This spring, the fashion world lost an amazing artist L'Wren Scott. I have to admit, I took this news personally. Why? Well for starters, our initials. I am a huge fashionista and love small design houses. She was the longtime partner of Mick Jagger, having landed one of rock’s most notorious Lotharios. She was tall and beautiful and seemed to be living a charmed life filled with music, fashion and travel. But most importantly, she was a business owner and I am fascinated with successful women in business.
Pundits are speculating that her company was in financial trouble and that may have contributed to her alleged suicide. I cannot and will not speculate on that. But what I do wonder is– how does a brand go on when their late figurehead WAS the brand?
When the RMS Titanic sank in 1912, it was a catastrophic blow not just to the shipping industry, but to every industry imaginable. Why? Because an inordinate amount of the world’s CEOs, legal and business minds and their spouses were on that ship. Many of them died, leaving their companies and stockholders in shock and in fear. John Jacob Astor IV (real estate) Benjamin Guggenheim (mining) and Isidor and Ida Straus (Macy’s) were just a few industrial titans who perished that day.
But we have examples from the last 30 years, which are not as tragic but just as jarring. I’m a Boston girl and grew up during the Northeast’s tech boom of the 1980s. Wang Laboratories, Levitz Furniture, Howard Johnsons and Gloria Stevens Figure Salons are brands I never thought would go out of business, but they did. They all succumbed to a loss of leadership either through death or a corporate takeover.
HOW TO RIGHT YOUR SHIP
There are success stories when an iconic brand owner unexpectedly dies. Donatella Versace very publically had a hard time following in her brother’s footsteps after his tragic murder. She subsequently found her footing and the Versace brand is just as powerful amongst well-heeled, red-carpet walkers as it was during Gianni’s tenure. The house of Alexander McQueen kept strong and designed on after his untimely death. New company head, Sarah Burton even landed the plum job of designing the commoner, we now call Princess Kate’s wedding dress. After Steve Jobs’ death, Apple is chugging along with their newly minted CEO and is in the business of acquisitions. One of my favorite brands, and the poster child for the American Dream, The Walt Disney Company has offerings so diverse, I would not be surprised if they released a Mickey shaped car. I mean, they have ships already. Even after a few scary decades with Roy Disney floundering at the helm and the threat of bankruptcy, they have recovered quite nicely.
LIZARDS, SNAKES AND LIONS, OH MY!
I have worked for many companies. I have owned my own businesses. I put in 150% when I worked for other companies. When I work for myself I don’t even think there is a percentage in math that exists to calculate my tenacity. Why? Because I am deeply and soul-baringly invested. I have so much passion, I wake up at night and scribble down ideas that I had in my dreams. I am strategic and focused. I only work on what makes me happy and makes me money.
The search for making profits without passion reminds me of the movie “Wall Street.” “Greed is good” boomed the slippery Gordon Gekko to an audience of stock brokers. C'mon Ollie Stone. You thought we couldn't figure out the character was a selfish jerk, without naming him something so obvious? But the reality is that many leaders are in it just for the money like the slippery, icky, eel-like Gekko. They have no passion, no ideas nor insights that can grow their companies beyond their egos.
I'm sure there was a time when some companies put their focus solely on their employees, their ideals and their goals. But in today's business arena, we seem to have tons of one-trick-pony start-ups. They launch their companies with one goal in mind, to simply trot after profits. Some call the 80s the decade of excess, but I believe we lost more during that time than we gained. People did things like buy DeLoreans and build houses too large, even for The Dugger Family. And then, it ended. The Baby Boomers found out the hard way that companies see them as property– soft goods to be acquired, used and put into the Goodwill box when they were done with them. Fast forward and today, nobody even gets a golden parachute anymore.
The folks born after 1960 are under no illusions. They grew up seeing their parents toil loyally for a company for years, only to be downsized unceremoniously en masse. Those born post 1960 and now all grown-up, use employers just like the employers use them. A means to an end and that end is money. I don't think Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Yers are slackers. I know. I know. We all have stories of working with seemingly, entitled young coworkers, who are sloppy, lazy, and put in just enough to get by, if that. Honestly, they are realists. They are the result of all the Gordon Gekkos of the world. Greed is not good. It wasn’t good when Mr. Potter tried to sabotage good ole’ George Bailey and his debt-free Building & Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it ain’t good now. Greed is what can turn a once-thriving company into carrion for buzzards when its leader dies and heartless investors take over.
Let me just say this straight with no chaser. As a leader, if you aren't exhibiting passion, nurturing staff and leaving a clear plan for your team, your company will most likely not survive without you. In fact, it probably won’t survive period.
INVESTMENT. PASSION. HEART. HONESTY. LIGHT.
Leaders like Versace, Disney and Jobs hired people who mirrored themselves. They wanted their team to burn the candle at both ends, stay up all night working out solutions even when they didn’t have to and to have passion and joy for what they did. Who L'Wren Scott hired to manage her company will be a fairly decent barometer of her brand’s longevity. If she frontloaded her team with executives who loved her vision, saw the big picture and have the skills to continue without her, than her fashion house will stand on its own, many, many years from now.
SOME SWEET, SPICY, SPECIAL SAUCE. . .
Successful posthumous leaders are those who daily impart that “special sauce” –– that glow to their team. She brings to work a vision of where the company is headed and a clearly lit path for her leadership team and employees. Does your brand or company communicate your special sauce, not just to your customers, but to your management and frontline staff? If not, that's your business’ fatal flaw.
Customers and employees feel it in their bones when a company has that special “ummmff.” That special sauce that says, ‘we have a vision and you can depend on us no matter what.’ Companies with that vibe include, LL Bean, Harley Davidson, Toms and Google. And when customers feel that ummmff, they will stick with you through the good times and through the bad times.
Don’t be a straight line in the circle of life. Give, lead, nurture and be passionate every single day. Do that and you will most likely see profitable benefits long before people start needing to write your epitaph.
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