The Truth about Authenticity

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While fake news is often hard to spot, phony advertising, inauthentic companies, and fake people aren’t.

I was listening to my favorite podcast the other day and I heard it. I wasn’t listening for it, but it was obvious. Commercials on podcasts usually involve the host telling you how great a product or service is. It’s typically something they have used personally and they give you their own perspective. It’s almost like an endorsement, so advertisers normally give the host freedom to ad-lib. The result is an advertising segment that seems genuine and authentic.

That’s why it stood out to me when the host of the podcast read this advertisement segment verbatim. It was for the new Toyota CH-R. The ad seemed like it was written by a high-priced Madison Avenue firm. Every word was carefully selected, the message was perfectly crafted, and it was likely focus-tested to provoke a picture-perfect response. The host even read the flawless, well-written legal disclaimer at the end. To me, it sounded phony.

In the podcast world of personal-endorsement-style advertisements, this one felt fake. It didn’t seem truthful or genuine. It was over-produced, over-engineered, and too perfect. It wasn’t real.

“There’s authenticity in a first take.” Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame would agree. He made a living off being “authentic.” He said, “Dirty Jobs didn’t resonate because the host was incredibly charming. It wasn’t a hit because it was gross, or irreverent, or funny, or silly, or smart, or terribly clever. Dirty Jobs succeeded because it was authentic.” The show was the first of its kind. There was no script, no rehearsal, and only one take. They turned the cameras on and Mike responded and reacted to his environment. It was genuine and people loved it.

“I believe the enemies of charm are deliberateness in much the same way I would argue that the enemies of authenticity are production.” Mike Rowe

Companies can also be inauthentic when they aren’t true to their message. Think about Subway restaurants. They’ve used the advertising slogan, “Eat Fresh,” since 2002. They came under fire when it was discovered they used azodicarbonamide in their bread as a conditioner. Food blogger Vani Hari, of the popular food blog Food Babe, originally drew public attention to this issue. She revealed that azodicarbonamide was the same chemical used in yoga mats and shoe rubber. In 2014, after public pressure grew, Subway stopped using the chemical in their bread recipes.

But the damage to Subway was done. Subway’s sales fell. They lost 3% in 2014, despite opening 778 new stores. They faced eroding public perception regarding the quality of their food while still using the “Eat Fresh” slogan. The main reason they lost consumer confidence was because they were seen as phony and inauthentic. You can’t claim “Eat Fresh” and use a yoga mat chemical in your bread.

People can be fake as well. People who make promises with no intention to keep them, those that make friendships only for personal gain, or those that have hidden agendas are seen as shallow and phony. You can probably name people with these qualities where you work. They can be successful in the short term but only until people learn their true character. Then, no one wants to work with them.

“People with good intentions make promises, but people with good character keep them.” Anonymous

In a world where we are surrounded by phony people and messages, how can we be more authentic? Let me suggest three things.

Be true to the first take. Avoid over-processing and over-engineering your message. A product training video, for example, that has a few mistakes seems more real than one that has been carefully edited. A quick, witty tweet delivered at the right time will get more attention than a perfectly polished post. We are bombarded daily with highly-engineered, focus-group tested messages. An honest first-take is refreshing and seems more authentic.

Be true to your company promise. What does your company stand for? What is the brand promise? Whatever it is, make sure you are delivering to that promise. If you commit to 24 hour deliveries, make sure you are built for speed. If you promise the “lowest prices,” make sure you know that’s true. If you claim “eat fresh,” then know what’s in your recipes. Being true to your brand promise will make you appear more authentic.

Be true to others. Nobody wants a fake friend. Be real. If you make a promise, deliver on it. Build relationships based on mutual respect not hidden agendas and personal gain. Be there for people in the good times as well as the bad. Put others ahead of yourself. Don’t talk behind their backs. Show respect for everyone on your team. Being true to others and being a person of character will make you more authentic.

Let’s get rid of fake news and, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of phony advertising, untruthful companies, and fake people. Authenticity is rare. We will stand out if we embrace reality and stop being so over-engineered on fake. Embrace your genuine self, be original, and see what happens. It certainly worked for Mike Rowe.

What do you think? Does authenticity stand a chance today? Are there other reasons why “Dirty Jobs” had such mass appeal? How can we employ authenticity in our messaging? What are some other examples of authentic or inauthentic companies? What was the result? Let me know in the comment section below.

Stop Expecting People to be Perfect

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I have written many times that leadership is a people business. It’s about motivating and challenging people to accomplish big things. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be a leader. The truth is, people are messy. They have fears, anxieties, quirks, annoying habits, hangups, issues, and problems. Each member of your team is probably struggling with something at home or at work that is affecting them in some way. Leading people is not simple and can be frustrating at times. But that’s OK.

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” Donald Miller

Reading Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, made me think about this leadership issue again. People are amazing and they can truly surprise you with what they can do, but, if you expect them to be perfect every day, you are going to be discouraged. So, as Miller suggests, stop expecting perfection from your employees and enjoy who they are and what they bring to your team. Embrace the mess and keep motivating them towards great things.

What do you think? Why do we seem to focus on the negatives? How can we look past the quirks and annoying habits to see the best in people? If we simply accept people as they are, how much more could they contribute to the team? Let me know in the comment section below.

3 Reasons Why the Struggle is More Important than the Goal

58733825_lI’m not a runner, but I ran six half-marathons once. Growing up in New England, it was always a dream to one day run the Boston Marathon but training for and running six half-marathons was all I needed to realize how difficult that would be. I learned that running is hard and running long distances is even harder. Although I only conquered the 13.1 mile race, I learn a lot about myself and what I could do if I didn’t quit.

“If you’re going through hell, keep on going. Don’t slow down, if you’re scared, don’t show it.” Rodney Atkins

The truth is, long distant running is not about bragging rights, personal records, t-shirts or race medals. It’s about challenging yourself to do something difficult. Most people see what happens on race day but they don’t witness the months of training and the hours spent grinding out the miles day after day. There is excitement the day you sign up for a race and the day you finish a race, but the real work and struggle is done in the middle.

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Theodore Roosevelt

I have been reading Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and it has me thinking about the importance of the hard work in the middle of any difficult challenge and how it changes you. As an entrepreneur, I can fully relate. There is excitement in starting a new company and setting out on a new course. But, after the newness wears off, the hard work begins. Most people never see all the effort that goes into getting a new business off the ground and how it affects the people involved. Miller talks about this in a passage called “The Thing about a Crossing.”

It’s like this when you live a story: The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative, and you’re finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn’t seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you’ll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. But the truth is, it isn’t going to be over soon. The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of the story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.

As Miller suggests, the hard work in the middle of any difficult challenge is more important than the ending. There are three distinct reasons for this:

The struggle builds character. An easy life is one that doesn’t change you. Challenge brings about change. The struggle requires determination, courage, intensity and perseverance. Some days it takes everything to keep going especially when the end seems nowhere in sight. It’s those moments, like being on the ninth mile of a half marathon on a bridge in the cold, windy, pouring rain, that you find out who you are. If you don’t quit, you learn you can do amazing things.

The struggle builds relationships. As I wrote in 5 Reasons to Celebrate the Tough Times, persevering through a difficult challenge with a team or another person builds strong bonds that last a lifetime. When you suffer and struggle together, you build a defining moment in your relationship. You build mutual respect. You create a mental catalog of similar experiences. This is why I can instantly reconnect with shipmates from the Navy or the people I worked with during a difficult labor dispute. Donald Miller learned this while biking across the country with fifteen strangers. After the first three weeks of struggling, he said, “the pain bound us together.”

The struggle builds the story. Every great story has a hero’s journey. The main character must struggle and overcome a major obstacle or challenge. As an audience, we become endeared to the hero as he endures hardships and trials. This is the same with people and organizations. We are attracted to those who have faced trials and overcome. We appreciate the cancer survivor, the wounded veteran, and the entrepreneur who struggles for years to build a great company. We love stories like that of J.K. Rowling, who lived on welfare and struggled to get by as a single mother before she became the world’s most famous author. The tougher the story, the more people are interested in you.

“Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering.” Theodore Roosevelt

The thing is, if you find yourself in the middle of a struggle with seemingly no end in sight, you’re in a good place. The hard work in the middle of any difficult challenge is more important than the ending. You are growing as a person and learning what you are capable of. You are building your character and the relationships with the people around you. You are also building a story worth remembering. So, if you’re going through hell, don’t stop. Keep going.

What do you think? Have you experienced growth in the middle of a difficult challenge? How has that changed you as a person? If growth comes through a struggle, why do we always seek out a comfortable life? What does it take to become comfortable being uncomfortable? Let me know in the comment section below.

The Discipline of Getting Things Done

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Zen Garden on Beach Photo Credit: Mari Armstrong

I love being an entrepreneur. I love being my own boss. The freedom to operate my business the way I want to is everything I hoped it would be. The downside is, I had no idea how much work it would be. With only a small team, the quantity of work to be done by each person is often overwhelming. The challenge is determining what to work on first.

“If you want to get your ducks in a row, you must first get your head above water.” Unknown

My CFO and I were having a conversation on this topic last week and we agreed that we need to be working on those critical items that are most essential for the business. The key to getting things done is learning how to prioritize actions and having the discipline to follow through until they are complete. It also means saying no to less important activities.

Prioritizing actions when you are overloaded is easier said than done; however, there are some simple steps you can take to determine which activities need to be done first and which actions can be stopped, delegated or put aside. I suggest using the Action Priority Matrix as a tool to help you walk through these steps.

“In order to say yes to your priorities, you have to be willing to say no to something else.” Unknown

The Action Priority Matrix can help you choose the activities you should prioritize to work on and the ones you should avoid. It’s important to weed out the “wish list” from the actions that are needed for the business. This screening process is critical, especially when you have limited time and resources.

 

Keep in mind, the Action Priority Matrix is for individuals but it needs to be tied to the overall business goals as well. Therefore, before using the Action Priority Matrix, it’s essential to understand the high priority goals for the business. If you don’t already have a list of the Top 10 Business Goals, you should develop one jointly with your management team.

Once you understand your business goals, using the tool is simple. Mindtools.com even has a worksheet you can download. Follow these 4 steps:

Step 1. List all the major activities that you need to complete.

Step 2. Score each activity on business impact using your Top 10 Business Goals as a guide (from 0 for no impact to 10 for maximum impact).

Step 3. Score each activity on effort involved (from 0 for no real effort to 10 for a major effort).

Step 4. Plot the activities on the Action Priority Matrix.

Once all your major activities are plotted on the matrix, the next step is to prioritize all your activities. Here are some simple guidelines to deal with the activities in each quadrant of the matrix:

Quick Wins (High Impact, Low Effort). Quick wins are the most attractive projects. They provide a strong return with relatively little effort. Get these actions done first. Completing quick wins will give you a feeling of accomplishment and create momentum to complete other tasks.

Major Projects (High Impact, High Effort). Major projects are critical to the business but they can be very time-consuming. Be careful here because one major project can “crowd out” many quick wins. Set aside time each day (2-3 hours) to work on your major projects but don’t stop working on the quick wins.

Fill Ins (Low Impact, Low Effort). Stop worrying about these actions. If you have spare time, do them, but try to delegate them or drop them altogether if you can.

Thankless Tasks (Low Impact, High Effort). Avoid these activities. They give little return and they soak up valuable time that should be used on quick wins and major projects. Delegate these tasks or drop them altogether.

The Action Priority Matrix is just one of many tools that can be used to help you prioritize your actions. The key to making progress, however, is being disciplined to follow through and complete each high impact action item. Lists are great but actions are better. Your focus should be on completing the high impact action items as quickly as possible and not get bogged down in thankless tasks.

What do you think? Have you tried the Action Priority Matrix? How has it worked for you? What other methods have you used to prioritize actions? What other ways can we tie actions to the business goals? Let me know in the comment section below.

None of the Above

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Fair warning, this is not my typical article. It’s not about leadership, business, careers, culture, entrepreneurship, or the military. But it’s related. This post is about the importance of finding common ground and learning how to work with people you disagree with. In the vitriolic, bitter, hateful and often venomous climate that seems to exist in America today, I felt it was time to say something.

If you’ve read my articles, you know I have addressed this subject before but mostly in a business sense. In an article called, 10 Leadership Lessons I Learned Living on a Nuclear Submarine, I wrote about one interesting aspect of submarine life, there is no escape from a bad colleague. Once on board, you were stuck with the crew that was deployed.

“I like working with people with strong opinions, loosely held.” Jordan Harbinger

From this experience, I learned to get along with people I had differences with. I learned to resolve conflicts and seek common ground. I learned to look for win-win outcomes which has served me well in business. Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think this is a rare trait. I’m also becoming increasingly aware that, in the news and political world, getting along is not what gets ratings or votes.

“I ran away from politics, It’s too bizarre at home.” Jimmy Buffett

Maybe it’s because I turn 50 this month that I’m seeing things differently. I’ve always been a news and political junkie but the last year has cured me completely. The hatred that is present in news and politics today seems over the top. Honest debate, decency and respect no longer exist. It’s become clear to me that news outlets are just trying to get ratings to sell commercials and politicians are just hustling votes. Dividing Americans helps both be successful and they are doing a good job.

I’m not buying any of it though and I wish more Americans would as well. In response to the current political climate, I’ve completely stopped watching and listening to political news and I’ve turned to reading, podcasts, and audio books. In truth, my life has become much better. Instead of getting angry and picking sides in latest silly debate, I’m filling my days with learning, writing content and growing my business.

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Neil Peart

My choice for political party, candidate, and news outlet is simple, I choose “none of the above.” Instead, I’m just going to stay quiet, mind my own business, work hard, love my neighbors, respect those I disagree with, and do my best to create a company that my vendors, community, employees and customers are proud to be associated with. In my opinion, that’s the best choice.

What do you think? Am I wrong to opt out of the current political scene? Are there more people like me who are simply choosing to say no? What’s wrong with selecting “none of the above?” Let me know in the comment section below.