Permission To Play

I came across this phrase in a Fast Company article on “Creative Imposter Syndrome”. The reason “permission to play” struck a chord with me is that the author mentioned that she felt like she received permission to exercise her creativity after something her boss said to her. She is not suggesting that she needed to ask for permission, but I think there are lessons in here for anyone that wants to try something new in their careers.

It is important to realize that no one is going to approach you to do something you’ve never done before. They are going to look for people that have done it before. That’s just how the world works. People are always looking for someone that has done the work before.

So if you are trying to pick up a new skill, you have two approaches available:

  1. The Nike approach. Just do it. Don’t step on anyone’s toes. Don’t go over anyone’s head. Don’t negatively impact your or your company’s position. But take initiative and do the thing you want to learn. When you hear a client or colleague talk about an initiative in your area of interest, take a first stab and set up time with your boss to talk about it. Send them an email that says “Hey, I put some thoughts around Client X’s request”. Odds are this new initiative was going to soak up lots of their time, so they will be happy to see someone willing to pick up the ball and run with it. Just make sure this doesn’t interfere with your day job.
  2. Ask. For when the Nike approach would get you in trouble or you need someone else’s help to get started. Ask in a way that will benefit the person’s permission you are asking. Things like “hey – I noticed that department ABC could benefit from XYZ, do you mind if I work with Person X to think about their options?” What’s the worst that they can say? No. Then you are back to where you were in the first place.

There is  third route to be taken, which is to go back to school or take training in your desired subject matter. This is always an option, but much more time and resource intensive. It is essentially your way to earn permission to play as a degree or certificate is often all the permission you will need.

What matters is that you are the only person in charge of your career. Most other people around you want to see you succeed and be fulfilled, but they are also probably incentivized to keep  you doing what you are good at. If something is new to you, you are probably not good at that thing yet. So until you express a desire to do this new thing, no one is going to ask you.

Aside: obviously don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, but by expressing a desire to take new things on (in addition to what you currently do), you are announcing to your company that you want to grow and take on new responsibilities. So if they want you to keep doing the thing you are good at, they should make sure you stay fulfilled. It may not seem like it, but if bring value to your team you do possess leverage in these instances. You aren’t just asking for a handout.

Keeping Too Much

More wisdom from Marc Maron’s podcast arrived today, this time from Bill Simmons, someone that I have mixed feelings about (best summarized by Deadspin). My personal feelings aside (which are 99% due to me being a Buffalo Bills fan and him being a Patriots apologist), there is no question that the guy is brilliant and was a visionary for sports media.

The insight that Maron unearthed today is about directing a documentary. Simmons said that the number one mistake that documentary directors make is that they keep too much. They fall in love with what they have created and they don’t cut material that doesn’t add to their overall story.

This is directly relevant to life in consulting. Often the work we do culminates in a powerpoint presentation, of which 20 slides are presented to a client, and another 40-300 slides are relegated to the “appendix” (aka slide grave yard). These presentations are usually developed by teams, with individual contributors “owning” certain slides. As the presentation date nears, senior leaders get involved and, more often than not, completely obliterate everything that the team has developed.

This can be frustrating, but it is a very important step. It took me a few years of consulting to learn this, but the goal of any presentation should be to tell a story. Narratives are how we organize our thoughts as humans. No matter who we are, how smart we are, how senior we are, our thoughts are organized in narratives – and that is how we make decisions.

Frequently, someone will put a week’s worth of work into creating a slide that turns out great. It makes sense of complex data, it is visually appealing, and it makes the team look very smart. But when it comes time to review the presentation in its entirety, it doesn’t fit into the story. The mistake I would make early in my career is to force the story to fit around these impressive slides. What I have learned, however, is that nothing is more important than the story. I will never forget the time a very senior person in our organization said, “we create great slides, and fall in love with them, but we have to kill them”.

Which brings us back to Simmons. I can only make assumptions about what it’s like to create a documentary, but I imagine there are parallels to consulting. A documentary typically covers a complex topic, one that requires viewers to understand a backstory. There are generally interviews or first-hand research that needs to be conveyed. Finally, their needs to be some sort of resolution.

This is what consulting is. Clients come to use with their most complicated problems. We often need to help them to define the problem – or at least help them articulate it for their counterparts – in a way that communicates business impact. We need to present findings – often employee interviews or customer data – in a way that makes sense to a broad audience. Then, depending on the scope of the engagement, we need show a path forward for the client. The path forward is really what drives the narrative of any presentation. Anything on a slide – a graphic, text box, sentence or word – that does not add to the story, should be removed.

Fred Wilson expresses a similar thought on his blog today, about entrepreneurs considering alternative formats to pitch decks. His key message is to find the medium that works best for you to convince him to invest in your business. I would argue that the goal is to tell the best story. To help the VC understand who you are, why your business will be successful, and why your team would work well with theirs.

I imagine that it is more difficult for documentarians to know what the narrative is, because they are usually covering a very broad topic (someone’s life, a war, jazz, food, a year, a country, a state, a city) and the narrative can go off in any number of directions. In consulting, we have the benefit of direction from our client – and the ultimate understanding that we are there to help our client save money or make money.

Re-entering the Real World post-MBA

There are plenty of complications when entering the real world after taking a few years off to get your MBA. One thing I realized quickly is that I was no longer analyzing things from the perspective of a CEO. Most of the thinking you do in MBA coursework is through the eyes of an executive, which makes sense. It also makes sense that I should return to my place as a cog in the wheel immediately following my MBA. Nevertheless, it can be jarring.

I never expected my clients to hand over the reins of their companies and ask me to make key strategic decisions for them. The issue that I had, was the realization that my work was not directly related to what I had learned in school. It further compounded the already complicated question of “am I using my MBA?”.

I remember early on in my first year, hearing a second-year student say, “this isn’t trade school”. He advised that we seek to learn as much as possible and not focus on building skills for a job. I still think that this is valuable advice. But it doesn’t counteract the steep learning curve waiting for you post-MBA. It also requires that you find ways to bring out the value of your MBA for your employer. I like to think of the equation as this: the experience everyone else has + MBA = more valuable employee. The key to the equation is “the experience everyone else has”. This assumes you can acquire all this experience. This is where networking, rolling up your sleeves, volunteering and internships all come into play.

No road out of business school is an easy one. MBAs are expected to tackle difficult tasks, work long hours, and be prepared for anything. This road might not be easy, but it is rewarding. It offers flexibility and plenty of career options.

Jason Alexander Gets Business Leadership

Jason Alexander gave a tremendous interview on WTF with Marc Maron recently, during which he used a metaphor to talk about acting that resonated with me. While studying acting in college, he learned the tools of acting, but was never taught how to turn those tools into a successful career. He has obviously succeeded, but had he not found fame, he argues that he wouldn’t have known how to create work for himself. He didn’t understand the politics of getting something made, he didn’t know how to write parts for himself, and he certainly didn’t understand the business side of things.

His metaphor was that had he been studying to become a construction worker, he would have been taught how to swing a hammer, how to use a saw, and how to use all of the other tools that are used in construction. However, if someone asked him to build a house, he’d be lost.

I find this metaphor to be very relevant to a post I wrote on specialization. In it, I argued that recent college graduates seeking a career in digital marketing should seek to specialize in a skill or tool. The specializations I refer to are similar to the acting tools that Jason Alexander refers to.

However, I think Jason Alexander provides some additional insight, where my post fell short. That is how valuable the skill of the generalist/strategist are. Far too often, for those that know how to swing a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. It’s great to be able to swing a hammer well, but the hammer needs to be used skillfully and to address the right problems. Believe it or not, this is not always the case.

This is where I come in – the generalist, the strategist. I may not swing a hammer well or even know how to swing a hammer, but I know when to pull in the hammer swingers (or throwers). Using Alexander’s metaphor, I can design the house for you, but I’m going to pull in the right person to use the right tools at the right time. If you were to go directly to the expert hammer swinger, guess what they would start doing immediately? Start hammering.

What Alexander is very keen to that I omitted – is that understanding your craft or specialization is crucial. If he didn’t have the tools of acting, he never would have made it as George Costanza. However, turn that skillset into a successful career you should seek to understand the bigger picture. Understand how your work fits into the overall strategy of what your organization is trying to accomplish. If your role is to optimize your company’s website, understand that this is tied to a larger goal – to generate awareness, drive sales, to collect information. Understanding how you fit into the overall puzzle, and how the other pieces of the puzzle fit together is the key to leadership.

I realize that co-opting a metaphor for a completely separate point is not the greatest writing, but I TOLD YOU MARC MARON WOULD HELP YOUR CAREER!

Podcasts

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. Probably too much. Many of the podcasts I listen to are purely for entertainment purposes, but I believe that there are some that  help me to learn and grow. For the latter group, I created this list: Podcasts that will help your career.

I do think there is a lot of value in podcasts as a medium. It’s great to have a forum for intelligent, entertaining and engaging people explore interesting topics or just share their thoughts for as long or as short as they deem reasonable.

On this list I share why I think each podcast can be beneficial to your career. I will update the list periodically, since I am always on the lookout for new podcasts to listen to. Suggestions and feedback are always welcome.

 

Do You Use Your MBA?

I am often asked if I feel that I use my MBA a lot in my career as a consultant. It’s a difficult question to answer, because MBAs aren’t lawyers or doctors who practice a very specific skill. And there is certainly no license that accompanies our degree. As an MBA, you develop some quantitative skills, which you are likely to use daily if you go into finance.

For those in Marketing or Consulting you are more likely to find value in the frameworks you develop with which to approach problems. These are often developed through the case method, and they are meant to give you a toolset for when you face complex problems. The complicating factor is that when you recall these frameworks, you don’t consciously reach into a toolbox, select a specific tool, and thank one of your professors. You attack each problem in a unique way, and in the end, you really don’t know if your MBA benefited you or not.

This can be a little tough to live with. After all, most of us pay handsomely for our MBAs. I don’t have a great answer for MBAs to help them feel good about their investment. I take solace in the fact that people will seek me out for their difficult problems. I don’t think I could have done this without my MBA. The coursework, interactions with fellow students, and extracurriculars made available to me all contributed to my reputation as a problem solver.

It also really helps to be quantitatively sound. While I am not crunching numbers every day like my financial counterparts might be, I frequently work with “quants” and encounter all kinds of data. The ability to dive into data has proved very beneficial to me.

So yes, I believe that I use my MBA. I think that it is worth it. I will KNOW that it is worth it once I have my loans paid off.

Specialize

Digital marketing is often talked about in general terms. I hear young people describe their career goals as wanting to become a “digital marketer”. They have identified a growing field to join, which is good, but this is far too general. What do you see yourself doing, I will ask? On a given day, in a given moment? Are you pushing out an email? Are you sending a tweet? Analyzing web traffic? Designing a mobile app?

The thing about digital marketing is, everyone gets it at about 10,000 feet. However, when you start to zoom in, it can be difficult to get everything at 1,000 feet. It is nearly impossible to get everything, or even more than two or three things at 100 feet. An optimization expert probably can’t design an effective email campaign. A social media strategist would probably struggle to build actionable segments in a database. Each of these things requires a different skill set, and requires that successful individuals spend a lot of time developing their expertise. It simply isn’t reasonable for someone to be an expert in all areas of digital marketing.

Depending on your level of experience, you may not need to have a specialized skill set just yet. However, I have found that it is beneficial to have a specialized area of interest that you can speak to intelligently. There are plenty of areas worth specializing in that don’t require many extra years of advanced education. You can specialize in a function (email or analytics) or specialize in a specific tool (Google Analytics or Adobe Campaign). The specialization doesn’t necessarily require a certification (but those help). It is important that you quickly acquire relevant experience that you can speak to. What’s the best way to get this experience? See above comment about certifications.

I fall into the category of a generalist. If I’m trying to sound important, I’ll call myself a Digital Strategist.  If I could do it all over again, I’d probably have at least one specialty that I could fall back on. While I have managed to succeed as a generalist, certain doors within the consulting world have remained closed to me.  Being a generalist requires you to be develop a reputation for having “softer” skills, such as problem solving, industry expertise, quantitative skills, business acumen…and it helps if you can bundle more than one of these. It does offer some flexibility – I don’t have to worry about a tool or technology falling out of favor. But I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked if I have experience with email, asset management, analytics, or lead tracking tools. This specialized experience would have opened doors for me, leading to even more valuable experience.