Bob Morris Interview: Allen Adamson on the organizational “shift ahead”
“The number one reason for organizational success or failure is the ability to stay relevant. Having the wherewithal to strategically shift ahead of accelerating marketplace changes is the single most critical skillset an organization can possess.”
Allen Adamson is a noted industry expert in all disciplines of branding and author of BrandSimple, BrandDigital, and The Edge: 50 Tips from Brands That Lead. He has worked with a broad spectrum of consumer and corporate industries ranging from packaged goods and technology, to health care and financial services, to hospitality and entertainment, as well as brands in the non-profit sector. Given his perspective and depth of experience, Allen is able to help clients not simply see how accelerating disruptive marketplace changes in technology, globalization and Mother Nature will affect their brands, but, more critically, put into play the strategies that enable them to shift ahead of both the resulting consumer needs and competitive threats.
Allen recently published his latest book, Shift Ahead:How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World, and also launched Metaforce, a firm dedicated to helping businesses diagnose growth strategies and nimbly execute programs in the face of market evolution. Allen and his Metaforce partners help clients identify what truly matters to the audiences they serve – what is relevant to these audiences – and to brilliantly deliver on it.
Prior to co-founding Metaforce, Allen was Chairman, North America of Landor Associates, a global branding firm. Under his leadership, the company partnered with a wide array of iconic brands, including Accenture, GE, Johnson & Johnson, FedEx, HBO, Marriott, MetLife, P&G, Sony, and Verizon. Additionally, he provided guidance for non-profit organizations including the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the Central Park Conservancy, the Council on Foreign Relations, Planet World, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
A sought-after industry commentator, Allen has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CNBC’s Squawk Box and Closing Bell, and Fox Business Network. He is often quoted in publications including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal Advertising Age, USA Today, the Washington Post, and Forbes, for which he also regularly writes a column on current branding topics.
Allen received his BS from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business.
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Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain
When I was 14, my parents bought me a movie camera, which I requested. Back then, it was film and it was silent. It was called a Super 8 movie camera. I began to make short films with a couple of friends. It was that enjoyment of telling stories through film that propelled me to apply to the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse, where I really enjoyed coming up against and meeting talented and creative folks, who were much more talented filmmakers than I was, so I never pursued that.
But it was that early movie camera I got at 14 that sent me on a journey to appreciate working with people that were creative and talented and solving problems that were what I now call ‘non-linear’. Using creativity to solve problems.
What was the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
The greatest impact on my professional development happened early in my career. It was my first job out of business school at Ogilvy and Mather and my first supervisor working for a woman by the name of Carol Petschek who was one of the first women MBAs. At Ogilvy and through Carol, I learned the importance of communication and how to write powerfully and clearly, and build presentations to convincingly share a recommendation with a client. A lot what we did was based on a book that the CEO at that time, Ken Roman, had written called How To Write Better.
So early on, the process of learning how to share an idea or a recommendation really effectively – and getting that skill down tight, or certainly tighter than when I started – provided the greatest impact on my professional development.
To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
I think both building blocks of my formal education – undergrad and then business school – were invaluable. My time at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University allowed me to learn about communications – from advertising to television to newspaper – and how to work with creative people and use creativity to bring ideas to life; to unlock creativity. Combining that with my more traditional business school MBA from NYU graduate school of business where I studied finance — the language of business – proved a powerful pairing. And so, the marriage of understanding creativity through the Newhouse School and understanding business through my MBA at NYU gave me a really solid foundation to set my career up in the right direction early on.
What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time?
That ideas don’t sell themselves. No matter how excited you are about a recommendation or a brand concept for a client, finding the right solution is important, but equally important is creating a way to bridge the gap between your recommendation and getting client agreement, and selling-in a methodical rational as to why the direction is right—not just putting all your effort into trying to find the answer. Finding the answer is just the halfway mark. After you find the answer or think you have an answer, the second part of the journey, helping your client or business get to that answer and execute it, is a skill I learned throughout my career that I wish I had more of at the beginning of my career.
Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain
There are many of them. Before even a film, the television show Star Trek had a very simple dimension that dramatized an important business principal. And that dimension is that Captain Kirk, the original Captain Kirk, surrounded himself with diverse leaders—each with a different skill set. He had Spock to provide the logical, analytical, perspective, he had McCoy, the doctor, to provide the emotional, intuitive perspective. He had Scotty to provide an engineering and rational perspective. He surrounded himself with diversity and he used his team to work through difficult leadership choices and encouraged active discussion and debate among his team to help him make better decisions. I think a critical business skill is being able to listen to multiple points of view, work with people with different backgrounds and perspectives and take the best of those perspectives and help them help you and the team make the best decision.
I frequently insert quotations during interviews that are personal favorites.
I noticed that and want to react to this Richard Dawkins observation: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.” To me, that sums up the challenge of working with companies as they shift ahead, and lots of the findings we’ve uncovered in the book Shift Ahead that your quote dimensionalizes. New ideas are often seen as risky and dangerous and a couple years later it becomes the way things are done. And a couple years later at that, it becomes a cliché. Unfortunately, because the pace of change is accelerating in the world—today, yesterday, and tomorrow are getting crunched to this morning, this afternoon, and this evening.
Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
Great quote. To your question—that quote characterizes the gravitational pull that makes any shifting ahead for any organization, large or small, incredibly difficult. It’s what we categorize in the book as “Marty Crane’s Chair.” Yesterday’s chair was comfortable and many, many, companies are on cruise control when moving forward. They’re doing what they did yesterday, maybe a little better, but very much without changing their core or actually reevaluating themselves in light of new or anticipated circumstances.
The powerful way to overcome that is to realize that an organization’s natural state is in neutral, hopefully not reverse, and getting it out of neutral takes a lot of energy to get this mass moving forward, and not to underestimate how much horsepower you need to get an organization to change. Most organizations that have failed at changing underestimated the amount of horsepower necessary to get the organization to shift ahead, both in terms of push and pull and time required to go from standing to running ahead.
What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?
I think the most important characteristics is a top-down belief that the people in the organization are the assets of the organization. Their knowledge, expertise, creativity, passion, and drive are essential to make sure the organization is competitive every day. The organization needs to be constantly strengthening the people on the team. Growing them, challenging them, training them, motivating them; because if your most important asset in any organization, which is often the case, are you people, then the stronger your people, the more dynamic your people, the more driven your team, the more successful you’ll be.
A workplace that realizes that talent is our differentiating and our most important differentiator, and does whatever they can to instill a spirit of continuous learning, continuous self-improvement, and pushing to make sure everyone on the team is being the best they can be, is a place where individuals will thrive. Best alone and better together.
Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?
I don’t think there’s an easy explanation, but one of the causes of this, in my view, is too many employees are not pursuing their passions when they choose their career. Individuals that more tightly align what they love doing with what they’re going to get paid to do will invariably be more engaged and effective in their organizations. So for the employees that are just doing it because it’s a job and will pay, of course that’s important, but if someone can find a career that aligns with his/her passions, interests, and of course skill sets, then you will see employees more engaged.
Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
Really tough questions. Saying what’s going to happen in 3-5 years is more difficult today than perhaps ever before given the pace of change. I think the challenge that we’ll face in 3-5 years is the same challenge that’s underway right now.
A lot of young, talented, employees graduating college are no longer looking towards large organizations as a place to pursue their careers. When I was out of school, the bigger the organization that came to campus, the more desirable it was. But big is no longer better, so as a CEO of a large firm, one of the challenges you need to face is how do you attract talent that doesn’t want to work in large organization—that wants to be more entrepreneurial, that likes to strike its own course. How do you provide an environment that will provide that to talent?
When and why did you decided to write Shift Ahead, and do so in collaboration with Joel Steckel?
Clients rarely came to Landor saying that things were terrific, business was growing, share was up, sales were up. More often, clients came in with shares dropping, sales dropping, profits off, their competition eating their lunch—asking what to do. The frequency of those calls about struggling started to increase and the ability of traditional marketing, which was taking what you had and trying to help sell it, was shrinking.
Clients would come in, not with a marketing problem, but with a bigger problem—that their business was losing relevance. Their offer or service was becoming less relevant. I wanted to step back and as say, “Is this just me? Or is a pace of change causing more and more organizations to struggle with the idea of relevance?”
I began to chat with the clients and prospects about that notion. Then I happened to be guest lecturing at Professor Steckel’s class at NYU—I was doing quite a bit of guest lecturing at NYU’s business school at the time. During the class, Joel and I were talking about an organization that was struggling to stay relevant, and it was a terrific conversation because we both saw the same dimensions of the problem and the challenges, and Joel was able to really take what was going on and craft the Teachable Moment. What can someone looking at this situation or this company struggling to shift ahead or successfully shifting ahead learn from it? What is teachable to the next notion?
After we taught that class, we talked about the book and it became clear that our combined, complementary skills would not only allow us to analyze this challenge in the marketplace of relevance being harder to keep, but also allow us to extrapolate and provide lessons learned for people going through this same challenge.
Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
The first revelation was that far more people try to shift and fail than successfully shift. We always knew it was difficult to shift a business ahead and stay relevant even though everyone understands how important it is—everyone is trying to do it. What we underestimated was how challenging it was for most companies. There was whole litany of reasons why people failed at this endeavor. The first revelation was that finding success stories would be far more difficult than finding stories of companies and organizations that had tried and been less successful in shifting ahead.
To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Not that much. We knew it would be challenging to get stories of successful companies that shifted ahead—that came true. We went in with the vision that we didn’t want to write about big companies only or for-profit only. We wanted to do small companies, entrepreneurial companies, nonprofits, and we were able to speak in our more than 100 interviews with organizations of all shapes and sizes to be able to try to pin that down.
For those who have not as yet read your book, what is a “shift ahead”?
A shift ahead is an organization changing their business to improve or increase the relevancy of its product or service to its customers. To keep up with change and move forward and remain competitive and constantly reinvent your organization.
As you and Joel explain in the book, several companies have failed to shift ahead successfully. What are the lessons to be learned from each of them? For example, Blackberry.
When a company fails to shift ahead, it was rarely only one thing. They often face a number of challenges. In the Blackberry case, the most significant challenge they faced was an internal sense of arrogance—they felt they knew better. That no one would transition from a keyboard and touching their fingers to keys that clicked to a touchscreen. They believed their product was better and that the touchscreen that Apple was launching was a toy and didn’t take it seriously. That sense of arrogance was one of many factors, but a significant one.
National Geographic had a number of challenges. One of the big ones was that they were myopic. They viewed themselves in the magazine business and didn’t see themselves as broadly in the business of bringing knowledge about the world.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.