Some years ago, I was advising one of the major royal families in the world. While three generations of the royal family waited in the neighboring gold-plated hall for our session to begin, the ruler pulled me discreetly aside. “Mr. Lindstrom,” he said, “don’t be short-sighted. I want you to think in the long term.”
“How long?” I asked.
“We’re not interested in the next couple of months,” he told me. “We don’t make quarterly earnings announcements. We don’t even operate with a mid-term horizon of five or ten years. We operate with a life-long horizon, one generation at a time. In your strategic branding work for my family, if one generation does well, you’ve accomplished your job.”
With that, the ruler had expressed the root cause of all the tumult we’re witnessing right now.
We’re so incredibly shortsighted. An “I want everything right now” mindset is increasingly fused into our DNA.
The newest song, the latest movie, that shiny new tech device … forget about waiting a month or even a week. I want it now.
Few corporations object to the fundamentals of #BlackLivesMatter. And what about racial equality? Give me a break. Through my career, I’ve come to know hundreds of CEOs, and not one of them — I mean, zero — has ever disagreed with the concept of equality.
It’s the same with same-sex marriage. (Well, almost the same. There are a few exceptions, such as Chick-fil-A.)
So, considering this near unanimity, why has it taken brands such a long time to take action? And even now, with millions of people worldwide taking to the streets, why are so many still sitting on the fence?
Situated in the engine room — meaning, stuck inside the executive offices and the marketing departments of the world’s leading brands — I’ve had a front-row view of the challenges confronting the CEOs, CMOs, and heads of communications as they consider taking action. The essence of the problem isn’t how to communicate the issue. Rather, when we drill down into the root cause of their hesitation, it turns out to be an issue of short-term versus long-term.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people of color will become a majority of the American working class in 2032. What rational CEO, faced with this reality, would not be doing everything he or she can to connect with half their potential market?
According to PEW, 80% of Millennials favor same-sex marriage. What corporate leader with any business sense would not want to let that critical generation know, “Hey, we’re with you”?
I’m reminded of my conversation with that royal leader, operating not with a time horizon of three months… or one year … or even five years (the average tenure of the CEO of an American listed company, according to Equilar), but with a horizon of a decade, twenty years, or even a lifetime. It sets things into perspective, doesn’t it?
Few investors are incentivized to look beyond the short-term. They aren’t interested in a corporation’s survival over the next few decades, since other, more timely investment opportunities are likely to arise.
Perhaps even more important, organizations’ KPIs are all super-tuned to secure an immediate return on investment. And annual employee bonus systems, too, serve to “straitjacket” entire organizations; even the person most committed to social-justice issues is afraid of jeopardizing that long-awaited summer holiday, the new house on Dream Street, and the 401k. It’s all an intertwined Rubik’s Cube, with each link dependent on every other link.
The reality is that in today’s short-term environment, the ramifications of decisions that might seem straightforward on the surface have roots that extend deep inside the organization. Until CEOs are able to function with a longer-term perspective that gives them more breathing space, they won’t be able to take “courageous” steps.
But there’s some good news. The flavor of the month was once listed companies, but the tide has turned. There’s a new appreciation for family-owned companies.
I recently spoke with the head of a large family-owned, family-run operation. In the past, they’d hit all the major bumps in the road: the same-sex marriage issue, the Republican vs. Democrat issue, and now #BlackLivesMatter. He told me, “Until recently, we were just doing our best to tread water. Trying not to damage our company, we avoided upsetting anyone.
But recently I’ve realized that our very strength is to say ‘F…. that! Let’s make a decision, let’s take a stand.’
The few people who object to our view of the world … well, let’s let them go.” And so he did. He thinks it was the right decision, and he hasn’t looked back.
I’m not saying that privately held companies are the solution to everything. I am, however, saying that changing our perspective of time is the solution to a lot of the challenges we face.
Flick through any history book, and you’ll be left wondering how those people could possibly think and act that way. As the royal ruler told me, those people were planning for years, decades, and lifetimes to come.
Perhaps it’s time for us to start believing that the world will way outlive both you and me. Let’s begin acting like it.
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Martin Lindstrom is the founder and chairman of Lindstrom Company, the world’s leading brand & culture transformation group, operating across five continents and more than 30 countries. TIME Magazine has named Lindstrom one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People.” Lindstrom is a high profile speaker and author of 7 New York Times best-selling books. His book Brand Sense was critically acclaimed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the five best marketing books ever published,” Small Data was praised as “revolutionary” and TIME Magazine wrote this about Buyology: “a breakthrough in branding.”
Lindstrom’s new book: The Ministry of Common Sense will be available Jan 19th, 2021! Watch this space for exciting pre-order packages and more.
This article first appeared in www.linkedin.com
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