Lori Hamilton: “People don’t make decisions based on logic”

Real thought leaders are too busy focusing on the goal, the next level of excellence, the next difference they can make for others. They don’t have time to sit around and self-congratulate. You can almost always spot a thought leader by what they do, and what others say about them vs. what they say about […]

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Real thought leaders are too busy focusing on the goal, the next level of excellence, the next difference they can make for others. They don’t have time to sit around and self-congratulate. You can almost always spot a thought leader by what they do, and what others say about them vs. what they say about themselves. That goes for companies too.

Aspart of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lori Hamilton.

Lori Hamilton, Founder and President of Prosperity Productions, has worked as a marketing strategist, researcher, and creative consultant for more than 20 years. She has personally interviewed over 25,000 people from Global CEOs to people living in trailer parks and everything in between.

Having worked across a wide range of categories and industries, her clients include Google, ConAgra, Intuit, Rubbermaid, Deloitte Consulting, CitiBank, MetLife, Accenture, Herman Miller, USG, Russell Athletic, Blue Diamond, Johnson Controls, Microsoft, Garanimals, Carter’s/Oshkosh, United Technologies, The Home Depot, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis.

Her firm has conducted research in 23 countries around the world.

Lori holds a B.A. in Linguistics from UCLA and has won 37 awards for creative and marketing excellence, including five Best of Shows and a Clio. She also uses her Juilliard and other professional theatrical training to create customized workshops.

Lori has taught Insights and Innovation at Columbia University’s Master’s Degree Program in Strategic Communications, NYU Business School, Pace University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Myfather died my freshman year in college, my first phone call home. My mother took all the money, so I’ve been supporting myself since I was 18. The highest paying job I could find was doing research for the UCLA medical center, conducting interviews in Spanish and English in people’s homes in the projects of East LA.

While at UCLA, I majored in Linguistics and studied Shakespeare and Modern British Drama. All these disciplines are about how people behave — not just what they say, but how they behave, and the contrasts between what they say and what they do.

I then moved to New York to attend music school and got a job as a temp at Chase Manhattan Bank where they had free sandwiches. FREE SANDWICHES! Thus, a parallel career in insights and the arts was born.

I started my own firm in and after stints in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia, moved back to New York in 2002. I’ve been lucky enough to personally interview over 25,000 people from every walk of life and my firm has been responsible for generating over 3 billion dollars in incremental revenue for our clients.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I’ve been in the trenches with innovation, uncovering insights for more than 20 years. My work has led to innovation, plus entire teams of people being promoted, for companies such as Deloitte Consulting, ConAgra, Microsoft, USG, Rubbermaid, and Verizon. I have taught Insights and Innovation at Columbia University, NYU, Pace University as well as custom-training programs for many of the top advertising agencies in the world, along with several corporate clients — from non-profits and start-ups to Fortune 500 firms.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My favorite story is when I was working as a strategist for USG. We were trying to figure out how to streamline and leverage their distribution channel. I was asked to go meet with management at a plant in Toledo, OH, so I showed up in my conservative suit and heels. Turns out, I was meeting with the plant manager — a fellow who had been with the company over 20 years. He had more tattoos than he had teeth, took one look at me and carefully selected the most disgusting hardhat for me to wear on our tour. Three hours later, he had shared with me the REAL issues with the distribution system from the point of view of someone who loaded the trucks, and he invited me out for a ride on his motorcycle.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was working in Watts, CA as a researcher for the UCLA Medical center, driving a university car to get to the hospital where we picked up our instructions for the day. As I was driving, a woman was flinging a man down the street like he was an old carpet. Panicked, I pulled over and offered help, “I’m on my way to a hospital!” She sneered back at me, “he’s just drunk.” That’s when I realized I had locked my keys in the car and the engine was still running. Luckily a couple of the locals helped me break into my car and get back on the road.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different from a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader has the ability to see both the big picture and the small picture. It’s not enough to have a vision of the future, you have to be able to see how that vision can come true. It’s the people at the bottom of the organization that will do the heavy lifting.

Second, a thought leader knows that planning for what the market says they want today means you will always be in the past. Because if you create what people want today, by the time you’re done creating it, they will have moved on to something else. Thus, you must uncover insights of what people will need tomorrow that they can’t articulate. If Henry Ford had done focus groups before the Model T, no one would have asked for a car. They would have asked for faster, more reliable horses.

People don’t make decisions based on logic — otherwise, no one would ever smoke. They make decisions based on core emotional needs and the messy truth of everyday life. First, you must see that. Them, you must look past that to see macro trends and influences that haven’t hit the public yet. A good example of this is Chipotle. First, it was an exotic spice, then a fine-dining spice, and now it’s the name of a fast-casual dining chain.

Finally, thought leaders inspire others to take action. There are two ways to do this. Dictating it and motivating others. Both can work, however, the opportunity to motivate others will always win out because when people have what they need to do the job, see the bigger vision and how they fit into it and feel appreciated, they will give their all — their passion, genius and hard work to making that thought-leaders vision come true.

As the great director, Milton Katsela once said, “no one cares about your dreams, they care about how you are bringing your dreams into action.”

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Insights are the clay of innovation. Without great, deep insights, you are just creating new ideas based on the exact same information everyone else has. So that’s the first step.

Second, the way the brain works to create new thinking is by essentially nailing things together that have never been nailed together before. In order to do that, one must have a full supply of things to possibly nail together. That means reading, learning, watching, experiencing lots of things — from the past and from today — so that the thought leader comes to the table with a wealth of ideas and examples to choose from. You might find that a practice that worked in a category outside your own or an example from history offers the perfect springboard for your thought-leadership today.

Finally, get to know the people and the practices of the real world. There’s a reason that every executive on Undercover Boss has a revelation about how to improve their business and their industry. They are seeing how things work (and don’t) in the real world.

Why does it matter? First of all, don’t you want to make a difference in the world? I know I do. Don’t you want to make people’s lives better and improve things? I do. Then go for it. Stretch yourself, learn and grow. Otherwise, you could end up spending your time on the planet doing good work when it could have been groundbreaking amazing work that made the world a better place. It’s not easy, but boy is it fun!!!

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Rethinking what you do. Virgin Airlines realized that they were not in the “get there safe” business, but in the “we have a captive audience, let’s make the time enjoyable business.”

Starbucks decided to become “the third place — home, work, Starbucks.” They never advertised it, they just did it. And now you see the results.

Apple’s original iPod had far inferior technology to Sony’s Walkman, which dominated the audio enthusiast market. Why did it win? Because Apple decided to be in the “having 1000 songs in my pocket” business, instead of being in the “cool stereo equipment I carry around” business.

Breakaway from conventional wisdom. EOS is an amazing example of a David vs. Goliath brand. They took on Chapstick, which had over 90% of the marketplace, by rethinking lip balm and marketing. First, they decided to defy conventional wisdom with a package that was sensual to the touch, but bulky in a pocket (AKA targeting women, but not men). Second, with a tiny budget, they focused on beauty influencers and word of mouth. With a budget of less than 200,000 dollars in the first year, they took on the giant and won!

Dive deeply into the why. We did a big project for ConAgra about popcorn. Did you know that people who buy the most popcorn are families with kids ages 9–15 BUT those kids don’t eat popcorn as an afternoon snack. Why would you guess that is? First, snacks have different jobs — meal replacement, quick energy, something fun to eat. And kids that age are working to define themselves, “I’m a THIS person or a THAT person.” They want snacks that help them feel that they matter as individuals — such as ramen noodles they can cook their OWN way. Popcorn is BORING because each bite is exactly the same, so having it as an afternoon snack makes the kid feel like they are boring and just like everyone else. BUT when you give them a chance to customize it with flavors and toppings, all of a sudden, popcorn becomes fun — a way to give themselves a tiny message of “you matter, and you are special.” Not only did this work massively increase sales, it also got the entire ConAgra snack division team promoted.

See the patterns and follow them. A landscape architect was hired to do landscaping for a college campus. All he did was plant grass. Everyone was up in arms. WHAT? We spent HOW MUCH on this company? Six months later, the landscape architect came back and saw the foot patterns in the grass. He landscaped around that.

We had a similar approach working with USG distribution. USG is the company that literally invented sheetrock. They wrote the book on how to build a building that engineers study. When we worked with them, they had just acquired a distribution partner so there was overlap. How could they make the system more efficient? We learned that in the ecosystem of building construction, segments were already present — like the paths in that foot traffic. Companies don’t build any kind of building, they specialize in schools, hospitals, retail, commercial buildings. By aligning the distribution channel network to support these segments, the company was able to increase sales by 30% and margins by over 20% in the first quarter of implementation.

Go behind the analytics. At one point I was a VP for a major regional bank with super strict credit policy. Only about 30% of people who applied for our credit card were approved. We look at the analytics of who was approved. Turned out it was people who were first-generation college graduates, lower-income, and living outside of suburbs. What can we understand about this group? They were hard-working, mostly blue-collar folks who were using their credit cards as a way to manage cash flow. And most of the time, financial services companies speak in jargon, which makes this audience feel not very smart. So they were people who WERE smart and had great credit ratings but didn’t feel smart.

At the time, the other credit card companies were talking about using their credit cards for big trips and fancy purchases. Instead, we created a campaign to talk about how smart our customers were because the rates were so low. It worked. By breaking through what everyone else was doing to make our customers feel smart, we grew the portfolio from a small regional footprint to become the most profitable credit card portfolio in the United States.

Break through the clutter. There’s a great story of when Lee Iacocca was running Ford. He wanted to get back to making convertibles. All the engineers told him, “no” and bemoaned how long it would take. Furious, Iacocca led the team down to the factory floor, picked up a chain saw and sawed off the top of a car. “There. You have a convertible.” Leaders find ways to make things happen that others don’t.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

1. Learn all you can about subjects that interest you far and wide. Being a thought leader means that you are always fishing from your pond of ideas, and that pond needs to be replenished. Make learning a priority if you want to keep coming up with fresh ideas. You love what you love for a reason. Follow it.

An example of this is a project we did for Johnson Controls. They wanted to figure out how to motivate Facilities Managers at 500 million + dollars companies to invest in energy management. Everyone surveyed said that energy management was a priority, but their action lagged behind their motivation. So, we asked these Facilities Managers, what makes you feel successful, in life? They all told us stories about mechanical things — rebuilding a 57 Chevy, crafting soapbox cars with their kids, etc. Then we asked about their consumption of news and information from the outside world, what do they have to read or learn about each day no matter how busy they are? (meal on the go) What is fun? (dessert) What is NOT fun but necessary? (vegetables). They all said the same thing. The meal on the go is…. Weather. Why? What impacts facilities most? The weather. Their dessert is anything about how things work, from mechanics to biographies. And vegetables were literally every publication our client was advertising in.

Thus, the answer to the question “how do you change the world by getting more large companies to invest in energy management?” is this. Talk about the mechanics of how these systems work and put it in the weather section.

Read books like The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, Quiet by Susan Cain and Why We Buy by Paco Underhill. to better understand human nature and why we do what we do. Also tap into the past of thought-leadership with case studies and books of how others have come before you to create change, biographies, books on positioning and even advertising can be real treasures.

2. Surround yourself mentally with leaders you admire. When I first launched my business, I used examples of great thinking from others as a way to demonstrate what I wanted to do, whose values I aligned with and to demonstrate WHY I liked their thinking. Who you surround yourself with mentally is just as important as the food you eat. Your imaginary and real peers will shape your standards of excellence and remind you of what is possible.

3. Listen to the people doing the real work from every walk of life. Having come up from the bottom, I know first-hand how much knowledge exists in the people whose hands are on the daily activities of life. You can learn as much from a 20-year veteran of a service job as you can from the Aspen Institute. Real leaders get ideas and value people from every walk of life. Brian Grazer, the Academy Award-winning producer of films such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind is a master of this. Having grown up dyslexic, he became a master listener and now regularly engages in what he calls “curiosity conversations” — where he interviews people from police captains to nuclear scientists to rap musicians.

4. Genuinely care about people. I know that seems obvious, but it’s not. Some people who aspire to be thought leaders really just want to do it for the recognition of being seen as a thought leader. That may work for a while, but it won’t last. The people who stick with an idea are ones who genuinely care about people — how to make the world better for them. AND how to make the people around you successful. Go read the book Good to Great by Jim Collins about how leaders to give the credit to others are financially FAR more successful than those who boast about themselves. I also recommend First Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham, it’s a quantitative study of over 50,000 people around the world on what makes a good workplace. It’s only 10 things, and most of it has to do with if employees feel valued, supported and a part of something bigger than themselves.

5. Stick with it, take care of yourself. It’s going to be hard. Any time you make changes or go a new way, people will resist you. That’s why it’s critical to have a good self-care practice — learn as much as you can about how different people think, how you think. Try meditation, exercise, hanging out with friends who are not employees or colleagues. You’ll need that extra cushion of enthusiasm and buoyancy to stay happy, balanced and kind as you lead your team through the new path you’re forging. I have a whole practice of things I do each day to keep myself grounded, and it’s not just for me. In order to be the leader, and the person I want to be on the planet, I must carve out time to give myself the mental, emotional and even spiritual nourishment I need to be my best self as much of the time as I can. Being the adult in the room, the calm one, the one with perspective isn’t just a talent, it’s a practice, it’s a way of life.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

There are so many! Three people come to mind.

  1. Tony Hsieh, Founder and CEO of Zappos. He had a vision of a new way to think about customer service, based on taking care of employees and creating a great work environment. During the last recession, companies like Zappos soared while others declined, in part, because they created a world where people wanted to come to work and contribute. 12 years later, we’re now all talking about the holistic employee culture, etc. Tony was ahead of his time. And, yes, he made it work financially as well as culturally.
  2. Elaine Welteroth, Editor in Chief, Teen Vogue. As a young woman of color, Elaine didn’t see herself represented in magazines. She wanted to change that. And she did, but she took it a step beyond. Elaine has transformed Teen Vogue into a platform for education and activism for young women. Before Greta came along, Elaine recognized that young women wanted to make a difference in the world, and she trusted them to be smart enough and versatile enough to enjoy self-expression through fashion AND activism. Teen Vogue has become a go-to source for news and information, helping the next generation of leaders find their way — and their style!
  3. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Richard Branson but not for the reasons you think. We are entering a new era of benevolent capitalism where people liked Gates, Buffett and Branson are using their wealth and clout to solve global issues. From reducing illness in Africa and supporting Covid research, to making a commitment to leave their wealth to charity vs. family members, to fighting for equal pay and equity in the tax code. One way to figure out what the rest of us will be doing soon is to look at what wealthy people are doing. These gentlemen are leading the way, along with many others in seeing the world as interconnected and doing something about it.
  4. Jose Andreas has turned his for-profit world into a global effort to feed the hungry. 3 million meals have been served and counting. He’s taking distribution channels for food, connecting it with (now unemployed) food service workers and people in need. He’s setting the stage for global leadership in politics and non-profits. He saw a need, saw an opportunity to meet that need and just did it. That is a thought leader.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I think that people get too caught up in jargon. Any phrase used too often becomes meaningless. One problem with the term “thought leader” is that companies and individuals like to say it about themselves. Nope. You don’t get to do that. It’s like saying ‘I want to make a viral video.” You can make a video, but the world will decide if it’s viral. Most thought leaders rarely speak of themselves in this way, others do.

It’s like this. Whatever you are best at, you have almost no awareness of because your brain doesn’t pay attention to things that come easily. Ever met someone who says, “I’m a people person!” No, you’re not. Or you meet someone at a party who tells you “I’m funny!” Again, I beg to differ. On the other hand, you may know a character from a film or TV show better than that character knows themselves because you see their behavior and how that contrasts with their words.

Real thought leaders are too busy focusing on the goal, the next level of excellence, the next difference they can make for others. They don’t have time to sit around and self-congratulate. You can almost always spot a thought leader by what they do, and what others say about them vs. what they say about themselves. That goes for companies too.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be a student of yourself and take responsibility for how you treat people. You know if you’re being kind and thoughtful or if you’re being a jerk. Don’t be a jerk. Figure out what you need to be able to withstand the stresses and blows of being a leader and take responsibility for making sure that you get those things. I’m not suggesting that you become self-indulgent, but really know how to internally stay balanced, calm and passionate yet kind. Meditation, time with nature, playing with kids, getting enough sleep and healthy foods, exercising. Figure out what you need to be your best self to others, and you’ll avoid burnout.

Find things you love outside of work. We all need to waste time on things we love just because we love them. I am super fascinated by how our brains work, why we really do things. I love learning from people who have achieved excellence — from Tim Ferriss who collects such things to the MasterClass series online to the American Masters program on PBS. Find things you love that make you feel inspired and renewed and do them.

Have a sounding board outside of work. I’ve interviewed thousands of C-suite leaders and the biggest challenge that many of them face is not having someone to bounce ideas off of or lean on outside of their work environment. It’s not healthy nor fair to expect your employees to serve that role — the balance of power is too uneven. Find colleagues and friends outside of your immediate work to connect with. Everyone needs a place to let their guard down and seek advice. Even you.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Empathy, curiosity and the desire to see and bring out the best in others. It would be that moment after 9/11 when we all looked at each other in the eye and saw the best in each other. It would be that moment of clarity when you realize that someone you judged is also a good person, doing the best they can.

It would be how we look at delivery people and grocery clerks differently today than we did a month ago.

We are turning our fellow humans into objects — left, right, liberal, conservative– people like THAT are x, y, z (insert terrible judgment). It doesn’t work.

I’ll tell you a story to illustrate my point. I was in Dallas finishing up a set of shop along interviews for Snapper Lawnmowers. It was Saturday afternoon, my last interview, around 3 PM. I wasn’t expected back until Monday.

I arrive at my respondent’s home and there’s a giant flimsy fence with huge barking dogs nearly knocking it over. The man’s home has weeds 3 feet high, not kidding. I go up to knock on the door. No answer. I call the recruiters and wait. They call back and say, “he was taking a nap.” OK.

I entered his home. There’s nothing on the walls. A five-foot pile of laundry sits in the hallway. The kitchen is littered with pizza boxes and cans. His lawnmower has a giant rusted out hole in the bottom. And now, I’m set to go shopping for lawn mowers with him. In his car, by myself. No one will know if I’m missing until Monday.

Turns out, the reason he was taking a nap is because he works as a parole officer, and in his free time he counsels at-risk youth. That day, he’d had a client who was suicidal, and he had asked his administrator for extra help for this kid but was denied. He was so upset by this that he decided to lay down for a bit so that he could be present with me to shop for lawnmowers.

He’s a member of 500 Black Men of Dallas, has toured with Stedman Graham and was once denied an extra towel in a 5 Star hotel in Germany because he’s black. In short, I was lawnmower shopping with a man who was practically a saint.

I’ve interviewed over 25,000 people, and I am here to tell you that you don’t know how good people are until you spend that much time with that many of them. Sure, we all have our flaws, but what we have in common, our need to be loved, to matter and to make a difference is something we all share. And isn’t that what a thought leader does? Find ways to make the world a better place by tapping into what we all share but can’t see?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Look to the near star.”

Ever met someone with a great intuition for everyone but themselves? That was me for a long time. This quote is something I learned about from many places. It’s something I wrote in a play I’m doing next year for the Edinburgh Festival about my life and search for meaning. So often, we look to others, to the North Star of what society or someone else expects from us instead of tapping into our own wisdom, that voice inside that knows. It took me a long time to learn that.

The near star is that thing you love, that thing that lights you up for no reason at all. If you follow that, you’ll find your way. Every great thought leader I know does that.

I have many, many life quotes from others that have been helpful.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Steven Covey

“Anger is your friend, it’s not a very nice friend, but it’s a very loyal one.” Julia Cameron

Another favorite for thought leaders is

“All truths are easy to understand once we discover them. The point is to discover them.” Galileo

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Brian Grazer because we share a love of people and an insatiable curiosity to learn about them and tell their stories.

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