CEO and Co-Founder of BlitzLake Partners.
Optics means “the scientific study of sight” or “the behavior of light,” yet it is more commonly used to express the opposite: flagging deception and dishonesty. Optics most often generates victims, not heroes. And that is precisely why we care. Its potential damages impact us personally and professionally. From the moment we wake and start making choices for the day, optics guide every decision. Why? Because whether we want to admit it or not, how others perceive us and our reputation absolutely matters, and this is most true in business.
Staying Ahead Of Your Changing Brand Perception
With meticulous planning and a focus on company values, optics should never be something that happens to us, yet it commonly does — usually very quickly and without warning. It is critical that optics are managed to showcase your integrity, hard work, successes and progress. Funny though, when it is, that is generally referred to as “skillful public relations” or “marketing.”
One bad action from an owner or employee can quickly go viral and put the integrity of the business in question. We, as business leaders, really cannot afford to take a page out of a politician’s playbook and say what people want to hear. We must value integrity, treat customers and employees with respect and empower people to do the right thing.
Business leaders are responsible for fostering the right culture and climate. If, or when, an incident happens, it’s our role to swiftly address the matter while trying to prevent it from reoccurring. We must remain authentic as we make the right decision (as we know it), owning up to mistakes and using the experience as a teaching moment for team members. Failure is certain for those who are not transparent, operationally and fiscally. Consumers have way too many choices, and good help is hard to find — even harder if you’re forcing them into a charade.
Optics in Service-Related Industries
My business experience is a mix of industries: real estate development, hospitality, fitness and other market-driven investments. Although half of my work falls within the service-related industry, those enterprises consume the majority of my time.
In real estate, the optics are often based on the product itself. The optics are easier to control. Is the building well built? Does it have the amenities I want? Is it close to public transportation? We build the product to meet consumer expectations and design direct marketing to generate interest. In fitness, the optics are less controllable since it’s based on people. A client might ask: How will this trainer help me achieve my goals? Is he or she knowledgeable enough? Did my trainer make me feel empowered and motivate me?
Operationally, how I manage situations in both industries from banking to human resources to vendor negotiations remains the same. Will my actions yield my goal and are they driven by integrity? It seems like a simple enough formula.
In service industries, optics may seem unmanageable at times. The variables and critics can seem limitless with customers, employees, social media and mainstream media. How will my decision or an issue be perceived? However, if you’re more concerned about the perception of a decision or act than its substance, that can fuel more issues.
Managing The Optics Of Human Element
Even with products, a [false] narrative can be created about the people behind the product — either about the intent or goal. Was this product created to make the world a better place? Or to maximize profits? A well-intentioned product can quickly develop negative optics if you don’t try to control the message. Your narrative can quickly and easily get hijacked if you’re not paying attention.
For instance, my company has rezoned and built three mixed-use commercial and residential buildings in Lakeview, Chicago over the past eight years. For developers, the narrative can quickly turn into gentrifying the neighborhood and driving housing prices up. But we seek to increase the city’s tax base, create jobs and provide affordable units designed with sustainability. As one of our efforts to control the narrative, we worked collaboratively with elected officials and their communities. That collaboration went as far as passing on lucrative tenants who were not good for the area and maintaining flexibility on design and building materials.
A Narrative Of Integrity, Good People And Hard Work
The act of managing optics to ensure a positive outcome may appear contrived, insincere or even meddling with what we know to be true. But as the great Muhammad Ali said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” If your company foundation is solid due to adherence to ethical standards and hard work, there’s no better reality (or even choice) based upon my experience.
At times, it can also appear to be the road less traveled because of the dominance of social media — only the very brave have the courage to look that beast in the eye. With our use of social media for basically everything from marketing and advertising to basic communication with customers and the public, we have created a goliath. And like any technological advance, there are always unintended consequences that accompany those good intentions.
Social media now serves as real-time communication that can take on a mob mentality, sometimes out of anonymity, making it a difficult animal to harness. We pain over the optics of our decisions, considering every angle in an attempt to ensure the most positive outcome. The litmus test is the degree of truth behind our words and actions.
Unfortunately, the public is not held to our same standard. Our obligation to our customers, employees and communities must remain front-of-mind. Optics, then, will not rule our words and actions but become a positive by-product and reward for when we choose the right path for all.