For many years, as is typical in more junior roles in most big companies, I spent most of my time inside the organization. Working hard, doing client or customer work, but really on the inside. From there I had a view of what my company was and what it represented in the world, but that view was mostly informed by whatever the company wanted to tell its employees.
But then I got into the real world: I interacted with customers, funders, competitors; I gave talks on my company’s behalf and saw the reaction people had (good and bad) during and after my remarks; I was required, day in and day out, to understand and distill who we were and what we represented in the world; and then I heard back, just as frequently, whether and how what I was saying resonated with people. If I listened hard, new truths emerged.
In the words, reactions, challenges, and excitement you hear back, you learn a lot. You discover surprising things that you knew and that were dormant. You connect dots in unexpected ways. You see yourself through other people’s eyes, and have the chance to bring that energy back into the organization.
By spending time right at the edge of your organization, you react to the outside world, and in that process of reaction, your brand and its positioning change, evolve, and sharpen. Your brand has an active reaction every time it has one of these interactions.
I used to think that CEO’s like Jeff Immelt spent a lot of time with customers just to hear the truth about what GE did and didn’t deliver on in the customers’ eyes. I’ve begun to understand that it’s only through spending time looking outside that Jeff, or any of us, can figure out who we really are, what our company or organization represents, and what it can become.