It was 2005 when I wrote a contributing article for Italian firm Trivioquadrivio annual client conversation on Authenticity titled Make it Real; Authenticity is for Profit. 2003 had Attention as a theme, 2004 was about Distance in conversation, and 2006 was about Representation as Creation on the increasing importance of social networks and blogs.
Since it is still very much relevant, I thought you’d enjoy my thinking at the time (mind you, I had to retype it because all I have is a hard copy):
Make it Real; Authenticity is for Profit (2005)
Authenticity is becoming the next frontier in American business. In line with the philosophical ideal eagerly embraced on this side of the pond, where authenticity is seen as central to the values of individuality and independence prevalent in American society. This sentiment is echoed in the latest writings by Bill George, former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic and the upcoming book by Joseph Pine and Jim Gilmore of The Experience Economy fame.
Within the context of leadership, authenticity appears as the confluence of personal values, purpose, heart, connected relationships, and self-discipline. The leader who espouses these qualities in his unique style wins not only respect and loyalty, but he also profits financially, says Bill George. The father of organization consulting in the U.S., Peter Block, expands on this concept when he writes that “leadership is not just a job title; it’s a way of being in the world.” By that he means that the leader is responsible for creating a conversation about possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and talent and skills.
If this seems a bit soft, consider the damage American businesses need to repair in terms of image and credibility. In this light, the use of power to support the human spirit and initiate something positive in the world is not so far fetched.
Taken within its psychological meaning, authenticity is a concept in which the individual derives gratification and positive emotion from exercising signature strengths. Under the guidance of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, The University of Pennsylvania is compiling a body of research on Authentic Happiness using the VIA Signature Strengths Survey. Dr. Seligman classifies 24 virtues and strengths under 6 broad categories; virtue and knowledge, courage, temperance, humanity, justice, and transcendence.
The discovery of 5 key strengths aids in understanding the resources we draw upon to be happy. Present happiness includes physical and higher pleasures, the feeling of engagement, and the creation of meaning. Using our strengths not only provides satisfaction with life, it is also the key to achieving success, according to leadership guru Marcus Buckingham. In an interesting twist, although many have embraced Mr. Buckingham’s idea that knowing our strengths and deploying them is good, he finds that corporate culture is still very much entrenched in lessening liabilities. “It is the everyday rituals of working life that distract us from the real challenge of exploiting our strengths,” says Buckingham.
The result of Buckingham’s survey seems to indicate that the prevalent worldview is one of paying lip service to what may be more or less obvious — that being true to one’s self and being what you say you are to others satisfies our quest for fulfilling a higher purpose and makes economic sense at the same time.
Consider that for years we’ve been used to thinking that marketing is all about trickery and even insincerity. After all, we all know that brand and authenticity do not go hand in hand. Or do they? Seth Godin challenges this assumption. “Marketing,” he says, “is about spreading ideas that you believe in, sharing ideas you are passionate about… and doing it with authenticity.” That is the premise of one of his more recent books, All Marketers are Liars. Catchy title aside, Godin is right when he says that “marketing is about treating prospects and customers with respect, and realizing that it’s easier to grow the amount of business you do with happy people than it is to find new strangers to accost.”
Authenticity starts with using the correct language to create a conversation about what we want from each other and confronting our own choices and responsibilities as leaders and businesses.
Language was employed even before writing to create and narrate stories; stories make it easier to understand the world, they are the only way we know to spread an idea. We hear and tell stories all the time — corporate stories, selling stories, marketing stories, tales from friends and family. We consider those stories that agree with our worldview great; they don’t teach us anything new, they simply agree with what we already believe and in doing so make us feel smart and secure. When we live the story we tell, we’re telling the truth, we’re authentic. Make it real, and you increase economic value, too.
The booklets are sitting on my desk for a reason — they remind me of my days doing brand development / management work in house, on the client side. We did good work, built businesses and teams, and got to dig in and take programs to the next level even with sometimes very tight resource constraints.
There is a reason why I am bringing this up now. I came across a report by The Futures Company on Making High Value Work# for the Association for Finnish Work. It contains a useful definition of the four enabling routes:
- Service innovation
- Resource innovation
- Value in authenticity, and
- Rich knowledge.
Business models are part of the story of business value creation. But they are only a part. The rest is down to business strategy and business culture: how you decide what to focus on to make a difference, and how you engage people inside the business to create the change you need to build a lasting shift in value.
Making High Value Work
The Futures Company and the Association for Finnish Work propose
five practices that companies use, separately or together, to build high value cultures and business strategy. These practices are:
1. One Step Beyond
2. Running Towards the Problem
3. Human Centered
4. Lean in the Right Places
5. Living the Story
The first two identify the context of your business and its external challenges; the second two are about designing and running the business in the smartest and most inclusive way; while the fifth is about communicating all of this, both inside the business and outside, in a way that gives your company a distinctive purpose and identity.
The fifth practice is also an active agent in making the other four happen. A while back, I created a model to show how strategic choices impact operational decisions, which in turn deliver at tactical level (including technology utilized.) It made it easier to observe how we often think we are acting strategically when we are instead operating at a tactical level sometimes with little support in way of processes and checks and balances in way of governance/risk.
So going a bit further in broadening applications and horizons, as in point one, provides ideas and insights into new applications — why when a business looks only inside its industry for practices and hires, they are at a clear disadvantage on this point, especially as it relates to horizontal competences like marketing and communications. For example, a consumer-facing app that has a B2B platform use case built into it. Two examples from the report:
Rolls-Royce sells flying hours, not aeroplane engines; Philips sells illumination, not lightbulbs
With the Internet of Things, the “technology of anticipation” has its uses and it creates a path for new ways of doing business, opening additional opportunities down the line.
The second item on the list is a major opportunity for some brands to get there first (again) by positioning themselves as problem solvers. “Business as usual” is a bad habit for business. I was reading a retail report on omni-channel difficulties in store# earlier today. As eCommerce sites and experiences improve, physical stores are constantly in catch up mode — understaffed, undersupplied (sizes, colors, skus), and underwhelming in terms of product information. Online experiences and access spoiled us.
Investing in employees is an investment in customers. Technology may change rapidly, we are still going by the law of evolution and skirting the issue of humans and the richness they bring to business lowers appeal. It baffles me how so many organizations put people through hoops just to get an interview, for example, instead of being prolific in getting to know more diverse talent through collaborations. Further, every single company says they pride themselves in hiring the best talent (dubious because of the previous point on process) and then when the talent joins, they become idiots because they are employees. Bring proof it is not so and I sign up to work with your business/brand.
The fourth practice is about being lean in the right places — responsive, iterative, agile — vs. trying to cut your way into greatness. It does not work beyond parity as in staying in place, or incremental improvements. Many businesses do that for a bit, then face a cliff. Be smart, be scrappy, but don’t be cheap.
Where can your business learn the most? What future costs can be avoided by spending money now?
I do 95% of my food shopping at Trader Joe’s these days. Why? They do not have the largest selection — Whole Foods does, I live near a gynormous super store one — they have honest pricing, good products (I buy lots of vegetables and fruit), and a happy staff. Let me say that again — I gladly give up many fancy products and coupons for a good experience. It makes food shopping a joy.
As for living the story, it warrants a whole post all by itself.
What businesses and brands are in your life because they make it easier, more fun, and human?