From Leadership

Five books you should read now and why

I certainly don’t read as much as Julien Smith, however I find books a great way to go deeper into a subject – a nice break from the snackable chunks of information you get while grazing the interwebs. I’m also quick to quit a book that isn’t delivering on its promise as I look for things that I can put into action within my life and work. If you can’t do this, then you’re just passively consuming information and might as well read some good fiction.

Here are five books I think you should read now and why:

Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman distill the essence of content marketing into an engaging read that arms you with the tools to implement quickly. After they present the rules, they provide examples of them in practice along with results achieved. This book is perfect for skeptics and those who are completely new to the practice. The key takeaway: if you’re not thinking like a publisher yet, it’s time to start.

The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block. This is one of those books that bends your mind a bit in a good way. It forces you to look at situations from another perspective and ask some tough, thought-provoking questions. It’s not a book for those who don’t like to think or want everything presented in a tidy bundle on a silver platter. And that’s why I like it. Too many books regurgitate the same stuff – particularly on leadership. If you’re open to changing your approach to solving problems, you’ll find this more than worth your time. This is also a book I wouldn’t have normally picked up and credit Valeria for the recommendation.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Technology has enabled almost anyone with an idea the tools to start a business. Spend any time perusing the myriad new startups vying for attention at SXSW or the 20,000 new products at CES and you quickly realize that path to success is and will be littered with many failures. While failure is a good way to learn, it’s best to minimize your risk in the process. That’s what this book helps you do. It shapes the path for efficient innovation and testing – to make sure you’re solving the right problem and iterating quickly through what Eric calls the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. You’ll learn to avoid waiting for your product to be perfect before testing it. It just needs to be good enough at the start.

Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom. Martin is a great storyteller who draws you in from the start. He details the many tricks marketers use to lure consumers into opening their wallets evermore. As a marketer, you may say you wouldn’t fall prey to these tactics but we do. Martin shows how our minds are hardwired to connect the dots brands want. He takes you through the way Whole Foods stacks up crates of fruit to suggest a fresh-from-the-farm delivery, to fish on ice for that ‘fresh from the sea’ feeling, showing how a trip through the store is an exercise in savvy marketing. And then there’s the power of celebrities, making of celebrities, including celebrity doctors to sell everything. It’s a great book for consumers and marketers alike to increase awareness of these tricks as a consumer (you’ll still fall for many of them), and thought provoking for how marketers can increase their effectiveness. I believe it’s a great companion to Marc Gobe’s Emotional Branding.

Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus. This is an oldie but it’s clear that most companies still have not received the memo on what makes for good customer service. You get the inside perspective of building a business from the ground up: from developing the product mix to weathering tough times, managing competing personalities and succession planning. While technology and the pace of change is obviously faster, Neiman-Marcus successfully navigated many of the themes that still affect business success today. The key is they never lost sight of the customer. Read this as well as Delivering Happiness about Zappos and you’ll understand how customer service is everyone’s job and a marketer’s best friend.

Shout Quietly

In the pursuit of qualified leads, marketers, when they’re not getting the response rates desired, are compelled to shout louder. To make bigger claims, so-called stronger offers and calls to action. Maybe inject a starburst or two. At the very least you’ll find one of these: !.


Yet still there’s no response. Why?


Because your customers are smart. They can smell your marketing – speak a a 1,000 pixels away. They see through your hollow claims and puffery. And ignore you. Because they know that once they fall for you flimsy claim, they’ll be disappointed. And even more jaded than the last time.

If it weren’t for the years they’ve been pounded with messages, you might have a chance. If it weren’t for the infinite number of channels they can go to, you might have a chance. It’s too easy to tune you out. And they know it. They have the power like never before.


When TV was born, advertising was new and shiny. The channels were few. Customers had to listen. It didn’t take long for ‘commercial’ to equate to bathroom break or time to make popcorn, but you didn’t have the clutter.


Now you have to work harder. Much harder. You have to make claims in plain, human language. Next generation, industry leading goodness doesn’t cut it.

No one wants to be sold.

The new buzzwords are join the conversation, engage and let’s have a relationship. Sounds warm and fuzzy – the right thing to do. But then again, customers don’t always want to have a relationship with you. They can’t have a relationship with every brand and service they purchase. Nor do they need one. Some are meant to be purchased and consumed.


I’m certainly not looking for a relationship with my olive oil of choice. Or my oil change service.

But a contractor? Or an accountant? Now that’s someone I want to get to know. And who I want to care about me. It’s tough to find a good one. Horror stories abound of contractors gone bad. Just ask Mike.


You still need to get the word out about what it is you do. You still need to confidently state why you’re the one people should choose. But it’s time for a much different approach. Forget SPAMMING and Screaming.


It’s time to shout quietly. What? A twist on the old show, don’t tell approach. Make every word count. Make your typography sing with  fine craftsmanship. Show that you care. As if you pasted each pixel on the page just so. Use images that not everyone else is using. How often do you see the same photos from iStockphoto used in a presentation? Or an ad? A lot. In fact, pay attention to the number of downloads on an image you’re thinking about. If it’s a lot, maybe you should find another one.


Keep it fresh. You know how a bowl of fresh fruit and fresh flowers make a room seem cleaner and shinier? Same goes with your marketing. We respond to what’s different.


When you pay attention to the craft – people notice. There’s a LOT of really GOOD stuff out there. The smallest details matter. Invest in them. Sweat them.  It’s the way you can shout quietly and still be heard. In fact you’ll be heard even more . . .


Finding your single most important point

We marketers are a funny bunch. At the beginning of each year we layout our grand plans for generating leads and growing revenue. We look at our wins and losses during the past year and project a nice increase for the new one. That’s our job, isn’t it? Always growing, always at the leading edge of our market? Last time I checked it was. We’re mostly optimistic about our prospects of hitting our targets.

So we create our media plans, craft email and direct mail campaigns and weave in a little social media to round it out and off we go. Through the internal review process making sure all stakeholders have an opportunity to weigh in. We agonize over each point. Each word. Hoping for the best, we launch then wait, measure, rinse and repeat.

And when we don’t get quite the results we’re looking for, we come back stronger, shouting louder and louder. Like a classroom of 28 Third-graders hopped on sugar at their Valentine’s Day party all talking at once.

It’s a cycle that plays out in companies around the world year after year. Each year it gets harder because our customers are getting smarter. And they have the tools to tune out everything we say on a whim. At best we’ve got a couple of seconds to grab their attention.

Part of the problem is that there’s simply too much of everything. Products, services, information – you name it. None of us really needs any more stuff. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show an estimated 20,000 new products were introduced. TWENTY THOUSAND!!! And that’s just the new products. Nevermind the line extensions and new versions of the old. Talk about competition.

I’d argue though that your toughest competition is time. You don’t have enough time to do everything you want. To read and learn everything you could to get ahead. Neither do your customers.

So what’s a marketer to do? Get clear on what it is you want to accomplish and now. Get tough on what you communicate in each of your initiatives. Take time to get to know the customer that means the most to you. And I mean really get to know them. Their aches, pains and why they get up in the morning. Only then will you know what you need to say to them to get their attention and have a fighting chance to win them over.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Getting down to one single but oh so important point. It’s not fancy nor requires any secret formulas. But it requires a strong, steady hand at the wheel to convince your internal stakeholders exactly what that point is. Everyone will have a different one. But someone – and that someone is you – needs to take all these internal inputs, compare against the external inputs and choose. And when you choose you put your reputation on the line. You’re taking a risk. If you’re right, you’re a hero. If you’re wrong, you have an even tougher job the next time.

It’s because few can do this well that there’s so much clutter and mediocrity in our messages and products. It’s why products are crammed with features we’ll never use.

What will it take for you to get to your single most important point?

Choosing a path with your eyes wide open

There’s a balance between being open to the new opportunities we’re not pursuing or seeing and focus.

What matters is looking at your current quest and validate against what else you could be investing your time in. Because always looking at those alternatives can be a distraction preventing you from fully committing and executing on your core vision. Yet making a choice and blindly following it is definitely not the way to go. I know this to be true. Because over a decade ago I fervently pursued a photography career, diligently researching the market, developing my skills and connecting with prospective buyers. I had a first-rate portfolio that resonated with many creative I connected with. Creatives that many of whom soon lost their jobs in the dot com crash. I can blame the economy and the rapid change the profession saw as it transformed to digital and it become easier and easier for anyone to make good pictures. To make it you had to be so much more. The pie was shrinking. Just as it is in so many other jobs that are disappearing today.

The other piece was me. I recognized that I wanted to do more than just make pictures. To play a bigger role in the process of building and leading creative teams. It took me awhile to recognize this because I was blind to it. I also didn’t trust myself to shoot the images I really wanted to shoot, focusing instead on what I thought the market wanted. Big mistake. I was slow to recognize where I really excelled and belonged.

I also know distraction. As someone who thrives on new opportunities, who wants to explore all the options before choosing, I’ve often found myself distracted and paralyzed. Especially since my first big commitment failed. It becomes easier not to choose or to put off making a choice until tomorrow while I continue looking at the possibilities. So days become weeks, weeks become months, and the months become years.

Lately I’ve come to think it was because I hadn’t settled on what that quest should be. My focus is on circling around, testing, validating, rejecting and iterating. More quickly and decisively. Absorbing the lessons I’ve learned before and allowing things to sit a bit – especially the euphoria of a new idea. If it’s still there in a month or mutates into something different but related, I know I’m getting closer.  I’m a late bloomer and know that the path I’ve taken thus far – bumpy, turbulent and haphazard has shaped me. It’s setting the stage for what’s next and I’m arriving at a new level of purpose and confidence and sense of forward momentum. I can see the path I need to choose and am taking it but remembering to enjoy the journey along the way. Because as Nike said long ago, there is no finish line. When we get where we think we want to go, the bar is raised, the goal moved and a new challenge awaits us.


A business case for nice.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how nice people get passed by for promotion in business because they’re not seen as competent or powerful. They’re not seen as the players that can make things happen as well as someone who doesn’t treat their teams or colleagues as well.  Apparently, power comes from putting others down, asserting superiority and having a commanding presence.

Based on experience, I do think there’s a lot of validity to this argument. Leading by fear can work to a point. And certainly exhibiting supreme confidence on the job is attractive.

But I really hate to think that you cannot succeed by treating people well. By showing respect, compassion and being basically a nice person. I think with nice leaders their strength and power is more subtle. It’s often hard to put a finger on. So we gravitate to the obvious power plays when looking for examples of strong leadership.

Nice often gets a bad rap. It’s seen as soft, frivolous and slow to get results. Yes, it can be. But being nice doesn’t mean you don’t have a backbone. It doesn’t mean you’re not confident and self-assured.

To be successful requires confidence and a willingness to take a stand even if others disagree with you. But you can still be nice about it. Not phony. But matter-of-fact, grounded, and open minded. It takes a sense of confidence to be willing to show vulnerability and admit when you’re wrong. And to me this is a powerful quality.

An example of nice in action is Zappos. I just finished Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh and find this proof that nice works. It was more powerful than I thought – the lengths they go to wow customers and treat their employees and vendors with respect. That there’s room for both sides to win. They worked hard to earn their success. It was not a certainty and there were many opportunities to fail. Yet they persevered to become wildly successful.

The board didn’t always like the nice. They wanted a focus on selling shoes over treating their employees so well. Yet it’s because these employees are treated well that they’re successful. Makes it easy to wow customers because of a passion for the company. You don’t get that with a sledgehammer.

They also have high standards for who they hire and things you can be fired for. Namely, not living the core values of the company. Core values everyone can commit to and measure results against. They’re baked into the culture. It’s because of these core values and strong culture that they can be nice. Because they hire and train for it. If you don’t invest in your company culture, then I believe nice doesn’t work so well. In that case nice equates to insincerity. You don’t get the buy in and passion from your employees. Customers don’t get the wow treatment and thus are less loyal. Not to mention less likely to refer.

Zappos also had to go through layoffs at one point yet did so with grace and openness. They were not afraid to do what was necessary for the business ahead of time. That requires strength and a belief in the vision by everyone top to bottom. And didn’t require sacrificing being nice.

When you hire against solid core values, you make it easier to be nice in the long term. You build a sustainable competitive advantage that doesn’t require you to be mean and underhanded.

Nice pays dammit. I refuse to think it doesn’t. Read Delivering Happiness and tell me if you don’t believe that. I know you can also find many examples when the opposite leads to success. Just don’t confuse nice with weak or flaky.  They’re too different things entirely.



Soak, Wash, Rinse, Spin – Leading in the 21st Century

That’s the title of Tolleson Design’s book on their work. But it’s just as appropriate for leadership:

  • Soak: listen, observe and internalize what’s going around you. Collect information. Unearth problems and discover solutions.
  • Wash: Sift through the data, determine what’s important and what can be discarded. Connect the dots
  • Rinse: Clarify your key points. Your vision. Connect the dots. Get rid of anything that adds clutter to your vision and mission.
  • Spin: Refine and simplify. Add supporting detail and color that makes your case matter. Inspire people into acting on your vision. Show them what could be. Spin is not about twisting the facts.
  • Repeat: It’s not a one-shot deal.  It takes a lot of repetition and practice for things to stick. To make change happen.

Leadership has many facets and styles and there’s not one right way to lead. But once you grasp the basics, you get there by doing. Again and again.

But has leadership really changed since centuries before? Are we more enlightened now or is leadership the latest cool thing? After all, 15 years ago or so you could hardly find a book on leadership and now there are whole sectioned dedicated to the art. And I do believe it is in art. Not everyone is good at it. Not everyone has the aptitude. And while you can read a bevy of books on leadership, it’s not something you can truly master without practicing and screwing a few things up in the process. And when you do, that’s when you practice the art of saying you’re sorry. Yes, humility is a key component of the 21st century leader. In years – wait – centuries past – it was more command and control. There wasn’t all this squishy soft stuff leaders today have to attend to. No, you could theoretically beat your subjects into submission. Lead by fear. Isn’t that how the Romans did it? How about Cortes? We hardly hear of the gentle, authentic leadership styles much discussed today.

I think it’s safe to say that leader as dictator is less successful today than in the past. Success as a leader comes from open collaboration, authenticity and inclusiveness. In fact, you can’t be a leader without followers. If people are not willing to follow you, what exactly are you leading? The events in Egypt the past few weeks are testament to that. Though the Egyptian government tried to squelch the flow of information, people found a way to connect. Even North Korea can’t completely prevent outside information from reaching its citizens.

Some still say fear is a motivator – and for those worried about their jobs, they’ll fall in line. To a point. Leaders that adopt this style may get some compliance but they’re not inspiring people to do their best. Rather, they’ll get the least amount of performance necessary. Not radical innovation. Mediocrity is not going to win for long.

And that’s what’s needed to solve the world’s problems today: Radical innovation. And radical sharing of information. The more information shared, the faster ideas and solutions build upon each other – and the benefits received by the collective whole. That’s why the businesses Lisa Gansky writes about in The Mesh are thriving. Think Netflix over Blockbuster. Think Zipcar. It’s all about information and translating that into innovation. Quickly.

Leaders also don’t have to be at the top. They can be at any level. In fact some of the best leaders push up from the bottom. Read Linchpin by Seth Godin for more on this. It’s about not being the cog: you have to be the one that holds it all together: be remarkable or be replaced.

On the surface, leadership is pretty simple: Be open, authentic, inclusive, communicate, collaborate, facilitate and have a vision. Build the map on how you’re going to achieve your audacious goals. But that’s why it’s hard. Enter fear. Enter obstacles. Most often leadership is not your average Hollywood movie where you solve the world’s problems in 118 minutes. It’s what happens at 119 minutes and beyond.

No, the toughest part of leadership today, is navigating change, knowing when to stay the course when everyone’s telling you you’re crazy and when to bail when people keep telling you to hang in there.

It’s an art. And it takes 10,000 hours to master. Leaders are tested daily. While you can establish core values, a mission and a vision, walking your talk and maintaining absolute ethics isn’t easy. It’s a slippery slope when you bend a rule here and there in the name of shareholder value. In the name of hitting those quarterly numbers.

In the 21st Century, I’d say trust is a defining quality that separates the best leaders from the average. It’s tough to earn and must be protected fiercely for you can lose it in a second. Or your next email. Build and cherish your relationships. Know what real respect is. How to earn it and how to show it. Most of all, master the art of humility and coming clean when things go wrong. As painful as mistakes and transgressions can be, and coming clean can be pretty scary, few people will kick you when you’re down. But they’ll go to great lengths to shred you if you cover it up. And the cover up will usually be uncovered. Just ask Elliott Spitzer or Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow or ?

I won’t leave you with a long list of qualities leaders must have – there are plenty of great ones already. But I thought I’d share a few of the books I’ve read that made a difference in how I approach leadership:

Authentic Leadership by Bill George – in which he talks about his challenges of overcoming his self-centeredness and began focusing on others. It’s also a great guide for how to be a CEO in the wake of so many scandals at the top. Written in 2003, the principles are just as relevant today.

Changing Minds by Howard Gardner – as a leader, you’re going to have to help others face change. You have to help people overcome resistance to it no matter how much they know change might be in their interest. He takes you through various theories and shows how they can be applied to different groups – uniform and diverse. He even shows you how to change your own mind. Fascinating stuff. I also recommend How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz: really helpful for those faced with increasing sales and wondering if you really need that extra line extension. Or maybe something radically different.

Resonate by Nancy Duarte – if you’re going to effect change, you’re going to need a convincing presentation. The 21st Century Leader says no to bad PowerPoint and yes to telling compelling stories simply and passionately. You want to leave your audiences motivated to act. Not rolling their eyes or reaching for another cup of Joe.

Know-How by Ram Charan. He takes you through 8 basic but important skills: positioning and repositioning, identifying external change, herding cats, judging and calibrating people, molding teams, setting goals, setting laser-sharp priorities and navigating external forces. Completely practical, actionable.

Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus. Whether you like Nieman Marcus or not, this is a great story about their history offering sound lessons in customer service, overcoming obstacles – the Great Depression and Wars – and building a sustainable business. He also discusses the quirky dynamics and struggles of running a family business. I’ve not yet read it, but Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh sounds like a nice follow up read to this.

There are obviously many other great books useful for leaders and I have a solid list in the que. But what’s more important is to start leading. Don’t wait for the opportunity. Once you internalize what leadership really means, go find your voice. Your vision. Start inspiring. Rinse and repeat.

Note – this is part of the weekend #UsBlogs, #UsGuys focus on the 21st Century Leader. See the others at the #UsBlogs hashtag on Twitter or a recap by Tom Moradpour.