This month’s OD Innovator Spotlight features marketing veteran JP Laqueur, co-founder of BrandFoundations, a New York-based consultancy that helps organizations align culture with the larger brand story. He is the author of the article “Mission, Vision & Values Are Dead,” which has been shared thousands of times on LinkedIn.
How does your work in branding overlap with organizational development?
At BrandFoundations, we operate at the intersection of brand and culture. When Steve Goodwin and I launched in 2012, we saw the opportunity and power of companies that had both a great brand story—an aspirational story bigger than the product or service—and a well-aligned culture. With those two ingredients, companies had outsized performance and incredible success.
I was at MCI in the early ’90s. It was an organization with a great story: we weren’t just saving people money on long-distance calls; we were breaking up a 100-year-old monopoly and introducing new technologies to the world. Behind this aspirational story was a great culture that rewarded risk-taking and innovation—something I experienced firsthand.
Since then, I’ve been personally driven to create organizational environments where people feel a sense of purpose in their work, some noble cause that they’re delivering on. We started BrandFoundations with that goal in mind, and this approach has differentiated us. Not many companies will look at your culture and dig deep, making it a core part of their practice.
What does a typical brand-and-culture engagement look like?
Often, we work with organizations that are experiencing an identity crisis because of a major change. They may have new leadership, or they’ve been bought by a private equity firm. Maybe they’ve made a major acquisition or merger. We usually come in during in the first 12 months, at which time we generally get an audience with the CEO, who is typically the only person who cares equally about both human resources and brand.
We tease out the underlying purpose and cultural attributes by engaging everyone at every level. For instance, we use a survey tool called CultureTalk to measure the presence of archetypes in the culture and to see which ones are predominant. Each of us individually has these deeply seated archetypes that are genetically imprinted from tens of thousands of years of storytelling: the hero, the caregiver, the good wizard that goes to the dark side. Well, no surpirise, they existing in group cultures, as well. Once we identify the dominant archetypes in an organization, we explain what it says about their brand and culture. Then, we look at ways to harness those traits: “Your IT guys have a caregiver streak. Maybe they can support customers because they want to help and solve problems.”
Our role is to create a conversation. We shine a light or mirror up to the organization to better understand the culture and its demographics, as well as how it shifts within the organization. We help them to see themselves differently, but it’s only the start. We bring in partners who have more experience in guiding and leading that culture shift.
Do you ever encounter resistance?
By the time a company brings us in for an engagement, senior leadership is usually committed to getting clarity on the culture and bringing everyone into alignment, but we sometimes have pockets of people that push back. Our work will often turn up some interesting gaps. For example, leadership may think this is who we’re all about and what people believe, and that’s a conversation that we have to have. We’ll tell them what we think they need to do, but it’s up to them. We caution them about the risks of promoting a brand not backed up by culture.
We also point out the shadow side of the archetypes and belief systems. All archetypes have positive and negative attributes. In the B2B tech space, we see a lot of cultures dominated by heroes and caregivers, which share some attributes. Both go above and beyond to deliver on purpose and mission; they’ll work themselves to the bone. On the downside, they can burn out. Heroes need to slay the dragon and to win; otherwise, they can become political and backstabbing, turning on each other. Caregivers need to be thanked and recognized, or they can become disenfranchised and needy. If you know what to look for, you can take steps to manage those risks.
Uber had a very magician-like brand and culture, based on wowing and delighting people. That organization, under its founding CEO, began to go to the dark side. It was using it’s technology to manipulate drivers and the authorities. It created a cult of personality around the CEO. These are common in a magician culture taken too far. It wasn’t balanced by a ruler, an adult in the room. That’s another thing you see in exploring culture and archetypes; there are some natural pairings and balancing elements. If they’re not there, you can bring them out. By making the organization more self-aware and more conscious of its habits, we can often get past any pushback.
What traits seem to predict a successful organizational transformation?
A willingness to let go is one of the most important traits. When a company hires a branding firm, they feel that the brand is very important and that leadership needs to drive that process. Often, they go off-site, brainstorm and roll out the new brand. But if the people who have to deliver on that brand promise every day haven’t participated, they’re not as likely to buy into it.
We flip that process upside down. Obviously, the leadership team and founder will have significant input, but let’s let the organization tell us what they think the brand and culture story is here. We’ll tease it out from them, and then leaders make sure it’s in alignment with their vision. Obviously, there’s a chance for a disconnect, but that very rarely happens. Instead, what comes out tends to be more lively, and people feel more empowered. Leadership can talk about the brand, but employees have to live it every day. They have to feel a sense of ownership and pride.
When leaders are willing to let go and take a step back, they’ll get a lot farther. They’ll hear things they may not have considered before, and they’ll learn a lot more. They’ll be a more agile organization if they let the rest of the company have a say in who they are and what they’re all about, and then get behind it and champion it. To allow everyone to come together and coalesce around a process is a powerful thing and says a lot about leadership.
This seems like a good time to talk about your purpose-driven approach. How did you come up with that model?
Defining an organization’s higher purpose is a key to the brand. It ties everything together. This is usually expressed in the framework of “mission, vision and values.” Knowing how important a mission or vision statement could be in an organization, I began to dig into the topic for a thought leadership piece. What I found was that many mission statements are terrible. Also, everyone has integrity as a core value, which isn’t differentiating.
When you run a Google search on the difference between a “mission statement” vs. “vision statement,” you get hundreds of millions of documents. I decided I’m not writing another article on this. In fact, we declared that “Mission, Vision & Values Are Dead.” This model first showed up in the 1960s, and it captured the imagination of a post-WWII generation. Today’s millennial workforce is very different; they want to make an impact.
What’s your alternative to “mission, vision and values”?
We created a model based on a three-stage rocket: purpose, way and impact. The purpose is the reason why you start the business, and it’s very change-driven. There’s a problem, and you want to change it. The way statement identifies the one or two unique ways you’ll go about pursuing that purpose. The impact statement describes the last stage of the rocket. After you’ve launched and gone through the growing pains and built your culture and you’re finally in orbit, you look down at the world and see, how have you made people’s lives better? The impact should be something big and lofty: lives are improved, new opportunities are realized. You may never quite achieve it, but it’s your North Star that keeps you going.
We used the example of Southwest Airlines. In the 1970s, flying wasn’t affordable, and they wanted to democratize air travel. That was their purpose. They did it by cutting costs and focusing on the human experience, offering fun and humor instead of peanuts and perks. Those two things guided how they ran the business. The impact: More travel, more connections, more shared experiences make life richer and bring humanity closer together.
What implications do brand and culture have for OD professionals?
Elevating the brand and culture story is a way for OD professionals to tell a strong internal brand story—not only for sales, but also for engagement.
OD professionals are sitting on one of the most valuable parts of an organization. The biggest driver of valuation is intangible, roughly equated to brand and culture. KPMG surveys have shown that, when a company is sold, 50% of the company price is allocated to goodwill. Certain industries, like technology, may attribute up to 80% of the valuation to goodwill. Goodwill is the promise of what the company will be worth: people, culture and brand. Where marketing can show ROI with campaigns, HR has a hard time showing ROI on culture. Focusing on valuation changes that.
By being stewards and building resiliency into the culture, OD professionals can have a huge impact on valuation. Resiliency is especially important because those intangibles are more precarious than ever. Look at what happened to Starbucks in Philadelphia. Starbucks is very clear on their higher purpose. They don’t just serve coffee; they created that third place for people to go to—not just home or work. When those guys were thrown out, someone running the store was not in touch with the organization’s purpose, and it was a total affront to what they stood for. They knew what to do: shut every store down. That situation could have been a horrible PR disaster, but they did a good job of turning it around.
When these things go bad, they have a huge impact on the valuation of the company. The culture can very much undermine the brand. One financial institution tried to recreate their model into retail stores. The goal was to sell every account holder eight different services. Not shortly thereafter, they had 40% turnover in their branches—something that’s normal in retail, but horrific in banking. Understanding your brand, what you stand for and your purpose and how it ties back to your organization, all that had better be in alignment, or you have the potential for something to go really rogue.
What challenges and opportunities do you see for the OD industry?
First off, OD professionals generally work under the umbrella of Human Resources, and HR usually doesn’t have the pull to get involved with brand. As I just mentioned, taking part in the branding conversation offers a way to gain influence in the organization.
Another way to increase their influence is to get better at internal communication. Right now, chief marketing officers have a lot of influence and budget, but most marketing departments aren’t experts at internal communications. By filling this need, OD people can better partner with their marketing peers and expand their contributions to the organization.
Most companies in the US are service businesses, and the brand is the people and the experience you have with the people. We need to break down the wall between HR and marketing. Why not have a C-suite leader that owns both disciplines since they’re so complementary?
Why do you see the need to marry HR and marketing? What do modern organizations need that they’re not getting?
The old mentality was that people were the biggest expense: “It’s our biggest cost, so make the CFO stay on top of it.” It’s a scarcity mindset, and it has to change by recognizing people as our biggest opportunity. To grow the business, to be profitable and agile, and to know our customers, all of that lies with our people. They can be our best marketers, our brand evangelists and our top recruiters. That’s an abundance standpoint, and it’s also the mentality of marketing and sales—looking at the world not from a cost basis, but searching for the opportunity. If HR is driven by marketing-oriented mindsets and taps into the leadership’s vision, they have an opportunity to get more out of people, to better understand their skillsets, and to find untapped resources.
We’re working with a client that’s creating software platforms to help you understand latent skillsets in your employee base—not just the skills that they use at work, but the things they love to do on the side. When you find ways to bring those skills to work, it brings a different mentality and ups the engagement. Ultimately, unlocking that potential in your people is what will make organizations agile. Employees will be happier people who are willing to stay. They’ll get more done with less. They’ll outcompete. They’ll see where the market’s going and get ahead of it.