Sunday, April 8, 2012

Rebuilding The GSA Brand: Lessons for the Rest of Us

Take Shelter
Photo by Neal Jennings via Flickr
The GSA scandal is an example of what happens to a brand when there is an extreme disjuncture between customer expectations and actual behavior delivered. Now it's time to fix it. Regardless of the specific actions they choose to take, there are valuable lessons here for every organization and individual.

Reflecting on the organization, it seems "everybody" thought they were well-run - innovative, cost-conscious, communication-savvy. Personally, having seen the agency's work in action and having actually used the communication tools they've offered ( comes to mind) - I believe they are generally an agency to be admired. I marveled at how they took a seemingly boring mission and made it exciting.

But the Las Vegas conference and what it represents destroyed that image. We can't go back to the way things were without seeing major changes.
Unfortunately, lapses in judgment destroy brands. Call it the 80/20 rule of branding - you and your organization alike are judged by the infrequent screw-up rather than the majority alignment to the promise. If I were working there I would be worried that people would see "GSA" on my resume and think "overspending bureaucrat." It wouldn't be anyone's "fault" per se; it's just the way people think.

So lesson #1 for other organizations is to think carefully about the employer brand they have - whether "deserved" or not - and fix what's broken quickly. Otherwise people won't want to work for you.

Everyone knows that there are "good" and "bad" places to work, and a lot of that has to do with teaming. Without exception every organization promotes working together for the good of the mission. And without exception there are people who just will not play along.

No matter how well most people work together, if you don't handle exceptions to the rule quickly, then the brand is destroyed. Just one person who throws people under the bus, and who is continually promoted anyway, kills it. And a brand with lost trust is very difficult to revive.

Meaning: If you employ people who detract from teamwork, remove them from positions where they lead or manage teams.

Lesson #2 has to do with the individual personally. You must take action to keep your career brand strong and vital, despite the brand of your organization, despite your own screwups, and despite being misjudged badly due to your success in an environment where people have unrealistic expectations of you.

You do this in three ways:

1) When you interact with people, say to yourself: "What do I want them to think of me during and afterward?" Everything you say and do has to build that desired perception. You do control that - dress, demeanor, language. (Not as easy as it sounds, and even if you're being authentic, you have to work at this.)

2) Assess whether your personal brand strategy is working. Look at how people treat you. Behavior is an outcome of thinking.
  • If their feedback matches the message you are trying to convey, then you're fine.
  • If they treat you differently than you think you ought to be treated, then it's time for you to 1) establish expectations and 2) set boundaries.

3) Course correct:

  • Negotiate livable expectations: Do this by listening, negotiating, and providing feedback to your audience. (This can be done directly or indirectly, to one party or multiple, formally or not.) The point is that you have to find out what is wanted of you, determine the extent to which you can deliver, talk about it, and then communicate what you can do. If you avoid this, inevitably your customer/audience will expect too much or something different than is realistic, setting you up to fail even if you feel you have delivered.
  • Set boundaries through immediate reinforcement. Don't sit on this. When somebody treats you in the way that aligns with your brand, convey appreciation, offer praise. When they talk to you or treat you in a way that doesn't match your role (e.g., either disrespect or excessively elevated beyond your scope), correct them, very literally. (Use an "I" statement: "I'm a little surprised at your tone...) You can also go to intermediaries to do this rather than confronting someone directly.

Some things to keep in mind when you think of branding as an interaction exercise:
  • Branding is never a matter of "right" or "wrong" but of alignment or misalignment. Forgive the analogy but it's sort of like orthodontia. Nobody's teeth are ever perfectly straight or perfectly white, but you can get closer to a better smile with braces, applied by an orthodontist who knows what they're doing (that would be the brand consultant or the communications advisor).
  • Branding is never a finished exercise, but always a work in progress. Expect to course-correct, and for the definition of your brand to evolve over time. The role of a leader in your organization yesterday may have been X, but tomorrow it will inevitably be Y - will you be ready?
  • Brands are not built in ivory towers, but rather in the real world. You must focus on developing a valuable real-world promise that you CAN support consistently in action.

In the case of the GSA, I think there is potential to save the brand, but it's going to involve a lot of soul-searching, taking responsibility, open communication with the public, and setting new expectations and boundaries about the way forward.

You can't go back in time, but by working through the issues, accountability, proactivity, and coming out the other side with a renewed promise that can be delivered consistently, one can fix a broken brand or course-correct a misaligned one.

Good luck!

*As always, all opinions are my own.