As I was watching snippets of the Kim Kardashian wedding with my wife and daughters, I realized that Kim and her entourage could teach managers a thing or three about communications.
I have seen projects large and small fail not because they were intrinsically the wrong thing to do, or that their teams were incapable of executing with quality. I often see projects fail because they are undersold by teams that under communicate. It’s all well and good to understand strategic intent and tactical performance measures. But if the stakeholders, and perhaps more importantly, the larger audience of people who need to adopt the outcomes of a project don’t feel in the loop, then your project is probably heading for the edge of an abyss.
Kim, meanwhile, knows how to stay on message, to amplify that message through partners, and to make everything look beautiful.
Here are ten lessons from Kim Kardashian’s communications juggernaut that managers should consider adopting to make their project- and change-management initiatives more successful.
1. Don't be afraid to emphasize your biggest asset
Kim knows people talk about her rear, and she isn’t opposed to showing it off in tight-fitting couture. She bats her lashes at the paparazzi and flaunts her curves. She knows that if first impressions matter, you need to lead with your strengths. I have seen many a presentation intended to convince me of something turn into a history lesson or a plea, a complaint or a backhanded compliment, rather than a pointed exercise in making me care. Things that matter have intrinsic value. Managers should design presentations to transmit that value so the recipients of the message can experience empathy, eventually leading to their support for the idea, and in the best of circumstances, their advocacy for it.
I was asked this morning, “Why the Kardashian phenomenon?” In tough economic times, people have always looked to glamour and wealth with an admiring eye. Literature teaches us that we experience great joys and deep sorrows through literature. The media is the literature of today, and the Kardashians unapologetically represent America's version of royalty. They hold our attention as such (as long as they don’t have to compete with a real British princess vacationing on their home turf).
Before you start a project, or attempt to sell an idea, understand what it is you are selling at the fundamental level and the value that it represents to those you are speaking with. Lead with that message, with that perspective, and close with it as well. Kim’s biggest asset is being Kim, which is why she spends her time honing her image and aligning with brand-reinforcing partners. If all managers and leaders knew what they represented and focused on the value they want to deliver, the business world would be a much less muddled, much less abstract place in which to invest our future.
2. Let the momagers lead
We all have our talents. In many companies, staff reductions have led to many people being overloaded with tasks for which they may possess few talents and little passion. Regardless of how much hard work Kim and her siblings perform off camera, it is momager Kris Jenner who keeps the show running. She is the proverbial fire under her daughter’s collective asses.
Managers, even those overburdened by hand-me-down assignments from long-lost colleagues, need to recognize that they can’t do everything well. If they find themselves in a situation where they have a strong internal marketer to lean on, then let her do her thing. And unlike the Kardashian clan’s model of matriarchal dominance, in many companies that may mean letting someone more junior take the lead. The junior person may not initially be responsible for marketing, but given the tight availability of talent inside many firms, a junior person may be the only person with enough slack in his day, and enough flexibility in his assignment, to take on something that looks like overhead. Combine that with passion, social media expertise, and the opportunity to stretch beyond his current role, and a junior staffer may be just the right person to nurture a communication plan.
3. Use all available channels and repeat your message regularly
How often have you heard a project manager say “I sent out an email” after being admonished for not communicating? Of course he sent out an email. But in this attention-starved culture, an email doesn't cut it. Kim knows this. That is why her team broadcasts her message across traditional media like television, radio, and print, but also effectively uses new media channels, like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and a blog. Check out her Twitter page --with 9.5 million followers and counting, she's doing something right.
If you want people to hear your message, be it the value of a new ERP implementation, adopting a social media platform, or launching a new product in the market, you have to use all the channels available to you, and you have to repeat yourself until you see a visible groundswell of dialog. Kim’s messages are about attention, not transformation, but if you don’t get people’s attention about the transformation, then you will never start the transformation. Good managers need to start with marketing and communications plans that understand where their audience seeks information. They need to be ready to be discovered at the right time, in the right circumstance, with messages that reinforce the needs, the expectations, but most importantly, the value they bring to their audience.
4. Recruit Sponsors
Some estimates put Kim’s recent wedding price tag at $6 million. Only the Kardashian clan didn’t pay anywhere near that, because the wedding had multiple sponsors providing everything from reduced priced wedding bands to wedding gowns. And anything that wasn’t covered directly probably fit into the budget provided by E! and People, which forked over a combined $17.5 million for exclusive coverage  of the nuptials.
Although some marketing teams still have the luxury of drawing attention to themselves with lavish parties and the delivery of best-selling keynote talent, inside the enterprise, bargaining chips and the communications budgets remain scarce. One of the few bargaining chips left to managers as hierarchies transform into networks, and the ability to make people do things evolves into coaxing people to do things, is time.
Time may be the most precious asset for today’s managers. With fewer workers to get things done, any time spent talking about off topic items and not executing reflects in lost productivity. Time spent away from the task must be really important. Managers who want to see their projects or ideas adopted need to recruit other managers to sponsor them with time. Time in meetings. Time mentioning them on an internal blog or email. Time adding an appropriate key performance indicator to their team’s scorecard. By yielding time to another manager’s work, the sponsoring manager broadcasts that he or she sees importance in the work, and even if they can’t use draconian methods to get their direct reports on board, leading by influence and respect is often a better tact anyway.
So even though you don’t have world-class jewelers or celebrity designers to contribute to your success, if you effectively partner with your colleagues and convince them to sponsor your project or idea with time, you may find your project receives more attention. Then it is up to you to assert your position.
5. Assert your position
Kim Kardashian is not bashful. I don’t think there is a bashful Kardashian, or for that matter, a bashful Jenner. There are, however, bashful managers. I use the term manager here rather than leader because I don’t know many bashful leaders. Leader is an earned title, manager is an assigned one. If managers want to become leaders, they need to assert their positions and stick to them. Kim is clear about her place in the world and she opens doors for herself and her siblings, never asking permission, just initiating and doing. Kim and her family have turned the fame of being famous into real economic assets with retail stores, clothing lines, and designer jewelry.
Managers who want to add the title leader to their unofficial honorifics need to push boundaries, challenge assumptions, and confront both arrogance and ignorance in their communications. This "easier to ask forgiveness than permission" approach models courageous leadership, a key principle to those that assert their positions.
6. Align with other brands
Projects and ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The only reason your project or idea exists is to enhance the overall effectiveness, revenue, or perception of the company you work for.
One of the reasons you seldom hear a Kardashian dissing another celebrity or brand (outside of each other, which reflect playful infighting, a Kardashian brand attribute) is because they know they can’t afford to create situations that could potentially jeopardize their wealth-generating machine.
Inside enterprises, wealth is projected through the adoption of ideas and the accumulation of organizational influence, either directly through organization chart alignment or through leadership. Good leaders know that their influence can be extended through alliances that mutually augment the value of all parties involved. Those seeking to enhance their success need to align with projects and with people who will help them achieve their goals, while they offer reciprocal assistance to those partners.
7. Get other people to pay for your PR
With small budgets, organizations have little hope of covering all communications needs within the communications budget line. Welcome to Word-of-Mouth-Marketing and its social media ancillaries. If you communicate to those who are listening, assertively lead with value, let people’s talents align with their roles and team with good partners, you will discover that positive message reinforcement derives naturally from a well-designed project or campaign. The accumulation of positive attributes will lead to amplification. Kim gets paid to be Kim, sometimes upwards of $50,000 to visit a nightclub. The Kardashian PR machine is paying for her PR. Internal alliances, value-based communication, and actually delivering on expectations, will result in others talking about things you as a leader find important. When the VP of a division decides to highlight your project in his keynote at the company meeting, you can bet that his directs will reiterate that message in their follow-on meetings--and so on and so on.
8. Always look beautiful
Even in sweatpants and with little makeup, Kim knows that her fame begins with beauty, though it certainly doesn’t end there. Kim knows that people may watch the train wrecks perpetrated by the likes of Nick Nolte, Lindsey Lohan, Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, or Robert Downey, Jr., but she also knows the decline of beauty reduces the value and influence of those personal brands. The same is true for companies like Bank of America and Toyota, who are trying to rehabilitate their brands after ugly, and very public, gaffes in trust. Smart celebrities, and those who have pulled themselves up from the D list, realize that rehabilitation begins with order, and order is beautiful. Spears is fit again, delivering hit songs and glamming it up at awards shows. Robert Downey, Jr. is dapper and heading toward fatherhood as a responsible adult. Kim’s low point, her 2007 sex tape, was also her launch pad, and she has done a fine job of distancing herself from that escapade.
If I enter a conference room and discover a disheveled manager fumbling with the overhead or unable to find the “Share my Screen” menu item on Skype during a videoconference, I don’t think beautiful. People in business often refer to people and meetings that don’t go well as “wrecks,” “messes,” “f**k-ups,” and many other derogatory terms. Those who design the experience will end up with a beautiful product. Kim’s team manages details, and good managers focus on details as well. From the template used in PowerPoint, to the effective use of graphics over 8-point type, to being brief and bright, to understanding the audience’s needs and not just their own, good managers design beautiful experiences that enhance their credibility, their trustworthiness, their personal brand--and ultimately the success of projects, campaigns, and initiatives they are responsible for delivering.
9. Live the plan
Most people live quiet, private lives. The Kardashians live loud, public lives. For most brides, a wedding is their most public moment. For Kim, it was just another day at work, and unlike many other days, and perhaps more private than most given several months of editing are ahead before the public gets all the details. It isn’t just because Kim is a reality star that she lives her plan, but that she recognizes herself as the icon of a brand. Every choice she makes reflects on future opportunities, future perceptions, and future earnings.
Managers need to commit to their work and understand how to weave their objectives into the objectives of others, to offer synergistic value. But more than that, they need to recognize they too are representatives of their projects and their ideas, brand representatives that project the value they are trying to communicate. Communication becomes a whole body exercise and one that doesn’t revolve around a clock. After-hours behavior that is observable by coworkers is just as important as attitudes and demeanors projected during working hours. Living the plan means being authentic and consistent, and of all the tips shared here, it may be both the most important, and the most difficult to attain.
10. Understand where you have permission to lead
Brands have permissions. Microsoft, for instance, has permission, through its Office and Windows brands, to drive industry dialogue about the future of work because it is the leader in desktop operating systems and productivity software. Kim has permission to talk about clothing, food, perfume, leisure activities, sports, and a host of other consumer goods and interests, but she probably won’t be a serious or meaningful draw at a project management or application developer conference.
Managers need to understand where they have permission to lead based not just on their project assignment and what it is supposed to be about, but through their personal brand and personal reputation. A great coder gets to talk to other coders about methodologies and memory allocation. He or she probably doesn’t have much input to the design of a workspace used to coordinate the bringing together of two business entities into a single accounting system as the result of a merger.
Understanding where you have permission to lead underpins much of the advice above because it informs likely affiliations and influences, what topics people will listen to you about when you communicate, and even perhaps, how other people perceive and evaluate your beauty (whatever that means in your own personal context).
Bonus: Strike while the fire is hot
KimK knows that starlets, even more than stars, fade in Hollywood. She may be a franchise now, but her torch only sports limited fuel.
Projects that take forever to accomplish become a dull, burdensome monkey on people's backs, dragging down morale and bringing into question the professional credentials of the managers associated with the project. Kim lives in the now. Her projects are very short in duration and have clear goals: Show up at a club and get people to drink more. Bring my friends with me to a fund raiser. Drive sales through personal association with a brand.
Project managers and the curators of corporate memes need to think about how to chunk up their communications so that even big projects appears as a series of punctuated moments of meaning and accomplishment. Avoid lethargic bulk that makes the future seem like a meaningless blur of endless chores. Figure out how to get people excited every day about doing a little something to push the needle forward. That is another distinguishing feature of leaders from managers: Managers try to keep things moving in a don’t-rock-the-boat way, and leaders disrupt and insert excitement.
In today’s world of uncertainty and fast-paced change, businesses need more people to step up as leaders and fewer to be satisfied with cultivating the status quo. So go out next week and figure out how to make people engage with what you’re doing, and at least for a brief moment, appreciate that they are involved with you, your project and your idea. And while they’re still happy, get them excited about the next thing on your list. You’ll have more fun and they’ll have more fun if you design experiences rather than just let work happen.
Kim Kardashian clearly understands her alignment to the family business, and she knows how to engage her partners, her entourage, and her audience in tactical communications that unambiguously reinforce the messages she is charged to carry, and the image she needs to portray. If managers take these ideas and apply them to their work, they will start acting like leaders. And that leads to another Kardashian axiom: Acting like a celebrity pretty much makes you a celebrity. So start acting like a leader. Who knows, maybe next week people will start to think you are one.
If you are interested in learning more about how to better design communications for effectiveness, innovation, and excitement, see my book Management by Design , which examines work experience through the lens of design.
[Image: Flickr user Beacon Radio ]