Author Archives: Laurie Olberding

New Energy for a Tired Brand

Category : 2019

Brands are like buildings. With the right foundation, on-going maintenance, and an occasional renovation, both can provide functional value for a long time. The oldest brand in the world is Kongo Gumi, established in 578 AD and family-owned for 1400 years. Dixon Ticonderoga has been making pencils and Jim Beam has produced bourbon for over 220 years. JP Morgan Chase has been in the game for nearly as long-by repeatedly adapting to the new realities of financial services. Harper Collins has survived the volatile world of publishing by reinvention and embracing technologies that were beyond imagination when the company published its first volume in 1817. Macys and Sears have been iconic brands for decades, but age has caught up with both and their futures are uncertain.

Some people have figured out how to ensure the relevance of their personal brands long after their peers tire and fade into oblivion. From oil to natural gas to alternative energy, Texas legend T. Boone Pickens stayed in the game of business until close to his death at age 91. After his time in office, former president Jimmy Carter grew his brand as a humanitarian and continues building for Habitat for Humanity at 95, insisting that he not miss the launch of his latest building project with 14 stitches in his forehead. Octogenarian, Warren Buffet’s investment guidance is still followed closely.

When interacting with a personal brand, people care more about energy than age. Brands with a perpetual shelf-life, brands that maintain a relevance that belies their age, consciously resist the inherent banality that comes with tenure at anything.

Throughout its lifespan, a brand stays relevant because of personal and strategic choices, not circumstance. As a young man in his thirties, Beethoven realized his loss of hearing was both progressive and permanent-a frightening possibility for someone whose brand was built around being a gifted composer and musician. Realizing the inevitability that faced him, Beethoven wrote his friend Franz Wegeler, “I will take fate by the throat.” That is the mental resilience that keeps a brand fresh.

Your personal brand is as unique as you are. You can be imitated but never replicated. In his book Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier calls that singularity a charismatic brand, “any product, service, or organization [let’s add person] for which people believe there is no substitute.” Here are three ways you can keep your brand charismatic, maintaining brand vitality when other brands get weary and decline.


Like houses, brands show their use. The structure and character are solid, but the presentation shouts, “dated.” An executive in his 50s who dresses like he did in the 80s screams “update needed” as much as a house with the original wallpaper. If you are past 40 and your professional photo is more than five years old, it is time for trip to a professional photographer. Few things spell awkward at the start of a networking meeting more than, “Oh, you look a lot different than your picture on LinkedIn.” Clothes, like people, often lose their shape before they wear out. “This still looks okay,” is not the mantra of a brand that shouts relevance. Dress to win, lose the weight, exercise for vitality!


Staying with the house analogy, there are times when continued relevance and functionality demand renovation. Anyone who has renovated a house will tell you it takes longer, and costs more than you expect, so you want to plan for it – not get the experience forced upon you when something falls apart.  Positioning yourself in a different role may be attractive. If a lesser role is an appealing option, a C-Suite executive needs to anticipate the changes that come with such a move. However, be aware that a smaller title may not equate to fewer responsibilities and a lighter workload.

A clear indicator it’s time to renovate is when you spend more time talking about past successes than current results. If your stories took place before your audience was born, it’s time for a brand renovation. Anyone, at any level in a company, will find value in updating their resume or CV every year. If there is nothing quantified and significant to add to the list of contributions, it’s time for a career and brand renovation. When a brand no longer demonstrates and communicates its value, it loses its significance.


Massive gentrification efforts in major cities give a second or third life to warehouses or old buildings as up-scale flats and condos. Even shipping containers are finding long-term value as apartments. Sometimes, brands need more than an update-they need reinvention. As industries and roles evolve, an executive may face the need to take the best of what was and build something new. Digital transformation, AI, the explosive growth of cloud computing, and the impact of the millennial workforce demands executive brands that are both agile and courageous. Being the guardian of a legacy system or the guru for holdover internal processes is more of a liability than security – especially following a sale or acquisition. Savvy executives with lasting brands stay ahead of the change curve, proactively taking new responsibilities that expand and enhance their brands, facilitating their perpetuity.

Brands stay fresh when the people they represent maintain a mental framework that is realistic, positive, and uncharacteristically optimistic. T. Boone Pickens captured that positivity with “Be the eternal optimist. Act like the fella who fell off the top of a 10-story building…as he passed the third floor, he said, ‘I’m not dead yet. So far, so good.'”

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

Category : 2019

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” — (British Economist John Maynard Keynes)

Brands are born, grow, catapult to the top of a market, and become footnotes on the pages of a B-school textbook because of one thing:  Decisions.

Launching in 1994, the hobby of two Stanford graduate students quickly grew into the $125 billion internet giant Yahoo by birthing some of the first platforms for mail, directories, cloud storage, on-line broadcasting, and social networking. Four years later, two other Stanford students offered Yahoo a license to a newly-developed search technology for $1 million. Yahoo president David Filo encouraged Sergey Brin and Larry Paige to launch their own search site which they did under the name BackRub, changing the name a year later to Google.

In 2002 Yahoo tried to buy Google for $3 billion and was rejected. In 2008, Microsoft offered $44.6 billion for Yahoo-and was refused. After a rollercoaster of change, Yahoo sold to Verizon for $4.8 billion. Google has grown to a value of $167 billion.

Yahoo had a first-to-market advantage, leading technologies, and the capital to leverage all the dot-com revolution had to offer. But like dozens of other could-have-been tech companies, and once-were brands, Yahoo lacked a clear vision, resulting in a series of decisions that kept the company from embracing new ideas because it was held captive by what it knew.

Whether the decisions are big, small, intentional, or unconscious, how are your choices impacting your personal brand? If people working closest to you were interviewed, how would they rate your–

  • Differentiation – How well your expertise and contributions separate you from your peers.
  • Relevance – How much what you do meets a relevant business need through quantifiable results.
  • Knowledge – How clear your contribution message is known and understood by the people who need it.
  • Esteem – How highly the people you engage with every day (your customers) value/like your brand.

The ten-year CEO Genome study explored 17,000 c-suite assessments and interviewed 2,000 CEOs concluding that high-performing CEOs (those with strong brands) aren’t distinguished by consistently making stellar decisions as much as they differentiate themselves by being decisive. Even with ambiguity and incomplete information, those considered to be decisive were 12 times more likely to be high-performing. William James was right when he said, “No decision is, in itself, a decision.” Brand leaders make bold decisions-even at the risk of those decisions not always being the “right” decision.

Here are five ways to help you strengthen your brand through faster and better decisions:

  1. Frame the problem to define the decision.

Often decisions are difficult because the problem is unclear. Define the problem and data becomes your ally. Cassie Kozyrkov, the chief decision scientist at Google notes, “The key to decision-making is framing the decision context before you seek data . . . If you’re undisciplined in your attempts to use data for decision-making, your approach is susceptive to cognitive bias.”

  1. Avoid categorical thinking.

NBA coaches are 17% more likely to change a starting lineup following a close loss than they are following a close win – even if the point variances are the same. When we fail to think of wins on a continuum, a loss is perceived as a greater qualitative difference than a win. In the September-October issue of Harvard Business Review, Bart de Langhe and Philip Fernbach point out, “Categorical thinking can be dangerous in four important ways. It can lead you to compress the members of a category, treating them as if they were more alike than they are; amplify differences between members of different categories; discriminate, favoring certain categories over others; and fossilize, treating the categorical structure you’ve imposed as if it were static.” (HBR Sept Oct 2019).

  1. Pursue diverse points of view.

Confirmation bias leads us to draw conclusions from statistics that support an existing belief or preconception. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein calls it the information cocoon … reading things that fortify opinions isolating ourselves from diverse ideas and information. A decisive executive surrounds herself with people who will challenge her thinking and offer a dissenting judgment.

  1. Recognize the difference between risk and uncertainty.

From choosing a school, to accepting a job, to pursuing a promotion, to hiring a replacement, all decisions require managing the tensions of risk and uncertainty. Risk is the possibility of loss or injury, generally expressed in the quantifiable terms used by risk managers, actuaries, and loss assessments. Uncertainty is not being completely confident or sure of something. Risk management is your insurance company raising your rate 200% when your teenage child gets a driver’s license. Uncertainty is the feeling you have the first time you let your child take the car alone. Successful leaders manage risks while avoiding the trap of trying to eliminate all the uncertainty in a decision.

  1. Minimize the IKEA effect.

Like the budget-conscious people that flood the floors of the well-known home furnishings store, beware of the tendency to place a disproportionately high value on something you had a hand in creating. For a leader, that means not over-valuing your career and what you’re worth because you’ve invested your life in it. Brand value is determined by contributions, not self-assessment.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing is to do nothing.” The records of great companies and the leaders that build them are constructed on the foundation of well-framed, well-timed, and more often than not, right decisions.

Brand Consistency

Category : 2019

From McDonald’s to 7-Eleven to KFC to Ace Hardware, the biggest franchise companies in the world have one thing in common. Across their combined 175,000 outlets globally these companies want consistency. Every successful franchisor has a model they believe works, and they exert tremendous effort to ensure franchisees don’t wander from the established path. While Chick-fil-A doesn’t make the top of the list by size, they generate more profit per restaurant than any other franchise-by providing great food, hiring the nicest high school kids on the planet, and training everyone to say, “My pleasure,” in the place of “No problem,” every time they are thanked.

In marketing, brand consistency ensures a company’s message, logo, typeface, and colors are the same everywhere, every time. The style of a brand makes it readily recognizable and separate from competitors. Think Google, Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks.

In a larger sphere, consistency ensures the customer’s experience and the results of the business are aligned with the values, messages, purpose, and perception of a brand. An executive’s brand consistency is as important as consistency across any business. Executive brand consistency grows from authenticity-being who you are and what you are day after day after day. When talking about consistency in 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, Al & Laura Ries put it simply, “Success is measured in decades, not years.”

Consistency is more about being reliable than being radical. Some brands have ventured into the uncharted waters of brand expansion with dismal results.

  • In the 1990s Harley Davidson learned men’s cologne with, “The crisp top notes of bergamot, pineapple, apple, lavender, and cypress [and] an almost mossy undertone” that’s “Perfect for the well-dressed businessman,” may sound appealing . . . but not coming from a motorcycle manufacturer. That product venture met a quick demise.
  • After serving the elite of England for over 200 years, Yardley of London thought a new marketing push with Linda Evangelista in chains and handcuffs would position Yardley products for a younger audience. The effort didn’t capture the intended audience and alienated the established customer base of white-haired ladies, putting the company in receivership.
  • Planet Hollywood painfully discovered that names like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Demi Moore couldn’t compensate for a brand that didn’t capture the market or compete in the over-crowded restaurant space.

Whether sitting around the table of an executive board room or sitting on a stool at Wendy’s, people judge a brand in seconds. Like it or not, those judgments create perceptions and perceptions drive decisions. As Matt Haig points out in Brand Failures, “Consumers make buying decisions around the perception of the brand rather than the reality of the product. While this means brands can become more valuable than their physical assets, it also means they can lose this value overnight.”

How can an executive develop brand consistency?

Extend your influence by limiting your focus.

When you have Amazon’s money you can dabble in anything you want to try. Until you have Jeff Bezos’ R&D budget, build your brand around your strengths, not your prospects. By the time someone moves into an executive role, their brand is built around what they can deliver dependably. These execs complement their strengths with team members who ably fill gaps in the leaders’ personal repertoires. Whether turnarounds, optimization, supply chain, organizational alignment, or other complex challenges, executives with brand consistency build results on a solid platform of self-awareness. Unbridled optimism is highly motivating-and expensive. Eighty-nine percent of small business owners believe they can do anything they set their minds to do. Seventy-six percent of their companies fail due to their incompetence or lack of the right expertise.

Create opportunities by innovating.

While an executive should leverage his or her strengths, career longevity demands that the executive leverage those strengths to bring innovation to his/her sphere of influence. Any executive that isn’t committed to personal innovation around areas of proven expertise is will soon be eclipsed by leaders who aren’t afraid of either progressive or disruptive change. Building new business models that engage disruptive technologies, using AI and big data to get closer to the customer, and creating a working environment that captures the interest and motivation of a changing workforce are three open fields inviting executive innovation.

Avoid measuring what doesn’t matter.

Repeatedly delivering measurable results against promises made is foundational for brand consistency. That is unless the results are in areas that are irrelevant to the Board, produce little impact on critical business drivers like cash flow and profitability, or take energy and time the CEO is convinced should go in another direction. Consistent brands deliver results to the numbers that matter.

Listen to people who have done it.

Search Google for an answer to “how to be more consistent” and you get 522 million entries. Not all of those are worth your time . . . Saying, “Consistency is the enemy of enterprise, just as symmetry is the enemy of art,” makes for great prose, and reveals what little playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw understood about business. A statement about consistency from Shaun White, a three-time Olympic medalist that achieved two perfect scores carries a bit more weight than Khloe Kardashian telling people to “start somewhere.” Find leaders delivering consistency and ask them how they do it. Take their principles without attempting to mimic their success. We never outgrow the need for a mentor. The person who can best contribute to your future achievement may be someone younger than you.

Is ensuring brand consistency worth the investment? McDonalds estimates they sell 550 million “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun” annually. That’s a $3.99 Big Mac going out the door somewhere every 17 seconds. Deliver consistency to your customer and consistency will deliver for you.

Leading Effectively in the Fourth Revolution

Category : 2019

“Adapt or die.”

Billy Beane’s iconic line from the movie Moneyball, captured the motivating force behind the Oakland Athletics revolutionary use of sabermetrics, not talent scouts to select players for the Oakland A’s baseball team. With a payroll a fraction of the size of other major league teams, Beane enlisted Paul DePodesta – a Harvard grad that loved numbers and sports, to leverage statistical analysis of one critical competence (how often a hitter gets on base) to evaluate and select players.

Over a decade ahead if it’s emergence, Billy Beane modeled the essence of the Fourth Revolution-the integration of real-time data with the physical world to accelerate decisions, manage processes, and drive results. “Industry 4.0 combines relevant physical and digital technologies, including analytics, additive manufacturing, robotics, high-performance computing, natural language processing, artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies, advanced materials, and augmented reality,” (Deloitte, Forces of Change: Industry 4.0).

This digital to physical to digital integration poses endless possibilities for companies that embrace this new reality and near certain demise to the organizations that ignore or resist these forces of change. World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab states, “We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril.”

The Chief Human Resources Officer is in a strategic position to accelerate the leadership conversion from business as a linear process to business as a living organism. A company can only change its DNA as human resources hires and develops leaders that will recognize and adapt to the dynamics of this next revolution. Effective Industry 4.0 leaders will:

Demonstrate Digital Leadership

In March 2019, Harvard Business Review reported that of the $1.3 trillion invested in digital transformation last year, $900 billion didn’t achieve the intended outcome, leaving digital transformation as the #1 concern for CEOs and senior executives. It appears the lack of traction in DT efforts has more to do with leaders than dollars.

As digital transformation becomes the norm more than an aspiration, organizations that want to compete-or even survive, will require leadership that is ” fast-paced, cross-hierarchical, responsive, cooperative, and team-oriented,” (Oxford Leadership, Leadership 4.0 in the ‘Digital Age’). 4.0 leaders will see greater success when they give employees better/more transparent access to information, allow for more independent decision-making, create flexible working environments, and provide more frequent and useful performance feedback. A human resources organization that can lead this kind of disruption increases its likelihood of being considered a valued partner to business unit leaders across the enterprise.

Digital leaders must become as comfortable using data to drive transformation as they are using financials to drive decisions. These leaders relentlessly pursue self-development, recognizing credibility and impact with employees in the 4.0 world is determined by knowledge and competence in the current environment, rather than by a title or number of years in an industry. HR is uniquely positioned to equip leaders with the new mix of capabilities needed to embrace digital transformation.

Encourage Cognitive Diversity

Without a high level of cognitive diversity, functional bias (thinking there is only one way to do something) severely limits the ability of teams to problem-solve, make decisions. collaborate, and drive change. Again, the CHRO and HR team are in a pivotal position to help the organization value and promote diversity of thought as much as they require diversity in gender, ethnicity, and age.

When leaders hire in their own image it creates a comfortable environment of parallel thinkers where conflict is rare, and results are uninspiring. A cognitively diverse team more readily encounters a second or third or fourth perspective that results in disagreement, conflict, and eventually settling on a course of action that is far better than the first option. A company without cognitive diversity as a core competence will struggle in the 4.0 world.

Make the Current Model Uncomfortable

A radically changed environment demands radically different leaders. A seismic shift in how people lead won’t be accomplished through a one-time executive workshop or a rousing speech at the next all-hands meeting. Our brains are wired to most often see an event, situation, or change as a threat, not an opportunity. Our fight, flee, or freeze instincts kick into motion and we begin protecting ourselves from or outright resisting the change. People embrace a change when their discomfort with a current situation exceeds their fear of or resistance to change. HR leaders can accelerate the journey to Fourth Revolution leadership by working with the rest of the leadership team to make it uncomfortable for people to operate as they have before.

This model naturally translates to making every leader a performance coach, reinforcing the desired behavioral changes and helping people see when they aren’t adapting so they can more easily self-correct behavior. Organizations that foster growth and change must be comfortable with failure as people make the journey from where they are to where they want to be. These companies must be equally comfortable showing what a desired change looks like and showing to door to those who refuse to adapt.

Brian Bacon, Chairman and Founder of Oxford Leadership captured the heart of 4.0 leadership when he said. “Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution will be defined by the ability to rapidly align & engage empowered, networked teams with clarity of purpose & fierce resolve to win.”

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&;