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Take the Brand Challenge

“Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they are trying to get ideas.” — Paula Poundstone It’s my first meeting with Mickey Drexler, CEO of the Gap, and I am a bit nervous. We talk on the phone about the Gap brand and a new brand at the time, Old Navy. Mr. Drexler strongly supports Old Navy, but there is some concern about cannibalizing Gap stores.

“Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they are trying to get ideas.” — Paula Poundstone

It’s my first meeting with Mickey Drexler, CEO of the Gap, and I am a bit nervous. We talk on the phone about the Gap brand and a new brand at the time, Old Navy. Mr. Drexler strongly supports Old Navy, but there is some concern about cannibalizing Gap stores.

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After about five minutes, Dr. Mark – always the politician – drops a bomb with his first big question: “Mr. Drexler, what if the Gap disappeared tomorrow? Who other than your employees would really care? I mean, why is the Gap important? What does it really stand for?”

The phone call ends a minute or two later. It is to be my last conversation with Mr. Drexler. My fault. If I had waited to ask that question today, I know Mr. Drexler would be the first CEO with a response. In the future, Dr. Mark, listen and wait for the right time and place.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — Yogi Berra

I believe that true leadership begins by answering one simple question: Why are we here? Out of the 100,000 or so hours we invest in a career
(that is, after deducting the thousands of hours we spend rebooting Windows), how do we know that our precious time was spent doing important things?

Good leaders must regularly ask themselves that question — and help their people answer it, too. As Nietzsche once said, “Those who have a why can endure any how.” So I need to ask myself the same question: Why am I writing this column for Fast Company? Yes, I do happen to be a big fan of the magazine. And yes, the founding editors are cool guys.

But the real answer is simple: To build a brand. My brand is called “Making a Life, Making a Living®” — “ML2” in shorthand. The name signifies the mission of my brand: to guide others in making a life while making a living.

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Writers do write to find out about themselves. And this column is the perfect turf for my personal brand-building journey. A brand unique to me, a brand that stands for what I believe in, a brand that I hope offers value to others. What naturally follows, then, is the big question:

Why are you building that brand?

“Life may have no meaning. Or even worse, it may have a meaning of which I disapprove.” — Ashleigh Brilliant

The most obvious answer is to make a living. But even more important is the underlying reason: to make a life. That is, to build a brand that represents the values and ideals I want my work life to stand for.

Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel made his fortune by inventing dynamite and licensing his formula to governments. When his brother, Ludwig, died, a prominent newspaper mistakenly ran Alfred’s obituary. It said he had made a fortune by helping international armies more efficiently wreak death and destruction.

Nobel had the unique opportunity to read his own obituary — to see what his lasting imprint would be. Shocked and disgusted by his perceived legacy, Nobel decided to devote his fortune to humanitarian purposes. He established the Nobel Prize in the arts and sciences.

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“I once thought that if I could ask God one question, I would ask how the universe began, because once I knew that, all the rest is simply equations. But as I got older I became less concerned with how the universe began. Rather, I would want to know why he started the universe. For once I knew that answer, then I would know the purpose of my own life.” — Albert Einstein

I spent several years in the 1980s as a “branding expert” at Harvard Business School. Back then, it was about products and companies, not people. Today we talk about branding people. What is that all about?

The answer is what this column, this career section is all about. How do you stand up and stand out? How do you find your place in the marketplace? How do you turn your values into market value? And, most important, how do you come to understand first why you chose a particular “brand called you.”

“Every person should wear a coat with two pockets. In each is a message from God. The message in one reads, ‘You are nothing but one of billions of grains of sand in the universe.’ The other reads, ‘I made the universe just for you.'” — Hassidic story

How do we become a unique somebody going somewhere, and not an anybody going anywhere? To do so, we need to answer the four basic ML2 questions: Who are you? What do you want? What can you do? Where are you going?

Most of us start by asking how we can create value (question 3) and figure that we’ll get back to our passion and purpose later (questions 1 and 2). That is, we’ll get back to it when we have more money, time, and freedom to do so. We can make no bigger mistake.

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First, it is important to be who you really are — and then do what you need to do. That’s how you’ll have what you want to have and become the “brand” that you really want to be.

Second, while you should build a brand from the inside out, your brand’s true value is measured by its relationship with the external world. Your relationship with the marketplace and society at large is the source of not only personal financial value, but personal fulfillment as well.

These two premises lead to our first “lifelines” – anecdotes, lessons, and words of wisdom designed to aid in the process of building the right brand for you.

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” — Judy Garland

Brand Lifeline #1: Don’t get really good at something you don’t want to do.

Brands are built on passion. On commitment. On stuff that comes from deep inside and is so authentic that your market knows it and smells it. It is you.

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Today, Linda Mason and Roger Brown are co-founders of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a leading provider of work-site child care and early education. But after graduating from Yale Management School, they found themselves at prestigious management consulting firms, getting better and better at what they didn’t really want to do.

It was during a New Year’s Eve party in 1984 that they openly reflected on the past year and blurted out, almost simultaneously, “I didn’t do anything meaningful.” Within a month, mutual friends had them flying to the Sudan to set up a famine relief organization for Save the Children. After two successful years, they returned to the United States, looking for their next challenge.

Focused on their love of children, Linda and Roger decided to create a corporate child-care company in 1986. To their surprise, it was their organizational experience in relief work — what they were passionate about, not “what they had gotten good at” in management consulting — that led Bain Capital and others to put up the money for what is today a $350-million public company.

“In Africa, they say there are two hungers, the lesser and the greater hunger. The lesser hunger is for things to sustain life, the goods and services, and the money to pay for them, which we all need. The greater hunger is for an answer to the question ‘why?’, for some understanding of what this life is for.” — Charles Handy

Brand Lifeline #2: Be the best brand for the world.

“It was just a 2 percent tweak, but it made all the difference in the world.”

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Barbara Waugh, worldwide personnel manager for Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, was in charge of the effort to become the best industrial research lab in the world. “One day I’m talking about these feelings with my friend Laurie [Mitlestadt], an engineer at the lab, and she says, ‘You know what I would get up for in the morning? Not to be the best in the world, but to be the best for the world.’ “

“The vision to be best in the world just wasn’t big enough,” Barbara explains. She knew it had to be something every person would feel responsible for — big enough that to accomplish it required the fulfillment of each person’s own vision. “The vision of HP for the world is scalable for the individual, the organization, the company. What does it mean for you?’ is a question you can ask at every level. In fact, it is scalable for the entire corporate sector!

“HP for the world is not either/or. You want to be the best in and for the world. For the world automatically forces you to look out, not just in. It makes you ask, ‘What does the world need?’ ” And in so doing, you find out what you need.

That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of this column. In building our own brand, we want to be the best, the most valuable for the world.

In future months we’ll add more “lifelines” illustrating how a CEO of one hot company, a social entrepreneur, a visionary non-profit manager, and a famous king all built their “brand called you.”

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“The goal is to be a tributary to society, not a sanctuary from it.” — Bartlett Giamati, former Yale president, baseball commissioner

Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

Read more columns by Mark Albion.

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