Andrea is an Account Director at Vovia. Nothing brings her more joy than seeing a project through from planning to execution to results. When she's not sending emails or creating work back schedules you can find her on the trails or on the pavement wearing out her running shoes.

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Leadership Insights From The Gathering, 2018

Over 1000 marketers congregated into the Banff Springs Hotel in late February for a conference described as a ‘union of the world’s bravest brands’, otherwise known as the 2018 Cult Gathering. Today I am going to share some of the learnings that really resonated with me and my Vovia teammates that attended and encourage you to ask yourself if your business is following these guidelines.

Leadership Insights

Be Brave

As keynote for day one, Brené Brown kicked off the event with a simple, yet powerful message; to be brave you need to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. This set the stage for the marketing leads that followed who shared their stories on the risks they took, the uncertainty in the decisions they made, and how they had to emotionally expose themselves to get the job done. In other words, big ideas, breakthroughs, and organizational change don’t come from ‘playing it safe’.

Big brands were in attendance talking about their challenges, failures, and wins. Looking back, there were a few messages that resonated with me that I would like to share with you:

Have Focus – You Can’t Please Everyone

Focus on your core consumer and how to best serve them. This can be a harder than you think! As a brand, you can have this mindset where you want your product or service to be used by anyone and everyone, but this isn’t without drawback and implication.

Gatorade had this happen to them, and we had the opportunity to hear about it from Michael Smith, Head of Digital Strategy. They felt the brand had reached its peak within the professional athletic audience, so they made a business decision to position their product to the general population. By doing this they lost the ‘soul’ of their brand. Michael put it simply, “when you know why you exist and who you serve, you find success”. Gatorade had to take a step back remind themselves of the why and the who. Through this, they realized they needed to stay focused on fueling professional athletes, which led to the launch of their new product lines to assist before, during, and after workouts.

Vans’ VP of Global Integrated Marketing, Nick Street, spoke about the importance their brand places on creative expression, inspiring creativity, and supporting the underdogs. They have embraced the mentality that there is a specific person who appreciates their brand, or in Nick’s words “they are open to anybody, but they aren’t for everybody.”

The moral of this section is to remain focused on your core business and customer. It’s all too easy to say your product is for everyone and then to carry on trying to please everyone with it, but by doing so, you can lose sight of why you started the business in the first place and who it really matters to. By really knowing and understanding who you are speaking to and serving, you can do a much better job for that group than trying to be everything for everyone.

Have Entrepreneurial Spirit

A few brands gave insight into their corporate culture as well. Freshii spoke about one of their corporate values being “build a killer culture, don’t kill the culture”. Zappos shared how it builds a culture that embraces failure and encourages employees to push themselves out of their comfort zone.

These examples were in line with what we heard from Gene Hammet, Managing Director of ‘Leaders in the Trenches’, who offered further lessons on cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit and creating ownership for employees.

These notions are all well and good and it’s nice to know about other companies that are doing it. But how are they doing it? Hammet offered six ‘disciplines of hypergrowth’ I thought were worth repeating here for you:

  1. Create Vision at All Levels – Don’t preach from the top. Get employees involved with the vision and they’ll take more ownership of it.
  2. Create Innovation through Empowerment – Ideas come from anyone. Encourage employees to speak up and bring their thoughts to the table.
  3. Create Shared Goals – Company goals, team goals, personal goals. Talk about these openly and align them.
  4. Create a One of a Kind Brand – Market leadership creates ownership.
  5. Create Radical Transparency – Gene spoke about celebrating failures and moving forward. He gave examples of companies that give awards for failing. That’s pretty bold! He also recommended sharing everything that is legal to share. I’ve been surprised time and time again with how Vovia strives to be as open and transparent as they can be with the team, and it is something I certainly appreciate as an employee.
  6. Create Brand Ambassadors – When employees feel a sense of ownership they become your ambassadors. They take pride in where they work and the work that they are doing.

It was refreshing to learn that Vovia is already living and breathing many of these disciplines of hypergrowth, but I can certainly appreciate how tough this must be to put into practice for larger or more rigid organizations. Companies get focused on the day to day because work needs to be done (shocker), and creating this type of an environment requires pretty big shifts in company culture, including buy in from top level managers, and this will definitely take time to implement. However, if you can nail this early on, it will set you up for success as you grow.

Embrace Challenging Conversations

Brown and Hammet both spoke about the importance of having difficult conversations. As Brené spoke on bravery she said, “We need leaders who will not walk away from hard conversations.” Is she ever right! We can say we want to be brave, have courage, not be comfortable, etc., but when faced with the situation where you have to have a difficult discussion, it’s in our nature to shy away.

We absolutely need to have these conversations though! If you go to the effort of building up a corporate culture, you need to be bold enough stand behind it and everyone in the organization should feel empowered to call out a person that isn’t speaking or acting in a way that aligns with those values. This may not be easy; however, you have to go through those awkward moments if you want to grow the right way.

In Summary

Brown boiled it down to one question to ask yourself every morning: “Am I going to be comfortable or am I going to be brave?” For brands such as Gatorade, Zappos, Beats by Dre, and Vans to be successful, they had to take risks which made them vulnerable. The risk, however, came with great reward and these brands continue to tell their story.

“What if I fail?” That’s easy! Make sure you are accountable for it, learn from it, and then just wake up the next day and choose to try again.

What are your experiences with culture and growth? Do you feel like these lessons create reasonable expectations? Let’s discuss in the comments below