Mother’s Day is Not Just for Mother

tumblr_oqft68B1K21ta0hnbo1_1280For the past few years, I’ve been celebrating Mother’s Day by tweeting ‘Momisms’ – those things my mom said to me and the ones I’ve said to my own kids. But this time around it occurred to me that at least some of them might be useful for business. I know…your boss, co-workers, and employees aren’t your kids. But you do have some responsibility for them, don’t you?

Here’s an annotated selection for 2017.

First, a few from my school years, slightly updated for millennials.

Get your nose out of that (e)book and go find someone to play with.

My mom never knew what an ebook was, but she was right about the books that I – over-thinking eight-year-old – had my nose buried in. (They weren’t even slightly racy. They were math and science. I was only eight and boys were still in the theoretical realm, if you get my drift.) What she knew – and what I’m suggesting now – is that there are things you can accomplish with other people that you can’t do yourself. So, get your face out of your phone and if you don’t have a team or a tribe, go do some F2F networking.

Try it. It’s good to learn what you don’t like, too.

This one dates back to the beginning of my life as a full-fledged teenager. It was mom’s way of saying you could go on a date and it was okay to decide (after it was over) that once was enough. But at least you tried, and your reward was in learning about what didn’t work for you. Being married to dad for a really long time, she wasn’t much help with the more complicated situations, but still, she got her point across… Probably accounting for the first seven pages of my resume. So, risk it, millennials. You don’t care about resumes anyway, so just make everything a learning experience.

Use tech carefully. It goes on your permanent record.

I believed mom when she told me that all that trouble we got into with the principal’s secretary (by messing with her mechanical Fridan desk calculator) would forever be emblazoned in our permanent records. (We were not hacking the cloud, we just tried dividing by zero…) This was, of course, long before you could use STEM and girl in the same sentence. But, that was then, and now there is nothing you want more on your permanent record than the fact that you are an awesome coder, have thousands of followers, and are launching the coolest startup ever next month. Just be careful, because when certain tech achievements get on that record, strange men may start following you. With checkbooks.

The next group of momisms are memories from the beginnings of my own foray into motherhood. If you haven’t gone there yet yourself, be warned: everything your mother said will be right there, just waiting to drop out of your mouth, even as your brain is yelling, “Arghhh, I really hated hearing this when I was a kid.” It’s Mother Nature’s revenge, I think. But I used these momisms when the kids were little, and yet they grew up to be pretty nice human beings.

These are all relatively simple, which is key when you’re dealing with kids. Or stressed-out adults.

Sit up straight. Stand up straight. Be straight with others.

The only failures are the people who give up before they succeed.

Be curious, take initiative. It’ll get you through most of life.

Respect mom every day and you can forget the card.

Make mom happy. Just be a good person.

Experience is a great teacher, but only if you learn from it.

Always ask if you can help clear the table or wipe the dishes.

Ok, that last one might require just a tiny bit of ‘momsplaining.’ What she meant (and then what I meant) is that it’s so much more fun to give than to take. Especially orders. What she didn’t tell me is that it could also be called a pre-emptive strike.

Which takes us to today, which is the day I really get that you never lose your history, but you bring it into everything you do. And, if your mom can’t call to say you misquoted her or, more likely, you totally misremembered whatever that was that caused you to think that, you get to gently edit those wonderful momisms of the past.

Do not hire jerks. They will turn your culture into sludge.

Mom didn’t say it exactly that way, but she was pretty clear when she said, “The company you keep is the person you become.” Or something like that. If you’re an entrepreneur, like me, you want your team to keep the culture clean, open, and welcoming of everyone, no matter their externals.

Give other people credit. Cash too when you can.

It may have been dad who came up with this one, but I’m sure mom agreed. And in full disclosure, they were both union members, so no business owner’s mindset there. Still, whether you’re an entrepreneur, intrapreneur, or worker-by-the-hour, you can give people credit. (And really, if you’re one of those CEOs who takes out 200 times what your average worker earns, just think for a moment about what happened to the Gordon Gekkos of the 80’s. Maybe greed really isn’t so good.)

And finally, the most important lesson of all.

The art of living invariably includes the art of loving. And vice versa.

Thanks, mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

What I Learned From My First Seven Jobs

static-playbillThere’s a meme making its way around the web in which people name their first seven jobs. Such recollections often involve typical teenage ventures like mowing lawns and selling lemonade. Sometimes people even brand them as ‘my first entrepreneurial journey,’ or claim to have gained great insight from the experience. I won’t. Because the fact is, I really did not want to do any of my first seven. I didn’t do them for love. At the time, I was strictly in it for the money.

That doesn’t mean I can’t recast them now, in the light of how I might have (with stress on ‘might’) learned something that’s now indispensable to my business self. Can’t say with any honesty that any of these jobs were truly meaningful, to me or the world, in any way. Certainly none of them were even remotely as soul-fulfilling as what I’m doing now.

First job: Babysitter. I was thirteen, and ‘teen’ was my primary qualification. Well, that, plus my ability to play the gender card. Babysitting, perhaps the only job in which girls were the preferred candidates over boys, was easy to get…especially in the summer. It consisted mainly of sitting on the porch, swatting mosquitos, reading trashy novels, and hoping that all the kids stayed asleep – and I stayed awake – until the parents came home.

Lesson learned: Taking care of other people’s kids is boring. Note to self, do not try to manage interns when you can get someone else to do it.

Second, I was an office girl. That is not a misprint. It was an actual job title. The office girl was the one who was expected to answer the phone and smile. She was not expected to lift packages or get within a mile of any heavy machinery. Ok, so there are tradeoffs in everything. I did learn the fundamentals of bookkeeping, pre-QuickBooks.

Lesson learned: It is important to know who the real boss is. In family companies, it’s the guy whose name is on the papers in the locked file, not the one you report to who you call ‘Mister’ and everyone else calls ‘Sonny.’ Unless, that is, his name really is Sonny.

Third, I was a bookkeeping assistant. Now, to dissuade anyone who’s thinking, “Aha, she really knows how to build a resume,” I want you to know I got this job because the overworked bookkeeper was my aunt. (Side note: the previous job was gotten because a friend of mother’s wanted to take whole the summer off. They really wanted her to come back, so they agreed. I don’t know what she told them about me, but I suspect she added a few years to my real age – fifteen at the time.)

Lesson learned: If you make a bookkeeping mistake, you absolutely, positively, have to correct it. Because in some areas of business, there are no secrets. (I learned some other stuff in that job too, about boys who were planning to be the Sonny in their dad’s business, but that stuff is not for this publication at this time.)

So I had gained real experience in the world of business. I knew how to calculate taxes and manage a payroll, where the most important thing was getting the right amount in each pay envelope. I knew how to write a deposit slip for my bank account, which paid interest. And I knew that I needed to graduate college because no way was I ever going to learn to type.

My fourth job really wasn’t much of a job, in that it had no other requirement than being a college freshman. But it brought in more money than babysitting, so it counts. The job consisted of being an experimental psychology subject. And here I came away with more than just cash. I figured out their trade secret!

Lesson learned: No matter how authoritative someone looks, do not believe them until they have proved themselves to be unassailably trustworthy. (This was quite useful in a time when ‘question authority’ and ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ were wildly popular slogans of youth culture.)

Fifth job (so soon?):  A couple of college instructors had a side gig finding smart young people to do intensely boring work that required high-level reading ability. The job was called ‘Survey Answer Coder’ and yes, I qualified. In fact, I was probably close to the edge of being overqualified, at least in the reading dimension.

Lesson learned: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Because life is short, and bored is a terrible way to live. Even for a four-hour shift.

Next in line – I took on the job of a nanny, making my sixth job the first one I ever accepted, knowing I would hate it. Now if you have been reading attentively, you know that I was not a great match for babysitting. But I was in college, I needed money, and I was still a girl. Who couldn’t type.

Lesson learned: Job title does not matter. How you are expected to interact with other people, including children, matters. A lot.

Mercifully, I finally graduated. My major in psychology qualified me for two jobs. One was ‘research assistant,’ which meant I would have to type at least 35 words a minute. (Apparently most non-typists could do this, as long as they knew the alphabet.) I ended up doing the other one because it paid more and typing was optional.

And so my seventh job was as a social worker in a major city with more than its share of social problems. I don’t think I solved any, although I know that in some people’s minds, I probably added to them. Turned out that social change or benefit really wasn’t even on my employer’s agenda, so I joined the union and helped organize.

Lesson learned: The lesser of two evils is still evil. And nothing is more evil than not being able to make meaningful contributions to something bigger than yourself.

I am, of course, a lot older now. And maybe even a tad wiser. There have been a lot of jobs between number 7 and the one I have now. While those lessons learned in my youth are still valid, I now have a much bigger context in which to put them. That context is teaming: understanding it; doing it; and sharing it.

The lessons are simple. And like many good things, they come in three.

1. People do best what they like best and they like best what they do best. No matter how smart and talented you are, you are still not an exception.

2. If there is not enough excitement in what you do – or if there is too much, in which case you will feel it as stress – you will neither enjoy it nor be able to give it your best.

3. The more your job requires you to interact with others – whether they be managers, fellow employees, customers, or other stakeholders – in ways that don’t feel right, or that you do not value, the less you will feel good about yourself.

Keep these three lessons front and center, and you’ll likely discover the secret of happiness. Because if you’ve never had them all going for you, maybe your real job is being an entrepreneur.

Management – Like Love – Means Letting Go

I usually address bright, big picture topics, but this time circumstances have brought it very close to home. I hope you won’t mind.

In the early evening of Sunday, August 30, after many years of declining health, my husband of 33 years went gentle into that good night.

Those who were close knew Barry as an incredibly loving person, but he was still quite able to rage against social inequalities and injustices – whether big (think slavery, 9/11, or Rwanda), or small.

He had no way to address holocausts, but he did have a constructive response to the slights and rudeness and dismissive behaviors he observed against those who could not fight back. And the fact that there were good reasons for not fighting back – potential loss of livelihood, or even life itself – is what truly raised his ire.

These days, a management consultant might praise Barry’s approach as ‘scalable, repeatable, and sustainable.’ He simply showed people he cared. He modeled respect; not just tolerance. Even the most downtrodden would have his full engagement for as long as civil discourse continued, after which he would politely withdraw. And that, it turns out, was the greatest management lesson I ever learned: to withdraw. To be silent. To let go.

How often are management problems – like personal relationship problems – caused by the inability to just let go?

Case in point: I know someone who works in the innovation department of a huge company. The job description is, basically, find exciting and cool stuff, and report on it. So when I found an exciting and cool article on a very respected website, I sent this very hard worker the link.

I got an immediate response…but not the one I was expecting. It went something like, ‘<expletive deleted!!>, they won’t let us access that site. Actually, most everything is blocked. Makes it really hard to do my job.’

At some point – who knows when or why – someone decided that the company needed to control where people go, and what they see, on the web. Now that choice is obsolete and obstructive to the company’s own desire to innovate and grow. And yet, no one is letting it go.

Just saying.

Personal relationships are much the same. Really, if you have to hold on tight to control your partner, how whole can they be? And how good is that for you?

A very wise person said to me, “when we are infants our hands are curled up; when we grow old, they are relaxed open.” When I heard it, I thought, that is equally true of our maturity as managers.

In the end, there was no holding Barry back from his final journey. Even if there was, it’s not the way he would have wanted me – or him – to manage it.

May I?

I grew up in New York City, specifically The Bronx. (Yes, that uppercase T is part of the official name of the borough that’s at the top right of the NYC map.) There, at a certain age, we played a street game called ‘May I?’ It involved making a creative request to move forward by hops or skips or steps, and accepting an alternative order from the leader. But first, you always had to ask ‘May I,’ or you would be sent back to the starting line.

Well, unlike my young colleagues, I didn’t do well at this game. I enjoyed the creative part, but would forget the ‘May I.’ Still, it was a good experience for a pre-entrepreneur, or a pre-rainmaker, or anyone who would eventually have a greater need to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

But still, there is a cosmic question for which we all need an answer:

When should I start with ‘May I?’ and when can I safely fly into action?

After a lot of thought, and asking a few wise folks what they think, I have concluded that it comes down to one key point: Where does the other person draw their personal boundary line? If you stay outside that line, the ‘May I?’ is optional. But once you cross that border, it’s an imperative.

So, how do you apply this to the creative arts of business?

Just remember that although you have a pretty good idea where your own boundaries are, and you have an idea about the other person’s boundaries, you just don’t know where they really draw the line. Therefore, it’s best to get their permission before launching into your pitch. This leaves a lot of territory in which to introduce yourself via a topic that is related to your ultimate intention, in hopes of encouraging them move their boundary lines just a little closer to you.

And one more point, if I may…

A great deal of that open territory is actually inside your own space. That’s where you can get creative with your questioning, and where you can give yourself permission to move ahead. And that’s how you start becoming great at selling anything from grand ideas to Ginsu knives. Because the first person you have to sell… is you!

Yes, you may. And yes, you can. It’s all your game to play and win!

Happy May!

Teaming Dynamics for Digital Transformation

More than half of the companies that were in the Fortune 500 at the turn of this century have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, ceased to exist, or have fallen from the ranks of the 500. All of this disruption was happening as the number of Internet users was tripling, but the challenges (and opportunities) for business were far greater than proliferating websites and e-commerce.

Increasingly, the key factor in a continually accelerating pace of change is the digitalization of business concepts, models, and operating platforms. The process is completely overturning the competitive landscape, even for early winners in the race to web-based business. In some markets, barriers to entry traditionally enjoyed by market leaders have virtually collapsed, and in others it has become more difficult than ever to survive, scale, and eventually dominate a market.

It’s clear: business success increasingly demands digital transformation. And digital proficiency is the gateway.

Stages of Digital Proficiency

When you consider the stages of digital proficiency, some interesting parallels with human development begin to emerge. From birth, socialization starts with our developing sense of the meeting place between self and other, which is really our first foray into teaming. This development happens in four distinct stages, and digital transformation – or at least, our experience of it – is comparable in the way that it unfolds. You might think of digital transformation as representing a new level of consciousness for business, collectively represented by the will of the team to drive the change needed to dominate its industry.

The first stage, pre-digital awareness, is analogous to the earliest stage of life, from birth through the first month, when – to the newborn – there is no mommy and no me. (This is called autism. At the beginning of life, it is the natural state, not a disability.) When the development of an organization is limited to this state, it is as if there is no awareness of anything outside itself. This leads to no identified cause and effect in customer acquisition, relationships, or retention, as well as little or no use of the digital environment. And, since everything is essentially self at this stage, outreach (teaming with others or collaborating with channels) is not consciously considered.

The second stage is digital competence, which maps to human symbiosis. This is the way we view the world until we are about nine months old. In essence, ‘mommy and me’ are one, in the infant’s mind. Consider the way some people react when first introduced to a marvelous new technology. It’s as if they are thinking, ‘Wow, this technology reads my mind and knows what I want.’ Without the ability to rapidly navigate and take control, their experience is analogous to an infant’s creeping and crawling. They learn bit by bit, without a coherent overview. This lack of independence supports the feeling that ‘we are one,’ and thus technology continues to seem magical. In an organization at this stage, even when technology is used, it does not necessarily map to outcomes. True collaboration is not required, only processes, so there is little conscious sense of teaming, either with other people or with the technology.

In the third stage of human relationship development, roughly corresponding to ages 10-18 months, the emphasis is on the child’s emerging understanding of cause and effect. Here the parallels with digital literacy have to do with a temporary illusion of power that comes from the first taste of independence. Indeed, it’s that same heady feeling you get when first able to navigate your environment on your own steam, whether that means getting from the living room to the kitchen, or generating a list of prospects from your new CRM. However, in both cases, the connections between action and outcome have only begun to be made. In organizations, this phase of development is often stalled by the emergence of silos. In a highly siloed organization, self-interest is elevated above the best interests of the team. Attempts at change can produce anger, resistance, or even sabotage.

And, just as parents must provide clear and consistent boundaries as they guide the development of young humans, clear requirements regarding the current and desired states of interaction and team dynamics are essential to all Digital Transformation initiatives. In this fourth stage, which occurs at the latter end of the second year of human life, there is a full realization that the individual is, essentially, alone, and that comfort, connection, and even survival are only possible through interaction with others. Appropriately, in human development this is known as rapprochement: it ushers in the growth phase often called ‘the terrible twos.’ (We prefer to think of it as the ‘terrific twos’ because – other than the fallout than happens due to shortages of parental understanding and/or patience – it’s very important to learn to say no and assert your independence!)

Organizations in a state of rapprochement have gained awareness that the digital world is much more complex than it seemed to be. In response, the organization begins to focus on relationships between people who are critical to the success of change and growth. Today, this includes attention to the idea state of digital disruption, and it marks the beginning of understanding that complex systems require sustainable, high-quality teaming. In fact, we would argue that sustainable teaming is a prerequisite for digital disruption.

The fifth and final stage – Digital disruption – aligns with social maturity in humans. It features a constant awareness of self-in-the-team. The organization has developed a transformational business vision that integrates present disruptive technologies, and is prepared to integrate future disruptive technologies as they arise in the marketplace (and/or, as they are developed in-house.) This requires a sustainable, coherent culture and teaming capabilities that are resilient enough to address and process future unexpected and unknowable business disruptions and resulting opportunities.

The Seven Rules for Digital Business and Digital Transformation

Ray Wang** has given us The Seven Rules For Digital Business and Digital Transformation. Each of Ray’s Rules presents a specific challenge to organizational Coherence and team dynamics, and for each one, we see a linkage to organizational needs for more resilient, productive, and meaningful teamwork. These needs are precisely what Teamability®, a completely new technology of teaming, was engineered to fill. The technology not only identifies and organizes person-to-person teaming behaviors, but also the different ways that people seek to serve the team itself, as a living entity. As such, it can provide strong planning, development, and decision support in any transformational situation.

Rule 1: Digital disruption is more than just a technology shift. It’s about transforming business models and how organizations engage.

First movers need visionary leaders who can create transformational business models, and who can lead effectively through challenging situations. Teamability can absolutely identify the correct teaming behavior and the ability to withstand the ordinary and extraordinary stresses and ambiguities of change.

Rule 2: We move from selling products and services to keeping brand promises.

Keeping a brand promise isn’t just a directive or a script. A cultural example needs to be built and maintained. There is a certain kind of leader, called a Vision Former, who embodies the conscience, the ethos, of an organization. He or she need not be the CEO, but one or more will be essential on C-level teams. Sadly, that is not always the case – but in the course of Digital Disruption, the absence will be a serious liability.

Rule 3: We serve five generations of customers and workers, by digital proficiency, not by age.

The divides between millennials, Gen-X, Gen-Y, baby boomers and others are certainly relevant in some ways. But the urge to team with others is fundamental to human nature. How well a team interacts with a given technology is related to the way a person seeks to serve team needs (which we call Role, with a capital R) and Coherence (which is the orientation to teaming for a common purpose, no matter the level of stress). How well we share what we know is related to the integrity of the human infrastructure and the Coherence Ratio of the organization.

Digital disruption doesn’t happen around the campfire. It happens across time and space. The teams that make it happen need to be able to work that way.

Rule 4: Data is the foundation of digital business. Every touch point, every click, every digital exhaust is relevant insight.

The clarity and relevance of the data at the foundations of digital transformation, plus the analytics derived from data systems, will only be as reliable and useful as the development of a human infrastructure allows.

Information drives insight, but the use of insight depends on team awareness (the team being the organization, which includes the elements of teaming it needs to serve its mission, meet customer needs, create brand ambassadors, etc.) The Vision Movers and Vision Formers in organizations focus on applying information that is big picture and long term, while Action Movers and Action Formers focus on applying tactical information. And, incidentally, both will apply what they learn more effectively and productively when the Coherence ratio within their teams (and the entire organization) is strong.

Rule 5: If 20% of your revenue is not an insight stream by 2020, you won’t have a digital biz model.

Transforming an insight stream from information source to revenue will require organizations to develop a solid Vision Mover/Vision Former culture that can anticipate and answer the questions of differentiated customer experiences, data brokerage, and other insight-oriented business opportunities.

Rule 6: You need more than a Chief Digital Officer to infuse digital into your organization. You need a broad bench of Digital CXO’s.

The Chief Digital Officer may be leading the charge, but without a broader bench of Digital CXO’s, any digital initiative is in danger of having to fight for resources. It takes more than a General to battle digital stagnation!

At minimum, the C-level team needs to include both Vision Movers and Vision Formers. Vision Movers connect with the vision and drive it forward forcefully, but without a strong Vision Former somewhere on the team, the charge may go in the wrong direction. Someone needs to be the high level arranger /refiner of disruptive strategies, so that they can be rolled out in elegant and efficient digital initiatives.

But wait, there’s more… because planning a fabulous digital strategy doesn’t get you there without the help of the right people, the ‘digital artisans.’

Rule 7: We must invest in digital artisans.

Once the strategic plan is completed, and funded, the digital artisans take over. They not only manage the development cycle and provide the content, but it’s also their job to sell everyone on using the value created. This, of course, requires a team, because digital artisans, like their pre-digital forebears, are specialists. And, this is the challenge that organizations will continue to face: the attraction, development, engagement, integration, and retention of these digital artisans. Their value has not previously been fully recognized, but as more organizations vie for them, the market will respond. There will be scarcity, and especially there will be scarcity of the best in their digital crafts.

To a significant degree, digital artisans who are convinced that organizations do not understand or appreciate their value will exacerbate the shortage. Many of these will have had experiences in larger organizations where they felt, like Dilbert, that they were working for a Pointy Haired Boss. (Understanding someone’s Role gives you management insights, especially on how to respect, appreciate, and communicate with them, so they don’t experience you as a PHB.)

Key among these digital artisans will be the Explorers, who bring new technologies, methods, and ideas into the organization. Expect a serious shortage of Explorers in your organization – unless you can figure out how to keep them. (Explorers search for treasures and bring them back to benefit their team.) Expressing a sense of wonder and gratitude when they present you with treasure is the appropriate way to show thanks and respect to an Explorer. Failing to do so is tantamount to inviting an Explorer to find a new giftee!

Communicators, those lovable people who feel that their mission is to build communities, online and off, may be easier to retain. However, you will need to identify the right ones – not just for where your organization is now, but also for where you’re expecting it to go.

And so on and so forth, because digital artisans are not of a single stripe.

Assembling teams in which the Roles are a particularly good match to the mission of the team will automatically improve team coherence, and is essential when team members are virtual. Having great Role-fit and Team-fit supports retention efforts too, (demonstrated by the total elimination of a 30% rate of new-hire turnover at Preferred Sands, recognized by a 2011 Supernova Award.)

Balanced teams, with a coherence level appropriate to the amount of stress and challenge and contextually useful Teaming Characteristics, will recognize and support each team member while integrating their value into the whole. The results: positive engagement, productive collaboration, resilience, quality, and exceptional productivity.

The Many Roles of Digital / Social Technologies

As an aside, good digital/social technology can fill or support a specific Role – just like people do – on a team. Truly great digital/social technology can fill and support more than one Role. Here are some examples, and the Role-support they provide:

  • Waze, as Explorer and Curator, and it can also function as Communicator;
  • Evernote, in support of everyone, but especially the Vision Roles, acts as Action Former and/or Curator, depending on how you primarily use it;
  • Twitter can function as your Conductor, with its quick give and take, which connects you to crowdsourced quick fixes;
  • LoseIt is a Watchdog that minds best interest of your health, as do similar Internet of Things technologies;
  • Just about any to-do list app is the Action Mover’s best friend, almost as good as a real live Action Former; and
  • Any community-building app, such as LinkedIn, ultimately functions as a Communicator.

Using Teamability to Build a Culture of Digital Artisans

Prior to the emergence of Teamability, you could measure what occurs inside people – what they think they’re thinking, what they think they value, what they think they’re like, and how they think they will behave. But, you often needed a licensed psychologist to sign off on it.

Teamability is disruptive technology in the form of a deceptively simple serious game. It doesn’t ask you what you think you know or what you think you feel or value. It puts you in a situation – a simulation of teaming – and as you interact with other characters in the scenario, the boundaries between your world and the digital world begin dissolve. This makes it possible to directly access and measure teaming behavior.

The end product will be a coherent human infrastructure, achieved through the Teamability experience and proprietary team analysis and management methods. It will guide the selection, development, and nurturance of digital artisans, engaging them in work that aligns with their deepest desire to make a meaningful team contribution, and virtually ‘gluing’ them in place.

 

** Ray Wang is the Chairman and Founder of Constellation Research, and author of Disrupting Digital Business: Create an Authentic Experience in the Peer-to-Peer Economy, HBR Press, 2015.

Branding Yourself – without the pain in the…

Okay, so I have to start by admitting that when I first heard the term ‘brand yourself’ I thought of baby cows. As in, baby cows receiving the very painful and permanent imprint of someone’s logo on their butts.

That image went away when I started hanging out with real branding experts. Corporate branding, I mean, where no animals are harmed in the making of the marks.

These people are really interesting, because you can dish about the stuff you buy, and they can tell you why you’re buying it. (Sometimes, of course, an incredibly soft pair of black leather riding boots are just for keeping your legs warm and your feet dry in winter…while looking sensational with the bag you scored in an online sale, and the fact that both are from Cole Haan is just a coincidence. But I digress.)

We live in a blizzard of branding, so it was a surprise to hear from my friends Dr. Natalie Petouhoff and Laura Walton that brands are having a hard time these days. Apparently it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to deliver on their brand promises.

One thing I’ve known for a very long time is that delivering on promises is pretty important. I hadn’t given much thought to making promises via an abstract intermediary, but, as Dr. Natalie and Laura pointed out, brands are very much like people, in the way that companies are sort of like people…in the legal sense. So it follows: sometimes companies make promises, and if the promises aren’t kept, trouble ensues. Often, that kind of wrangling happens in a back room – or a courtroom. But when a brand makes (or carries with it) a promise, and doesn’t keep it, the whole mess can happen right out in front of everybody, via Twitter, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, and in the media.

Now, having been raised to a new level of branding-awareness, I asked the esteemed legal advisor and intellectual property expert, Fred Wilf about promises. (Fred, by the way, is the guy who put the ® in Teamability®, for which we love him forever. And although he’s an attorney, he speaks in a way that the rest of us who aren’t can readily understand.)

Sayeth Fred, “In the legal context, a promise is a statement or declaration of intent. It can be written or oral. A written promise can be signed or unsigned. It can be unilateral or bilateral/multilateral (mutual). It can be made in exchange for something of value or the promise of payment of something of value (‘consideration’). It can be made in exchange for another promise that does not include payment. Under the law, whether a promise becomes an enforceable contract depends on each of these facts, and a few more.”

And as it always happens, Fred got me thinking about things I hadn’t been thinking about, to wit, what if all brand promises had to meet the legal standard? What if what my brand – what I promise you – was an enforceable contract?

So, for any one of you who have taken the widely recommended advice to upgrade your image to a brand, I just want you to know one thing: Your brand promise may be the most important promise you ever make – and keep.

Keeping your brand promise isn’t just a directive, a script, or a process. It’s more like a world-view. You need some way of building and sustaining a living model of what you are and what you stand for. For organizations, that’s usually called culture, but for a brand – or a person with a brand – there just isn’t enough time to get something that big into a small package. Business or person, there’s only one of you – and nothing to hide behind.

Your brand – and your brand promise – will stand or fall based on credibility. And despite all those assurances of privacy and confidentiality made by top-level-friends-and-followers-only infochannels, this is a social media world. There are no secrets.

So whether you’re maintaining a company or a personal brand, you must maintain currency in keeping your promises, because people are watching and deciding all the time. Including me…and Fred.

Here’s some basic advice:

First, make sure you know what you’re promising.

I’m going to be blunt here. If you borrowed the concept for your brand promise from someone’s website whose product is ‘pretty similar’ to yours, you blew it before you even got out of the gate. Promises – at least the good ones – arise from the heart and survive through integrity. (Perhaps you are old enough to remember the inherently equivocating “Promise her anything, but give her Arpége” campaign. If so, you’ll understand why it drove me to use any perfume BUT that brand.)

Second, make sure you are promising the right promise: the one your potential customer really wants.

Begin by drafting your promise; then reflect on it, and then air it out through your preferred channels. Are you promising a starry night where the earth moves? Something that ends happily ever after? Or is it just your ‘thing’ that’s helpful and reliable? Before you set the promise in stone, you had better be sure of its connection – and its connotation. Remember the 5M rule: Mixed Messages Mostly Make Messes.

Finally, figure out how you’re going to convince your potential ‘consumer’ that you really will be keeping your promise.

These days, few people take time to read all the copy. It’s your brand that gets you up close and personal, and it’s in that very tight space that the truth comes out. Not just with your followers and not just with your Facebook friends, but with everyone.

Adopt a platform of respect, appreciation, and gratitude – and make sure that the people on your team treat each other that way. If your brand gets mixed up in any one or more of the fifty shades of miserable management, you’ll soon be sporting a danger sign that glows in the dark.

Brand credibility is something you have to earn on the shop floor, in the board room, in the middle of the late night scrum session, in every conversation, every text, and every face-to-face, every day.

No matter how hard we try to connect with our customer, if we can’t first connect with each other, no brand – personal or otherwise – will ever rise to the standard of being a promise.

The Downside of Power

Ok I’ll admit it: I like power. I like to have it, I like to exercise it, I like it a whole lot. And I even like the responsibility that comes with it.

Sometimes it gets me places I didn’t think I’d ever be going.

Take powers of attorney, for instance. I’ve had a few in my life, especially from relatives who trusted my judgment in an emergency. That’s usually when good judgment is needed, so that the emergency can be addressed without a detailed think-through of potential consequences and if-thens and maybe-buts.

But now I have an emergency of my own, and it has a lot of moving parts. I need to construct a whole end-of-life scenario for someone dear who can’t.

As you get down into the details of something as delicate as this, there are tough decisions to be made. Sometimes basic values apply cleanly. Sometimes they don’t. My usual approach to this kind of ambiguity is to look for situations that are somewhat similar and use them to identify an answer.

That’s how I got to thinking about how end of life is very similar to end of job – also known as termination, downsizing, and outplacement. Having made this connection, three guiding principles came into view. They are:

  1. Maintain a ‘least restrictive’ environment.

In the healthcare world (particularly mental health) this means allowing the person the latitude to do what they need or want to do, as long as it doesn’t compromise their own, or other people’s, safety. For the end of lifer with a cognition-limiting diagnosis, it means no tying them down or stopping them from eating as much ice cream as they want.

Comparably, in the employment world, it means that when you’ve decided to fire someone, don’t pile on a terrible evaluation or otherwise spirit-damaging experience on the eve of their impending separation.

  1. Make the transition as painless as possible.

In the healthcare world, I am talking about paying attention and taking action to ease pain, boredom, or distress, in whatever manner that drugs, comfort accommodations, and/or companionship will be effective. Because anything that takes the mind off doom dwelling, at least for a little while, is a blessing.

In the employment world, I’m saying that when people are on the way out, even if no one really likes them, please provide the courtesy of a farewell lunch or cake and/or group card…whatever. It feels lousy enough to have been cut from the team, especially when you enjoyed and appreciated the job. Don’t compound the pain by omitting the niceties.

  1. Avoid false hope, but be sympathetic.

In the health world, this refers to the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. Helpful staff people usually want those who have power of attorney over someone’s final days to sign the DNR yesterday. Any reluctance to do so is generally met with an air of suspicion. (Fear of liability is apparently as strong a motivator to action as, say, a tiger loose in the lobby.) Since this was the most difficult principle for me to define, I tried out a lot of scenarios from other fields. Again, comparison to the world of work was the most enlightening.

In employment world, termination is very much like a DNR. There’s an order stating that a person or persons have to go, and usually the person who carries out the order isn’t the one who made the decision in the first place. (Think about that for a moment. The power of attorney holder is not the one making the decision that the person will be let go. That decision takes place at a higher level, so to speak.) Primarily for this reason, it’s important for the bearer of bad news to depersonalize the whole process. Sad to say, many do a great job of the depersonalization part, but of the rest, not so much.

What if, instead, we made it clear that at least one person in the room really wanted the soon-to-be-departed to stay? In the health world, that would involve an effort to connect at the very end, as a sort of social resuscitation. In the employment world, it could be as simple as adding one small word of regret by the terminator.

Will you ‘love people out’ or will you just leave them behind?

You have the power to choose.