Author Archives: Laurie Olberding

Brand Turmoil?

Category : 2019

For decades, the biggest and most valued companies were the result of robust manufacturing, sprawling brick and mortar locations, and costly inventories. The value of a company was determined by measuring tangible assets across an enterprise-often in one country or a local market. Enter the knowledge economy. Depending on whose research you peruse, 70%-80% of a company’s market value today is based on intangibles like brand equity, intellectual capital, patents and trade secrets, and goodwill.

A large component of corporate value is brand equity. E-commerce giant Shopify defines brand equity as, “the commercial value that derives from consumer perception of the brand name of a particular product or service, rather than from the product or service itself.” Investopedia adds that value is driven by comparing a recognizable name to a generic competitor. Specifics of brand equity include …

  • How well a company knows its customers (big data and AI).
  • How well the brand is known by its desired customers (social media).
  • The degree of loyalty customers give to the brand (Net Promoter Score over customer satisfaction).
  • The quality of what the brand offers (perceived as much as delivered).
  • Future earnings that can be attributed to the brand (measuring the present by what hasn’t happened).

VW, Wells Fargo, Chipotle, and Facebook remind us that circumstances, changes, and choices directly impact the value of a brand. VW and Wells Fargo are learning a brand is like trust. It takes a long time to build, can be destroyed in moments, and then requires a long and demanding journey to regaining what was lost.

Enough about big companies. What about you?

What is true of companies is true for individuals. A healthy and recognized brand is a combination of what you do and how your impact is perceived by those you serve-or want to serve. Strong brands depend on relationships as much as they depend on results. Focus on relationships without results and your reputation gets built on grandiloquence not outcomes. Focus on results without caring about relationships, and you eventually run out of people who are willing to work with someone who doesn’t care about people.

An executive concerned about his earning potential might want to invest equal time in determining how much earning potential he brings to a company – how much his brand can positively impact the company’s brand. While brand equity includes what a brand can do in the future, at a personal level, whether there is a future is dependent on the net present value of an executive’s brand today. Stories of success in business environments that no longer exist do little to differentiate a personal brand-especially with a generation that measures worth by competence, not experience.

When someone builds one of the most profitable and respected brands in history, his insight is worth consideration. Whether you need to give attention to relationships or results, Warren Buffett’s wisdom applies-“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”


CEO Tenure, Turmoil, and Turnover

Category : 2019

If current trends remain, over 430 people will step into new CEO roles in big companies this year. While HBO, Symantec, and Wells Fargo already used some of the 2019 opportunity inventory, there should be an abundance of openings in the second half of the year. Jocoseness (sounds more sophisticated than humor) aside, knowing how to traverse the changing CEO terrain is critical to your future success.

It helps if you know the back-story.  A record 17.5% of CEOs at the world’s 2,500 largest companies (by market cap) left their jobs in 2018. Two-thirds of the turnovers were planned successions. Twenty percent were forced, consistent with past trends. The noticeable change in 2018 was that for the first time, more CEO’s (39 percent) were fired for “ethical lapses” than for poor financial results or board tensions. CEO misbehavior or improper conduct by other employees in these “lapses” included fraud, bribery, sexual indiscretions, insider trading, and inflated resumes. This doesn’t mean today’s CEOs and their teams are less ethical than their predecessors – it does mean it is harder today to get away with misbehavior now than in the past.

While the median tenure for top executives has averaged five years over the past two decades, nearly 20 percent of all CEOs remain for ten or more years. While longevity can positively impact long-term results, transitioning those top execs doesn’t. PWC found that “69 percent of successors who replaced a long serving CEO in the top performance quartile ended up in the bottom two performance quartiles.” Per-Ola Karlsson, partner and leader of PWC’s strategy business noted, “Their successors typically both deliver lower returns to shareholders and are noticeably more likely to be dismissed than the legend they succeeded as well as their peers.”[i]

Whether the company is large or small, whatever created the open chair, here are five ways to make the most of a new CEO opportunity-now or later.

  1. Determine if the board wants change-or wants to talk about change. Especially if you are replacing a founding CEO, get clear consensus from the board about whether they expect you to extend the former CEO’s legacy or create your own. Even when financial performance and market demands press for change, some board members may resist giving you the freedom needed to accomplish what you were hired to do. Taking responsibility without getting the needed authority is a path to disaster.
  2. Identify critical relationships and invest in them. Your external network will help you keep your sanity. Your internal network will determine if you keep your job. While you invest in building relationships with your team, quickly determine who influences those you lead and make fostering those relationships a priority. Knowledge is often stored in unlikely places. Find out who really knows what’s going on in the company and buy that person lots of coffee.
  3. Let go of what you did in a former company-no one cares. People that spend a lot of time talking about the past aren’t considered experienced-they they’re considered “out of touch.” When the resident in the top chair changes, people want to know what you will do – not what you did.
  4. Expect people to be self-protective. Our brains perceive life events as threats or rewards. Most often, major changes are initially viewed as threats and our fight or flee instinct goes to work. During a time of corporate musical chairs people desperately want to know when the music stops there will be a chair for them. Don’t waste time telling people to trust you. Show them they can. Their self-protective mechanism will remain in place until they decide to let it down.
  5. Lead them through digital transformation and AI – or figure out how to get it done. Anyone stepping into a CEO spot needs to be prepared to navigate the rapids of digital transformation and artificial intelligence. A long-tenured CEO may have made self-preservation a priority over technology acceleration, leaving you some catching up to do. If you lack the expertise-get someone who has it to help you lead the way. In digital transformation Master Yoda is right-“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
[i] CEO Success study by PwC’s Strategy&; https://www.strategy-business.com/article/Succeeding-the-long-serving-legend-in-the-corner-office?gko=90171


Shakespeare and Your Career Brand

Category : 2019

The golf brand – Titleist – is derived from the word “titlist”, which means “title holder”.

Romeo was a Montague. The bitter feud between his family and the Capulets made his love for Juliet untenable. His family title made Romeo the enemy, but who he was did not, compelling Juliet to offer the immortal words, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While your career is four centuries removed from Shakespeare, Juliet’s words capture an important principle of executive brand management. Communicating what you do is far more important than communicating what someone calls what you do. From the mail room to the board room, defining yourself by a role or title puts you in the box of whatever another person thinks that title means.

By function, job titles have a limited scope. They define your responsibilities (sales, finance, human resources). Titles capture the scope of your responsibilities (global, regional, national). A title also quickly places you in a hierarchy of authority (C-level, VP, director).

Unfortunately, even at senior levels, titles have become the playground for well-intended efforts to make someone feel better about a job. Enter the Brand Ambassador, the Innovation Catalyst, and the Chief Experience Officer (offering an alternative way to get a CEO title). When Justin Timberlake invested in Bai Brands, he was anointed their Chief Flavor Officer and the face for a $100M marketing campaign. Job platform Indeed reported a 90% increase in the use of the word Ninja in job titles last year. If you want Guru or Ninja in your title, Indeed says to look for a job in California or Texas. If you want to be a Hero, New Jersey and New York are where to focus your search.

Reputations outshine pedigrees any day. The new generation of British royals are trying to demonstrate that while they got their titles by birth or marriage, they want to build their reputations on how they use their positions to bring value to the nation and its people. An executive building a brand on a title often spends more time posturing than performing. Rank becomes more important than skills. When asked what he/she does, a job title or three-letter acronym is given in response. The executive cares more about how she is perceived than the value she brings. When a title-driven executive loses a job, he often loses his identity and sometimes, the emperor painfully discovers he was wearing no clothes.

There was a time when the path to the C-suite was well-defined – director, VP, Sr VP, and you’re in the club. In progressive companies, the path to a room with a view (if the company still has private offices) is much less distinct. Executives that market expertise and capabilities rather than titles, find greater success transitioning to a key leadership role. These leaders talk about strengths, contributions, and quantified results in transferable terms that are relevant across companies, industries, and markets.

From America to Britain to Poland to Sri Lanka, there are 59 versions of the “Got Talent” franchise running. There are zero “Got a Title” shows. Career longevity, professional growth, and brand differentiation emerge from a concerted effort to expand a portfolio of capabilities and expertise-not grasp for the next rung on the title ladder.


Learning…the Hard Way

Category : 2019

Whoever said experience is the best teacher should have paid more attention to the curriculum. Life often gives the test first and the lesson later. Some lessons from experience should be obvious enough to not require taking the test for yourself. Lessons like . . .

  • You should pay attention during the Segway tour orientation.
  • Whatever comes after, “I dare you,” probably isn’t worth trying.
  • Flammable means it’s flammable.
  • You won’t always remember where you parked at the airport.
  • A private message on social media is never private.

A professional career has a curriculum of its own. Some valuable lessons are learned best by experience. A few principles every professional needs to discover are acquired less painfully by observation than by participation. The list below is a valuable reminder that duplicity knows no limits and even at executive levels these dynamics can be present.

An open door should not be confused with an open mind.

Many companies and their leaders promote an open door policy. Executives symbolically keep their office doors open. Private offices are built with glass walls. Some leaders symbolically move their desks into the middle of the cube farm to demonstrate availability and openness. But in some organizations, employees quickly discover proximity should not be confused with transparency-or even interest. While open door policies promote communication up, down, and across the company, the willingness of leaders to receive the information that is shared, may not keep pace with the policy.

In 2016, Professors at Pepperdine University[1] created an assessment to measure what they called intellectual humility-a key factor in developing open-mindedness. The four traits selected for measurement were-

  • Having respect for other viewpoints.
  • Not being intellectually overconfident.
  • Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect.
  • Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint.

This list is a good lodestar for a leader wanting to ensure there is an open mind inside the open door.

Feedback that is requested may not be wanted.

Film producer and founder of Paramount Pictures, Sam Goldwyn said, “I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.” More than one idealistic leader has learned the hard way that a request for feedback is not always an invitation to offer it. When someone says, “Take a look at this and let me know what you think,” ask what kind of input is wanted before offering a response. Otherwise, you may encounter that uncomfortable moment when you discover the request for feedback is like a Midwesterner inviting you on their porch to visit. The first invitation is being polite. The second invitation means you should sit.

People saying they agree does not mean they agree.

It happens in team meetings and conference rooms dozens of times a day. People say they agree with a decision, but what happens by text and email after people return to their desks is anything but agreement. Group chats and texting are the water cooler of the 21st century.

Psychologists have a name for what looks like agreement but is really something else. The indirect resistance and the avoidance of direct confrontation is called passive aggressive behavior. Procrastination, ignoring emails, withholding information, and avoiding responsibility or accountability are reliable indicators that the “Yes” you heard in the meeting isn’t being matched with action.

Airport control towers and pilots communicate in a way that would benefit teams in corporate environments. Whatever direction the control tower gives, the pilot must repeat it verbatim. There is no confusion. Perhaps simply asking, “What did we all just agree to?” will help expose the tacit agreement that has little connection to what people do after the meeting.

A team player without a viewpoint is a minion.

Those squishy yellow creatures that talk gibberish and bring comedic relief to Despicable Me and Minions should not be confused with their corporate namesake. In a movie, Bob, Kevin, and Stuart are adorable because creator Pierre Coffin created them to be silly and short on proactive thinking. In business, their counterparts are unintentionally damaging.

The most valuable contribution a leader brings to a discussion is a personal viewpoint and a perspective. To hold back in a discussion or to defer when your viewpoint is counter to the dominant opinion robs colleagues and the organization of the contributions and benefit that only you bring. Other people can assess the same information, but none can evaluate data from the vantage point you bring. In many organizations, raising a dissenting voice or pausing to ask what could go wrong, quickly gets you labeled a not being a “team player.” History is full of tragic events that followed someone not holding to a counterpoint when the rest if the crowd ran in another direction.

The voice of reason is not the discourse of a hardened skeptic or professional cynic. There is a difference between the mantra “we tried that before and it will never work” and the desire to identify what could get in the way of success and eliminating it before a plan is executed.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wisely reminded us, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Your time on the corporate gridiron will be marked by plenty of fumbles and mistakes. Trying to avoid making any will keep you on the sideline without any chance of scoring a touchdown. But you don’t need to get hit with every tackle to be a good player. Watch others and learn from them without getting the wind knocked out of you.


Who’s the HERO of Your Story?

Category : 2019

“Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero.”

Cameron Frye’s unforgettable line from the 80’s teen hit Ferris Bueller’s Day Off captures the paradox of being a hero. You can’t give yourself the title.

A hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities,” (Oxford). Admiration from others humbles a leader and prompts self-reflection. Synonyms for self-admiration include ego, conceit, pomposity, and a plethora of other words that begin with “self.”

We all like heros, when we decide who they are. A story captures us when we identify with the hero-when we recognize ourselves in their story. The story of your brand becomes powerful and engaging when you make it easy for others to identify with the hero. The best way to do that is by making your customer, your employee, your boss, or your friend the hero of your story. It’s counter-intuitive-and very effective.

Brands become memorable when you present yourself as trusted guide, mentor, or teacher-not as a hero. Messaging company Corporate Visions trains salespeople to create a story about their customer where the world is normal, something happens, the hero (customer) runs into trouble, the mentor (person or vendor) comes on the scene, the hero follows the mentor’s guidance, and the hero reaches the desired goal.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner says his research suggests we are 20 times more likely to remember facts if they’re part of a story. When you present your “resume” in the context of a story where the client, challenge, or opportunity is the central character (hero), you more effectively highlight your value by demonstrating how you function as a mentor/guide that skillfully shows a customer or company the way out of a dilemma.

In a recent article, Cheryl Farley at PeopleResults (www.people-results.com) noted, “Our brains and bodies chemically and physically respond to stories. . . . Our brains process stories like they process real life. Although we know the difference between a story and what is happening in real time, neuroscience tells us that we create emotions and responses in the same way we would if we were living it.”

Research by Claremont College professor Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, tells us Oxytocin is the neurochemical that Farley is talking about. Zak says oxytocin gives our brains the “it’s safe to approach others” signal. If oxytocin is released, it is more likely people will trust the situation and the storyteller and there is a better chance they will take the action the storyteller suggests.

Tell the story of how you helped a previous “hero” out of a problem and the hero you’re talking with will more readily see how you can help them. Tell a story about your “heroism,” and you can anticipate the lack of interest and passive avoidance we give someone taking a trip with their ego.

Brands are built on both facts (what a brand does) and feelings (how people feel when the product/person helps them). Connect the facts of your story with the feelings of your audience, and you create a memorable impression that helps build a lasting brand.


Humility, Self-Preservation, and the Art of the Humblebrag

Category : 2019

“Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility,”

(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 829,000 words, senses, and compounds. Over 2,000 words were added to this tome in 2018. Business evolution gave us new terms like e-signature, biohacking, force quit, and airplane mode. Shifts in culture produced notables like vape, binge-watch, a new meaning for the word snowflake, and humblebrag.

A humblebrag is making “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud,” (Oxford Dictionary). Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn provide a wide platform for executive humblebragging. Search #humblebrag on Twitter and the results are endless.

  • A well-known comedian wrote, “Being famous and having a fender bender is weird. You want to be upset but the other driver’s (sic) just thrilled & giddy that it’s you.”
  • One Hollywood celebrity shared, “Totally walked down the wrong escalator at the airport from the flash of the cameras. Go me . . . “
  • A former White House Press Secretary bemoaned, “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

Popular web articles attempt to help people traverse the humblebrag minefield with –

  • How to Brag at Work (Without Sounding Like a Jerk)
  • How to Humblebrag at Work to Get Ahead
  • The Tricks to Bragging at Work Without Sounding Arrogant

The obvious implication is that regardless of what floor your elevator stops at, when you humblebrag you may not get ahead, you can sound like a jerk, and you may be perceived as arrogant. Life is full of trade-offs . . .

The Shakespearian question to brag or not to brag pops up in an executive interview with the oft-repeated, “Tell me about your biggest weakness.” The candidate is faced with deciding to be genuinely transparent about something he or she doesn’t do well, or choosing to feign humility while engaging in blatant self-promotion with a line like-

  • So much international travel makes it difficult to build relationships with executives at my club.
  • My drive for perfection makes me impatient with underperformers.
  • I’ve been told my intellect makes it hard for people to relate to me.
  • I’ve found I need to be more deliberate when discussing financials with my team-they don’t seem to grasp numbers as quickly as I do.

A famous 19th century orator noted, “I do hate, of all things, that humility which lives in the face.” Valid research concludes when you try wearing humility on your face, you need to leave room for the egg.

Francesca Gina and Michael Norton at Harvard teamed up with Ovul Sezer at the University of North Carolina to conduct a series of studies into humblebragging, presenting their findings in a paper titled Humblebragging: A Distinct-and Ineffective-Self-Presentation Strategy. Their experiments produced a straightforward conclusion-humblebragging doesn’t get you liked or respected because it is overshadowed by insincerity.

“Perceived sincerity is a critical factor in determining the success of self-presentation . . . We suggest that despite its prevalence, humblebragging may be ineffective in making a favorable impression due to the perceived insincerity it generates . . .” (Gina, Norton, & Sezer). The research went a step farther, noting that humblebraggers are not only considered less sincere, they are considered less competent than those who outwardly brag.

Here are four actions that will keep you out of the humblebrag vortex.

  • Own who you are. No executive is omnicompetent and every executive has one or more areas of weakness. Glossing over a valid competence gap with a humblebrag redirect makes the executive look more like Houdini than a leader. People trust-and follow someone they know tells the truth-even when it doesn’t make the leader’s image shine. Don’t worry about what people think of you . . . they rarely do.
  • Promote your contributions-not yourself. A brand is built on results, not rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with owning and talking about how you helped a company (if it isn’t all you talk about). If you bring on board a record of accomplishment-sell it. Just don’t try to disguise your obvious competence in a ruse of feigned humility or cloaked in a humblebrag.
  • Pursue genuine humility. While rarely chosen as a corporate competence, humility is a quality we highly value in those who aren’t aware they have it. Humility isn’t denying one’s abilities or hiding one’s faults. Humility is leveraging your abilities every way possible while staying keenly aware of when you need others to complement your gaps. Ken Blanchard wisely notes that, “People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less.”
  • Be candid-and discreet. Avoiding humblebragging isn’t an invitation to be a walking tabloid about your life. Transparency expects truthfulness but doesn’t require full disclosure about every detail.

Author Gene Brown is right. “The really tough thing about humility is you can’t brag about it.”