Whatcha been up to?

I often get asked by young people just starting out in their careers about the path I took in my career and what advice I have. I get similar questions from folks looking to move into different roles in their career.

I, also, get questions from folks I used to work with and have not spoken with for a time about what I’ve been doing. And that tends to lead to a response along the lines of, “Oh. Why?” Or if they are less outspoken, just “Oh” with a confused look. And maybe a “That seems interesting” to try to cover the confused look.

So I figure I’ll explain how I arrived at where I am. Perhaps it will be helpful for those early in their career, those considering a change in their career and the folks who know me and have been wondering. I’m able to tell this story in anywhere from 30 seconds to as long as someone is willing to listen. This should be a 5-10 minute read 😉  You can find the Cliff’s notes version at my LinkedIn profile.

There are a few things to know about what motivates and interests me before I launch into my story.

First, to be at my best in life and to maintain my engagement, curiosity and creativity, whether on behalf of my family, on behalf of my employer or for my own self, work-life balance or successfully integrating the personal and professional is a must. So when I make decisions, my wife is my most important partner, and my family is my most important concern.

Next, I am fascinated by why people do the things they do and creating ways to help them do those things, or move them towards a more productive path if the one they’re on appears it won’t work out so well. With that, I am very interested in the strategies, tactics and tools people use in accomplishing what it is they are seeking to accomplish.

For a person fascinated with why people do things and the tools used in doing them, specific types of businesses, categories and/or verticals are a lot less important to me than the challenge presented. Businesses, categories and verticals and the various norms, vocabulary/acronyms, financials and technologies associated with them can be learned in relatively short order I’ve found. How people operate and solve problems in the environments and systems related to those businesses, categories and verticals, to me, is much more interesting. And, as I’ve learned over time, a lot more common regardless of the business, category or vertical.

Because of this fascination and interest, I absolutely love to learn, teach and mentor. So I enjoy building teams and collaborating with people with different perspectives and experiences as it provides a great outlet for simultaneously learning and teaching.

Organizing and leading teams around new challenges and opportunities presented by the way people do things is especially fulfilling to me. I tend to lean into situations where there is need for new structure where none has existed, and/or there’s a need in the marketplace that lives “in between” existing structures in organizations to address the marketplace need.

Last, I tend to be the type who says, “Let’s figure that out” or, “I’m not sure…yet.” I enjoy making sense of ambiguity.

Now, as for how I’ve arrived at where I am.

I was fortunate at the close of the last century. I was a young man working in media planning at an agency in Austin, Texas as the “Silicon Hills” were in their infancy and the dot-com bubble was inflating. One of GSD&M’s core values is Curiosity. I am just that by nature. So when the opportunity arose in 1999 to get involved with digital media, I went all in. From that point forward, every role I’ve gravitated to has involved a significant level of creating something new or different and then managing change caused by something new or different.

I spent the next seven years in a learning-failing-succeeding-growing cycle, building a top notch digital media team. It was incredibly fun, difficult, gratifying, humbling and exhausting. Aside from learning the various aspects of digital media a bit sooner than some, the lessons learned in how to be a leader, find and retain talented people, develop presence and poise in a myriad of situations – from business development to boardrooms to difficult clients to working across all functions and operations in the business – were incredibly valuable at that formative stage in my career to help me operate as I do now within all kinds of situations, environments and organizational structures.

Perhaps most important was it established my philosophy that people USE media to get things done. And just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. My goal is always to understand what people are trying to do, see various paths they can take to do it, provide guidance to them in meeting their needs, and figure out how to make it better for them next time. For me, it has always been about customer experience, not as a buzzword, skillset, team or department…but just because that’s the way it should be. And I interpret the word “Customer” very broadly to capture internal stakeholders as well as external buyers of a good or service. From there, everything is just a means to an end, experiments to determine if we really are providing people relevant help on their journey.

I mentioned it was exhausting. I was needing to learn work-life balance since, as my wife will attest, I did not have it then (she will attest I don’t always achieve it now). And our second child was born in the summer of 2006. I was looking for focus, to bring the skill set I had built into a corporate setting.

Once more I was fortunate. I was contacted by Target who, at the time, was looking for someone with a digital background to come into their media strategy team. Right as I was beginning to seek a “client-side” role, a dream job with an amazing brand came to me.

While it may sound opposite to what the brand is known for, what I learned most at Target was patience. At an agency focused in digital, I was like an entrepreneur who could operate at a pretty good clip and with a good deal of autonomy. At Target, the marketing department at the time was 1,000 people. To get things done, you had to learn how to bring people along with you, to partner and collaborate, to gain consensus for your ideas. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the way it is in most organizations regardless of its size. I was just moving too fast as a young man to truly pay attention to it.

For someone who came up the way I did learning-failing-succeeding-growing at a rapid pace in a culture that valued such things, this was a challenge. And I believe my aggressiveness got the better of me in the Target culture. I’m sure my approach at the time based on the amount of experience I had could come off as abrasive. I claimed I didn’t like the “politics” there at the time.

Hindsight being much sharper than 20/20, everyplace has politics in some form or fashion – again, regardless of the size of the organization. I’ve become much more attuned to various organizational cultures and how to operate in them. But at the time I was ready for a change. I was interested in getting back into a faster cycle. I wanted to be someplace where instead of guarding brand equity, I’d have the chance to be part of truly developing a brand.

I had met the leaders of the Capella University marketing department at various local and national conferences and gatherings in my time at Target. I liked the people. Plus, they had a vision to do things a bit differently in their industry and were seeking to establish a brand to go along with a well-oiled machine that was their business model.

As was the case when I landed at Target, a life decision came close on the heels of my move to Capella. An off-hand conversation with a former colleague at GSD&M while attending SXSW led to a series of conversations. Before I could even process what was happening, I was Executive Media Director at GSD&M, a singular role that had not been part of the agency structure since 1997. It was now May 2010. The agency is famous for their “boomerangs”, and I had become one.

The next seemingly off-hand conversation I had led to my next role. A former colleague at GSD&M reached out. He had sold his consulting firm that focused on Consumer Journey research as the basis for developing marketing strategy to Ipsos. His team was now part of a forward-leaning group at the multinational firm responsible for developing, testing and launching new products on a global scale. He was looking for a “media planner” to add to their multi-lens team of researchers, designers and brand/marketing strategists.

After reviewing the job description and the work the team was doing, I told him if the role was for someone with more experience, it would sound like me. That got me a quick text message back and a breakfast meeting the next day. And, again, before I knew it, I was part of what would become Ipsos Strategy3.

This was a very exhilarating time for me. It felt very much like the days of building the digital team in the early part of my career. I was learning new skills, new ways to think and new ways to operate as I was now part of the 3rd largest marketing research agency in the world. It was all coming very naturally, and the flow in the team was electric. While I had built teams who were doing new things and creating new processes that were monetized, I had never truly been part of creating and testing products and services all over the world as I was now. The ideas created and work done with researchers, marketers and designers working together was incredibly fun and an amazing balance of right and left brain. On top of all of that, this was very much a peer group environment – working with folks who had similar amounts of experience as me.

And as can happen, things changed quickly at a number of levels corporately and down to the team level. As I saw how the various changes were coming together compared to the original vision, it became one of those moments in life and in a career where you think, “I have a seat on this bus, but is it the one I want to be on?”

I was at a crux. I had, what I thought, was an interesting breadth and depth of experience. There wasn’t a whole lot I hadn’t seen or done up to that point in the scope of a marketing career. So I needed to take stock of what it was I wanted. I needed to get on the bus I wanted to be on.

I knew I was looking for a VP/SVP of Marketing or CMO-type role, and my penchant for creation, change and managing that change had me seeking a situation where that would be the case. I wanted something where I could roll my sleeves up, get my hands dirty, to directly see – and feel – the change and results I was driving. I wanted to stretch into more operational accountability as well. And I wanted to see what could be found at a privately-held, small-to-mid-market company. I had been part of fast growth before and wanted to be more directly accountable for it. I was, also, interested in a company that, literally, made something.

Enter Ranch Hand. All the circumstances I was seeking were in this opportunity…and then some. The personal part has been the most challenging and, at times, rewarding. Moving the family to Shiner, Texas – population 2,069 – was an unforeseen portion of this opportunity. My hometown is small (not this small). I met my wife there. We were open to what this meant for our children, and they have thrived (My wife and I think they’d thrive in just about any situation, but we’re biased). Luckily, Shiner is nicely situated with easy access to Austin and San Antonio (90 minutes or less drives) and Houston (about a two hour drive) – so civilization is never too far away.

Two quotes come to mind as I’ve written this.

The first I’ll paraphrase and embed the link. In The History of the Eagles, Joe Walsh mentions a philosopher who said something to the effect of as you live your life, it feels like random events in the moment. But when you look back over those events, it comes together like a finely crafted novel. To this point in my career, I’d have to agree with that assessment. What motivates and interests me has always been there. It just took some experience and seasoning to find the words to describe it. Each step in my career I feel I’ve been blessed to exercise those muscles.

And the second is from Andy Bernard in The Office.

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I like that sentiment when considering through the lens of what you learn and take with you, not through the lens of regret. Because, ultimately, aren’t we all just trying to figure out why we do the things we do and how to do them better the next time?

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