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To the New President of UC: Start With an Audit!

Janet Napolitano

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was appointed president of the UC system on July 18. Her first day as president is today, Sept. 30. (Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes)

As many of you may have already heard, today is the first day of work for former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in her new position as president of the University of California system. We’ve worked with UC before, and we’re eager to see what Ms. Napolitano’s tenure brings to this great institution.

The First Thing Any Leader Should Do

As a student at the Harvard Business School, when my classmates and I aspired to one day serve as presidents of our organizations, I remember a professor of ours posed an interesting question: “What is the first thing you should do when you become president?” he asked.

For us, the first thing that popped into our heads was the thought of cracking open a bottle of champagne for our success. But other than that, we were puzzled. The advice this professor gave has stayed with me to this day: The first thing you should do is take an audit.

Here’s why:

  • To establish which assets you have been entrusted with and for which liabilities you have accepted responsibility.
  • To put a stake in the ground showing the condition of the organization when you took over, so that you can measure and demonstrate the improvements you’ve made during your term as president.

3 Intangible Assets That Should Be Part of Any Audit

For us at Marshall Strategy, we also recommend—and practice ourselves—to audit each organization’s intangible assets as well. If you know what you assets and liabilities are, then you know what your plan of action needs to be.

There are three main intangible assets we review with our clients:

  1. Awareness: When we begin auditing a company’s intangible assets and liabilities, we begin by listening to the executives about the issues they are facing, the challenges that lie ahead and what disadvantages they may have. You may have a great company in the public’s eye, but if there is low awareness about its potential obstacles among its executives, then that’s a problem.
  2. Image: We research our client’s image, which includes talking to audiences that are important to the organization, both customers and employees. We gather information on how they perceive the company. Whether employees have high or low morale, that’s something, for example, that gets sorted out in our initial analysis. Out of that we establish some identity objectives that would help alleviate the problems and leverage the advantages.
  3. Branding: Some of an organization’s strongest intangible assets deal with its brand identity. An organization’s name can be an advantage or disadvantage. Along that same line, its graphic expression may be detailed and intricate, but may also be meaningless. Our objective is to reduce those liabilities and increase the assets the company has to work with, which could be naming, messaging, visual expression or strategy.

My advice to Ms. Napolitano is to take an audit of UC, of both its tangible and intangible assets. Such an audit will not only help her understand the massive, intangible value of the university to the state, the nation and the world, but it will also help her identify the perceptual liabilities that threaten appreciation and support of UC’s great value.

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Branding Isn’t Skin Deep—It’s Your Connective Tissue

BrandingIn some organizations, branding is thought of as window dressing: It’s seen as superficial and peripheral to the organization’s purpose. In our experience, the opposite is true. We think of branding as an organization’s connective tissue.

When everything you say and do as an organization is driven by a unifying, meaningful and differentiated concept, it can create powerful results. But those who think of brand as simply promotional or attention getting miss the big payoff that strengthening their connective tissue can have.

3 Questions to Strengthen Branding Coherence

Brand is often confused with advertising. But branding is not only a marketing discipline, it’s a management discipline. (As our CEO Philip Durbrow has written, identity is the CEO’s tool.)

Whether they realize it or not, organizations are constantly communicating about themselves through their products and services, new hires, advertising and press releases. Everything you say and do as an organization can and should reinforce a coherent message about you—if you’re thinking about brand as your connective tissue. To achieve this level of branding coherence, ask about any message, behavior, and communication:

  • Is there a purpose for the way it’s identified?
  • Is there a purpose for its role in the organization?
  • Is there clarity about its contribution to the whole versus a separate business plan or identity?

The Dangers of Putting Brand on the Periphery

We’re working with a higher ed client at the moment who is responsible for some of the most cutting-edge research on (and off) the planet. Although they constantly do things that have never before been done, they don’t always get (or take) credit for their innovations, so these breakthroughs don’t add much to public understanding of who they are. They’re not as appreciated as they need to be in the face of increased competition for resources and talent. The lack of understanding about who they are results in lost opportunities. They need to strengthen their connective tissue so that everything about them communicates a clear, compelling, and meaningful story.

When you don’t pay attention to your connective tissue, you can run into a number of problems. Change is scarier. Progress is harder. The basis for making decisions is less secure. Most importantly, there’s a lot of wasted effort. The yield on what you say and do is much lower than the yield would be if there were some central concept for everyone to draw from.

But approach branding as a management discipline—as the connectivity in your organization—and you’ll tap into a strategic advantage you’ve always had, but just haven’t leveraged yet.

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The Washington Post: A Name in Limbo

Courtesy Adam Glanzman

A view of The Washington Post building on Aug. 5, 2013. (Courtesy Adam Glanzman)

When Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post last month, the media began analyzing the sale and questioning the future of the legacy newspaper. One minor detail, however, that may have not been at the forefront: According to a filing with the SEC, the newspaper’s parent company, Washington Post Co., must change its name within 60 days of the deal closing.

There is no indication (as yet) that Mr. Bezos will change the name of the newspaper. But it’s my hope that he will retain the name. While I generally suggest that geographically based or product-based names can limit an organization’s growth by creating limited perceptions of their potential, this does not seem to be the case with The Washington Post.

“Washington” essentially means “national politics” and “Post” literally means to send, to display and to publish electronically. It seems to be a perfect word for becoming the digital medium of Washington.

Retaining a Valuable Position

What Mr. Bezos purchased is an organization that has tremendous credibility within Washington, D.C., and among top political circles within the district. This is a large and important national audience. The Washington Post is to politics what The Wall Street Journal is to business. The paper owns a unique, differentiated and valuable role within the media industry. And according to his recent statement, I think he gets this.

“I understand the critical role the Post plays in Washington, D.C., and our nation, and the Post’s values will not change,” said Mr. Bezos. “Our duty to readers will continue to be the heart of the Post, and I am very optimistic about the future.”

If It’s Not Broken…

While his commitment to retaining the company’s mainstay values is apparent, the 60-day requirement may leave them with a new “coating.” If it were my call, the name would not be changed as long as the organization continues its unique focus on, and its credibility in, national politics and all that national politics impact. I would not like to see the Post become a general source of random news and lose its unique reason for being. Design, however, could play an important role by changing the visual expression of “The Washington Post” from a traditional newspaper masthead to convey that the newspaper has become a more contemporary medium.

It seems that Mr. Bezos’ main contribution would be to figure out how to turn the newspaper into a viable model for the distribution of credible news about national politics. He doesn’t need to alter the identity of The Washington Post to do that. In fact, its identity and equity is a major asset for his purpose. I would go so far as to say that the Post is one of few beloved institutions in the political sphere.

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