Kevin Bauer: Learning To Lead When Plans Meet Reality

Kevin Bauer is, in some ways, a modern marketing unicorn. He’s got deep e-commerce experience, deep data & analytics experience, and general management/P&L experience. Plus, he’s got intrapreneurial experience, starting up new corporate ventures internationally. And now, he’s getting his entrepreneurial merit badge as the founder of Kessel Digital. It’s safe to say he’s been around the block in more countries that most of us.

Because of the breadth and depth of Kevin’s experience, I was curious about some of his most formative experiences. You know that saying, “No business plan survives first contact with the customer”? Well, Kevin lived it as key part of a team launching a European subsidiary.

“We were the huge dominant company in the US and so sure all we’re going to do is you know right click copy and paste”. Of course, there were surprises and hurdles and, as you might imagine, things didn’t go exactly according to plan. Most importantly, one of the key consumer behaviors that drove the business in the US didn’t exist in Europe. The team had to start over after trying for months to get established.

The key leadership lesson: You have to support a team through the various stages of frustration (even when you’re feeling it too!), and support them through the pivots. All without decreasing the level of effort or intensity.

Pivots are hard in any situation, but especially when the urgency for results is mixed with the real pressures of a business closure if those results aren’t met. Leaders like Kevin have to make a tough ask of their team members who might be battling fear: “I need you to embrace that fear”.

Kevin’s insight: If you’re the leader, and you’re asking your team to embrace their fear, you have your own special obligation: Radical Transparency. “I had to be radically transparent about the plans, and how we were going to achieve it. And who was going to have to do what and what the risk was. ”

This sounds pretty straightforward, but there’s a critical piece woven through the commitment to radical transparency. You better have a really good plan. “If you’re radically transparent but you have no plan and if you’re not organized in your communication… Yeah, then it’s…we’re all just running off the cliff.”

As Kevin and I wrapped our conversation, I was looking at the concept of transparency differently than I had. Transparency is obviously a clarifier. But it’s really the way to be the most respectful to the people you’re working with and to keep the focus on the action plan, not the anxiety your team might be feeling. It’s a key tool to keeping the energy and effort up through the pivots.

Craig Pladson: Put Yourself in A Position to Learn

Craig Pladson is a marketer and leader I’ve been following for years. I met him after he heckled me (in a good natured way!) at a MiMA talk years ago and we’ve been in an ongoing discussion about brands, digital, marketing and business ever since. The conversations spanned times when we worked together, times when I needed advice, and most recently when i was trying to get smarter about what’s coming next for brands.

He’s on a new adventure now, building his own consulting practice based on his experience at Digital River, Colle McVoy, General Mills, GoKart Labs, and Ovative.

While we talked at length about brands and what’s going to happen to marketing over the next couple years, I really enjoyed hearing him talk about his growth as a leader. I asked him about the experiences where he learned the most, the ones that created the environment for accelerated development. I was expecting it would have been his first job out of school (as part of the Digital River mafia), but it was his most recent role that generated the most discussion. It became clear that one of the drivers to accepting the role was specifically because it would stretch him, an opportunity to, as he said, “put myself in a position where I was intensely learning. I thrive in that type of environment… it keeps me dusted off and pushes me to take a modern approach in how I solve marketing problems.”

The role was in a fast-growth, high performing organization staffed by great talent. Smart people moving at digital speed. So, how do you lead a team, keep them moving fast, when you’re learning, too? How does a leader strike the balance between fast and frantic, especially when the leader is learning alongside the team? Craig reminded me that a good leader has to make sure “there’s clarity and a forecasted roadmap of where we’re going and why” but that leader must also support a team that’s learning through the inevitable adjustments and pivots. By getting work into market, the team can watch and adjust based on the results, knowing “feedback will start to direct you in a way that continues to lessen the subjectivity of it. “

I’m someone that takes pride in my ability to stay curious and open to new ideas, but I was inspired by Craig’s intentional, focused effort to create the hard situations where experience transforms into insight. He made it hard on purpose! I’m generally kind of lazy, but when I consider my own history, I know Craig’s instinct is right: Good stuff inevitably comes out of those “crucible” moments, where pressure, curiosity, opportunity and experience get blended and good ideas come out as a result. If we want to keep open, keep growing, we have to seek out and embrace those hard moments, the ones that test us, but put us in a position to learn.

Why is This Good: Ranier Beer

Ranier Beer is a good exemplar for “classic” brands searching for a way to resonate with consumers who are flooded with faux authenticity.

They recently redesigned the brand with the help of the amazing crew at Parliament in Portland.

Here’s what I love:

  • Retro, but not kitschy – They’re reverent about their past and give a nod to their previous brand expression, but its a little cleaner.
  • Tone – They’ve adopted a closer-in, more friendly and welcoming tone, but they’re not trying too hard to be clever or cool or be your best friend. You know there are real humans behind the scenes, but they aren’t being annoying about it.
  • Authentic, but Authentically Authentic – No fake backstory, here. But, they’re also not working overtime to tell you how much cooler they are (or were in the ’50s) than your new favorite hipster beer.
  • Community – They are – quite literally – working off the PBR playbook and are actively engaged in supporting the local (Pacific Northwest) sports, culture and environmental organizations.
  • Imagery – If you want to connect yourself to the beauty of nature, you better have really beautiful shots of nature. They did that. It’s almost as though this is a nature brand that also sells beer.
  • Timely / Relevant – They’re doing smart, mostly useful things like providing Zoom backgrounds, but keeping the branding relatively light.

Week X: The Hump Week, Together

I’m no longer sure of what week we’re in of the “Quarantine Times” era but it feels like we’ve been at this for a looong time. As I’ve been talking with people for work and for life, I’m sensing a rising sense of fatigue inside all the energy that carried us through the first part of this time. It’s not anger, it’s not outright frustration, but it feels like we are (or at least I am) stuck in the mud. Seth Levine is right to call it the Week Six Slump.

This is going to be a time in our lives when we look back with a strange brew of emotions and questions, but right now, in this particular week, I’m in a funk of sorts. I realize how good my family has got it, relatively speaking and i am aware of the privilege that affords me the opportunity to keep working in these times, from home. Work at Fahren is going better than we expected during quarantine. My sons are holding up really well, despite very significant impacts in their schooling and social lives. My family is safe. There are (probably temporary) signs of a comeback in the stock market. Folks want to get on with it, but I’m feeling, well, blah. Funky, not in a good way. Blue.

Here’s my plan to get out of it:

  • Connect with new folks – Keep reconnecting with folks that aren’t part of my normal routine. Not just for networking, though. I’ve got enough Linkedin contacts. It’s become clear to me that I get energy when I’m listening and learning from people. If i go into conversations with the goal of deep listening, I find an energy there that i really enjoy. If networking is candy, real conversations are whole foods. I want more whole foods.
  • Create more – I’m starting a little writing project that’s just for me, and I love the work so far. I may launch it eventually, but right now, it’s a hobby that’s helping me get my mornings started well.
  • Morning routine – I’ve recommitted to a regular morning routine. It’s a commitment, but it makes the rest of the day so much better.
  • Slow Down – Time is going so fast, it really feels like its slipping away sometimes. I’ve been trying hard to enjoy the moments of each day, and feel gratitude for the chance to work on hard problems, in the moment. Call it mindfulness, call it being present. But, it helps.
  • Give Back – My little company just wrapped up a small project for a non-profit we love and it was a great, tiny project. They’ve got some cool ambitions, but tight resources. We could help at the right time, with the right skills. We covered the costs of the team that delivered the work for the non-profit, and they were thrilled. It could point them in a bold new direction, and it felt great to be able to help with the oddball set of skills i’ve accumulated over the years.
  • Contemplating – I’ve spent the last 14 years of my career focused on “work like a startup”, go faster, etc. But, i wonder if the best strategy is to actually slow it all down and get great at a few things and build upon that excellence? Are we done with the “first mover”, startup era? I’ve been reading Built to Last and Small Giants and it’s been refreshing.

I know we’ll all get through this and we’ll get over this hump. But, in the meantime, you might get a call or an email from me asking for a chat or to let me bounce an idea off you.

Better Interview Tip #46

I was talking with Chip House (Linkedin | Twitter) about a variety of topics, including interviewing and building a great team around yourself.  When I asked him how he spotted leadership potential  he said he tried to ask questions that indicated how well the candidate knew themselves. What a wonderful insight!  I wish I would have had that heuristic years ago.

I’ve done a lot of interviews in my life but I never thought of using that screen: “How well do you know yourself?” And, the implied corollary, “How are you using that knowledge to better yourself and, ultimately, be a better leader? “

I’ve always asked questions that get at related topics: 

• What have you taught yourself lately (to see if they’re able to turn curiosity into knowledge)

• What’s a hard problem you’ve solved lately (to see if they can drive to solution)

• What’s the next leadership skill you want to add to your toolbox? (To see if they’ve actually got a development plan for themselves)

Those questions have been really useful, but I’ve never gone at interviews to understand the essential thing: Does this person have a good enough sense of themselves – their skills, their gaps, their blindspots – to be a good leader of people? 

Obviously, you can’t really know if people truly have good self awareness or not in a 45-60 minute interview, but if you go into the discussion trying to discern whether your interview participants understand themselves – a little bit, a lot, at all – it will only help you to make decisions on who could be a good leader for your team. 

Maybe the Most Useful Podcast Episode Ever (For Leaders)

I’ve listened to this episode of The Knowledge Project 3 times now and I’m pretty sure I’ll listen to it once a quarter going forward.

This is probably the most useful work-related podcast I’ve listened to (and I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts). This is highly relevant for you if:

  • You’re leading in a highly complex (even chaotic) environment
  • You’re leading a team that is growing
  • If you’re responsible for hiring great talent
  • If you’re committed to building a great culture in your company
  • If you’re trying to get better as a leader

The key insight is really kind of obvious, but comes across clearly here: We’re not actually rationale beings, that what we’re experiencing may be driven more by what we *feel* vs what is actually happening. Our own brains make up stories about what’s happening and why and these stories – the narratives we fit our experiences into so they make sense to us – get in the way of true clarity about what’s really occurring and how we interpret the experience.

Jeff Hunter (of Talentism) is a guy that’s been talking to, hiring and coaching top leaders for years. He’s got deep experience making hard choices and he, in a way, unloads a lot of it in this talk. I’m specifically interested in his experiences at Bridgewater, Ray Dalio’s investment firm.

Hunter makes a persuasive case that we should embrace the confusion we feel when things get don’t go as planned and we should see confusion as a sign that we’re in a position to learn. We should be examining the gap between what we expected to happen vs what actually happened and seek to understand our assumptions and our knowledge gaps.

Finally, this whole podcast is worth it for three things:

  • How to avoid telling yourself the wrong story about performance (beyond avoiding negative self talk)
  • How to give better constructive feedback
  • How to get smarter about the hires you make

Background: Shane Parish has been inspiring me via his Farnham Street platform where he focuses on tools that help you make decisions, better. I love the mission, and for years he’s been providing a ton of great resources for leaders. His curiosity is on display in every interview and he might be the perfect guy for this interview.