10 Lessons on Business from General Custer

How to Avoid Your Own Last Stand.

With the recent story breaking about the Flag from Custer’s last stand selling at $2.2 million, I found some great “lessons learned” that can help us to avoid his same mistakes, whether it be on a literal battlefield or in the market of competition in business and career.

At the same time, let’s not forget that failure is an integral part of success, when it’s reviewed, digested and used to actually shape future decisions.  I was once told by a successful entrepreneur that the best way to have a successful business is to fail at three others.

So what can we learn from the Battle of the Little Big Horn to help us avoid our own ‘last stand’?  Here is my every day interpretation of 10 reasons why Custer was defeated.

  1. Never act alone.  Leaders never succeed by themselves. Leverage the support, resources and wisdom of those around you.
  2. Avoid professional and organizational fatigue.  There is nothing like driving so hard for an objective, only to achieve a Pyrrhic victory. Remember, man was not made for business, but business was made for man.
  3. Harness the power of focus.  Multitasking is a farce. Don’t spread yourself or your organizational energy too thin.  Focus everything on what’s most important, knock it out, then move on to the next most important goal.
  4. Expect everything – that way you will always get what you expected.  Somewhere, there is a kid with a laptop starting a business that will blow you out of the water if she gets the chance.
  5. Don’t get outnumbered. Keep your networks and circles of influence growing. In this increasingly networked world, you draw instant power from your ability to move thousands through social media.
  6. Don’t ignore the advice of others, especially your customers and constituents. Build your own meta-knowledge.
  7. Never go up against someone named ‘Crazy Horse”. It just sounds suicidal to begin with.
  8. Fight every battle like it’s your last stand. It just might be.
  9. Be determined. No matter the circumstances that face you, remember the Stockdale Paradox.
  10. You can never have too much information; about the customer, about the competition, about the performance of your product or service, about your own people and your own organization.
Don’t underestimate others.
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Marketers, Stop Taking and Start Giving

Of course that’s an inflammatory headline; it’s supposed to get your attention.  Now the next thing I do is write a line or two of pain-centered content, then I begin to pull you in with my pitch.  That’s what good marketers do, right?

We send messages.  We pretend to communicate and fire away at our market with little regard to whether or not the message is received, decoded properly or feedback gathered.  In fact, in most marketing organizations I know of, the flow of thinking is: create the campaign, fire away, and start creating the next campaign (all without the concept of action-learning).  Not anymore.

The game has changed, but we’re still playing with our old tactics and strategies, yet wondering why are not able to capture more loyal customers or survive in a struggling economy. The bottom line is that our customers come second in line to ourselves and the gap between the two gets bigger with every level of management that stands between.  The future of marketing is changing faster than marketing management is able to.

Markets are not just ‘markets’ – they are people.  People don’t want to be talked at, they want you to listen.  People crave reliable relationships, interactions that validate them as individuals of worth and value resources that enable and empower them to at least feel like they can do more, even if they don’t.  Take the example of great customer service – at its most fundamental level, focused, personal customer service raises the perception of dignity in an individual and gives them the feeling that they are ‘worth it’. For most of us, whose back is to the wall on a daily basis, a simple experience of self-worth is priceless.  Marketers forget that.  We think it’s about us.  It’s not – it’s about THEM.

With the availability and flow of information today, marketers have to realize that they can rarely control online reputation through a carefully filtered stance of message-leaking.  If an organization does not speak enough, the market will speak for them, often to the chagrin of brand managers and boards of directors.  What’s worse is that even if a company is trying to speak volumes in cyberspace, today’s social spheres quickly attribute even the smallest departure from what they feel is honesty, transparency and moral motive and then do the branding and advertising for you, in a negative light.

Marketing, branding, positioning, etc. is not what we think or say, it’s the net result of everything we do.  Don’t be afraid to invite the customer in and give them a free pass to your world, because if you don’t, they’ll happily be standing there as you sort through your own rubble.

Creating a Social Media Strategy: Putting the Cart Before the Horse.

Don't rush into social media just because everyone else is.  Take the time to plan it out and be deliberate.

Don't rush into social media just because everyone else is. Take the time to plan it out and be deliberate.

Over the past couple of years, I have been an enthusiastic follower of social media communications in organizations.  As the wave of individuals have turned to popular applications and technologies to connect individuals and groups, businesses are finding the need to create new roles of tweeters, bloggers, posters and feeders, usually in an attempt to merely follow the competition.  But which of the competition really knows what they are doing? 

Social Media as a “Me-too” Strategy

I’m a lover of strategy, and as I search for social media strategies others are using, I see it following the likes of social media adoption: an all too often knee-jerk reaction to a developing eco-sphere of burgeoning online social activity, rather than a well-developed appendix to a communications strategy.  Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great to develop a social media strategy, but there is a danger here in the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ it is formed: Any strategy for the sake of strategy, often becomes disparate from organizational purpose and sub-optimizes the whole.  Social media, and any strategy for that matter, simply needs to align with the larger purpose and vision of the organization / individual.  And, social media, having its own strategy, may be putting the cart before the horse.

A Purpose-driven Approach to Social Media Strategy

Most organizations need to back-up and first begin with the following:

 1.) The Relationships you’re building with Stakeholders. What are those relationships now and what do they need to become? Since really all social activities (and all organizations are social structures) begin and end with relationships, its critical to take stock in and inventory relationship gaps within and without the organization.  Most companies that I have been in (a fair amount) don’t even formally acknowledge who their key stakeholders are in the first place.  Take the leadership team through the process of working out and articulating these relationships, identifying their current state and their desired state.  Now you have something to work with.

2.) What is the Best Way to Build those relationships?  This question gives everyone a guideline and handrail to hold to and keep us directed as we work through the rest of the social media strategy process. Is it through insincerity?  Is it by being guarded and defensive?  Is it through telling too much or too little? Once you’ve identified the key relationships, simply have a discussion as a team about the best way to strengthen them.  Use experience from your own life about how your relationship was strengthened with organizations you patronize. Not every relationship needs to be at the same level, but discussing what principles impact the development of those relationships will put everyone on the same philosophical page about relationship building. 

3.) What Information, Exchanges, Experiences and Conversations need to take place in order for those relationships to foster? This is where you begin to design the messages or content from a high level.  Don’t wait for the moment to come later to have this discussion – get it out there on paper right now.  Let everyone look at it.  This will begin to tell you about your side of the relationship and how you can step up to the plate as individuals and as an organization.

  4.) How are we going to communicate with them to Best Facilitate it all? As you can tell, we haven’t even talked about social media at this point. This last question leaves us with the need to get clear on our communications strategy and planning ; social media, now that’s merely a channel for socializing your messages, a means for enabling your communications plan to be to actually communicate, from sending messages to receiving feedback.

Once you have a communications strategy, articulated and aligned, then you have the groundwork for clearly seeing the opportunities that social media can play in communication with your various stakeholder groups.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, what about the cool stuff – the facebook, twitter, digg, YouTube?” 

Again, don’t get caught up in the channels (or ‘means’) that the relationships (or ‘ends’) utilize.  Plan those channels just as you would any other. There is no quicker way to kill your brand than to whip out a social media strategy, open all channels of online social networking, and then find you’ve created a monster. Communications in web-based, open social circles can be like a prairie fire: a small spark can quickly rage uncontrolled, traveling faster than you can mobilize resources to contain it.  You put a message out there with one intent, and it can be quickly picked up and perceived as another, blown across a vast area, too fast for you to control it.  That said, don’t be afraid – be bold, be willing to be transparent and foster visionary leadership.

Seeing the Unseen in your Marketing Operations

Ever walk into the room when someone else was mad or had a serious argument with someone else in the room, and though you didn’t see or hear it, you knew something wasn’t right?  You could feel it.  The attitude was thick, like an invisible smoke, and it clung to everything in the room.  Well, that’s an example of part of what I call “Seeing the Unseen”.

When it comes to moving your marketing organization up a notch, it means moving the rest of your organization up a notch as well, because, well, the marketing function doesn’t exist in a box.  And if you think it does, then we need to get you some super X-ray vision glasses, because there is a lot that you aren’t seeing.X-Ray Glasses

To improve marketing, the first step is understanding what is actually going on, which means mapping your core processes.  What is a core process?  Its one of those macro, big, overall sorts of things, like making a widget.  Core processes may have many sub-processes in them, but overall, its what you do in order to do what you do.  Got it?

The problem you will run into, is that if you aren’t experienced with process analysis and mapping, then chances are that you will actually record what you want to have happen or project what you wish was being done vs. what is actually being done.  But if you get it right, and you can hang that on the wall, then you’ve just created the instrument that all improvement can be based on.

Think of it, with a process map, you begin to see the current state vs. your soon-to-be-defined desired state.  You can see places that are lean and mean or fat and filthy.  You can look at what’s being measured, what ought to be measured, and what you probably should stop wasting your time measuring (executive’s like metrics, but let me tell you – most of them are pure waste.  I’ll have to write on that later). And you add insight into communications and information sharing, decision-making, performance and talent, and all of a sudden you have the organization right there before your eyes to no longer subject you to its whims and fancies, to be subjected by you. At least in theory.

Can_factory_workers_stamping_out_end_discs,_published_1909The bottom line is this: Start today. You don’t need an exhaustive effort or even a Visio file to begin.  Simply take out a piece of scratch paper and determine the first, most overall thing that you do:  Draw a factory in the middle of the page (that’s the marketing department, or sales, or accounting, or HR or whatever).  Then draw an arrow coming out of the factory to the right and write down what it is that the factory produces.  Try not to make a list of things, but the one thing, overall, that it produces inside that sweat-shop of horrors.  Next draw an arrow going into the factory at the left, and write down what the input is into the factory – the raw materials that will magically be transformed inside by a group of hourly and salaried and sometimes volunteer workers pushing buttons and pulling levels and wiping their diaphoretic foreheads.

And now you have started.  You can begin to look inside the factory, and follow the inputs, as a fly on the wall or a speck on the raw materials, and trace them through their transformation into the big product that will come out the other end.  Along the way, note the places that the inputs change form into something completely different (like raw customer data into an ideal customer profile, or requirements into a campaign plan), just like a cake mix changes with the addition of eggs into a completely different substance.

With a little time and some more scratch paper, you can develop a working model of the work process that flows through your organization, and the foundation is then laid for operational insight, measurement and management for organizational success.  If that doesn’t work, I have been known to donate a lot of hours to helping others out.  Feel free to reach out.