Posts by jcuene

Digital marketing & innovation leader. Founder of Fahren. Previously at GoKart Labs, General Mills, Ameriprise. MPLS. Husband to Andrea, father to 2. Lover of bikes, food, beer and rock'n'roll.

Where’s Walt When You Need Him?

When I did my graduate work on Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and the American, civil religion of democracy, I got eye rolls from my professors for wasting time on a well trodden topic. Whitman was “over” (because who cares about form/structure and authorial intent anymore) and Kerouac was for dilettantes (which i guess I was), kid stuff. They were deep into post-structuralism, Foucalt, semiotics and Gramsci. But, i loved history, politics, religion and reading, so i got to do a little of all of those through my work.

When i watch the shitshow that is America circa 2020, I wish i could get a do-over on my thesis. The one I wrote was boring, poorly argued, not very interesting. What i probably should have focused on is the role of a creative, media celebrity in influencing ideas about politics and culture. I should have turned it into, effectively, a media studies project.

In their times, both Whitman and Kerouac were, in their own ways, media darlings. You could make an argument that Whitman was one of the first self-made influencers. If he lived today, he’d have a couple million followers on Insta and YouTube. Kerouac was one of the first post-WW2, mass media literary stars, pulled to prominence by editors and journalists and PR people who loved what he was saying, but still had to perform in their day jobs. They both had important messages about America, why we should love it, and how we should savor the elements of America that make democracy great. They both wrote beautifully about the role of the individual vs the greater culture.

Importantly, they also represented – and were presented in the media of their times – two different directions the American culture might go if the personal freedom inherent in a liberal democracy were taken to their extremes. Whitman, the communitarian, celebrated the beauty of a gajillion different identities brought together by the ideals of American democracy. Kerouac, the seeker of individual transcendence, was mostly focused on “kicks” and the freedom to follow his own path. If he lived and sobered up, he probably would have turned into a hermit monk or a libertarian.

The media of their times used both of these guys as a way to talk about American democracy. The audiences learned a little bit about democracy via the stories and the subsequent reading of Kerouac and Whitman’s work.

There are probably a lot of dissertations out there on the outsize influence Kerouac had on the hippies and “back to nature” culture dropouts of the sixties. I know there are plenty on Whitman.

When I watch the videos from the All Gas, No Brakes guy, I see the edge cases (i hope) of American freedom, pursuit of “kicks” and happiness run amok. When i watch peaceful protests, I see some hope. But, who is out there sharing a view of what democracy can and should be? Someone who isn’t a politician? Where’s the Oprah of political philosophy, someone making it easy to understand how we’re all supposed to act in a super diverse culture, but still live together in peace.

We need Walt Whitman right now. Or, something like him. A poet of democracy, someone that can teach and model what our American way of life can (and should be). Someone speaking beautifully, deeply about stuff no one wants to think about anymore: How we live together in a democracy, the beauty of the concept of “out of many, one”. Maybe they’re out there on Tik Tok? Maybe they’re streaming on Twitch?

GSD: The Maker’s Schedule for the CEO?

We’re a couple years into our “startup” journey with Fahren and, oh man, am I learning a lot about how NOT to manage my schedule. But, I think there might be a better way.

While I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in our short time, I’m one of those guys that can’t stop thinking about how to do more and do it better. As the CEO/Founder, it’s my responsibility to make sure we’re on track and driving this whole thing forward. It’s humbling to say it, but “clock management”- my time management skills (or lack thereof) – might be one of the things that is creating drag for us. If we want to accelerate, I have to be better at GSD.

My whole career has been an attempt to excel in what Paul Graham calls the “manager schedule”. Its been a schedule designed around 1-2 hour meetings, lot’s of variety throughout the day, and, a blend between quick decisions and deep consideration. Successful managers and directors and VPs were the busy ones, stacked up in meeting. A day full of meetings typically indicated more busy-ness and, by the power of the transitive property, more busy-ness meant “success”. In other words, a typical workday in corporate America is mixed bag of start/stop, high and low pressure, inefficiency. In those days, I had to come into work at 5 AM to get my “deep work” done in the quiet hours before the meetings started. It was a weird schedule, but, I was pretty good at that.

The team at GoKart Labs (RIP) were super talented makers, some of the best, most creative folks I’ve ever worked with. There, I learned the importance of the “Maker” schedule, where the focus was on the deep work that resulted in smart, clever solutions to gnarly problems, whether it was technical, creative or product strategy. I understood (and still do) the problem of context switching, and the lost creative momentum and productivity that happens when you are on the hook to make something great, but your day is broken up into 1 hour meetings. Back then, because I was a manager at the time, that was sort of a theoretical problem. Now the shit is real to me.

At Fahren, we’re building the business and, as the CEO/Founder, I’m a both a manager and builder, too. I’m a maker of things: Proposals, strategies, concepts, blog posts, etc. I’m supposed to be both a doer while I work “on” the business (i.e. figure out our healthcare plan options, pick some software for X), a doer while I work “in” the business (e.g. work on client engagements) and a maker (of ideas, posts, industry analysis etc). I’ve been trying to do all of it on a “Managers” schedule and it’s not working especially well. I have to make some changes, fast.

This isn’t an unexplored dilemma. These days, we’re all dealing with it to some extent. But, it’s one thing when your clock management skills get in your own way, and another when your lack of skills is holding back the rest of your team. Managing the balance between the two types of work is, I believe, a critical skill that any “ready” leader needs to hone. So, I’m going to try a couple adjustments.

  • Workshop Mornings – I’m going to pick at least one morning a week to block off as my “workshop” time, where I can focus on doing the deep work: writing, researching, planning, etc.
  • Meet and Greet Blocks – I’m going to block off a couple afternoons a week for the kind of meetings that would otherwise get interspersed throughout my schedule: Intro meetings, interviews, sales calls, regroups, etc.
  • Office Hours – I’m going to leave my schedule open for a 2-3 hours each week for random, drive-by talks. If folks call or want to video conference, these would be the time slots to do it.
  • No Meeting Fridays – I’m going to try (really hard) to not schedule meetings on Fridays if I can help it. If a client wants to meet, I’ll do it, but I won’t schedule it. In general, Fridays’ don’t seem like the most productive days and, at least in the summer, not much gets done after 1 PM anyway.

I’m going to try this for the 3rd quarter of 2020 and see how it goes. I’ll make adjustments at the end of September. If you’ve cracked the code on this balance, please let me know how you did it. I’m all ears.

What Comes After Zoom? Video everywhere and Then What?

I’m on a bit of work break right now and that means i’ve not had an online meeting in over 10 days. So, no Zoom, Hangouts, MSFT Teams, Slack video, WebEx, Skype, UberConference, GoToMeeting or Facetime (all of which i used in the two weeks leading up to my break for work).

You won’t be surprised to know I haven’t missed the meetings at all. At least, not the work part. I miss the social interaction of course. But, i don’t miss the small task of figuring out which tool to use for each of my meetings or fiddling with the equipment to make sure it worked and i could hear and be heard.

Zoom seems to have emerging as the leader because it’s easy, relatively simple, and reliable. It just works. But my time away has me wondering what’s going to come after Zoom?

I tend to agree with Benedict Evans, that video eventually just be a feature that every app has as part of it’s core offerings. Your project mgmt app will enable video interactions, your commerce apps will have video for customer support, etc.

But, in the meantime, there will be really interesting innovation ahead as, Evans says, “There’s lots of bundling and unbundling coming, as always.” Until, “Everything will be ‘video’ and then it will disappear inside.”

I’m curious about the way video is going to reshape the way we design our apps, once we make it a core feature. See, for instance, the vision of the Makespace team, where video is the interface for collaboration in realtime and more. I’m also curious how video gets used to support formal networks at work (think: Business unit conversations, meetings, projects, etc.) and informal networks (i.e. – peer groups, networking groups, etc.). I hope we see more than updated takes on House-party for work.

Radical Centrism Needs A Rebrand 

I’m fatigued beyond words with the two political parties we’ve got to choose from in the US. There has to be another way, another way to think through all the problems we’ve got in the States. And, while there are literally billions of opinions, there’s only two viable parties. So, i’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Third Way and  Radical Centrism.

 

There is a premium on civility among Radical Centrists that, while we all believe it is essential for Radical Centrist purposes, is intrinsic to who we are as people with a wide variety of interests. For most of us this is an effect of religious faith, including something similar among good-intentioned people who may be classified as humanists –in the sense that the word is used historically to denote someone who seeks wisdom from many different sources, not limited to religion.

Source: A. Radical Centrist Principles and Values | Radical Centrism

But, given where we are, the concept of “Radical Centrist” won’t really fly and while “Third Way” suggests a clear positioning as an alternative, it’s just pointing a direction.

What we really need is a rebrand. Who wants to write the brief?

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.