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Summer To-Do List: Deep Work with a Beach Ball

In my closing session at last month’s CohereOne Integrated Marketing Summit, I shared several concepts from authors’ work whose messages have significantly influenced my strategic branding work.  In case you missed the Summit (a wonderful gathering of curious, smart and growth-oriented marketers, merchants and creatives!), may I suggest you add this excellent and thought-provoking book to your reading list this summer:  Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott.

Scott firmly believes that the conversations people have truly are the relationships. She is an advocate for real dialogue and honest tête-à-têtes. “The simplest definition of a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, into the conversation, and make it real. While most people are uncomfortable with real, it is the unreal conversations that should scare us to death. Why? Because they are incredibly expensive, for organizations and for individuals. Most organizations want to feel they are having a real conversation with their employees, their customers, and their evolving marketplaces. And most individuals want to feel they are having conversations that build their world of meaning.” She is against image management, false corporate nods (where you seemingly agree but have no intention of following that particular course of action) and hiding behind the status quo.

Pay special attention to Scott’s analogy of a beach ball.  She writes brilliantly and helpfully on the topic of silos and uses the beach ball to make her point. She says that people in the various divisions of a company naturally work all day every day in their specific colored stripe (accounting, marketing, customer service, operations, merchandising, etc.) and therefore see all corporate decisions through that particular color or lens. They see a red perspective all day, or a green or a blue or a yellow perspective. We need each of those subject matter expert perspectives, but even more, we need a more comprehensive, outer-directed view as well. Customers look at a company and its actions holistically; they see the entire beach ball. Think about your own experience: If you try to order an item online and it’s out of stock, you don’t necessarily fault the forecasting or inventory department, you simply get frustrated with the company overall.  The more that companies can operate as a beach ball culture, collaborating, talking across desks with one another, seeing things from multiple perspectives, putting the needs of the customers first vs. their own departments, the better.

I have been introducing Scott’s work to all my clients for years, and I give them a large inflatable beach ball as a visible reminder of the importance of gathering their cross functional teams together to do the deep work of brand experience building and refreshing. Scott has important lessons for brand-builders. These meaningful, collaborative, growth-oriented conversations will bear fruitful returns.

Companies accomplish de-siloed beach ball-esque behavior in several ways.  James J. Schiro, CEO of Zurich Financial Services, doesn’t use the term beach ball, but believes in the importance of listening and sharing companywide. In an interview in The New York Times, Schiro said that the most important leadership lesson he’s learned “is to listen and to make people understand that you are listening to them. You’ve got to have a sense of inclusiveness. The other most important thing is making people understand the strategy and the message, and be out in front of the people so that they actually understand the mission.”

Procter and Gamble has “huddle rooms” to encourage collaboration. Other companies have blogs, or their versions of fireside chats. The Ritz Carlton has a tradition called the “lineup” which President and COO Simon Cooper explained in Forbes: “The concept comes from the early restaurants of France, where the chef got the whole team and all the waiters and waitresses and the maitre d’ together at 5:30 in the evening. It’s a sort of round table. Everybody is there. The chef communicates what they are going to be serving. For the Ritz-Carlton, we want every single hotel, everywhere in the world, every partner, every shift to utilize lineup which typically takes around 15 minutes every day. Part of the lineup everywhere around the world is a ‘wow story,’ which means talking about great things that our ladies and gentlemen have done. That is a wonderful training and communication tool, where every department layers on the department message. And, it’s based on having the same message everywhere, every day and then each hotel layers on its own message.”

How well and how often do you listen to people in different stripes than yours?

I believe that there is a direct correlation between how well companies listen to one another and how well they listen to their customers. Companies that have developed good listening skills internally usually take those same skills with them externally in connecting with their customers. Michael Dell has long been an advocate of customer listening: “These conversations are going to occur whether you like it or not….do you want to be part of that? My argument is that you absolutely do. You can learn from that. You can improve your reaction time. And you can be a better company by listening and being involved in that conversation.”  Mark Jarvis, Dell’s chief marketing officer believes that “listening to our customers is the most perfect form of marketing you can have.”

In an interview with Harvard Business, Dick Harrington, former CEO of Thomson Reuters, shared emphatically that “it always comes back to the customers and you have to manically know your customers and drive everything from that.” While many business leaders will give the corporate nod to this, not everyone actually puts this into practice. “The biggest reason people don’t do this,” Harrington says, “and we’ve seen it a lot, is that they think working in an industry a long time means they know everything about the customers’ needs.”

When leaders invite me into their brands to conduct these kinds of sessions and I bring my insider-outsider perspectives in the areas of strategic branding, merchandising and creativity from a multi-industry background, my clients find that the sessions have long term ramifications – positive consequences like renewed energy, focus, team cohesiveness and inspiration in addition to brand enhancement and customer engagement ideation.

This summer, may I encourage you to grab a beach ball, pull together your group genius team and take some quality time to think deeply about your brand focus, your company’s holistic experience as perceived by your customers and your ability to bring amazingly useful solutions to your customers’ pain points.

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