No, not that Ram, but the economic guru, Ram Charan. Paul and I were fortunate to attend a conference that he keynoted, and moderated. If you've never heard of him, Ram is a visionary economic expert, and full of wisdom and philosophy that is especially pertinent during these trying times. With one part Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (advisor to the Beatles), one part Yoda (advisor to Luke Skywalker), and a couple of parts of his own unique blend of learning and smarts, Ram provided perspective, guidance, and motivation in ways that bear repeating.
For the purposes of this post, there were a few key takeaways from Ram's presentation that I wanted to share with you because they apply to all industries.
How are you communicating with your employees right now? Ram talks about how the key is to muster up the right combination of integrity, intellectual honesty, straightforwardness, and the skill to confront reality. He makes the case that companies need to focus on the vision of what is possible, so employees have a sense of what can be done. As he calls it, "realism tempered with optimism." It's a balancing act that wise CEOs must acquire in order to best utilize their key staffers.
How are you going about understanding what your target customer is thinking? Ram calls it "the information bridge," using the power of observation to better understand what's going on. While he emphasizes the importance of understanding a company's (station's) metrics, Ram feels that greater wisdom to create "game changers" comes from spending time on the ground with customers.
This advice made us think of Dr. Ed Cohen's brilliance when he pushed us to design "The Bedroom Project" for Arbitron back in '07. Of course, there was the part that you saw, that dealt with how young consumers are using technology, media, and gadgets. That was important information for better understanding how they interact and consume media. But the part that was proprietary for Arbitron concerned the PPM meter, the box that respondents receive, and the other "real time" reactions that can only be learned by observing consumers in their own habitat.
Ethnography isn't cheap, but as Wayne Gretzky reminds us, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” When I think about some of the visionary things we learned from "Bedroom" - the explosion of social networking sites, the desire for an elegant, all-in-one device like the iPhone, the way that young people were using their phone alarms rather than clock radios - it brought home Ram's prescription about how to learn from your listeners in order to create a better customer experience. You don't get that from studying financials, Google analytics, or PPM reports.
How can you seize the opportunity created by the recession? Ram was all about strong defensive strategies - protecting cash flow, reevaluating employees and their skillsets, etc. But he also posited that smart CEOs (and programmers) can capture market share during difficult times. We talked about how some companies are doing just that at this time.
Hyundai used smart research (think again about spending time on the ground) with consumers to learn about how fear of job loss was curtailing the decision to buy a car. By providing an "Assurance Plan," Hyundai created a game changer that the other car makers eventually adopted. They have also been big advertisers, at a time when it would seem more prudent not to spend.
Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's have moved toward similar strategies - against Starbucks. By understanding how Starbucks had diluted their brand with food, music, books - while not focusing on the coffee experience, they each aggressively and successfully created fiscally responsible coffee reputations. At the same time, they have repositioned Starbucks as the home of the $4 cup of coffee - out of step with the times. Another example of seizing the opportunity at a time when it might be safer to sit on cash.
Ram's new offering, Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty, unlike the typical "I've got all the answers" approach is basic, simple, and to the point. It asks the questions that managers and CEOs ought to be pondering - and acting on. As advisors to many companies, in and out of radio, it was a fresh reminder to Paul and me that we are living in unprecedented times. And despite the pressures, the angst, and the darkness, there is a way out of this.