Interview

Leaders who light the path

How to face disruptive times
and build trusted relationships

Prof. Tim Bruysten is the founder of richtwert which helps businesses prepare for the future. Tim and his team help companies gain clarity about who they truly are, what makes them special and how they can build trust from that uniqueness.

As if there hadn’t been enough challenges for business already, such as digitization, climate change and many more, the last year brought an even bigger disruption: the pandemic. It disrupted many business models with long term consequences. To better understand what businesses need to do to be able to adapt to these changing conditions, Tim and his team conducted the “future study” – an extensive effort with hundreds of businesses and leaders from a wide range of different industries.

Michael Gerharz: Would you share some key findings of the future study with us?

I think one of the most important findings is that while the pandemic really disrupted a lot of businesses, for many of them it was more like a wake-up call.

We found that up to 76% of the businesses are looking positively into the next decade. So, although 84% of all businesses say that the world has changed irreversibly, most of them are looking optimistically into the future. 

From the share of the 24% who look pessimistically into the future, the majority is looking very pessimistically into the future, seeing the future as an existential threat for at least the next couple of years.

This revealed something I believe. The pandemic was a very disruptive wake-up call, focusing companies on what they have postponed for years – or decades: caring about a true digitization or a true integration within a global networked market and other things.

This wake-up call pushed a lot of businesses to really rethink their position in the market and to strengthen their abilities and their business model.

Which is another interesting point because 60% of all businesses are currently working on their business model. Partly these are minor changes, adjustments towards current situations in regards to hybrid work and changing customer behaviour. But we also see businesses who really need to reinvent how they are doing things, for example in the financial industry.

The pandemic was a disruptive wake-up call which led businesses to rethink their position in the market.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this huge difference between optimistic companies and the pessimistic companies.

It almost seems like a black and white thing. Companies are either optimistic or pessimistic. And if they are pessimistic, they are totally discouraged about what’s to come. Is that driven by a fear of the outer changes for which those companies feel their business model is just not adaptable to? Or has that some interior reasons that the optimistic companies have a stronger belief in themselves or in the belief of the capability to change and adapt?

This is indeed a very interesting question because we found that pessimistic companies think that they understand themselves by only 22% while optimistic companies say they understand themselves close to 90%. When you dive deeper into this, it’s really interesting. In other words, pessimistic companies don’t really believe in themselves and they don’t know who they are company and what makes their company truly unique.

On the other hand, optimistic companies believe that they know this really well. This is a very interesting difference because at the same time, all companies – pessimistic just like optimistic ones – think that knowing what you truly stand for as a company is very important.

Knowing what you truly stand for is very important to face disruptive times.

Is it that these companies don’t know what makes them unique or is it that there is no uniqueness in them because they are just similar to all the competitors?

This is a two-sided aspect. One the one hand, our research for the last 25 years shows that every organization, every human organization has uniqueness to them.

On the other hand, many organizations are not very good in recognizing this and turning it into a valid strategy – which doesn’t keep them from investing heavily in marketing and branding and topics like vision, mission, purpose to close this gap.

But these things that they invest in – purpose, vision, mission, branding claim and so on – are only approximations of their true self. Maybe very good approximations, but still approximations of what the real singular core of the company looks like.

When you ask 100 people out of the company and 100 customers, the answers you’ll get might be similar, but no one is really nailing it precisely.

Yet, once you have revealed the true singular core, you can make vision, mission, purpose, and so on much more powerful. Our research from several doctoral theses and hundreds of projects confirm this.

And that’s one big difference between optimistic and pessimistic companies. Optimistic companies are much more confident to be on the right path while pessimistic companies often feel confused about their true self.

Optimistic companies have a much better understanding about who they truly are.

What was really a shocking number from the study to me was that over all companies – including those optimistic companies that have that confidence in knowing who they are – over all of the companies, only 4% seem to believe that their customers truly get this uniqueness. One out of 25! That’s close to nothing. What’s going wrong there?

What’s going wrong is that they are working with these approximations and believe that this is good enough. And of course, if you throw money at this kind of marketing, then of course you will have some kind of success.

All of this professional marketing stuff works to a degree: measure, test and adjust. But this kind of success is tedious. It’s hard earned money. And, as we’ve discussed earlier, it often doesn’t provide a concise brand experience.

Because they are working with approximations for their purpose, vision, mission, and so on rather than with the real thing.

Our research from the last 25 years indicates that this changes drastically when companies invest in finding what we call the singularity of the company. What makes the company really unique? What are the elements others can’t copy? This kind of work needs to come first.

Because when you find this singularity, it’s something others can’t copy. And even if they tried – maybe with a lot of money – then everybody will feel that it’s not the real thing, it’s just a copy.

Once you run your marketing, your communication, your employee integration, or your customer experience driven by this singularity, others can’t copy them. You will be within the 4%.

Each company has some kind of uniqueness, their singularity that others can’t copy.

Let’s take a real life example. If I understand that correctly, then if Mercedes would take BMW’s claim – “The Ultimate Driving Machine” – which is a super clear and super focused message and a core value to BMW, it wouldn’t work for Mercedes, right?

Yes. Let’s take an even more extreme example. If Elon Musk claims on Twitter that he likes to conquer Mars, then his shares rise by billions. This is one of the boldest claims you can make.

But now, if Oliver Bäte from Allianz would claim: “Hey, great idea, Elon! We will sell the insurances and we will now invest three billion in finding out how we can sell insurances on Mars.” he would be removed from office the next day.

Because a company with a culture like Allianz’ has to prhase the same idea in a completely different way so that people would trust that this really will work out. Companies like Tesla or Space X or Red Bull can make these crazy claims and everybody, including investors would say: “Hey, great!”

But other companies will not be believed if they make similar claims, not because they are not capable of doing it but because it doesn’t fit what our guts are telling us about the company.

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Does that mean that singularity can’t be defined? So, the management or the board can’t just decide that this will be our singularity and we’ll have messages around that singular message, but it must be derived from the experiences, the shared stories, the types of people who work for the company. It’s, so to speak, the distillation of these values rather than something that’s brought in from the outside.

Exactly. Singularity is not creative work, it is revelation work. It’s what the company truly stands for. The creative work follows the revelation work. And, in fact, creative work based on that revelation is much more powerful creative work.

Boards cannot decide about the singularity of the company. This is beyond the power of boards. It’s beyond the power of anybody.

Let me give you an example from research. Let’s put apes into a box and there are bananas on a ladder at the side of the box. Of course, the apes will go up the ladder to eat the bananas. But each time an ape climbs the ladder, the other apes get an electric shock from the ground floor of their compartment. After two or three attempts, they learn that it’s not good if one of them tries to get the bananas and so they take care that it doesn’t happen, anymore.

Once the group has learned this kind of behaviour, you turn off the electric shocks, but the group maintains the behavior. Even if you start to exchange apes one after the other until no ape is left from the ones who got the electroshock, you’ll discover that still, no ape is climbing the ladder to get the bananas. You can have three to four generations of new apes. Once the culture is established, it has a strong resistance of being changed.

Singularity is not creative work, it is revelation work.

So in other words, Steve jobs would probably have utterly failed if he had been put into Microsoft because the culture at Microsoft is so vastly different than that of Apple. The same brilliant minds who do brilliant things in one company probably might not be a good fit in other companies.

Yes, exactly. The closer you craft your communication and strategies to this core we call singularity, the deeper the trust will be everybody puts into your message.

There’s actually a difference between trust and something that in German we call “Urvertrauen”. It’s somewhere in between really deep trust and tribal trust. It’s the trust that makes us belief into a common future.

On the one hand, trust is about certificates, control mechanisms, processes, rules, structure, titles, our claim and our mission and vision statements and so on. These are the common trust measures and they are and will continue to be truly important.

But on the other hand, we have this kind of deep trust when your gut says that this feels right. This feels good.

I realise that that sounds like a nice to have. But if you look closer, then it becomes clear how important this kind of Urvertrauen might be. Think about when you buy a car and your gut says that this is not the right car for you. Then, all of these certificates, labels, seals, test dates, awards, titles, processes, whatever will not make you buy it.

It turns out that Urvertrauen is based on experience that leverages a strong idea of a common future.

Let me see if I understand that correctly. When you find that true understanding of your singularity – what really makes you unique – and then extend that to the way you communicate about your product, then that feeling of belonging extends to the customers who become part of your tribe.

True, but it’s important to understand that to trust another person or another company. I don’t need to share all their values. What I do need to have is the gut feeling that they are truthful with their worldview and their values.

So, it’s not that companies need to gather customers or employees that are all the same. It’s about being able to talk about yourself in an authentic, truthful way that feels right to the people you’re communicating to.

And this is not some kind of magic. It’s scientifically proven that there are concrete steps you can work on to arrive at this level of truthful communication.

There are scientifically proven ways to arrive at a truthful communication.

Okay. Now, looking at this huge gap between the obvious power of the singularity and using it to build “Urvertrauen” towards your customers on the one side, and this shockingly low number of 4% of companies who believe that they are actually managing to do that on the other side.

What can companies do to level up in that regard? First of all, to find out about their singularity – which some of the more optimistic companies apparently already do – and then what can those companies do to actually communicate their singularity towards the customer so that Urvertrauen builds up?

Once you have found out about what you truly stand for – let’s repeat this to make it clear: not what you wish to stand for but what you truly stand for – then you can go through all your experience journeys, the customer journey, the employee journey, all of your touch points, your messages, your strategies, your products, just about everything you can measure against your singularity.

Obviously, this is a process. One that has immediate effect, but at the same time one that will take some time to really roll out.

This seems to be the bad news. While this is such a powerful tool, it’s not to be expected that once we have an understanding of what we truly stand for, that in an instant, everything changes and suddenly we have that clear messaging. It’s still a lot of work to evaluate all the different things that we do, all the different ways that we communicate, and step-by-step get to the point where we’re able to actually communicate what we truly stand for.

Yes, of course. The work is not done once you have have found a quick claim or a well sounding purpose definition. It’s rather that work starts at this point. Are your products, your touch points, and everything else really matching this idea?

Once you have connected it to what you truly stand for, then you will have solid ground to propose big ideas and to move great things forward. But first you need to make sure all your crazy ideas fit what your company is truly all about.

If it does, then people will trust that you are able to succeed. And this will bring a lot of power and energy into your projects.

There’s another interesting figure from the study. We divided the ones who were looking pessimistically into the future and the ones who were looking optimistically into the future and asked them about why is it that you’re looking pessimistically or optimistically into the future.

What we found out – and this is really interesting – is that within optimistic companies, management is not on the first place it’s on the sixth or seventh. The reason why these companies are looking optimistically into the future is much rather something like their capability to innovate, their employees, their digitalization processes, but not the management. Within the pessimistic group, management is second place.

This is really interesting because 72% of our participants in our study were top management people. So, there’s a very interesting self-reflection going on. And this is also a great hope I have for the decade to come; that people are currently rethinking their roles, their responsibilities, their influence and the way they run their companies.

Optimistic companies trust in their teams to innovate while pessimistic companies rely much more on management.

It sounds like there actually is reason to be optimistic that companies will be able to deal with the changing business world and those waves of disruption that have been coming in the past and that will surely come in unexpected ways that we don’t even think about yet.

To wrap this up. What would be two or three things that you recommend any company should do to better prepare themselves to face the challenges of the disruptive and changing world of business that we live in?

I would say, first: Listen into your company to reveal what it truly stands for. Really work on this and make it a tool to evaluate what you do and to exploit your potential. You will immediately have a more powerful position.

Another advice is to derive from this why you’re different than the competition. What are the elements others can’t copy? These should be crafted into a super condensed and concrete wording. Everyone in your company should be able to say this in a simple sentence: Who are we? What makes us different from the others? What can’t they copy?

When you communicate from there to build Urvertrauen, it will make your company way more resilient.

If I try to recap that, it seems that one of the core findings of your study is that first, true strength comes from within a company, from the people who work in it. Second, a great way to grow your business successfully is to focus on those parts of your strengths that others can’t copy. And third, when you act and communicate in conformance to those values, then deep trust, or “Urvertrauen” as you call it, can build up in the relationship of the company towards their customers.

Exactly. Here’s one example to show why this is so important when looking at the disruptions that will head our way in areas like technology, politics disruptions, globalization, climate change and more.

There are three different strategies that look easy but prove to be rather unstable.

The first strategy is used by the Preservers who believe “What brought us here, will get us there” and a lot of companies are run that way. Yet, when facing a serious disruption, these companies are at a high risk of losing track when their competition adapts to the changing conditions.

The second strategy is taken by the Restless who when they see a disruption, want to change as fast as possible. Their normal is transformation and change. This is an unstable position, too, because it carries the danger the customers and employees will not be able to recognize them anymore. If everything constantly changes, it’s unclear what a company stands for at all. Why should anyone trust them? If they are reinventing themselves all the time, there is no place and no time to find a trusted position.

The third strategy is taken by the Avoiders. They want to change … but only with the tools they are familiar with. So, they don’t fully embrace change. This can work for a while, but over time you turn into some sort of Frankenstein where things don’t really fit together naturally.

When companies work on their singularity, they will know what they need to preserve and what they need to change in the face of disruptions.

A better approach is, of course, to balance this out. To know what you need to preserve and to also know what you should let go.

The restless part is that you should have some restless elements within yourself. But not all of them. It’s equally important to know what to preserve. For this, you need to have a clear picture of the future. Where will you be heading to? What are your visions and missions? The most important aspect of this that this needs to be a logical consequence of who you truly are.

And then, when you’ve found this, then you can also find a balance to the third element and know what to avoid and what to embrace. What you can reuse and what you have to reinvent or learn from scratch.

This balance is a different one for each company but once you’ve found your balance, your company can rest in itself even when going through disruptive times, probably even accelerating and pushing them further.

That has been a really fascinating deep dive into what you’ve found out in the future study. I encourage everyone to have a deeper look into the study and to reach out to Tim to understand what these findings mean for the future of your company. Tim and his team will certainly be able to find that out for you and to dig deeper.

As a final question, Tim, I’d like to ask you what was a leader who lighted the path for you and in what way?

Oh, this is very spontaneous and therefore very personal. For me, my father was a very important leader. With something very small. He said to me one thing he repeated a thousand times.

In German, it’s: “Mein Sohn, du machst das schon!” which would be: “My son. You will do it.”

This kind of deep trust or “Urvertrauen” that he had toward me and my crazy childhood and puberty adventures really gave me strength and confidence. Not in the way that I should not question myself and to reflect critically, critically on myself, but in the sense that I would be able to find a way for myself.

Actually, I’ve tried to adapt this mantra for me as a leader. I hope I can offer this spirit and this trust to other companies and to other teams. And of course, to my own company, to my own team and to my own family as well.

What a beautiful story and a powerful message. Thanks a lot for that fascinating conversation and deep dive into what the future might hold for companies. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks Tim.

Thanks a lot.

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