Tag Archives: Values

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?

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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. 

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.

The Brand and the Apology Strategy

When a brand makes a public apology, we are sure of one thing: the story that people are talking about makes the brand’s leadership uncomfortable.

Whether it’s a gross error in judgement, negligence or corruption that is exposed, an apology is a clear sign that change is forthcoming.

But in this fast paced world of instant, permanent and amplified communication, brand apologies have taken on a new form; a knee-jerk reaction to the slightest ruffled emotions, or actually part of the (terribly misguided) strategy.

“Do it, and ask for forgiveness after” might be good wisdom for an innovative culture. And it’s a great tactic for breaking through red tape rules that get in the way of progress. Lately, though, it seems this mindset is also used as a lazy fall back when a sloppy attempt at awareness generates the wrong kind of attention.

Brand leadership is about honouring your stakeholders—the employees, customers and communities that support your brand.

As individuals, we align with brands that take a stand on issues and lifestyles. So it makes sense we’d rather see a brand accept that it might offend some people and not feign an apology after just to appease those who don’t understand or share the culture or sentiment in the first place. Show those that love your brand—and everything you stand for—that you are connected and understand them; that’s what deepens the brand relationship.

A little controversy—a difference of taste, opinion or attitude—is at the root of a great brand strategy. But when something appears to go sideways, and those differences show up as very public rage, brand leaders need to anchor back to the core of the brand promise.

If the action/message is inconsistent with your brand, you apologize and take action to change it.

It’s good to apologize for true mistakes; errors that occur when systems break and products fail. There is tremendous value in being accountable to your stakeholders and honouring your side of the brand promise.

However, if the action/message is consistent with your brand—perhaps just a little bolder than people are familiar, or more revealing to the uninformed—you’re likely apologizing to make amends with the wrong audience. Or worse, you’re apologizing because you really didn’t believe in your brand.

When you apologize to the rage of those who were never aligned in the first place, you reveal weak positioning and undermine your entire brand strategy, and all your efforts outside of this one controversy come under scrutiny. You’re apologizing for being who you promised you were going to be, but only apologizing because it got a little uncomfortable.

Brand strength is about honouring your attitude and culture. It’s about being proud of your values and how they manifest in the world. That’s authenticity showing up and adding value when it matters. That is brand strategy.

The Authenticity Myths

Authenticity is a pretty big buzz word in brand strategy today. If you’ve read any of my posts, you know I am a huge proponent of ensuring that Authenticity is at the root of your strategy—it’s at the very heart of transparency and accountability. Buzz-worthiness aside, everyone agrees; when you act authentically, you set up your brand for success. It’s hard to argue with the logic.

The concept of Authenticity gets pushed into almost every conversation on brand strategy, and I won’t deny it’s important. But it’s also misunderstood.

Myth #1
Authenticity isn’t walking your talk. It’s talking your walk.
Semantics? Maybe. But know this; it’s far easier to speak to your natural, instinctual actions than it is to act with integrity upon the things you’ve said.

Talk is easy. Talk is cheap. Talk is emotional. It’s much more difficult to figure out how to model the expectations in your messages than it is to understand and promote your culture and true capacity in the work you do.

Actions are all that matter. Actions are the only things people have to judge you on, because actions are the only thing that have value. Words—the promises you make—are worthless until you act.

Your strategy shouldn’t be about walking your talk; it can only be about talking your walk.

Myth #2
Self discovery—an assessment of your skills, capacity and natural instincts—is important. In the Authenticity push, there are people who declare that is important to reflect your true, full self in your actions and your messages. Your entire brand promise must capture your authentic self. If you are clear on who you are and what you do, you (or your organization) will be a success.

However, authenticity is not it’s own reward.  Authenticity is only one factor in brand success, and it does not create brand equity by itself.

Yes, your authentic self matters. But just because you’re authentic doesn’t mean other people want what you offer. Your authentic self—as a model for your organization—must also be compelling to enough people to make it valuable. People must desire what you promise. It can be a few people, or whole bunch of people, or practically all people, but it must be enough people to reward your effort.

It takes more than authenticity. Your brand must be authentic, compelling, and a competitive advantage.

Leverage your Authenticity
Authenticity is a reflection of how your organization behaves—the choices you make that are important and natural. Develop a Brand Strategy anchored by your business model—your model of success—and defined by authentic behaviour.

Challenge yourself and your team. Do some deep soul-searching to discove values that are important, and characteristics that define your culture. Don’t pick popular words and try to make them fit. Reveal authenticity and celebrate it.

More importantly, identify any behaviours or commitments that will contradict your brand strategy. Here you face a tough decision; change the behaviour (hard-to-do) or change the brand story (compromises your competitive advantage). Because if you don’t change your behaviour, there will be a moment—probably not a moment you plan for—when no one will believe your brand story.

A great Brand Strategy will leverage natural, comfortable and defendable behaviours that reinforce the goals of the organization, defining the culture and standards that are celebrated, supported and rewarded.

Note: Read Authenticity is and True values are a choice for more.

Understanding Vision, Mission and Values.

The best vision, mission or values statements are the ones that work for you. The best ones answer the right questions, without confusing anyone.

Many branding experts are happy to share a ‘best practice’ format—a template for crafting the perfect Vision, Mission and Values statements. (No more than eight words; keep it to three sentences; must include “To be the…” and then list an audience and region; narrow it to only three values; one single phrase to capture your essence; etc…)

Style doesn’t lead to substance, nor does a focus on style inspire real meaning. Instead of trying to fit into a predetermined format, I suggest the only requirement for your statements is that they work for you and the people who share your passion.

That’s not to say the meaning of these statements isn’t important to your organization. Each one serves a critical function of your strategy, anchoring your brand and framing a community of support. But instead of a preferred style, let’s understand why each one works, why they work together, and what you need to know before you wordsmith your way into success.

Vision—This is your purpose beyond profit. It’s a simple statement that describes a better world as you want to see it. The best ones are something that you can achieve today, and continue to aspire towards tomorrow—both attainable and aspirational every day. Your vision is why you exist.

Your vision statement captures the deeper human motivation—the reason you get out of bed every day—and it inspires people to act. Let your vision be unreasonable but not unrealistic. Let the competition be intimidated by your authentic ambition. Let people dream.  

Mission—This is the plan for how you will achieve your vision. Your mission is a call to action. Some reference to a business model would be appropriate. You need not include every detail—it will only handcuff you later—but it’s through your mission statement that people will be able to understand how they are going to share your vision with you.

Be bold and be a leader. Make no compromises in your conviction to your cause, and your belief that this is how you will achieve your vision. Be clear with you plan and your actions. Don’t hide behind ambiguity or catch phrases—this is where people are going to decide if they share your passions and support your cause.

Values—These are the benchmarks of behaviour that will guide your decisions. The best ones are options—behaviours that have an acceptable alternative—so that people can understand their choice to align with your brand vs your competition. Your values should inspire pride, conviction and confidence.

Your values are non-negotiable. Your values are characteristics that you will defend, even when it might be to your competitive disadvantage, because to compromise your values would be a contradiction to everything you believe is important. (I need you to really think about that, because the values that you claim to hold true may come under fire—from shareholders, customers, or the community—and you will have to defend your beliefs. If you give in, even once, it’s not really a value, and they will question everything you stand for.)

Your vision motivates people involved; it’s why you exist. Your mission is the activity people share; it’s how you promise to pursue your vision. Your values guide your behaviour and the behaviour of those who share your mission;  it’s a commitment to stakeholders.

With these statements you’ve answered everything; why; what & where; and how. (‘Who” and “when”—you and now—should be implied. If they aren’t, these statements are not your biggest worry.)

How you choose to articulate these is entirely up to you. You’re the one who needs to connect your organization with your stakeholders. It doesn’t matter if it takes a single sentence mission statement that is clear and bold, or if you need a couple of sentences to effectively make your point.

Like any strategist, I have style preferences for statements that work for me. But if your version breaks from conventional standards yet honestly inspires, motivates and guides your stakeholders—all your stakeholders—you’re on the right track.

If you want to add a brand mantra and a brand essence and a brand statement, or any other ‘theme-du-jour’—and it makes sense to you—have fun with it. Sometimes these are helpful in communicating with different audiences. These tactics aren’t wrong if they add value; but just be sure of the value they add.

Vision Mission and Values are at the foundation of your Brand Strategy. You may notice that nowhere in this list is a reference to your competitors. Do not build your brand story in the context of competition. Build it for your own success, answering only to your passion and your vision, and leave the competitive points for messaging later on.

Update: Read more at “Are you on a Mission Statement”.