Tag Archives: Choices

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.

—-

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?

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 Power of Positive Disruption

Brand value—the intangible equity derived from a desirable and reliable experience—is rooted in moments of Positive Disruption. Within every experience, a brand has opportunities to disrupt our expectations—disrupt what is generic and familiar—and imprint memories.

Strong brands take the time to consider the whole experience for different stakeholders, and rather than just slapping a logo on every surface, the brand immerses each stakeholder with positive, affirming touch points; unique clues in imagery, language, rituals and total sensory impact. Strong brands add value with a well-considered experience.

We are surrounded by brand experiences. Almost everything in our lives is experienced because someone somewhere at some time made a choice in an effort to define the experience. Someone made a choice based on; a) an experience they wanted to create or an idea they wanted us to believe; b) the resources and budget available to them at the time; and c) the values guiding their behaviour. Yet while we are constantly exposed to those brands and those choices (whether it’s a product, service, cause, community and even a country), most of the choices are completely imperceptible. That’s right, most of the brand experience is completely missed.

That chair you’re sitting on; it’s part of a brand experience. The screen you’re reading this on; it’s part of a brand experience. That coffee you just sipped; it’s part of a brand experience. That music playing in the background; the lamp-post in your neighbourhood; the composting bin in the garden; those are all part of brand experiences. The sound of the alarm clock and the bed you woke up in and the clothes you put on this morning and the spoon you ate your cereal with—all part of brand experiences. And I bet you missed most of them.

Positive Disruption—a conscious choice to identify a brand—anchors the experience. It’s in the moments of disruption the brand greets us, reminds us of our relationship, and moves us forward to continue the experience. We, the stakeholder, are reassured while being rewarded.

The challenge, of course, is to disrupt the experience in a way is positive and inclusive to stakeholders; an experience that reinforces the brand strategy—the story we want people to believe about our organization—with respect.

Forcing stakeholders into behaviours that are uncomfortable, unnatural, wasteful or arrogant will backfire. Forcing people to support your brand’s distinction without providing any more value for them—or establishing the boundaries of the relationship—is irresponsible and will fail. Negative disruptions push your agenda without buy-in; positive disruptions enhance the experience and deepen understanding.

Your mission is to deliver a product, service, cause or idea to meet the needs of your stakeholders. A brand strategy maps out the core experiences, exploring from the outside perspective while considering the capacity of the organization to have influence or impact. Along the path, a good strategy recognizes the mindset of your audience at specific moments, identifying unique opportunities to engage individuals with your story and evolve the relationship.

A brand strategy defines the positive disruptions which reinforce and complement the brand. Positive disruptions are brand value.

Where do we find Positive Disruption?

Visual identities are common disruptions. Colours, shapes, imagery and structure are significant reference points and make it easy to connect. But an overwhelmingly unique visual experience isn’t always reasonable or positive, and just repeating your logo everywhere is less productive that you’d think.

Language clues are helpful. Language drives the culture or the organization, and the tone delivers the brand with character. Sharing a familiar language with your stakeholders builds relationships that are hard to break. Language can polarize audiences, though, so make sure to have message strategies that are inclusive across different yet relevant stakeholders.

Patterns and rituals are valuable, creating habits that are the equivalent to a secret handshake— conspicuously absent when expected; comfortably reassuring when shared. A ritual that enhances the experience is rooted in the culture of the brand, celebrating points of distinction and rewarding loyalty.

Have you mapped your core brand experience from start to finish? Have you considered all the senses, beyond just marketing campaigns and whimsical creativity? Have you considered all stakeholder groups, thinking beyond only the customer experience? If you’ve only considered a single moment of interaction—or you’re simply adding your logo to every surface—you are missing plenty of opportunities to engage your stakeholders in the full brand experience.

You own your brand’s experience.

I get frustrated when people, especially those involved with social media, claim that the consumer owns the brand. For those making this statement, the logic says that because people are talking about your brand—especially on social media—and because they are sharing the story of your brand—perhaps even without you—that somehow your customers own the brand.

There is a nuance to this belief that compromises your success: If you ignore the brand strategy because you believe you no longer own the brand, your organization is doomed.

Yes, each customer holds their own perception of the brand. In fact, every stakeholder has their own version of the brand story in their head. And when they share the story with other people, they may or may not be sharing it in a way that will make you happy. It’s called word-of-mouth, and you don’t get to own it.

People hold the conversations about the brand. They don’t own the brand experience.

We’ve always had word-of-mouth. In fact, the world had word-of-mouth before any other form of marketing. The speed of conversations in social media is unprecedented, but it doesn’t make the conversations something new. Word-of-mouth is just different stakeholders sharing stories about their perception of the experience.

But those are just their stories; you still control the experience they are talking about. You still brew the coffee or fly the airplanes or teach the students or feed the hungry or organize the masses or fight the oppressors. Your organization still acts in accordance with your brand story, and delivers an experience.

Tom Asacker said in a tweet to me, “The experience shapes the story, and the story shapes the experience. The key is to be strategic with both.” There has to be a balance between the two—both anchored in the strategy—where the organization builds an experience in pursuit of its goals, and give supporters (and perhaps detractors) something to share with word-of-mouth.

With a brand strategy, you define the experience first. You take a stand for what you believe in, make a promise, and set yourself up to deliver the promise. Then you tell a story; you capture people’s imagination and invite them to share your cause. Once the brand is experienced and a story is shared, there is a constant mixing of the two, drawing people deeper and deeper into a relationship. You own the brand experience while you embrace their stories and explore more of your own.

Then it’s good to let everyone talk about it. Because they will.

Authenticity is.

Authenticity is a pretty big buzzword in the world of branding. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and it even gets written into strategic documents as a goal. Organizations of all kinds are striving to be more authentic. That’s right—they set a goal of being “authentic”.

So how does your organization become authentic?

Actually, you don’t. Or rather, you already are. The brand you have today—the story that people believe about you—is authentic. Authenticity isn’t something you can choose to do or not do. It’s not something to strive for. Authenticity is revealed as a result of your actions, not the intent.

Each time people experience your organization (through product experiences, advertising, word-of-mouth, …everything) a consistent story is communicated, a little bit at a time. The more experiences, the richer your story becomes.  With each experience, your story—what people believe about your organization—continues to evolve into a concise promise. This is where people discover authenticity. This is your brand.

It’s impossible to behave inauthentically. If people in your organization behave in a manner that is inconsistent with how the world perceives your brand, your story shifts. Through their actions people on your team have simply revealed more of what is authentic.

If an experience is in conflict with your promise, that experience (and your lack of ability to deliver the original promise) becomes part of your authentic brand. Do this enough times, or the first time someone experiences your brand, and ‘failure’—making promises you aren’t prepared keep—becomes part of your authentic brand.

Authenticity is a result, not an intent.

Consider the implications of this when recruiting employees, communicating with stakeholders, selecting vendors and engaging in the community.

Where authenticity matters for your brand strategy is to make sure that the promise you make can be sustained. You need to make sure the story you are telling is the story that will be experienced. You need to manage the actions, not the intent. And not just through the good times (that’s too easy), but through the challenging times. Through grumpy customers and failed suppliers; through economic distress and unforeseen disruptions; through personal issues and nasty competition. These are the moments that our behaviours will be tested, and our true brand—the promises we keep—will be revealed.

That is authenticity.

Follow-up: (Nov 5, 2012) Read The Authenticity Myths for more insights.

Who are you?

Every product, company, or cause has a name. The name is the one single feature that will last the entire lifetime of the brand, and in the world of branding, naming is good business.

Organizations that need a name want a great one, and when they come to me they believe their best chance is to hire a professional to take on the challenging task. After naming dozens of products and companies, I can tell you the toughest part of the process doesn’t rest with me.

The secret to a great name is courage. Your courage. The courage to recognize the potential in a good word; the courage to ignore silly criticisms during the selection process; and the courage to introduce it to the world with conviction.

Most people won’t have the courage to know a good name option when it is presented raw. That’s right; raw. With no history to back it up; with no cultural familiarity to make it part of our common language. It starts as just a word on a page. Raw.

Excellence in naming is hard, and inspiration for some of the most famous brand names have very different origins. Unfortunately there isn’t one proven formula for success, a situation that only makes the process more complicated for the uninitiated.

Naming is not an exercise in excellent creativity. It’s not a magical guessing game where the perfect word somehow looks better than all the other ideas. It’s next to impossible to come up with a great name; instead, select a good name—a name that helps introduce an interesting story and supports the strategy—and then make the effort to make it great! That’s what everyone else did.

There are tools that support the creative process—from brainstorming concepts to testing the best choices—and I am not suggesting anyone ignore rational discussion on the strategic value of a name. All I ask is that you enter the process with courage and an open mind. The right word will be there, and when you know who you are, you will pick a good name that you can make great.

The Curse of the Accidental Brand

A brand that adds value to your organization is a purposeful effort; a strategy that supports your goals. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can’t be accidental.

An accidental brand starts off innocently and with the best intentions. A new organization launches and does a few thing right, but in all the chaos of getting started leaders neglect to consider the strategy for the brand. Perhaps they design a snappy logo and recruit a few good people; perhaps they develop a catchy promotion and have a product that generates some buzz. They collect employees or volunteers, customers or supporters, but there is no deep connection to the brand.

Thanks to a solid model behind their operations, the organization will see some success. Enthusiasm pays off. Quick profit or attention—arguably important but a shortsighted goal—makes everyone feel confident in the brand, especially the leadership team. Unfortunately, a little success is enough to be dangerous.

Yes, dangerous.

Within the daily grind that every organization experiences, routine becomes a system and mediocre becomes a comfortable standard. The resulting culture and brand experience lack the direction and conviction of a brand with vision and purpose. Any passion that first launched the company is now stale. The momentum of familiarity dominates the efforts, and past successes become an irrational crutch for a lack of innovation or growth to move forward. The organization has created an accidental brand, and it can persist for years.

Accidental brands are dangerous because over time they give the impression that they are solid and valuable when really all they are is comfortable and inoffensive. Accidental brands get stale, and then they get sloppy. Accidental brands get blindsided by enthusiastic competition.

Enthusiastic competition is fueled by a passion for the brand experience, and they are hungry for success. Enthusiastic competition shatters preconceived expectations and limitations. Enthusiastic competition trusts, nurtures and rewards their stakeholders with innovation. Enthusiastic competition is relentless about understanding what sits at the core of the relationship.

Accidental brands are cursed because moderate success and familiar habits limit innovation; there’s a perceived a risk to change while blindly ignoring the opportunities of evolution. Accidental brands forget that enthusiastic competition is always possible.

Routine is never a rule, and mediocre is never worthy. Don’t let your brand be accidental.