Leaders, check your blindspots

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Have you ever gone to switch lanes only to nearly clip another vehicle because you didn’t see it? You checked your mirrors, you turned your head left and right, but somehow missed the Honda creeping up on your right.

Darn blindspot!

Every car has one, a place where the driver of the vehicle cannot see clearly the full context and surroundings in which he or she is driving. And here’s the thing, the bigger the vehicle, the bigger the blind spot.

The same can be said for leaders and organizations.

Here’s a question for you. Do you know where your blindspots are within your organization? It takes guts and vulnerability to intentionally check your blindspots—because as the leader, you have to admit you can’t see something clearly. That you need help. And this is where many leaders fail.

Asking for help.
In my day job as the director of strategy of a brand experience firm, I was reminded of this lesson recently. This time, positively reminded.

One of our clients, the CEO of a popular and growing consumer brand in Southern California, did what few leaders do—he asked for help.

He is looking to take a growing business and accelerate the scale of its expansion. In order to do that, he has realized that he needs to start doing certain things and stop doing other things. He brought in help from many different angles, including our team, in an effort to check his blind spots and help his organization grow.

This leader also did something commendable, in a public meeting of his entire leadership team, he admitted his need for help and stated that if they are going to be successful, that they need to change and that it starts with him. He did this in an effort to encourage his leaders to embrace a similar posture, but also as a step of wise accountability. He asked his team to help him see what he cannot see from the driver’s seat. He asked for honesty.

I walked up to him after that meeting and encouraged him directly. I acknowledged what I had just witnessed and told him to keep it up. Leading with a limp is inspiring and it’s wise. It engenders loyalty and confidence and invites perspectives and insight that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. It will make you a better leader. It will position you for success.

A fruitful and counter-intuitive approach
Human nature and insecurity will lie to you. It will whisper in your ear and say, you have to have the answers. You’re the driver! The ideas need to originate with you. You’ll lose people’s respect if you don’t have command of all the issues and have all the answers. You need control.

The opposite is actually true. You will create a strong team, garner more respect and have a better command of all the issues because you’re depending on and empowering a team of others.

You’ll see clearly no matter what size you grow to and your neck won’t hurt nearly as much!

Steve Jobs: Chief Context Officer

Steve Jobs. When you hear his name, what do you think?

Apple innovator?
Amazing presenter?
Demanding executive?
Quick-tempered manager?

Confession, I don’t believe Steve Jobs is someone to model my life or management style after. However, I do believe I can learn a great deal from him. Especially when it comes to casting vision and holding onto strategy.

Countless books and articles are written each year about the importance of casting vision and developing a competitive strategy. In many of these, a critical aspect can be taken for granted, and in turn not put into practice by many leaders.

What is this neglected aspect?
Verbally, and regularly, setting context.

Getting employees to embrace your vision and strategy takes more than articulating a big hairy audacious goal. It requires more than painting a vibrant picture of tomorrow. It often hinges on your ability to provide context for why you’re doing what you’re doing and connecting that to your employees real-world experience (something adult education theorists call “Functional Context Theory“).

Employees don’t like to follow blindly. They don’t believe just because you “say so”. They are flooded by competing information in every area of their lives and have already formed their own opinions of your business. Without context, it’s hard to bring them along.

That brings us back to Mr. Jobs. He intuitively understood this.

Case in point: this internal company video from 1991, a 35-year-old Steve Jobs explains to NeXT employees the company’s marketing strategy.

Notice that he sets the entire conversation up with 2 “why” statements grounding his message with practical context.

“Hi, for those of you who don’t know me, my name is Steve Jobs and this is the first of many chalk-talks were gonna have this year together. The subject to this one is really important, which is, who is our target customer, why are they selecting our products over our competition, and what distribution channels are we going to use to reach these customers.

A lot of light bulbs have come on over the last 90 days. I’ve had the good fortune to be with a lot of you out on the field, meeting customers, getting first-hand information as to what they’re doing with our products. You have fed a lot of that information back to the management of this company and we’ve done a lot of thinking, and looked at the data and all the sudden out of this data some very, very, important things have come to light. I want to share them with you today.

We’ve had historically, a very hard time figuring out exactly who our customer was, and I’d like to show you why.

Brilliant! I want to know “why”. Don’t you?

So, the next time you find yourself frustrated and thinking that your employees don’t “get it”, pause and ask yourself, have I given them the context they need to “get it”?

If not, this is a good page to steal from the book of Steve Jobs, step back, explain why and bring them along.

A Tortoise, A Hare and Your Business

As the fable goes, the hare and the tortoise race. The hare takes off leaving the turtle in the dust only to get a little complacent, a little tired and takes a nap. He wakes up and to his great surprise the tortoise is ahead of him and slowly and steadily crosses the finish line before the furry speedster.

I’ve almost always heard this fable connected to personal character issues of not resting on talent alone. Or within business, to move methodically and steadily to your goals without distraction.

But I recently thought of this fable when reading about Schlitz beer.


It’ll make sense in a second…

I picked up, David Aaker‘s latest book, Aaker On Branding. Aaker is a statesman within the brand building community, and you can’t go wrong with anything he writes. Anyway, it’s not long into the book before he shares the story of Schlitz beer’s fall from grace in the mid-1970’s.

“…Schlitz, the “Gusto” beer, was a close number two behind Budweiser when the firm decided to cut costs by using a yeast-centered brewing process, which cut the processing time from twelve to four days, and by replacing the barley malt with corn syrup. Blind taste tests showed that the taste did not change. However, competitors were only too glad to talk about Schlitzes’ efforts to reduce costs. Their suggestion that Schlitz had compromised quality became very real when it turned out that the beer, after sitting on the shelf, would turn cloudy and lose carbonation. Schlitz returned to its old production method and ran blind taste tests during the Super Bowl to prove the quality was back, but customers had lost confidence in the brand and the thought of finding ‘gusto’ by drinking Schlitz became a joke. The brand damage led to its virtual disappearance from the market and caused the business to lose more than one billion dollars in value.” pp. 16-17

It’s easy to armchair quarterback and pick on the executive team that allowed this to happen, but put yourself in their shoes. As an executive, one of your biggest responsibilities, not to mention a primary way to advance your career, is to increase profit and return value to shareholders. Someone comes to you with a “brilliant” idea for how to introduce significant savings into the supply chain AND not sacrifice taste, sounds like a win-win.

If you were one of the decision makers, why would you say “no” to this? What would provide some level of guidance to suggest that you NOT say “yes”?


The slow and steady, long-term strategy of the brand—the values and attributes that made Schlitz… Schlitz.

If you as a Schlitz executive, didn’t have a clear picture of that guiding conscience for the brand, you would be just as beholden to the fast buck, “brilliant” idea as those 1970’s executives.

Allow me to demonstrate with one other example. Starbucks. You’ve undoubtedly heard of the famous Howard Schultz memo, castigating the then current Starbucks leadership on losing the slow and steady, soul of the company. It was the events surrounding that memo that eventually led Howard to step back in and retake the reins of the Seattle Siren.

Here are a couple key quotes from that 2007 memo titled The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience.

“When we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play… Clearly we have had to streamline store design to gain efficiencies of scale… [but] one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past… I have said for 20 years that our success is not an entitlement, and now it’s proving to be a reality… Let’s get back to the core.” (Onward, pp 24-25)

Every business faces the lure of trying to grow and increase profits quickly. Here’s the challenge. What may look like a great business decision, with immediate short-term benefits, could be shortening your organization’s lifespan.

It’s been my experience that few large companies have their brand values or attributes (called different things by different people) clearly defined. And if they are, they are stuck in the marketing department and not used by all leaders as a filter for business decisions. This is a huge mistake.

But I have found that it’s even more rare to see a small to mid-size business have these attributes defined and leveraged effectively.

If you’re a business leader or an entrepreneur just starting out, do you know what your “core” is? Do you know what your brand’s values and attributes are? Would you know how to avoid the quick buck trap and stay the course, with a slow and steady brand strategy?

If not, I can help.

The “Best” Super Bowl ad?

The year was 2000. A Chimpanzee runs into a garage, turns on a stereo, climbs on a bucket wearing an e-trade t-shirt and starts to dance to La Cucaracha Cha as 2 awkward gentleman clap in off-timed support. I remember thinking, “this is hilarious, but a stupid commercial!”

Then the punch line, “We just wasted $2,000,000. What are you doing with your money?”. That was the moment that I started caring more about the commercials during the SuperBowl than the game itself.

Today the SuperBowl chatter and memes centered around 2 things: Pete Carroll’s terrible play call and, which commercial was the “best”.

More than previous years, the commentary on who ‘won’ the BrandBowl felt strangely off. What wasn’t sitting well with me was how the word “won” was being defined. Typically that means it generated more buzz in social media, and viewers liked it the most. In other words, a popularity contest. It’s like asking consumers a rudimentary, grade school crush question, “do you like me? Yes / No / Maybe”.

In this analysis, winning, is not necessarily about strategic brand building.

For instance, according to the USA Today Ad tracking report, Budweiser’s ‘Lost Dog’, performed the best of any commercial yesterday. I disagree.

Everyone loves the commercial, including me, but I don’t think it builds the Budweiser brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it was bad for Budweiser. Budweiser is a staple of SuperBowl commercials, so I think there’s value in it, even if it’s just reminding consumers that they still exist, and someone out there must like to drink it.

My real point is that in a week, no one will care that the horses saved their ‘best bud’ from the ravenous wolves. I don’t think the commercial will have inspired greater brand loyalty among current Budweiser customers. And perhaps most important, I doubt it will have done anything to convince non-Budweiser drinkers to head out and buy a case of the American icon.

Compare that to something else Budweiser is doing that I think is building their brand.

Sponsoring UFC fighter, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.

Donald CerroneI’m willing to bet Budweiser gets more strategic bang for its buck, through their sponsorship of this gritty, tough, brash, rural, gutsy, no-nonsense, American rebel.

“Like the Budweiser brand he sponsors, Cowboy is simply down for whatever.” – for Bleacher Report

Cowboy’s attitude and the Budweiser brand essence are a hand in glove fit. Not only that, but Cerrone also connects with a strategically valuable demographic for Budweiser’s sales more than warm fuzzies and puppies ever will. It’s hard to imagine, Budweiser winning over the growing population of craft beer drinkers—those beer drinkers that see themselves as connoisseurs, not customers.

That’s why Budweiser’s other less talked about ad, was in my opinion, stronger for their brand and more in line with why I think the Cerrone sponsorship is smart. The other ad, drew a line in the sand between Budweiser and “fussy” craft beer drinkers.

Strong brands tend to not only tell you what they stand for, but also what they stand against (think Mac vs. PC or Dove vs. negative views of female beauty).

Budweiser, the brand for the no nonsense, American rebel that’s looking to have a good time, without the fuss. This message creates pride in those who see themselves as anti-craft beer and anti-hipster. A critical distinction for Budweiser in combating their loss of market share to craft beer.

So, while I get and enjoy the whole debate of who wins the BrandBowl, I think it has very little to do with which business wins, in the long run.


Of First Importance

2015 is a new year, and as cliche as it sounds, a new chapter in my life and the life of my family.

As I write this, my wife and I are awaiting our second child. She was due 2 days ago, so when I say we’re awaiting I mean we’re on the edge of our seats.

I believe this year is a new chapter professionally as well, not sure what’s to come — but I’m ready to step forward in new ways. Writing and sharing thoughts on brand strategy, leadership, and the little things I notice in this life I’ve been given, are a part of that next chapter.

So before I begin adding my 2 cents in this space, I thought I would remind myself that good thinking is a gift and that God helps me in all that I do.

First things first:

If God doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks. If God doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap. It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?” -Psalm 127:1-2


If you reason with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face; confront bad behavior and get a kick in the shins. So don’t waste your time on a scoffer; all you’ll get for your pains is abuse. But if you correct those who care about life, that’s different—they’ll love you for it! Save your breath for the wise—they’ll be wiser for it; tell good people what you know—they’ll profit from it. Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-Godinsight into life from knowing a Holy God. It’s through me, Lady Wisdom, that your life deepens, and the years of your life ripen. Live wisely and wisdom will permeate your life; mock life and life will mock you.”  -Proverbs 9:7-12


“Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” -Mark 12:29-31