Christopher Zook’s article on why companies with strong founders are more innovative, generate a greater number of patents, and more valuable patents at that, and are proactive in investing in and adapting their business model is a reminder to all of the very human qualities required to keep a company (and its brands) growing.
In his article on how to outperform, Zook highlights the traits that are easily lost as companies turn inwards for reference, become slower as their risk aversion increases, and lose sight of the need to stay urgent. Here are four take-outs that, for me, summarise the spirit that brands must retain if they want to continue to prosper.
- Keep what motivated you to start. Great brands tell and retell themselves and their customers the story of why they started. This isn’t about chronology. It’s about staying true to the opportunities that the founders saw and pursuing the broader principles of that through time; respecting your history without wallowing in it.
- Own the revolution. Strong companies are very clear about not just why they started and what they intended to achieve, but also what they are committed to overthrowing. Zook and the co-author of his latest book, James Allen, refer to this as “business insurgency”. Every great brand has an element of upheaval – because unless you are intending to rock the boat, your brand will almost certainly lack the zeal to step up. So many brand owners I talk to lack this rebel spirit. The best by contrast have always been those intent on changing the world. Purpose drives everything they do, and everything they do is evaluated against progress towards that purpose.
- Front-foot for the frontline. Great companies understand the power of detail, especially in service industries. To that end, they’re always looking for ways to make their frontlines go faster and better. They hold up the people who do that work as heroes. They keep them up to date with what’s going on. They draw on their feedback to influence policy and strategies. When brands consciously or subconsciously separate their workforces into thinkers and doers, service and sales, head office and regions – or whatever other distinctions they use – they instigate a self-righteous narcissism that never bodes well. Just as the fish rots from the head, so the power comes from the tail. The people often seen as being at the ‘end’ of the corporate supply line are actually the ones who make brands real, approachable and human. If they don’t own the brand, no-one will.
- Act with personal energy. Too many brands are managed, not led. It’s easy to avoid risky decisions, push initiatives into wide socialisation circles and delay timing. That is not a founder’s mentality. As Zook points out, “founders have the moral authority to make the hard choices, they know the detail of the business and have better instincts, and they have a long-term perspective on investments and building a company that lasts”. In other words, act like you own the brand – in a good way. Just as founders step up in their lives and draw energy from the risks to make decisions that others wouldn’t dare, so brand leaders need to take professional responsibility for what happens on their watch and through their teams. I’ve watched too many defer doing that in the interests of ‘keeping the peace’, which, in reality, meant they weren’t prepared to back their own decisions.
If you think about your targets for the year and your strategy, how many brand-or-break decisions has your team set itself to make in 2016? And here, I’m not just talking about business-as-usual releases and campaigns. I’m talking about strategic deliverables that fundamentally affect your competitiveness.
If the number and/or significance of those decisions hasn’t changed in some time, chances are your brand is stalled. If on the other hand the decisions you’re making are even more significant than last year, push your brand harder than ever and are increasing the influence and results of your brand beyond organic growth, congratulations. As Christopher Zook might say, you’ve found the way to channel your inner founder.