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Branding

The 3 Shifts of Modern Branding

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I (and we at Root + River) have written extensively the past few years about the end of the old world of branding and marketing. No more pretense. No more construct. No more shiny candy wrapper with a crap center. No more fear, manipulation, persuasion, coercion.

I believe most leaders understand this era is over. There is no more Mad Men. They understand and accept the importance of culture, customer experience, visual appeal. But as Hank, Jr. once moaned “Old habits … are hard to break.” To break these old world habits (or mindsets) requires a conscious choice.

I think there are three shifts a leader needs to have – first inwardly, then in his/her business …

  1. Shift your brand from being business model driven to being mission driven. In the 21st century, brand, mission and business model are really the same thing. Yet many leaders still have the mindset that brand is an external wrapping and that mission is either a passive awareness or a get-to-it-later. The present and future of being a brand is to have mission at the center of the brand. And then the business model supports both. Big brands like Patagonia, Chick-fil-A, Nike, Virgin get this. In fact, I would say that all four were born of mission that became a brand that became a successful business model. It’s just even more obvious in this modern era where you can’t pay for the kind of attention these brands get. In order to organize your brand around your mission, you must also know your personal mission – the thing you are here to do that only you can do. This requires inner work, EQ and discipline – and won’t be found in a book or on a spreadsheet.
  2. Shift your thinking on who your audience is. “Target audience” remains a common term that rarely has actual usefulness. It’s a term from the bygone era of predictable demographic behaviors, less media choices and less overall product and service choices. Consider this instead … your audience is not who you are looking for. It’s who’s looking for you. Your job as a leader is to get the brand out there – be findable. This means first diving deep into the soul – or root – of your brand. Brands that do this learn something almost magical: when you build your brand from the soul, you find the people that are looking for you. This doesn’t mean a build-it-and-they-will-come mindset. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t market. It simply means that you need to get out there in different and unique ways. And this is highly contextual to your marketplace. Red Bull built their brand by going to skate parks and extreme sports events. They didn’t advertise to a “target audience”. They went to the people that were looking for them but didn’t yet know it.
  3. Shift from head-based messaging to heart-based messaging. Head-based messaging is also a relic. It assumes through saturation, purchased brand awareness and repeated calls to action that you can take up a position in the mind of the buyer. This is no longer true. While certainly some of the principles of positioning still apply, the conditions have changed dramatically. Here’s another way to look at it … head-based messaging is for the conscious mind. It requires people to pay attention. Yet most Americans are in a perpetual primal state of flight/fight/freeze. They’re tired, over-booked, over-worked, over-extended. They don’t have the conscious mind resources to pay attention to you – unless you are solving their current and present issues. But these same people have plenty of room in their hearts. In fact, they crave meaning, authenticity, realness. This means that messaging is really what your heart has to say to the world. It’s a message from your heart to their hearts. But like discovering your personal mission, it requires the inner work of connecting to your heart – a process many leaders still avoid.

Modern branding is ultimately about two things from a leadership perspective: 1) Letting go of old beliefs, habits, systems, concepts and 2) letting in new feelings like love, trust, joy, delight, purpose, failure, triumph. And no one can make you let go or let in. Only you can do that.

The Return of Long-Form Content

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The old models of content delivery don’t work anymore, right? Everyone is busy. Everyone is distracted. We all have ADD. Way too much screen time. Media is too fragmented. Too many choices. So your content has to be short. Snackable. Chunkable. Bite Size. Drip. It’s gotta be easy to consume and easy to share. Packaged just right so that they can scarf it down like fast food from the drive through window.

Not. True.

Long-form content is more popular than ever. Some examples …

Hugely popular podcasters like Joe RoganAdam Carolla and Theo Von regularly air episodes that are 2 – 3 hours long.

Intellectual phenom Jordan Peterson has lectures on YouTube (1.3 million subscribers!) that are 2 – 3 hours long – and have 2.5 million views.

Black Panther, Jurassic World, Avengers: Infinity War are all top grossing movies of 2018 – and all are well over 2 hours long.

Isaacson’s incredible book on DaVinci is 624 pages long. Peterson’s million+ selling book “12 Rules for Life” is 365 pages long. Springsteen’s stellar autobiography is 528 pages long.

The two top grossing novels of 2018 are “The President is Missing” (528 pages) and “The Perfect Couple” (480 pages).

Serial shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime are hugely popular. With each episode much longer than traditional TV episodes.

How can this be? In a world full of fragmentation, saturation and too-much-information, how did long-form content become so popular.

A few thoughts …

The #1 factor is that we humans always love a great story. There’s something of the human psyche that is drawn to story. We are wired for it. A great story bends time. It makes time almost irrelevant. A great story is transcendent of current conditions. When enraptured by a story, we can escape from the pressures of life.

A second factor is portability. Podcasts, YouTube videos, audio books are – obviously – highly portable. This allows us to fill in the seams and crevices of time – like commuting, working out, flying. This also feeds our sense of accomplishment because we are double dipping on time.

Another factor is that self-care/personal growth is hot right now. And there are many ways to manifest this self-care and personal growth. For many, consuming long-form content is a type of self-care. It’s indulgent. It’s fulfilling. And if it’s intellectual or spiritual content, it also triggers a sense of achievement.

In analyzing popular long-form content, I’ve noticed three must-haves:

  • Originality. This is true in all aspects of life and business. There are way too many karaoke singers covering other people’s stuff. But this is particular true with long-form content. We want, demand, need content that we’ve not heard or seen before. We need to laugh, think, cry – all emotions that are most often triggered by originality.
  • Rawness. This varies based on the medium, but when it comes to podcasts and YouTube videos, we don’t want them too polished. We want to consume something that’s organic – where the content provider is speaking from their souls. Even in more structured content like a book or movie, we still want to connect to the soul of the creator. We want to feel the pieces of themselves they put in to their work.
  • Consistency. You can’t half-ass long form content. If you are going to do, you gotta do it again and again. This consistency comes in the form of frequency, quality and provocation. This means that the creators of content must always be learning and growing. They need to be aware to not get sucked into a formulaic approach in the name of consistency.

Long-form content works if you are rooted and confident in who you are and how you show up the world (what we would call your Brand). You have to truly believe in what you have to share. You have to be disciplined about presenting it in a compelling way. Both of which are the fruits of self-confidence. And you have to pick the platform that takes the most advantage of your natural gifts and talents. I don’t know that I would ever be able to craft a 400 page book. But I could definitely talk for 3 hours on a podcast!

What long-form content are you consuming? Reply in comments.

5 Ways to Reduce Marketing Fails

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Marketing fails. In fact, it may fail more than any other part of your business. The reasons for failure are endless – starting with the increasingly relentless number of options and tools and highly fragmented, overly-stimulated audiences. Failure is often unavoidable. By its very nature, marketing is an experiment of both science and art. But many of marketing’s failures are completely avoidable if you are aware of these things:

  1. Have a great brand. As we frequently say at Root + River, a great brand solves a thousand business problems. One of the problems a great brand solves is withstanding marketing failure. A great brand allows you to experiment with a wide variety of marketing tactics to see which resonate and which don’t. A great brand reduces the pressure on marketing to produce some tangible (and often immediate) results.
  2. Razor-sharp messaging. A boring, uninspiring message turns pretty much any marketing tactic into a dull blade. To sharpen the message, speak to and from the heart. Don’t BS, manipulate, persuade, coerce. Just speak the truth directly and succinctly. And keep that blade sharp by frequently re-examining your messaging. Make sure this message can be communicated in any medium – especially off-line conversations.
  3. Remove tactical bias. Every marketer brings to the table a set of knowledge from past experiences and efforts. Some of those tools and tactics worked and, because marketing is about failure, many did not. Your brain remembers both the things that worked and didn’t work and applies that knowledge to current situations. Start from scratch. Look at each marketing scenario with a fresh set of eyes and ears. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Put word-of-mouth at the middle of your strategy. Word-of-mouth (WOM) is often viewed by marketers as an after-effect or a hopeful outcome. While that’s true, putting WOM at the center of your marketing strategy aligns all of the marketing tactics to serve the same goal. If you create delight in the customer experience, you increase the number of conversations. If you increase the number of conversations, you increase the number of leads. If you increase the number of leads, you can put your marketing resources into more long-term initiatives.
  5. Implement agile marketing principles. Just like in software development, agile principles allow you to move faster and smarter. This is one of the reasons why we don’t create year-long marketing plans for our clients. It’s a waste of energy and resources to make a series of assumptions about the marketplace. Instead, we focus on 90 day cycles and a rolling Top 5 of marketing initiatives. We also focus on role clarity – making sure everyone knows who is doing what. Of course, we also align the marketing tactics to expected outcomes/KPIs/metrics. But we build in failure knowing some stuff won’t work. That’s why we never take our eye of the brand (see #1 above).

My business partner and co-founder of Root + River, Emily Soccorsy frequently says, “marketing isn’t rocket science. It’s clarity of message delivered consistently over time.” There are thousands of things you can’t control in marketing. But Emily’s quote contains the three things you have absolute control over: clarity, consistency and patience. These three eliminate a bevy of “ifs” and “shoulds” and “hopefullys” from marketing efforts and properly set expectations for marketing’s performance. And if you are in internal marketing person, the methods presented here will help you hold fast against unreasonable expectations and outlandish assumptions.

 

Chatting with Reuben on Sales4Nerds Podcast

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I had a blast sipping Ben Milam bourbon and chatting with the very smart and insightful Reuben Swartz on his Sales4Nerds podcast. We talked about my journey from the ranch, to sales guy, to branding guy – and how all of those are connected. We dove into the role of branding within sales and even covered finding your mission and purpose.

Listen here.

https://www.mimiran.com/get-root-river/

Check out Reuben’s cool sales technology tool, Mimiran.

Is Your Brand Doing These Two Things?

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As I/we have often written about, brand and branding is not what it used to be. It is no longer an external construct based on perception and image. It’s not about demographics, campaigns, ad spend.

So what is it?

We say that a brand is how other people experience what you believe.

This means that your brand must successfully and consistently do two things:

Emit Love

Create Trust

Love is the ultimate “bacon” aroma that a brand can generate. It literally means triggering oxytocin in the people that touch the brand. But it’s so much bigger than that. Love makes your brand un-copyable, unbreakable, timeless. Love turns your employees into ambassadors and your customers into your shareholders. Love makes your competitors shrink – or rise to the occasion. Love can’t be bought with Taco Tuesday’s nor with discounts. Love is earned through the daily habits of an organization – starting with its top leaders. One of these habits is self-care – leaders that invest in the holistic well-being of themselves and the people they lead.

Trust is what happens when you consistently emit love. Trust allows you to fail, make mistakes and otherwise be a human. Trust shows up in a thousand ways – from empowering your employees to truly help your customers to proactively listening to the needs of your customers. Trust means using branding and marketing language and tools that encourage, invite, inspire and saying no to manipulation, persuasion and saturation. Trust means building your brand as a word-of-mouth machine – knowing that the more trust you generate, the more your brand will grow. Trust means always seeing the humanity in your decisions.

My question to all leaders is this …

If your brand doesn’t emit love and create trust, what are you asking your marketing team to do?

The Top 5 Branding Practices of Contemporary Leaders

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Before I dive in to the Top 5 branding practices, let’s do a level-set on terminology. Just as societies update their language and tech companies update their products, the branding/marketing space needs some new definitions.

Here are ours:

Brand: How other people experience what you believe.

Branding: The process of making yourself available to those looking for you.

Marketing: Any activity that amplifies a mission and message – especially around relationships, experiences and content.

These changing definitions of traditional terms have also brought about a bevy of changes in the roles and definitions of a leader. Until about 2010, brand and branding were the responsibility of the marketing department. Because of hyper-connectivity, emphasis on culture and greater sensitivity to brand experiences, brand and branding are now the responsibility of every leader and the people they lead.

As these massive changes take hold in brands large and small, a new set of leadership behaviors and habits is emerging. I am simply calling them the 5 Branding Practices of Contemporary Leaders.

  1. Fire the a**holes. Every day there are new headlines about abusive, churlish behavior from people in places of authority and influence. When these type of people are allowed to entrench in a company culture, they will eventually (and sometimes quickly) damage your brand. Surly, crude people spread negative energy and toxicity within an organization – which shows up in the poor customer experiences, lack of innovation and a negative/damaged reputation.
  2. Be an Original Thinker. With the daily onslaught of information overload from articles, podcasts, books, videos, workshops, etc, it’s easy for a leader to become a karaoke singer for other people’s ideas and content. My great friend Brandon Wrightsays it best: “Listen to everyone but think for yourself”. This requires setting aside even a few minutes for inner work: contemplation, awareness, observation of thoughts. It means being a healthy skeptic and questioning everything. This practice prevents brand from becoming cliches – using the same language as everyone else.
  3. Be Different, Not Just Better. Everyone talks about disruption but there’s not a lot of disrupting going on in brands – especially in marketing and advertising. The authors of the book “Play Bigger” do an excellent job of making the case that you can’t be slightly better and build a great brand – that you need to be a “Category King”. This practice of being truly different requires a leader with high EQ (Emotional Intelligence), a deep sense of self-worth, an insatiable curiosity and the political juice to actually execute something different.
  4. Say No. One of our many mantras at Root + River is: “You build a business/career by saying yes. You build a brand by saying no.” Saying no is about setting standards and holding to them. This means saying no to tactics that are not aligned with a strategy. This means saying no to policies and processes that hurt people or manipulate them. It means saying no to scarcity thinking that so permeates many organizations. This practice requires a leader who is a clear thinker and doesn’t confuse action with activity.
  5. Be a Human. Perfection is a myth – a myth often supported by internal propaganda and external perception management. The truth is that we humans are messy. We make mistakes. We lead ideas that fail. We easily slip into ego-centric behavior. But its this messiness that grows cultures, influences outside perceptions and is the seedbed of improvement and innovation. This practice requires a leader that can deftly do two things: 1) Speak like a human. No corporate jargon, buzzwords, cliches. 2) See the humans in every decision. When you make people the center of your brand, every decision impacts them.

These five leadership practices emphasize the three core tenets of 21st century branding: Mission, Message and Machine. They reinforce and grow the individual missions that become the over-arching company mission. They become the language of the brand via message. Not rote, saturation or persuasion but a steady invitation to believe what you believe. They amplify and prove the value of a contemporary marketing machine – especially around relationships (employees, customers, influencers, communities), experiences and original, consistent content/stories.

These five practices can be adopted by everyone in an organization – but must first be modeled by senior leadership. Once adopted, these practices provide an organic source for brand growth, innovation, quality control, recruiting, customer retention, social reputation and much more.

Annoyance-Inspired Innovation

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Innovation is a fickle and sporadic muse. A strange blend of research, failure, awareness and sometimes divine inspiration. Like all creative endeavors, there is no set formula. But there are patterns for innovation.

One such pattern is the removal of annoyances.

We tend to think of innovation as solving huge problems or creating a must-have product or inventing an entirely new category. But sometimes innovation is in the small things.

In our over-saturated, over-booked, over-whelmed lives, annoyances become the mosquito in the tent. Not really a threat but certainly damned distracting. In brands, these annoyances create friction points that competitors can later use to differentiate. Think Blockbuster’s late fees vs Netflix.

With some awareness, we can see thousands of these annoyances – each of which are someone’s business opportunity and/or differentiator. A few examples …

Southwest Airlines – They are brilliant at removing annoyances that are SOP for other airlines. Most famously, their bags-fly-free policy. This also includes their innovative on-boarding process, their flexibility with changing flights and using rewards and their entertaining safety briefings. Southwest didn’t invent a different kind of air travel nor did they create a new travel industry. They simply built a brand with smart business decisions, having fun and making the customer experience as annoyance-free as possible.

Amazon – As Amazon came on to the scene, they knew they had to remove as much friction as possible from the search-and-buy process. Any friction points would amplify the highly conditioned bias to “go the store” vs “buy on-line”. There are many ways that Amazon has mitigated annoyance but the best example is one of their most simplest: Amazon Prime. By eliminating shipping and handling fees, Amazon created instance viscosity. They made the value proposition and promise very clear: being a Prime member is a great deal. Now we click-and-buy with ease. Sometimes too easily!

Zoom – Having suffered through the experience of being a GoToMeeting user as well as dabbling in other virtual platforms, I learned about Zoom. Zoom appears to have reverse engineered all of the annoying things about GoToMeeting. You can easily talk to a person. It’s less expensive and has more features. The UI on both the backend and the participant sides is supremely better. And the biggest annoyance of all – minimal to zero tech issues (I’ve had a Zoom session 20+ times and have never had an issue connecting to audio or video).

As mentioned, the opportunities to build a brand around removing annoyances are everywhere. Look in every sector and segment of life and you will find annoyances – the friction points and burs of poor design, dumb policies, missing features. You don’t have to create gold from thin air. It’s in the seams and cracks of modern life.

Becoming a Producer Brand

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For the sake of a unified definition, a Producer is anyone that makes a living primarily off commissions and fees. This would include commissioned sales people, financial planners, realtors, CPAs, attorneys – to name a few.

If you are a Producer, you have a brand. Its a combination of the energy you bring into the room, the compiled experiences your clients have with you and the way you interact with others on-line and off-line.

None of that is new information. Most Producers have been avid consumers of books and tips on how to work a room, how to create influence, how to nurture a reputation. What may be new for you if you are a Producer is that you have so much more potential within your brand.

Here are 4 simple but effective ways to boost your brand as a Producer:

  1. Start Speaking. Not about your success as a Producer or about your area of expertise, but your experience as a human being. Each of us have overcome a lot to get where we are at. Within this overcoming is likely your mission – and a series of stories that the world needs to hear. Most audiences have plenty of information. What they need is inspiration. By sharing your sorrows and triumphant, you are showing the world your true self – not a construct designed to just hit your numbers.
  2. Take a Stand. Most Producers have learned that doing good in the community is good for their brand. Most are quite generous with time, money and energy with causes they want to get behind. What if you took it up a notch? What if you took a stand for an idea or purpose that’s intrinsically important to you. We Producers have been taught to fit in, don’t rock the boat, don’t be controversial. This leads to sameness. Instead, find that thing that sets your soul on fire and get behind it.
  3. Write. And Write Some More. The most untapped area of a Producer’s brand is around consistently crafting content in order to become a thought-leader. Whether you use LinkedIn, Medium or some other platform, writing original, thoughtful content about your industry, your area of expertise, your mission, your story are all force multipliers that contribute to your brand as a thought-leader.
  4. Invest in You. The Producer’s life is intense and high pressure. We pour out ourselves to our clients, to prospects, to partners, to family. We don’t live in the magical world of getting a salary every two weeks. This leaves very little left for yourself. When a Producer gets emptied out, they lose their passion and drive. This is when depression, anxiety, addiction sneak in and start running your life. Taking a pause – even if just a day – to re-connect to yourself, examine your thoughts and feelings, to think about the future will make you a better, more reliable Producer.

If you are a Producer, I’m very curious to hear from you about what you do to work on your brand. Reply below or drop me a note at justin at rootandriver dot com.

5 Ways Thought-Leaders Hurt Their Brands

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We are all thought-leaders at something. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a buzz word, but it’s still true. If you are a corporate leader, you are also a thought-leader on your areas of expertise in the business. If you are a small business owner, you are a thought-leader in your industry and/or community. If you are a solo entrepreneur, you are most definitely a thought-leader. In fact, a good portion of the clients we serve at Root + River are solo coaches and consultants with thought-leadership as a business model.

Regardless of which bucket you might fit best in, there are a number of ways you can inadvertently hurt your brand as a thought-leader.

Here are five to consider:

  1. Poor Visuals. This is rampant in thought-leadership – especially with solo brands. Just take a scan through Twitter headers and web sites and you will see a torrent of bad design, stock photos, low resolution graphics. Just to name a few! How does this happen? It’s an ego blindspot. Many people believe their expertise is enough to trigger attraction and how they look doesn’t matter. But poor visuals instantly trigger resistance and suspicion – causing you to immediately fail what we call the Brand Test.
  2. Split Lives. Many of us who started our careers in the 20th century adopted the practice of living split lives. We had a work version of us and a home version of us. While this practice may have been a necessity in the industrial age, it is a brand diluter in the Human Age that we are in now. By building your brand around a construct rather than your true self, you are maintaining a movie set rather than inviting people to your real story – which is much more interesting!
  3. Mis-Use of Social. Like the community pool, gyms and other ways of life, social media has its own set of rules. In attempt to get attention, earn business and other wise stand out, many thought leaders hurt their brands by repeatedly breaking these rules. Examples: over-promoting your offerings, pitching strangers with direct messages, canned content, poor visuals (see #1). All of these are a steady erosion of your credibility and believability.
  4. Being a Cliche Machine. If you don’t know what I mean, follow this guy on Twitter. Or use this handy tool to listen to yourself as you have conversations and give presentations. The use of cliches, buzzwords, acronyms is a blend of insecurity and efficiency. When are you are not confident in your original ideas, your mind will trigger you to fill in the blank with a known term in order to be accepted. We all do this now and again, but when you do it repeatedly, you turn your brand from thought-leader to karaoke singer.
  5. Unresolved Emotional Wounds. We often say at Root + River, we don’t actually work on your brand. We work on you … and you work on your brand. This is because who we are as a human has a huge influence on how we are perceived as a brand. Our brands essentially become projections of our beliefs, habits, world views – and, yes, our emotional wounds. Untreated emotional trauma can create a fog of delusion or despair that erodes your confidence and self-worth.

This list is reflective of what we call “Intrinsic Branding” – the inner work necessary to create a vibrant, awake brand. For business owners and leaders, this inner work includes the culture, customer experience, innovation, differentiation. When you are striving to be a thought-leader, this inner work means working on you – inside and out.

How to Kill Your Culture

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Call it a buzzword if you want,”culture” is still the hottest topic in organizations. Senior leaders of global companies talk about it. Small business owners talk about it. Start-up founders talk about it. Employees talk about it. Vendors talk about. And customers talk about it.

There is a plethora of writing on creating/growing/preserving a culture. I am going to take a different tact of reverse engineering cultural decay. In short, I am going to teach you how to kill your culture.

  1. Stop Telling the Truth. Make sure that you spin everything to be perfect and neat. Encourage feedback but don’t do anything about it. Punish or suppress those who point out problems. Manage the narrative. Make sure that truth is pushed into whispered hallway conversations, over beers afterwork or anonymously shared on social media. When you receive data that you don’t like, be sure to twist it to fit your world view.
  2. Pretend There’s No Hierarchy. Talk about creating a flatter, more nimble organization. Get rid of org charts, traditional reporting structures and performance reviews. But don’t change any of the managers who have their position because of hierarchy. Be sure to promote people into leadership positions who know how to talk about modern business practices but are immersed in 20th century thinking. Pretend that all opinions and views are equal. Most of all, talk about “servant leadership” without ever actually serving anyone.
  3. Practice False Enthusiasm. There are no problems. Everything is great! Sure, we have somethings to work on but all is wonderful. Gather your teams and lead them on cheer sessions with repetitious sayings. Bring in motivational speakers to motivate everyone because you don’t know how to do that. Be sure to label people who point out problems as “not team players.” When facing employees, the media, shareholders or customers, paste on a big smile and use folksy terminology.
  4. Preach Diversity; Practice Tyranny. Talk about how everyone should be free to be themselves. Heck, get rid of strict dress code policies. Even have a Hawaiian shirt day! Get everyone to start expressing their true selves and then … monitor cubicle displays for anything that might be consider offensive. Tell people to cover up their tattoos. Make sure everyone speaks the same language and uses the same lexicon.
  5. Properly Allocate Resources. Use HR as an internal affairs department to root out any problem employees. Use your Marketing team to create rosy narratives and snappy ad campaigns. Use your Dev/Research team to create products that hurt the planet and rob consumers of their identities. Use your Customer Service team to manage complaints. Use your Finance experts to keep the funding flowing for your self-made problems.

Oh, and one more thing …

Spend plenty of time for yourself in retreats, spa days, golf excursions. After all, managing the process of killing your culture can be draining.

Or …

Be an awake leader and do the opposite of all these and build something amazing that produces happiness, value and meaning for all involved.