A Commencement Address for Entrepreneurs, Leaders and Marketers
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I am not a trained marketer. Yet I've been the chief marketer and run major teams for major brands. At my last in-house role, I took a company from 45 million to 100 million users, and was on the executive team during its acquisition for nearly half a billion dollars.
As a result, I recently had the honor of being asked to give the commencement address at my alma mater. As I was thinking about the advice I would give to my younger self, I couldn’t help but think of the career advice I give over and over again to early-career leaders, entrepreneurs and executives, in marketing and otherwise.
I thought I’d share.
What makes me great as a marketer is that I am fixated on being a great leader. I used to be a Lone Ranger type. As I matured, I realized that as a marketing leader -- as a business leader, period -- you can’t do anything big without an on-fire, whip-smart team. So I study, then practice and practice and practice, everything about leading and inspiring brilliant people. I study and practice creating conditions conducive to their brains doing their best work, and creating cultures that attract the geniuses I work with. I urge you to do the same. And to read "Boundaries for Leaders."
Do not become one of those bitter marketers or “creatives” constantly railing against data and metrics. Don't fight the waves. Learn to surf. Beautiful, sensual, emotional stories without outcomes and data? That's called art. I love art. But that's not marketing.
Learn about business. Study Lean Methodology and apply it to your content and marketing programs. Read "The Lean Startup." Get very conversant in data -- especially content performance data. Cut through the noise and figure out what few data points really matter in understanding how your programs are moving the business.
Learn how to interpret them to get insight into what makes your Customers do what they do. Then constantly tweak and align your marketing to your Customers and what they want. Not what they should want, or what you want them to want. What they actually want to have happen in their real lives. Seriously, read "The Lean Startup."
Exercise Buddhist detachment from your content, your programs, even tough work relationships. Do more of what works, what inspires, what transforms. When it's not working, fix it fast or stop doing it. Acknowledge, commemorate and keep it moving. Get those resources back and reinvest them into the programs, campaigns or people that bear fruit.
Learn how to make business cases. If you can't ever get the resources to do what you need to do, you will get frustrated and bitter and you won't get the results you want. I was a consultant for much of my career, and the skill of making the business case for everything I propose to do helped become a clear, thoughtful thinker and strategist. This served me exceedingly well as an executive and in my in-house roles. Learning how to sell in your work and how to get is a necessary part of being a great marketer. Read "The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals."
Learn about humanity. Behavior change. Why people do what they do. Study behavioral economics. Neuroplasticity. How people get stuck. How they get unstuck. How they stay unstuck. Read "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." Read "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." Read "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness."
Become an expert on story and narrative. Literally study it, don't just use the word "story" all the time. Understand character, plot, conflict, climax. Take James Patterson's MasterClass on Writing. Read "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories."
Don't fixate on the channel. It's not about Instagram or Snapchat. Getting to product-market fit, getting people to care about what you do, that’s never about the channel. And, in fact, there will always be a new channel. If you understand human motivation, story and business strategy, you will be able to create products and content people care about, regardless of what the new digital channel of the day is.Prioritize ruthlessly. Almost no one can work on three, really big, important priorities at a time. Feeling overwhelmed or frustrated is almost always a signal to revisit and double-down on prioritization. This mostly means making hard decisions that you can’t do awesome things you would love to do, because that would distract or take resources away from The Actual Most Important Thing.
Don't work on products or for companies that you don't find interesting. And really, by that I mean work only for companies you believe are out to solve real, human-scale problems that would make the world work better for your customers, even if the product itself isn't quite there yet or if you aren't personally the target audience for the product. If I don't leave the first meeting with a company talking to my friends about how intriguing the product or the vision or the people are, I generally don't work on it.
Don't work for people you don't find inspiring or don't think you can learn from. You don't necessarily have to like them. But you should believe working with them will expand your capacity for greatness and your skills.
On the other hand, don’t overrule gut misgivings about hiring people, either. You should be excited about learning from those who report to you, too. And don’t expect others to work with you unless you will help them grow, too.
Make it your goal to leave the people in your wake -- your employees, teammates, peers, bosses and especially your customers, better off than than they were when they came into contact with you. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. It can be as small as saying something encouraging at every opportunity. (Without blowing smoke.)
Study integrity. Decide to do whatever it takes to be a whole person with the capacity to face and handle the real facts of every situation. Read Henry Cloud’s "Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality."
If you work in marketing or product, understand your brief as a starting point in the conversation about what you should be working on. Don’t just accept a brief that doesn’t make sense (or isn’t appropriately resourced) from the start. In particular, push back if what you’ve been asked to do is not the thing that will actually solve the business issue. Don’t just push back, though, propose what will solve the issue and be able to explain your thinking as to why -- even if it’s never been done before.
Develop the practice of being still and thoughtful every day, for a moment. If you can journal or walk every day, that’s even better. Allow yourself to listen to that still, small voice that comes up all the time -- the more you honor it, the more it will whisper creativity, energy, wisdom and clear direction your way.Occasionally, in times of transition, it will also whisper “I’m scared” or “I don’t know how to do this next thing” or “Wow I feel like an imposter in this situation.” Build the habit of interpreting that as a signal that you’re on the right track.