“Some people live and learn. Never was lucky that way,” once sang Boz Scaggs.
If you tremble at the thought of starting another year repeating ineffective business strategies –– or that your management career has somehow turned into a Boz Scaggs song –– here are five critical things that you can do to ensure success.
1. UNDERSTAND HOW A CULTURE WORKS AND HOW TO WORK IT
Way back in 2014, “culture” was Miriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, making it the most searched for word in the English language according the most popular dictionary in the English language. If the Word of the Year had been “banana,” by now companies would understand what a banana really is, how to get the most out of it and that it’s not likely to peel itself to feed you.
An employee culture isn’t a bunch of employees. When your employees formed a relationship with your company they became a culture, and became far more intelligent, far more self-protective and far more resistant to standard methods of corporate influence. This isn’t soft stuff; it is the stuff of hardcore business results.
Your culture will give you anything you want but you have to give it what it wants first. It’s not the responsibility of your employee culture to understand the business logic; it’s the responsibility of your business to understand the culture’s logic. Any company – and manager – that gets this will be unbeatable in any market they choose to own.
2. BECOME BRANDED FOR HOW YOU SELL
There is more mythology, misdirection, superstition and generalized academic babble about branding than most business subjects. Let’s cut to the bottom line: Becoming a brand means transferring sustainability of your company to your customers. Customers will advertise and sell for you, and protect you when you stumble or get attacked. This makes it the most important transformation for any company.
Being a brand isn’t about being big, or Siberia would be a brand. It’s about being best, which turns into big. So it’s not just about what you sell; it’s about how you sell it and why. Whatever claims you make about your product have to be overtly represented in the process someone goes through to buy and use the product, or you have fractured trust with customers and caused suspicion about your product claims. Your customer experience has to be spectacular, signature and sustained to be brandable.
And it has to be driven by real passion – a sure sense of what is right with the world that must be protected and wrong with the world that must be corrected. Regardless of your value proposition the business has to be operated at least in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world. If your only passion is to make money the cost of that money will prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customers aren’t infatuated with your revenue concerns. But stand for something deep and you’ll not only rule the world, people will want you to.
3. BRING YOUR OWN VALUES TO WORK
Your personal values are your very own source of safety, hope and renewal. Why should you live your personal values at work? This is an excellent question to ask – if your attorneys are planning an insanity defense. You spend over half your waking hours at work. Work-life balance isn’t a matter of escaping from work; it’s a matter of living the way you want to, whether or not you’re at work. The source of your emotional commitment to your company – worth more than your financial, intellectual and physical commitment combined – is based on your ability to actually live your own values on the job.
You can live your deepest personal values at work. A company will buy any reasonable manager action that produces business results. Those companies that are most intense about performance become the most maternal and squishy about those who deliver it. The key to getting enterprise sanction for living your own values is to be able to tell a new story of results because you did.
4. STAY ON THE SOLUTION SIDE
“Whining is not a strategy.” “Victim” is not a job description. “Everybody else is in trouble too” is not management information.
The best organizations hold themselves as accountable for their problems as they do for their successes. Their victories are built upon learning from both and growing ever stronger. Once your culture is allowed to blame external conditions for internal performance, all hope of aggressive and creative responses departs and helplessness and cynicism take their place.
There are two things to know about any tough time your business may be experiencing: First, it probably won’t last forever. Second, the story of how you stood up to it will. You’re going to be living with that story for a long time: write it so it ends the way you want it to. Want to know more? Write me at email@example.com and ask for the free white paper Tough Times: Tougher Teams.
5. LOOK FORWARD BY LOOKING BACKWARDS
What do you want from your management career? Do you want to build a company, sell products, make money? These are very good things. Do you want to have a legacy impact on the lives of those who helped you do it? This is a great thing.
You don’t have to trade off the good things for a great thing. But you have to want to do a great thing.
Knowing how your employee culture works and how to work it can be the pivotal difference between your career success and failure, or between your success and extreme success. But this isn’t simply about your company or your career.
Culture is where the humans gather in business. It is up to you if you treat what is most important to these humans with disinterest and depress their sense of who they are and what they deserve. Or if you treat them with the honor that humans have earned regardless of most criteria, certainly regardless of their position in the hierarchy of an enterprise, and lift their sense of who they are and what they deserve.
An employee culture’s profound search for safety and meaning is a reminder that we all inhabit the same world; we all have these same concerns. Treating your employee culture with empathy, concern, and respect is not a performance tactic or a job responsibility. It is a mirror that reflects your own true humanity.
Listen, there’s only so much I can tell you in a blog. But my company really does all of this work for many of the world’s most successful, demanding organizations and I’ve written several books about it. If you want to know more, formally or just informally, just reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org Happy to help.
Let’s assume for a minute that the folks running Starbucks are real people who are provoked enough by a social issue to use their large stage to talk about it. Can a company ever do so in a way that is considered credible and appropriate by its customers? This is a concern needing resolution by any company that believes its obligation to give back extends beyond shareholders to the world.
Starbucks can be pounced on for some cringe worthy clumsiness in introducing its Race Together campaign, but not for the motive behind it. This is a company with a retail presence in all 50 states of a country that is polarized and stoked about racial bias – people are divided, angry and frightened. In the face of this, Starbucks has offered the exact opposite: The company has presented a united front to promote healing, which is a fearless move considering the blowback it knew it was inviting.
We can be cynical as consumers but we can’t have it both ways. Do we want companies to operate with a greater social conscience or not? To think that this was some smarmily conceived publicity stunt is just absurd (iPad giveaway? Nah, been done. Wait a minute – let’s use Ferguson!) There are far easier ways for Starbucks to get its name in the press than wading into the issue of racism in America.
The company has a track record of some laudable practices in the treatment of its supply chain, its employee culture and in its respect for humans of all kinds. When a shareholder group announced a boycott in protest of the company’s support for Washington State’s gay marriage referendum, CEO Shultz blasted back, “Not every decision is an economic decision. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year…you can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”
This is the organization people want to get all worked up against? Man, try the decaf. The company’s senior most passion around this seems real and even if it really should do better in improving the percentage of minorities that make up its own executive team, Starbucks deserves credit and support for being willing to take a stand on something beyond new products and pricing.
Will that stand noticeably impact the state of racial equality in the United States? Hardly, but it’s tough to know what will at this point. It’s unfair to lay the accountability on them – they’re a coffee company, not the DOJ, and their legislative authority is limited to what kind of muffins you get to choose from. True, it may only be dialogue that Starbucks is inciting when it’s so clearly the time for action. But saying something is better than saying nothing. Let’s listen now to all of the other companies who have used their position of influence to speak about this urgent issue affecting us all:
A lesson here for other companies is not to use your employee culture as involuntary brand evangelists or apologists. A brand says “you will know us by our intention” and it is up to the culture whether it wants to represent that intention with its own good name, not up to the company to decide for the culture or to assume that it comes with the job description.
The forced involvement of the Starbucks employee culture was equally uncomfortable for customers. Those customers are employees somewhere too and so part of the overall employee culture. They’ll decide to protect or reject a company depending on how they perceive it treats people like them. The company should have relied solely on in-store collateral designed to instigate natural conversation across the counter if both parties are so inclined.
But is the lesson that Starbucks has provided solely a cautionary tale for other companies? We had better hope not because we will be reinforcing the hesitancy of organizational power and wealth to advocate for social change. Maybe most of that advocacy will be patently false and self-serving but if we don’t endorse fumbling first attempts the real ones will never step up. Let’s make these the lessons instead:
1. Be relevant to be valuable.
Old business thinking says that the better your value proposition the more successful you’ll be. In our time of massive customer buying choices and forums for customer–to–customer communication, going to market on value alone risks commoditizing your product. The companies that will be the most successful will provide both value and relevance.
Most companies only choose to be relevant to their customers when they’re trying to sell them something. There’s a lot going on in your customer’s world and that means you’re choosing to be irrelevant to them for most of the time.
2. Drive your business from passion to get to profit.
The companies that become brands conceive of their business in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world and this gives them a purpose that is credible, consistent and charismatic. If your company’s only passion is to make money the cost of that money will always prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customer isn’t infatuated with your revenue concerns.
3. Don’t talk like a company to human beings.
A lot of the negative response to Starbucks comes from the gimmicky aspects of this campaign. To be credible enterprise passion has to be unadulterated – raw and unapologetic, without pulling any punches or putting an obvious marketing or self-serving enterprise spin on it.
If it exists at all most companies take their true human passion and put it through a transmorgifier that sucks it out, flattens the resulting indistinguishable blob into something palatable to every demographic and psychographic profile, bakes it under high commercial pressure until the original soulful intent is completely faded, puts a professional agency glaze on it and then attempts to force feed the result to a skeptical customer culture. Yum.
Ironically this doesn’t make a company’s position safer. It makes it riskier because it isn’t believable. People don’t trust companies; they trust people. If you want your message to be listened to, trusted and shared then you have to talk to those people like they really talk to themselves. This means you have to have enough respect for your customer culture to believe it will find comfort in your authenticity and transparency even if it doesn’t always agree with your point of view.
Whether you agree or disagree with their approach or even their position, it is inarguable that Starbucks is attempting here to bring humanity into its business. If we lose humanity in business, we’re all doomed. If we save it, we will have saved ourselves.
Wait a minute -- what has happened to us? People are afraid all the time -- a low, humming anxiety. We’re angry and quick to direct it at others, to be self-righteous, intolerant and unforgiving. We’re obsessed with the lifestyles of the rich and heinous and take delight in turning the sordid affairs of others into celebrity status. We’re hungry for something even though we’re fed constantly. We’re complacent but restless. We’re desperate to feel yet eager to be anesthetized. We categorize our own inconveniences as nightmares and stay uninvolved in fixing real nightmares of those less fortunate. We’re sure we’re going to Heaven if we can prevent others from getting there first to spoil it.
I know a lot of very accomplished people; nobody sleeps without chomping down a couple of Ambien brownies. Anyone who feels anything is feeling a cold breath that whispers we are somehow vulnerable and incomplete.
How, exactly, did we let this happen? This is not our true character; this is not who we ever wanted to become.
It's not some cosmic coincidence. If we can be kept uncertain and angry (anger being the normal psychological response to fear), feeling like victims -- helpless and unaccountable for what happens to us, and hungry to be something we’re not... then anyone can sell us anything. From consumer to citizen, someone is always trying to sell us something and you can bet they’ve figured this out.
It’s not always easy to see -- it’s relentless but subtle. It wasn’t one obvious body blow; it was a lot of paper cuts to the soul that went unnoticed, untreated and that infected our true sense of self. It has taken its toll. And the only thing we can do -- what we must do -- is to take it back.
It starts with knowing yourself. If you don’t know what’s true for you, everyone else has unusual influence. Understand who you are and who your people are. Gather them -- your chosen community of relatives, friends and neighbors. Let them know who they are, stand by them and expect the same. Humanity is only undependable when you don’t start from humanity in the first place.
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“The last thing I want to say is ‘I’m a victim,’ but I am. I believe it’s a trickledown from Bush.” -Courtney Love
Bear Stearns was not “torpedoed”; “cratered”; “leveled and left as a trembling, anxious buyout candidate,” as numerous published analyses have stated. It was not “badly damaged by the nationwide credit crisis,” as Wikipedia has noted. All of this thinking is blaming the effect for the cause. Bear Stearns did the torpedoing and left itself quivering and vulnerable.
Nor was the company “hit by a terrible storm,” as its former absentee CEO complained. The subprime crisis was not some terrible and unpredictable force of nature that suddenly roared through the finance industry, flipping slow-moving cows and august investment houses into roadside ditches. It was manmade and preventable.
Bear Stearns was a victim of its own mismanagement, insatiable avarice and irresponsibility to both the future and to those currently depending on the company to operate with a native intelligence and ethical foundation greater than your average iguana. The company was regularly overstating its portfolio value. It collateralized billions to prop up its own funds. A couple of its key hedge fund managers were... what’s the term? -- ah, yes -- lying through their teeth. “Bear Stearns was noted for its addiction to leverage even at a time when Wall Street, which runs on debt, was drunk on the stuff,” commented USA Today.
The company was caught up in a greed cycle with other banks and mortgage lenders, governments, credit agencies, brokers and underwriters, large private investors and nouvelle-tycoon homeowners who yesterday couldn’t figure out how to string Christmas lights on their roof but suddenly could manage a string of roofs in elaborate real estate pyramid schemes. World without end, amen.
When this housing crisis is all over a whole lot of people will have gotten hurt. Those who inarguably deserve it mostly won’t. Those who arguably deserve it mostly will. Those who didn’t deserve it at all definitely will.
The Senate will preen itself in “hearings,” and some serious spanking of the banking industry will likely occur—this is too big to ignore without new regulations. But it won’t really be “over” unless lessons were learned. Lessons won’t really be learned until we act with integrity. We won’t really act with integrity unless we start with accountability.
Managers have elaborate excuses to explain why poor performance is rarely their own fault and is instead the result of forces far beyond their control. They quickly assign accountability to various Acts of God and major world events.
El Nino -- no, wait! -- La Nina! -- no, wait -- Katrina! Iran -- no, wait -- Iraq! -- no, wait -- Iran! The rise of technology -- no, wait! -- the fall of technology! -- no, wait -- the rise of technology! The lack of government interference --no, wait -- government interference! The collapse of the Soviet Union -- no wait -- the return of the Soviet Union! Congress! -- no, wait! -- the president! -- no, wait -- Congress! Christmas is falling on a Monday! Easter is falling in April! The Kiwi crop has frozen in New Zealand! Those damn killer bees are back!
Those companies that aren’t well run have many excuses for the downturn in their business. They blame the economy. They blame market forces. They blame the competition. They blame their employees. They blame their customers. They blame everything and everyone—except themselves. A key distinction of successful companies is that they actively prohibit this type of powerless thinking amongst their management team. And these managers likewise delegate punishment-free accountability to their people.
Of course, most managers don’t really delegate. They have a switch with two positions: Control and Abandon. Delegation is the mythical third position. But if you can’t control the onset of a problem, don’t abandon hope. Control the process of solving the problem by respecting and supporting solution attempts at every level. (This process is known as “delegation.”)
An excuse mindset has to be stopped before it starts: A bias for solutions must be modeled by senior management and enforced through every layer of the organization. Otherwise, it becomes part of the culture, and once a management team is allowed to blame external circumstances for internal problems, all hope of creative answers departs and apathy, helplessness and blame set in.
Yes, you are managing in maddening times. But the first step to solving any problem is to accept your own accountability for it. The best managers hold themselves accountable for their failures as well as their successes. They don’t spend time validating all the reasons business is down. Who cares whether things suck? What’s important is what management does about it.
Excuses are irrelevant; it’s the job of management to bring good answers to bad circumstances. “Whining” isn’t a strategy. “Victim” isn’t a job description. “Everyone else is in trouble, too” isn’t management information.
Our library at home has about 5,000 books. People always ask me if I have a favorite. I’m not sure how to answer that without listing a few hundred titles but here are a couple that I can recommend which provide a wide style range and the joy of getting your brain tweaked the way only superb writing can do.
This is the book that the English language was invented for. Stunning, magical, gorgeous, touching, surprising, lyrical and very funny. Detailed descriptions of a world that seems achingly familiar and yet doesn’t actually exist. All is questioned and, in the end, all is answered. Probably the best-written book I’ve ever read. If you’ve already read it, read it again -- and check out The Waterboys’ song, Beverly Penn.
Toss the Kafka; this is the finest cockroach book ever written. A synopsis: Told from the roach perspective about a group who lives in a New York apartment with a guy and his girlfriend. They worship her because the couple argues all the time and she throws food. The couple finally splits and the worried roaches are at first panicked to lose their Goddess and then overjoyed as the depressed guy spends his days sulking amidst uneaten pizza and Chinese food. Disaster strikes when he falls in love and the new girl moves in -- a neat freak. She’s a brunette and the rest of the book is the campaign mounted by the desperate roach nation to drag a single hair from the gorgeous blonde who lives down the hall and place it strategically on the guy’s bed.