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!

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.