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Over the last several weeks executives from both Fortune 500 and mid-market companies, in talking about limits to top performance, said the big barrier to their personal and team success was not understanding where their company was going or what the Big Idea was. 

It’s the vision thing. 

Vision is often hard to define but starts with the leaders of organizations.  P&G’s vision states, in part: “We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers.” Its vision is anchored in improving the lives of its customers.  Similarly, Wal-Mart’s vision focuses on consumers:  “The values that guide our decisions and our leadership are the 3 Basic Beliefs: • Respect for the Individual • Service to our Customers • Striving for Excellence. “ 

Where is this going? Ideas create exponential value, up or down.  Ray Kurzweil, a well known inventor, futurist and author, argues that because technology is growing exponentially, the future we will experience is not linear. Just look at current events in Egypt if you want confirmation of exponential progression of ideas from thought to action.  Using the Internet, a small group of activists has quickly mobilized millions to protest. 

Management has to think in this new dimension. The rate of change has become exponential. Vision, translated into action, creates monumental change.  For example, Rupert Murdoch’s recent launch of “The Daily” promises a revolutionary new publication exclusively on the iPad.  My sense is that this project is going to change the publishing industry by disseminating news to consumers on a profitable basis. The Daily integrates text, video, audio and tactile experience into news. The vision is that the under-35 audience gets its media from the Internet, not print or TV. Hence, make news and information available where people look for it, in ways that consumers are willing to pay. Fifteen million iPad users will determine if the vision translates into reality. 

On the other hand, action without vision has the potential for disaster. The GM Volt electric car illustrates the idea. One can argue there is a dream of a green planet, but the Volt exercise is only possible to the extent that government subsidies prevent financial failure. 

Without a unifying vision of what “green” means, establishing the concept in consumers’ beliefs and enabling a process to build infrastructure are not possible; thus, individual projects are destined for economic failure.  If “green” is the real vision and not a day dream, it seems to me that government and companies would sponsor rapid development of technologies such as thorium-based nuclear energy because the technology is particularly well-suited for use in molten-salt reactors, or MSRs, eliminating the risk of meltdown. Simultaneously, leaders in the US would exploit the natural advantages our country has with coal and natural gas to facilitate a “green” vision that is economically viable. These are viable infrastructure-based energy sources that enable low cost electricity, which in turn would catalyze exponential innovation in battery design and manufacture, thus leading to rapid adoption of electric vehicles at the expense of petroleum-based fuels. 

We all dream of a better life, a stronger company and a fulfilling family. It’s the vision of making those dreams happen that translate thought to strategies, strategies to plans, and plans to action. Sharing those visions and plans inspires those around us to join, multiplying results exponentially.

 

Virtually all executives and entrepreneurs I talk with focus on clarity of objectives, strategic initiatives and tactics as they help energize their team environments. They / we are cognizant of building team rapport to advance collaboration, establishing appropriate financial and other incentives based on performance and even exploiting technology to facilitate communication. We share a heightened awareness of task focus while achieving benchmarks that are tied to ROI attainment.

I was recently involved with a large project that failed to reach or sustain any major objective despite the fact that each member of the group was a world class knowledge expert, motivated to succeed and for the most part, energized. What was overlooked in the process was the cultural (belief and value) system individuals within the team held. Those individual systems filtered the interpretation or meaning of verbal and non - verbal communication.

We spent zero time exploring interpersonal value system differences even though the men and women were from three different cultures, lived in five different states, grew up under different social systems and even different religions. All these factors influenced how timetable driven, ROI centered project leader's behaviors were felt and acted on by others.

The end result was a break down in TRUST. This experience, where two separate team members held their own self - esteem as the priority value, was clearly out of line with what the balance of the team held as number one - shared achievement. This known but unappreciated reality continuously sabotaged the project.

As a result, I am now personally, and recommend to client presidents and leaders, conscious of the role trust plays in performance. The basic three components of trust must simultaneously be balanced: a) formal trust i.e. title, contract, b) informal i.e. personal communication - friendship and c) trust built around performance competencies.

When there is a breech in trust, behavior is affected. People grow frustrated, productivity declines, fear and even hostility increase which results in team conflict. Inter-personal barriers evolve and individuals disengage, ultimately crashing projects.

I see an evolving role of leadership and management re-balancing the goal and task, timetable driven orientation to one where awareness of cultural and psychological underpinnings of trust are championed. As academic as it sounds, in our culturally diverse world, we need to foster agreement on the hierarchy of values as they relate to project objectives and ROI.

Many business owners (going concern or pre-revenue) are surprised that a key starting point for MacDuff Partners' engagements, after conducting a 360° business audit, is to begin defining a company's brand. We start with "brand" based on experience that strongly demonstrate branded companies and products lead to superior profitability.

Brand is the character of a business, along with the essence of what is promised and delivered to customers every day. As important to company owners, brand strategy provides the organizing concept, a theme, from which to lead an entire company. By extension, having a clearly articulated brand integrates the company's vision and mission and is the platform for sustainable wealth creation when the company is sold.

As small business owners struggle accepting brand as the core asset for a company, it appears management of Fortune ones do as well. A recent article in Advertising Age discussed a finding that on a global basis only P&G and Reckitt Benekiser communicate the importance of brand to the bottom line. The article summarizes a global survey by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in the UK covering the top 50 marketing spenders on all continents.

Ad Age gives an example of P&G as a thought leader in business communication based on their annual reports. The article pointed out that P&G's marketing strategy was integrated into the company's overall business commentary. A.G. Lafley, Chairman, explained throughout the report on a brand-to-brand basis how his company's focus on innovation and understanding customer needs delivers high value. (See our discussion of customer focus.)

An analyst, Seamus Gillen, concluded:"There's a correlation between how a company talks about its business and how it runs its business. The stronger the role played by brands in generating a company's revenues, the more important it is for there to be appropriate disclosure on the role of brands in developing and delivering the value proposition." Net, net, even for publically traded companies, strong brands translate to revenue, and revenue to value, thus value to wealth.

Many books and programs are dedicated to methods and practices for developing brands. Look in the MacDuff "Resources" section from some tools to use. A terrific quick read on brand building was written by Allen Gorman, President of Brandspa, "Briefs for Building Better Brands".

All business owners must spend time re-thinking the value of their company's and product's brands. Despite day to day operating challenges, time conflicts and emotional hurdles we go through running our businesses, long term brand equity is the critical asset for wealth creation.

We are working with colleagues to construct new wealth creating business strategies in the wake of unprecedented growth in federal government control over free markets.

The first strategy is to actively pursue markets congress and the administration legislate into existence.The second is to pursue innovation and nimbleness to accelerate go to market efforts. The third is to investment spend on people and brand so as to minimize taxes while creating a strongly branded company with an up-beat, can-do team of employees. We believe those ideas, executed soundly, create a company the is ultimately more salable in any environment and is the platform for wealth creation and freedom.

The rhetorical question is this:"Is wealth, by definition, the new social quicksand?". In a period when local governments claim eminent domain to confiscate one taxpayer's property and deliver it to another for "common good", in a period when Government deems one company's bonus policy (AIG) unconscionable and another's  (Fannie Mae) acceptable,  one company too important to fail (GM) and another not (Lehman Brothers), we lose the connection between market performance and customers and enter one where bureaucrats decide winners and losers. 

Coincidentally, I have been re-reading "Civil Disobedience" written by Henry Thoreau, published in 1849. The US at that time was struggling with the political and moral "correctness" of slavery and the war with Mexico. His reflections are as relevant today when we face different problems, 160 years after he published them.

Thoreau speculated on individual responsibility in democracy and cynically observed:

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or  backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing  with right and wrong, with moral questions; and  betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the  voters is not staked.  I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not  vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am  willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation,  therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.

Simply, voting is an essential part of a democracy, but generally is only a feel good exercise in personal responsibility. Elected officials do what they want, not necessarily what they were voted into office to do.

As a capitalist, I am shocked by the government's egregious seizure of power and consequential loss of our economic and personal freedom that directly and proportionately evolves. By simple ukase, industries are born like the one for ethanol, and others killed like domestic oil and gas exploration.

I stand in wonder over the seismic change we face. Thoreau made a statement that goes to explain the paradox private citizens encounter with government citizens:

There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State [sic. politicians, my translation]comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

While Thoreau was talking about slavery and citizens' behavior / association with it he said:

...All men recognize the right of revolution; that is,  the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the  government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are  great and unendurable.

His solution was to stop paying taxes. A tax revolt to him was a non violent revolution. To me that is a naive but elegant solution that is not workable today but becomes a strategic element of a business practice. Together we may force government citizens to think hard about real solutions to our common problems.

In an prescient statement, Thoreau's conclusion about politicians is more apt today than probably it was 160 years ago:

There are  orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the  thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his  mouth to speak who is capable of settling the  much-vexed questions of the day.  We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any  truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may  inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the  comparative value of free trade and of freedom, of  union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no  genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of  taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures  and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit  of legislators in Congress for our guidance,  uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the  effectual complaints of the people, America would not  long retain her rank among the nations.

Quicksand is the footing we are in now. There is no action certain, but know that "when in doubt, do something". Something to me is reinvesting in our businesses, our employees and our customers in terms of service and experience to build solid greatness in real terms and not simply with words.