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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Situational Leader

Today you have a greater volume of data. You can have much greater awareness of what’s happening on the ground in 180 countries around the world. The challenge as an executive is to focus your information systems, your metrics, and your meeting routines in a way that highlights the key drivers of the business, so that you can be productive with your time.

For my money, the greater amount of information is good. It gives you a better view of where the systemic opportunities and problems are. You don’t need to be involved in every decision, but you can have much greater visibility into the quality of management routines and processes in place around you. So pressure and accountability are increased, which I don’t think is a bad thing.

Being able to see systemic opportunities in data is a major leadership skill. For example, when I took responsibility for Coke’s North American soft drink business, the per capita consumption for our products was about 400 drinks per person per year. That’s a huge number. That’s more than one Coca-Cola product per day — for everybody! But part of the job was to set a destination. We said, “Let’s aim to take that to 600.” How could we do that? Well, we knew that in certain parts of the country, the per capita was already 800 drinks, and in certain parts it was 100, and that’s how it got to that average of 400. So we came up with specific goals, focusing on the lower-consumption areas, and suddenly increasing the size of the business by 50 percent seemed feasible.

S+B: Both Coke and Revlon are models of effective branding. How did you apply both strategic thinking and attention to detail to your branding efforts?
It starts with having a clear, coherent brand strategy — what it is that you believe your brand delivers. In Revlon’s case, for instance, it was the idea of “confident sexiness.” Beyond that, it’s very much the leader’s responsibility to make sure that you have day-to-day processes in place that ensure every marketing dollar is focused against the core message of your brand. At Revlon, we took all of the people who were in a position to impact the marketing of the brand — salespeople, who did it in stores; production people, who did it with packaging; marketing people, who did it with advertising and promotional support — and made sure we were communicating the brand message to them and talking about how to reinforce it.

In order to communicate that sort of message to a whole company, it’s necessary to be alert to details within an organization, including details about people. One of the things that I talk about is knowing who the broadcast towers are. A broadcast tower is someone who carries undue influence: You find them by walking the halls, interacting with people, and seeing who’s being talked to informally. You need to ask things like, “Whom do people pay attention to in the finance department?” You’ll get the answer: “They listen to Steve.” Often these people have some qualities in common — they’re frequently analytical people who seemingly keep to themselves, who have been around for a long time and thus have credibility by virtue of tenure. Knowing who those unspoken leaders are and then spending disproportionate time with them is very important. You’ll want to go to them and explain your marketing strategies, for example, so that that person is positioned to help be a positive influence. Because if you don’t, and these people are not well-informed, you are going to spend significantly more time going to other people and correcting what he’s telling them.

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  1. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: A framework for understanding how and why business leaders are listening to a broader range of constituencies. Click here.
  2. Victoria Pao and Steve Lawrence, “The Internal Impact of External Branding,” s+b enews, 1/27/03: The importance of communicating brand ideas within organizations. Click here.
  3. Randall Rothenberg, “Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2003: The University of Michigan leadership teacher, who worked with Jack Welch in engineering GE’s 1990s transformation, talks about his teaching techniques, which are designed to foster responsibility and engagement at every level of the organization. Click here.
  4. Jack Stahl, Lessons on Leadership: The 7 Fundamental Skills for Leaders at All Levels (Kaplan Publishing, 2007): A straightforward guide to success in the essentials of business leadership. Click here.
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