Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder

In the framework of leadership and influence, the people around you get to decide—your direct reports, your team, the people you lead your boss, your colleagues. These people are your audience. They get to decide if you’re authentic. You do not.

— Kimberly Davis, Brave Leadership

Anyone who has sat in an MBA program, helped market products or services, or filled out the form for an online dating app understands the phrase “value proposition.” A value proposition expresses the results an organization (or individual) intends to provide its customers through its efforts. “Customer” can be defined in at least three ways:

  • The “customer” is often the end-user. Delta Airlines, for example, currently markets the high level of service it intends to provide its passengers through the entire flying experience – from ticket purchase to touch-down.
  • The “customer” can also be shareholders. I once worked for a corporation that spoke of providing annual “double-digit growth” – hardly something our end users would get all giddy about, but the board of directors and market analysts loved it.
  • And the value proposition can be directed to the internal customers – the employees. Such was the case with Alcoa Aluminum. In 1987 when Paul O’Neill took over the struggling company as CEO, he stood before a large group of Wall Street investors and shared how he was going to engineer a turn-around — in short, what he believed the company’s real value proposition needed to be. He didn’t talk about revenue and expenses and debt ratios and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization. He didn’t talk about stronger foil for the kitchen or airplane airframes.

Instead, he leaned into the microphone and said: “worker safety.”

Alcoa’s factories could be very dangerous places to work, and its poor safety record reflected that fact. So O’Neill mused that if you honestly make the factories safer places to work, workers will feel better about the company, and they will contribute ideas and efforts to improve performance. And ultimately, the company will deliver expected financial results.

And all that came to be true. During O’Neill’s two-decade tenure, Alcoa delivered exceptional financial results, often exceeding targets.

What’s important about O’Neill’s story is his firm understanding that real value is in the eyes of the “customer” – in his case, the workers. A proposition is just a proposition. You don’t realize the value just because you say it. You have to deliver it, and that’s how you’ll be judged.

And that discussion leads us to this week’s podcast guest, Grant Lichtman. Grant is an educator, school reform evangelist, and author of three books about education change. In his latest book, Thrive – How Schools Will Win the Education Revolution, Grant argues that if schools are to change how they have traditionally operated, they must firmly grasp at least three foundational elements:

  1. They must have a “North Star” – a vision of where they want to go and how they want to behave as a system on behalf of their kids.
  2. They must have a disciplined mentality – the willingness to say “Yes!” to changes that support their North Star and “No!” to those changes that don’t. And finally,
  3. They must have a value proposition, which Grant defines as the difference between what they say they are going to deliver and what they actually deliver as determined by their students, parents, the local board of education, and the community. Harkening back to Kimberly’s point above, school personnel don’t get to assign value, their “customers” do.

If you made it this far, thank you! And if you’re intrigued enough to listen to the podcast episode, thank you again. We believe this episode – like all of our episodes – has real value, but we know you ultimately decide whether it does or not.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Kimberly, thanks for reading and adding insight. The interesting thing about working with US education is how many don’t have a real vision of where they want to end up relative to their kids. They have lofty vision/mission bullet points, but they read as blah blah, and they’re interchangeable with what other schools have posted down the road. Most schools don’t think in terms of a value proposition either. They focus instead on the day-to-day routine instead of a bigger picture.

    But schools are changing, that’s the good news, and there are some amazing leaders that we’ve tried to showcase who “get it.” See for example:

    Thanks so much for being an exemplary engager!

  2. I really enjoyed this, Jeff. I think one of the things that is broken in our system is that the reward-structure really messes with things. Focusing on shareholders as the primary audience, while it certainly can drive prosperity for some, it can come at a huge cost to employees and even customers. Employee engagement/employee experience, the quality of the customer experience, the quality of the products and services are all at risk when our sole focus is on increasing shareholder value. Wealth inequity also becomes a huge problem. Fortunately schools that are not for-profit, can aspire to a different standard and recognizing who their true “audience” is, is the first step toward meaningful change. Looking forward to listening to this conversation!