In Search of A Leadership Capability Stack

I just completed a project for a client that included a review of their digital marketing capabilities. Our job was to support the leadership team in developing a roadmap to improve a couple key marketing capabilities so they could go from “good” to “great” over the next couple years. It’s work every marketing leader should do.

As I met with leaders inside the org and as I tapped other folks I know outside the org for input, i realized the classic consultants dilemma: the roadmap is only the map. You might have the best plan in the world, but you need good drivers to reach the destination.

After we wrapped up the project, I knew the real work would come down to leadership: Decision making, maintaining prioritization, supporting the team, advising “up” and “around” all while delivering the “good manager” behaviors. Luckily, the folks we worked with were skilled, experienced leaders who were committed to their team and building the teams’ skills, first. (It was inspiring to hear them talk about growing the team’s abilities while rebuilding the capabilities). They are pros. They know how to do the job of leading a team inside a complex org.

But, i think leading the team is only half the battle. They also have to manage themselves.

I wish our work would have addressed need all leaders have today to build (or rebuild) their own personal leadership skills. Like any leaders of change, they’re going to need the “traditional” competencies a good manager/director/vp needs – Develop a vision, communicate the vision, create strategies, guide the team, build a plan, deliver results, etc – but they’re also going to need to be high performing at some personal leadership (or personal management) skills to maintain effectiveness. How do you fight politics? How do you recognize when someone else’s skills are getting in your way? How do you sustain the energy and effort to make real change happen?

Every leader today needs to build their own capacity to drive change and sustain their teams, otherwise the org and the work will suck the energy out of them.

What are the critical personal leadership capabilities a Director or VP needs to have today, to keep moving forward and not get crushed by change? What’s in your “stack” for leading yourself? Are you working on:

  • Staying centered – Intellectually, emotionally, in the present; When change and a dynamic life/work balance try to throw you off. Can you bring yourself back to the moment, in the present, and find “level”?
  • Staying committed – When there are reasons and pressure to change your mind; when politics or social dynamics may create the wrong sort of influence, do you have the ability to stay committed to your vision, to your decisions
  • Staying responsive – Knowing when to change direction, make a fast decision, pursue an emergent opportunity. Sometimes it means changing priorities. Sometimes it means stopping what’s not working
  • Creating Clarity – Having the ability to create a clear picture of the situation, to cut through ambiguity and “could be” or “Should be” to get at “what is”, and then create action. The ability to bring yourself (and possibly your team) back to focus.
  • Executive Functioning – Are you aware of how you make decisions and how you’re processing and acting on information. Are you responding intuitively all the time? Are you pre-processing and over- analyzing all the time? Do you know how your brain is or isn’t helping you over time?
  • Growing – Do you have the ability to add new skills, build new insights into your own abilities, take in feedback and modify what you’re doing to get better at it? Are you actively developing yourself? Making time to practice and review and reflect in an effort to build and grow?

I’m working on understanding my own “capabilities” stack as a leader/manager/individual. It’s definitely one of those “the more you know the less you know” situations. So, i’m trying to connect with more leaders to see how they are, in effect, managing themselves. I’m not looking for “hacks” or shortcuts, but i am looking for the ways these leaders are building a practice around their own development.

Ultimately, i wonder if I need my own Capability Maturity Model and my own roadmap, to get me from “current state” to my desired “future state”. Who do i hire to help me with that?

Beyond these skills, it’s also clear that every leader needs to have, for themselves, some assets to help them in their work. It’s the sort of obvious stuff – A clear vision for themselves, a trusted set of advisors, tools to help them learn and develop their skills, a sense of their own history, an actual plan to grow and develop – but that’s for another post.

Starbucks Doesn’t Need a DAO, It’s Employees Do

Sort of riffing on a thoughtful, provocative thread by @magdalenakala who makes an argument for a Starbucks DAO to augment or replace their super successful loyalty program.

I like her points a lot, but the hope and hype of DAOs will run into the reality of: Starbucks doesn’t need to complexify something that works extremely well right now.

I do think there’s an argument to be made that Starbucks should have their own $star or $bucks or whatever, to evolve points to a genuine currency. Lots of interesting cross-brand ideas there.

The folks at Starbucks that do need a DAO are the employees. Should/could a DAO replace the employee union? Hypothetically:

  • There might be an employee DAO, with a token whose value is pegged to either the shareprice or some other long term business performance metric. The value of the tokens rises as the performance of the company improves
  • For hours worked, employees could be granted tokens that represent votes/governance in the employee DAO
  • Workers could also get tokens based on tenure or other milestones.
  • Workers could grant tokens based on skills, experiences gained, etc. as they become, essentially, more valuable to their co-workers and to the company.

The DAO could represent the interest of employees/workers on issues of safety, privacy, enviromental issues, etc.

Would Starbucks ownership prefer to deal with a DAO vs. an employee union? Probably. Especially if the incentives are fully aligned.

Would a token system be an alternative to to other long term interest-driving tools like profit sharing or 401Ks? Probably, but I’d almost see this as a complement to a the traditional ones. In fact, the token system actually creates real-world value for the experience and tenure and skills of a long-term employee.

Obviously haven’t thought this all the way through, but i do believe DAO’s for employees would ultimately deliver more value to the company than a crypto-CRM loyalty program.

What if Performance Advertising is Just an Analytics Scam? – SparkToro

This is a helluva way to open an article about ad scams:

In 2020, AirBnB cut $542 million of performance advertising spend and saw no measurable falloff in attributable sales. They continued this ad-slashing practice in 2021, with similarly eye-popping numbers. Could it be that all those ads did nothing?

Source: What if Performance Advertising is Just an Analytics Scam? – SparkToro

Really interesting and thoughtful take on the fast changing digital ad landscape.

Single Use NFT’s

Now, this is the sort of NFT use i’ve been waiting for, and it’s potentially an important early signal for brands and ad people:

He’s positioned it as “five minutes of fame”, or, essentially, “you’ve got an open mic”. But, he’s really selling access to his audience via NFT. Not sure how he set up the contract, but you can see how he’d get paid every time this NFT gets resold.

Here’s his tweet on the concept:

This is the sort of thing I’m waiting to see unfold. Personally, i’m less interested in the collectible/asset appreciation side of NFTs. NFTs as access to value.

I’d love to hear about other brands leaning into tokens like this (without running their own DAO’s, but that’s gotta be right around the corner, too [imagine Patagonia setting up a DAO to allocate funds to nature/conservation causes)

Ascenders: Don’t Forget To Lead Your Team

We work with a lot of leaders who tend to be in the upper third of the management layer in their orgs. Not “C-level”, but real close. Let’s call them ascenders, the ones who have their eyes on moving up a management level relatively soon. 

The ascenders make choices every day about how to spend their time, where to focus their energies, where to invest a little attention.  A pattern I’ve seen: The larger the org, the more time these ascenders spend influencing and “leading up”, focusing on the teams above them, or worse, their peers at the “ascenders” level. While there is always a need to for communications, influencing, and gaining “alignment”, when it gets out of balance it becomes something else. Some might call it jockeying for position, others might call it politics. Either way, a manager that is preoccupied with “up”, is not prioritizing team leadership. 

The more they look at their daily and weekly activities through the lens of their own relative position in the matrix, the less time an ascender is spending making sure their team is ready and responsive. They’re making a tradeoff without really thinking too much about it, and the team suffers. 

I don’t think the ascenders are trying to mis-manage their attention and focus. We’ve all seen the way the corner offices can be a black hole of decisiveness, how the demands for more meetings and time and reports can suck the available calendar time that would have gone to their team. The worse part, these ascenders might not even know they’re doing it. They might think they are “influencing” up in order to clear the way or create “cover” for their team. They might think they are being “servant” leaders. 

Father’s Day 2021

Thinking about my own father in a different way this year. He’s getting older, frail, a little more cranky. But, still on the whole, optimistic about the time he’s got left. We joke about him being in the 4th quarter of his life, but he’ll laugh and say he’s in the last minute of the two minute warning and the fat lady is stepping to the mic. 

I’m beginning to let myself wonder what my life might be like without him, how things may be different when he’s not there to call or consult.   While I’ve never taken him for granted, he’s been a constant presence, the center of my life’s radar, the point around which the arm sweeps. No matter where my actions might show up as a little  blip on that radar, he was always there, the home coordinates around which i traveled.  

He’s one of those good 1950’s/1960’s dads, a warm, steady presence but not overly involved unless it’s a big decision: Job changes, mortgages, investing. I don’t think he gets the concept of an interior life. I wouldn’t go to him to get advice or discuss philosophical questions, or the hobbies and pursuits that I’m passionate about. His parenting model was pretty straightforward: He gave me all the space I needed to figure shit out on my own, and he offered love and faith that eventually I’d make something good happen. He’d listen all day long, but he was mainly just letting me talk it out. He’s known me by the actions I’ve taken and the friends I’ve made, not what’s in my heart or head. 

Most days I believe he’s given me the best of the tools he’s had and the wisdom he’s gained. But, as I look ahead to the next 5-10 years, I can’t help but wonder if I should be digging to find any more nuggets as the clock ticks. 

And, the clock is ticking for me, too. I feel urgency to step up my game as a dad and review the past to consider my own work as a father and what I should be doing better, differently. My boys are both at important ages, one in the critical first years of college, the other in the wide open post graduation period. They’re both good young men, grown in most ways.  But, in other ways, they are still figuring out how al the pieces fit together and, more importantly, what pieces they can put on the table. 

They’re smarter than I am, but I’ve made more mistake and thus have some hard-earned wisdom. As I get older, I get more confident that I know The Truth about certain things. I want, more than anything, to tell them everything I know (or think I know). That Paul was the most important Beatle, but I’d want to hang out with Ringo. The Who is probably overrated. The Clash might be the best band ever from England. Buffet and Munger are the ones to listen to. Ride your bike. Keep a diary. I would love the chance to lecture them on the importance of friendship, kindness, compound interest, a buy and hold strategy, etc. But, at the same time, one of the best gifts my father gave me was the space and time to do things my way without a lot of judgement or oversteering. So, my plan is to wait, with a full heart and a bottomless supply of love, for them to circle back to me when the time is right, when they need a little reorientation or to check their coordinates a bit. 

My 2020 Music Picks – 2020 Was Actually A Great Year for Music

While 2020 was sort of a disaster in so many ways, there was great music to listen to.

  • Fleet Foxes / Shore – Man, I loved this record and it came at exactly the right time for me, this fall. A “return” of sorts, but it sounds exactly like you’d hope it would
  • Pinegrove / Marigold – I’ve turned into a superfan, and its a little weird because it’s been years since I’ve gone this deep into one band. Their songs are the kind that grow more meaningful with each listen; their playing is subtle, and technically really good. (Side note: the last live show I saw was Pinegrove in Seattle with my son in Feb. Remember those days? )
  • Fontaines D.C / A Hero’s Death – Oh man, I love these guys. A Yeats-spouting punk with a killer band? Sign me up. The lead singer’s delivery isn’t for everyone, but I love the energy, the attitude. And, the band are players. If you liked the Walkmen, you’ll probably like these guys. 
  • Sylvan Esso / Free Love – this one got a lot of repeat playing in our house. Crazy good electronica production, with a voice that has a million emotions. Great hooks. Ferris Wheel has been stuck in my head for months. 
  • Khruangbin / Mordechai – This has been on heavy rotation while I work, I’d call it power-pointing music, but that sounds terrible. Just a terrifically chill sound, and probably the coolest band I know of. Super talented musicians and tasteful, too. 
  • Taylor Swift / Folklore – I’m not (too) ashamed to admit how much I loved the folklore record. Surprised? Sure.  But, that group or artists couldn’t miss. 
  • Waxahatchee / Saint Cloud – Just beautifully written and performed songs. In my top 5 of the last couple years. 
  • Wye Oak / Fear of Heights EP – I love how rich the sounds are on this whole record. Fear of Heights was one of my top songs from 2020
  • Disq / Collector – A bunch of super smart teenagers from Madison WI? What could go wrong. These guys might be the find of the year for me. Came out in January. Sort of like Pavement, but a little more stoned. Daily Routine was a top 10 song in 2020. 
  • Phoebe Bridgers / Punisher – My sons are embarrassed at how much I like her music, but i’m not. Kyoto is just a great song.
  • Jason Isbell & 400 Unit – Reunions – Well, just superb songs and great playing. 
  • Kelly Lee Owens / Inner Song – I fell in love with her first record, but I think I might like this one even better. Chilly/Cool electronica meets singer songwriter. Plus, the first song is a smart Radiohead cross over
  • Los Days / Singing Sand – Desert landscapes, spaghetti western soundscapes. Instrumental, but great for getting lost. Or, powerpointing. 

Also fun, but not from 2020: 

  • Nobody Can Live Forever –  This song gets stuck in my head all the time. This is from some hippy dude and it’s from 1976. You can almost feel how stoned everybody was when they were in the studio recording this. This is like the perfect driving song, for that time you’re heading home after the party with your buddies and your jamming out. We’re not here forever, you gotta love the people around you while you can, and be cool to each other. And, play your music: https://open.spotify.com/track/7w3ymiN6ciV6H11PpJLLIX?si=xG-zMy7ESdC-MJhjytL58Q
  • Post Doc Blues – I think John K Samson might be the best songwriter alive right now. Or Isbell. But, this song from a couple years ago got me through the pandemic. Everybody could benefit from having the narrator be their inner voice. Bonus points for working in the word dongle and powerpoint into a  beautiful song about hope when all around us is despair. https://open.spotify.com/track/5l1AMUJEA43GYqxpfTyhoT?si=L03XTDIYRP217y2xofEJWw
  • Superdrag / In the Valley of the Dying Stars – This sounds like straight up power pop from 2001 and it is. This record might be perfect, front to back. If you like thick guitars, heavy drums, and superbly written pop songs, i’m pretty sure you’ll love this. My Favorite record of 2020

The Internet is Still Amazing

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the stuff coming at you from the internet. But, when you look around the edges, there are amazing things out there. I still love examples of creative, curious people using tech/tools to develop surprising solutions.

I love this project:  Halt and Catch Fire Syllabus, from Ashley Blewer. It’s for people who love the show, Halt and Catch Fire, and want to create study groups to use the show to understand the history of technology in the US.

Why I love it:

  • Its a super niche need, getting filled in a super creative way
  • it’s a great example of what a syllubus can look like outside a typical classroom
  • The materials linked are deep, not-typical and bound to spark a lot of ideas

Forget Section 230, We Need To Think Bigger

This take from Benedict Evans on the challenges of Section 230 and regulating social media is, as typical, really thoughtful. The key takeaway is that a fight over Section 230 is sort of aiming low, at this point. Trying to make regulations around social media based on old forms (newspapers, radio, TV, phone companies) works if you assume those old forms and the new things work the same way-ish. And, clearly they dont. The size, the scale the speed, the targeting, the volume of makers and consumers – all those are different than radio or TV or magazines or pamphlets or telegraphs or phones or whatever. We need some new, imaginative thinking to address a future media/comms tools. Keep 230, but get some new laws in place to regulate.

Meanwhile, here’s a useful take from Joan Donovan at Harvard Business Review on the fundamental difference between current social media platforms and the media of the past. Key point: A system that incentivizes and rewards items (content, features, mechanics) that produce high engagement at scale, with no limits on the bad actors in the system, will inevitably produce disinformation.

Deep in her essay, she gets to the heart of the issue, something that’s not being discussed at all (emphasis mine):

In every instance leading up to January 6, the moral duty was to reduce the scale and pay more attention to the quality of viral content. We saw the cost of failing to do so.

So, do corporations have a moral duty to do anything? Is there a moral and ethical dimension to the working models of companies? Do we hold them to a different standard?