While cleaning out my briefcase I came across an article that was worth re-reading. The article is titled “Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?”, written by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad, published by Harvard Business Review. In essence the article is a call for brevity in writing and presenting an organization’s strategy. In the authors’ opinions the statement should be no longer than 35 words, accompanied by a supporting “value-proposition chart” and “activity-system map.” Their proposition is that if an organization lacks a clear statement of strategy it is unlikely it will be executed well.
The authors point-out that “words lead to action” and that employee engagement is an important rationale for promoting succinctness in communicating an organization’s strategy. Their notion is that the more employees know about the strategy, the more likely an employee is to direct their actions in concert with the strategic intent. That makes sense, except most employees are not fascinated by or frankly not very interested in corporate strategies. By their very nature, corporate strategy presentations can be perceived as self-important and off-putting to many employees. Generally speaking, employees are pragmatic and more likely interested in things that are easily understood and positioned in a way that is relevant to their work.
At the end of the day employees want to know, or in some way surmise, that they have made a difference in the work they do. Employees like to know that through their efforts and talents, individually or in concert with fellow employees, they made a real difference for a customer or customer group. Many experts believe engagement is at its highest level when employees are inspired by the passion and talents of the organization’s culture (the brand inside) and believe that collectively they make a distinctive difference for customers (gaining brand recognition on the outside). So the most effective leadership platform statements are those that link the distinctive qualities of the organization with the difference they make for customers.
The traditional (some might say, old school) leadership platform is built on some variation of a mission, vision and values framework, some more audacious than others. There is no question these core elements are important parts of any leadership platform, but they may not be personal enough for employees. In addition, it is my experience that way too many of these types of leadership platforms are not written well and are too inwardly focused.
Like it or not employees are not inspired about big ideas solely for the company’s benefit. But, if the big idea is targeted at making a difference for customers you can get employees’ attention. If you want to engage employees’ passion and spark their imagination, convince them the organization’s most outstanding quality makes an exceptional difference for a customer. That’s the type of big idea that can be inspiring at a personal level. Like great leaders, big ideas must be perceived to be authentic in their abilities and their intention to help others.
Bottom line, the traditional leadership platform must be extended and reframed in a way that makes a direct connection between employees’ passions and the difference the organization makes for customers. It’s not about business strategy, it’s about connecting employees’ passion and imagination with making a difference for someone else. Outstanding strategies are a dime-a-dozen. Cultures passionate and confident about the difference they make are a much more rare commodity.
It seems whenever an organization chooses to develop a platform that is directed at connecting with customers it becomes a marketing department assignment. In most cases the result is a tagline. The primary purpose of a tagline is to support a myriad of marketing communications and promotional activities. In that context a good tagline must have a certain “retail” essence that speaks directly to customers and prospects with certain Madison-Avenue panache.
Too often taglines lack relevance and authenticity with the majority of employees. Marketers would like employees to admire their taglines, but employees were not the target audience during the creative development process. On a related note, a hybrid approach to taglines was presented in the book Blue Ocean Strategy, written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The authors suggest that any good strategy should be able to be summed up in a tagline. Interesting idea, but it wasn’t clear how the authors differentiated strategy taglines from marketing-oriented ones. Bottom line, many organizations have not created a customer leadership platform that is designed specifically to ignite employees’ passions about making a difference with customers. A leadership platform focused in this important human dynamic is the foundation to create a customer leadership culture.
A brand platform is a proven framework that can be used as an effective organizational development tool to create a customer leadership culture. In this context I am not using brand in its most myopic perspective as a marketing tool or corporate identity. Brand in its essence defines the distinctive qualities of an organization that are proven to make a remarkable difference for customers. Marketers’ responsibility is to make sure the organization gets credit in the marketplace for the distinctive value it provides to customers. Leaders’ responsibility is to ensure that employees are engaged and passionate about making a difference for customers. A full-bodied brand platform must speak with the kind of authenticity and relevance that inspires employees and also contains the market sensibility that connects with customers.
I strongly recommend that every organization develop a brand platform. A well-conceived brand platform is a powerful framework to extend the fundamental principles of the traditional mission/vision/values leadership platform. Much like the word brand itself, a brand platform can have various meanings. In way too many cases brand platforms are skewed for serving primary marketing needs. A well-crafted brand platform is an assignment for the leadership team, not a creative exercise for the marketing team.
Developing a brand platform that supports effective dual brand building – brand inside and brand outside – requires a different dimension than the traditional brand-building model. A brand platform must describe the brand with an organizational development sensibility to support employee engagement (brand inside building) and exude creative possibilities to capture the fascination of the prospective customers (brand outside building).
First and foremost, the brand platform must be anchored with a brand ethos. In this context, a brand ethos describes the one most important value residing inside the organization. Identifying a brand ethos requires keen insight and it must be grounded in the “truth” of the organization. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of discovering a brand ethos. Without a credible brand ethos, a brand platform will lack authenticity and the fundamental grounding required to develop a brand platform that is distinctive, relevant and consistent – the essential traits of every strong brand. A brand ethos is the heart of any customer leadership platform.
A well-founded brand ethos becomes the genesis to define the cadre of brand platform elements, starting with a brand vision and culminating with a brand character. A more detailed description of a corporate brand platform can be found at http://beta.brandtoolbox.com/corporate-brand-platform.php.
Karl D. Speak