Foundations Are to Be Built Upon, Not to Be Flown Over

“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” – George Washington Carver

The foundational elements of your body of work are rarely the sexy part. This is especially true for mavens, as underneath the tip of the iceberg that people see is a bunch of (seemingly) random, disconnected, and ultimately boring information that you’re tying together.

In an attention-deprived world where it feels like you must be remarkable, flashy, sexy, or otherwise eye-catching, it’s easy to want to fly over those foundational parts. If it weren’t for the fact that I work with so many thought leaders and business owners on building their brands, it’d be easy to forget how important these elements are, but whether it’s services, speeches, blog posts, info products, books, or events, 80% of the questions we get are about the foundational elements we skipped over.

Rather than speak in general terms about this, I thought I’d share with you the real impetus of this post – which is some suggestions that I drop or significantly curtail the conversations I advance on productivity and planning (and the planners).

The Brand Audit

I initiated a brand audit back in June. One of the most important things to remember about your brand is that you don’t own it – your community and your market do. At most, you can set the foundation and influence it, but once your body of work gets big enough to start getting carried by other people, you can’t control the way it gets carried.

I could just plow on here, but you might wonder why I decided to initiate the brand audit. Aside from the fact that we’d never done one, the more pressing reason was that the tension between what different parts of our tribe were saying about our brand reached a tipping point for me. Our referrers and champions were ever more willing to refer and champion for us, but were getting more and more unclear about what to say. Additionally, I did a yearly SWOT analysis of our business and decided to take our core weaknesses – the lack of consistent marketing and a unified brand – more seriously.

If I didn’t know what I know about branding, I would have rested on some self-assessment of what our brand was and pretended that I could, by creative will, assert change over our brand. Of course, not only would that have been like trying to will away gravity, but it also highlighted a more pressing problem that I had to admit as part of our strategic analysis: I didn’t really have a strong preference at the time to harness the creative will to change anything.

It’s not that I’m “meh” about my body of work, but rather that an evergreen challenge is that my model of leadership – and thus the way I employ my creativity – is one of servant leadership. Well, that and I tend to be on an even keel about everything, which sometimes makes finding the sweet spot of creative tension that produces the best creative work challenging. Resting on my own conception of our brand would have been doomed from the get-go.

So, after we did our own self-evaluation, I compiled a list of the friends and co-mentors who knew me best, fellow thought leaders whose sharing of my work was a good indicator of its quality, and our best clients, customers, and referrers. Ashley then interviewed them so I wouldn’t get in the way of whatever they needed to say. A month or so later, we had interviewed nearly 40 people and were seeing saturation.

And this is the point at which I need to, again, express my gratitude for everyone who shared their time with us. You know who you are and how to reach me if you need anything.

Being Pulled in Two Directions

The information obtained from these interviews was simultaneously powerful and challenging. Powerful because it’s easy to be in a bubble with your own work and forget that it’s affecting people; challenging because my loving village had the courage and compassion to call it as they saw it, warts and all.

The single most challenging piece from a “what do we do with that?!” standpoint was that our colleagues and co-mentors wanted completely different things from us than our best customers, clients, and referrers. This wasn’t surprising to me because it was the source of the tension I was feeling anyway and it’s not that uncommon for this to happen with brand audits.

It was what they were wanting us to drop that caused the rub. The former group either wanted us to drop or didn’t care about our work on productivity and planning, and the latter group wanted more information, resources, and tools for productivity and planning. The former group wanted me to share more about strategy, leadership and team-building, systems- and process-thinking, and, of all things, philosophy; the latter group, who had experienced my discussions of those topics, wanted to hear more but seemed to be more emphatic about resources for productivity and planning.

“Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.” – Jim Rohn (Click to share this via Twitter– thank you!)

These conflicting preferences actually reveal the relationships between the different topics we discuss. Strategy, systems- and process-thinking, leadership and team-building, and philosophy often need to rest on a bedrock of productivity, planning, experience, and, importantly, either sufficient time and resources that allow some space to think or the willpower to do it. For ease of discussion, then, let’s call the former set of topics “advanced” topics and the latter “foundational.” The advanced topics are by their nature contemplative, and contemplative activity succumbs to the same fate as meditation in our common age of busyness: people theoretically appreciate its virtue yet rarely set the priority to do it. (Ask Susan Piver.)

My mentors and co-mentors, through experience, on-the-fly-learning, and accomplishment, had covered the foundational elements. Additionally, the foundational topics of my body of work are largely the left-brained part of the brand, and most of these people are highly creative. It makes sense that they wouldn’t want to see “the basics,” especially when it’s in areas that aren’t their forte.

Fly Over or Dig In?

Like you, I’m bound to the same 24 hours every day, and thus have to prioritize what and when I create. What the brand audit revealed to me is that, from a content perspective, I had a choice to make: push forward with the foundational topics OR go with the advanced topics. You know me well enough to know that I can’t help but go with the third, AND option and do both, but the former is receiving my attention right now.

While it’s true that it always makes sense to focus on the people keeping your lights on, the real reason I’m shoring up that component of my body of work is much deeper than that. As accomplished and brilliant as my mentors and co-mentors are, many of our conversations revolve around the foundational topics.

They’re drowned by email. They aren’t delegating. Their new plans consistently carry the same bugs as their past plans and they thus repeat the same problems. They don’t commit actual resources to their plans and wonder why they’re not getting anywhere, or when they do, it’s thrown together at the last minute. I could go on, and I can unabashedly admit that I fall into these same holes, too.

“There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.” – Henry Ford

The lack of mastery and practice of these foundational concepts is keeping these people from doing their best work. They’re leaving money on the table not from a sense of generosity but because of poor execution, which keeps them from building teams and margins that augment and enhance their mojo. And their families are missing out because the executives’ poor execution is being made up in time that could be spent with the people they love.

Many of my friends, mentors, and co-mentors lovingly commented that I’ve got a lot more potential to step in and they can’t wait for me to step into it. Thank you. I hear that.

But hear me on this: so do you. We’ve got a world to change with precious little time to do it in. These foundational topics aren’t rocket science, but they are the beat that sounds our tireless march to greatness. Let’s step it up.

And, to be clear, I have my own stepping up to do. There’s more to these foundational elements than I’ve conveyed,  so it’s no wonder that people don’t have the same creative appreciation of them that I do. It’s my job to give the concepts grip and life, not yours.

Foundational Topics Are Like Breathing

Each of us has gifts that have value to us only if we can share them with the world. It doesn’t matter whether we were put here on this earth to share those gifts or if it’s a random byproduct of historical forces.

Very few of us share those gifts with the world as effectively as we could, and thus we’re not doing the best we can for ourselves and for the world. Sometimes it’s because the wrong stories are driving us. Sometimes it’s that we lack strategy. Sometimes we lack plans or our execution is subpar.

The foundational topics are just as core a piece of the puzzle as are the advanced topics. When we examine the techniques of mastery across a wide domain of human activities – athletics, yoga, music performance, marksmanship, dance, public speaking, decision-making – what we find is that nearly every coach and trainer focuses on the same foundational skill: breathing. Most of us take over 10,000 breaths during our waking hours and we’re doing it wrong.

It’s a lot more fascinating to talk about the ins and outs of the particular skills and strategies of those activities than to focus on the way the performers breathe, but make no mistake, poor breathing leads to poor performance. Good breathing isn’t sufficient for good performance, but it seems to be necessary.

Have you ever experienced how one person consciously breathing to set the pace of a group can shift every other member of the group? It happens in yoga, sports, communal experiences, and high-performance events and it’s a powerful thing to behold.

Well, consider my focusing on foundational topics as taking the breath that keeps us all – accomplished, on the way, or just getting started – on the path to our best selves.

Do You Need to Breathe for Your Community, Too?

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” – William James

The last 1500 words or so of this post have been ostensibly about me, but I hope you see that they’re about you, too.

No matter what you do, you can positively impact those around you, sometimes by doing the simplest of things. 

A leader can focus on the foundational elements of communication and teamwork and pull their team back into the excellence zone. Someone within those teams can improve their proficiency on them and the team will benefit. A thought leader can have the creative courage to truly serve their audience rather than flying over them, leaving that mystical gap between them and their audience. An application developer can rock the foundational elements of their program so that users aren’t frustrated by the things they use every day. Creatives of all types can practice the classical foundations of their arts so that people can appreciate their art all the more.

Do those sound too hard?

Be the person on your team who encourages people to drink water once an hour. Be the person who consciously smiles and ask people about the parts of their lives that light them up. Be the person who doesn’t cc everybody. Be the person who proactively lets your teammate know that her project may be running behind and prevent the last-minute stressy scramble. Be the person who leaves your phone in their pocket during dinner with your friends.

Are any of those particularly sexy? Nope. But, man, do they make a huge difference.

Go. Breathe. Have a nice day. :)

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  1. says

    Hi Charlie
    What an interesting and useful post. And well-timed, for me, as I sort out the apparent bifurcation in my business.

    I realized that, while both arms of my business are built on the same foundation (principles of interpersonal communication), I’ve not been promoting the foundational work, assuming “everyone knows that.” But they don’t, as I learned at a conference presentation, last week, where I expected 20 people and had 71 show up. There is an appetite for things I was taking for granted.

    Thanks for your words, which helped this become crystal clear to me.

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