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.

Two Trailblazing Lessons From Patagonia

Many business leaders that I work alongside have long referred to Patagonia as an aspirational example… a family-owned company that is run on its values, and known for this in a way that connects with consumers; its actual authenticity makes it enormously successful and profitable. The latest move by the Chouinard family cements their trailblazing approach to a new form of values-led capitalism, and there are lessons here for all of us.

Since I heard the news about the founder of outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, giving up ownership of his family’s company, it has stayed with me. 

Many business leaders that I work alongside have long referred to Patagonia as an aspirational example… a company that is run on its values, which connects with consumers and actually leads to its success and profitability. The latest move by the Chouinard family cements their trailblazing approach to a new form of values-led capitalism, and there are lessons here for all of us.

If you haven’t read the details of the exit or Chouinard’s message to Patagonia employees, I highly recommend digging in. The cliff notes are:

  • Chouinard is 83, and his family and the board have been wrestling with what would happen to Patagonia after his death for years. The company was 100% owned by the Chouinard family (Yvon, his wife Melinda, and their two children).
  • The family has created a unique structure in which they have donated 2% of the company (the voting shares) to a trust, and the rest of the common shares to a new 501(c)4.
  • The trust serves as a governing board for the company, and ensures that all excess profits (about $100 million annually) of the business are donated to the nonprofit in order to support a variety of environmental and grassroots programs and organizations. 

As Chouinard put it: “Now I could die tomorrow and the company is going to continue doing the right thing for the next 50 years, and I don’t have to be around.”

Lesson #1: Constraints beget creativity

One of the most inspiring aspects of this story for me was the reminder that limits or constraints can actually make us more creative. 

As business leaders, we often complain about needing more time, more money, more options… and we forget that sometimes less time, less money, fewer options are actually where our genius and the genius of our team can shine. 

Chouinard put very specific constraints on the team that was in charge of coming up with a satisfactory transition option. They needed to come up with a solution that met the non-negotiables to ensure that the purpose and ethos of the company would not be lost, and that the proceeds not just benefit the family, but the planet. 

As David Gelles points out in The New York Times article that broke the news, the easiest paths, selling the company or taking it public, would have enabled Chouinard to fund conservation initiatives from the proceeds. 

But Yvon did not believe that Patagonia would be able to prioritize things like worker well-being and funding climate action as a public company.

“I don’t respect the stock market at all,” Chouinard said. “Once you’re public, you’ve lost control over the company, and you have to maximize profits for the shareholder, and then you become one of these irresponsible companies.”

Chouinard even added some time pressure to the team to find a suitable alternative for his ownership succession. As the CEO, Ryan Gellert recounts: “One day he said to me, ‘Ryan, I swear to God, if you guys don’t start moving on this, I’m going to go get the Fortune magazine list of billionaires and start cold calling people. At that point we realized he was serious.”

By taking traditional solutions off the table and making the issue both urgent and important, Chouinard forced Patagonia to blaze a new trail that satisfied all of the Chouinard family’s values-led requirements. 

Lesson #2: What makes you different is where your value lies.

Companies often think that their strategic advantage is in being “better.” Better tasting. Healthier. Cheaper. More efficient. In reality, your strategic advantage is in being different.

“This family is one of one… People are gut-checking this move because it is so unusual,” Gelles noted in a Vox interview. “This family operates on a different wavelength.” 

The Chouinard children, Fletcher and Claire, essentially renounced their inheritance of billions of dollars, and share their parents’ disdain for billionaires.

My expectation isn’t that family enterprises all over the globe start emulating the Chouinard’s exact structure or willingness to donate their fortune to a cause. But they do act as an exceptional example of when having extreme values and personalities can work in a company’s favor.

It is a stark reminder to own this truth: The quirks of a family can actually create value in the brand and have positive ripple effects. By operating at extremes, they attract customers and employees who share their values, but lack the Chouinard’s capital to act on them.

Embracing personality, values, and profitability as ingredients for a successful business, instead of choices to be made is a liberating concept. This is something that makes me excited about the unique ability of family-owned and closely held businesses to truly make meaningful change in the world.

Patagonia is not a perfect company, and Yvon Choinard is not a perfect man. He wrestles with his own values. His company manufactured products that created waste, but the proceeds allowed his family to protect undeveloped lands. They had to deliberately slow the growth of the company at times and pull out of markets where they felt their products were being purchased by people who did not share their values. 

One of the things that sets the leadership of Patagonia apart is that they are willing to engage in conversations around contradiction and complexity. They embrace it. And that is something that we all can do.

Three Ways You’re Burning Out Your Marketing Managers

Our team interviewed marketing managers of family businesses in a wide range of industries. We learned that many of them were feeling burned out from entirely avoidable situations. By offering clarity, focus, and professional development, leaders of family businesses can set up these key employees for success.

Three Ways You’re Burning Out Your Marketing Manager – And Three Solutions

When you spend as much time as I do talking to CEOs and executives in family businesses, you can start to get a distorted view of reality.

I know some of you are nodding along, thinking that you have to be a little crazy to work with your parents, kids, in-laws, or Great Uncle Herbert. But that’s not what I mean. I often only hear the executive side of the story, and I miss the perspective of others in the organization who have keen insights into the day-to-day opportunities and issues within a business… if not always the power to act on their insights.

So our team took the time to talk to marketing managers this summer. These are often key employees who are “caught in the middle” – they are overseeing the work of internal marketing teams or agencies, and they report to owners or executives who may know very little about marketing or branding.

These conversations quickly yielded patterns and key take-aways you can benefit from. Because chances are, if you have a marketing manager, you are probably burning them out.

Here are three things that you or the person overseeing your marketing manager are likely doing that need to stop. (Get the full report here.)

#1: You know what you want, but can’t clearly explain it.
(And even if you think you are being clear, chances are, you aren’t.) This was one of the most common frustrations of marketing managers. They desperately want to “get it right” for the executive team, but they don’t always have a clear idea about what “right” looks like… they just know what is wrong because they have been burned multiple times.

We heard marketing managers expressing that their most important professional goals were to be good stewards of the company’s investment in marketing. They often cited their worst fears were “letting people down.”

These are qualities that you want in an employee, but these same qualities combined with lack of clear direction can be a recipe for frustration on all sides.

If you’ve ever said (or thought) “I’ll know it when I see it,” you are guilty of this. And as frustrating as it may feel to actually have to take the time to communicate what you know by instinct, it is worth it.

In order to accomplish this, you will likely need a colleague or trusted advisor to ask you questions and help you clarify your ideas. Then challenge yourself to state them as positives, not negatives. Sometimes you are just too close to your own vision to be able to formulate it clearly.

A checklist for clear direction would look something like this:

  • Have you stated the outcome you want? Is it a positive statement? (not just specifying what you don’t want)
  • Have you clearly defined how you will know when this outcome has been achieved? What evidence will you see/hear/feel?
  • What are the obstacles to achieving that outcome? What are the resources available to them (people, information, budget)?
  • Have you provided examples of when this has been done in the past, or when you have seen it done in other companies? This is especially important if you are providing some kind of creative direction… Words like “bright” or “authentic” can be achieved in a lot of different ways, and mean different things to different people.

#2: You are putting too much on their plates.
When I see this, it is usually done with good intentions, and often as a sign of respect. Chances are, if you are guilty of this, you are lucky enough to have a marketing manager who “gets it.” They understand your industry and your business pretty well, they can write and communicate succinctly, and you work well together.

Unfortunately, these capable people get flooded with requests and responsibilities. They are constantly having to juggle the short-term urgent requests with the long-term strategic priorities asked of them. Plus, they are conscientious and don’t want to let you or anyone else down. It is a recipe for frustration and burnout in the best times, but now with labor shortages in every industry, it is even more likely.

One solution to help to minimize burnout and also to develop this person as a leader is to enable them to delegate. This might mean introducing them to a prioritization tool like the Eisenhower Matrix, and then providing them with a budget to outsource tasks that are not important to freelancers on Upwork or an existing agency partner. Even if the budget is not large to start, empowering them to manage their own priorities with support while still being accountable for the same outcomes will help to build leadership skills and stave off burnout.

We also heard from marketing managers who feel like the “marketing” part of their job often gets second priority to being a support to the sales team. It can be helpful to better differentiate between marketing and sales. This could include providing the sales team with a separate support role specifically to tackle time-sensitive requests such as presentation decks, sell sheets, and lead tracking.

#3: They aren’t receiving professional development opportunities.
In family businesses, many people learn the job while they are on the job. That can be great to pass down industry knowledge or company-specific processes, but for a rapidly evolving field like marketing, it is not enough.

Without access to expertise and peers, many marketing managers feel worried that they are missing out on opportunities, or are working off of old assumptions. For many of them, the feeling that the company has been doing marketing the same way for years is both concerning and frustrating, but they don’t have the insights or the skills needed to suggest changes confidently.

When we spoke with high-performing marketing departments, they often cited professional development at conferences and peer learning as being critical to their confidence level and job satisfaction. But where to begin?

Our Effective Marketing Manager report lists some of the most often cited sources of professional development

How we can help
Six-Point is now offering our new Aligned Brand program that combines professional development, peer learning, and marketing plan development. Our inaugural six-week cohort kicks off in October!

Power of Relationships in Family Business

Family businesses often excel at relationships, a super power which allows them to challenge the goliaths in their industries. While this may leave them vulnerable to the intrusion of lifechanging moments, it also is a powerful way to motivate employees and partners.

Relationships are a superpower for many family businesses.

For our client, Hyde Tools, relationships have always been a superpower that allow them to challenge the goliaths in their ever-consolidating industry.

This is a company that has been family-owned for almost 150 years, and relationships with employees, the community, the hand tool industry, and construction professionals have enabled it to compete through market cycles and disruption. 

We’ve worked with the Hyde team for over 15 years, and can attest that their commitment to relationships is 100% authentic. Our team even refers to the HYDE brand as “our” brand (as in “I saw one of our new products at Ace Hardware yesterday.”) After 15 years of trust-building, Hyde is also a company and a brand for which we don’t mind leveraging our own personal relationships.

Most recently, one of our producers, Danielle, enlisted two well-established construction professionals, Guy and Jerry, to lend their talent to brand videos we would be shooting for Hyde. They were also two of her closest, oldest friends. (Hyde Tools’ reputation with its professional users is critical, so using actors or models doesn’t fly… a professional painter or drywaller would spot that inauthenticity immediately.)

From the get-go, Guy and Jerry were enthusiastic about the project. They agreed to split on-camera duties and began preparing for their roles. Our producer Danielle continued leveraging her connections in the construction industry to find locations for the shoots. The trio of friends were now a brand-building, video-making team! <

Then the unthinkable happened. Guy Delyea passed away suddenly after a brief illness, just before production was to begin. 

It’s in these difficult, unimaginable moments that you take stock. You reflect on the generosity of friends and the importance of relationships. You realize that the line between colleague and friend can be blurry. And when a tragedy occurs, the lines don’t matter so much anymore.

Guy was an entrepreneur himself, starting his first business while he was still in high school. A natural entertainer, he DJ’ed for over two decades, and was also a skilled and meticulous painter, working on properties throughout Vermont and Maine. 

We never got a chance to capture Guy’s craft and charisma on camera, but the fact that he was willing to lend his skills to support his friend Danielle, the team at Six-Point, and the HYDE brand speaks loudly about the person he was. 

And this is what happens when you bring the personal into the professional, and when “business” isn’t separated from “life.” We connect in deeper, more meaningful ways. When births, deaths, illnesses, and family milestones supercede project timelines and strategic plans in our businesses, it can sometimes feel disruptive. But try to imagine where your business would be without those connections.

The employees that help us move mountains also need us to return the favor, and to go to great lengths to support them and their families.

The customers who have become friends need us to be understanding when life disrupts their businesses.

The vendors who care about our businesses need to also be cared for. 

We are so grateful to Guy for his spirit of generosity, and for his commitment to his friends. We are also grateful to Danielle for introducing us to her friends. And we are grateful for their good friend Jerry, who is still willing to lend his talents to a project that was once going to be a fun adventure with a best buddy, but will now be an emotional roller coaster. 

When business becomes personal, it becomes powerful. We are excited and more motivated than ever to make this a project that honors Guy, and we know that you likely have had many projects with similar emotional overtones from the relationships and people they represent. I would love to hear your stories about how relationships have been meaningful for your company’s culture, reputation, and longevity.