Cult Of Personality

A look at the advantages and perils of having your brand tied to a visionary figurehead.

To many folks, the Apple company and Steve Jobs were one and the same. Jobs was a genius whose work transformed the way we think about computers, music, and accessing information. He was a hands-on leader who also served as an incredibly effective brand and product ambassador.

After Jobs passed away in 2011, all eyes were on the company he helped create. What would Apple do next? Would it thrive? Would it even survive? For many folks, the jury is still out on these issues.

The credit union world has produced its own share of visionaries, pioneers, and revolutionaries throughout its history. And such individuals are still out there today, finding new ways to serve their member-owners and establishing better cooperative environments where innovation can thrive.

The opportunity to work with or for these figureheads can be thought-provoking and empowering, so much so that the rest of the company may develop blinders concerning a critical question: What would happen to us if something were to happen to (insert your leader’s name here)?

Sudden changes in staffing can come naturally, as individuals migrate to new opportunities, retire, or even pass away. Other times, they occur out of necessity, with internal or external pressures demanding a dramatic change of course in order to survive. After all, as markets and ideas evolve, there’s no guarantee that the business prophet pushing you forward today won’t be the same individual holding you back or pushing you over the brink tomorrow.

Below, we look at multiple, external business examples of this phenomenon to highlight how credit unions can maximize the positive impacts of these extraordinary influencers, while also effectively safeguarding themselves, their members, and their brand in the event of an untimely exit.

Calling All Wannabes

They may not walk around wearing leather pants (and as an HR professional, I strongly advise against the practice), but every industry and institution does have its own rock stars. So what do you do when these key individuals go away? Examples from the music business can provide some hints.

AC/DC singer Bon Scott died in 1980 on the heels of the band’s release of Highway to Hell, the record that helped put them on firm footing to become a mainstream hard rock act. After a mourning period, the remaining band members reached out to vocalist Brian Johnson, a singer Scott had once sung praises about after seeing him perform with his band Geordie. Johnson auditioned and then recorded Back in Black with AC/DC, which eventually became one of the highest-selling albums of all time.

After two decades of heavy metal performances with the band Judas Priest, iconic vocalist Rob Halford left the band in 1991. The group went on a brief hiatus before introducing a new frontman Tim Ripper Owens, who had mastered mimicry of Halford’s vocals during his time as the leader of a Judas Priest cover band called British Steel.

After struggling to find a replacement for former lead singer Steve Perry, the band Journey came across YouTube videos of Filipino singer Arnel Pineda signing their songs with his cover band The Zoo. In 2007, Journey flew Pineda from the Philippines to California for an audition before signing him as their new frontman. In the years since, the group has completed a world tour, released a new album, and even performed at a Superbowl pre-game concert.

The Credit Union Lesson

Rock stars inspire tribute bands, so why can’t credit unions? When you are at the head of an established, successful cooperative, it’s likely that other institutions will study your moves and imitate components of your operational approach, management style, product offerings, or other key differentiators.

Rather than view such mimicry as a threat, see it as an opportunity to directly mentor and advise these individuals. By taking a tribute band under your wing, you’ll not only pass on best practices and insights that can strengthen the cooperative system as a whole, but also support next-generation talent who may one day fill the gaps in your own organization. Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery; it can be the spare tire that helps keep your band rolling down the road and headed on toward its next big show.

Just How Many Spider-Man Movies Does The World Need?

Reboot is a buzzword that originated in the world of computers. But today, the term commonly refers to the practice of taking existing materials, concepts, or products and changing or reorganizing how they are put together.

No one has mastered the reboot concept as successfully as Hollywood. And while fans of the if-it-isn’t-broke-don’t-fix-it persuasion may occasionally gripe about how this industry suffers from creative brain drain or is on a personal mission to ruin their childhood memories, the cold, hard truth about reboots is that they work.

The original television episodes of Star Trek featured plywood ship doors manipulated by a hidden prop master and faux explosions created by shaking the camera and having the cast lean and jump. But even with these budget limitations, the franchise ultimately developed enough cult status to spawn 12 motion pictures and five television series. This includes the 2009 high-dollar Paramount reboot featuring innovative writer/director J.J. Abrams, which sought to reimagine the original show’s characters and mythology. The film was embraced by old and new fans alike, broke box office records for the franchise, and was soon followed up by a 2013 sequel.

Sherlock Holmes tops the list as the literary character most frequently portrayed on screen, with more than 250 noted instances. Both the BBC and CBS have a Sherlock series on the air, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller respectively portraying the eccentric genius detective. However, you may have been a fan of some of the most successful reboots of Sherlock Holmes and not even known it. Antisocial genius solving mysteries? Check. Hero with a drug problem or affection for an unattainable woman? Check. Close male confidant and partner in adventure? Check. Fondness for a musical instrument? Check and mate. Of course, I’m describing Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of the title character in FOX’s award-winning show House M.D.

James Bond is one of cinema’s most enduring franchises and every actor who has stepped into this role has embodied a different take on the character from Sean Connery’s swinging sixties superspy to Roger Moore’s light-hearted hero to Daniel Craig’s cold, brooding thug. That said, there’s certainly a formula for success here. For example, in 2012’s Skyfall fans were perturbed when Bond traded in his signature shaken, not stirred martini for a Heineken. Yet as long as the core of this character remains quintessentially Bond, complete with gadgets, stunts, exotic sets, and stunning co-stars, true fans are always ready to see what the next iteration of the series will bring.

The Credit Union Lesson

Cooperatives do not always need to rewrite the playbook in times of change. Bold, visionary leaders may have helped build and develop your organization’s original success, but the right replacements can work with and maintain all of those same brand ingredients that members and employees have come to love (culture, products, services, etc.) while also offering their own unique spin on the formula. The key is finding gifted leaders willing to bring interpretation, rather than domination, to the table. After all, you want your reboot to be the next Batman Begins, not the next Lone Ranger.

The King is Dead And We Are Out Of Ideas

The abundant pressure, fun, fear, and success that can come from working with a visionary leader may keep you so busy that you fail to look ahead and create a contingency plan for when that individual is no longer part of the equation.

Contrary to urban legend, Walt Disney did not leave detailed, filmed instructions for his board and fellow executives to follow upon his passing. In fact, the creative innovator who gave the world Mickey Mouse and Snow White gave little thought to what would happen after his death. As a result, the post-Walt company struggled for more than a decade with underperforming releases like The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective and even faced the risk of hostile takeover in the early 1980s. It wasn’t until three strong leaders Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells finally emerged that the company entered a period referred to as the Disney renaissance, which resulted in classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

After creating Saturday Night Live and introducing the world to the likes of Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner, producer Lorne Michaels left the show right before the 1980 season. His absence was marked by inconsistent performances, ratings slumps, and high turnover in the writing room. In 1985, the prodigal son finally returned to refresh the cast and restore the show, and he remains at its helm today. In fact, Michaels seems inclined to produce at SNL until he can no longer do so, and there hasn’t been a lot of official talk about what happens after.

George R. R. Martin, please write, and write faster. You’re not going to get any younger, you know! prompts the musical comedy band Paul and Storm in a recent YouTube video. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series already had legions of dedicated followers before HBO decided to turn it into the hit television show Game of Thrones, but now this franchise is at a curious crossroads. With five novels released and at least two more required to complete the saga, the television show narrative is actually poised to surpass its source material. Show producers have acknowledged that Martin has given them some broad guidance on how the story will end.

However, there is no scheduled publishing date for Martin’s next book installment and HBO cannot pause to wait for him to complete it. Further complicating matters is Martin’s assertion that no one will be allowed to continue the storyline after his death, because of concerns about maintaining the quality of the stories. Never has the fate of a fictional land caused so many people so much stress.

The Credit Union Lesson

The first part of the phrase succession planning is success, so it’s no surprise institutions that choose to forgo or postpone this process are often crippled by unexpected losses and unforeseen turn of events. Succession planning is a process-driven, introspection-laden exercise that often requires people to address issues they would rather not think about. However, it is easier to tackle these realities proactively and as a group than to wait and make up a plan as you go along.

July 9, 2014

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