern or standard of conduct

Oxford English Dictionary

LOOKING at the separate definitions of the two words above, it is easy to see why the concept of 'role model' is so powerful. Regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race or gender, personal influences persuade human beings' actions and behaviours. Marketing theorists have been aware of this for many years and use the concept to influence consumer behaviour. Authors such as Wells and Prensky (1996) talk of a "reference group" which is a person (or group) that a consumer uses as a standard of reference for endorsement of products, although this is only one of the reference groups which exist (others nclude cartoons and executives - remember Victor Kiam and the company he liked so much he bought it?).

The notion that role models have an influence is also grounded in strong 'face validity' - in other words it appears to be sensible, and it is, because it is involves learning from the experience of others, as opposed to a stubborn determination to learn only from one's own mistakes! However, the extent of influence that a reference group exerts on an individual's behaviour is a matter for debate. It usually depends on an interaction between the nature of the individual and specific social factors, such as a person's experience and the credibility of the role model. This means of course, that there is no 'perfect' role model who influences everybody - so what makes a role mode! effective for an individual? The pressures of space limits what can be said here, but basically there are four elements:

* Similarities: this involves factors such as age and gender

* Differences: the gap between the status and behaviours of the role model and the aspirant must appear to be 'bridgeable'

* Communication: people can only compare and strive to be like someone else if they know what the other person does and appears to think.

* Legitimacy: this can be both formal and informal, but needs to be conferred on the role model.

In this article about role models, it may be worth remembering that, given the possible combinations of these factors, then the business of becoming an effective role model is actually more complex than it first appears, and may owe more to serendipity than anything else - but this does not diminish the importance or power of the concept.

Oh, and by the way, notice how many of the 'unsung heroes' in the IT awards have focussed on systems and administrative activity to achieve the improvement!

SMEs are the engine of the British economy, but many of them have no role model on which to base their business behaviour, says Andy Raynor, chief executive of Tenon Group pic, the independent think-tank made up of representatives of the UK's small and medium sized business community.*

The research shows that 47 per cent of all SMEs have no role model, while 46 per cent of SM Es believe that none of the political parties supports their business.

Andy Raynor continues: "The absence of a role model coupled with SMEs' frustration with increasing red tape, as our previous surveys have shown, makes life more difficult than it need be for Britain's entrepreneurs."

* 28 per cent of those surveyed by NOP said that their role model was a public figure, with Richard Branson topping the list. Other entrepreneurs featuring in the top ten include retail magnate Philip Green, inventor James Dyson, and EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-loannou. The only women cited as role models were Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

"Richard Branson is an unsurprising figure at the top of our survey's results for public figure role models," said Mr Raynor.

"One of the main reasons we set up the Tenon Forum was because we see every day in our dealings with people running their own businesses, not only their need for representation, but also for sounding boards and role models. …

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