How to Bring Out the Best of Your Leadership Style

How to Bring Out the Best of Your Leadership Style

by Tony Alessandra

If you are part of the C-Suite, you should be very aware of your leadership style to allow you to work more effectively with your direct reports and transform from being just a boss into a true leader.

However, before you do that, you will need to identify your leadership style. I espouse using the DISC behavioral model. DISC is an acronym for the four primary behavioral drivers: dominance, influence, conscientiousness, and steadiness.

Dominant people are decisive risk-takers who speak boldly and confidently. Influence driven people are apt to intertwine emotion with work and they are interested in forming social bonds. Steady individuals are cooperative and composed and approach their work consistently and methodically. People with a bent towards conscientiousness prioritize accuracy and precision and tend to me more guarded and tactful in their expression.

You can also self-identify yourself based on two questions:

  • Are you more open (emotive) or guarded (controlled)?
  • Are you more direct (faster-paced) or indirect (slower-paced)?

Based on your answers, you can find your primary DISC style:

D – Direct and guarded

I – Direct and open

S – Indirect and open

C – Indirect and guarded

Once you have found your DISC style, you can begin making your leadership style more palatable to others who might not share your behavioral type. Here are some ways a leader can round off some of the sharper edges of his or her DISC style:



Ratchet down a notch or two! Keep in mind that others have feelings and that your hard-charging, know-it-all style can make others feel inadequate and resentful.

Accept that mistakes will occur and try to temper justice with mercy. You might even joke about errors you make, rather than trying to always project a super-human image.

Encourage growth in others in at least two ways: by praising employees when they do something well and by giving direct reports a measure of authority and then staying out of their way so they can use it. Whatever you lose in control, you are likely to gain in commitment and improved staff competency.


Your people depend on you not just for ideas, which you are very adept at generating, but also for coordination, which you are probably less comfortable providing. So anything you can do to become more organized — making lists, keeping your calendar current, prioritizing goals — will pay big dividends for both you and your team.

Nothing’s so dispiriting as to see the boss drop the ball on important matters. So, remember: if you fail to follow-up, procrastinate on tough decisions, or make pledges you don’t keep, your employees will lose faith. Even though you don’t do those things purposely, your direct reports will feel as if you’re letting them down. Your charm and warmth can’t compensate for unreliability.

Also, come to grips with the fact that conflicts are going to occur. Try to deal with them up front instead of sweeping them under the rug. In addition, strive to keep your socializing in balance with your tasks.

If you are a STEADY RELATER…

You are probably a well-liked leader. Your goal should be to become a more effective well-liked leader.

Learn to stretch a little, taking on more small risks or different duties and trying to accomplish them more quickly. You may want to be more assertive as well as more open about your thoughts and feelings.

Being sensitive to your employees’ feelings is one of your greatest strengths, but you must seek a middle ground between that and being knocked off balance by the first negative comment or action that comes your way. Try to develop a thicker skin for the good of the team.


Your high standards are a double-edged sword. Your employees are inspired by your quest for excellence, but they might feel frustrated because they can never quite seem to please you.

One of the best things you can do is lessen and soften your criticism, spoken or unspoken. Bear in mind that you’re inclined to come off as stern in certain situations.

Ease up on your need to control and attempt to project a more social persona. Walk around and spend more time with the troops, chatting up people at the water cooler or in the lunchroom.

Realize the fact that you can have high standards without requiring perfection in each instance.

Whatever your style, being adaptable can help you to build bridges to your employees and make them feel valued. By learning to best respond to their interests, concerns, strengths and weaknesses, you can get the most from your people as well as leave them more satisfied.

Executive Briefings: Engage and Empower Your People to Ignite Sales, the Barefoot Spirit

Executive Briefings is an online event with a similar kind of context that C-Suite has for physical events. During one of our recent Briefings, Bonnie Harvey and Michael Houlihan of Barefoot Wine joined us to discuss how to engage and empower your employees with a sales centric culture.

Barefoot Wine is currently a top global brand. It’s become known as the Levi Strauss of American wine. But it represents a lot more than just a wine label. It truly represents success. Success of a small start-up team that began in the laundry room and wound up in the board room of one of the world’s largest wine companies. Starting with no money and no knowledge of their industry, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey bootstrapped a novelty brand into a top global icon. Doesn’t happen very often, and they did it. Relying on an entrepreneurial culture, they overcame formidable challenges in a highly competitive and controlled wine industry. They received the industry’s coveted Trend Setter, Fast Track Growth Brand, and Hot Brand awards for a number of years. They took this experience and created the New York Times Best Seller, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand. The book details the journey into success – from a humble beginning to a nationwide blockbuster brand.

Since selling the company to E&J Gallo, Michael and Bonnie have been actively sharing their expertise. They’re speaking internationally. They’re corporate trainers. They’re contributors to many publications like Forbes, Inc., Investor’s Daily, and others. They’ve delivered keynotes at the World Conference on Entrepreneurship in Dublin, and at our own C-Suite Conference in Marina Del Ray in 2014. They’ve recently released a new book, The Entrepreneurial Culture, 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People. They offer several online courses, including “Skyrocket Sales and Engagement,” and “Spend Less-Monetize Faster with the Entrepreneur’s GPS”

First off, I’d like to ask how you both got into a business that you didn’t know anything about?

MH: Well, you know they say follow your passion, but we followed our opportunity passionately. It’s a little bit different. Bonnie had a client who wasn’t getting paid for his grapes. He was a grape-grower in the Sonoma County wine country of California. She said, “Maybe you can help?” I went over to the large winery that owed the grower for his grapes, which is now called Francis Ford Coppola Winery. When I got there, they had just declared bankruptcy. Meaning, they didn’t have to pay their creditors.

As I’m there and looking around, I see a row of tanks and a big bottling machine. I say, “Hey, wait a minute. If you guys can’t pay us in cash, what do you think about giving us wine in bulk and bottling services to pay off the debt?” And they said, “Great!” I went back to Bonnie, and I told her that I thought I had got it settled. However, this was a big debt to pay off. But now all we have is wine and bottling services. And she says:

BH: Well, now we’ve got a different kind of a problem. How do we turn this wine and bottling services into cash so we can pay the bills? That’s how Michael and I got in to this fix to start with. The grower was unable to take over another business. He had a full-time job as a wine-maker, in addition to having about 100 acres of vineyard. Michael and I kind of looked at each other and said, “I guess we’ll do it then!” Ignorance is bliss! We had no idea what we were getting in to.

I’ve backed myself into these kinds of things in the past, and it’s very educational. You’re breaking in to a business that’s highly controlled. It’s got a structure that everybody says, “Well this is just the way things are,” and you guys were able to break out of that, because you didn’t follow the rules. How did you step back and find a new approach that nobody else was doing?

BH: Well, first of all, we didn’t know the rules. That’s a good place to start, as it turned out. We went out and started asking a lot of questions. We asked questions of everyone on the production end. We asked people in the retail end, the buyers. We went out and asked consumers. We kind of put together a plan from really more the consumer outlook rather than production outlook.

Also, you looked at your customer being the person who is consuming the wine, not the person who was distributing the wine. A lot of people look at the distribution side, rather than going all the way to the end and the customer themselves, right?

MH: Right. We realized that we weren’t going to get to that customer unless we understood what the distributor wanted, and of course, everybody in the distribution channel wants a different thing, and none of it has to do with wine. However, the end user has a lot to do with wine, and price, and value, so to create that customer experience at the end user, we had to understand the distribution system. We did what we call “make friends in low places.” We talked to fork-lift operators. We talked to truckers. We talked to people who stock shelves in grocery stores. These are not necessarily the white collar folks that you would think you would go to for information. But what we learned is what was really happening in the real world at the street level. And because we did, we were able to put a package and a product together that got through the distribution system to the general public, and stayed in stock, which is really important.

Well you had some innovations on the distribution side to make it easy to assure the right product was in the right place. What did you do there?

MH: The main thing in retail distribution is that you’re only as good as your stock. If you’re selling a real product and it’s sold in retail, it has to be in stock. The worst customer experience is they love your product, but it’s out of stock. We had a situation in Minnesota where we couldn’t understand why we were consistently getting missed deliveries. We flew there, and we found out that it wasn’t stocked in the store even though it was authorized.

So we went to the distributor and asked why the product wasn’t delivered. We heard replies like, “That’s not our problem. That must be Ed. He’s in the back room. You have to go talk to him.” So we go to the warehouse, and we talk to Ed. He says, “No, you have to talk to Joey. He comes at midnight. He runs the forklift, and he picks the products off of the shelves in the warehouse to ship out to the retailers.”

I waited until midnight to talk to Joey. He says, “Get up on that forklift!” I said, “Okay” and I got up. He says, “What do you see?” I said, “Well, I see a big warehouse.” He says, “What do you think about the lighting?” I said, “It’s terrible. I can’t see anything.” He says, “That’s right. Read the label on that box over there.” I said, “Well, I can’t read it. Do you want us to make the labels larger?” He says, “No. Why don’t you make each box of each type of product that you have a different color. The whole box a different color.”

And so we color coded everything at Barefoot, and it not only reduced our missed deliveries and increased our in-stocks, but it also was a lot of fun. Each retail store would build lots of colorful stacks with our new boxes.

It seems like this might be a place where you saw that everybody who is on the street, from the forklift operator to the person delivering the stuff, is critical in the customer conversation. You created a culture within Barefoot that was very different. Let’s talk about the culture you created out of these experiences you had, and how it was different.

BH: We believed that the pyramid structure that most companies are in, really didn’t work because you’ve got the CEO and the VP on top and everyone else is below them and they take orders from the top. Well, we really wanted to support our customer, and we said, “How can you put the customer on top, when you put sales on the bottom?”

We thought, instead of having this pyramid structure, we would have a two-division company. The two-division company puts the customer on top, followed by sales, and everyone who is not in sales was in the sales-support division. So the accountant, everyone in production, the receptionist, the vice president, and even the president are all in sales-support. That was our main difference. That’s how we really distinguished ourselves as a company, was through the two-division company. The two divisions are sales and sales-support.

In order for that really to work, the sales division had to tell marketing and production the feedback that they were getting from customers. They were in touch with customers on a daily basis, and they knew what was going on at the retail level and the distribution level. Those two are our customers: the retailer and the distributor. They would get that information back to our company, and we would respond in production and marketing. That’s how we put the customer on top.

That’s interesting. How do you have a conversation with an accountant, or a receptionist, or somebody who’s in tech support, and explain to them that they are now sales-support? How do you help them see the picture of how that all works?

MH: We had a real situation where our accountant was giving us a lot of push back and saying, “Hey, I’m an accountant. I crunch numbers. I belong to the accounting association. I go to the accounting events. I’m an accountant. I don’t have anything to do with sales. How can I possibly affect sales?” We said, “You’re going to figure it out because your bonus is going to be based on sales.”

Sure enough, our salesperson gets an appointment with Mr. Big down in Florida for a big chain store. It comes at 5:00 at night for 8:00 the next morning. The guy has no time to prepare. He tells the accountant, “I need these numbers to prove to this buyer tomorrow morning at 8 that we’re selling like crazy in the surrounding states, and we need him to jump on the bandwagon. What can you do for me?” It’s 6:00 in the morning, and our salesperson had all of those numbers on his computer, and he was able to review them, print them out, and put a presentation together. He made the sale at 8:00. That’s an example of how somebody as obscure as an accountant can affect sales. Now, in a normal pyramid structure, the accountant would say, “Hey, did this go through proper channels? I’ve got it in my inbox, and I’ll get to it in a week or two, but I’ve got other priorities.” In other words, he doesn’t take a real interest in sales, per se. He’s more interested in getting his workload done. Our accountant stayed up all night to get those numbers to him.

I see how when you build a culture from the ground up, which is what you did with Barefoot, you’re able to bring this perspective because you’re creating the mindset from the ground up. What about a company that’s a traditional company? It’s got the pyramid structure. How do you help them see why this is valuable, and more importantly, how do you help them transition from the current structure to one of the two-division company structure?

MH: There’s quite a few ways to do it. I think the simple answer is they have to formalize communications between sales and customer service to marketing and production. A lot of pyramid structures like to tell you that sales is part of marketing, but marketing is actually in the corporate building and sales is outside. There’s this physical division in culture between the people you see at lunch and the people that come in once a month. We think that one of the things that you can do besides having these formal connections between these departments within the pyramid silo structure is the money map.

BH: The real idea of the money map is to help new hires understand where the money that goes into their paychecks, their bonuses and all their benefits comes from. So they don’t come to you and say, “Well I’ve been here for two years. I want a raise.” The way you get a raise is you increase the amount of money that goes into the pot that goes to everybody’s salary and benefits. And that’s why we created the money map. So no one thought we had a big pile of money in the back, and we’d just scoop it up and throw it in your trunk every month.

Now, I suppose that most of your audience already understands where the money comes from. The benefit that any company can have by creating their own money map is to let the new hires understand where the money comes from. It comes from the end-user, which is in the community in our case. You have the customer who is going shopping. Picking up her product. Giving her money to the clerk. Part of that money goes to overhead. Part of it goes to the wholesaler. Then the money comes in to our company. We’ve only got about half the money that the customer spent going into our company. Then we pay the suppliers, our overhead. We’ve got maybe a buck or less that goes into the big pot of everybody’s salary. If you want to increase that pot, you increase sales. I say if you want someone to do something, put a buck on it. People respond to money. This, the Money Map, is our way of showing you how you can put more bucks in your pocket, and that’s by getting more customers to buy your products.

MH: This money map is going to look different in every company. However, they say when the cement is wet you can move it with a trowel. When it gets hard you need a jackhammer. So you’ve got wet cement when you’re on-boarding people. The question is, what does the trowel look like? What are you giving people? Are you just saying, “Here’s the coffee. If you hurt yourself there’s forms in the office.” Is that your idea of orientation? Or, are you actually telling people all of the steps that your company’s product or service has to go through to get to the general public. A lot of companies say, “No, I’m B2B. This doesn’t affect me.” Well we were B2B. We sold to a wholesaler. We could have said that’s it. No – We found out if we didn’t sell to the retailer for the wholesaler, the wholesaler didn’t reorder. And if we didn’t sell to the general public for the retailer, then the retailer didn’t reorder. So even though we were B2B, we were actually B2B2C. I think that is the realization that you have to get across to your people when they’re hired. It gives them more appreciation for the steps involved, and then as they’re working in their job, they start to see how their job affects this whole supply chain.

It’s interesting because you talked about that from a marketing perspective. B2B or B2C. Those things are collapsing. It’s really B to whoever is in the customer chain. The whole customer chain from you to the person ultimately using this product is who you need to pay attention to. And you did something really innovative, and something around cause marketing which changed in some ways the game in the wine industry.

BH: When we began, we called it worthy cause marketing, because we started so long ago that there wasn’t really a name for what we were doing. We wanted to get the attention of the end users and make them aware of our products. The way we did this was by supporting worthy causes within their community – through local fundraisers and non-profit organizations that were raising funds. We wouldn’t just donate our product, but we would go there and help them set up. We would help them to bring in more clients by providing the non-profit information to the retailer. We could do that by putting signs on our bottles to alert the community about this non-profit organization or event that was taking place.

We would ask for things from the non-profit that cost the non-profit nothing. We would talk to their supporters about why we were supporting this cause, and where they could buy our product within that area. So that was of great interest to the retailer. The retailer appreciated that we were bringing in new shoppers. We’d go to a retailer and say, “There’s a non-profit event that’s taking place a couple blocks from here, and what we would like to do is put this sign that says where to buy Barefoot on the table so the supporters can pick it up. Would you like to be on this list?” The retailers said, “Yeah, I really do appreciate that non-profit, and I do want to be on that list so people can come in and buy the product.” We said, “Great! Where do you want the stack?” That enabled us to get more retailers to take our product.

You’re the epitome of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs don’t live by the rules. Entrepreneurs say, “I have a problem and I’ll find a solution. I don’t know how the solution is going to happen there, but we’ll find it out.” You guys continually, over and over again, kept running up against things that looked insurmountable, and you just kept working until you had a solution that worked for both parties.

MH: Yes, we kept going until we found a solution! If you go to, you are going to receive all the guides that we discussed during this presentation. You’re also going to receive six free chapters from our new book, The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People. We actually wrote this book for this C-Suite. It is outtakes from our New York Times Best Seller, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand. We said, let’s just synthesize that out, and put a book together that’s about as thick as one airplane ride so that the C-Suiters can read it and actually cut and paste these ideas into their own corporations. We’re offering, for free, six chapters. We think you’ll enjoy them. We talk about how to build this kind of entrepreneurial culture in a corporation. It’s not impossible, but it requires a different view of things. A different outlook.

*Visit to download the presentation from this Executive Briefings event.

Self-Expression: The Neuroscience of Co-creation

By Judith E. Glaser

I have yet to meet an executive, who joins a company to be ‘minimized,’ marginalized or to be intentionally held back from making a contribution.

We join a company to make a difference, to make a contribution, to be praised and rewarded.  We join a company to bring our voice to the table, and ‘lean into conversations’ so our voices join in the spirit of partnering with others to shape, create and Co-create the future.

Neuroscience is teaching us that ‘self-expression’ might be one – if not the most important ways for people to connect, navigate and grow with each other.

Validate View and Voice
Why might this be so? This experience suggests that something important happens inside of us when our view of the world is validated publicly—when our voice is heard and acknowledged, when we see we are not alone in our inner thoughts. This article is inspired by an experiment I ran over 25 years ago that created the impetus for the Birth of Conversational Intelligence
® – how we use conversations to connect with others’ to share a common view of the world.

Case in Point!

When my children were in elementary school, I created a school project called Children’s World. I proposed that we gather the students’ stories and pictures, and compile them into a book and publish it. When I shared this idea with the principal and teachers, they got behind it and offered to help. And when I shared this idea with some parents, I soon had 20 volunteers. When we shared this idea with the 550 students. Within a few weeks we had all of their contributions.

As we began to compile the books, we put on the floor all of the contributions—everything from stories and pictures from the 5th graders to poems and pictures from 1st graders—and looked for how we could best combine them. During the creative process, something amazing happened. It was as if each child was sensing things around them and with their best abilities they could usher up, they shared their stories and pictures with others.

At the end of our pattern-seeking process, all of the art and stories came together into chapters organized by themes that emerged as we sorted. We found children’s stories from 1st grade to map into illustrations from children at a higher grade.  We found a local printer who printed enough for parents to buy for their children and others. The books sold out in the first two days, and we had to re-order them.

The teachers told us there was an upsurge of creativity during the years we published Children’s World. Other schools in our community heard about the project and began their own Children’s World project.

Later, we did a follow-up study, looking for possible connections that might show the impact of the projects on the children’s emotional, social and academic development. We found a positive impact from the few years we did the Children’s World projects—a direct correlation to the number of children who were accepted into top universities, measurably more than in the years before or after.

Self-Expression at Work
How to you drive self-expression in the workplace? How do you encourage speaking up? In what ways can people apply their talents to create the next generation products and services your company offers?

Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ) teaches us to see differently—to listen differently—and to process what we perceive differently. When we do that, we act in the moment in ways that create energy, activate energy, and help guide energy toward more productive and more powerful ends. C-IQ gives us tools for letting go of the past and transforming the future.

As you become transparent about your aspirations and intentions to co-create and also what threatens you—your fears and “stories” about what is going on—you feel a release inside. You gain the courage and a space to share your views without judgment. You could speak out and have a voice, and not be judged for how you are feeling. You have a chance to speak out and have your opinions valued.

You can reveal your inner thoughts and feelings to one another—to work on Transparency + Relationship together. You can talk about what is bothering you and what you aspire to create. You can move from a state of protection to partnering with others by being open to sharing and discovering their fears and aspirations.

Co-creating Conversations Bridge Realities
By stepping into one another’s shoes and listening without judgment, you trigger the prefrontal cortex (the executive brain) to access higher-level capacities, including how to handle gaps between reality and aspirations; how to access new thinking; and how to move into infinite thinking together and co-create new possibilities. Without this part of the brain activated, you tend to fall back into positional thinking and fight for your vested interests. You become more candid and caring and speak truth in trust, without triggering fear, creating the space for Shared success.

Breakthroughs occur, as you stay open to the possibility that you might discover ideas you have never thought of before. As you create a bonding experience (oxytocin rush), you start to open up new conversations about “what ifs.” You imagine new things that you might do together, fostering higher risk taking and openness. Co-creation opens the “infinite space” our minds need to be free to connect with others in new ways. Positioning, politicking, interpretation, drama, and negative storytelling give way to a sense of shared success and bonding that shapes new relationships.

Achieving greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of relationships, which depends on the quality of conversations. Everything happens through conversation. By grafting C-IQ rituals into your interaction dynamics, you will discover new doors opening up in your mind and in your reality.

Try These Experiments:

  • Think about how to craft an exercise like Children’s World in your organization,  team, or school.
  • Start a meeting by asking people to share a personal story and a business story that just happened that they are excited about—see how the meeting shifts.
  • In team meetings, you might share “What I respect about you and what I need from you.” This exercise helps you understand others, recognize strengths in others and prime one another for partnering and co-creation as you create openness, bonding, connectivity, and empathy for one another.
  • Collect success stories in teams and publish them—watch how the team spirit changes.
  • Publish success stories on your intranet. Ask people to include tips, and practices that underlay the success—watch how the C-IQ grows in your organization

Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., Chairman of The Creating WE Institute, an Organizational Anthropologist, consultant to Fortune 500 Companies, and author of four best selling business books, including Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion). Call 212-307-4386 or visit;; email

How Can Using Your Feet Improve Your Brainpower?

by Dr. Tony Alessandra

One of the best ways to improve brain function does not directly involve the brain at all. It involves the feet. Running, walking, or some form of aerobic exercise is absolutely essential for optimal brainpower. As we age, our brain cells — called neurons — lose their interconnections. These connections, or synapses, are essential to thought. However, there is now strong evidence we that exercise can not only head off mental decline, but also can even restore lost brain function. I can put this very simply: Fit people have sharper brains compared to people who are not fit. However, even people who are out of shape can make changes that benefit their brains. There is no question that working out makes you smarter, and it does so at all stages of life.

Exercise used to be a natural part of life, but today we have to consciously and mindfully build it into the daily routine. Incredibly enough, even walking is now considered a form of exercise. It used to just be the way to get from one place to another.

As it happens, walking is especially good for your brain, because it increases blood circulation and the oxygen and glucose that reach your brain. Walking is not strenuous, so your leg muscles do not take up extra oxygen and glucose like they do during other forms of exercise. As you walk, you effectively oxygenate your brain. Maybe this is why walking can “clear your head” and help you to think better.

All this is well documented by research. At the University of Illinois, a study was done on a group of more than 200 men and women in their early 60s. They were basically healthy, but they were also classified as sedentary individuals. They had not been involved in any physical exercise for at least 5 years — and for most of them, it was much longer. Half of the subjects took long walks around the university three times a week, while the other half did light toning and stretching exercises. After six months, the walkers improved significantly in mental tests, as well as being more physically fit. An improvement of only 5-7% in cardio-respiratory fitness led to an improvement of up to 15% in mental tests. However, the non-walkers, despite the fact that they had done some exercise, did not gain any benefits for their brains.

Another study measured the brain function of nearly 6,000 women during an eight-year period. The results were correlated with the women’s routine walking and stair-climbing activities. Of the women who walked less than a half-mile per week), 24% had significant declines in their test scores over the eight years, compared to only 17% of the most active women. For every extra mile walked per week, there was a 13% less chance of cognitive decline. So, you do not have to be a marathon runner. Even a little exercise can do a lot of good.

And just as you can build brainpower through your feet, you can also do it through your stomach. For example, research in both animals and humans indicates that a calorie-restricted diet is helpful for both overall health and brain function. Eating wisely controls weight; decreases risk for heart

disease, cancer, and stroke. It also triggers mechanisms to increase the production of nerve growth factors, which are essential to for brain function.

Q&A: Craig Binkley, CEO of Northstar

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Executive Briefings is an online event with a similar kind of context that C-Suite has for physical events. During one of our recent Briefings, Craig Binkley, Chief Executive Officer of Northstar, joined us to discuss how to leverage human insights in a big data world.

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As Big Data has changed the way companies think about their base of knowledge of their customers, the importance of understanding the humans behind all those numbers, algorithms and models is becoming even more critical.  In this discussion, Craig Binkley, CEO of Northstar, a global insights consultancy, discusses how companies of all kinds must re-commit themselves to better customer understanding as they endeavor to build a more data-driven, customer-centric experience.

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When you were a marketing person you were at clearly one of the biggest brands in the world, Coca-Cola. What kind of challenges have you faced when you were doing that kind of job?

Well, interestingly, one of the challenges we used to face was that we didn’t have data. We had to go find new ways to explore it, so it’s funny how this has come around to where there’s so much data now that people can’t actually deal with it.

The challenges were the same in terms of really trying to understand, not only from a positioning and brand-attachment standpoint, how your brand was responding to consumers and vice versa, but also all the different interaction points. Coca-Cola has the benefit of being its own version of a big data universality, because the brands and products are almost everywhere.

We were very much focused on the actual mechanics of consumer movement and behavior, where were they, what were they doing. We didn’t have the kind of data that the people have today. The concepts that we were looking at, interaction points and inflection points and ways that we could use touch points with consumers every day, not only to talk to them but actually try to sell them more product.

Before big data were a lot of the required decisions made from more intuitive perspectives? You had some data but did you have to just trust your gut a bit?

Well, you definitely had to trust your gut. You had to be able to read between the tea leaves. It’s always “How much insight do you have?” and “How much do you need?” based on your risk profile of what the decision’s going to be.

I think that’s a universal thing that’s carried us through. Back in those days, if you didn’t have the information you still had a conceptual idea around test, learn and respond. The more in-tune you were with being able to change your marketing mix and your marketing equation as you read results, that’s what we did then and what were trying to do now.

We’ve been watching big data take the front seat in people’s minds. We’ve come to the conclusion that we can gather all this information about customer behavior, customers’ conversations, customers’ feelings, everything they’ve done with us since they were born. We have all this big data and it is going to give us a clear picture about the customer. Is that true?

What’s happened is that big data has become its own brand. It’s understood many different ways by many different people and that’s become part of the problem. I’ve seen some surveys that talk about how executives define big data and this sort of gives you the sense of the problem we must deal with. It deals with everything from a greater scope of information to new kinds of data and analysis to real-time information to data influx from new technologies to non-traditional forms of media to large volumes of data.

As soon as CEOs are telling you that big data is just one of the latest buzzwords you realize that it’s taken on a life of its own.

CEOs have a different perspective. They have the whole business and they also don’t have the in-depth understanding of the things that we’re going to talk about here because that’s not their job, it’s the CMO or VP of Marketing or the marketing team’s job.

They still walk away with a belief, because of the money we’re spending in this area, big data is going to change their life in some fundamental way. First of all, let’s just agree on what big data is. Big data, to me, is just an awful lot of information. Often it seems to me that if I had more information, I’m on the brink of the potential for chaos.

Absolutely, because any of those little bits of information, if taken as an absolute truth, can lead you down the wrong path. As we talk about going through the looking-glass of big data and what’s behind that, any one of those little things can be just simply a data point, but you don’t understand the things behind it.

It makes it incumbent upon the business people and marketers to take a bit of a deeper look. There’s this idea that you can actually do a little bit of analysis on a lot more data and make better decisions than doing really deep analysis on a little bit of data.

That’s sort of the conundrum that people are in, that big data is creating. Is it walking away from deeper analysis on smaller data, and they’re going into very little analysis on big data.

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Is it really key for marketers to understand where the data came from and why is the data the way it is?

Yes. When we get into the marketing component of data, for example, you get all this explosion of data the marketer’s getting. It has a strong bias. What it does is it quantifies behaviors and predicts future outcomes based on historical views.

People talk about being predictive and prescriptive and all the words they talk about with data. You can see what customers do and a wide range of activities, but you do not know the why. There’s certainly power in the ability to use that information to adapt your marketing equation to do tests and AB things that help you be more efficient with your marketing impact, but you still don’t understand the “why” behind that.

The humanity of the person behind it is still missing. You can be effective and you can save money and everybody should be thinking about that, but it’s not the complete picture. I have friends that run very large companies that really understand how they need to blend what big data is, what “traditional” market research technologies are and what business strategy understanding is to be able to truly get a complete picture and take the proper actions for sustainable programs and growth.

What I’m intuiting is that what’s missing is a process that’s reason for insights. I can analyze data all day long and I can make my spreadsheets turn out any way I want, but getting the insights from that, that will shape my product development, my programs and more, that’s a different game, isn’t it?

It is a different game and it goes back to the definition that people used to say, “one person’s objective is another person’s strategy.” If your purview is really the number-crunching world and coming up with an anomaly or pattern, this may be considered insight.

From a business standpoint, that’s not really an insight. I think that’s part of the issue we’re driving for here. Just saying, “Here’s a pattern where left-handed people do certain things.” That’s really not an insight. That’s a pattern in the data.

One of the things I’ve seen is that 90 percent of all the data the human race has produced has been in the past two years. With all this data coming in, if we’re simply going to say that an insight is the pattern or the anomaly in the pattern, that’s not enough. As business people and marketers, we can’t just accept that that’s all we need. We need to go deeper than that.

You work with big companies, and they’re grappling with this issue all the time. What are you telling these companies they need to do with this big data so that they, indeed, can get the insights they’re looking for?

There are a couple of things. We’re really talking about a blended viewpoint. That’s sort of the crux of the whole thing because big data can’t do all the pieces for you. You need to be able to blend this together.

In the big data world, where we have all this information, and it’s not just the social-type information that you know about the likes and the follows and who’s on your page, et cetera. You can actually, then, append in actual purchase data, real purchase data, real response to CRM systems and more things along that line.

Then as researchers, we need to think about is there a cut on the big data before we start doing the survey? Then, if we survey people who we already know things about, we can also take a lot less time getting some of the behavioral understanding that the big data’s already telling us.

We can focus on the acute business issues, the key questions, getting the right insights and direction coming out of that as opposed to spending a lot of survey time trying to get basics that big data, fortunately, already tells us.

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Well, it seems to me that big data is a bit like financial reporting. It’s historical but it doesn’t give me an in-depth view of “Why is it the way that it is?”

Yes, we think about the things that combine what big data can’t do. First, it can’t tell you the whys. It cannot effectively tell you the motivations behind actions, the way that traditional methods do. You don’t get the human interaction with it.

It doesn’t tell you about where you don’t have the data. For example, if you’re a retailer and you’re looking at a $1,000 customer and all your data in your dataset tells you a $1,000 customer is a very good customer, but you don’t know the denominator. You don’t know whether that’s $1,000 or more than $1,0000 or less than $1,000 or out of $10,000.

You need to use new tools to go beyond that, to figure out what the headspace or the growth opportunity is for your customer base. You can’t just be within your own limits of your own data.

It also can’t measure what doesn’t exist. We do a lot of work for major companies on new product development and there’s absolutely no way that big data can tell you about a completely new idea. Logically, we know that it can’t do that.

Another part of big data that’s interesting is that so much of the conversation is around technology. It gets into processing powers, storage technology, building algorithms and what technology you need to buy. It’s not seen as what it really can be, which is rapid experimentation, smarter decisions and predictive insights. The technology component of big data, to some extent, still dominates the conversation versus the consumer and customer part of it.

Lastly, the blending allows qualitative research to build customer relationships. If companies think about the “research component” of their CRM and their connection into all these touch points as part of a relationship, now you’re talking.

Now you’re talking about a direct customer relationship that blends the best of what big data tells you, the best of what you can do programmatically to effect your marketing equation and the best of what you can do to particularly survey and get human insights behind that.

As soon as we start looking at that model, we’re starting to hit all the right buttons for what we can really do as marketers and business people to leverage big data, leverage traditional tools, leverage and get true insights that will drive strategy.

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It seems to me that there is a disconnect because the data analyzers have a different skill set than the data interpreters. Do we need to create a different kind of role in organizations that sits at the center of big data to bring a bigger skill set to apply to this?

That’s a very interesting point. The answer is yes. They are different. Even in our own organization, we have a lot of studies that we do for customers that are more of what you would call the big-data type. They’re highly numeric and they’re less of the intuitive — certainly qualitative versus quantitative.

Even our own people are a blend of skills, and we put those together on teams to bring the best solution to the clients. On the clients’ side that same thing is happening. Big data research is really the art and science of combining what is behavioral data, attitudinal data and the analytics that you get, so that you can get better business results.

That, like a lot of things in companies, requires a different set of skills to come together behind a common mission and be able to work together, to communicate together, which is why I think it’s so important that this conversation happen at a high enough level. This way it can combine those different skills and not be taken down one path of a very easy, lazy conversation around “big data” because it’s so misunderstood.

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Is there any data showing the impact of all this data on the top and bottom lines of companies?

I haven’t seen that. What I do know is that only 15 percent of CMOs have been able to quantify the impact of social media on their business. When we see numbers like that with the social media component, that is what drives a lot of this.

It’s because we had the Facebooks and the Googles and all these people collecting all this data and tracking everything — the time you tried to buy that ugly tie and it chased you across the Internet. That pretty much shows you that that’s what’s happening.

It’s going to get even bigger with the Internet of Things. All of a sudden, your world gets surrounded by the data that gets to you. The more this happens, you notice that if 15 percent of CMOs have been able to quantify the impact, that means 85 percent haven’t, and that’s just social media.

Then, start to think about the other components of data and programmatic buying and more. You know that the old adage of “50 percent of my marketing is wasted, I just don’t know which 50 percent.” You know that’s still true in this world.

Is marketing just a murky area?

Absolutely. I mean, can you imagine going to a cocktail party and leading a brand and not having a social presence? Your people would beat you up, or you’d be the uncoolest person at the party.

There is a role for all these new technologies. I’d look back in time and we used to have a dream, a vision, that when someone was going down the aisle that if only you could simply spring-load an orange juice can, this was back in the days of frozen orange juice, into your customer’s cart when you knew they showed up.

Then today, the reality is with beacons and mobile devices, you’re pretty close to that. There are clearly all these opportunities, from a marketing standpoint, where you can really have interactions that are correct with your customer. You can understand and do programmatic if-then and games and engagement rules to where you can actually really have a much better, more appropriate relationship with your customer.

That’s all great, but if you don’t really understand the pieces of the data that gets created, you’re simply working in the if-then. Again, part of the problem, in the long term, is that if you follow the programmatic big data and you effect the marketing equation today, you will have success. If you do it well you will have success. Whether that’s three percent, five percent, eight percent, you will get better.

I think that if people are just simply happy to get that three or five or eight percent, they’re missing a much bigger opportunity to blend it together and shoot for that 15, 20 percent improvement that you can get if you really understand why those beacon touch points and why those ATM touch points and all the CRM stuff that you’re kicking out with the data, why that’s happening the way it is. That’s where the strategy has to happen. It can’t happen simply tactically; it’s got to happen strategically.

I can really understand how this all applies in what we would call the B2C world, but what role does this play in the B2B world?

Interestingly, in the B2B world, B2B companies a long time ago were out in front of CRM. They actually used to have more data on a customer than a typical consumer products company did. The problem was a lot of that data was at an enterprise level as opposed to a human level and so the similar part about understanding the human behind the numbers.

We’ve done a lot of work over the years in B2B, helping companies understand that. If you want to sell a market into a B2B environment, you have to actually understand that there is a human that’s in that job position that’s inside of that company you’re trying to sell to, which is a rooftop customer, an enterprise customer.

The human insights behind that become the same. You’ve got to understand the humanity behind this. Whether it’s B2B or B2C, it’s understanding humans because even in a B2B buying environment, when you’re marketing and selling, whether it’s $100,000,000 technology deals or it’s a smaller scale, you have to understand the humanity behind that.

If all the CRM systems in B2B are just kicking out numbers and numbers and numbers, you really can’t effectively do any marketing and selling program inside of that.

When I think about considered purchase, it would seem to me to be more difficult for us to use big data unless we have some interpretation of it because considered purchase is really that. My consideration for buying something, particularly bigger-ticket items has to do with so many different variables that it’d be a bit harder to predict that, wouldn’t it?

I think that’s a very good point, because the humanity behind a considered purchase in both worlds requires you to get the humanity. What the programmatic stuff does, whether it’s messaging or it’s advertising or touch point or force outs or promotions, is in fact doing much more of this sort of impulse move that says somebody is in a mindset but you’re actually trying to get them to just move to the next level. That next level of purchase or the next logical product that you get out of big data.

In a B2B environment you’ve got a much different sort of consideration set. You’ve got multiple constituencies that go into it, and I do think that it even calls more for the human component as opposed to letting the big data drive the engine.

Do you foresee big data insights ultimately being generated programmatically? Will the model be sophisticated enough that we can now move a step back and say, “Now, we don’t need so much of the intuition” and “We need something that’s more consistent because human intuition is a little flawed”?

Human intuition is always going to be flawed and A.I. (artificial intelligence) is going to take over a component. What will happen is that level of “insight” that comes out of the data will get better and better through A.I. and learning. That’s the dynamic of A.I., the intelligence and how it gets smarter at what it does, but it still doesn’t give you the human behind it.

There’s a piece of this which is always going to be that we need to actually talk to the people that are generating all that data. We need to get inside the head. We need to understand why things happen. We need to be able to both append and amend what we’re learning from the big data with other types of information.

I don’t think it’s ever going to be totally programmatic, but, certainly, we would expect that the nature of big data is the more you collect, the better the models become, right? The more data points you have. It will get better. It will be programmed to be better but it’s not going to — we have to talk to humans. We can’t leave the humans behind.

It seems to me, from what you’re saying, that if we can automate more of it, then that leaves more of our budget available to actually spend time talking to the customer. Then bringing those two together to create the right perspectives.

That’s true everywhere. What’s happening is that because we have all this data on customers, we don’t have to spend the time. We can focus more on what the real need for information is from them, so we don’t waste their time, because we have survey burnout. People don’t want to do them. They don’t want to take a long time, so because of numbers, we can use a lot more people, split the questionnaires up and actually get a lot more information at the acute human level than we could get before.

The other thing is the platforms that are allowing us, as researchers, to more efficiently take that data and put it into more visual information. Taking out some of the human component of the research process itself is making it much more efficient.

We are now polling like crazy, particularly in the political arena, right? There’s a poll every five minutes. Is this polling of people sort of corrupting the validity of polling? The data changes so often that it’s hard to see what’s really going on.

There are actually some articles on polling. We have a company inside of our MDC partners’ network that really is deeply into the political world and polling. The problem is, there’s the traditional research of statistical significance and probabilities and a lot of big number. In a lot of cases, when people are voting it’s binary. It’s either I’m voting this or that.

Polling has, as we’ve seen in many elections around the world over the past seven or eight years particularly. It has that dimension that says, “Well, the probability is 98 percent.” If the two percent happens, everybody looks a little bit silly. I think that has actually happened to polling and it has hurt the idea of what polling does.

That’s sort of an unfair attack on the total value of polling when what we’re talking about is not polling to figure out what it is you’re going to vote for or not, but actually trying to get some human insight behind the poll to drive the strategy.

I think it is like the polling argues the same thing we’re talking about with big data. It’s not enough. You need to go behind that a little further.

How does that perception of polling not being as accurate as, perhaps, people thought it was once? How does that impact companies you work with looking to you to do research? Does it impact their mindset?

It does, and that’s why I come back to the blended discussion. If we say we’re going to talk to 1,500 people that we get from a panel, who claim they’ve bought a fashion brand. They promise you that they’ve bought it in the last 60 days, and they’re quite sure that they paid more than $200 for that. That’s all respondent-based claimed behavior.

In today’s world that same company has a list of 500,000 customers. They know what they bought. They know where they bought it. They know what size, how often and what marketing they responded to. As researchers, we need to change our model and not rely on panels of claimed behavior but actually integrate with the actual customer database that our clients had.

We’re doing that more and more and more. Clients are coming to us and saying, “You’re doing our net promoter’s score, talking about satisfaction and promoting our brand. We have this great promoter trend over time. Let’s start tacking it onto the data we have on our campaigns and our users and our profitability to make it a more robust view.”

From both sides, we’re getting this idea that we need to bring it together and create a more robust blending of insights behind the data that’s being captured on all our customers with all the technologies and the CRM systems and the socials, and match that up to this more acute learning that we’re doing. Without that, either side is going to be incomplete.

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Thomas White is the CEO of The C-Suite Network and the host of the nationally syndicated video program, Business Matters. This was taken from dialogue on C-Suite Executive Briefings.