Sunday, September 30, 2007

Integrity: The Key Ingredient in Mutually Beneficial Business Relationships

I recently had a conference call with some clients from out of state. I know these clients personally first, and then professionally; so we initially spent some time catching up on personal issues. After our discussion had run through the obligatory: Sports, mutual friends, vacation plans, we then moved on to more personal matters. (For men there are varying degrees of personal matters: Those you share with acquaintances, those you share with colleagues, and those you share with true friends).

I asked one of my clients--an entrepreneur for whom I sometimes craft articles and promotional materials--how things were going with his business. He's carved out a rather unique niche in his business: He identifies ways companies can reduce what they spend on various services (utilities, phone, printers, etc.) and earns a percentage of the ensuing savings for his shrewd analysis.

A typical entrepreneur, my friend is big picture all the way: He thinks big, plans big, and rarely sees the details. He's a great salesman and has over the past few years, based on the growth of his business, surrounded himself with people who can help him continue that growth in a planned, strategic fashion.

Recently, one of the people he hired did not deliver. Without getting into specifics, because this guy failed to produce a business development plan, my friend lost a connection to a venture capitalist who was interested in taking a seven-figure stake in the growth of his business.

Which brings me to today's topic: Integrity.

Wikipedia has an interesting commentary on the topic, suggesting that we can identify the value and importance of integrity by comparing two scenarios: On the one hand, a world of honesty and sincerity, of being able to rely on what others say. A world in which people are punctual and willingly fulfill their obligations and duties in life and to the best of their ability. This would be a world without lying, cheating, stealing, fraud, criminality, etc. Clearly, an ideal world.

On the other hand, imagine a world in which everybody is dishonest most of the time: Nobody tells the truth if it is not in their best interest, everybody is out to get everything they can, any way they can, including by lying and not keeping agreements and contracts. People shirk duties, obligations, and only when forced pay debts. When the opportunity presents itself, people will commit fraud and steal.

Our second imagined world is going to be full of rules and laws, long contracts, lawsuits, police, judges, and punishments to control non-integral behavior. One of the main purposes of law is to enforce integrity when the people have none. In a society rife with laws, as ours is, do we in fact lack integrity?

There are tremendous costs associated with a society that lacks integrity: The wasted time, energy and money of big groups of lawmakers and law enforcers; courts and millions of lawsuits; walls, fences, locks and bars on homes and businesses; verification, security guards, alarm systems and agencies, internet mal-ware (virus, spyware, spam, etc.) protection--to cite a few. Sound familiar? We could well be discussing our so-called "modern" society.

On the personal level, a lack of integrity is detrimental to one's personal power in life, to the respect of and relationships with others; above all, a lack of integrity destroys one's self-respect and self-esteem --qualities absolutely essential for personal happiness.

Wikipedia suggests that there are two ways to accumulate great power and wealth in life: One is by the path of love and integrity, creating great Good for others (good products and services). The other is by the path of Anti-Love and No-Integrity... Lying, cheating, stealing, criminality.

The difference between the two is happiness. The cost of the path of No-Integrity is without exception personal unhappiness.

Without getting into details, the guy whom my friend hired was paid to do a job. Not only did he not do the job for which he was paid, but he also callously disregarded my friend's business goals--the very goals he was paid to advance. That demonstrates a lack of integrity.

My friend is upset about the loss of the business, yes; but I sensed he was more upset that the guy whom he hired abused his trust and took his money. That's the unkindest cut of all: When our trust is shattered.

In our business relationships, and more importantly in our personal relationships, our word is our bond. If you commit to doing something, do it. If you make a promise, you follow through. You don't accept payment for services you don't provide. You don't overcharge. You don't lie. You lead a life--personal and professional--of integrity.

You may not make a fortune leading such a life, but you can honestly say to yourself and to others that you have integrity.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Myanmar: Repressive Governments Can Try, but They Will Never Repress Freedom

Myanmar--formerly Burma--has lived behind closed doors for almost two decades. Only now, in the midst of yet another humanitarian crisis--do we discover the extent to which the regime will go to control the flow of information to and from its citizens.

But this is not the world of the mid-20th century. Try as they might, in the age of the Internet, governments (no matter how repressive or controlling they seek to be) cannot close the information spigot. Like water, when sufficiently compelling and forceful, information will find a way around, over, and through any obstacles placed in its way.

The fact that the images of a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in Myanmar have made it to the outside world is nothing short of a miracle.

Credit for this goes not to international media but to the efforts of hundreds of Myanmar's citizens using the Internet and mobile phones to send first hand accounts, pictures and video footage to the rest of the world.

This despite the assertion from Reporters Without Borders that Myanmar's Internet policies are among the most repressive in the world: The regime filters opposition websites and forces Internet cafes to capture screen images every five minutes in order to monitor user activity.

In 1988, the government absolutely and brutally crushed a similar uprising. News was slow to reach the outside world precisely because Myanmar had obsolete technology. Now, dramatic photos arrive via e-mails to exiled activists and via mobile phones to journalists outside the country.

According to the Associated Press, "modern technology has become the generals' worst enemy. There were only rusty phones, if you could get through (in 1988)," says Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of several books on the country.

It's no surprise that in the face of global condemnation of its brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, the Myanmar regime today pulled the plug on the Internet. The government suspended the services of the two Internet service providers, BaganNet and Myanmar Post and Telecom. A telecom official blamed the interruption on a "damaged undersea cable." (... shades of Soviet Union disinformation?!)

"I'm not surprised. They have always tried to control information," Shari Villarosa, the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, told The Associated Press by telephone on Friday. "The photos and videos that are getting out reveal the truth about how they hold on to power."

As the Internet reaches into the darkest corners of the world, information becomes more accessible to all of the world's citizens. With information comes ideas--and Myanmar's repressive military leaders will rapidly learn that no barrier can stand in the way of the free flow of information.

What's happening right now in Myanmar provides a valuable lesson for leaders in governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations: Your precious resources are better devoted to crafting and disseminating your key messages on your terms rather than trying to stem the irreversible tide of information.

I always say: Tell the truth. Tell it early. Tell it often.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Seth Godin's Got it Right: All Marketers ARE Liars

I'm currently reading Seth Godin's most recent book on marketing, All Marketers are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World. Many of you reading this post may know of Godin's work from his previous books, Free Prize Inside!, Permission Marketing, and Purple Cow. Savvy marketers read Godin because we know he is often ahead of the curve regarding imminent developments in our field.

This time, though not ahead of the curve, Godin in his inimitable style captures a concept I've been advocating for years (although unlike Godin I did not write a book about it, and so cannot claim credit!): Stories sell our products and/or services. Stories get our target audience(s) emotionally invested in our products and/or service. Stories motivate and inspire people to buy, donate, support... To do whatever our call to action demands.

But not just any old stories will do. No, Godin says, and I agree, that "in an economy where most people have an infinite number of choices (and no time to make them), every organization is a marketer and all marketing is about telling stories." Throughout the book, Godin uses examples of how stories build or destroy brands.

Whenever I read professional development tomes, I note sections that I believe to be particularly important. I use sticky notes to mark the sections containing these "ah ha" revelations; when I've finished the book I copy the sections into a personal professional development notebook.

I started this practice soon after I left the U.S. Army in 1993, and have since amassed a collection of three completely full looseleaf notebooks. Looking back at some of the stuff from the mid-90s is like taking a walk through a long-forgotten junkyard of management and marketing ideas that were once revolutionary. Remember TQM? I rest my case.

I'd need a separate notebook solely devoted to the revelations I've picked up from Seth Godin--many of which came from reading this book, All Marketers Are Liars. I've never met the guy and he's not paying me for any endorsement. But if you want to get a better understanding of what it will take to be a successful marketing professional in the coming years, here are some excerpts from the book that demand your attention:

1) Page 25: "Positioning by Jack Trout and Al Ries is one of the most important marketing books ever. And it's a great start. But it's only a start. Positioning, as practiced by most people, is one dimensional. If they are cheap, we're expensive. They are fast, we are slow, and so on...

" ... Most learning about products and services and politicians goes on outside of existing paid marketing channels... Positioning in the world of the story is a longer, subtler, more involved process. It's three dimensional and it goes on forever."

2) Page 55: "... I think the best marketing goes on when you talk to a group that shares a worldview and also talks about it--a community." (Which reiterates the absolute importance of viral marketing. With so many ads and so many marketing messages bombarding us every day, to whom do we turn for trusted information? Our friends, our family, people who tell us believable stories.)

3) Page 80: "Now we know marketing=storytelling, and everything an organization does supports the story. So everyone is in the marketing department and a company either tells a story that people care about, or their story disappears."

"People make decisions big and small based on just one thing: The lie we tell ourselves about what we're about to do."

4) Page 84: "Stories let us lie to ourselves. And those lies satisfy our desires. It's the story, not the good or the service you actually sell, that pleases the customer."

5) Page 111: "We'd like to believe that efficient, useful, cost-effective products and services are the way to succeed. That hard work is its own reward. Most marketers carry around a worldview that describes themselves as innovators, not storytellers."

If you read Godin enough, you know never to stop at the end of his book. Oftentimes the best part is in the appendices, and true to form, Godin hits a few home runs in the additions to All Marketers Are Liars. Here are a few more excerpts:

1) Page 167: "For fifty years, advertising (and the prepackaged, one-way stories that make good advertising) drove our economy. Then media exploded. We went from three channels to five hundred, from no web pages to a billion. At the same time, the number of choices mushroomed. There are more than 100 brands of nationally advertised water... Starbucks offers 19 million different ways to order a beverage.
"In the face of all this choice and clutter, consumers realized that they have quite a bit of power. So advertising stopped working."

The bottom line: Tell a story. Make it authentic and believable. Tell it well. Tell it often. Tell it through a variety of communications mechanisms. Get feedback on your story (is it really believable?!).