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.