Trailblazers Wanted

I was on a trail run yesterday at one of my favorite spots. The loop has a nasty uphill climb followed by a lovely long winding downhill… perfect for letting your mind wander a bit. The downhill section is called the “Kay Bee” trail, which I recently found out was named for a woman, Kay Burnett, who had done much of the original trail building on the mountain in the 1950s. 

Credit: https://mttomrange.org/beau-bridges

Kay was responsible for one of Mt. Tom’s most unique and beautiful trails. It is called the Beau Bridges trail, and is not named for the actor. The trail follows the winding Cascade Brook and has seven small bridges that cross the water in different spots as it flows down the mountain. 

It turns out that when that trail was originally created, Kay built all of the individual bridges at home in her garage. Then one by one, she strapped them to her back and hiked to the trail, installed the bridge, and then brought in the next one.


I was on a trail run yesterday at one of my favorite spots. The loop has a nasty uphill climb followed by a lovely long winding downhill… perfect for letting your mind wander a bit. The downhill section is called the “Kay Bee” trail, which I recently found out was named for a woman, Kay Burnett, who had done much of the original trail building on the mountain in the 1950s. 

Kay was responsible for one of Mt. Tom’s most unique and beautiful trails. It is called the Beau Bridges trail, and is not named for the actor. The trail follows the winding Cascade Brook and has seven small bridges that cross the water in different spots as it flows down the mountain. 

 It turns out that when that trail was originally created, Kay built all of the individual bridges at home in her garage. Then one by one, she strapped them to her back and hiked to the trail, installed the bridge, and then brought in the next one.






I can just imagine all of the people who heard what she was doing and thought she was crazy. 

  • “That is not the easiest way to build a trail, Kay!”
  • “You should just do one bridge. Why bother to cross the stream seven times?”
  • “You know, it would be a lot easier to just build the trail somewhere else.”

But I will tell you, Kay’s trail is gorgeous. It has also endured. The original bridges that she built in the 50s have long since worn out, but trail crews continue to repair and replace them. Her vision remains intact.

As I floated down her namesake trail, I found myself thinking about Kay. She not only had the fortitude to do the hard work of creating trails in the wilderness, but she also wouldn’t accept that “just any” trail would do. She had a vision, and if it meant doing something no one had done in the area before, she would figure it out in order not to compromise that vision. 

This is how I see our clients within the greater business landscape.

Building a business is hard work. You’ve heard the stats. Half of all businesses fail within the first five years. But building a business made to endure for generations

I hear the same naysayers that spoke to Kay ready to chime in.

  • “That isn’t the easiest way to grow a company!”
  • “You could totally sell this brand and make a fortune!”
  • “There is no way you can compete in this industry without deep corporate pockets or VC money.”

For our clients, it is not about “easy.” It is not about “how things are done.” It is about vision, values, community, and family. It is about legacy.

These companies look at the traditional paths available, and then decide that none are right for their definition of success. From the outside, this often makes them look like they are missing something important, but I assure you, that is not the case. They know exactly what they are saying no to, and why.

One of our clients found a turning point when they started turning down high-volume, low-margin sales to big boxes. To the outsider, it was a no-brainer to sell to Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and others. But saying no to margin pressure allowed our client to keep domestic jobs and maintain product quality, which to them, was far more important than profit.

Another refused their industry trend of consolidation by huge national conglomerates and following wealth into urban markets. Instead, they merged two 100-year-old financial institutions that could combine forces to both compete and maintain an unwavering commitment to their local rural and milltown communities.

And what about a health and beauty brand that doesn’t believe in social media? It’s possible. Everyone was pushing the founder to follow trends, but as an engineer, she prefers to follow product quality instead. She is building a strong brand on results and word-of-mouth, instead of a flash-in-the-pan TikTok sensation.

These trailblazers aren’t flashy. They don’t succumb to the pressure to follow the fastest path to topline revenue. They are looking to build sustainable, enduring businesses and brands. 

And in order to have a business that endures for decades, you have to inspire people with what you build. You have to make them fall in love with it as much as you have, and want to carry it on. It is hard work. You need to build something that has the potential to grow and evolve as your family and industry continue to grow and evolve.

The volunteer trail crews that continue to maintain Kay’s bridges love that trail. They find new materials to make the bridges stronger, sturdier, and more beautiful while they continue to uphold her vision. And for a true trailblazer, there is no greater honor.


Can Love Be a Brand Strategy?

I am just not a Valentine’s Day person. Hearts, flowers, gifts, candlelit dinners… none do much for me. Acts of service are much more my love language, and not just one day a year.

That is why when I saw this shirt from Mahogony Mommies, it seemed like a perfect February uniform: Love is an Action Word.



Photo credit: Meghan’s first-grader. ❤️

I’ll admit, it feels a little strange to talk about
love in the context of business. Culture, sure. Values, no problem. But love?

Even though we don’t always think about them this way, businesses, especially family businesses, are deeply human, and derived from love at their core. Us humans crave connection, respect, and a sense of belonging… in other words, love as action.

The book, Love as a Business Strategy, makes the case for building an internal “culture of love.” I think many businesses could take it one step further and develop a brand of love. 

In Six-Point’s brand strategy workshops, we define branding as “the consistent alignment of a company value proposition to customer values.” Basically, you have to connect the value that the company creates to what its customers value. 

We know that humans fundamentally and deeply value love. That is not a question. The question is… can a business produce love as a value proposition in an authentic, non-exploitative way? I believe we can.

Simon Sinek has a quote that I love: “There is a difference between providing a service and being willing to serve. Only one is generous.”

I think within these words lies the secret to love as a brand strategy, and it is something that many family businesses do quite naturally. In fact, it is one of the hidden strengths of many family businesses. 

I see it daily:

  • An IT company going the extra mile to understand their customers’ businesses and make recommendations that may actually lose them short-term sales
  • A manufacturer with a passion for engineering a product that can withstand a “forever” guarantee in a channel where skimping on quality boosts volume and profit margin
  • A food producer who experiments and tinkers constantly but won’t release a new product until they have deemed it worthy of their customers (which has taken over a decade in some cases!)

This willingness to serve and deeply respect customers is of tremendous value in a world where the pressure is often focused on growing quickly, showing a profit immediately, and being opportunistic during market fluctuations. 

But a brand is a reputation… what others say about you, not what you say about yourself. So, if your company naturally acts out of love and respect for its customers, the opportunity is to become known for it. In many ways, this idea is fundamentally at odds with the mindset of humble service that permeates our culture. That said, it is important to connect with customers who value love, belonging, and respect. These will be your most loyal customers, and the ones who fully appreciate the value you are creating.

So, how can you build a brand of love without bragging? 

  • Tell stories. I know, this is every branding expert’s advice, but one thing that I have learned over the years is that businesses get very good at telling case study stories. These are the stories of “problem/solution/outcome.” Totally fine, but it does nothing to showcase the heart behind the service or product. Instead, it is critical to tell stories of emotion and heart. Stories that people can relate to on a gut level. Don’t talk about technical problems. Talk about where people were emotionally. How were they feeling? What effect did this have on them? How did the work of your team fundamentally change things, and why was this important on a human level? 
  • Amplify the voice of your customer. This means going beyond reviews alone. Are there opportunities for your existing customers to connect with or spend time with your prospective customers? Are there emails you’ve received or reviews that perfectly capture the love present in your company and your team? If so, don’t just share them once, or leave them in a “customer feedback” file somewhere. Talk about them and feature them prominently and consistently. Maybe there are other stakeholders in your business whose voices you can amplify as well? Is there a vendor you have had a relationship with for decades? A supplier who depends on your company’s success as much as your employees do? These voices can tell your story and affect your brand more than you will ever be able to.
  • Create a sense of belonging. Humans want to be seen, feel connected to other humans, and to something bigger than themselves. At first, this may feel awkward in the context of a product or service, but think of a time when you were personally connected with a brand. The value of feeling seen and appreciated is universal. Can you connect your customers to your ability to create jobs in your community, or to develop and promote a key employee? Maybe you have specific stories of your company’s philanthropic initiatives or its ability to positively impact the environment? During COVID, brands became better at connecting these dots for customers, connecting dollars spent with customers’ ability to maintain jobs. The fact is, this impact is always true. 

If, like me, you believe that love is an action word, let’s make sure that we center it in every part of our lives, including in our business and in our relationships with our customers, suppliers, and colleagues. Let’s make love our legacy.

The Connections We Make

Studies show that relationships are the most important factor in determining an individual’s happiness, and contribute to both health and longevity. Could this be true in business too? Family enterprises that prioritize relationships and connection have a unique competitive advantage.

“The connections we make in the course of a life – maybe that’s what heaven is.”
–Fred Rogers

Can I really say that I was “surprised” when my father-in-law passed away at 98 years of age this month? I think I have to, because Ray Lynch was so full of life. 

At Six-Point, we often talk about your company’s brand as its reputation. Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It is what others say it is. 

Ray’s brand, whether he was conscious of it or not, was connection.

Connection for Ray wasn’t a fleeting moment. It endured. Ray married the love of his life, Ann, who he met in first grade (the same grade my son Henry is in now, which has me looking at his classmates with a more discerning eye!) Ray enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific during World War II, and could still tell you the hometown of each of his shipmates.

An elementary school principal, Ray kept track of the careers of staff members and students… and their families. I have to admit, I was often skeptical. You know where your former secretary’s son went to college? I would think, smugly. He is just making this up. And then I would secretly fact-check him, just to prove myself right. Lo and behold, Ray would be 100% accurate, and I would be humbled.

Although I am technically the only family member working in my business, Six-Point, I also considered Ray a part of the Six-Point family. He starred in a video for one of our clients five years ago that won a regional gold award, which he kept proudly on his bedroom bureau. He formed relationships with my colleagues as quickly as he did with everyone else, and never forgot their spouses’ names, or their hometowns.

Ray’s unique way of not only connecting with others, but of honoring those connections throughout his life, has been something that I have been reflecting on over the past several weeks. 

And you know that phenomenon when you get a new car, and then it seems like all of a sudden everyone else is driving the same one? I feel like that is also happening to me as I realize how fundamentally important relationships and connection are to my definition of success.

For example, on New Year’s Day, the New York Times ran an article that touted the findings of the longest-running in-depth study on human happiness in the world. “From all the data, one very clear finding has emerged: Strong relationships are what make for a happy life. More than wealth, I.Q., or social class, it’s the robustness of our bonds that most determines whether we feel fulfilled.”

The Harvard study and others have shown clearly that people who are socially connected live longer and are healthier. While my experience with my father-in-law was far from scientific, his happy, healthy 98 years is certainly more anecdotal evidence.

I would also make the case that this is true in business as well. 

Recently I was on a call with a CEO who I had connected with both personally and professionally. She was trying to lead sweeping positive change, but was hitting major roadblocks. Our team offered some pro bono support because I knew how important this change was to her, and also how much value she will be able to bring others when she pulled it off. 

To me, the offer was probably the least I could do. To her, it was much more. 

She stopped abruptly in the call to let me know that the offer of support had helped to re-energize her for the hard work ahead. It reinforced the possibility of a bright future and a fresh approach. In her words: a healthy, human way of doing business together.

So what do we do with this belief that relationships and connection are fundamental to a healthy business?

At Six-Point, we are making it our mantra and measure of success this year. This is kicking off initiatives like:

  • The creation of a new position, a Six-Pointer in charge of culture and talent to prioritize the health of our internal team and external partner relationships. (If you know anyone who would be a great fit, please share!)

  • A new focus on client experience, that doubles down on clarity and guidance at every step, and rewards the loyalty of our clients in new ways. (More to come on this soon!)

  • An investment of time and money in organizations that nurture relationships and support our clients in areas far beyond brand strategy. For example, we are excited to be new Visionary Sponsors of the Prairie Family Business Association. This organization is rooted in the midwest, but is branching out beyond regional borders to support family businesses in all areas of the country through generational transitions and planning for a sustainable future. 

Our clients have also found interesting ways to prioritize relationships and connection in their brand work. For example, in 2022, clients have engaged us to develop:

  • Internal brand strategies that clarify and communicate core values more intentionally

  • Strategies to nurture mission-critical contractor relationships 

  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) communication strategies

  • Campaigns to promote philanthropic initiatives

  • Customer and community appreciation strategies

For our clients, people come first, always. Relationships and connection are not just corporate slogans. They are lived every day. In truth, many of our clients make business decisions that on paper look “wrong.” The initiatives they prioritize aren’t the fastest way to earn profit or a path to a big buyout. They are about building a legacy that endures. They are about honoring connections and relationships, and demonstrating the confidence that doing so will build a stronger, healthier business.

Because our relationships are where true happiness and fulfillment lie, and I couldn’t be prouder to support that. 

Cleaning the Mirror with Coltrane

John Coltrane was an incredibly hardworking jazz musician, driven by the creative process to continue to become a better saxophonist and leader, and to capture more emotion and truth in his music. His drive for challenge and excellence is a reminder that there is joy and satisfaction in the hard work that all business leaders much engage in.

When immersed in brand strategy and positioning, we’re constantly reaching for  Windex and a fresh cloth to help companies see more clearly who they are, and who they can become. 

To my benefit, I almost compulsively do the same “polishing” on myself and my business as much as I do it for others. And just like my own house, I only get a moment of satisfaction looking into a sparkling clean mirror before I turn back and notice it is already smudged again, ready for yet another refresh.

All of the mirror-cleaning I’ve been doing lately has left me exhausted, but dead-set on desmudging still. Several years of rapid change through the pandemic was fueled, for our business as it was for many others, by necessity and adrenaline. It led to exciting and positive changes, and it has also been incredibly draining.

As leaders, we have reinvented our businesses, and therefore ourselves, at least once or twice in rapid succession, and this pace of change persists. On top of it, with inflation and the threat of a recession, much of this innovation must happen even as profit margins keep shrinking. 

So, as we enter the last month of the year, how do we gather strength for what’s next? Is there an industrial size solution or home-made vinegar blend that can help us gaze more clearly at this moment, and into our future? What do we give thanks for? 

Is it possible to give thanks for the change and challenge itself? 

Long before he got his big break playing saxophone with Miles Davis, John Coltrane served in World War II and used the GI Bill to take music classes. He then worked as a journeyman musician for nine years, taking any gigs he could get, and learning whatever he could. 

Even once he was selected by Miles Davis to join his band, Coltrane referred to Davis as “Teacher” and spent years searching to find his voice on the saxophone. He then took a break for a summer-long collaboration with Thelonius Monk to learn even more before returning to Davis’ band.

From then on, Coltrane was on fire. He practiced incessantly. In less than 10 years, from 1957 up until his death in 1967 (at only 40 years old) he put out 25 albums, his style shifting and evolving in each one, including his best-known, the Grammy-nominated A Love Supreme

Coltrane loved learning. He loved being challenged. In the last year of his life, his celebrity was at its peak, and yet he was in almost constant pain from liver cancer. Still, he did not let up. He continued to perform and record until only weeks before he died. 

“The real risk is not changing. I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” -John Coltrane

When I am deep at work on my own business, or laser-focused with other leaders working on theirs, I am often reminded of Coltrane and his love of striving. Changing, learning, becoming better at our craft, and better versions of ourselves… for the best-led businesses, this is what it is all about. Profit is merely a proof-of-concept, a byproduct of the learning, not the end goal. 

It may feel sometimes like nothing you do is enough. It may feel like that the crystal clear mirror you spent so much time and care polishing will quickly become foggy. And that is true. There is always more to learn, more to try, and more to become. Or to borrow Coltrane’s words once more, “There is never any end…there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at.”

This Thanksgiving, I am going to try to embody that spirit of Coltrane. Instead of peace and restoration, I wish you even more change, challenge, struggle, and striving. 

We are blessed with an opportunity to continue to clean our mirrors. With each attempt we see a step more clearly, and we become more whole and better in the process.

Capturing, Branding, and Celebrating Internal Culture

Articulating an internal culture brand for your employees is no easy feat, but there are a few steps you can take to make it a lot more effective. Most importantly, it is critical to do the deep work of clarifying your values and the supporting stories and behaviors to ensure that your cultural brand is meaningful,substantive and embodied from the inside out.

As I write this, the leadership team of our new client, Daystar, is unveiling the culmination of a year’s hard work with their employees.

Run by three brothers, Daystar is a fast-growing managed IT services provider. The Bamford family sees their people and company culture as their key strategic advantage, and they have invested heavily in making sure that their culture is ready to continue to scale in a healthy and sustainable way as the company grows.

To do this, they have worked for more than a year with our friends at the Legacy Center to dig into their existing organizational culture and better articulate and operationalize the values and behaviors that make Daystar so successful. They have undertaken deep work to understand how the company’s leaders show up day-to-day and how they can continue to develop their internal culture.

When they came to Six-Point, the team at Daystar was focused, energized, and… also at a loss.

The Bamfords knew that if this deep internal culture work stayed siloed at the leadership level, it was doomed. But like most teams, their people aren’t naturally excited about “company culture.” Their passions ran more toward gaming, graphic novels, and science fiction. So how do you get a team of Marvel fanatics excited about company values?

Daystar had previously experienced challenges with getting external creative teams to understand their business, internal culture, and vision. Everything always seemed “almost” there, but no one had ever quite nailed it on their external brand, and the challenge of bringing their culture to life seemed infinitely more difficult.

They came to our first intake session skeptical and even almost apologetic about the challenge they were giving us. That is, until they started talking about their people, culture, and values. Then they radiated confidence and excitement.

About six weeks later, we got the following email from Anne, Daystar’s director of communications:

“I just wanted to voice how much we have enjoyed working with you and your team. Your creativity astounded us and your ability to capture the Daystar team and visualize the essence of what our clumsy words were trying to relay was no small feat indeed. On top of that, you also managed the project so efficiently even with our tight turnaround. We appreciate you all very much!”

So how did we get from the overwhelm and skepticism to a rollout that I know is going great right now? And how could you do the same?

Here are the key ingredients:

  1. Dig deeply, with guidance. Communicating a company culture and distilling it into messages and visuals is impossible if you haven’t already dug deep. You need not only the right words that capture your values, but also the ability to clearly articulate the stories and the behaviors that make them real. Working with a culture consultant involves processes that make you peel back the layers and challenge your team; to really get this piece right is critical. We love the measurable, data-driven method of the Legacy Center because it takes something fuzzy like culture, and makes it concrete and tangible. They came to us clear and aligned about what they were trying to communicate, and also had a deep understanding of the people (their employees and prospective employees) who they needed to communicate with. That is well over half the battle.
  2. Trust the process. At the outset of the Daystar project, we had a conversation about how for a growing company, the “right” cultural brand articulation has a bit of aspiration to it. You aren’t looking for the perfect wedding dress. You are looking for a suit for a pre-teen that needs to be a size too big, because in six months, he will have shot up an inch or two. There is an acknowledgment and expectation that the cultural brand articulation might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but that the company and team would quickly settle into the new positioning, and see how it is aligned not just with the present, but with their exciting future as well.
  3. Work together to identify issues and fears, and get to their root cause. When something in the process wasn’t quite right, or the team was feeling apprehensive, we stopped and dug into that concern. What tools did we have or need to solve it? Which was a “real” solution vs. a temporary band-aid? Sometimes the solution was creative, sometimes it was clarification, or communication… but none of us ignored any gut feelings when we felt something wasn’t quite right. This is extremely important, because the leadership team’s confidence in and enthusiasm for the cultural brand of the organization becomes contagious. And any fear, uncertainty, or doubt that they have will also spread.

With these guidelines, you can supercharge your employer brand in a way that will increase your ability to attract and retain top talent, maintain the cultural intangibles that provide value to your customers, and accelerate your growth.