Decoded: 5 Business Leadership Lessons from Jay-Z

While on vacation recently, I thought I’d do some light reading by the pool… break away from work and business books and read some fun pop culture stuff. So I Kindled Jay-Z’s book, “Decoded.” I was expecting to learn about the stories behind his lyrics, his life, and some of the causes he’s been involved in. I didn’t expect the innovative writing, video integration, and graphic style of the book. I love “Decoded,” which turns out to have a lot of relevance to business. There’s no doubt that Jay-Z is a smart businessperson — he’s come a long way and been extremely successful, so I shouldn’t be surprised. So here are 5 great business leadership lessons from Jay-Z:

When You’re the New Kid, Listen and Learn Before You Try to Change Things

Jay-Z tells a story about sitting in on Jaz‘s recording sessions and being a “sponge”:

I never gave my opinion about how his business was being run. I was new and I didn’t necessarily know how things worked in the music business.

Often, leaders come into a business and immediately give advice, make changes and stir things up. This is not all bad, but it’s important, as Steven Covey says, to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you do so, the changes you make will stick and be embraced much more effectively.

Help Employees Realize Dreams, Not Promotions

Jay-Z talks about how it took him a long time to realize how much courage it took for kids to work at McDonald’s instead of getting involved in the drug trade. His understanding of why hustlers on the street, as they work to achieve prestige and a dream lifestyle, ignore the stories of peers being shot, killed and put in wheelchairs is insightful:

There’s no dream in fast food. Manager? That’s a promotion, not a dream.

How can businesses help employees connect with their purpose, be excited about possibilities, and realize a lifestyle more aligned to what they want? I’ve worked in restaurants. I know the hours and hard work that goes into managing food service. I also think there are innovative ways to offer better balance, inexpensive perks, and make the manager lifestyle something for young people to look forward to.

Live Your Brand

Jay-Z talks about Russell Simmons, the CEO of Def Jam, and how Simmons represented “winning” to Jay-Z. He connected with the people who were his customers and potential artists. Simmons knew where they were coming from and lived the life that they wanted. He involved the people living the hip-hop culture in the success. Simmons helped Jay-Z realize that being a CEO might even be better than being a rap artist.

Russell was an evangelist for hip-hop. He knew the culture’s power and was never shy about leveraging it and making sure that it was the people who were creating the culture who got rich off of it.

By living the Def Jam brand, Simmons created connection with his target audience and created a powerful brand in American entertainment. Whether you have your own business or work for a corporation, if your values and lifestyle aren’t aligned with that of the company, true success will be elusive.

Be Authentic

Jay-Z recounts the story of meeting  ?uestlove, a new artist. Jay-Z told ?uestlove not to “try to give me a hot radio single.” This may sound like odd advice, but Jay-Z really hit on being authentic. He explains:

You can’t face whatever the current trend is if it’s not you, because it might work for a second, but it’s a house of sand.

I’ve worked with companies that re-branded because they saw the success new competitors were having with a different look and feel. But the changes caused an identity crisis with employees and customers. One company spent a lot of resources and a year’s worth of time re-branding back. It’s important to know who you are and what you stand for, and be true to that core.

Tell a Story with your Brand

I like what Jay-Z says about giving definition to brands:

We gave those brands a narrative, which is one of the reasons anyone buys anything: to own not just a product, but to become part of a story.

Jay Z describes how, before hip-hop, Cristal was a premium brand primarily known only to connoisseurs. He rapped about it, drank it in clubs, and created a different story about Cristal, which became a portal into a new world. Cristal became widely known as young fans of Jay-Z followed suit, drinking it themselves.

I’ve still got a couple of chapters of Jay Z’s book to go… and then I’ll have to read something truly light and non-business related! Any suggestions?

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