Is Relevance the Answer to Commoditization?

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Tom Hayes
Tom Hayes



commodity-relevanceWe believe that there is a yellow brick road out of the fungible forest — a way to elude the crush of mediocrity. As two Midwestern guys working in marketing and sales, we’ve grappled with remaining relevant in a world pressured by commoditization. It is our job to fight the forces of commoditization and irrelevance and to help our clients matter more to their customers. We need methods to distinguish ourselves, and our clients, from the masses.

So, is relevance a concept for business success or personal growth?

Yes. We don’t experience our professional and personal lives as separate worlds; for us, they are intertwined and holistic. The principles of relevance apply whether we are having a conversation with a life partner or a business partner. In both cases, being interested in discovering unmet needs is going to help us to matter more. Today’s world is not compartmentalized, and the principles of relevance can help us in “the business of life.”

We have identified four key dynamics of relevance that can be applied to the life of a person, an organization, or a product.


Relevance begins with the journey inward to understand the individual authentic self. The maxim “know thyself” is a timeless aphorism; understanding our strengths and our weaknesses with clarity is as vital to a meaningful life today as it was in the time of the Greek sages.

The process of revealing the authentic self can be likened to the task by which the sculptor reveals the sculpture within the stone. Think of the Michelangelo masterpiece "David." The colossal marble block from the quarries of Carrara languished for 25 years before Michelangelo was awarded the commission to carve what has become one of the most recognized works of sculpture. When asked how he made his statues, Michelangelo is reported to have explained that he had only to hew away the rough stone that imprisoned the David within.

Admittedly, chipping away what is extraneous to our true self is not quite so easy as Michelangelo makes it sound. Laurels are difficult to relinquish, even when they do not reflect our true self and deepest principles. We are vulnerable to the seduction of popular recognition, advanced degrees, and job titles guaranteed to impress. The dazzle of accumulated information makes us sound worldly and accomplished, even as it may mask the work of art within. Perhaps, we tell ourselves, earning one more degree, serving on one more board, or adding one more fascinating factoid to our collection of information will make us feel impressive enough, prestigious enough, relevant enough.

But we cannot defeat the forces of commoditization — or live a relevant life — in an assumed identity. It is tempting, but dangerous, to embrace an inaccurate sense of our own importance. Our real selves are waiting for us. It is only by accepting and embracing the real self that we first begin to have an identity of our own. The journey to the real self requires a form of soulful minimalism with a simple litmus test: Have we become the person our childhood self would revere?

In order to come to wisdom, we need to concentrate less on what we know and have and more on who we are. It is when we chisel away the distractions and compulsive trappings that we come face to face with our authentic self. The key to being authentic is to know ourselves and understand our natural skills, and to map that unique inner self to our outer self. Are the gifts that are within us being translated to the gifts that we are bringing to others? Like our DNA, our unique self can create a unique relevance that is the ultimate vaccine against becoming a commodity. Too many of us are pretty good at what we do for a living, but we aren’t tapping our core gifts in our work. Authenticity isn’t about being pretty good. It’s about excellence in the development of our unique gifts.


In our formula for relevance, we’ve found that the movement from authenticity to mastery to empathy to action is most successful when it happens sequentially. We can’t skip around, developing signature strengths first, then putting them into action and contemplating authenticity sometime later. It’s not possible to dedicate ourselves to mastering our signature strengths until we know — by exploring our authentic core — what those signature strengths are. Have we identified our signature strengths and figured out what we are here to do? Once we have, the next step is to develop mastery of them.

It is wonderful to have a natural aptitude for speed or persuasion or musical composition, but aptitude isn’t enough. The natural runner who never conditions her body or builds her endurance won’t win a marathon by relying on raw talent. Charismatic persuasive speakers won’t prevail in a courtroom without a thorough understanding of the rules of law and experience with jury dynamics. Without exploring and practicing musical tech”

Mastery means more than merely engaging in the enjoyable aspects of our talents. True mastery requires skill in every aspect of our gifts. If our gift is marketing, it’s not enough to spend all of our time on the glamorous aspects of the advertising industry. Tempting as it is to focus on dreaming up creative ideas, delivering spellbinding presentations, and directing evocative photo shoots, there’s more to a successful agency than the glitz. Advertising is a business. In order to run it successfully, we have to develop mastery over the mundane necessities: understanding balance sheets, time sheets, income statements, and business projections. If we hope to be relevant, we must understand the big picture in order to excel at what we do.

We see the word “mastery” as an expression of greatness. It implies a command of authentic skills and the judgment to anticipate outcomes based on past lessons.


So we’ve dug down into our authentic self, and we are practicing mastery of our unique strengths. How do we make the gifts we’ve developed relevant to others? How do we build relationships, engage with colleagues, and present professional services in a way that matters more to the lives we touch? We think we have to learn to be interested — in our colleagues, our clients, and their customers. Look for common ground, and seek to comprehend others through empathy. Until we fully comprehend that life is not about just us, it is not fully lived. Upping our level of empathy in our personal and business life is perhaps the most difficult task of all, but like the other dynamics, it is essential.

We think of empathy as the docking station of relevance, with a three-step path signified by “them,” “you,” and “do.”

The first step is to focus on “them”: what does our friend, colleague, or client care about? The second step is about asking “you”— yourself — what you can bring to their concerns. Finally, “do” focuses us on defining the actions we can take to be an additive force to positively affect the concerns of the others within our scope. Focusing on being interested allows us to connect with those who need what we have to offer. It strengthens our empathy muscle, allowing it to be put to powerful use everywhere in our lives.

The ability to assume someone else’s perspective, to understand their unmet needs, and to define what we can contribute allows us to offer them the right thing at the right time. It enables us to matter more to others—and for others.

All that matters cannot always be measured. Business empathy is becoming increasingly important as the world shifts to a “demand creation” culture. In a global sales environment, empathy is even more essential. How we sell is as important as what we sell. How we occupy our space deeply matters; it is the lone distinguisher in a sea of sameness.

The empathetic business model focuses on elevating a client’s value proposition: how do we make the client more valuable to their customers? To answer this question, we have to step beyond our client to the customers they serve, understand the customers’ needs, and bring that understanding back to our client. When we understand what drives our client’s success, we have a deeper insight into the value proposition they rely on, and we can work with them to elevate their value proposition to better reflect and respond to their customers’ concerns.”


The decision to put authenticity, mastery, and empathy into action is the great differentiator between dreams of potential and the reality of accomplishment. Our talents are finite; the accountant may never write a best-seller, the research scientist may never argue before the Supreme Court, and the surgeon may never win an Oscar. Yet, the decision to put our talents into action is ours to seize. Our formula adds the first three dynamics together and then multiplies their sum by action. Relevance requires authentic skills executed with mastery and reflecting an empathetic understanding of others. We can plug in generous numbers for authenticity, mastery, and empathy, but no matter how large a sum we get, if we multiply it by zero action, we get zero. Only action can move us from necessary preparation to actualizing relevance in our lives.

Just as authenticity has its challenges, so too does the decision to act. A plethora of choices makes us feel that the world is our oyster. Deciding on one option means closing doors to other options—we can be reluctant to commit to a single path when we know it means forgoing others. We can acquire a detailed road map for the life journey we envision, and the most stunningly engineered sports car in the country, but unless we fill the tank with gas, slide behind the wheel, turn the key, and set out on the open road, our careful maps and prize vehicle will take us exactly nowhere.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, how do we do it, you ask. How do we become relevant to our clients, to our market, and to one another? How do we move toward mattering more?”

Guidelines and formulas — even good ones — can’t change our lives overnight.

Our journey begins not by searching for some lofty peak, but by looking within ourselves to discover the unique gifts that are essential to matter more.

This article is a modified excerpt from Relevance: Matter More.

Relevance was co-authored by Tom Hayes, Phil Styrlund, and Marian Deegan. Phil Styrlund is the CEO of The Summit Group and a recognized thought leader on sales transformation and development as part of the go-to-market strategies of some of the world’s premier organizations in the public and private sectors, including Cisco, Xerox, General Mills, Marriott, 3M, Medtronic, Pfizer, Abbott, and U.S. federal government agencies. Marian Deegan is the founder of Fortuni and writes for business and health care innovators.

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