You can't fire me - I don't work here

Need somebody to tell it to you straight? Suspect that one of your execs is just along for the ride? Looking for untapped potential within your business? Want to push yourself and your team this year?

For these types of goals, consider seeking outside help. There are people who specialize in providing impartial guidance as your team searches for clarity and pushes for alignment. Think of it as an insurance policy for a great year.

Consultants with experience in guiding executive teams are an invaluable resource because they specialize in identifying untapped potential and recognizing and highlighting signs of trouble before they become substantial problems. And they are the only people who will be truly honest with you because, unlike your management team and other staff, they are not afraid of being fired for asking questions that employees don’t like to ask, raising uncomfortable issues or criticizing your business approach.

So what can you expect from hiring such a consultant? Here are three common training approaches:

1. Day-long facilitations: brainstorming and “ideation”

Day-long sessions can focus on any topic, but for one-offs it’s good to stick to “brainstorming and ideation.” It’s easy for everyone at a company to play along with the status quo, believing that all ideas have been examined and that everyone is aware of what the rest of the team is thinking. This is rarely true.

Lunchtime conversations and hallway meetings can be valuable, but there’s no substitute for leaving your usual headspace (and the office, if possible) and working with someone who will provide a fresh look at your company. Because a third-party facilitator has limited knowledge of your company, they have the freedom to ask the “dumb” questions. A guided discussion of fundamental company principles is guaranteed to hold a few surprises for you and your executive team.

2. Two-day workshops: skill training and goal setting

Here’s a chance to clarify specific mandates from your business or strategic plan. Is there a company goal that relies on support from the entire team? Is everyone aware of their role in achieving success? Facilitators should be carefully chosen for these workshops. It’s vital to isolate your company’s need or want and then do your research to find the best person and system to lead your team. This type of session can include your entire executive team or be divided into sub-groups as appropriate.

3. Full-week immersion: alignment and year-long focus

Many companies do this yearly. It’s the big one, so carefully consider the session’s size, scope, duration and location. The goal is alignment. For example, if you have one person controlling 300 staff you want to be confident that their vision corresponds exactly with that of the company.

Before this session it is often worthwhile to warm up your team with a visioning and goal-setting process designed to get them into the appropriate mindset. Immersion sessions are no small event, so be sure to plan well in advance. Team members are taking time out of their lives and devoting large amounts of headspace to the project.

Are you considering seeking outside help? Here are three questions to ask:

Is this an alignment problem? How would I know if it is?
Do I need to shake up my team a little bit?
Is this an important year? Would some extra insight be valuable for our annual plan?

Finding the right consultant is not a task to be taken lightly. Workshops and retreats are an intimate process and it’s imperative to find a facilitator with the appropriate skills and background to meet your company’s needs. Research carefully. Do they have video testimonials from recognizable clients? Or just a collection of written statements from unidentifiable sources? Ask for references – and contact them. Speaking to past clients can give valuable insights into a facilitator’s compatibility with your executive team. And don’t be afraid to ask about their past projects – any good consultant will be happy to share success stories with you.

Want to win in your marketplace? Stop dreaming

So your competitor is doing better than you, are they? Why did that happen?

You have been in business for a few years now, have a handful of employees and are still struggling to get by. You meet someone at an event who is in the same marketplace as you, with the same product or service, with the same time in the market. Difference is, they have 10 times more employees and customers.

Could it be they are infinitely smarter than you? Or could it be that they understand the client in a way that you don’t?

I have been in business long enough to know the first is not usually the case. I would like to share an idea – better, a process – to get past the obvious in the pursuit of that little bit of magic that seams so hard to attain.

Stop dreaming. Yes, I did say that. But why did I say that? Go to YouTube and search for “Epic Fail X Factor” or any of the other talent shows all over the planet. I do love watching the talented people – but it’s when you watch the ones that are not so talented you can really learn something about human beings. Or, better yet, you can learn about how we limit ourselves by focusing our future on things we are simply not capable of.

I want to be clear: I am not really saying don’t dream – I am saying get to know yourself and stop living in a dream. This is true not only for businesses but also for people.

For example, when I brand and position companies, I focus on who they have been, what they have done, I use evidence. Stop telling me things that haven’t happened. The fact is everything you have done or thought got you to where you are today. My job is not to sell you an ad campaign that I made up out of thin air – my job is show you in the best possible light.

Think of it this way – when you go to buy clothing do you ask the person to give you cloths that might fit you in five years? No, you get clothes that fit you today and that you are comfortable in. So what made you comfortable in those clothes? They don’t only fit your body, but they also fit your personality and lifestyle.

Most advertising that we are subjected to is essentially a pissing contest in which each undercuts the other and simply tries to confuse the buying public. Is that really fair? Here is another way to approach it. The best product doesn’t actually win – the best campaign does. Go one step deeper, the best ad agency wins. So what do you value? Do you value confusing people to make money or do you value bringing something to the world that you can be proud of?

It is easier to purchase the same clothes as others, the ones that are hot right now – but seriously, get some self-esteem and buy something that actually fits you. Go to an agency that will work with you and not just dazzle you with ideas.

Here are things to look for when trying to avoid agencies that will just package you with a meaningless flashy idea pitch.

How much emphasis do they put on getting to know you? One to three hours doesn’t cut it. It should take a few weeks just to get a proposal – and then a few more weeks of question asking (make sure they have thought these questions out – check their references).
Are you dealing with a salesperson or the actual strategist? A strategist means someone with deep knowledge and experience of the topic who can relate that to you. It does not mean someone who thinks a lot and charges you for it.

If disappearing into a market will make you money then please, forget you read this. But if all your competitors are in a pissing contest and you want to win, read this a few more times and ponder for a while before you sink your money into the next great idea package.

You're a perfectly fine company - so why don't I like you?

Why a customer's choice of products or services often comes down to what feels right - and how to tap into that.

Have you ever had to choose between two products that were almost identical? What made you pick one over the other? Assume that a potential client has seen your advertising and is comparing you to one of your competitors. How can you tighten up your brand and company to ensure that they choose you?
Have you heard or said any of these statements?

  • "I have a feeling about these guys"
  • "Everything seems to be in order"
  • "This just feels right"

As a brand strategist, this is my business. This is not capturing an audience through advertising or marketing – rather it's creating a brand experience that inspires a particular feeling.

Imagine that every element of your company has a red X (bad) or green checkmark (good) on it: shop space, offices, website, letterhead, packaging, storekeeper, salesperson, car, watch, business card ... everything. Read the title of this article again, "You're a perfectly fine company – so why don't I like you?"

As a customer experiences your brand (website, advertising, store visit, staff interaction, etc.) those Xs and checkmarks will act like a subconscious scorecard. If you score below your competitor, you've lost a customer.

So what creates that positive or negative feeling about a company, product, service or person? Often it isn't the obvious, but a gut feeling. This is why I leave nothing to chance when detailing a client's company and brand. I don't want them to lose business after failing a "gut check" because of a minor item like cheap business card paper or a messy waiting room. Remember, every element of your brand contributes to the experience.

Here is what I would like you to do this month - be picky and critical about your brand. Don't cut any corners, but if there is something you can improve quickly - DO IT! A few places to start looking:

  • Website: Do you have "under construction" pages with cute animations of someone digging a hole? Delete them.
  • Print materials: Maybe you moved a year ago and corrected your address with stickers or white out? Print new ones and recycle the old.
  • Office: Get rid of the plastic plants!

Of course I have given business to companies with many red Xs on their scoresheet, but those companies don't often earn my loyalty. Just like finance is about money, branding is about feelings. So be a smart competitor - make your company "feel" like the right choice.



It's all been done before - or has it?

I have never been a fan of that statement because it implies that we're doomed to a lifetime of repetition. I see the world offering an endless, ever-changing array of opportunities. A complementary statement is that each of us has more potential than we may think; and the possibilities evolve along with our life experiences.
Most of my life has been spent trying to understand my medium for self-expression. This quest left me feeling that my personal brand was inconsistent – even schizophrenic – until I recognized a pattern. I have always been searching out creative projects that involved enjoying the company and talents of other people. This has led to experiences in the music industry, film and television, construction, advertising, branding and now public speaking and writing.

Do you have a personal brand? Of course you do. This does not mean a logo and website. It means that you affect people and situations on an emotional level with every interaction. In fact, you probably even influence them when you aren't present. That is branding.

Earlier in life you had no choice but to play along and see what happened. But with experience you learned to take an active role in your interactions – choosing what to wear, where to go and who to associate with. This is personal brand management and marketing.

In a speaking engagement a few weeks ago I discussed this concept and during question period a woman asked me if her company name was her brand. The answer is no. The name represents the brand but it takes time for its true meaning to develop and for people to associate the name with that meaning. Think of the name of a close friend – instantly your brain paints a picture of them and you begin to feel an emotional response. Now think of the name of someone just met – the response is likely more of a shallow impression.

Think of what it takes to understand a close friend – the time investment, energy spent nurturing the relationship, and dedication to personal growth. This is how you need to think about your company and the people associated with it: employees, stakeholders, clients and, of course, yourself. You must also understand the company itself. Maybe you already do, but consider the possibility that there are things you have overlooked. Remember that you are only one side of the equation.

I'm offering no "five ways to…" bullet-pointed task list this month – just a single concept. Think of ways to personify your company, keeping in mind that "it hasn't all been done." Sure, you and I may both sell cups, but we're also both unique. So dig a little deeper – why do you sell cups? Who are your influences? Why do you choose particular brands, or create what you create, or think the way you do? This is what makes your company unique and is the root of your true value.

Trendsetters unite! Help me show the "it's all been done before" crowd that they're wrong.