The Importance of Authenticity

Last week I had an interesting experience.  I read an opinion piece in Bloomberg that struck a particular chord. The writer took a surprisingly altruistic viewpoint based upon his economic position and stature, and I was very much taken by this – at least more than I usually am by opinion pieces in Bloomberg (read my earlier posts on my feelings on financial punditry).  The writer provided his email address at the bottom of the post.

Knowing myself how a posting of an email address online results in an expediential increase in Viagra, Nigerian Prince and similar emails, I was even more impressed.  So, I wrote a short email, expressing my support for the writer’s position and his willingness to be publicly accountable for a viewpoint on a highly politicized issue.  In a fit of intellectual solidarity (up the policy wonks!), I hit the send button and turned off my computer for the night.

After a restful sleep worrying about the Euro, I went to my email over my morning coffee.  In my inbox was a response from my new friend.  I was pleased to receive it – who knew what other insights he would offer?  What witty response I would receive from my email?  I put off reading about Newt Gingrich’s latest attempt at redefining my reality and opened the email.  And, saw the following (paraphrased slightly):

“Thanks for your email.  I am happy that you read my piece in Bloomberg.  If you liked what I wrote you can buy my book “Everyone is a jerk but me.”   Here’s the link to buy the book on Amazon.  [And, by the way, this email is so obviously generated by an automatic response you shouldn’t expect that I ever read your email to me at all.]

Somehow I felt duped and deflated.  Was I expecting to start a new and wonderful relationship?  No, not really.  But, I was expecting something different from  what I got.  I had read an opinion piece that struck me as being written by someone who was principled.  On reflection, it was clearly a form of advertising for a book.  Was it wrong for me to feel disappointed?

Last night I was watching Avatar on my iPad.  Yes, I really do know how to party.  But, I found myself enjoying the movie not because of the plot (Smurfs meet Dances with Wolves), but because of the technical brilliance of the movie.  The completeness of the vision – its verisimilitude – runs through everything: how the animals and plants interact in a logical ecosystem, the motions of the leaves, the luminescence of the forest floor – even the reflectivity of the characters’ pupils.  Unbelievable attention to detail.

And, then I thought about my iPad and had a similar reaction.

This brought me, as things often do, to thinking about my daily life, and working with entrepreneurs.  Both Avatar and Apple reflect the “mad genius” of an individual. Much has been written about Steve Job’s particular genius.  James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, has similar characteristics.  He is driven, difficult, willing to take large financial risks, and has a clear and compelling vision for how he wants to apply technology.  Many of the technologies that Cameron has used to create his movies, he literally had to invent.

In both cases Jobs and Cameron crafted products and things that people wanted to own and experience.  Their products resonated with their customers in a special way and established a deep connection.  It has been documented (no kidding) that certain watchers of Avatar in the theaters were depressed after leaving the movie because they wished that they could visit Pandora.  That level of connection for a movie is quite extraordinary.  It’s almost like being willing to wait in line for a new phone….

It has been suggested that Cameron’s and Jobs’ success resulted merely from knowing what their customers wanted.  I think it is something deeper than that – they showed their customers that they respect them and valued them by what and how they delivered their product.  They were real.  They were consistent.  They were authentic.

Years ago I worked for a Japanese securities house as an economist.  My mentor, Mr. Nakamae shared with me a very important lesson – the way to progress as a business person is to show your customer that you respect them.  Respect meant doing for your customer not just what you thought they needed you to do, but to go above and beyond: to be consistent in your dealings, to be solicitous and to create in them a belief that you were doing for them – not for yourself.    I will admit that at 23 years old some of the subtlety of this advice was lost on me – as was why anyone would eat fried seaweed with chopsticks.

However, as I have gone along and seen successful people, I have learned that in his subtle way Mr. Nakamae was providing me with a very important life lesson.  People can sense when you act in their best interests, and they can tell when you are scamming them.  They crave authenticity, and look for it in all of their commercial relationships.  And, perhaps, as an aside, we look for it in our business and political leaders as well.  Could that be why people are so negative on leaders these days?  Are they craving authenticity?

As you consider your business model, your customer interactions, how you manage employees and how you manage yourself, make no mistake – we all leave footprints in the sand.  The more authentic you are – the more likely you are to be rewarded in commerce.  I know this may seem somehow sophomoric or obvious – why would anyone eat seaweed with chopsticks anyway – but if you take time to think about this in your own experience it will probably resonate with you too.  And, with your customers.