Prestige: The Leader’s Responsibility

Recently it was the tenth anniversary of sports marketing guru  Mark McCormack’s death.

I read his fantastic books on business and leadership avidly when I was younger. He was a big influence on me.

Lately I have been thinking about his stories about Rolex, the watch company he did a lot of business with.

On one occasion he was dining with Andre Heiniger, the then chairman of Rolex, when a friend of Heiniger’s stopped by  the table to say hello.

“How’s the watch business?” the friend asked.

“I have  no idea,” Heiniger replied.

His friend laughed. Here was the head of the world’s most prestigious watchmaker saying that he didn’t know what was going on in his own industry.

But Heiniger was deadly serious. “Rolex is not in the watch business,” he continued. “We are in the luxury business.”

It’s interesting that Heiniger didn’t regard his company as being in the watch business because then his target market would be anybody who wanted to know what time it is.

This would mean that Rolex watches would make watches for everyone. Which they decidedly don’t!

Another story about Heiniger and Rolex was when McCormack was trying to sell them on the sponsoring of Wimbledon.

Heiniger was resistant to the idea because he saw it as mass market.

The legend is that McCormack took Heiniger to the Royal Box to let him drink in the Wimbledon atmosphere.

In McCormack’s words: “As we sat in the Royal Box, sipping tea and watching the match-in-progress, I could see him taking everything in: The antiquated elegance of the Centre Court stadium, the excitement of the match, the beauty and charm of this very special place.

When the match was over, Heiniger turned to me and made a slow, sweeping gesture with his hand ‘This’, he said, ‘is Rolex’.”

These stories powerfully evoke the prestige of the Rolex brand but they also highlight a vital truth for all of us, which is the need to clearly identify what market we are in – or want to be in – and the need to be consistently congruent with that.

Sometimes this sense of who and what we really are as individuals and organisations is not as clear or defined as it should be to begin with and other times it is lost in the maelstrom of life and activity.

It is vital for leaders to maintain an organisation’s prestige and reputation, ensuring that everything connected with the organisation reflects this.

Even businesses perceived to be geared towards “low-end” markets can jack up the prestige factor by being the best in those markets.

All told, customers will go for the most prestigious brand they can afford.

Thinking about the “This is Rolex” statement by Andre Heiniger in relation to Wimbledon, the question is not “What is my organisation?” No, the real question should be “What do I want to say is my organisation?”

Prestige begins in the mind of the leader.

The story is told that when a certain football manager went to a struggling second division team he started by telling everyone that it was the greatest club and team in the world. And he kept on saying it till others caught the vision and responded accordingly.

Did it work?

The manager was Bill Shankly and the team was Liverpool.

A modern-day equivalent is Jose Mourinho who calls himself “The Special One” but crucially his great skill is making those around him believe they are special also.

Of course, image is a big part of it all but the real substance begins in the heart and mind of the leader.

Prestige is the thing that money can’t buy and is the elusive  factor that separates the great from the decent.

Accepting mediocrity is toxic to prestige and renown.

It is a spiritual principle in life that, as the Book of Proverbs says:

A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

This is where leaders come in. Prestige is what leaders do.

The job of any leader is to set and maintain standards that builld and enhance the organisation’s prestige.

It is as simple and as enormous a responsibility as that.