How do I know I’m ready to be the boss?

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Photo credit: GDS-Productions

The Strategist Survey tells me that heads of department range from as few as 8 years of experience upward to 20 years of experience. There is someone out there in the US who is head of their department making $100K and there are quite a few making over $300K. That’s a pretty huge spread of experience and salaries all labeled “Boss.”

So how do you know when you’re ready to lead a department? The truth is you may never be. You may decide that the politics aren’t for you. Or that starting your own thing is the way you wish to express your boss-ness.

But then there are those who want to try to grow a company that already exists by harnessing the talents of a group of people. How do you know when you’re ready for that?

For me, it happened in the middle of an interview. I thought I was talking to StrawberryFrog Amsterdam about a director role within a small, but already established team. It turned out they wanted someone to lead the department. The idea of being the boss scared me a bit – was I ready? But it also excited me. As I cycled home along the canals after my interview, my brain couldn’t stop sparking ideas about how I would do things if I got the gig.

Then I got the offer and I accepted. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that. When you’re leveling up from team member to team leader, it’s almost as simple as transforming the belief that the leadership team has in you into your own belief that you can do it. Your confidence swells when your peers see something in you that maybe you don’t even see in yourself.

The clues of your potential are there though. You’ve helped win accounts. You’ve taken a newbie under your wing. You’ve had quite a few performance evaluations steering you forward and upward. And you enjoy the work for the most part. You suspect that with more autonomy, you’d enjoy it even more.

Sometimes all you need to accelerate your growth is to be wanted. All you need is a group of people to want to work with you. Sometimes the title is like the feather that Dumbo the elephant clutched to thinking it gave him the ability to fly.

I’m writing this post today because I know of a cool group of people who are looking for their head of strategy here in Miami. They’ve won big awards. They’re young. They want to see what they can build together. They just need the right strategist to help them grow.

If that might be you, please get in touch.

Or if you have some advice to share for that period of transition into leadership, I know I’d like to read it.

I get quite a few emails asking for advice so I’ve decided I’m going to try to use this blog as a place we can ask questions and share advice. If there’s a topic you’d like discussed, send me a note.

Join me in Miami Jan 6th for an Advanced Presentation Workshop

This idea is a bit mad. I’ve been looking into a company called Oratium and I would really like to take their one-day workshop. In fact, I mentioned them in yesterday’s post to a planner looking for advice on how to up his skills. Trouble is, they aren’t holding their next event until February. But if we can pull together 20-25 people in the next few days, Oratium is available to come to Miami on January 6th.

Why this workshop? Oratium preps all of the Cambridge TEDx participants using their approach. In their words:

Through a deep understanding and application of the latest research in cognitive neuroscience (how people process and retain information), Oratium has developed a simple and powerful program that teaches how to construct compelling communications, in any form.

The program is designed for:

  • Anyone for whom communication/presentation skills are critical to success

In this program, participants learn:

  • The six most common communications mistakes and why they occur

  • A comprehensive, proprietary framework for communications design that solves for these mistakes

  • A suite of simple, powerful tools and tactics that can be used immediately

  • robust, repeatable process for designing deeply impactful and compelling communications

For the more detailed description, click here.

The workshop costs $1,000 USD to attend, travel costs not included. There is a great meeting room in my building with high ceilings and lots of light (see below) and I live close to The Standard Hotel on South Beach which is a lovely place for a winter break. Maybe just maybe there just are 20 of you out there desperate for some sun and curious enough to take this class with me?

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To make the most of your time, I will also plan a dinner the night before (pay-as-you-go) where I will facilitate a reciprocity ring. Each person will get the chance to share a challenge they are facing and the community we create will offer their advice.

This is so last minute I am definitely feeling a bit daft posting. But in the past 6 weeks, I’ve taken 2 separate trips on a lark with less than 7 days of notice. It can be done! The question is, are you in?

You can contact me through this site if you don’t have my email address. Curious to see if we can create something special together.

What would you do?

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Photo credit: M. Kamran Meyer

I received a heartfelt request for help in my inbox this week. The writer has switched from a scientific field into account planning/strategy in the newer digital department of a well-known agency. He’s been in the role less than half a year.

Sadly, as you well said at the beginning of your book, employee development plans are non-existent. I was promised mentorship and that’s not really happening. It’s very frustrating because I made a big change and I just want to learn, not play around.

He goes on to ask what would I do if I were in his shoes and what kind of training he might look into to improve his skills in lateral thinking, strategic thinking, presenting, and creative writing.

What would you advise? Please add to the conversation in the comments below. This person will be reading and deeply grateful for our help.

So here goes, writer-friend; since you asked, here’s my advice:

From my perspective, while painful, I do think it’s best to stay in the role for one year. Our business moves fast and it is often surprising how quickly time flies when we are constantly under deadline. Your supervisor probably feels like you just started a few weeks ago.

Plus, I can say from my experience that this strategy stuff takes a load of time to get the hang of. I was more miserable than not when I started. And then slowly it began to suck less and less. Or suck in new ways so at least it was novel. Here’s a pertinent quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic (page 150):

I recently read a fabulous blog by a writer named Mark Manson, who said the secret to finding your purpose in life is to answer this question in total honesty: “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”

What Manson means is that every single pursuit–no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem–comes with it’s own brand of shit sandwich, it’s own lousy side effects. As Manson writes with profound wisdom: “Everything sucks, some of the time.” You just have to decide what sort of suckle you’re willing to deal with. So the question is not so much “What are you passionate about?” The question is: “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”

Now, while you chew the shit sandwich on your plate at the moment, I do think an honest conversation with your supervisor is in order. Instead of complaining that what was promised has not materialized, start the conversation with an honest assessment of anything you think you have learned so far coupled with your sense of where you need to improve. Use the session to map the priorities of your clients and the agency. What one skill should you focus on next? When you can both agree to one skill, it will make it easier for your supervisor to keep it in mind when development opportunities (new projects on clients you are not working on, friends of the supervisor who might be able to teach you a case study, great video talk online, etc.) present themselves.

And on your side, with this laser focus, you can pursue people, books, talks, and conferences in your limited free time so that you will show demonstrable progress. When we pursue too many areas of development we gather scraps here and there that don’t add up to much. Have a look at this video of Josh Kaufman where he posits that we need to put in just 20 hours to bust through the frustration barrier of incompetence in learning anything. A lot less daunting than the whole 10,000 hours thing.

While I do recommend sticking it out for at least a year, I also believe we shouldn’t invest any more than a year making no progress. If you have the conversation with your boss, get aligned on your learning priority, make the extra time to pursue it, show demonstrable progress and then don’t get any additional interest shown or mentorship extended in your direction? Time to move on.

Now, on your specific requests, just keep in mind I am not recommending trying to tackle all this at once. That’s the boil the ocean strategy to learning, as the cliché goes. I’m an advocate of the elephant eating strategy, as in: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Here are some resources I would look into divided by skill.

Lateral thinking – This one is my favorite because ANYTHING you do that is not your daily grind will help. Have a read of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From as a primer for creativity then follow your curiosities wherever they take you: scroll through meetup.com and pick something you wouldn’t normally attend, take up a personal project like creating a podcast on a subject you want to know more about, sign up for the next class you hear about, no matter the topic. Be open to serendipity as well, even if you’re not that interested in a topic, but someone else wants you to explore it, like I was when my husband insisted I learn how to play video games.

Strategic thinking – This one is harder because I believe it comes from the hard slog of working through problems over and over. Studying ways of working, as in reading books, can help. My favorites include: Good Strategy Bad Strategy, Cultural Strategy, The Lords of Strategy, and Clay Christensen’s Jobs to be Done methodology. One less sloggy top tip: Attend a session of House of Genius. All types of people from the community come together to advise start-ups in an anonymous salon format. You will witness first-hand how a diverse group of people see a business challenge differently as well as having the opportunity to offer your advice to a fledgling business. And at the end when you learn who everyone is and what they do, you’ll want to meet each other based on the caliber of your ideas, not what’s on your business card. The number of people who want to talk to you is an instant metric of your strategic chops.

Presenting – Again, another area where you just have to practice. I was terrified to speak in front of senior people when I first started out. I found getting into karaoke was a good way of tackling the shaky knees phenomenon. Then, once you’ve conquered straight-up fear, learning how to organize your thoughts and how to rehearse is crucial. Luckily, if agencies are going to pay for any training, this is often an area they are willing to invest in. I’ve been through four different presentation skills seminars and they were ok. You’d be surprised what you learn simply by watching a recording of yourself and learning to take feedback from your peers. But I have recently learned about a company called Oratium that conducts a workshop that is supposed to be great and I hope to attend. Last, I’ve been exploring Improv classes and stand-up comedy to improve my dexterity with humor, which is my natural style. Oh, and check out a Pecha Kucha night if there is a chapter in your city. It’s a great way to be both exposed to many different disciplines and ideas (for your lateral thinking) as well as presenting styles.

Creative writing – Last up – creative writing. While I have an English degree and thought I was a decent writer, I know that working through the process of writing a book and especially working with an editor has made me a much better one. Write for your own blog, guest blog, submit articles to publications, or start writing a book even if it’s a long-term goal. But no matter which path you choose, hunt down a pro-editor and invest in having a piece of yours revised. It took me four tries to find Marissa van Uden, and then she chewed through my whole book twice. If you can find the right tough love, you will get better.

That’s my starter for ten, dear anonymous strategy friend out there somewhere. Now I’m curious to see what the rest of our brilliant tribe will add.

Leveling Up

Pavones Yoga Center, photo credit: Michelle DeMarziani

Pavones Yoga Center, photo credit: Michelle DeMarziani


A few months ago, I decided I wanted to attend a month of yoga teacher training in the beautiful surf village of Pavones, Costa Rica. Who wouldn’t want to eat delicious vegetarian food and practice yoga in a studio overlooking the sea?

Well, my husband for one.

Maybe it’s because he had never done yoga before? He had zero interest in even trying it and a month away from work would be a big inconvenience for him. But he saw how important it was to me, so he agreed.

That is, with a few stipulations. One of them being I had to learn how to play video games.

Now, I haven’t played a consol game since high school. My interest in learning to game mirrored my husband’s interest in yoga. Zip. Zero. Nada.

The controllers I could recall were far simpler than they are now. Just looking at the PS4 controller gave me anxiety. And who has time to game? We already watch our fair share of TV shows and movies; we don’t need any other forms of entertainment in our lives.

Yet with some encouragement from the husband and some trial and error to find a game I could connect with, I have beat the game The Witcher 3. I even downloaded the expansion pack because I miss my life-sucking friend, Geralt.

What did I learn from giving gaming a chance?

A good game can tell a story better than a movie, series, or book.

While I always knew games require a user’s participation, I didn’t expect the connection I would feel to the characters and the world as a result.

And I think that connection comes from a well-designed experience that is just challenging enough for the user. It can’t be too hard as to frustrate and annoy. But conversely, it’s no fun if it’s too easy. As Geralt went on quests and gained experience, his level increased giving me a sense of pride.

I realized: Isn’t this what we wish we had at work?

Less emperor’s new clothes where we pretend that customers care about our products as much as we do (that’s always frustrating and annoying). The joy of finding a smart answer (because it’s just challenging enough). More clarity about what it is we need to learn (quests). Proof that we’ve mastered skills (experience level).

These are the very same work desires that sent me on a quest of my own. After working in advertising as a strategist for 14 years, I wondered ‘What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel like an expert yet?’ I wanted the experience of leveling up that I’d had at the beginning of my career.
So I created a quest of my own. I sought out mages in far away lands.
Well, not really.

Instead of mages, they were marketing people. And while the lands were far, the real exploring was of the edges of what is possible in digital, social, innovation, brand storytelling, and ideation. Oh, and I asked these people if addition to letting me work with them for a couple of weeks each, could I, uh, stay with you at your house?

I still can’t believe that nine people agreed to this scheme. But I’m so glad they did. They invested their scarce time in me. Which made me want to repay them in some way and make sure it wasn’t only me that got something out of the experience.

So I wrote about what I learned: In Hong Kong, I picked up the methods Jason Oke employs to get started on a new project when panic sets in. Phil Adams in Scotland taught me how he explores the edge of what is possible in digital. And I explored why the business of innovation is stealing some of marketing’s brightest minds while working side-by-side with Brian Millar in London. And much much more.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Phil Adams and a few of Blonde's finest.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Phil Adams and a few of Blonde’s finest.

rOobin Golestan DJing in Bejing on the night of my arrival

rOobin Golestan DJing in Bejing on the night of my arrival

Leveling up in our jobs may be a lot more like gaming than I ever realized.
We have to lean into the discomfort of what we don’t know. By taking on quests of our own design, we expose ourselves to radically new ways of working, to great ideas that can be applied in fresh new ways (because nothing is truly original), to people who like us and will be there to help us in the future.

Now, more than ever before, nobody knows it all.

Now, more than ever before, we all need to learn how to brain surf.

My new book Brain Surfing the Top Marketing Strategy Minds in the World is now available for pre-order and ships on November 11, 2015. For a limited time, order the paperback on Amazon and receive the Kindle version free.

It’s Survey Time!

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Hello fellow strategists:

We are pleased to open the new and improved Strategist Survey. It’s short and sweet, so open that tab and make it all the way through in one go.

Since we last surveyed you, we’ve thought a lot about the changing strategy landscape. We’ve been hit up for jobs at Twitter, Apple, BuzzFeed, start ups, research firms, PR firms, and physical tech companies. This shift from planner to strategist is one small outward change that is indicative of our community’s ever expanding relevance.

Please share the survey far and wide. Track down old colleagues who are strategizing on the client-side, at innovation consultancies, for media properties, or as technologists. Please spread the word over email AND social media. So many people don’t have time for social, so let’s make sure to get our friends’ attention.

Your privacy is our religion. We will only share aggregate salary information.

Are you ready? Here’s the link. Take it now.

Planning OG’s and Where we’re heading next

Oh, hello.

It’s been a while.

Three things.

1. What was it really like in the early days of agency account planning? Tracey Follows and John Griffiths have tackled this question by interviewing 20 of planning’s original gangsters. They’ve compiled these stories into a book and the are crowd-funding the publishing. The book is called 98% Pure Potato (an iconic English ad claim from long ago) and you can get your name in the book as a founding supporter by buying your copy now. Better to chart where we’re going when we know where we’ve been, right?

2. The Planning Survey wants to come back. It’s been programmed and we are polishing the final questions. There will be different question paths for people working in communication services, business growth services, as well as brand marketing on the client side in an attempt to look at our discipline no matter where we work.

Building a new survey has raised a couple of questions and we want to hear from you: Are we planners or are we strategists? Does it matter? The survey team has mulled this over. We believe that if a few people could go to an off-site meeting and invent the name “account planning” in the 60s, we as a larger collective can decide if it still works for us. So we ask you: please post your thoughts (Medium, LinkedIn, your blog) and send me the link. We’re hoping a larger discourse will help us all sharpen our thinking and make the survey more useful. I kicked it off with this post here.

Sam Joseph has weighed in here.

Russell Davies recently wrote this.

3. While I have you, Faris Yakob just published his book Paid Attention and it’s worth an extra helping of your future attention. He discusses his views on the strategy/planning debate, but more importantly he effortlessly synthesizes models of communication, idea generation, and brand building given today’s opportunities and constraints.

That’s all for now.  I am still writing my book. I promise I will finish someday.

On a mission

all done ~ bird by bird

I’ve never tackled anything as hard as writing this book.

Probably like most of you, I did pretty well in school. Papers and tests came easy for me.

With the book, on the other hand, I’ve been plugging away on weekends, holidays and vacations. For a long time, I couldn’t do anything that wasn’t work or the book without feeling guilty. I’ve written about 40K words at this point and I expect the final product to be about 75K. And through this process, I’ve isolated myself a lot. I don’t blog and I don’t talk to as many people as I used to. Part of that I like. I can sense that I’m becoming a better writer and it’s seeping into my day job. Part of it I don’t like. I feel lonely sometimes. I’ve shared what I’ve written with several people. I’ve read passages at work and to some students at Academy of Art and I’ve had encouraging feedback. I just know it’s not as good as it could be.

So I hired a professional editor. My plan has been to self-publish, but the downside with that is you don’t have a team in place to help you birth the book. You have to build your own team and it’s taken me some time, along with trial and error, to find mine.

Today I got her first feedback which can be boiled down to this line:

It feels like three or maybe four books in one.

Oy. Vey.

But it’s also encouraging to read her thoughts. Now I have something new to push against.

I’ve kept John Cleese’s talk on creativity in mind.

I’m back in the open mode of creativity where I’m pondering possible solutions to the structure of this book. Then I can get back into the closed mode where I realize it won’t please everyone and I make the most original, clever and inspirational piece I can make at this point in my life.

Forge, The Future Factory and Saher Sidhom

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks working with Saher Sidhom, Head of IP and Innovation at AMV BBDO in London. Saher is living what we all talk about doing: experimenting and innovating for brands. This means technology, yes. And Saher is getting elbow deep in Arduino components on a daily basis. But this also means new business models, contracts, and working with brands that are expansive, that want you to have an experience that is “on-brand” and share in that experience, not just listen to them bark a message through their megaphone.