The Elusive Seat at the Table

Marketing professionals may rightly dream of a seat at the executive table, but it is an elusive dream. CMO’s can expect to hold their post between 18 and 23 months, after all.

I am lately enamored of David Maister’s simple framework for professional services firm. This well-known author and consultant reminds us that our firms are made up of finders, minders, and grinders. Those who find the work that feeds the rest sit at the table periodically and strategize. Finders are responsible for profit and loss, while marketing directors and marketing managers are not. Call us hired guns, call us support staff, but essentially we play second fiddle to top management in strategy and communications. This is a delicate subject to bring up because there are whole industries and conferences devoted to keeping senior managers afire with the hope that we will one day get a seat at the table. A senior manager in marketing may have a lot of responsibility but never be on the hook for a line of business. Therefore, perhaps becoming a wise, sage, and trusted advisor is a more realistic aim than a spot in the inner sanctum.

Erasing the Author

One thing that I like about managing is that the project list gets pretty short. Recently, I had only two large projects to manage, both of which were largely run by outside consultants. Besides these, I had only to manage the team. Of course, if any team members bailed out or their projects derailed, I had to pick up the pieces. My point is that the daily checklist contains a fairly small number of items, each of which is quite large in scope.

At times, I have found that large projects in my jurisdiction have been questioned by others. A jealous manager from another group might say backhandedly, “What is that controversial project you’re working on?” Or, “What are you working on? Isn’t that your special pet project?” (Innocent questions are one thing, but a full-on assault could follow!) In order to defend important projects from attack, they need to be constantly defined as originating from the owners or the principals of the firm. I have always managed to get sign-off and buy-in from the top for new marketing initiatives, but sometimes that still isn’t enough. The project might last a year, and the selling process might be required for the whole time. There are three points to consider when creating the message about a new or controversial project: the desired outcome, the progress metrics, and the lasting value.

A project to launch a new database might have been brilliantly assembled by an upstart manager, but the origin, the need, surely came from an objective of senior leadership — i.e. to have better access to customer and project data. That leader should have identified the measure of success or metrics of progress, namely, how the firm will measure that the database is improving the practice. And finally, that leader or leaders should have indicated the value and the impact of the project. This database is worth x to us. These leaders’ names should be attached to your plan. You can even add names as the project grows in acceptability. But one name that should be minimized is your own.

To sell a plan internally, recognize the ongoing process of messaging and consider erasing yourself as author of the plan.


(With appreciation for the work of Scott Berkun and Alan Weiss.)

The Listener’s Edge

I spent a few hours consulting with a nonprofit group the other night. After a preliminary conversation with the leaders, I devised a series of questions, about twenty in all, to ask the assembled group. I resolved to stick to the plan of asking and listening, not to divert attention back to me. As I proceeded through the questions, I noticed how stimulating they were. The group burst into discussion, wending their way through short- and long-term issues, many of them heartfelt I was shocked by the effectiveness of this method (asking perhaps the highest number of questions I’ve ever asked without stopping). Most of all, the questions benefited the board chair and the producing director, who spoke the least and listened the most. I felt the group had all the answers to their problems internally; they didn’t really need me, the outsider, except as a sounding board.

The consultant truly plays a special role. He or she elicits the tough truths that the leaders need to hear, without seeming to lift a finger. It’s all in the questions.

The next day I was able to suggest a project that was far different than what we thought we might pursue. The leaders nodded along in great agreement because they had heard everything I heard during that evening meeting. I did not have to supply much evidence.

Cabin Fever Interlude

We have been counting the days around here. Six down, two to go. Two adults and one child spending eight days at home during inclement weather with few social events planned. It is not the Battle of Algiers, but it is our humble experience of adversity. How are we getting through it? We invent new games and reintroduce old ones. The grownups take turns with chores and free time. We locate forgotten DVDs on the shelf and watch our child’s face glow across from an enchanting movie on the screen. I rediscover my old passion of baking and work on a white chocolate layer cake for the next day’s birthday party. My husband prepares a special lunch and we have all the time in the world to enjoy it. We have longer discussions and more caring dialogue. We let the child gallop through the rooms, though we wince. We watch more TV than usual in the evenings and talk in the daytime about long-term plans. We are surprised to hear our child asking for carrots and gobbling blanched string beans. The child plays Jingle Bells on a ceramic bowl with a spoon, in perfect rhythm. I open a box of sculptor’s clay. We will endure such unstructured days.

Brushing Up on Dark Arts

Reading the job boards recently, I came across a few open posts for university communications directors. I believe it was Harvard’s that wagged a finger at potential applicants, “Must be able to work in a highly matrixed environment.” I have pondered that dire warning ever since. In a highly matrixed environment, presumably, one has to get buy-in or sign-off from many different people: those who lead departments or silos or special programs, all of which might be funded differently and possibly compete for attention, dollars, researchers, or students. In a simpler company or organization, a communications director would simply report to the chief executive officer, helping him or her manage communications and bulletins, whether internal or external.

Pondering the matrix led me to research politicians. (And anyway, we have been watching House of Cards on television.) How are politicians different from executives in highly matrixed environments? Probably they are in fact the same, I hypothesized. In the blog literature, how are politicians advised to get their start? “Always be fundraising,” say the writers. “Be transparent. Have a budget and stick to it. Listen.”

These strategies are so similar to sales. As you advance in your career, you simply have to improve in both dark arts.

Big Birthday Experiment

My husband has a big birthday coming up. What should we do? We could go skydiving, like my friend Vikki did the other day (just saw it on Facebook). We could work on a volunteer project, like the Boston Natural Areas Network  Community Garden events held in Boston’s poorest and most densely built neighborhoods. We could go to a rock concert or a Celtics game. I could buy him a bottle of his favorite cologne. We could have family gather around for an all ages party. We could have dinner with ten friends in a fine restaurant. I could hire a caterer to cook at our home for ten friends. We could have a mixed family and friends party.

Some of these ideas will have to wait until next year. Cupid’s birthday is tomorrow, Valentine’s Day!

Client-Centered … Except Here

As a professional marketer, I put myself in the client’s shoes all the time. It is critical to have a customer experience mindset when you are creating proposals and literature that will end up in a new client’s lap. Likewise, for speaking engagements, the audience point of view is important to understand, as is the buyer’s perspective. (The buyer is the person who hired me to speak.) However, for this blog, I wanted to take a breather from the client/buyer perspective, and focus on my own experience. My speeches are essentially a product, and this blog is the research lab that enables development of a superior product.


An Infant is Not an Object

When I had my baby, I was a devoted student of the late Magda Gerber, author of Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities from the Very Start. Gerber advocated for minimal interference with infants. She held that babies need caregivers to feed and clean them, and critically, to keep them safe, but beyond that, the best kind of parenting involved leaving infants alone to explore their world. It proved incredibly difficult for me to follow this advice, and even harder to advocate for it with the child’s other caregivers. (Perhaps the hardest part to enact was ‘forbidding’ the grandparents to give hugs and kisses outside of bathtime and diaper changing time.) But as a matter of philosophy, Gerber’s method is a rock solid foundation for childrearing (during and beyond the infant years). Provide a safe and structured environment for those you are charged with nurturing and then get out of the way and let them grow.

Sample Web and Social Strategy

For each social media service below, note the aspirational audience (A), message (M), and sample tactics(T) for marketing Firm X, a professional services company.
A: Warm leads; clients who are just beginning to know Firm X.
M: We can help you with your high-risk problems.
T: Maintain a unique and updated web presence. Post occasional, high quality messages.
A: Those who have hired Firm X previously plus qualified prospects.
M: We can delight your clients or team.
T: Post unique experiences and insights. (One-way communication is expected because people are reluctant to comment on a corporate blog.)
A: Those who benefit from the services of Firm X.
M: We are listening to your comments and needs.
T: Engage with followers (2/3); provide teasers for blog posts (1/3).
A: Existing staff and clientele of Firm X. Future staff.
M: Let’s entertain and be entertained.
T: Post celebration photos. Engage with friends.
Instagram, Pinterest, Soundcloud, Tumblr
How would you use these services for your firm?