November 20, 2013

Advice for change junkies like me

If you know me, you know I love a challenge.

It's not fun unless I'm in the middle of solving a hard problem. Even better, it's a hard problem with high stakes requiring organizational change. The act of jumping in, assessing a situation, defining the opportunities, putting the right team together and watching them gain momentum - it is a rush! That's definitely where I find my "state of flow". Over the years, as I've chased my flow, I've had the opportunity to learn (and re-learn) two key lessons that may be helpful for other "change junkies" out there.

The current state is always worse than you think (and you can't fix everything at once).

When walking into a new change situation, I go in believing I have a handle on the challenges I will face. But I've learned this belief is kind of like wearing rose colored glasses, because you can't really know the truth until you get in there and get your hands dirty.

Too many times I have felt blindsided by an unanticipated speed bump. One recent example was the resource I relied on to execute my paid search marketing. He sat in the Search Marketing "center of excellence" within a matrix organization and was dedicated to my business. Given other fires burning, the search program wasn't my top priority. Yet over the course of a month's worth of status meetings, it became clear he wasn't performing. I had to put aside a number of other priorities for a few weeks in order to get it resolved. In this case, it was a fundamental misunderstanding of the chain of command and unfortunately, it cost the business a few hundred-thousand dollars.

I ascribe to the same advice shared in this HBR blog about turnarounds: you must address these unexpected challenges head on and at the time you uncover them. It's important to communicate openly about these speed bumps as you hit them, because it's likely to be a common, simmering problem that the team hasn't felt equipped to handle yet. And to insure your management chain understands that a new priority has emerged. Don't continue to feed the elephants in the room.

Work on being resilient.

There are so many speed bumps one can encounter - some you may be able to anticipate because you've hit them before, and unique ones that surprise you. I've learned that no matter how objectively "good" or "right" an idea, initiative or strategy may be, the organization has to be ready for it. This is true in both small and large organizations. And ready is more than lip service, ready means a shared urgency for making the key decisions and taking needed actions now.

This shared urgency is elusive, so you need to be resilient. I used to characterize this trait as being persistent, and while there is definitely an element of persistence in resilience - it is a necessary component - but not sufficient. Persistence implies staying the course valiantly fighting all obstacles in your way. It also implies a bit of tunnel vision, so you can miss the forest for the trees. Too much persistence may also get you labeled as stubborn and one-dimensional by peers and leaders - neither of which will help move your priorities forward.

Resilience, on the other hand, is what allows you de-personalize your response to setbacks so you are better able to synthesize new information, alter your approaches and persist in trying to execute the right ideas. But let's be clear, resilience is hard and sometimes even harder for professional women in leadership roles. It's a skill like any other that takes time, patience and awareness to develop.

The good news: if you can approach leading change situations by being open to the unexpected and working on resiliency, you will be better equipped for your next change fix!


November 7, 2013

Don't be Max Headroom with your virtual team

Do you recognize this guy? It's Max Headroom, a popular TV character in the mid 80's billed as the "world's first computer generated TV host".

Years before the Internet, Skype and YouTube, here was this charismatic, virtual man on our TV screens. He was seen only from the shoulders up, cracking wise in a bombastic way, while his image froze and skipped chaotically and his voice modulated strangely out of sync with the video. Here, watch a few clips for the context. (Humor me, I do have a point...)

Every time I hold a online meeting with my virtual team - all of them sitting in one conference room, me on my webcam - I picture my face on the big screen in their conference room and think, "from their perspective, I am Max Headroom." And that's not just because today's video conferencing technology still freezes at the worst possible times and there are audio glitches in every meeting. No, it's because while video conferencing with virtual teams members is lightyears better than "just" an email or a social stream comment or a phone call, it is still "just" virtual.

And virtual is not real life. Don't get me wrong, I am a big user of and believer in any and all the technology and tools that allow people to work flexibly. Flexibility to balance personal and professional comments or to work in a location appropriate for the task at hand, allows your team to give their best and is a must for today's workforce.

But as a team leader, step one is connecting with your team. That connection needs to be a personal, human one, not a virtual one. HBR's article Connect, then Lead explains that is our human desire to affiliate and be understood that drives this. Team members need to feel connected with their leaders in order to do their best work.

A virtual team environment, especially one where you, as the leader, are virtual, makes achieving this needed connection very challenging. I have learned you need to be both patient and deliberate.

Be Patient
I am biased for action, so this one is hard for me. Having led virtual teams for many years, and most recently teams where I was a virtual leader, this is a key lesson learned.

Authentic connection takes time so you must allow the necessary time for relationship building. People are looking for areas of commonality and consistency in behavior, and that requires multiple and varied kinds of interactions, both formal and informal, over time. So in situations where there are significant time zone differences that limit the available hours for meetings, conversation and interaction, you have to go into that situation knowing you'll need to go slow initially in order to go fast later. Like nine women can't make a baby in one month, you can't always accelerate achieving needed connection.

That being said, there are actions you can take to help build connective tissue with each interaction. And if you're deliberate about applying these tools, it will help to build and sustain good, virtual teams

Be Deliberate
Leaders of virtual teams must also be deliberate within their virtual interactions. I've learned a few tricks over the years. And when I saw this HBR Management Tip on building trust in your virtual team I had to smile, because it's one I use every day -- create forums for personal interactions to take place even in formal meetings. I always kick off online meetings with a personal anecdote designed to start a short non-work conversation. This "water-cooler-talk" helps to lighten the mood and remind everyone that we're a team of people collaborating.

Another deliberate move is to schedule and keep regular 1:1 meetings with every one of your virtual team members, not just your direct reports. You will meet and interact with your direct reports more often, but you still need to build connection with the entire team.

Don't be Max Headroom
In virtual teams, personal connection is still critically important. While technology can move us closer to real life interactions, there is still the danger of being "just" Max Headroom to your virtual team: a virtual, talking head they see on the conference room screen every week, not a living, breathing leader of a team they are proud to contribute to. Think about how you are being perceived by your virtual team and be mindful of the time needed to create connections.

November 4, 2013

Maximize impact from thought-leadership

We've all heard variants of the expression, "you can have it fast, good or cheap; pick two."

I am reminded of this saying every time I read yet another content marketing article telling me to "just" create great content your audience finds relevant. Well, duh. A recent Ragan post termed these generic exhortations "annoying" and I 100% agree.

So if it pleases the content marketing court, I'd like to stipulate that every marketing leader shares the goal of creating content that is both "great" and "relevant" in the eyes of their target audience. This is a never-ending quest, and we will not rest until that magic formula is found.

In general, I find it more actionable to share ideas around distributing, amplifying and repackaging the content you do create. Today, let's explore one idea for getting the most mileage from contributed, thought leadership articles. This needs to be one of the programs in every marketers toolkit, especially all my growth hacker marketers out there trying to build awareness and achieve cost effective scale.

My strategy for maximizing contributed content has three elements: Place it, Family it and Bring it Home.

Place it.
Contributed content can include bylined articles, recurring columns, guest blogs etc. With so many publishers on the lookout for quality content, you are sure to find appropriate outlets for your articles. Even when you do not have an executive or founder whose name can secure top-tier placements out the gate, you can still find ways to contribute content. Getting your messages out there, in any appropriate outlet, will have a positive impact on customer acquisition.

It's important to remember that while you are authoring articles to benefit your product, the articles themselves are not branded. The article needs to be helpful and relevant to the publishers' readers so there is no call to action to visit your website. Your objective with contributed content is to introduce the key thought leadership ideas within your desired themes that help educate and inform your target audience. Thought leadership can stimulate need identification in your audience plus help them understand how to best differentiate among different offerings in the category. Once your content is published, the next two elements can be immediately activated.

Family it.
'Family' in this context is my shorthand for the blogs and social marketing efforts of related products and brands. If you are marketing a product within a large organization, this could include blogs and social personas of other products and services as well as the corporate brand itself. Of course, not every marketer is lucky enough to have this setup. But even if you don't have a ready-made family, you still have the opportunity create your own 'family' of products and brands that can co-operate together and support this content amplification strategy.

First, your 'family' can and should amplify the contributed placement itself. This typically takes the form of a tweet or Facebook post sharing the published article link with their audience. But the impact can be extended when you repackage to make it relevant for the Family blog and social audiences.

When you repackage for Family, bring the themes and ideas introduced in the original, unbranded contributed content one step closer to both products/brands. Relate the features and benefits of the specific products and brands to the broader themes introduced in the contributed content. You want to find relevant ways to talk about both your product and the Family product. Many times this falls into a "better together" story where you can also feature a customer story to help illustrate the benefits. Again, you will link to the contributed article as you reference the themes, but you will also link to relevant conversion pages on your own and/or your Family's sites.

Bring it home.
Finally, you need to bring it home. In this step, you take the thought leadership ideas introduced in the contributed content and draw big, bright lines directly to your product and brand. Like with 'Family it', you first amplify the published contributed article itself through your blog and social channels. And then you can, on an on-going basis, reference the themes in thought leadership and point readers directly to conversion paths for your product and brand that highlight those themes.

Because your thought leadership content was identified from the core positioning and differentiation of your product - and these are fleshed out on your site - there will be many opportunities for your social team to reference the theme (and link to the published article) while also pointing readers to an optimized conversion path on your site.

All together now.
While the strategy may appear simple, its execution is more complex because, generally, different teams are responsible for the different elements. Contributed content often sits in communications and public relations, while Family sits in other organizations all together, often product and corporate marketing. Bring it home comprises website, content and social teams that have to work in concert. Articulating the strategy in this way helps align diverse and dispersed team so each understands their role in maximizing the benefits of contributed content.

October 30, 2013

Freemium is a "little black dress"

There are so many benefits of a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) subscription model that I'm not surprised that it's become the darling of the start-up set. And now even Enterprise software is moving in this direction.

The most attractive business benefit of SaaS is the predictability of revenue -- and in today's business environment, that is nothing to sneeze at.

The secret to SaaS success.

Adding freemium to SaaS can be the secret ingredient that has a key business benefit: improved marketing investment ROI. And as a marketing leader, isn't this our holy grail?

Freemium is when you give away (free) some valuable part of your paid-for (premium) product. Free + Premium = Freemium.

Freemium as a category includes limited-time free trials. However, in my experience, it is when you offer a persistent free experience that the most significant marketing efficiencies are achieved. Why? Because with a persistent free product your existing customers become marketing agents for your product. And that allows you to amplify the investment you made to originally acquire that user.

Let's do the math: freemium ROI is real.

Let's say you invest $1,000 to acquire a new customer with a lifetime value of $2,500. That's already an ROI to be proud of. Now if that customer were able to bring you two other customers over his lifetime, your Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) is now $300 for each of those customers, for a total lifetime value of $7,500.  Wouldn't your CFO love to hear that?

Of course there isn't just one thing you need to do in order to successfully execute a freemium business strategy. In an earlier post I likened managing a freemium business to flying a plane because marketers must actively watch and calibrate many different 'dials' up and down the funnel, all at once. But one of the most important things you can to do is to build the product experience in a way that takes advantage of social behaviors.

Successful deployment takes advantage of social behaviors.

Your product must be built to take advantage of the social, viral behaviors inherent in the problem your product solves. Social behaviors aren't just what happens on Facebook or Pinterest, and viral doesn't just apply to grumpy cat videos. Social happens any time one person shares an experience with another person.

Take a business meeting, for instance. I would bet that your first thought about meetings isn't that they are "social" or "viral". But, think again. When I am organizing a business meeting with you, I am inviting you to interact with me around a relevant, common interest. During that interaction, content -- in the form of written notes or whiteboard photos -- are created and shared. Guess what? All that is social behavior. If you are thinking about freemium, you need to take a fresh look at the problem your product addresses and think about how the relevant social aspects can be enhanced.

To be clear, I am not advocating social "lip service". It is not simply adding like or share buttons into the product experience. The product experience needs to remain true to the need it is addressing and the experience should facilitate the social behaviors already occurring around that need.

Take that dress out of the closet.

Freemium and SaaS may be the current "flavor of the month" but success with this model still comes down to an understanding of the customer need and creating an end-to-end experience -- from marketing through product -- that meets that need and delights the customer. For me, Freemium is like the "little black dress" -- a classic, just being rediscovered.

September 27, 2013

Good Leaders Get Out of Their Own Heads

A recent Harvard Business Review blog about team members who derail meetings, reminded me of Whitman's famous quote, "Be curious, not judgmental." Over the past few months I have shared this quote quite a bit. 

My current role has me working closely with a team in Copenhagen. Since I live near San Francisco, that's not very "close". In fact, it's over 5,000 miles, an 11 hour plane ride and a nine hour time difference. So in a typical workweek there are only about 10 hours of overlap "working" time - and that's only because I start my days with meetings at 6:30 or 7 am.

Yes, we use video conferencing and of course we use social business collaboration tools for managing team workflows and communications. Technology is how we can make it work. But it's absolutely not easy.

This experience has brought home for me just how easy it is for people to be influenced by 'group think' and subtle biases. In psychology it's called ultimate attribution error and it can be summed up as "when members of our group make a mistake, its an accident or an anomaly, but when members of another group do so, it's typical of them." 

Ultimate attribution error is apparent among people who interact every day, and it gets exponentially amplified when distance limits personal interactions and communications are primarily written and asynchronous.

In my situation, the two groups in question could not be more different. One group is the acquired start-up: a less than 20-person team, mostly co-located in one office in Copenhagen. And the other group is the acquiring multi-billion dollar company with thousands of team members in a division spanning multiple locations in California and around the world.

Even for seasoned leaders like myself who have gone through required hours of "diversity training" and have earned some self-awareness through the school-of-hard-knocks -- in the moment, I can and do get frustrated. It is difficult to always assume positive intent and to be authentically curious about the other team member's actions and point of view all day long, every day.

So multiple times each week I remind myself - and my team members in both locations - to stay mindful of this reality. I find it is especially important to take a moment in those emotionally charged times when you perceive the other person as "derailing a meeting” or “going too slow” or “doing something stupid”.   The HBR blog post says it best: you must “suspend your assumption that you understand the situation and others don’t.”

It takes strong leaders in both “groups” to be mindful of the potentially dysfunctional tendencies and biases that exist between geographically dispersed teams. Leaders must actively self-regulate their own attitudes and behaviors while also proactively address developing these important ‘soft’ skills in all team members.

I think I will post that Walt Whitman quote on my monitor to help me keep out of my own head.  What will you do?

July 1, 2013

Stop Calling Me "Ma'am" and See the Size of Your Tips Increase

Here's my suggestion for the hard-working wait staff and service workers outside of the Southern U.S.: please, please don't call your customers "Ma'am" because it will affect the size of your tip.

I rationally understand why you're calling me ma'am. I do. I'm older than you and it's a sign of respect when you don't know my name. Unfortunately, it's also jarring. It jolts me out of my pleasurable anticipation of coffee and into the realization that you perceive me as a "ma'am".

To me, being "ma'am'd" is a a cold-water-in-the-face reminder that I now can only look good "for my age" and not just look good. That society perceives me as less valuable and less relevant simply because I'm north of forty. 99.9% of the time, this doesn't cross my mind. It's just at that precise moment when someone calls me "ma'am".

I'm not alone here. One can find many blogs devoted to women reacting to the term ma'am.  Some react with anger like Kristen Hansen Brakeman, and some like Ronna Benjamin, vow to work on changing their negative perception and reaction to that salutation.

"So what," I hear you thinking, "I can't control how you feel, I am calling you ma'am with the best of intentions." But you should care about how I, and other women in the same age bracket, feel about being called ma'am - because it will affect your tip and our continued patronage.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Emotion First, all good customer experiences - both online or offline - originate from emotion. You don't want to create experiences where your customer starts "thinking." You want to keep them in the feeling zone and ideally feeling good.

Each time I am jolted back to the "thinking" zone, I am less likely to buy that baked good or linger over a second cup or mindlessly drop my change in the tip jar versus rationally putting it neatly back into my wallet.

My suggestion: just call every woman "Miss." The young women won't notice and the older women will continue having a good experience. Why not try it and test making the change in your standard operating procedures - I bet you'll quickly see the evidence in your tip jar.