Category Archives: Executive

The CEO in 2016: Five things you can do for your brand

Agility and customer centricity are primary themes today. Mapping the customer journey. Launching products and features quickly to adjust them — or pivot — just as quickly. All kinds of new technologies for analyzing reach.

Yet companies must still satisfy the classic marketing requirements of producing good stories and inspiring the loyal purchase.

CEOs, pressed for time and focus, often relegate marketing to a lower level of attention. It’s a habit left over from the days of slower message cycles, broadcasting and a lot of assumption about buyer values. Plus CEOs have to think about everything by the quarter. So with an at-best preoccupied and at-worst absent chief ambassador, the marketing investment — even when powered by the most powerful tools and visionary messages — suffers from not reaching its full potential. Because the CEO is the leader for a reason. She provides the direction and the inspiration. He keeps every stakeholder front-and-center.

The purpose of a business
Peter Drucker on the purpose of a business

Here are five ideas for CEOs who want to manage distraction and be on the ground while breaking new ground for their brands in 2016.

Demonstrate your devotion to the customer. If you must, think of it as taking a coffee break from the typical responsibilities of running a company. Not only does this pull you into the marketing effort, it sets a company standard for looking outward.
Quarterly: Call a customer. Or better yet, visit one.
Monthly: Share a customer story — good, bad, ugly — with your employees. Cover the key learning points the company should absorb and address.
Weekly: Ask a manager to communicate one key customer or competitor insight to the entire organization.
Daily: Pick one item from your daily non-company reading [you’re doing that, right?] to share with the company. Make it about the market, buying trends, innovation — anything that will align your brand with the marketplace and maybe equip people to amplify the brand’s values.

Test your own assumptions. About your people, your competitors and your customers.
Quarterly: Ask your marketing team to give you a short briefing on what is being said about your brand.
Monthly: Visit competitors’ websites and social media accounts to see if you want to add any insights to what your teams tell you about competitors’ products, services and customers.
Weekly: Check what industry influencers are saying about trends and shifts in your marketplace.
Daily: Ensure that what customer says — good, bad, ugly — gets addressed by marketing messages and literally turned into marketing copy.

Tell an elegant story. Uncomplicated, drama-free, yet compelling. Invite customers and influencers to align with you, not just to buy your products.
Quarterly: Write something to share with customers and employees — something that demonstrates your company’s connection with the marketplace. Use an editor.
Monthly: For employees, share an anecdote about an employee who has done something to exemplify the brand’s reach and impact on customers.
Weekly: Schedule five minutes to talk with an employee about what is working on the street — and what is not.
Daily: Look at your marketing outreach, particularly social media, to offer guidance and to make sure the team is on message.

Surround your brand with leaders who have talents you do not. Whether it’s your marketing team or an event you are sponsoring, spare no time or expense in bringing the fresh air of new perspectives to your company. At the same time, vet attitudes as well as capabilities. For example, make sure every speaker your team invites to your company events is someone you can respect. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but let’s say the team finds someone who is billed as an expert in diversity. And it turns out they attack people on Twitter. Your invitations to people like this — as advisors, speakers or employees — say volumes about the brand. And no amount of clever marketing will correct the mistake of people who wound your brand through a thousand little cuts.
Quarterly: Ask for an audit of the content and experts your team is using to burnish or represent your brand. The marketing team should be doing independent research, not just looking at the experts’ or agencies’ marketing material.
Monthly: Go to a professional event that’s featuring a speaker or a panel. Remember what you liked and pass it on to your marketing team.
Weekly: Keep and update a file of quotations or essays you like. Having this on hand when you’re approving an event agenda will help you ensure content relevant to your brand.
Daily: Check the editorial page of a publication you like.

Reward actors, not bystanders. One of the great consumer frustrations today is the inability of customer service reps to go off-script — to actually come up with a solution on one’s own to a customer’s problem. The advent of social media has had a positive effect on the robo-response tendency — but we have a long way to go. Rote answers to customers’ concerns are the province of the bystander employee. As Cate Huston wrote in this excellent essay on the problem with corporate bystanders who don’t nip sexism in the bud, “it starts with refusing to be a bystander by calling things out”. Same phenomenon at work in branding: all the beautiful design and expensive messaging in the world won’t compensate for front-line employees asked to divert customers from what bothers them.
Quarterly: Listen to or read how a customer rep handled a problem. See if it resonates with your brand strategy.
Monthly: Ask direct reports to give an example of a problem solved that improved on customer service practice.
Weekly: Ask for a memo on the top five customer comments on social media.
Daily: Show your internal teams that you are confident enough to go off-script, too.

Understanding Bitcoin might mean accepting it

Last week, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected venture capitalists wrote in a blog post for THE NEW YORK TIMES an explanation of why he’s so excited about Bitcoin, the virtual currency.  Marc Andreessen is actively seeking startups to fund in this area.  The creator of the world’s first computer browser, Netscape, Andreessen makes a strong case for going virtual.

Andreessen’s essay is good reading — as is the ebook, “Conversational Bitcoin,” by Christopher Carfi.  Chris makes Bitcoin easy to understand.  It’s free to download here.

pennyThis week’s coverage of illegal activity by Bitcoin buyers and sellers is making it easy for some to reject the emergence of virtual currency.  Yet things like a black market and theft have always stained the human condition.  Look at the banking industry’s 2008 doings.  Or think about how the island of Manhattan was “purchased” from Native Americans.

Corporate executives, political activists and private citizens are debating the nature of personal wealth in America.  It’s a good time to explore anything that might make us all think about our financial reach.  And what we can be doing with it.  Namely, being open to new means of financial transaction that might enfranchise every human being.

Captains and floozies

On Monday, I wrote in the weekly newsbrief about how we can find talent on our teams in the unlikeliest places.  How project leaders who discover and promote talent can trust them to take work to innovative places.

These project leaders generally have the foresight, strength and confidence that equip them to let those they lead to excel — to enter and capture the spotlight — to extend the project message in other interesting, often unplanned ways.  The story of Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi serves as the case study.  The man was selected without any acting experience by a director who taught him as well as hired him and knew a good line when he heard it.  The ad-lib heard around the world is showing all of us, not just Hollywood, how to be delighted by the unexpected.  Not threatened by it.

By Tuesday evening, I was enduring the remarks of a so-called expert in talent who fretted that “token floozies” in companies like Twitter are not truly women of the tech workforce.  Who then refused to explain what he meant.  For two days now.

You see, he expects only to pontificate.  To not answer questions unless they are posed in a way that flatters his ego and sustains his superiority, both in the asking and the answering.  Should this man be challenged, watch out.  He cites Duke University, Stanford University, Singularity University, WASHINGTON POST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and startup Trove as the stars in his CV, and so far, they see no need to call for an explanation, either.  Rumor has it he has a book coming out about how women are leaving tech employers in droves.

If tech women are leaving anywhere in droves, it’s for two reasons.  First, for being expected to behave, code and program in the manner of the teen tech stars who have captivated Silicon Valley for the first decade of this century.  Second, women leave because guys like this appoint themselves gurus of all things female and feminine without working — hard — with the founders and teams who are actually building companies, products, services and customer lists.  There is not a conspiracy to prevent women from succeeding.  But there is money to be made selling books that tell us there is.

Guys like this think the only good women are the ones who have multiple degrees in engineering related disciplines.  Guys like this think that women who write stories or build customer communities are not really women of tech.  Guys like this believe Minimum Viable Products spring forth unaided from engineers who need marketing, accounting, sales and legal experts only to serve them, not advise them or stand beside them as founders.

At least this is what I assume.  Because in the absence of a real clarification from Mr-Women-in-the-Tech-Workforce, I can only conclude he’s like a few, not the majority, of the guys I’ve encountered in my decades of experience:  suspicious of anyone in heels, assumptive that mascara and brains do not go together, and convinced he knows better than anyone else, including women, what they need and want from a career.  He’s a misogynist.  And the only woman he can begin to trust is one with a pure engineering pedigree.

Well, even the women with those kinds of pedigrees don’t tend to believe that.  In fact, one of the great things about women in the workforce is that we understand the importance of being open to the possibilities, wherever they emerge and from whatever corner.  I’d rather see this guy write about that than feather his own nest with nasty diatribes against the producers — like Twitter, Facebook and Google — who are hiring women and creating open opportunities based on merit, not gender.

Whether the talent was once a limousine driver or is a woman with a BA, we have to celebrate the people who are inviting them to the talent pool.  And we have to celebrate the talent.  Because even the business-side floozies deserve their moment in the sun when they engage users and customers in technological marvels.

By the way.  First rule of PR:  acknowledge your own missteps.  Second:  assume the questioner is sincere and respond with clarification, even if you think it’s a “mindless rant” [his words, not mine].  That’s the only way you get in front of your own mistake.  Own it and explain it or you’ll never move beyond it.

There was no simpler time. Never, ever.

David McCullough tells the best stories about American history through the lens of leadership.  Last year, he shared his encouraging, grounded perspective with Scott Berinato in this interview for HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW.  Here are my favorite observations.

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When the founders wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations and more comfortable hammocks. They meant the pursuit of learning. The love of learning. The pursuit of improvement and excellence.

Are we in a special or particularly fraught moment in our history? A turning point?

I’m very annoyed when I hear people who ought to know better flannelling away about how it was a simpler time “back then.” There was no simpler time. Never, ever. Imagine being in our country in 1918, and 500,000 people have died of a disease. No one knows where it came from or how long it’s going to stay or how to get rid of it. Would that be called a simpler time? Would the Civil War, or the Great Depression?

What makes a president a great leader?

The capacity to lift our sights a little higher. Someone who can call on us to make sacrifices, not promise to give us more. One who can say I’m not going to make it easier for us. I’m going to make it harder, because we have hard things to do. And let’s be grown up about this.

At the end of John Adams’s life, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to talk with the old president. Adams said to him, “I would to God there were more ambition in the country.” And then he paused and said, “by that I mean ambition of the laudable kind, ambition to excel.” Not ambition to get rich or famous or powerful but to excel. That’s when human beings are at their best. I like people who work hard; the people who are best at what they do almost without exception are also the hardest workers.

Eight marketing lessons CEOs must learn from the Mitt Romney campaign

  1. Never let a rival define you
  2. If your rival is worried, find out what he knows that you don’t
  3. Employ one marketing smartie who thinks like an outsider, will tell you the truth, and is endowed by you with veto power over messages and themes
  4. When your rival punches you, punch back – but elegantly, by taking the conversation above him to a bigger point
  5. Be who you are but put your energy, vocabulary and instincts on steroids
  6. Stats and numbers can keep you in the weeds; use them shrewdly but don’t depend upon them – tell the story of what they mean in the aggregate to your customer
  7. After a distinct, authentic viewpoint, put nimble thinking and decisiveness above all else
  8. Incessantly cultivate the mindset that every customer is yours to lose; this is the wellspring of both the confidence and the humility every person needs to lead and to prevail
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A leadership secret: Communicating with finesse

This post is dedicated to Scott McNealy, with all due respect and great admiration for his accomplishments.  And his potential.

During a late lunch break on November 10, I turned on the television to watch CNBC.  They were running a clip of an interview with Scott McNealy, one of Silicon Valley's technology thinkers and CEOs, a real success story.  When asked what he thought of the Occupy movement, Mr McNealy said, "get a job."

While I happen to have even stronger feelings than McNealy about what we should do with the anarchists and arsonists who have hijacked the Occupy movement, I was flabbergasted that someone as smart and quick as McNealy couldn't think of a better way to answer the question — or to capitalize on it.  He could have said something equally arresting without appearing insensitive to how the problems afoot in the United States, culturally and commercially, are affecting the rest of us.  It was the perfect opportunity to explore what's back of Occupy, and in McNealy's case, maybe even demonstrate how his new startup can help connect people in an age of gated neighborhoods and the disintegration of the middle class.  Or maybe just to say something more inspired than, "get a job."

And that's when I realized that our leadership problem runs much deeper than I ever imagined.

http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=4525966&searchId=777a9b8fb43ab0af98ab97282b6093bb&npos=51The art of management finesse

Can it be that the astronomical financial and personal success of our business leaders has isolated them so much from the rest of their fellow citizens that they don't realize just how difficult it is to get a job or build business, get a living wage or project fee, or get paid at all?

Yes, it can be.  But I think it's more than that.  I think even the self-made guys are turning into elitists.  After all, their investment bankers parcel out IPO opportunities.  The elitist training begins early.  Many CEOs seem to be disconnecting from the rest of the populace to the degree that their positions are not about leading organizations and innovating but strictly about their own wealth. 

I hope this is not the case with McNealy.  I hope this is just one gaff.  But the gaff pulled me up short and made me acknowledge that the wealth gap is merely one aspect of a larger gulf:  the growing absence of management finesse.

Finesse is often a natural gift.  Whether instinctive or acquired, finesse is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.  It's the ingredient that gets messages heard and inspires action. 

Finesse is nurtured by study and a personal emphasis on empathy.  We all stumble.  CEOs, though, have access to a key tool for learning and practicing management finesse to the degree that it can mitigate the stumbles.  The corporate communications function.  A need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.  Like anything else, it's all in how you build it.

Get your finesse on

The very best of the traditional American business canon gives us example after example of leaders who had experienced, legitimate communications advisors and who listened to them.  It's difficult for any human being, much less one with corporate power, to remain human without at least some institutional emphasis on keeping things real.  Corporate Communications should be the one place the CEO can turn whose only ax to grind is seeing the CEO set a clear path for the organization.

Many of today's CEOs are surrounded by yes men and women who take orders instead of tell the emperor he's not wearing any clothes.  Instead of a Merlin, they have court jesters.  Or worse.  These leaders would rather get up and read something a remote underling or PR agent wrote for them than spend time thinking about what they believe and how they can use their positions to lead us out of this mess. [Which includes speaking up about how we got here in the first place — not just blaming Washington or Wall Street.]

If Jack Kennedy had developed his messages this way, we might never had heard his voice or known what he thought.  His process alone should be enough of a template for today's CEO to follow in crafting and articulating messages of insight and intellect.

CEOs:  Owning your message is the price of entry to leadership

You aren't interested in or comfortable with setting aside time to work on your messages and deliver them?  Not acceptable. 

CEOs, thinking about your messages gets you in the habit of exploring every option in front of you.  Of listening.  And of thinking before you open your mouth, helping you find the words to say something enlightening, enriching the conversation because you were in it. I refuse to accept any thinking that excuses you from participating relentlessly in the creation of your messages.  It is part of your job. Like riding herd on financials or helping to win a big account.

Most important:  every opportunity to communicate should serve the purpose of reminding you that being a leader is as much about service as it is about lordship.  Owning your messages can help bridge the gap between the solitary burdens of your office and all the stakeholders in the enterprise's success.  It can help you put your own problems in context.  It can remind you that you're part of something larger than yourself.

 

Nine ways you can help job hunters and boost your own marketing

This morning's news — that the recovery from the recession is weak and people still cannot find jobs — prompts this post. 

Here's how to help if you are in a position of financial and/or professional strength.  And how to consider your help an actual tactical step for positioning your company — and your own reputation — now and in the future.

Tahoe pine

  1. Recognize that if you have a friend or former colleague who's looking for work, she is vulnerable.  Be positive yet candid.  Do not shine her on about opportunities that are not there or how quickly you're hiring, but do remind her that you will do whatever you can to help.  Then actually put some time to the task.
  2. Keep an eye out for what's available in your company.  If you're on LinkedIn, post it to your contacts there.  Spread the word.
  3. If someone approaches you to help him pursue an open job listing in your company, connect him and stay on top of your HR people.  Keep following up with HR and stay in close touch with the applicant.
  4. If you're in HR, for heaven's sake, reply to phone calls and emails.  Even if all you have is bad news.  Even if all you can manage is a robo-email.  There is nothing more disrespectful — and unkind/inhuman/rude — than ignoring people.  For HR, it is nothing short of unconscionable.  You are, after all, being paid to deal with a key corporate resource. And in this age of email, it is inexcusable to leave people hanging.
  5. If you're a marketing executive, make it company policy to be communicative, professional and kind to people who approach your company for a job.  Recognize that not returning calls or following up is bad marketing.  Encourage your HR people — indeed, all your people — to exhibit only the finest of manners to all who cross their paths.  Some day, someone your company has rejected or ignored may be in a position to buy your products and services or influence the decision to do so.  You must look at any sort of job negotiation or communication as another avenue of marketing your enterprise.  I predict that once this nasty era of business is over, people your company treated well will remember it and become at least an ambassador, if not a customer.
  6. If you're a CEO, start hiring now.  Follow the example of Howard Schultz of Starbucks.  Stop looking to Washington.  Make some sacrifices, because millions of your fellow citizens are living on sacrifice.  Oh.  And cut a few hundred thousand from your own paycheck and hire a couple of people.
  7. If you're a hiring executive and you know you're going to transfer someone internal into a new or open position, suspend the practice of posting the job outside the company unless you are seriously looking.  You are wasting everyone's time by making people think they have a chance of employment — the candidates', HR's, yours.  And tell external candidates that they have internal competition and where they rank in the queue.
  8. If you know someone needs cash and you have more than enough, give someone a gift.  At least pick up the lunch tab.  If no one in your circle is hurting, find someone who is.  Ask your coworkers, your religious leader, your friends.  Keep it private and put cash directly in the hands of someone who needs it. 
  9. Be kind.  It's easy, it's free, it's helpful.  My mother used to be the taskmaster in one area of our school report cards:  what was called "deportment," at least in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.  She used to tell us that the easiest thing to do was to behave.  Same principle here:  the easiest thing to get right is to remember that if someone is asking you for help, he deserves your respect and attention.

The economy is in recovery.  Innovation is happening, and this crash is going to help in the long run.  Position your company for that long run.  Even if you don't believe in karma, or you don't think it's your responsibility to help others, the very best kind of marketing for your enterprise is based in relationships.  Show the world that you know relationships are key to commerce.  And that you know the key to good, sustainable relationships is the personal touch.