Thursday, September 29, 2011

Burning down the house.

Once, at a cocktail party, I challenged a group of people with the following question: Your house is on fire, I said. Your family and pets are safely on the front lawn watching the conflagration, and you have time to save five of your possessions. What do you grab as you bolt for the door? It was an experiment designed to reveal something about how we relate to our possessions (and it failed, because I think they all fibbed. They claimed they’d grab sentimental stuff like photographs; nobody admitted they’d save their Rolex, or their Eames chair, or their 25 year-old Macallan), but it came rushing back to me this week in another context altogether as I meditated on the flight home from a client meeting. This client’s house is not on fire, mind you. But the dilemma of what to take and what to leave behind is every bit as urgent and real, and honesty every bit as important.

This organization, you see, is quite possibly about to lose its name. As a result of its pending acquisition by another company in a related business, it appears likely that the label and livery that have made them familiar to their customers and communities will change. Some people think that means a brand will be lost. That’s understandable. But as I watch the way they’re going about dealing with this, I become more and more convinced that it’s not necessarily true. Because, you see, the specter of this ‘loss’ has produced heroic introspection. People are talking earnestly about culture, about their relationships with customers, about the experience of doing business with them, about their values as an organization and a team. They’re passionate, engaged, and verbal. They’re writing things down. Testifying. United. Imagining they’ve been stripped of their name, they’re getting to the heart of what really made them such a great brand in the first place. If Descartes had been a branding guru, he might have said, “I care, therefore I am.” Like a kid suddenly realizing his bike is staying up without training wheels, these people are finally confronting the reality that it was they, not their flag, who created all that value.

Too often in this game, branding is a strategic crutch for organizations. Or, worse, sometimes even a distraction behind which an organization’s true nature can be concealed. But a brand is supposed to be the product of leadership and purpose, not a substitute for them. The last thing, not the first thing. In all the years I’ve been doing this, it never occurred to me to ask a corporation, what would you save if your brand’s house were on fire? It’s a helluva question. I bet it would save a lot of companies days worth of offsite flip-charting, and result in more than a few consultants going hungry. Standing there in your bathrobe on your metaphoric front lawn watching your identity go up in hypothetical flames, whatever you grabbed on the way out, that’s who you are. That’s your real brand.

Which I guess means I’d better make sure to save my squeegee so I can still make a living. That and the Macallan, natch.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Uneasy lies the head.

Last month, a continent apart in both geographical and ideological terms, two organizations lost their leaders. Steve Jobs announced his resignation as CEO of Apple Computer – that one resonated everywhere – and Jack Layton, only recently anointed Canada’s social conscience incarnate, passed away leaving his party and a few million pro tem “ich bin ein socialist” Canadians bereft. The air was thick with punditry. And no theme received a rounder thrashing than that of succession: Who could ever truly pull the swords from those stones?

The question says a lot about leadership, at least in these post-post-modern times. We all like to think of great organizations as giant collaborations, well-intended creative peers collegially pulling together, sharing ideas and lifting each other ever higher in a cuddly utopian festival of self-actualization. And we like to think of leaders as managers, facilitators, coaches, motivators and enablers whose responsibility is to make that happen while making the numbers. But, truthfully, this is just a myth we perpetuate to keep everbody happy in the Matrix. It’s not really how most effective organizations work, most days. Most days, they are simply led. There’s an exchange between worker and leader that offers cooperation for vision, and assumes the person who makes the most money should be held to the highest standard. It’s not very fashionable to say so, but we all expect that the boss should be the best among us. In these moments, when we’re trying to figure out how to fill that void, it’s suddenly all so clear. You don’t hear employees and stakeholders clamoring to replace their fallen leader with a politburo. Not even the socialist ones. They want a warrior king.

A couple of posts back, I wrote, “branding and leadership are inseparable quantities in the modern corporation.” I really believe, especially in consumer facing organizations, that no leader can ever be above his or her brand, and no brand can ever be greater than the moral standard set by its leader. It’s not a coincidence that the best brands are the ones with the most vexing succession problems, while the weakest ones seem to be a revolving door for self-styled professional managers. We wring our hands over the loss of arrogant ideologues, while I doubt anyone is going to lose much sleep over the loss of, say, Carol Bartz. “Growth by 2012” just doesn’t have same ring to it as “love is better than anger” or “1984 won’t be like 1984.”

When interviewed Steve Wozniak about his co-founder’s resignation the day it happened, a reporter asked him what books Jobs liked to read when the two of them were imagining that enterprise in the 1970s. The only title Woz could remember was Atlas Shrugged. Great leaders with great brands are like that. Ideologues. Arrogant. Deaf to compromise. Pains in the ass. Irreplaceable. It turns out that leadership is more Shakespearean than Skinnerian, more myth than science. And great brands, often, in the end, might simply be the collateral effect of that, a signal to the rest of us that a company we might do business with is the real thing. That such reigns end is just the price we pay for that inestimable value.

Saying goodbye to a genuine leader is tough business, whether they were the greatest CEO in capitalist history, or a stumping lefty dreamer. But the harder job comes after. Because the job of leadership is too important to squander on merely protecting somebody’s legacy. As difficult as it is to face, the best we can hope for is more than that. The best we can hope for are new leaders, so good, so authentic, so burning with hope that we’re allowed to forget the predecessors upon whose shoulders they stand. The late Ted Rogers, a formidable leader himself, would always end his company addresses with the line, “The best is yet to come.” The day that stops being true for an organization, its story is over. A sword in a stone is just a monument, and monuments are only about what’s been lost.

There’s never going to be much profit in that. Or, for that matter, much future.