3 Assignments for a New Leader

1. What inspires you about the brand or firm you have inherited? Write a short visionary statement.
2. What aspect of the business most troubles you? Draft a chapter on this topic for a new and improved version of your firm’s personnel handbook.
3. Say you work 50 hours a week. How might you reassign 10 of those hours to better align with your vision for change in the firm? This change in how you spend your time will model new behaviors throughout the organization.

Toward a Theory of Personal Branding (Part II: Blog to the Score)

Theorized: With only slivers of time, one can create good content and thereby expand one’s personal and professional brand.

Sometimes a personal brand gets built by accident. In late 2008, I presented to my firm leadership a trend report on social media. At the time, social media was poorly known. LinkedIn was a fledgling service and Twitter had not yet met Oprah. Most of the principals in our industry who heard me talk laughed nervously about how Facebook was where their teenagers lived. But when I delivered my trend report, something happened. The doubters acknowledged that this might be something big. I was asked to give the talk five, ten, 15 more times, to audiences representing a wide range of companies.

Four years later, I decided to start a blog under my own name. Although by this point I had developed websites, blogs, and social media campaigns for the firms I had worked for, I began to feel that I had to drink my own KoolAid: I had to create and measure social media for my own personal brand. While there is much work to do to develop this brand, there is one trick already worth sharing, and that is to work within a score.

What is a score in this sense? In certain forms of improvised dance, a score is employed to give dancers a structure to navigate through a performance. It is a set of rules or limiting factors. These limiting factors serve to wedge the writer (that’s me) into a spot where creating content is simplified.

The first aspect of the score that I designed (by accident) was effective yet radical. I chose simply to blog about my experiences, with no apology. This was contrarian thinking for a professional marketer, someone who has always spoken from the customer perspective first. Every day that I face the blog, I draw only from my unique anecdotes and stories. The difficult hurdle is continuing to believe that to do so is valuable. When I was a young writer in high school and college I heard a constant refrain, “Write what you know.” However, a decade or two in business has squashed much of that truth as I am paid mainly to edit the writing of others, whose technical expertise I understand only vaguely and whose core business is somewhat of a mystery to me, it must be confessed. The main value that I bring to the table is to write clearly enough that a typical client audience can understand the gist of the technical gems.

The light bulb went off again when I realized that drawing from my past, including my very recent past, would be valuable to my desired blog audience: other marketers whom I could inform or inspire. From the perspective of organizational development and human capital, I provide, as you do, as everyone does, unique accomplishments, beliefs, experiences, experiments, and the list goes on. Seeing this list so objectively suddenly made it easy to hoist stories up from the well. The anecdotes I have from my experiences are unique to me. Therefore they must be told, because not to tell them is to deny others access to that capital. It’s the product that is under development. And in the privacy of my blog, I forego the market, I relax about the market. I focus on product development. The product that is perpetually invested in by my own and others’ human capital: me.

Blog posts therefore, are pretty speedy to write. I recommend looking through sent emails of the past week or excerpting from almost any formal document you have contributed to. There is always a kernel of brilliant accomplishment to be found in the detritus of our work. The score is permanently inscribed in the blog’s categories: Accomplishments, Beliefs, Experiments. Stay within the score and hit publish.

A puny little blog like mine is hardly the end-all be-all for personal branding or organizational publicity. In fact, studies are beginning to show that a person’s presence across various social media services is what builds traffic because we inspire trust when we participate authentically in many conversations. We are trustworthy when we both listen and speak. Yet more evidence that in the era of social media, building and believing in our personal brand is of paramount importance.

Change Agent in Town: Creative Initiatives

Many firms that seek to hire a senior marketing executive are looking for a change agent. The leaders often expect to soon be “taking our marketing to the next level” or acknowledge the deferred maintenance that has occurred to the collateral, website, or other key communications pieces. Here is an excerpt from a current proposal to a highly technical design firm:

“Relentless execution of the day-to-day must be balanced with creative initiatives that set the stage for growth. Based on a first pass at the existing marketing materials, one or more of the following larger initiatives would be considered.

  1. Visual Rebranding. This program makes use of the talents of an outside design firm to carry out a phased rebranding that includes office design (client areas), logo, stationery and business cards, website, and collateral. Doing everything together is more economical and cohesive.
  2. Digital Strategy Overhaul. This initiative brings on a sophisticated web design consultancy to bring modern capabilities to the firm’s website. In-house, a keyword strategy is implemented to connect the firm’s excellent blog to its website and brings engagement data to marketing staff who pass it to sales and business developers. [This program can be carried out separately from the above or wrapped into it.]
  3. Research Training. Creation and development of a comprehensive research program for all three offices, kicked off by an outside consultant. Given the firm’s expertise in highly technical sectors, it’s all the more critical to leverage information we have on clients and their needs to ensure our solutions are relevant and to close deals.

“After carrying out a comprehensive survey, addressing mission critical needs, and gauging relative interest in the above special initiatives (as well as others that emerge), it will be possible to sketch out a marketing plan and budget for the next three years.”

Recipe for a Great Interview

First, an
Opening statement
Followed by
Questions to determine your needs.
(Stop! Look! Listen!)
Some call this “Buy before you sell.”

Then it’s time to show off
Relevant accomplishments
Buffed by a
Testimonial from an objective third party.

Pause to ask about any reservations you may have.
(Stop! Look! Listen!)

And finish with a statement on motivation to work with you.

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.)

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.

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.

Can We Party at Work?

Once upon a time, when I was a foolish and inexperienced manager, I thought that scheduling birthday celebrations for team members was a silly idea. Why should we stop work and celebrate birthdays like a bunch of toddlers, I thought? (I love my toddler, but he doesn’t work with me yet.) I mainly avoided team lunches and disdained birthday celebrations. Then, one day, after a long slog through difficult projects that had mixed results, I noticed on the calendar that one of our newest team members had a birthday coming up. What fun it would be to make a real party out of his birthday, I thought, and we really need a break right about now. The rest of us huddled together and planned a party based on his favorite foods and things we knew he loved to do outside of work. We rearranged the furniture in a conference room and plotted how to install decorations before whisking him into the room for his surprise. Our conversation was fun and wide-ranging and we completely forgot about work for awhile. We got ludicrous, too. As a boss, I believe I demonstrated how much I genuinely appreciated the team member as a person, not as a worker. And the party cost next to nothing.

From a management standpoint, the benefit of ritualized celebrations for workgroups is that titles temporarily dissolve, which in turn allows bonds to strengthen.