I am sometimes asked about how I was able to make the transition from being a stressed out academic to an author and keynote speaker, which in turn gave me the time and energy to return to my passion for cycling. A big part of being able to make this shift was establishing my personal brand as a ‘management guru’ and in this blogpost I would like to explain how it all came about.
In mid 2009 I sat together in an apartment in downtown Berlin with my friends Jörg Reckhenrich and Martin Kupp. We were discussing our forthcoming book ‘The Fine Art of Success’ which was based around an exploration of lessons for business from the creative industries. I had recently left my job as a business School Professor to embark on my new life as an author, speaker and cyclist and had started to realise the importance of developing my personal brand.
One of the topics covered in our book, alongside case studies of artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Picasso, was what we called ‘leadership projection’ or the ability of an artist to project their work onto the global stage, and in doing so differentiate themselves from thousands of other creative hopefuls. At the heart of success was what we termed ‘validation’ or the process by which individual creative talents were heralded into the upper echelons of their field. Then we asked a question; might this same process of validation towards ‘super-stardom’ apply in the world of business academia, and could we become management gurus? For me this question was driven by a very personal need if I was going to have the time to train and compete at the top level in cycling: How could I work a little and earn…enough?
The question of how to build an internationally recognised and respected personal brand then led to what we called the “Guru Project” whereby we researched management guru careers and applied the findings to tour own professional approach. The following conversation explains what we learned along the way.
QUESTION: What was the first step of the Guru Project?
Jamie: We quickly realised that there is no universally accepted definition of a management guru, so we started to compile a database of information on people who the business press often refer to as ‘management gurus’. We also examined rankings from certain publications that publish lists of leading business thinkers. Data was collected and case studies developed on fourteen individuals who we observed to have been successful in positioning themselves as management gurus, and this allowed a cross-case comparison of success factors. We focused on contemporaries, with the one exception being Peter Drucker who passed away in 2005.
Jörg: I guess that one of the early discoveries was that many of the so called ‘gurus’ were not the most accomplished academics in a more traditional sense of publications in the refereed journals, one of the most important criteria for promotion in ‘traditional’ top-tier business schools. Indeed, some of the gurus that we studied, such as Malcolm Gladwell, did not even hold a graduate degree or, like Peter Drucker had rarely published in the highest-ranked refereed academic journals. But this phenomenon of finding an often untraditional way to success, something that you define, is well known in the art world.
QUESTION: So what other surprises did you discover?
Martin: Just as in the world of contemporary art, we understood that all management gurus had to have something new and different to stay. Hirst was the first artist to put animals in fomaldehyde, and Wim Delvoye the first to tattoo pigs. In a similar way, Gary Hamel achieved prominence with his work with C.K. Prahalad on the core competence of the corporation, while Kim and Mauborgne of INSEAD came to prominence with their Blue Ocean Strategy idea. But what was also quite interesting was that these gurus often joined the dots of different academic disciplines, rather than staying in their narrowly defined field of, say, leadership, strategy, marketing or innovation. So while Gary Hamel is known as a Professor of Strategic Management, his ‘big ideas’ cut across leadership, strategy, innovation and organizational behaviour. Gladwell’s books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences, and make frequent and extended use of academic work from different disciplines. He has even described himself as an “academic groupie”.
Jamie: So our first realisation was that a management guru must come with an idea which is perceived to be new and different. I say ‘perceived’ as very few of the gurus that we analysed had a truly new discovery, but were able to join the dots of existing research in new and compelling ways, or tapped into highly topical subjects – such as C.K. Prahalad’s work which examined business opportunities at the base of the economic pyramid at a time when many companies were turning to developing markets for growth opportunities. More recently, Belgium’s Peter Hinssen has rocketed to international prominence for his work on the ‘new normal’ which explores the implications of social media for different industries.
Jörg: And of course, this is when we got excited as we believed that our own book, The Fine Art of Success, was also joining dots in new ways by exploring business lessons from the creative industries. We created our concept of ‘Art Thinking’, a theme that encapsulates our ideas around the linking of creativity and entrepreneurship in the creative world to business.
Martin: But we wanted not only the content to be unique and different, but also the way we identified, collected and disseminated our findings to be special. That is why we have chosen to take what we call the “rock-band” approach. Our research very much gains through the different perspectives we bring to the table – Joerg’s knowledge and practice as an artist, Jamie’s Australian humour and entrepreneurial streak, and my deep roots in the German research tradition. We deliberately chose a picture of us for the book which resembles an early picture of the Rolling Stones, a strong collective with unique and different personalities. We have not positioned ourselves as individual management gurus, but guys with a connected vision.
QUESTION: So if the first element of becoming a management guru is saying something which is new, different and timely, what else is important?
Jamie: One of the things we understood from studying the most successful contemporary artists was that affiliation with ‘powerbrokers’ in the art world is extremely important. People such as Charles Saatchi, Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling can make or break the careers of aspiring artists, and if any of these men comments positively on the artwork of an artist then prices can skyrocket. Similarly, we saw that there were also ‘powerbrokers’ in the word of management gurus – publications such as the Financial Times, Business Week, Wall Street Journal and The Economist that could bring the management guru label to individuals.
Martin: And of course, we also recognized the power of having your name affiliated with a top-tier business school. But we saw a kind of chicken-and-egg situation: did the brands of the top-tier schools validate management gurus, or were management gurus attracted to the top-tier schools? We observed both phenomenon.
QUESTION: So how did this cause you to reflect upon your own situation?
Jörg: Well again, we were fortunate. Jamie and Martin were both affiliated with top-tier business schools. While I had never had a full-time position at a top-tier school, I was a visiting teacher at several of the world’s most prestigious institutions, such as London Business School and IMD in Lausanne. But we also saw the importance of new ‘affiliation’ brands, such as the international TED Conference platform, and during 2010 and 2011 we were all successful in being accepted to give TED talks.
Jamie: We recognized that we already had the benefit of a certain brand-halo from our institutional affiliations, but we also recognized that there were many of our very smart colleagues at these institutions that never became management gurus. So the next thing was to sell our ‘big idea’ of business lessons from the creative industries and we started this by publishing a series of articles. These articles were very well received, and resulted in the three of us being included in a list of the world’s top management thinkers published in a business journal in 2009, alongside internationally renowned thought leaders such as Gary Hamel, Philip Kotler and Henry Mintzberg.
QUESTION: And what was the impact of your inclusion in the list of top management thinkers?
Jörg: Well, the first thing we started to do was mention on our websites and tell all of our friends that we had been named as up-and-coming management gurus. It also helped that we were working as a team as we took every chance we could get to promote each other – whether speaking to a client, messaging on Twitter or interacting with academic colleagues. This collaborative attitude has always been the basis of our approach, and we have tried to live what we teach.
Martin: Yes, this was extremely important for us, as we now had an external validation of our claim to be bringing something new and different to the world. We added this to our biographies that we sent to clients, and to the press releases that we were preparing to send upon the publication of our book. We were constantly talking together about how to align our message, and then sharing the hard work between us.
QUESTION: But a lot of people have something new to say and won’t be heard. What else do you have to accomplish?
Jamie: The launch of our book was of critical importance to the project, as it was our chance to say something new and different, and we had won a supportive and well respected publisher in Wiley. We put a lot of time into mapping the key business publications and even individual journalists who could help to validate us as thought leaders. We crafted press releases for each journalist, paying close attention to their individual areas of interest, but of course all the time projecting ourselves as established management gurus.
Jörg: This idea of projection is extremely important in art. Jeff Koons for instance, draws a direct line from the Renaissance artist Botticelli to his own artwork. He believes himself to be the next Michelangelo, and has not been shy to say so. Lady Gaga has said “Some people are just born stars. You either have it or you haven’t, and I was definitely born one.” These artists build their own stage. But it is a risky business – you have to be in the right position to do so.
QUESTION: And did the press pick-up on your book?
Martin: Within a week of the book’s publication, the story had been written about by several news agencies, including Reuters, and we had an article in the Financial Times and an interview on BBC World Business Report. But perhaps even more importantly we quickly followed-up with the same journalists about a new case study that we had written and were teaching about Lady Gaga. We timed the release of this news just a few days before the launch of her ‘Born This Way’ album in May 2011, at a time when the world was going Gaga crazy. We brought a new and different angle by talking about her as a business school case study, and we aligned perfectly with a need for the business press to write something relevant about her success for their own readers.
Jörg: Our publication of the Lady Gaga case and accompanying press release, coming closely after the book, generated a storm of interest. The worldwide ‘Born This Way’ album launch was set for Monday May 23, and we sent our press release the preceding Thursday to a few select journalists at leading publications who we promised exclusivity. Within a week we had a full-page feature article in the Schumpeter section of The Economist, and an article in the Financial Times. The FT article referred to ‘the management gurus.’ This resulted in a snow-ball effect, as many business journalists look to the FT and Economist for leads, and we were then met with a deluge of requests for press, TV and radio interviews from journalists around the world.
Martin: I had a funny interview at this time with a rather cynical German journalist who suggested that the release of our Lady Gaga case study was just a ploy to get publicity for ourselves – of course, I agreed with her wholeheartedly!
Jamie: The Economist article and our concept of ‘Gaganomics’ mentioned in the Financial Times was discussed on blogs across the Internet, and we saw a surge of hits on our individual websites. Suddenly, our email boxes started to fill-up with requests for keynote talks and lectures.
QUESTION: Now that you had been named ‘management gurus’ in the Financial Times, and had built visibility through international press coverage, were there other elements to consider?
Jamie: When we looked at the similarities between management gurus and high-end contemporary artists we saw something else in common – price and scarcity. In studying our management gurus, we came to understand that these two elements are extremely important, and that a thought leader’s availability and fee structure sends a powerful message to the world.
Jörg: And here it is where it gets really tricky. In 2010 we started to increase our rates for keynote presentations. In 2009 we would ask maybe $3,000 for one of us to give a keynote talk, but from mid 2010 we experimented with asking for as much as four or five times that amount. Of course, there was a big risk with this approach, but art is about pushing boundaries and we saw through Damien Hirst’s 2008 auction at Sothebys that even pricing is a tool of brand projection. The increase in fees brought us in alignment with many of the other management gurus that we had studied, and projected us into their peer group.
Martin: The experience of increasing our fees was quite astounding, as I was sure that this would result in less demand. But rather than see a decrease in demand after communicating our fee increases, we saw a growth in demand. I guess we became reassuringly expensive!
Jamie: Of course, it was not just about increasing fees. We also helped each other to improve the choreography of our presentations – we became performers – because this was also a key attribute of the management guru. Not just to say something new and different, but to be an expert performer and storyteller. Ultimately, if a client is paying a five figure sum for a one-hour keynote, they expect something very special!
QUESTION: And where does scarcity come into it?
Jamie: That’s an interesting element. We discovered that Management Gurus almost never respond to client contacts themselves – it is almost always a rather aloof personal assistant or agent who acts as a gatekeeper. The assistant never responds immediately, and almost always says something along the lines that “Mr or Ms Guru is extremely heavily booked, but we will see what is possible.” You then hear nothing for two or three days, or maybe a week, to signal the scarcity of the speaker. So just for fun, I created an imaginary personal assistant who acted just like this. But we don’t do it now – as we found that this kind of prima donna behaviour on the part of many management gurus was something we did not want to imitate. We like to be authentic with the people we are working with, and often turn encounters into enduring professional relationships.
QUESTION: Do you think that your guru project could be imitated by other aspiring thought leaders?
Jörg: Of course, why not? Just remember the five principles of becoming a management guru: first, don’t be afraid to say that you are the next Michelangelo – just make sure that you have something new and different to say – a book certainly helps here. Secondly, timing is an important factor, so try to link your big ideas to issues of the moment. Third, affiliate yourself with a top-tier Business School or highly regarded thought-leadership brand, and get your big ideas talked about in the most influential business publications and blogs. Fourth, be sure to adjust your prices to project yourself into the management guru peer group, and become a scarce resource. Finally, don’t take it all too seriously and be sure to have fun along the way!