The Life & Times of a Chief Meaning Officer
Imagine you applied for a role that asked you to account for an organisation’s meaning.
Thanks for coming a day early. It’s great to finally get you in.
We had a bastard of a time finding candidates, let me tell you.
Do you want coffee?
Hi! Yes! I’ll have a short black, and…? Latte?
And a latte.
No, we’ll sit down.
This is on me by the way.
So, yes. Let me tell you a bit about what you’re in for. First things first: I know it’s a bullshit title — don’t think about it too much. If this works out we can change it to whatever we want, but we needed a hook to get you in, right?
Hell, the fact that the position exists is controversial enough. The very title implies that everyone else in the building’s work is meaningless. They’re not totally wrong to feel like that by the way. It’s always there in companies like this, y’know?
But this really shines a light on it. We’re profitable, sure. A lot of people use the product. That’s just maturity. That’s round one, but now it’s time to level up or we’re going to level off; and we’re a public company.
Keep that in mind. If we stop growing, we start dying.
A strong brand? Yeah, there’s no doubting the brand is strong.
So what? What does it mean in real terms? Recognition? People don’t want brand affinity! No-one wants to admit that they fell for it, that they bought into someone’s manufactured hype. They want something that means something! Some evidence that lets them draw a line between what’s real and what’s bullshit. The strength of the brand? Branding can’t die fast enough. There’s never been a better time to profit by doing good in the world, kiddo. That’s the honest to God, electrodes on your privates truth of the matter. Companies are what they do and everyone talks. It’s time to do something meaningful.
What is meaningful? Sure. That’s a fair ask. I’ve been on that one myself for the better part of a decade and here’s how I think it plays out.
Your life is a story.
Main character: you.
You’ve got to feel like — you’ve got to be a good character in this story that you call your own life. Not that your life was necessarily ‘good’ or ‘moral’, but that yours is the story of a life well lived. That you truly knew how to live.
It’s got to resonate and you’ve got to feel it.
Now, you damn sure don’t want the things you touch and use and wear and drive, or the people you speak to and deal with to degrade that. They’re the supporting cast! The props! The backdrop scene! They can be shitty and broken down, but only if they have the redeeming character to make it up — in a life-narrative sense. It’s about character and dignity. Life.
Heavy right? There’s more.
As if that isn’t enough, that isn’t enough! You can go through life being a rock star, doing all these things, that are just righteously on point in your self-fulfilling personal-hero life story, but no man is an island, my friend.
There’s this counterweight pulling against you. It tugs on you like a guilt because you can’t live any kind of life just for yourself.
You’re more than you. You’re everything you’re not. You’re at least fifty per cent what they think you are. Like it or not, you’re a part of society, a part of your culture. And it’s culture’s job to attribute meaning to your life, I mean at least as much as it is yours. It’d be a lonely-ass world if it didn’t work that way.
So here’s the rub.
You’re in this story, your story, the main character — but the outside readers have got to feel like your life is a worthy life too. That you truly know how to live. There’s got to be some sense of… objective worthiness. Not good, not moral, not badass or glamorous. Whole. Worthy. Satisfying. Good — in the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sense.
Your mission is to take our stuff and make it fit; justify its place in a thousand worthy stories. Or a million. Start with one. Take everyone who works for us and make their part in making that stuff a part of their story. And you’ve got to know that they’re the one and the same goal. There’s no currency that buys legitimacy, it’s something we have to earn.
You can fake heritage; these hipster-authentic-wannabe brands have got it down to an art; but it takes time to write history and to actually live out a few stories worth telling.
When I see our products out in the market I want them to be inconspicuously perfect in their shape and fit. I want to recognise them as the embodiment of a kind of care I saw in the office; it’s our Santa’s workshop. Don’t let marketing ever tell people “we care about what you do”, “we’re in your world”. Don’t let product ever fail to show it.
Gandhi didn’t go around telling people he was passionate about making a difference, he made a goddamn difference.
M.L.K. didn’t have an idea,
kid, he had a fucking dream.
And now it’s down to you. I want you to really lead this. I want you to lead it strong and right. I want you to disappear.
If I ask around, I want to hear that you’re “not that involved”. That you’re “hands off”; “light touch”. But hell, I want to know that you’ve been there by the gleam of their eyes and the force they put against the bit in their teeth, the way they talk about value and meaning.
A certain kind of pride in their work, Charlie.
I want to be able to track you by the sense of purpose and principle you leave behind. If this comes off right, you’re a strop drawn across the edge of this company, and that’s exactly what I need you to be.