Had the pleasure of getting to know Tim Leberecht, CMO of NBBJ, who recently published The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing and Create Something Greater Than Yourself. Was fascinated by Leberecht's TED Talk about usefully losing control. As a marketer, i's an interesting concept when it comes to understanding your customers' needs and wants.
Read below for my conversation with Tim.
Brandon Steiner: The Business Romantic - Who did you write this book for and why did you write this book?
Tim Leberecht: I wrote The Business Romantic because I believe we need more romance in our lives and that we can find it in and through business.
My book argues that all the intense and mostly positive feelings we experience in love—mystery, intimacy, vulnerability, even a bit of suffering, and the loss of control—are crucibles of our work and customer relationships. Such romantic qualities are important in business because they are the ultimate differentiators in a culture that is designed to maximize and optimize. They give us permission to bring our full selves to work and help us create products, services, and brands that our customers truly love, far beyond a merely benefit-driven relationship. Business Romance will not only make companies more successful but will also help fulfill ourselves as employees and consumers.
I am a Business Romantic. Business is a way for me to express myself, and it is a vehicle for finding some greater truth. It is a great adventure, maybe the ultimate adventure in a time when companies arguably have the biggest impact on our lives. I believe there are many others out there: card-carrying business romantics, closet romantics, and even cynics who shut themselves away from falling in love with their work and the world. In order to connect with all of them, I wrote this book.
BS: What’s your definition of success in business?
TL: I believe our definition of success is business is far too narrow. Typically, we consider a linear, progressive series of accomplishments as a successful career. Setbacks are not part of the plan. We orient ourselves along somewhat arbitrary metrics such as annual or quarterly goals, key performance indicators, a project’s return-on-investment, and others, which are helpful, of course, but rarely tell the whole truth.
For me, success means giving everything to an organization and a cause you believe in. But it also means beating hearts and adrenalin rushes, constant learning and growing, professionally and personally. Getting to know others and ourselves in new, unexpected ways.
Business Romantics believe that business can create these types of meaningful experiences that transcend self-interest and rational decision-making. They defy conventional business logic to uncover greater meaning and beauty in everything they do. Business Romantics have their heart in it and do things “for the love of it.”
BS: Do you need passion to be considered successful?
TL: I prefer to use the term romance instead of passion. Passion is a two-edged sword: on the one hand it fuels excitement and energy on the job, on the other hand it also expires fast. It’s easy to be passionate about something, but it’s much harder to stay committed and devote yourself to something when routine creeps in.
In the chapter of The Business Romantic called “Sail the Ocean,” I tell the story of an architect who crossed the ocean in a small sailboat with her husband. I use it to illustrate how commitment can be an extremely romantic proposition. You don’t sail the ocean with passion alone. You have real skin in the game and must stay put no matter what happens. It’s a labor of love.
In today’s careers, we often jump ship too fast, just because our passion has expired from one day to the next and we see the next attractive job lurking around the corner. Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is high and loyalty to employers is fickle, especially among millennials. It is so much more difficult to stay committed and work hard to reignite the romance than simply following your passion and starting a new gig.
That said, I do believe that the ability to show contagious passion is an important trait of every leader. It’s part of your emotional intelligence, which is key to inspiring your colleagues and customer. Vulnerability is a prerequisite of it. Without vulnerability, your emotions will remain shallow. Your colleagues and customers may like you, but they will not love you. They might give you a thumbs-up but that’s not the same as an unconditional “I’m in”!
BS: I’m a big fan of TED Talks and yours about usefully losing control was enlightening, particularly where you say, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” What’s your advice for accepting the loss of control?
TL: This is actually a great quote by Jeff Bezos. The interesting thing is that brands have never been in control. Long before the advent of social media and radical transparency they were subject to customer perceptions and the conversation in the marketplace. But social media enables them now to be in the same room with their customers 24/7 and to join and even start conversations. So in a strange way brands have more control over the loss of control than ever before. They are privy to what customers are saying about them and can affect them in direct interactions at the scale of 1:1.
Moreover, let’s not forget the benefits of surrendering control to your customers: it gives them the permission to co-create and co-opt, to be a partner more than just a passive consumer. It allows you to tap into a community of makers that extends the boundaries of your organization. Take Microsoft Kinect. It was hacked by users quickly after it came out, and Microsoft fought it. But then the company realized that having such a passionate community of users not only created strong loyalty, it also made the product better. So they reversed their position and embraced the hacks.
BS: How can you make customers accept losing control?
TL: It’s an interesting question. On the one hand, there’s a huge market for experiences that allow people to lose control: from a club called The Box in New York that once surprised the highest-paying guest by asking him to do dishes in the kitchen to the 50,000 people who embark on the annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert to challenge themselves in a radical celebration of self-expression, resourcefulness, and mutual gifting. In our age of standardization, automation, and data-based knowledge, losing control is a scarce asset and can be a true differentiator in customer experiences.
But there are limits to it: Take Uber, the controversial taxi disruptor. People like that they can rate the driver, but they don’t like so much that the driver rates them as well. And what they dislike even more is Uber’s surge pricing that capitalizes on high demand during extraordinary traffic peaks or bad weather. A sudden, one-sided price increase when options are limited is considered unfair, and customers’ sense of not being in control in those moments has certainly not helped Uber’s reputation.
BS: What would be your advice to someone that has fallen from the top of their personal mountain- they had passion, but lost it; experienced romance, but now don't any longer?
TL: In my book, I present ten “rules of enchantment” that give you the tools—as entrepreneurs, employees, or consumers—to find magic in business and fall back in love with your work and your life.
Remind yourself that Business Romance is hard work but entirely in your hands – and it’s worth it. You can start with making small, day-to-day changes. For example on your morning commute try chatting up a stranger on the train to get yourself into the right zone of discomfort for the day. Research has shown that we report higher levels of happiness through “micro-interactions” with strangers. Romance occurs when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we encounter surprises and other moments that disrupt our routines.
Or launch “thick days” at work where a couple of employees lock themselves into a room and flesh out an idea or project without digital distractions. They commit to truly being in the moment and to a dense, intimate, and potentially more vulnerable experience where they can’t hide behind conference call protocol or groupthink.
The Rules of Enchantment are not based on typical business case studies, and they don’t attempt to problem-solve; they won’t provide silver bullets, and productivity is not their only goal. Instead, they will challenge you to seek out new perspectives, to value your own idiosyncratic intuitions and emotions, to embrace conflict and friction, and to celebrate your humanity. They will help you lead a more meaningful life in and with business.
In this spirit, call an ad-hoc “mystery meeting” at work and give an improvised talk. Swap desks, swap roles, even with your boss. It builds empathy and stretches both of you. Visit another team across the hall. Invite a colleague to lunch, ideally one outside of your department. Then have a “Thick Day.”
Start doing the one thing you would be doing if you knew you were only staying at the firm for another six months. Like nothing else mattered. Think about the greatest gift you can give to your organization and its customers—and start giving it.
BS: “Give everything, quantify nothing, and create something greater than yourself.” What do you think of when reading that sentence?
TL: For me, I think of the process of writing this book. It has been a labor of love, nights and weekends, and a side project to my full-time job as CMO of NBBJ, a global architecture and design firm. I’ve poured my heart into this and try not to think too much about the results. It’s so heartening to hear that the message is resonating with people—that’s exciting—and it feels like this book in a small way may help fuel the growing movement to re-think work.
BS: What are some examples of ways you live the teachings in your book?
TL: I try to live all of them. Many of them are based on my own personal and professional experience, so it’s easier for me! I’m not sure I succeed in applying the rules of enchantment every day, but they are my north star and give me orientation at work and beyond. Perhaps the most important one for me is to never get cynical and try to keep your eyes fresh so you can always see the beautiful in the seemingly mundane. George Bernard Shaw once wrote this great line: “Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.
BS: BONUS QUESTION - What’s next for you?
TL: I’m still in the middle of the book launch campaign. The book has come out in the US and UK, and now also in Germany and India. Other countries will follow, and speaking and writing related to the book is going to keep me busy for a while. I’m also planning some events and workshops with the Business Romantic Society, a secret collective of business-romantic changemakers aiming to make a more romantic world a reality – through their respective businesses. We’re exploring how to operationalize the Business Romantic framework and embed it in more organizations. One experiment I would love to do is to compare the decisions of a group that acts solely data intelligence with those of a group that decides solely based on their intuition and their heart. I would be very interested in finding out which group exhibits the better business performance!
BS: Thank you, Tim.