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.