The Patchwork quilt- or "How to build Culture, piece by piece"

When I was 16 years old, my older sister left home for university and a free room opened up in our house. As the days until her move closed in I started dreaming up plans for what I was going to do with this new space: bean bag chairs and video games topped the list of possibilities.

After my sisters teary departure (don’t let the door hit you on the way out) a truly shocking thing happened: my Mother had been thinking the same thing as me, only her idea involved a quilting table, chairs, and several old ladies making a patchwork quilt.

Seeing as my pay cheques went towards music CD’s and clothes – and Mom’s went towards the mortgage – you can guess who won out.

Once the shock wore off, I got into the habit of poking my head into the room to see the progress being made on the quilt. It amazed me to see how so many tiny pieces of material (that could easily have been mistaken for bike cleaning rags) were suddenly coming together to make a rich tapestry. What astonished me even more was that this process of joining small swatches of cloth had a sometimes logical pattern to it, but often it was completely illogical. And even more powerful was witnessing the passion shared by the women doing the quilting, the stories behind each piece of fabric, and the pride they took in their work, making me wonder if they actually wanted to finish their task at hand.

Having worked in businesses where the brands often seem bigger than themselves, I am always astonished at how much impact the little things can have on the big picture, influencing the external reputation of what you are producing beyond anything a marketing department could produce in a brief. Like that group of women sitting around the quilting table with their individual skills, stories, and experiences, the things your staff bring to the table and share when they come to work make up the diverse tapestry that is your brand.

It might not happen at a quilting bee but, keep these things in mind when you go through your next brand audit:

The little bits make up the whole story:
Defining your brand isn’t always black or white, yes or no, on or off. If you want your brand to be authentic, you need to infiltrate on many levels. Like Roger Martin’s Opposable Mind illustrates, we need to work our brains like our thumbs: in every way possible to find the best outcome. Management often tries to refine problems and solutions to a point that makes them easy to replicate, and in doing so ends up overlooking all the little things that can contribute so much.

If only one of those old ladies had been in charge of bringing the fabric swatches to quilt with, there would undoubtedly be a few less colours and patterns involved!

When your staff come to you with an idea you don’t have time for, encourage them to own these bits of the whole. Your customers connect with you through so many ways these days – embrace the multitude of technologies, methods and ideas your staff bring to the table and enable them to be a part of the brand themselves.

It doesn’t always have to make sense:
When those old ladies showed up with their bags of random swatches, it was hard to envision that they could  make something interesting from scraps of fabric. But they did. They followed a basic outline but used their creativity to fill in the blanks. The same goes with your brand, make some parameters, but surrender a little… explain to your staff the image you want your business to exude and then let them run with it. You’ll reach new markets, new levels of engagement, and connect with a variety of people and ideals.

For the life of me, I just don’t get Twitter, but my staff love it, so you know what: let’er rip, you’re the Twitter-master… just show me how it converts to sales and you can Tweet until the cows come home.

You’ll not only keep them engaged, but find your brand snowballing in ways you can’t possibly develop sitting around a boardroom table.

Shared passion is more powerful than any skill set:
Your staff decided to work for you for a reason, probably a passion for your culture, product or environment. Make sure you find out what drew them to you in the first place and stoke that fire. When my Mother invited the group of women to help her quilt, it was out of a desire to be part of making a quilt that would eventually become part of my sister’s wedding dowry. I’m sure some of them didn’t know needle from thread, but their pride in being part of hand-making something from love for my sister usurped their skills. This is what makes something genuine, whether it’s a quilt or a brand. Don’t lose sight of what motivates your people, and show your staff you have a passion for the business beyond profits: have fun, jump in and help in the trenches when things are tough or your leadership could have an impact. Your passion is infectious.

A powerful logo, vision statements, missions and marketing plans are important in building your brand, but if you fail to communicate them to your staff and involve them in ownership, you’ll never reach that level of authenticity that distinguishes a good brand from a great one. I remember once the quilt was finished, the rack put away, and the ladies long gone, feeling like there was an empty room in the house now, not somewhere for my bean bag chairs and video games to go. In a culture where people define themselves so often by the products and services they touch daily, your brand needs to find ways to be a part of their life, and the only way you will do that is by entrusting your people to be a piece of your brands story.

(note from Christine McLeod) This was a guest post from Brian Naylor- one of those incredible people you feel lucky to know. Brian and I worked together at Whistler Blackcomb 14 years ago. I always admired his philosophy of leading a team. Much of what he talks about in this post is how he led as a manager of Showcase Snowboards, at the time one of the coolest retail snowboard shops around! Brian has been living Down Under in Australia for several years but it still seems in his heart his passion for People and Branding has not waned a bit.