Madonna is a cultural icon, with a career spanning five decades. Being in business for 50 years is a career exceeding the majority of listed companies – IMD Business school found that the average lifespan of the Standard & Poor 500 was 18 years. Looking over her career, some of her perceived antics and rebelliousness were actually remarkably prescient. Coming up in the nineteen-eighties, she was the first exposure many Generation X women had to a female role model who wasn’t afraid. Songs like “Express Yourself” taught us not to let men treat us badly, against a backdrop of society in which violence in marriage was legally passable and women were unlikely to have our own bank accounts. Here’s five business lessons we can learn from Madonna’s career.
1. Reinvent And Manage Your Brand
Sometimes known as the mother of invention, we’ve had several eras of Madonna. She has a remarkable ability to morph with the times and foresee the upcoming trends. She rises and falls within eras, but you can count on her to update as soon as the wind changes. She’s getting a lot of criticism for her current choices of fashion and beauty, but she herself refuses to apologise or defend her “creative choices.” The final feminist taboo is the choice of a post-menopausal woman to be sexy. Why not? It’s working. Her upcoming tour sold out 600,000 tickets in minutes. Unapologetically enjoying your body through dance, styling and fashion, when the world tells you to be demure, ashamed, fearful – this IS the brand. Her business equivalent is the sleek UX of Apple, or the everyday essentialism of Microsoft. They have all mastered the ability to come and go and then come back better.
2. Stay True To Core Values
For all of that reinvention, she has some core values that have remained constant through the decades, even when they were deeply unpopular. She was a staunch LGBTQ+ rights campaigner from the get-go, an ally and activist in the 80s for gay rights during the AIDS crisis, promoting acceptance of the transgender Ballroom scene in New York with her epic song “Vogue” and employing trans and gay dancers to tell the tale. She lost a lucrative Pepsi Cola contract because she cast a Black man as a Saint and kissed him in her “Like a Prayer video.” challenge racism and religious control. She has never strayed from her values here, and as a result, she has customer loyalty and instant recognition for what she will defend. Standing up for moral values has become a corporate fundamentalism and, though we don’t always agree on which values to support, all businesses now have a position.
3. Know Your Worth
Unlike many emerging starlets in the 80s, Madonna didn’t hand over control to powerful investors. She found it hard to get backing initially, with tentative, low value promises based on performance. Of course she smashed performance and so her first full deal was 20% royalties, which is still unprecedented. Once she got to the negotiating table she had the power. Her multi-million advances were comparable to Michael Jackson in the 90s; busting the gender wage gap. She then started her own production company, of course. She wasn’t afraid to prove her worth, because she knew her worth. How many Founders could use this sage advice in Seed and Series A stage investment?
4. Collaborate With And Amplify Your Peers
Like many big businesses, there is a never ending supply of emerging “competitors” who might seek to take her crown. Oh, this is the new Madonna, we have heard said about Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Dua Lipa and many more. However, she doesn’t need to compete. She instead supports and uplifts these new kids on the block, recording songs with them, befriending and mentoring them, sharing the love. Her latest collaboration with Sam Smith, who has attracted homosexist and body shaming abuse, states boldly that if you mess with him you are messing with her! This fierce, loyal defence of artists who are following in her footsteps at once cements her status without diminishing their contribution. She doesn’t need to downplay her legacy to amplify their worth.
5. Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word
Blonde Ambition – the first time many young women heard the word ambition expressed by a woman in a positive, inspirational spirit, rather than an accusation or slur. Madonna has never been embarrassed to shine, to strive, to work hard to hit the high notes – even when it was hard and there were better singers. She smashed Evita when everyone told her it was out of reach. We need to remember how it was for women when she started out. Pre “me too”, when young girls had Disney Princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White rammed down our throats. Madonna wanted more and, more importantly, she was not ashamed. This is an important lesson for aspiring businesses, particularly those led by people with marginalized identities. We are allowed to want to be our best selves and fulfil our potential. Madonna legitimized this position for a generation.
Madonna showed us how to be in charge whilst also uplifting those around her. She is not a female leader, or a leader trying to be like a man in order to succeed, she is just a leader. Does anyone older than 35 not know the words to “Material Girl?” The mic drop moment for many of us wasn’t the homage to consumerism, it was the idea of a woman being financially independent: “experience has made me rich and now they’re after me.” Boom. Still today, in order to thrive in leadership, women have to overcome internalised self-sacrifice, martyrdom and deference. We have to overcome the fear of talking hard cash and stereotype threat of not being good with numbers.
Madonna has of course made mistakes; we all know about moving on and learning from failure, that’s a business no-brainer. Her ballads are humble and reflexive, channelling her life lessons, regrets and hurdles. We won’t agree with all her choices, but we must agree that she has the right to make them and move on, just like the revolving door of men in leadership who endlessly come back for another shot. Unlike many of them, she continues to strive for her accolades. In holding her space for five decades despite the avalanche of criticism that continues to rain down around her, in continuing to defy gravity, Madonna has taught us all we need to know about running a sustainable business for the long term.
Read the full article here