It’s a rare Baby Boomer who truly “gets” the digital world and as for the post-war generation …!

If you are in either of these categories, you may think you are switched-on and tuned-in, but to the millennials who now make up more than half your market and employee catchment, you are probably dad-dancing your way through business.

That’s OK if you recognise your limitations, in which case you’ll probably be leading an organisation with loads of younger people and an open and democratic approach to management, but if that’s so you are, sadly, representative of a very small minority.

Most of my clients, large and small, find their way to me when they have hit a wall with a project or are generally struggling to shift up a gear. This often means the business’s leadership has taken it as far as they can. It’s understandable and don’t assume this inability to move an organisation into the digital economy is confined to the founders and managers of small businesses. Apart from having been born into a radically different world, those who have achieved leadership status in any organisation are often the product of old management training which, in many ways represents the antithesis of today’s management thinking. Furthermore, their personal career plans, misguided bonus incentives, not to mention the short tenure of many managers commonly contrive to make senior executives, even in bigger concerns, unwilling to lead their businesses into the brave, new, digital marketplace.

It’s not only traditional companies and their leaders who are being battered by previously unknown forces either. Investors will tell you, start-ups are usually rather short on marketing and management skills and founders of young businesses can also, very quickly find they are clinging on to a run-away train. There are legions of small businesses that have gone to the wall with perfectly feasible propositions, simply because their management didn’t have the skills to make it happen. While in the past a business may have gotten away with being short on skills and experience, particularly in its formative days, in the fast-paced digital economy, this very quickly becomes a serious vulnerability.

Businesses are usually created in their founders’ image, but, as an enterprise expands and the numbers of stakeholders increases, the founder’s influence diminishes. The problem, however, arises when the founder fails to acknowledge and embrace this. Many businesses slide from there into oblivion, but this isn’t inevitable. The key to overcoming this is brand.

Thankfully, I’m seeing an increasing number of businesses that understand and are leveraging the power of brands. Some have it nailed, others are just launching brand development programmes, others are instinctively moving in the right direction.  Apple are arguably the best at this, but others have taken their lead. I was heartened recently to come across a UK business called 1-Touch who fix accident-damaged cars. The style and consistency of their customer handling reminded me of NorthEast Airlines, but they definitely seem to have discovered the power of brand to drive a business and in particular, customer experience and judging by their results, it’s paying off. Time will tell if they maintain their current trajectory, but happily they are not alone.

A leader may try to resist the natural order by adopting an autocratic management style, but it simply doesn’t work in anything but the short term. To succeed in today’s marketplace you have to be responsive, disruptive and very, very efficient and if your managers and work force aren’t thinking and innovating and tend to wait to be told what to do you probably need to give this some thought.

Brands are communities of people who share values, beliefs and, above all, a common objective. Organisations that recognise and can leverage this are faster, more agile, waste less. In the digital era, if you don’t fit this description you are dead meat.

The best business leaders seem instinctively to embrace and empower their wider community. They build brands that are a genuinely representative, not just of themselves, but of their wider stakeholders, resisting the urge to control. Contemporary businesses depend on a way of working that leverages the positive attributes of young and old, managers and employees not to mention suppliers, investors, distributors and, of course, customers. On the other hand, far too many traditional managers feel threatened by the new paradigm, resist change and find it difficult to overcome their autocratic instincts. The good news is, every leader has it within their power to change and if you get this right there’s still time to gain the edge on many of your competitors. Start by accepting you don’t have to have all the skills yourself – there are far too many for one person to hold anyway – surround yourself with the best talent and position yourself as a facilitator.

In recent years we have witnessed spectacular examples of what can go wrong when businesses leaders don’t adapt their own approach to business. The domineering founder of American Apparel brought his business to its knees before being ousted in a shareholder coup and right now the man behind Papa John’s pizzas is experiencing something similar. Both are examples of successful businesses that have outgrown their founders and there are many like them.  It is possible for founders to maintain influence, but this doesn’t work autocratically you have to start as, way back in 2008, I discovered the founders of ContainerStore and Wholefoods Markets, Kip Tindell and John Mackey did. They each drew up, what today I would call a “brand model”, a definition of their brand that they used as a marker for every decision they made moving forward. This included hiring decisions. They used their brand model to convey their values and beliefs to their very first hires and this way they ended up with a workforce of people who were engaged and committed to the same ideals.

With time running out for business leaders who have found themselves in the way of transformation, they are desperately searching for answers. In fact, with 70% of business digital transformations having, so far, failed, adding significantly to what is always going to be a costly, time-consuming and painful process, it’s not hard to come up with an improved approach. However, if you really want to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital economy, you need to start by defining your brand just as Tindell and Mackey did.

The process of brand modelling, apart from being the essential first step in any transformation, is a priceless opportunity for autocratic founders to wipe the slate clean and begin recreating their business’ culture as one that’s better suited to the digital economy. A brand gives your organisation the focus it couldn’t achieve any other way and in the fast-paced, highly competitive digital world it will ensure you not only avoid the many pitfalls of transformation, but keep your digital business at the forefront of your sector.

Discover how brand-led business transformation can improve your chances of success in the digital economy.

Phil Darby
September 25, 2018

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