Category Archives: Best Practices

Imperfect Leadership – a #LeadWithGiants Twitterchat

If there was such a thing as a perfect business, we’d see it. In fact, we’d see plenty of them, because the perfection would show up in formulas and spreadsheets that would be copied over and over. The right way would be obvious—a benchmark by which all others would be measured.

But perfect is elusive.

Perfect leadership is not elusive because it’s unachievable. It’s elusive because there are so many options—so many conflicting styles, attitudes and opportunities—for leadership and so many diverse styles of teams. Great leaders make it work with whatever is available at the time and the values anchoring their actions. We are, after all, human.

Without fail, every single organization I get the opportunity to assess has some form of dysfunction—systems, processes, people or policies that are unconventional at best, outright chaotic at worst. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to see this dysfunction and the textbook solution.

The logical next step is to open the fabled ‘Book of Best Practices’ (a best-seller among business consultant blowhards) and correct the offending issue with a smug sense of superiority. Simple. Right. Billable.

But I have also come to realize the tricky balance that exists within every organization, and certainly within the dynamic world of change and growth. There is always a healthy, balanced dysfunction found in Imperfect Leadership.

Somewhere in the gap between ‘perfect-best-practices’ and ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ is an organization’s ‘Normal’. It’s the place of personalities, habits and comfort zones. It’s the place where the business model—infused with the culture, climate and community—meshes nicely with the market opportunity. Disrupt this individual balance and the storm of unintended consequences will overwhelm any attempts at problem solving.

But problems—if they are truly holding the organization back from achieving its goals—have to be solved. And such is the dilemma of Imperfect Leadership.

Strong leadership recognizes the positive dysfunction of imperfection without ignoring—or excusing—the dysfunction that is holding them back. It’s a deep sense of honesty and self-reflection—an in-your-face reality check—that true leaders invite every single day.

Leaders must recognize and embrace their balance of dysfunction—recognizing it as balanced dysfunction—and acknowledge their chaos before we can accurately define and address the results of such chaos (their problems). Leaders must admit that they have grown into their chaos and have created systems and procedures to accommodate the dysfunction—it’s not normal, it’s just their normal. Leaders must dig deep and admit that the problem is really a problem—regardless of how deeply ingrained it is within the culture—and commit to change. Leaders must honestly connect-the-dots of ‘cause and effect’ to meet the challenges of change.

Leaders must also defend without compromise any balanced dysfunction they are unwilling to change, and accept the consequence openly. Ignoring the dysfunction is reckless, but defending it in service of goals AND values is actually very powerful.

Accepting the dysfunction is the first step. Admitting that the dysfunction is actually masquerading as an irreversible system is the tipping point. However, honouring your individual dysfunction is the power of Imperfect Leadership.

Strong brand strategy accepts Imperfect Leadership—all it’s flaws and value—as the reality before correcting the problems. Strong brand strategy embraces the functional dysfunction—the style and attitudes that feed the necessary culture —in order to confront the hindering dysfunction.

Strong leaders know honouring your individual dysfunction is the first step to finding a solution that will actually take hold and effect change and growth. Strong brand leadership is comfortable with Imperfect Leadership.

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I invite you to be part of the Twitter discussion, Monday Aug 3rd at 4pm PST, #LeadWithGiants. Really smart people will test my theory and explore the insights shared by everyone. These are the intended question, but the conversation could go anywhere. Feel free to add your thoughts here, too.

Q1 Is there such a thing as “perfect leadership”?

Q2 Is the notion of ‘Imperfect Leadership’ just an excuse for poor or weak leadership?

Q3 How does accepting ‘Imperfect Leadership’ add value to our organizations?

Q4 What happens when we confront ‘Imperfect Leadership’ with formulaic Best-Practices solutions?

Q5 Are there any behaviours that are unacceptable, even if labeled “imperfect”?

Q6 How do we recognize the difference b/w ‘Imperfect Leadership’ and poor or weak habits in order to affect change?

Q7 Who are some famous ‘Imperfect Leaders’?

Q8 Have you recognized your own balanced dysfunction? What is unconventional for you, but works in your favour?

For a strong brand, let’s define our values early.

Our organization is going to hire people as it grows. These new people will likely be very skilled and talented, and shortly they will become an integral part of our team. They’re given responsibility, and they make tough decisions that help our business. Some of these decisions have deep implications on the future success of our organization.

The decisions every one of our employees make reflect the values of our organization. No exceptions. When the organization is just beginning, it’s easy to push the task of ‘defining core values’ off to the side as a time-consuming and irrelevant exercise. After all, we probably feel pretty strongly connected to these people in the excited glow of a start-up. We’re probably confident that we’re all on the same page, values-wise, when it comes to making tough decisions. Taking the time to define core values—behaviours that will drive our competitive advantage—feels like a bit of a fluffy exercise when there is real work to be done.

And we all know that a corporate retreat to define (or redefine) an organization’s Core Values is also very common. Everyone does these retreats, we observe, so obviously it’s okay to wait until we really need to define this one detail. Maybe in a few months; possibly next year. It won’t hurt, really.

If we wait until we feel the strategic need to define our values, it is too late.

If we wait until our team is 10, 30 or 80 people before we take the time to define our values—the behaviours that drive the culture of our organization—we may discover that some of those awesome staff don’t quite fit. In fact, it’s probably now an issue because there is a conflict, and now we feel the pressure of dysfunction. So now we have a very tough choice; define broad reaching values that have no impact, keep everyone employed and regularly compromise on our stated values, or fire those who don’t fit.

Broad reaching values are effectively ignored. Values so wide-reaching in scope or obvious in intent that any action can be manipulated to fit are uninspiring and weak. Be clear on this: if our values don’t stand for something compelling, our brand is simply irrelevant.

Compromising on our stated values is ill-advised. Values define the culture of the organization, and our culture is how we attract and retain top talent; it’s is how people choose our brand over our competitor. If we only refer to our values when it suits us—if we only stand for something when it’s easy and popular but cave when the going gets tough—then people question our integrity and our commitment to our vision.

Telling an employee that they no longer fit the culture of the organization is tough. Terminating them as a result is tougher (and potentially illegal). But if their natural instincts—remember, core values are non-negotiable behaviours and our default actions when things get tough—conflict with what we promise to customers—all stakeholders, in fact—we are simply weakening our brand, and any value it adds to our organization, if we keep them employed.

If we decide that generosity is important and a value for our culture, we are going to need to be sure the rock-star accountant who approves and holds us to our budgets agrees. We need everyone on board to connect the dots between philanthropy and profitability.

If we believe that an open-door policy is the best way to create trust between leaders and their teams, we need to ensure every leader respects this style, and thrives within it.

If we believe in a healthy work-life balance, we need to plan accordingly and respect choices even when deadlines loom, timelines collide and schedules don’t quite overlap.

Our culture is the pool of values shared, embraced, accepted and rewarded among all of our team. Our culture is how values show up and support the goals and vision of the organization. Strong brands hire and retain people based on well defined and authentic values,  and those values actively and subconsciously permeate all aspects of the brand.

Strong brands defined their core values at the very beginning. 

The uncomfortable allure of the Brand Evangelist.

Plenty of talk these days about the importance of Brand Evangelists. Or Ambassadors. Or Employee Advocates or, …minions.

I’ll admit the idea makes me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t think employees should be outwardly proud of where they work, or that the ‘brand Kool-Aid’ is poison. And it’s not because I don’t think that the employees—people directly connected to delivering the brand experience—aren’t some of the most valuable champions of the brand. Plenty of great organizations benefit from authentic, internal cheerleaders.

But from where I sit, the prevailing push behind ‘evangelists as strategy’ wisdom conflate enthusiasm against obligation in the realm of social media, underscored with the ugly falsehood that social media is “free”. It’s empty as a strategy—unmeasurable and accidental if truly authentic. To top it off, all of this is happening just as we’re moving towards greater transparency and accountability from leaders.

I believe pure brand evangelists—the concept—are a tremendous value. They mark a significant success in your brand strategy. I disagree, however, that expecting all employees to perform on social media—demanding, even—is smart strategy. And I believe that compelling them to perform is disingenuous; a slap in the face of the very authenticity good leadership is striving to achieve.

The strategy for any organization should be to create opportunities, not obligations, to share content and experiences. Organizations should trust employees to respond appropriately—as an insider in the community—and arm them with relevant contributions (or at least give them access). The strategy should leverage enthusiasm, not attempt to create it.

The strategy for any organization should be to create a SoMe profile that borrows from the people who accept the role of monitoring and responding. Their individuality will enhance the brand, not distract from it, and it should be clear that the brand is the anchor of the engagement.

The strategy for any organization should be to create a culture rooted in pride and enthusiasm. The organization should be passionate about transparency, ensuring that the Evangelist mindset has access to content and insights, and isn’t blindsided by facts outside their control or knowledge. Nothing screams ‘faker or flakey’ like an ill-informed insider.

The strategy for any organization should be to think beyond marketing, and let any department show up in relevant social media channels, sharing and learning. There are countless communities that would appreciate authentic participation—engagement that moves the whole community forward—not just the “sell”.

The strategy for any organization should not be to overlay ‘evangelist’ into every job description and expect everyone to blur their personal and professional profiles to serve the organization. The strategy must not have vague expectations nor imply unrewarded activity. The strategy must never compromise anyone’s integrity, and the organization doesn’t get to decide when such concern is valid.

Brand Evangelism is a result of your culture, not a technique to create one.

If your organization benefits from employees who freely promote, support, defend and engage, then you can thank a strong culture, not a ‘Brand Evangelist Strategy’. You’ve invested in people you can trust and depend on, and now you get to reap the rewards. In fact, if you have truly developed a culture worthy of brand evangelists, good luck stopping them from engaging beyond your expectations.

However, if you find you must request ‘evangelism’ from your team—or worse, demand it—then you haven’t earned the value that the phenomenon of the ‘brand evangelists’ offers. You don’t understand the concept, because if you haven’t taken the time to nurture the culture, good luck trying to get any authentic evangelists at all.

And authentic brand evangelists is really all that matters.

Follow the Leader

In this world of expert teams—groups of people who are each smart enough and wise enough to lead—it is ever more important to follow with integrity.

While we routinely debate the merits and qualities of leadership and its impact on productivity, often missing from the conversation is the importance and obligation of true teamwork; following the leader.

If we expect good leaders trust their teams, it is only logical that good teams trust their leader.

When an individual is given the title of leader—both the glory and the burden of being accountable for results—it becomes imperative for teams to acknowledge and support the leader.

Too often when uncovering the problems with teams, it comes down to followers who aren’t quite willing to follow. Every plan has a flaw; every decision meets a “yes, but…”; every criticism has an excuse. Poor followers are caught up in their own ego, more concerned with eventually being the saviour of the situation (a perceived need, not a real need) than trusting that the leader is making good choices. Poor followers aren’t really following. They are riding the coattails to success—going through the motions with an agenda all their own.

  • Poor followers gather information but hold it close for personal gain.
  • Poor followers agree in their words but reject in their actions.
  • Poor followers fixate on the plan without focus on the goal.
  • Poor followers stand among the team but have an agenda of self-preservation.
  • Poor followers believe they have the wisdom to lead, but lack the courage to risk leadership.
  • Poor followers are eager to hear feedback, but quick to find excuses.

Ultimately, poor followers lack conviction, and let apathy and arrogance undermine their actions. Failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; not because the plan lacked strategy or leadership lacked ability, but simply because the they didn’t fulfill their follower role with integrity.

This isn’t about blind allegiance, or recklessly abandoning good sense and objectivity. There is a time and place for questions and contradiction; there is room for tough discussion in search of excellence; it is important to disrupt the status quo. But when planning transitions to action, and everything that we’ve prepared for is on the line, it is time to let leaders lead, and support them—support the whole team—by acting as an excellent follower.

Know the goals and know the plan; share information; respect decisions; act with conviction.

Strong Brand Strategy is rooted in leadership and trust. It takes teams of people committed to a common purpose, unafraid to tackle the challenges of bringing their vision to light, but also unafraid to work together. Strong brands demand diligent teamwork. If we truly expect leaders to lead with integrity, it is only fair that leaders expect followers to follow with integrity, too.

Searching for Diversity

“If we cannot end our differences at least we can make the world safe for diversity.” ~ John F. Kennedy

The word ‘diversity’ gets tossed around a lot these days. Few would argue that diversity—however it shows up in your organization—is adding value.

The dictionary definition of Diversity is “a range of different things”, and talk of diversity in the workplace always celebrates the inclusion of people and ideas that are outside of our typical circles. The concept implies a whole array of useful traits that, in theory, will make any idea a better idea: different experiences; fresh perspectives, inclusive insights, varied wisdom,  extended capacities, … well, the list goes on. Simply put, an organizational culture that embraces diversity will be better for it.

Popular wisdom encourages us to welcome new perspectives to collect and build upon our own insights. “Listen and be open-minded” is the paraphrased rally cry of the diversity bandwagon. But simply gathering ideas isn’t the true power of diversity. Diversity is exponentially stronger when it’s an active mindset, not a passive one.

Diversity is not just about letting others in. Diversity is about encouraging yourself to go out to find something bigger.

Diversity seeks out new ideas and differing perspectives. Diversity doesn’t let you get comfortable with your status-quo. Diversity craves ideas and insights that differ from our own because we are aware that we can’t see our own limits.

Yes, you have to let other ideas into your frame of thinking. But that is only half of the path to diversity—and it’s the easy path. For a full experience and benefit, you must also seek diversity out for yourself. You must make the time and effort to reach for diversity a priority, and part of your culture.

Brand Strategy thrives on growth and development. Part of the promise we make to stakeholders is that we will continue to push and evolve the brand story, rewarding loyalty with deeper experiences and new adventures.  Encouraging diversity—both welcoming and searching new ideas—is how we actively discover the potential of the brand.

Good brand strategies know they should adopt new ideas. Great brand strategies go looking for fresh thinking.

Passion is not a line item in your budget.

Passion is not a line item in your budget. Neither are values.

“We’re not like Disney” is a common line people use, usually as a rebuttal against intensive brand development (or they toss out McDonald’s, Starbucks, Nike, etc..). In the world of brand strategy, those famous consumer brands are the de facto benchmark for “a real brand”, as though good and bad is measured on scale, not connection. While there is no question most organizations don’t have anywhere near the budget for brand execution that a Starbucks or an Apple has at their disposal, there is no line item in the balance sheet for your passion or commitment to real, compelling values.

Conviction—passionate belief in your values as a competitive advantage, and the conscious effort to live them—isn’t something that you can buy or trade. You have access to just as much passion as the famous brands, your competitors, and even the failing brands. You’ve got all the passion you’ll ever need, if you believe it.

Core values—holding people accountable for their actions in service of your mission—isn’t a budget issue. It’s a culture issue. And it’s free.

And that’s the catch. Do you really want it? Do you truly believe it?

SAG_Post Quote_Culture-SuccessAre you really committed to creating and delivering an experience that is compelling, driven by values that are truly engaging? Are you really committed to standing for what you believe is important and creating an experience that authentically expresses—and lives within—your core values? Do you really believe that what you offer is worthy, in spite of all the competitive options or differing opinions?

Or perhaps you just thought core values were a convenient message; the right words that are popular enough to compel to a suitable target audience. Perhaps you don’t filter every act through your established sense of right and wrong—the culture you’ve defined as important—and hold everyone accountable. When challenged, you believe values will bend if they offend.

Or perhaps you feel that passion takes too much energy and investment. Sure, you believe in what you’re doing, but you don’t believe people need to “drink the Kool-Aid” to show an unnatural sense of enthusiasm. Maybe you conflate passion with hype, letting ‘marketing’ lead the bandwagon of cheerleaders. Proof of passion—being excited about what you stand for and confident in your purpose—takes a big, bold, in-your-face expression, and you’ve got a bottom line to watch.

Too often people barter their core values and passion with excuses. They’ll find excuses for why they can compromise their values in a given situation, or why only some people in the organization are responsible for passion. Note: excuses also feel free, but actually put a massive lien on your credibility.

“When times are better…”, leaders say, “we’ll invest in making sure our values are clear and our passion is strong. But right now we have more important work to do.” Or the common, “We just need to get our work done. Whether they…” referring to anyone other than the customer “…are connected to the brand or not isn’t really important, as long as they do their job.”

Brand Strategy is about attaching values to the experience you promise. Brand Strategy is about defining your core values, and inviting people who share those values with you. Brand Strategy—the kind that adds value to your organization—is about creating a distinction with purpose and meaning.

Culture—probably more than any other factor—is the essence of loyalty; the pinnacle of brand success. So a positive culture, one that reflects the values of the org and serves the goals of the your mission, actually adds value to the bottom line. And it’s free. Easy money, …if you want it.

Passion and values are the seeds of the culture you build, and they are at the foundation of Brand Strategy. And they are free.

The Curse of the Buzzword

A buzzword is only a buzzword because you believe it is a buzzword.

There are two types of buzzwords. The first is a form of concept blindness; a word or phrase that captures an idea in a concise way, and becomes common language. An example would be ‘thinking-outside-the-box’. The second is essentially linguistic abuse; when the placement of the word is so overused that the meaning is cluttered and pointless. An example shared with me today is ‘agility’. Both of these buzzwords are a weapon of weak strategy.

Buzzwords are often show up as a cover for confusion and discomfort rather than insight, and typically at the expense or ignorance of fundamentals. In turn, mediocre teams embrace buzzwords like a weapon, unleashing disruption on true insight.

Used recklessly, the buzzword is damaging to discussion, let alone strategy.

Buzzwords occur at the tipping point; that moment when an idea is gaining momentum faster than people are understanding the concept. It is a dangerous place where leadership and innovation (buzzwords in their own right) can stretch too far from reality, believing they have buy-in and consensus (buzz-buzz) when all they have is a veneer of understanding.

Knowing when to confront a buzzword—a deep push for clarity and understanding—is the mark of true leadership and an intelligent team, and critical to smart strategy.

However, calling out a buzzword merely for being a buzzword has become common practice; a broad stroke rejection of the buzz at the expense of the insight.

Rejecting an idea because it’s a buzzword is as dangerous a place as living blissfully in the buzz. Perhaps even more so, because it is often accompanied by a sense of superiority and arrogance that is damaging to both the idea and the culture. When you reject a business concept because it’s a buzz word, you are as much of the problem as the people who used it so much and so incorrectly it became the buzz word. You’re reacting the buzz, not the meaning or value of the concept.

There are many buzz words in use today. Whether it’s a new management philosophy, the latest consultant fad trend, corporate double-speak, or just plain old over-hyped mindsets, a word becomes buzz-worthy when the value of the word overrides the value of the meaning.

Buzzwords, though, can be incredibly valuable. Almost every time, the concept that launched the buzzword has merit. Ignore the concept at your peril.

When we take a moment to make sure the meaning is clear—and we aren’t afraid to ask for clarity when we hear the buzz—we start to build strength in our communities (buzz). Familiar words and phrases that haven’t achieved (or surpassed) buzz status are at the foundation of strong culture. A common language among peers becomes a shortcut to understanding, and integral to connecting within shared values, vision and knowledge. Meaning-in-context is one of the most powerful roots of connecting.

A strong culture—one connected by a common language—is at the foundation of a strong brand strategy.