Blind Spots: The Need for Inclusion

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Last month I wrote about the need to seek out women leaders. But, it goes further than that. More women simply need to be in the room and have a voice in that room. And, not just women, but people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. The reality is that we have blind spots. Even if we’re not consciously sexist or racist, we have blind spots. We make decisions based on our own experience and vantage point. So, if we don’t have a diverse set of people and perspectives with a voice in the room, we can be assured that we’re missing out on opportunities.

There’s some buzz lately about Amazon Video’s decision to cancel their new show Good Girls Revolt even though the show received 4.5 star ratings from over 18,000 viewers. There was no woman in the room when the decision was made to cancel the show, and seemingly a blind spot to the cultural struggle happening in America today in the wake of Hillary Clinton losing the election. And, the opportunity to offer audiences a show that reflects women’s struggle for equality and empowerment.

This article from The Atlantic tackles the issue – not just about the show, but more broadly about the need for more female consideration and inclusion. It’s worth a read.

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Settle the Debate

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I watched this episode of This Week In Startups yesterday where Jason Calacanis interviews Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin. Kelman shares several key learnings and advice for entrepreneurs and leaders, so it’s worth watching the episode.

The advice that stood out to me the most is that sometimes the team just needs someone to make a decision. As a leader, when you see your team paralyzed in an ongoing debate, you need to step in to settle the debate by making a decision – not necessarily because you know that the decision that you’re making is the right one, but because the team just needs a decision to be made in order to move forward. I’ve seen this so many times. There are no clear answers in business. And, teams can get wrapped around the axle debating based on data, experience and even opinion. Leaders need to feel comfortable stepping in to settle the debate – even if they don’t know they have the right answer.

This reminds me of Colin Powell‘s rule of thumb when making tough decisions: you should have no less than forty percent and no more than seventy percent of the information you need to make the decision. If you make a decision with less than forty percent of the information you need you are shooting from the hip and you will make too many mistakes. If you get more than seventy percent of the information you need to make the decision then the opportunity has usually passed and someone else has beaten you to the punch. You need to be comfortable making the decision with forty to seventy percent of the information you need to make the decision, and then go with your gut. Lean into your intuition. Many times it will be wrong, but often it will be right. And, either way, the team moves forward and learns from the decision.

It’s Time to Seek Out Women Leaders

It’s time we seek out women leaders. I’ve worked for male led companies my whole career. While I have always connected with some mentors to coach and develop me, mostly the companies that I’ve worked for have been harsh and competitive environments. The women that succeeded in these environments had to be as cut throat – if not more – than the men, having to sacrifice their personal lives to get ahead at work.

My wife, Courtney, just went back to work after five years at home raising our kids. She joined StitchFix because there was just something different about that company. Founded and led by women. Purposeful about how they develop their people. They encourage their people to take time off and actually check out of work when they do. They encourage their people to not over work themselves and to spend time with their families. Many employees are working moms with impressively balanced lives. And, yet, it’s an incredibly healthy business that hasn’t gotten caught up in the media and capital-raising frenzy of Silicon Valley, even though it’s founded and headquartered there. This opened my eyes to what women led companies can accomplish.

I recently joined WP Engine, another women led company. 2/3 of our executive team are women, including the CEO, CFO, CMO and SVP of Customer Experience. The company is values driven and has won no less than 5 best places to work awards in the last 2 years. The people are incredibly collaborative. The business is also very heathy and growing rapidly. It’s an exciting place to be. And, it’s a testament to the values and culture that our Founder and CTO (a man) instilled in the business from the beginning and that our leadership team has embraced and built upon.

My eyes have opened up to the power of female leadership. We need more women to step up into leadership roles – even if they don’t believe they’re ready yet. Statistically, women tend to hold back from pursuing new roles until they feel they are qualified and have the experience the role needs, while men tend to pursue new roles despite not having the experience. So, we need more women to step up and take the leap of faith that they are capable. As men, we need to actively seek out and encourage more women to step up into leadership roles. I think our world, businesses, governments and families will be better for it.

I discovered this TED Talk from Halla Tómasdóttir about her journey running for president of Iceland. It touches on the struggles that women face in becoming leaders, but maintains an inspiring tone. My favorite quote from the talk and the video below. Take a look.

“What we see, we can be. So, screw fear and challenges. It matters that women run. It’s time for women to run for office – whether it be the office of the CEO or the office of the President.”

The Art of Asking Questions

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The single best indication of someone’s abilities, from CEO on down to the front line employee, is the quality of the questions that he or she asks.

The more experience I gain in life, the more I’m convinced that the above statement is true. Not only does the quality of questions a person asks reflect that person’s curiosity – a character trait that is immensely important in the business environment – but also, it reflects the person’s ability to think effectively, and influence both decision-making and action.

All too often, leaders are measured by the frequency with which they speak and their loudness in the room. This gets misinterpreted as having a “presence.” They’re interpreted as the smartest, fastest person in the room, and the company becomes reliant on his visionary and decision-making capabilities. And, it leads to a command and control culture that actually handicaps the speed with which the organization can move and innovate.

By contrast, leaders that listen first and ask poignant questions can quickly lead a team to a breakthrough insight and enroll the team into action around that insight. Indeed, while people might follow an order, they still want to, and will, come to their own conclusions. If this conclusion is out of alignment with the leader’s order, the leader will quickly find his directives silently questioned, challenged and usurped in the daily actions of the organization. Brilliant questions, on the other hand, are designed to lead a team to the same conclusion, and, ultimately, to aligned action around that conclusion.

Questions reflect a person’s ability to expand the context in which an organization operates and the possibilities that an organization creates. Questions reflect a leader’s ability to coach and guide her her team. Questions reflect what is important to a person. Questions say a lot about a person. So, chose your questions wisely.

Managing for Collective Creativity

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Having spent my career working in creative industries from film and TV to marketing, I’m always interested in learning new ways to maximize the creativity in a team. This has become critical, not only in creative industries, but also in business at large. Collaboration is top of mind for CEOs as a need and skill set to drive innovation, and creativity is at the heart of collaboration.

Harvard professor Linda Hill, co-author of “Collective Genius,” has studied some of the world’s most creative companies. In this TED Talk, she shares a framework for how to harness a team’s creativity. This is an old favorite TED Talk that I thought I’d share with you today. Enjoy.

Time Blocking for Productivity

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I’ve been reading “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, and just finished a chapter on time blocking. This has been the single largest contributor to my productivity.

The art of time blocking comes down to creating (blocking) quiet, focused time in your day to tackle the meatiest, most critical tasks – those that require the most thought and time and effort but that will yield the largest results.

The book turned me on to Paul Graham‘s and Y Combinator‘s approach to time blocking, which Graham writes about in his post “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. “Makers” such as developers and writers need long, focused periods of time in their day to be productive. These are time blocks of several hours. Any meetings, conference calls or other interruptions can be highly disruptive to the maker’s productivity.  On the other hand, “managers” that create value primarily through interacting with people  in meetings, calls, hallway directives, etc. are used to scheduling their days in 30 minute and 60 minute time blocks. These two cultures of productivity can certainly clash if you’re not purposeful about how to manage them.

This also reminds me of a concept that I heard a startup founder speak about once: when you’re the founder of an early stage company you’re “writing” a lot. In other words, you’re doing a lot of the work yourself – coding, sales, marketing, etc. But, as you grow and hire a team, you’re role as the leader of the organization shifts from “writer” to “editor” – where you are delegating the writing to your team and then “editing” their work.

While, I’m not a founder, I have started several new teams and initiatives in my previous companies. Often times, I started as the first and only person, needing to prove the concept and pitch for funding. This concept of writing vs. editing is how I approach building new things. I start as the writer, rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty, gaining a deep understanding of the mechanics of how something works – or even developing the mechanics of how something works. Eventually, as we gain traction and funding and the ability to hire a team, I shift to editing mode. This is the same as shifting from maker mode to manager mode.

What I’ve found over time is that I’m happiest when I’m making time to both make/write and manage/edit. Solely focusing on one eventually becomes frustrating. I like to both create and build things, but also teach and coach people.

The busiest time of my life was between August 2013 – May 2015 when I was getting my MBA. During that period of time, I was transitioning off a significant initiative that I had built from $245K to $5.5M revenues in just 2 years – finding a good manager to succeed me and sustain the business that I had built. And, I was transitioning on to build a new consulting practice from scratch that would require a significant organizational change effort. I was traveling more frequently – several times a month. Meanwhile, I had two kids at home ages, 3 and 1 and a new baby on the way. Finding “balance” between school, work and personal life required a new level of intentionality with my time. Time-blocking is, eventually, how I designed it.

In year two of my MBA is when I really hit my rhythm. Below is my schedule:

  • 4am – wake up and read the news
  • 4:30am – exercise and meditate
  • 5am – writing time – during which I focused on the most critical thing that I needed to accomplish that day. Sometimes it was school work (homework or studying for an exam), and sometimes it was company work (usually a presentation of some kind). I would block as much time as I needed to get this one thing done, but usually by the early afternoon my concentration energy had been taxed. So, I shifted to editing mode
  • 1pm – 5pm – editing time – reserved for conference calls, meetings and emails.
  • 5-7pm – commute time / time with kids
  • 7-9pm – down time with Court (my wife)
  • 9pm – bed

Sometimes, if I knew I needed some extra time, I’d go to bed at 8pm and wake up at 3am. I also worked from my home office or a coffee shop or the hotel room frequently, so that I couldn’t be interrupted. Office time was the single largest disrupter of productivity. Working from home or the hotel also saved me unproductive commute times. I would only drive if I was going to be spending that 30-60 minutes on a call too.

When I tell people that I’m a 3-4am riser, they’re generally aghast.  “How can you wake up that early? I need my sleep,” they say. To which I respond, “Well, what time do you wake up?” The answer is usually around 6am. “And, what time do you usually go to bed?” The answer is usually around 11pm-12am. “Well, then I get the same or more sleep than you,” I say. And, I’m more productive with my time. At this point, there is usually an a-ha moment and a self-admition that they “just don’t have the discipline to keep that kind of schedule.” I didn’t think I had the discipline either when I started, but I had to for survival. And, time blocking was the key.

CMO Mondays: Have We Become Too Specialized?

A CMO recently asked me what is one of the biggest pitfalls I see brands falling into. The number one issue that I see is that marketers have become too specialized and too siloed, and therefore the full potential value of the brand is not capitalized.

Growth in complexity from technologies, channels and data.

As you can see from the slides above, marketing has experienced a proliferation of new technologies and channels, and this intimidates marketers and executives. In an effort to make marketers’ jobs easier, companies building products for marketers have actually made their jobs harder and more complex. So, now you see this trend of marketers becoming over-specialized and marketing teams more siloed. Someone might only know analytics, or only know social, or PPC and display, or brand and creative. And, they advocate for one discipline over the other because that’s what they know and are comfortable with. It’s the lens through which they view the world. But, great marketing isn’t about technology or channels. It’s about audiences. It’s always been about understanding audiences’ human behavior to create products, communications and experiences that enroll those audiences to buy into the brand. If we know our audience inside and out, then deciding which technologies and channels to apply to engage those audiences becomes much easier.

The exponential growth in data hasn’t helped in this matter. The need for data has reinforced our nature to play it safe and created some false positives. This is symptomatic across business – not just marketing. “Advertising is dead.” “Why invest in creatives when the data will just tell us what content audiences want? Then, we can use tools to automate content creation.” These philosophies are easy to spout in an era when marketers are being pressured to lean budgets. But, when everyone is swimming in the same direction, opportunity presents itself in the opposite.

Great marketers think more like anthropologists and communicate like orators.

The growing need for general marketers.
The best marketers are Renaissance people. They don’t live solely in the art bucket or science bucket, but, rather, they bridge the two. Great marketers think like anthropologists and communicate like orators – painting a view of the world and enrolling us into that view. They study human behavior from a mix of hard data (think analytics), soft data (think observations) and experience (think intuition) to arrive at universal human truths about customers and their wants and needs. From these truths, great marketers create solutions to those needs – whether they be in the form of products, services, business models, experiences or, simply, stories.

Two Thinking Systems
Perhaps my favorite article on this subject is “The Second Road of Thought” by Tony Golsby-Smith. Here, Golsby-Smith discusses how “the western world bought the wrong thinking system from Aristotle.” An excerpt below:

“This ranks as one of the worst investment decisions our civilization has made, and it has led us into using the wrong toolkits for our enterprises ever since. The thinking system we invested in was Aristotle’s ‘analytics’, and we made the choice around the era of the Enlightenment which ushered in what we today call the Scientific Age. That decision has proven so sweeping that it now monopolizes what most people characterize as ‘thinking’. Thinking processes are dominated by the culture of the sciences, and you get no better evidence of this than our universities, the home of thinking, where any subject must position itself as a science to be taken seriously. Traditional approaches to strategy sit fairly and squarely at this table of logic and Science.

What few people realize is that Aristotle conceived of two thinking-systems, not one. We made the big mistake of just buying one, and allowing it to monopolize the whole territory of thought. We should have bought them both, and used them as partners. Instead we have only one thinking tool in our hands and we are using it for all the wrong purposes. Here is how it happened.

Aristotle was the first person to codify thinking into a system. He did this for a reason: he lived in perhaps the most dramatic social experiment of human history, the invention of democracy by the Greek leader Kleisthenes around 450 BC. This political system did what no other had tried to do: it delivered decision making into the hands of human beings. Prior to that, regimes were governed by the king of the gods. That meant that no matter how sophisticated they might have been in terms of Engineering or Mathematics, they were not sophisticated about human reasoning, especially where decision making was concerned. Clearly, Kleisthenes’ political reforms created a great need to codify the processes by which humans think and can arrive at ‘truths.’ If ever there was a do-it-yourself manual, this was it! Ordinary humans were playing god in Aristotle’s Greece.”

Golsby-Smith goes on to describe the two roads of thought:

  1. THE LOGIC (or ‘analytics’) ROAD: This is ‘where things cannot be other than they are’ and is tied to the realm of natural science.
  2. THE RHETORIC (or ‘dialectic’) ROAD: This is ‘where things can be other than they are’ and is tied to the realm of human decision making.

The Logic Road is the process by which we diagnose what already exists, whereas the Rhetoric Road is the process by which we humans design the future. I would argue that while marketing is experiencing a renaissance right now, it is headed squarely in the direction of ‘analytics’ because of the overwhelming technologies, channels and data discussed above. As business and finance has disappointingly placed statistics (which is the mathematical application of diagnosing the past to predict the future) at the center of its theory and practice, so now marketers are following this trend. But, the breakthrough brands that capture our hearts and minds (and wallets) in the future will be those that master the art of rhetoric as equally as they master the science of analytics.

The art of storytelling
David Ogilvy was quoted as saying “It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.” Never has this been more true. Audiences today experience an attention deficit from the devices, channels, messages and alerts that bombard their senses every waking moment. Content is more fleeting than ever, and audiences’ retention is shorter than ever. Yet, great storytelling increases audiences’ sense of trust and empathy and increases their retention. This enables us, as marketers, to direct human behavior. Indeed, neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, taught us that character-driven stories consistently cause the synthesis of cortisol (a hormone that focuses our attention) and oxytocin (a hormone that creates a sense of empathy and connection). In other words, the better crafted and more relevant the stories we marketers tell about the brand, the more our brand will stand out to and connect with audiences. There is, apparently, scientific benefit to the art of storytelling. See the video below for more details on Zak’s research.

So, all marketers should be trained in storytelling. The Coca-Cola Company has invested in having screenwriters train their marketers, and IBM has recently been hiring screenwriters. If you want your brand to stand out, invest in striking creative and crafting remarkable stories. Yes, by all means, leverage new sources of data to glean insights about your audiences that can inform that creative. But, people today – more than ever – need to be inspired. We need brave brands (and brave marketers behind those brands) to take chances and inspire audiences into action.

The science of analytics
Meanwhile, every marketer should be trained in basic market research and data science, so that they know how to run their own analysis, as well as review others’. Not every marketer needs to be a practicing statistician by any means. But, the important thing is to understand what questions to ask when reviewing data, so that we know how to interpret and apply its findings to actions that the brand should take. Critical is knowing what you’re looking for in the first place in order to design an analysis and measurement approach that can glean the knowledge you seek.

The tactics of channels and technologies
If you have a handle on storytelling and analytics, then channels and technologies become fairly simple. From the data, we glean what story might resonate with customers, what channels they engage in, what their behaviors are in each of those channels, what content formats they engage with most, and we have a sense for what we need to measure in order to learn and improve over time. The trick is then to tell the brand’s story consistently and natively in each of those channels. And, we look for technologies that meet the specifications we need in order to tell that story effectively in each of those channels, and to capture the data we need to measure and learn from our activities.

The need for speed
Given the pace of business is only increasing, it doesn’t make sense to have large groups of hyper-specialized individuals trying to figure out how to work with each other, interpret each other and take actions away from each individual’s contributions. When one does not have context (experience) for what another person does, it’s difficult to make create action. Rather, if we want to move at the speed of business, we should have less, more well-rounded people collaborating. Thus, every marketer should gain experience in both the art and science of marketing. Read Scaling Agile @ Spotify by Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson to see how this approach has worked in agile software development at Spotify.