Pondering Your Purpose (or The Power of Why)

At C.Fox we’re firm believers in what we call the “Power of Why.” The Power of Why means getting to the root of your organization’s purpose, or why you exist, and being able to tell that story authentically to your most important audiences.

After all, it’s not what you do that sets you apart; it’s why you do it. It’s the difference, for example, between the product offerings on a company website and the value that company brings to its customers. Steve Jobs had this in mind when he first introduced the iPod. In marketing his new product he wisely focused on the consumer experience – “One thousand songs in your pocket!” – rather than a spouting a laundry list of features. This is how Apple started deftly distinguishing itself from other competitors as a true innovator.

For years, the business community has struggled with this notion. And “An old debate about what companies are for has been revived,” an article in the latest issue of the Economist, just the most recent example, raising an age-old ideological question: is the purpose of a company “to maximize shareholder value or pursue broader social ends?”

The article illuminates the unfortunate timing of a article published in 2000 by law professors Henry Hansmann and Reinier Kraakman espousing the shareholder-value model: the author notes drily that it was published shortly before “several companies that proudly practiced shareholder value maximization went up in flames.” (Think Enron, Arthur Andersen, and others.) And yet, the article also points out a promising new effort that’s increasingly picking up steam. Oxford University professor Colin Mayer is leading it and it involves encouraging companies to “articulate their purposes” – or their Power of Why.

This heartens us, and we hope the movement bears fruit.  Here’s why: over the course of our 10+ years helping organizations tell their stories, we’ve seen how the Power of Why can move audiences and change minds.  It’s the difference between the soup kitchen that says, “We serve 2000 people per day” and the one that says, “We believe that every person deserves not just a free meal to get them through the day, but the services, tools and support that they need to thrive over a lifetime.”

By disciplining yourself to articulate, and lead with, your organization’s “why” as opposed to the “what,” you’re not only helping your clients and customers better understand your organization’s personality, but the inherent value you offer to them.  And that’s what keeps them coming back. By understanding the value, and the Power of Why, your audiences will be better equipped to help you with your most important job: to achieve better results, and more widespread impact.

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A Letter, 50 Years in the Making

A few weeks back, Warren Buffett released his annual letter to shareholders, just as he has done every year, for the past 50 years. As usual, the letter drew broad attention—from non-Berkshire shareholders and business news media.

What we found most interesting, aside from its usual wit and wisdom, was a comment by Bill Gates remarking on this latest letter, who called it “the most important one he has ever written.” Gates called the letter “really three notes in one. It offers a look back at 2014 performance, a history of Mr. Buffett’s leadership since he took control of Berkshire and the perspective of Mr. Buffett’s longtime colleague and Berkshire’s Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger.

Looking at the letter through the three dimensions that Gates lays out led us to reflect on each for takeaways that could benefit the leaders and organizations we work with regularly. Here’s what we discovered:

1. The Look Back – The best leaders note the bad with the good and do something about it   
By all major accounts, as Buffett notes, 2014 was a strong year for Berkshire. But that didn’t stop him from quickly calling out one of its strengths as a weakness also. BNSF, a railroad distributor and one of Berkshire’s “Powerhouse Five” non-insurance businesses, contributed to earnings in 2014 but it also disappointed customers with service failures that hurt its shipping customers badly. Instead of pointing blame on managers or the harsh winter, Buffett notes how a substantial investment in capital improvements for equipment and plants has begun to improve its performance. Even in a strong year, it only took Buffett until the second page of his forty-two page letter to note a problem and what’s being done about it.

2. History of Leadership – The listening side of communications
You don’t need to read very deeply into Buffett’s letter for evidence of a legacy of strong leadership through listening. The one item that repeats again and again is Buffett’s ability to listen. He listens to his close associates, he listens to his managers and he even listens to himself sometimes. And he turns that listening into informed decision making that leads to successful outcomes. He’s not without his faults on this front and admittedly has taken too long to listen at times, but it’s clear he’s come to value the benefits of this other side of communications.

3. Vice Chairman Charlie Munger’s Perspective – Don’t underestimate “constructive peculiarities”
As leaders and managers it can be hard to let go and let others play their roles. In Munger’s  perspective on the 50 years of success at Berkshire he cites Buffett’s “constructive peculiarity” of being willing to “limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years.” That’s not easy to do for 50 minutes sometimes, let alone 50 years and even the best leaders can struggle with it. As Munger puts it, “Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. That way, opponents always faced his best players.” Doing fewer things well and believing in your team can carry you far.

Rare is the opportunity to get 50 years of wisdom in one place. Whether you look to Buffett and his annual letters or elsewhere, sometimes taking a step back and taking stock of the past and present can help set a course for a bright future.

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Mission Matching

You don’t always see it. It’s seemingly something that should be easy to convey, but many organizations truly struggle with it. Those that can master it have the potential to unlock tremendous value. The “it” is clarity of purpose and there’s only one thing better. That’s when two organizations have clarity around the same purpose—and they find a way to work together toward it.

Reading a recent post from Corey Binns on the Stanford Social Innovation Review reminded us of this. The post is an account of how the Charles Schwab Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) together have reached a half-million teens through their shared purpose of helping people help themselves. This deeply rooted approach to supporting others rests in each organization’s legacy and DNA and makes this now decade-long partnership possible. It’s not “cause of the day” thinking. It’s “we both believe in this” thinking. It’s powerful and can deliver impact for the long haul.

In their case, the tool is the jointly created Money Matters program. It brings financial literacy solutions to 1,700 of BGCA’s 4,000 clubs nationally. The partnership now sees 84,000 teens go through the program each year, activating Charles Schwab Corporation employees in the process to be finance coaches (as pictured above) in the program. And partly because of the shared purpose, there is an openness to evaluation and testing what works, what doesn’t and course corrections to improve. That kind of commitment and investment of time takes shared purpose.

As we know very well at C.Fox, the right partners can often make a world of difference. Finding those with shared purpose—a mission match—can be among the best ways to make sustainable, impactful difference in the world.

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Lasting Impact

Earlier this week, Pastor John Steinbruck, one of Washington, D.C.’s most beloved and influential community activists, passed away. He was 84.

I only met Pastor John once, but stories of his impact on this city have been circling through our work at C.Fox for years.

Steinbruck came to Luther Place Memorial Church at Thomas Circle in 1970, at a time when Thomas Circle was a gathering place for many homeless persons and a haven for prostitution. His mission was clear, and his approach was revolutionary: open the doors. It felt counterintuitive, and many disagreed, but he held steadfast to his call for broad community participation in the effort.

Using his community organizing skills he began an interfaith ministry with numerous congregations in the D.C. Metropolitan area that would culminate into what those in D.C. now know as N Street Village, a continuum of services for homeless women that has since become a national model of care.

As noted in his obituary, “with the tireless help and dedication of his parishioners and the Interfaith community, he always stood ready to support those facing injustice, be it migrant workers, Salvadoran refugees or Soviet Jews seeking liberation from abuse and oppression.” Pastor John’s efforts helped to fuel a creative social justice movement that led to some of the city’s most respected social service efforts, including Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Bread for the City, the D.C. Hotline and the Thomas Circle Singers.

In recent months, we’ve been talking quite a bit about “legacy” with our clients – the legacy that we each leave as leaders, and how the fingerprints of our work now will mark lasting impact for our causes.

We may not know in the moment how our actions will drive our legacy, but it’s a solid reminder when thinking about the life and legacy of Pastor John that no person or organization has ever had transformational change without sticking to its core beliefs.

Moving any mission forward, regardless of the issue, won’t happen without authenticity and a clear passion for the issue. Pastor John Steinbruck clearly had both. His life’s work is and may always be one of the best legacies of our city.

A service is scheduled to celebrate Pastor John Steinbruck’s life on Monday, March 9, 2015 at 11 a.m. The service will be at Luther Place Memorial Church (1226 Vermont Ave. NW) with a reception following in N Street Village’s multipurpose room. All are welcome.

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Leadership Means Sometimes Having to Say You’re Sorry

In an incident sure to give its board of trustees heartburn, Carnegie Mellon University suffered a high-profile snafu recently when the school mistakenly emailed letters of acceptance to 800 rejected applicants for its computer science master’s program. Once the admissions office realized what it had done, the hopes of nearly 1000 students were dashed once again: within hours, impacted students had received a second email indicating it had all been a mistake. The university also issued a public statement of apology.

Stories like these put into stark relief the intersection between leadership and smart communications. The old adage that “everybody makes mistakes” is worth noting, and yet it is how we handle and message those mistakes publically that provide opportunities for the true leaders among us to shine.

Carnegie Mellon gets points for quick triage: within hours, the school had identified the problem, developed a strategy for responding, and delivered a correction to the target audience. Not stopping there, the university also took full responsibility for the problem with a proactive public apology.

But when it comes to owning up to a mistake in a very public way, sometimes the immediate next steps aren’t so clear – or the right strategy isn’t the most comfortable one.  Nevertheless, the consequences of getting an apology wrong – or failing to issue an apology when one is warranted – can be much worse for an organization and its long term health.

Although every crisis communications situation is different, saying you’re sorry need not be a dealbreaker if you handle it correctly. Here are some key tips to keep in mind should you or your organization ever find itself on the wrong end of a mistake:

1) In commenting publically on the matter, come out early and confidently. Even if you’re simply buying time by announcing that a press conference or public statement is yet to come later in the day, you’ll earn a bit more of your audience’s confidence by showing that your organization is taking ownership of the problem at hand, and actively devising a response.

2) Avoid the ‘drip-drip’ at all costs. If you’ve read even an inkling of the countless column inches devoted to Anthony Weiner’s travails, this one’s a no-brainer. But it’s worth repeating: When you’re dealing with a major mistake or indiscretion, withholding the truth in hopes that a story will blow over is a fool’s errand. Similarly, letting bits of the story dribble out as reporters piece the evidence together gets you nowhere fast.  Stick with what your mom always told you and tell the truth.

3) When you’re ready to comment, leave nothing in your statement open to question or interpretation. Commenting is always the best policy, but issuing a public statement that is too vague, or that raises more questions than it answers, is almost worse than clamming up and saying nothing at all. When you are ready to comment, be clear, and direct.

4) Showing that you’re human – just like the rest of us – demonstrates strength, not weakness.  People are more forgiving than you may think – especially when your public mea culpa or apology is handled properly – meaning quickly, openly, and calmly.

5) However you decide to respond, go one step further. Carnegie Mellon didn’t stop once it had issued corrections to the students it had inadvertently misled – and arguably, it could have. But the university took the high road by pushing out a public statement taking responsibility for the matter (and very likely inoculating itself from questions and criticism that could have further worn away its institutional credibility).

Admitting an error, or worse yet, an indiscretion – isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone. But by keeping these strategies top of mind, you’ll internalize what’s most important: the best leaders buck up, own up, and move on. And they’re all the better for it.

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What’s in Your Fine Print

Flip through just about any magazine and you’ll probably come across a couple prescription drug ads—with a LOT of fine print. That fine print is necessary, of course, listing risks and possible complications, but it’s the volume of words, the word choice, and the tone of these fine print mazes that’s led so many of us to glaze over at the sight. Good news is, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, the FDA is finally doing something about it.

Earlier this month, the FDA released its revised draft guidance for consumer-directed print advertising and promotional labeling. It’s the latest in the agency’s efforts to make it easier for consumers to get value from the risk information in prescription medication ads. The effort is part of a 90-day open comment period to collect feedback before making any changes to current requirements.

Given the intersection we see between critical content and consumer engagement, let me be among those to offer open comments with a few of my own:

1. If it’s worth taking the time and space to put words on a page or label, it’s worth taking the time to make them easy to read, understand, and act on. Fine print doesn’t need to be complicated print.

2. All communications, no matter how fine their print, should be developed with a clear purpose and intended message firmly in mind.

3. It’s not all about the words. It’s about their order, sequencing, organization, layout, and their scarcity.

4. The best writers put themselves in the shoes of their readers—the readers most in need of the information and those most likely to struggle with it. Next time you sit down to craft a new document, think more specifically about how your intended audience will interpret the information.

5. Credibility does not have to mean complexity. Simple, well-written language can be just as powerful with the added benefits of being understandable and actionable.

For decades, American educators have been struggling with how to address disparities in literacy levels. It’s our job, as professional communicators, to press on the other side of the issue. We must bring language to people that can be widely grasped and acted upon. It’s a challenge that the FDA must now take on, too. When faced head on, though, it can lead to differentiation and more informed constituents.

Maybe it’s time to examine how your “fine print” stacks up?

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Communicating Outside of Our Comfort Zones

In communicating an effective message, we know that the audience we’re speaking to matters just as much as the words we use. It’s a notion that clearly holds in reflecting on President Obama’s decision to grant two highly untraditional interviews to the fastest-growing digital media companies, Vox and BuzzFeed within days of one another.

Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox sat down with the president in January, for an interview that hit on Monday morning. BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith spoke with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, for an interview that hit the same day.

What’s most interesting is not what the president said-but why he was willing to sit down with these outlets.

In the Vox interview, Obama stated: “My advice to a future president is… to bypass the traditional venues that create divisions and try to find new venues within this new media that are quirkier, less predictable.”

Regardless of organization size or type, getting an important message to stick requires that youconsider how to tell the story in untraditional ways, and perhaps to untraditional audiences. A willingness to break out of your communications comfort zone may be just what you need in the year ahead.

When’s the last time you took a review of how you’re reaching your target audience? Vox and BuzzFeed may not be it, but there are surely some unlikely suspects that can help carry your message this year. The real question is: how open are you to embracing them?

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