Leadership 101: Be the Unicorn Frappe

I’ve made it clear before in interviews, keynotes and even blog posts. I’m a Starbucks fan. For reasons I can’t intelligently describe, I drive thru my local Starbucks on the way to work Monday through Friday, right off MLK Boulevard, almost like clockwork and order one of three eerily similar varieties of basically the same drink. I can’t quit it. I’ve tried. I went through a McDonald’s coffee kick in Connecticut which was semi-successful but didn’t quite take. I just recently bought a Keurig for the office in an attempt to refocus my coffee rut. And yet, here I sit, in Fayetteville, Arkansas with a grande Americana in-hand. Is it because the Starbucks window people occasionally tell me my face is filled with happy? Is it because randomly the car in front of me covers my cost of coffee? Is it because they don’t side-eye my requests for sugar-free syrup and heavy whipping cream? I can tell you what it’s likely not. I’m not certain that Starbucks has the best coffee in the world or even the best coffee on my drive to work. My weekday visits have a whole lot of nothin’ to do with the coffee, that I am certain of. Hmm… Perhaps it’s in the delivery.

Never underestimate the substance or the method of delivery. If it’s successful, odds are the path was designed to be visibly intentionally unintentional.

Starbucks. McDonald’s. Local college town absolute favorite Arsaga’s. Spoiler alert: to the non-expert palette, the coffee therein is all the same thing. But when something like the Unicorn Frappe happens, it’s noticed. And frankly, it’s important to notice because its success can easily translate to things that actually matter in business, in leadership, and in continuous improvement.

Be the Unicorn Frappe

  1. First and foremost, make it freakin’ awesome! Whether you’re leading a discussion on Box.com, initiating a student employment program or rolling out a new online self-paced training solution to the office, make sure you’ve done your research and can paint this offering as new, different, unique and absolutely beneficial to all that cross its path. Because in this day and age, why pursue anything less? You have the innards to make just about any solution palpably exciting. Identify gaps and needs, locate solutions and drive to success with a fervor that demands increased adoption and usage.
  2. When they expect sweet, surprise them with sour too. I mean, a frothy blended unicorn shake? Would anyone in this atmosphere expect the flavor to be anything other than magical  cotton-candy-level sweet? It starts out that way with a ribbon of candy but then – pow! – it’s sour. And not just sour, but sour with rainbow-colored sour sprinkles! Boom! I have a seven year old daughter. Even I had no previous knowledge of sour sprinkles. It’s like next-level business. Think of this from a leadership perspective. As a technology leader in 2017 everyone expects you to be able to understand the inner-workings of technology, wrap analysis in layman’s terms to present a plan for improvement moving forward and develop solid working relationships with peers, right? Basic expectation. But to effectively implement change across wildly disparate environments? To change the level of engagement with traditionally non-tech-interested executives? To help develop a path to make them care? And then, as a technical leader, to finesse communications at all levels to impact change with a grassroots-feel? We expect basics-plus, but technology leadership with basics-plus and a sprinkling of innovative landscape transformation? Sure rainbow sprinkles make sense in a unicorn frappe, but sour rainbow sprinkles? Visibly assumed, markedly unexpected and different. The level of detail impressive. The execution? Flawless. Find your business rainbow sour sprinkles. Stat.
  3. Limited time only! Realistically let’s face it, the pieces-parts of the Unicorn Frappe are 98% the same ol’ Starbucks ingredients simply re-packaged and re-marketed. But can’t that be said for just about everything in 2017? Even 2007’s iPhone introduction was a cleaner version of countless already-introduced applications. They key seems to be sleeker, better, faster, stronger and – should it somehow be flashier (think unicorns) even better! High-profile fail forward initiatives, spin-up apps used in marketing, seemingly new campaigns with twice the punch of the last campaign? Yes please. A sense of urgency is almost always a great thing in change management and drives users to act.
  4. Success Often Equals Hate Campaigns. All press is good press, right? Pretty swiftly after the frappe craze came the Facebook memes tying anyone who experienced the brightly-colored beverage to a direct path on Wilford Brimley’s diabeetus-express. What kind of world do we live in where everything new and fun needs to make sense? My kids had a unicorn frappe on the very day of the much-hyped introduction. They’ve not had one since and likely won’t again. But it was fun and colorful and now, due to the sugar-shaming, I should be embarrassed of the indulgence, right? Nope. My advice in this area – ‘keep on keepin’ on’. Yes it’s critically important that your steps and your progress be bolstered by effective, collaborative communication and input. If you find yourself never learning new things or new outlooks from others’, you might need to own that you are not open to being a learner or learning new things. Or maybe it’s just me. I am typically pretty clear from my own mouth what I don’t know. I’m also pretty clear that what I don’t know, I want to learn. I also know that, as CIOs, we are uniquely positioned to be able to introduce technically-based unicorn frappes – fail fast, fail forward, one-off apps, inexpensive softwares, freebies that come with larger expenses, and more. Always remember, for every individual annoyed by beacon technology, there are hundreds more that appreciate their presence for the deeper connection to business/campus and the benefits mobile approachability provides. #l8rh8rs
  5. You’d think college students but – the kids! Maybe it’s my personal purview as an elementary-school-aged-children mom, but I thought I’d see a lot more young adults up here on the U of A campus chugging rainbow frappes but what do my eyes tell me – it’s the children! Starbucks has pretty handily uncovered a new customer base to the tune of ‘sold out everywhere’. As a business leader, is there anything more successful, challenging or dareisay fun than unearthing a new target to serve? I am still reeling from a similar feel I have as it pertains to research. I started my career in business, corporate. I accidentally fell into higher education via a need to relocate quickly and a job opportunity at a local community college. Then recruited to be the first CIO at a northeast university. Now I’m home. At my undergrad alma-matter but this time, an R1 institution. New to me. And I am not only fascinated but determined to master this new-to-me base I’ve never encountered before. Uncovering new areas and avenues to learn is my driver. I’ve identified it’s not necessarily technology or higher ed, but the total package of a constantly evolving environment. In business, seek out your own next product evangelist.
So here we are. A week or so past the introduction of the new craze. Technology leadership today has a similar capacity and drive to pivot. Had I stayed on the east coast, I would have been groomed in a direction of operations. COO was my next-level path. Now I’m immersed in everything new that comes with this new-to-me environment. Technology changes at a lighting pace. It makes sense that technology leadership is also able to stand out in any environment, skip between industries and execute transformational, deliberate change regardless of business. In order to be effective in that capacity, it’s not nuts to think we need to not only respect the ‘new things’ but actually be the Unicorn Frappes – unexpectedly impactful with a few surprises that make sense and routine-but-never-boring punches of new direction that appeal to audiences spanning the boardroom, the youth and literally everything in between. Mythical? These days? Not hardly. These leaders are out there. But first you have to know what you’re looking for.

In closing, innovation, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is:

The introduction of something new. Is this inferring new as in brand-spanking-new? Maybe. Can this also apply to introducing something in a new way? Absolutely. And if we want to be innovative, which we do, from the University of Arkansas R1 institution to arguably the world’s largest business Walmart and everything in between – standing out, standing up and surprising our ‘customers’ in a great way, time and time again, is a path to success that we should all take seriously. Rainbow mane and all.

 

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