Think some of the world’s most recognizable brands. Rethink them. Begin again. That is what Wolff Olins, the great brand consultancy that you, like many others, have probably never heard of, does for companies like Microsoft, GE, and USA Today.
When surrounded by great minds and immersed in some of their best work, it’s easy to learn valuable things that apply to life at broad. These are five life lessons I’ve learned interning at Wolff Olins.
1. Promise what you know you can and not what you wish you could
It’s tempting to take on more than you actually have room for on your plate. Don’t.
By my first week at the office, I’d already promised everyone that I was going to make stuffed vine leaves for our next lunch. My excessive kindness alerted a head strategist to the new people-pleaser in the room. She examined me with an admiring glance reserved with pity, aware of the outcome of my promise. “You don’t have to stuff vine leaves if you don’t want to,” she said. I really didn’t. I don’t know why I rushed to offer. But what I had to do was work on a bunch of assignments.
I often budged into other interns’ business just to prove I could do it all. Sometimes, I’d even lie about completing work on an assignment to move on to something new. But my desire to impress kept me from focusing on what I was asked to do, and a burning sensation that my own responsibilities weren’t enough left me falling short.
Most of the time, “over-delivering” isn’t about taking on more action. It’s about dedicating attention and care to the task at hand. It’s important to know where to draw the line at what’s “enough” and find satisfaction in that.
2. Keep it simple
Simple is straightforward. It’s easy to read. It’s easy to grasp. That doesn’t mean that simplicity lacks depth or complexity. It just means that you’re presenting the complexity of the subject with coherence and flow.
Diving into detail inspires you to greater realizations, but make sure to surface before sharing what you know with others. You’re hard to hear when you’re still underwater.
3. Choose something you like and think you’re good at, and give it your all
In an intimate conversation with the three strategy interns from my university, a visiting senior executive was gracious enough to share her journey up the ranks in the company and to ask about our own backgrounds as well.
My turn came up, and I told her how I switched majors three times in my first week of college, then once again after “deciding” on one of them. Her response was entirely candid and enlightening. “Does that make you well-rounded or confused?” she asked.
Although her question flustered me at the time, it forced me to reevaluate the way I understood my own choices. I always felt that a skill set in a broad range of fields would set me apart from others. But most of the times, branching out into various areas left me lagging in exhaustion.
Frances Frei, best-selling author and professor at Harvard Business School, says that an “emotional barrier” keeps businesses from excelling in a certain field. This reasoning applies to corporations as much as it does to people.
As long as you feel guilty about giving up an alternative, you can’t give anything the focus needed for success. Surrendering to a single path takes courage in a world where trade-offs are indispensable to success.
4. “Align your personality with your purpose”
In a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Oprah Winfrey offered her two-cents on successful living: “Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you.”
The Wolff Olins approach places the purpose of a brand at the heart of its entire expression from image to impact. Brands that act from a clear purpose are the ones that deliver the strongest impact in real time.
In the same way, we can let our own actions be driven by a clear inner purpose: one that isn’t bound by obligation to a “predetermined” path, but available as steady ground for any action you wish to pursue.
5. The importance of intent
Karl Heiselman, the former CEO of Wolff Olins and Senior Marketing Director at Apple Inc., wrote about the best advice he received as part of LinkedIn’s “Best Advice” series. His story was about a visiting professor at his college who asked the students in class to take a little time off and write what a day in their lives would look like ten years into the future. Karl talked about how this experience helped him redefine his path and evolve in his career.
At the core of its business, a brand consultancy is all about intent. Strategists articulate the purpose and vision of a brand that become guideposts for the “user experience” it delivers.
If you can start with something as simple as an intention, it will inform your actions and set your life on a path that is consistently satisfying at more points along the way.