Tag Archives: Planning

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. 

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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.

Brand Strategy for the Next Generation

A while back I wrote “Brand Strategy for Entrepreneurs”, and it was a popular post. Those traits are still relevant as the business grows, but now we’ll need to dig deeper. I offer “Brand Strategy for the Next Generation”, when an organization with momentum decides it’s time to take it to the next level.

So your business has grown. Good for you. Now your organization has some momentum, a little bit of revenue, and you’ve decided that renewed attention to the brand strategy will add value. This is a smart move.

It’s healthy to want to revisit the brand strategy. Perhaps some old initiatives feel disjointed and out of sync with evolving goals; perhaps growth isn’t happening as fast as you want; perhaps the organization has grown a little too fast and the brand feels out of control or out of focus. Something is not right and you believe Brand Strategy is the solution. Here’s how I know you’re ready.

You know Brand Strategy affects the entire organization. You know that brand strategy isn’t a quick fix for a short term problem. It’s not a marketing issue or an HR issue or a logo issue; those are isolated challenges. You know Brand Strategy is a big picture effort, and it will have—must have—a ripple effect throughout the organization. We are bringing the Experience, Culture, Communications and Leadership together in a cohesive story and strategy.

You have a realistic perspective of your existing brand experience. You are ready to hear—you are expecting to hear—harsh criticism and face blunt truths. You have no illusions about the state of your business and the perspectives of all your stakeholders, or what the rest of the world is doing beyond the sanctity of your organization. You don’t make excuses or hold on to comfortable ‘sacred cows’ without a solid, strategic and big-picture defense of your decision.

You know that you can’t erase the past. You understand you will need to emerge from your past—you can’t ignore it or hide from it—to begin the next chapter of the organization. As much as we will leverage any momentum, we will have to actively overcome any past indiscretions. We won’t pretend the past “doesn’t count”, or that people should forget and move on. Authenticity (where actions meet accountability) is everything.

You know your budget and capacity for change. You’re not shopping for a Rolls-Royce strategy on a Yugo budget, and you’re prepared to invest. Your project could be $500 to $50,000,000—only you know which is more realistic for you—and the need to spend it wisely doesn’t make you uncomfortable. You’re not, however, just going to throw money at the issues and hope they fade away. You know you can’t just buy a good Brand Strategy; you’re investing in the people who are ready to make it real.

You’re thinking strategically. You’re not just bored with the status-quo; you know there is real opportunity to evolve and grow. You’re looking for a plan that reaches beyond a collection of short-term tactics and you see 5, 10 or 20 years ahead. Yeah—you’re thinking about what you organization will be 20 years from now because you’re acting on your vision and pushing forward.

You understand that Brand Strategy starts at the top. You know that everyone is looking to your leadership for guidance and direction, and your commitment—actions, not just words—sets the tone for the entire project. If you’re not comfortable with that, no one else is, either. Brand Strategy effort begins and ends with leadership agreeing that it’s important and valuable, and real change not only involves you, it starts with you.

Which leads us to the most important point:

You’re prepared to implement real change. You’re prepared to be accountable to those who rely on your leadership during uncertainty, and you’re ready to confront those who resist change. You know that real change is hard, probably messy, and sometimes scary. You’ll make tough, unpopular decisions and probably piss a few people off. You will look nay-sayers right in the eye and—without a shred of doubt—let them know you are making the right choice, and you don’t need them tagging along if they’re not onboard. You won’t let those moments derail the plan, because you know uncertainty is actually part of the plan.

And all of this excites you, because through all the chaos of change, you see the organization that will emerge as a leader, with a brand that is an asset and an inspiration to others. It’s this last one that is the most important.

Change is hard—really, really hard—and it often isn’t comfortable. But you’re ready for it.

This is how I know you’re ready to take your Brand Strategy to the next level. You’re thinking strategically; you’re thinking realistically; you’re thinking honestly; you’re thinking proactively; and most of all, you’re thinking like a leader.

Get out of your bubble.

I was once asked by a group of university students for advice on pursuing a career in marketing communications. Beyond studying, embracing creativity and landing a job at an agency, what did I feel was a valuable lesson for success?

“Get out of your bubble.”

The idea is simple. As communicators, it’s important for us to understand the diversity of different markets and audiences—to engage with vibrant communities that are different from our own status-quo. The more experiences we have—the more alternatives we understand—the more valuable we will be as marketers. (I’d argue that we’re more enlightened as humans, too, …but I digress.)

I am going to add to that advice. Don’t just be open to the idea—we need to make a point of breaking out of our bubble on a regular basis. In fact, you should probably schedule it just to be 100% sure you don’t fall into a routine.

I stepped out of my own bubble last month. I spent 21 intense days with 23 smart people who rattled the boundaries of the world I am immersed in daily; a world I thought was already pretty diverse. The ages ranged from 19 to 50, with the majority being below 30. It was a mix of men and women from different social and educational backgrounds.

If I am to believe my current bubble, social media—digital literacy in general—is desired and embraced by everyone, especially young adults.

Pop.

I was the only one who had a blog, knew HTML, or had an active Twitter account. I was the only one who was on Foursquare (I became the campus mayor in a few days). Two people had Instagram accounts, but wanted to switch to SnapChat because it’s “safer and temporary” [sigh…]. Even though we were all advancing our careers, people were more interested in connecting on Facebook than LinkedIn (they didn’t realize there was a difference). In fact, a few in this group were unaware of LinkedIn. Everyone knew YouTube; no one knew Slideshare. I was the only one who had ever knowingly watched a TED talk. No one wanted to do a Google Hangout, even though that would have been very, very helpful during our time together.

No one understood a business plan or marketing strategy, let alone how to define a good plan from a pipe dream. (To be fair, I didn’t expect them to. It wasn’t that kind of work session.) Many had business ideas, though, and it seemed everyone in this group knew what it took to be a billionaire, even though none have reached the first million.

I share this to show that everyone has their bubble, even those of us who are aware of bubbles.

In my bubble of brands, business, communications and customer experiences, it’s easy to imagine the whole world engages on Social Media and understands the basics of business strategy. I was, ultimately, thrilled to have my bubble burst, and to once again remind myself that each of these new friends personified a valid target audience.

Your brand beyond your customer.

If you’re only focusing on customers, you’re missing a huge audience for your brand.

Avid readers of my blog know that I almost always use stakeholder to define your audience. I am pretty sure people read customer in those sentences—and are frustrated that I make it too complicated or buzz-wordy—but there is a good reason to think beyond the transaction when developing your brand strategy.

Your customers are only one of five distinct stakeholder groups that are influenced by your brand. And I am not convinced they are even the most important one in your brand strategy.

1. Customers are indeed important. To paraphrase Drucker, without them you simply would have a reason to exist. As a stakeholder audience, customers include anyone who is willing to trade their money, time or resources to take advantage of what you have to offer. They buy your product, support your cause, volunteer their support or contribute their skills. They are engaged.

Customers use your brand as an expression of their personal choice; you become a badge of honour in their lifestyle. They expect you to reward their loyalty with consistency & integrity of the promise, and trust that you will continue to feed the relationship with innovation and relevance.

Don’t let your brand strategy stop with customers.

2. Employees are next in this list, but when developing your brand strategy, I suggest this is the critical group. As a stakeholder audience, employees are the people so committed to your brand vision they want to create the experience for others. They enthusiastically bring their skills, expertise and passion to move the organization forward.

Employees—and volunteers who show up to help—are personally committed to delivering the brand experience, sharing the cause and their abilities to make the promise possible. This is the group that embodies the phrase  “authentic”, so consider this group first. When everyone else is judging or borrowing from your culture, this is the group who define it.

3. Shareholders are a different bunch. These are people who are intimately connected to the brand (through financial investment or personal relationship) and choose to be associated with the brand, yet they are not responsible for delivering the brand promise. Or perhaps these people are the benefactors of your organization, receiving help and services.

As a stakeholder audience, shareholders have to believe in the tangible and intangible value of the mission and the capacity of the organization to meet its promises. Shareholders support innovation and leadership’s efforts to pursue the vision, holding the operations accountable for decisions and activities along the way.

4. Vendors make it possible. Vendors supply you with the array of goods or services that you will need so that you can deliver your promise. As a stakeholder audience, vendors share in the commitment to deliver the brand experience. Their compromise is your compromise; their ingenuity is your value; they are your best and worst.

Vendors are links in the chain of the brand experience and share in the integrity of your brand promise. They work with you in your innovation, sharing the push to offer an exceptional experience.

5. A community embraces the brand. As a stakeholder group, the community has the choice to integrate the brand into the local culture, and most importantly, holds the brand accountable for the promises it makes.

Communities make it possible for a brand to flourish and prosper.

Most brand strategy focuses on the customer message first & foremost, hoping that other stakeholders will be able to infer their role in the mission; strategy by osmosis. It’s understandable why it matters—every organization needs to attract customers or supporters just to exist—and why it feels most important during the development of the strategy. But this approach runs the risk of being merely a temporary marketing tactic instead of a defined brand strategy.

Strong brands know that they exist well beyond the customer. Great brand strategies focus on all the stakeholder experiences, engaging everyone in a shared vision.

Brand Strategy for Entrepreneurs

Smart entrepreneurs know that a good brand will help build their organization. They recognize the value that a strong brand strategy adds, and they make the effort to do the right things right.

I’ve met countless entrepreneurs with big plans. I’ve had the privilege of working with some great people, and seen a number of projects go from scribbles on a napkin to thriving reality. These projects are exciting and challenging, and it’s a thrill to be involved.

I’ve also seen plenty of dreamers—people with more passion than plans. It’s disheartening. These projects are challenging, too, but not because the work is hard. Instead, it’s just that the gap between capacity, reality and need is just too great for anything I contribute to be effective. It’s not that the idea is bad or the person is incapable. It’s just that they aren’t ready for the reality of being a successful organization, let alone a thriving brand.

As a consultant, I want you to succeed. It’s not only good for your business and our future relationship; it’s more satisfying work. There are a few things that I look for that gives me the confidence we are set-up for success:

I get excited when you have more knowledge about your business operations than I do. You bring more than an idea to the relationship. You understand the basic model behind your success, and you are focused. I bring brand knowledge and strategic objectivity—and often a fresh way of looking at things—for how you tell your story. But you have the passion and the expertise that will grow the business behind the brand.

I get excited when you know your budget. Talk of money doesn’t scare you, and you understand what cash flow can and can’t do for your vision. You know how much money you plan to earn; you know your fixed expenses and costs of your product; you know how much a typical business like yours makes and you’re prepared to invest in your success.

I get excited when you are well aware of your competition. Not just who they are, but why their customers love them. You’re competitive, not arrogant. You have a respect for the market that exists and you understand how your offer makes it better and different, or at least you’re ready to explore opportunities.

I get excited when you are more passionate about your vision than I am. Perhaps you can’t articulate it clearly—that is why you called me, after all—but you have a purpose that drives you. I get excited when I am the one bringing you back to reality rather than trying to bump you out into the stratosphere.

Most importantly, I get excited when it’s clear you want to work hard to create an experience that will captivate your audience. You reject the notion that you could compromise your values and cut corners on your brand execution since “its just the creative stuff, anyway.” You’re well past the idea that your brand is a defined by a slick logo or a catchy advertising. You know that your brand is at the foundation of your culture, your value proposition, and the experience you promise everyone—your brand captures everything that you want people believe about your organization—and it’s important enough to get your focused attention.

This is how I know you’re ready to do what it takes—not just what is fun and easy—to build a brand that will thrive. You’re smart; you’re committed; you’re realistic; you’re passionate; you’re a leader. This is how I know that you’re set up for brand success.

Twitterchat: Ensuring Planning Converts to Action

On Monday, January 7th I have the privilege of co-hosting a Twitterchat with Ken Rosen (@Ken_Rosen) and Joseph Ruiz (@SMSJOE) in the popular #usguyschat. We’re talking about ensuring planning converts to action.

The timing for this chat is no accident—the experience of personal New Year Resolutions is a great analogy for organizational plans failing to convert to actions. We know from personal experience that good intentions and simple action steps aren’t enough to change well established habits.

In organizations, it is well understood that good planning requires that clear actions be identified and managed. Think of SMART. However, we are all too familiar with the challenge of good ideas which have fallen victim to the poor execution of the plan.

Being in the business of recommending and sometimes leading organizations through change, I am well aware that effective planning is harder than it sounds. Sometimes, just having a plan feels like success, and gives the impression that change has already occurred. There are many steps in effective planning to reach our goals—from blue sky ideas to specific activities—and planning takes constant leadership and management.

Why is there a breakdown in converting planning to action, and how do we make sure we set up our plans for success?

Join us in the discussion at 12pm (PST) on Monday Jan 7th, or feel free to have more discussion here.

Here are the proposed questions for the chat:
Q1 What are some of the signs that a plan is failing to convert to action?

Q2 Other than results, what do you look for to confirm that specific actions supported the success of the plan?

Q3 How do you ensure leadership’s desire to have a flexible plan doesn’t result in a lack of accountability and action?

Q4 When faced with unexpected outcomes, how do you know whether to adjust the goal, alter the plan, or correct behavior? #usguyschat

Q5 How often is the inconsistency of our team’s actions simply due to a lack of communication? #usguyschat

Q6 As a leader, what is the one thing you look for to know that your plan will convert to real actions? #usguyschat

(Bonus Question) Can good plans fail, or is failure just an indication that it wasn’t a good plan in the first place?

(Bonus Question) If we desire a corporate culture that encourages failure within processes, what are the repercussions when plans fail? #usguyschat