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.

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. 

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.

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.

Are You A Strong Node?

After around 15 years of advocating for the embrace of "Digital Marketing", we're in the early stages of being advocates for embracing marketing for a digital world. I first heard this from Mark Comerford, but like all truisms, i feel like i had heard it before. It's a nice verbal flip, of course, but it's also true: "Digital Marketing" as a separate, distinct category for marketing needs to go away, and in it's place we need to simply be marketers to people who are connected digitally across so many devices, applications, networks, and touchpoints. That is, all marketing is or should be "digital" marketing.

But, Commerford actually makes a point of distinguishing between the word "digital" and "networked", preferring "networked", presumably, because it implies what happens (we get networked to each other) instead of how (via digital means). All of us digital marketers have spent so much time talking about the "how" of digital marketing – all our jargon, our easy comparisons with traditional, our smug satisfaction about being on trend – that we haven't paid enough attention to what's really going to happen when all this stuff takes hold. More importantly, we're not spending enough time understanding how *our* behavior should change when we're all networked.

Those of us who have been around for a while owe it to others to be at our best, to ensure they're benefiting from our experience and knowledge. It's democratic, maybe a little socialistic, but we have to ensure we are acting like modern leaders connecting our peers together to ensure the effect is bigger than the sum of the parts. The best outcome for the best marketers, i would argue, is becoming a strong node in a network of likeminded marketers. We need to connect the players into the hard lessons we all learned. So, the question is, are you a strong node? Here are the questions to ask yourself: 

Are you a connector? Do you work hard to make new connections to other marketers, learning from them and connecting your friends to others who could benefit from the relationship? Are you bringing new folks and new ideas into the conversation? 

Are you a repeater? Do you take the signal your hearing – the message, the content – and clean it up  so it can be passed along effectively? Do you make sure the flow of knowledge and info is going on to the next user on the network? Are you passing it along and getting it to the right person? 

Are you communicating in a common protocol? Are you using weird jargon (um, like "Strong node") or are you focused on keeping the messaging as simple as possible. A common language helps info flow faster and makes it easier for new participants to find their way. 

Are you a Hub? Are you enabling others to plug into the flow of knowledge you're seeing? Do you make it easy for new folks to get connected?

Are you a router? Do you break the complex stuff into easy to understand, easily simplified "packets" so the knowledge can flow easier? A good router will ensure the most pertinent info gets to the right node as efficiently as possible. It could be as simple as forwarding an email, or as involved as introducing one marketer to another.  

Are you adding value? Whether its ensuring a good signal/noise ration, volunteering to be a hub, router or access point, there are many ways a good marketer can help drive some larger, pursuit-driven objects. But, it all starts with learning ways to ensure the rest of the nodes refers to you. 

Do you create Bufferbloat? Do hold onto the information you have? Do you obfuscate, complexify, or otherwise mystify those you are communicating with? Then, you're creating bufferbloat: You're holding information back, and preventing it from moving efficiently through the system

When the evolution goes well, we all end up better for our effort. That's the network effect in action. When it's NOT done well, it's a broken network that doesn't generate strength.