Running

I was just sitting down to write a post that I had already written in its entirety. My only issue was that I had written it in my head while I was running. And now the details are gone. I remember the general theme of the post, but I struggle to replicate what had come to me so naturally while I was running. This isn’t entirely surprising because I had been running a few days ago, and never bothered to write anything down. It was also a reminder of how valuable running is to my creativity and productivity at work.

Running has helped me solve some of the more challenging riddles I have faced in my career. I don’t receive the spark of a brilliant idea, like you see in the movies, but I seem to gain better perspective on the problem I am working on. This is especially important, as it is often crucial for me to understand what my client’s true motivations are. This isn’t to suggest anything nefarious, but client requests can often be filtered through several layers of people. Or situations aren’t necessarily well understood by senior leaders that engage consultants.

I think there is a larger lesson here about stepping away. Stop working and go do the thing that you enjoy, relaxes you, helps recharge your batteries. No matter how “in it” we are, how close we are to a looming deadline, how much work there is to be done, sometimes you need to step away. As strategists, we don’t solve problems through brute force. There aren’t always linear progressions to the right answer. Life can be messy, and it can help to step away and just let your mind wander.

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.

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.

Growth Is Painful

Your job won’t be easy. But it won’t be challenging in the way a difficult test is. It is messy, without a clearly defined problem, much less an easily identifiable solution. It will feel like you are spinning your wheels, wasting time. It will feel like you aren’t good at your job. This is how it should be. Because this is why a robot can’t do your job.

Look back a day, a week, a month. Has progress been made? It may not have been pretty, but the job got done. Most importantly, a replicable job got done. You are now the person that knows how to handle this particular challenge. You’ve learned. You’ve grown. It was painful.

These are the building blocks to a career. We learn through experience, which is why employers place such a premium on it. The only way to grow, to gain quality experience is to embrace the slog. Embrace the messy, painful, difficult situations that make you want to bang your head against the wall. Dive into the problems that shouldn’t be there, the ones that make everyone throw their hands in the air in frustration. Volunteer to figure out how to navigate politics, antiquated systems, difficult supplier or clients.

We aren’t all Nobel prize winners discovering game theory on a white board. This is how most of us will figure out what we are good at and establish our place in the world. It’s painful, but it’s worth it.

Digital Marketing Career Paths: Consulting

College students or recent college grads that are interested in a career in digital marketing will reach out to me occasionally. It’s a topic I know a lot about, but I almost always disappoint them when I tell them that I don’t actually do digital marketing. I consult on it. I help digital marketers leverage new tools and marketing teams develop new digital capabilities. But I don’t actually stick around to do any of those things. It’s worth noting that my firm does have people that stay behind to do the actual work, but that’s a different post.

So what do I do? Well, the common thread for me has been to work with marketing departments that are undergoing some kind of change. This change is usually geared towards becoming more digital and more data-driven. This may sound simple on the surface, but once you start to dig a little it gets complicated. Really complicated.

We help them organize their data. We help them organize their teams. We help them decide which digital capabilities they want. We help them understand which technologies and tools they should invest in. We help them install these tools. We develop org charts, processes, and governance to ensure everything runs effectively. Within each of these categories, there are other tricky problems that emerge and we help our clients solve these too. With as fast as technology and media is changing, there is plenty of work for consultants in the digital marketing world.

This path has been interesting and frustrating at the same time. You get to work with very smart, very senior, very cool people that do some cutting-edge things in digital. However, like I mentioned earlier – I don’t stick around to DO any digital marketing.

For those that want to become real digital marketers, there is an important caveat here. I have plenty of colleagues that started in consulting and are now DOING digital marketing in another industry. So if that is your end goal, consulting can help you get there. You also develop very valuable problem solving, critical thinking, presentation, leadership and teamwork skills, among others.