Originally published in iMediaConnection on September 2, 2014.
The digital industry is comprised of an odd bunch of characters. There are the data folks who love to look at numbers, the technology folks writing lines and lines of code, creative people who make things beautiful and inspiring — and the standard cast of characters (accountants, administrative support staff, etc.) who help make a business run. So, how do you as a leader inspire a group of people with such an array of interests? Over the years, I’ve worked in a lot of different roles in the digital space and learned a lot from some great leaders as well as some not so great leaders. While we’re quick to discredit the bad bosses we’ve had, it’s important to recognize that sometimes learning what not to do can be more important than learning what to do right. So, with that said, here are some of the best practices I try to implement (and yes, sometimes I miss too).
Encourage learning and exploration
Most everyone in the digital industry at some point or another comes across Google’s famous 20 percent time policy. (For those few of you who missed it, there are a lot of stories published about Google allowing its employees to use up to 20 percent of their work week to pursue special projects.) Although allowing 20 percent for special projects may be a challenge for most businesses, the premise is a good one. The idea behind this is that employees want and need inspiration. And sometimes when you’re heads down on a project, things get mundane and lose inspiration. Therefore, it’s important as a boss to encourage learning and a change of pace. So, as a good boss, what should you do? Set aside time and budget for training — and make sure your team takes advantage of it. It can be as simple as encouraging folks to take time to watch TED Talks, check out the latest tech release videos on YouTube, and, most importantly, encouraging your team to attend in-person events and training sessions. Speaking for myself, I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years, and I often find the most important things that I take away from a conference don’t usually come from the presented material, but often come from conversations I have with other people. Before I leave this topic, I’ll add one other piece of advice. The training doesn’t have to be specific to the user’s core job. For example, you may have a team of search marketers who spend all their time optimizing and improving campaigns. Sending one of those team members to a creative writing course could inspire them to think about keywords and ad copy in new and different ways. Take the risk, allocate time and resources for it, and then follow-up with your team to make sure they take advantage of it.
Acknowledge and celebrate their differences
In the beginning of this article, I mentioned the challenges of the different types of personalities and mindsets your team members bring to the table. People’s differences are often quickly dismissed. A creative person in a meeting may want to stop listening when the data guy starts talking, and when the programmer gets deep into his part of the presentation, the conversation can quickly go over the heads of the other people in the room. But to make digital work, these folks all need to work together. There’s no way to get a creative message onto a website without some involvement of technology. And digital efforts that aren’t properly tracked and analyzed will quickly go the route of meaningless data points like click-through rate. Getting certified is a big deal to a developer — there was a lot of time and effort involved in getting there. Winning an award may be huge for a creative person. Don’t let those certifications and awards go unnoticed. As a boss, you need to show your understanding of the hard work and dedication your team members put in — and it’s your responsibility to let others know the importance. Make announcements to other groups that highlight the benefits for all. For example, “Ben’s AdWords Certification moved us to a new level in the Google Partners program, which is going to help our new business team bring in more work.” In an instant, what may have been perceived as a minor accomplishment for an employee is now touted as a benefit to everyone who works at the firm.
We all use the words “team,” “partners,” and “solutions” way too much in this industry. However, we rarely take them to heart and work toward achieving the true meaning. A sports team is a group of people who come together to achieve a goal — each player has a role, there are backups who can fill in, and it’s critical that you can count on each player to do their part. But that kind of teamwork doesn’t get built when your developers plug-in their iPods and listen to music all day, or your creative team goes off to a coffee shop to think. Instant messaging is a great tool for quick questions. Conference calls help align everyone on a specific project. But none of these things are a replacement for live human interaction. And when that interaction is outside your daily routine, you’re team will find connections that they never knew existed. Plan fun events and encourage everyone to attend. These events don’t have to be hard, complex, or even expensive. I remember years ago while working at Saatchi and Saatchi, an account director called me into an important team meeting (I was a relatively young lower-level employee at the time). When I got to the meeting room, I was surprised to find that everyone who worked on a specific piece of business had been called together to watch “Fantasia,” drink wine and beer, and enjoy some snacks. The CEO was there, the account coordinator was there, as well as the developers, creative directors, etc. There was no agenda. No deliverables to be met. And this meeting took priority over whatever else was on your plate. Today, I’m still friends with many of those people who were in that room. We all learned about each other, and the cost to the company in time and effort was minimal compared to the value it brought.
Listen and react
Got a set of whiny, ungrateful employees? It’s probably not their fault. If you’ve got employees who are willing to complain, you need to listen, understand, and react. Sure, you can’t solve every problem. When an employee puts blame on another, it’s not always the other employees fault. But the reality is that, as a boss, if you elect to do nothing, the likelihood is that neither employee will be happy — and unhappy employees will find other jobs at some point. There’s a lot of truth in the notion that people don’t leave jobs, they leave their managers. As a boss, you need to assess the situation and work on resolving it before it gets resolved for you. Sometimes the fixes aren’t simple or immediate. In those cases, it’s important to go back to the employee and let them know you’re working on it. You don’t have to share specific details, but reassurance that it’s being looked at goes a long way.
Share your vision — not just the tasks
OK, so I saved the most important point for last. The best and most important way to be a good boss is to share your vision. All too often we get caught up in what’s due tomorrow and lose sight of where we’re headed. The best way to truly inspire people is to help them understand the overall goals and how their part fits in. Coming back to the office after a meeting with a client and telling each team member (ideally collectively) how they helped make the effort successful makes everyone more engaged and feeling rewarded. So, in the end, we all go to work looking for some form of personal satisfaction in what we do, who we work with, what inspires us, and the fulfillment of delivering on our goals. So, as a boss, don’t forget that your job isn’t really about the tactic you’re delivering, but about inspiring your team to get there with you.
Peter Platt is the president of PSquared Digital, LLC.