The moment you discover in life that it’s not about yourself, that it is about investing in others, I think you’re entering a steadier state to be a great leader. Because above all, I think the main quality of a leader is to be a human being. There’s no reason you are special because you happen to have this job or these responsibilities — Paul Polman, CEO- Unilever
Paul Polman of Unilever strongly believes that business exists to serve society. I couldn’t agree more. It was a late August afternoon. I was having coffee with a colleague at work. The sunlight, that shone through the French windows, lit up the papers on my colleague’s desk as well as our mood that fall afternoon. I vaguely remember shifting topics from talking shop to discussing “selling” products. My colleague was a senior manager extremely passionate about delivering a remarkable client experience.
As soon as I uttered the word “selling”, he grimaced and instructed me to not use the word “selling”. According to him, our company was in the business of providing solutions. I told him it was just a matter of semantics. This angered him more and he proceeded to give me a lesson in changing my mindset and so I did. Although, I must admit I have used the word “selling” one too many times than my mentor would have me use.
For the first three years of my professional life at Unilever, I learnt that the really successful executives at company thought about easing their clients lives instead of growing top line. Going so far as recommending a competitor’s product If they feel it is in the best interest of the clients. Understandably, their efforts towards that end kept the company a for profit company producing above average shareholder returns every quarter. Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) is a cutthroat business where smaller Indian brands such as Nirma or Patanjali could take away market share from Unilever almost overnight. The only way to retain market share is to have a relationship , based on trust, with the companies retail partners along the supply chain and with the end consumers. Without a symbiotic relationship that is both push and pull, market share can be as volatile as the company’s stock on the bourses.
This article captures three experiences that have left an indelible impact on me. My professional life today is driven by service to society including my colleagues at work. I would not have it any other way. Neither should any entrepreneur. Of course, it is easier said than done.
Timeless And Weatherproof
Lever Brothers created a soap business that was predicated on improving hygiene. Again, an example of making someone’s life easier. Food, clothing, shelter and education are timeless needs. Businesses focusing on providing these basic needs are almost timeless and weather proof. Think the lowest rung in Abraham Maslow’s need hierarchy pyramid:
The problem with timeless and weather proof needs is that very often products that meet basic needs are commodities. They are fairly indistinguishable across many competitors. Therefore, the distinction boils down to consistent innovation and surpassing expectations. Even then, success is not guaranteed.
In such cases, the consumer is normally very fickle and could care less about the brand. Advertising, packaging and marketing become critical.
As a teenager, I remember watching advertisements that resonated with me. Clear communication cemented my desire to buy a particular brand of soap. Using the product ultimately cemented my trust.
Therefore, in case of fairly commoditized products, a pull factor or a consumer asking for a particular brand helps drive growth. To do that, a brand that derives its strength from serving society consistently over decades has an edge.
Victor Frankl once said “Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed into by desires” . My experience at the Apple store reminded me of Victors words.
While Starbucks is more than a cup of coffee, Apple is more than its products. In 2014, Angela Ahrendts left her role as CEO of Burberry to join Apple as SVP, Retail and Online Stores. Besides remodeling the Apple store into an all glass experience at its Union Square store in San Francisco, she introduced the “Genius Grove” and the “Creative Pros” program to convert the retail stores into town squares.
Apple also rolled out “Today At Apple” program that allows you to interact with pros using Apple products. As I was browsing through the Apple products on display, I noticed an artist with his Apple Pencil and an iPad Pro. He was busy creating designs for a Star Wars themed painting which was simultaneously being displayed on a giant LED screen.
Personally, I have used oil and charcoal on canvas. One of my favorite artistic expressions is sketching portraits. However, it was a long forgotten passion until I stepped foot in the Apple store. Almost unconsciously, I picked up the Apple Pencil and started doodling on the iPad. The artist was guiding me on the features of the software and on the right way to hold the pen for various strokes.
I had painted after a decade. Only the instruments changed ie the paintbrush and the canvas were digital. Although not the same as a brush and paper, the blank slate inviting me to give birth to art hitherto unseen by the world was exhilarating to say the least. I felt alive again. I felt the same rush of wonder that a child feels when learning anything new.
I did not learn much about the iPad itself because I already have one but I learnt about my deep and insatiable desire to transform every blank surface into my mark on the world. The word “selling” never crossed my mind. It was all about the experience completing me.
A truly great brand does not impose on but rather reinforces the ultimate freedom a consumer has — a personal freedom to make the choice he wants.
A Home Away From Home
One lazy Sunday evening, My friend and I decided to enjoy the sunset with a cup of coffee. I drove to the nearest Starbucks because the brand is synonymous with coffee. In some lexicons, Starbucks replaces coffee. The Barista was a gregarious lady who politely asked me what I want. I asked her for a mocha. She scribbled my name on a cup and asked me to wait.
The wait turned out to be longer than 10 minutes. She realized that we had been waiting for a long time. She reached for three muffins and came out of her side of the counter and handed it over to me.She didn’t have to but she did anyways. Also, she did it with a smile.
The whole experience reminded me of a friend who would make up for his mistakes by going out of his way to help me.
And yes, every brand i mentioned above makes a huge margin on sales. However, it is the same experience every entrepreneur must recreate consistently to be able to command those margins.
Building A Personal Brand
The same principles I talked about with respect to great brands equally applies to building a great and lasting personal brand:
First, you have to give unconditionally and consistently to build trust. Remember, it only takes one mistake to break the trust but extreme discipline to maintain it. Also, try to refrain from reminding others later of the help you provided.
Secondly, don’t promise something you can’t deliver. Keeping promises is a rare trait.
Thirdly, do more than asked for. Go one step ahead and deliver quality before time. If as a result of your efforts, your colleagues or superiors can breathe easier, you have built a reputation of being a dependable brand.
Creating memorable experiences is hard but creating unique ones isn’t that hard. However, bring your authentic self to the table every time. People can see through you in an instant.
Business isn’t a perfect science as many would have you believe. That’s because humans are far from perfect. Metrics capture a only a part of the story and that too ex-post. The best evidence is gained by constantly speaking to people. Almost everyday. I remember suppliers extending extra credit and wholesalers accepting consignments they didn’t order to accommodate a very strong relationship with a company. A relationship built by old schooled people who treat their word as a binding agreement. The rules of business never change, only the instruments of doing business do.
A CEO has to be an excellent listener. More importantly, the CEO has to be an excellent interpreter of non verbal cues. The real solutions lie in the words unspoken and yet communicated by body language.
Today, CEO’s are also actively speaking out and taking a stand on issues affecting society at large. CEO Activism is on the rise. At the end, empathy is very powerful and every business is personal.
Ironically, the biggest quality of a CEO that gets tested, today and over the long term, is his humanity. But, the CEO thinks he is being tested on maximizing shareholder returns.
Think about who you are selling to. Granted, in an Internet of Things (IoT), your car or fridge may make more purchases on the grid than you do. Hopefully, the IoT is still operating under human supervision.
To build enduring institutions that stand the test of time, today at any business has to be about living for others. Everything else is an outcome.