Category Archives: Professional

Managing Strengths in a Matrixed World

I’ve posted about my CliftonStrengths before. I do believe firmly that understanding and working from your strengths allows you to be more fulfilled in life and work.

What I have learned and continue to learn (yep, Learner is my #1 strength) is working from your strengths allows you to better see your potential blind spots and how to overcome your weaknesses.

3 of my top 5 strengths – Learner, Responsibility and Context – are an interesting combination of strategic thinking and execution mixed with an excitement and eagerness to use those strategic insights to further learn and improve.

I love to – quickly – connect insights to strategy and actions, measure it, improve it and do it all over again.

But not everybody loves to do that. Or not everybody loves to do that quickly. And that is not their fault.

If you move too fast, you don’t always give your team, colleagues and collaborators you need to truly be successful the opportunity to understand your insight and urgency.

While I do prefer to move quickly and tend to operate with an urgency (mainly because I have usually learned something about marketplace factors that is best exploited if acted on quickly), I have learned to allow my other 2 strengths – Relator and Individualization – to play a role.

And they don’t really slow me down. If anything, it allows all boats to rise.

Relator means I get satisfaction from close relationships and working hard with others to achieve goals.

Individualization means I am intrigued with the unique qualities of each person and able to figure out how different people can work together productively.

As work I’ve been involved with – and work in general – has become more matrixed, cross-functional and reliant on influence vs. inside a hierarchy, having Relator and Individualization as Top 5 Strengths have been valuable.

I’ve recently completed Amy Edmondson’s brilliant book, The Fearless Organization. For someone like me with a bias for action, Chapter 7 of the book provides a concrete model to allow the Relator and Individualization strengths to come out.

I won’t dive into all the detail here because I would encourage you to read the book, but there are 3 pillars to follow.

First, Set the Stage. Frame the work and emphasize the purpose to ensure all involved are grounded in what we are trying to do and why we are trying to do it.

Second, Invite Participation. Make sure all know that you do not believe you have all the answers and that we can always learn more. Be proactive with inquiry – ask questions that will open minds and encourage engagement, going broad and deep. Ensure a system and structure is in place to elicit, capture and build on ideas.

Third, Respond Productively. Express appreciation when thoughts are shared. Destigmatize failure so reaching for more can be seen as a learning experience. Sanction clear violations of the systems and structures that are set in place.

As I said, this model does not just hold when it comes to a team that reports to you. It works in matrixed, cross-functional, influence based situations as well.

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Active Open Mindedness: It’s Not What You Think, but How You Think It

As a life-long Learner with a high level of curiosity, recently reading David Epstein’s book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, has been incredibly enlightening to me.

In a chapter called Fooled by Expertise, the concept of “active open mindedness” is introduced and explored. A quote from the book:

“The best forecasters view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. Their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions. In the sweep of humanity, that is not normal…it is not what they think (that allows them to do well), it is how they think.”

I hope you are blessed to work in an environment where this approach can be taken. How fulfilling it is to not need to always be “right”, but rather work inside of a productive collaboration to build on ideas and thinking of those around you. That is a gold standard.

About half way through Range, I selected my next book to read. It is by Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. The crux of it is the gold standard I mention above. In a nutshell, how do you build a culture and teams to support the notion of Active Open Mindedness.

As I read The Fearless Organization I am seeing a number of parallels to concepts in Range. In fact, I’m already working on a post connecting learning from both. There are a couple of chapters that if cobbled together I’m feeling like make a great recipe for developing, executing, measuring and optimizing strategy. More to come on that!

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The Line

Here’s a concept I’ve been thinking about for some time.

I have a hypothesis. It seems at many organizations there is quite often a void or a disconnect between Vision and Values and Policy and Process. That’s not judgement. It is something I’ve seen over the years in places I’ve worked and clients with whom I’ve worked.

I’m not sure just yet if that is good or bad when it comes to attracting talent. Some of us are drawn to organizations that define and demonstrate their Vision and/or Values well. Others of us are drawn to the more practical nature of well defined Policy and Process to guide an organization. And still others of us like the challenge of being part of an organization where we’ll be creating Vision and/or Values or Policy and Process (or all four…).

Where I think the disconnect hinders an organization is when it comes to retention of talent. There will come a point where a line must be crossed, regardless of how someone enters an organization, that demonstrates they are committed to all aspects of what the organization believes and what the organization actually is. I am calling this The Line.

I represent this concept as:


The Line is not culture. I see Culture as the system – implicit and explicit, formal and informal – that ties VV and PP together. Without defining The Line, Culture cannot come to life. It’s like a house divided. An organization cannot stand on Vision and Values alone without being able to execute via Policy and Process. Nor can Policy and Process dominate to the point where it’s not clear what the organization stands for via it’s Vision and Values. Culture has to allow for these things to be in harmony.

Regardless, the idea is employees may enter an organization for their own reasons, but if they are going to be committed to that organization, they’ve got to cross The Line. They have to embrace Vision, Values, Policy and Process. Which, of course, means the organization has to clearly define and effectively – and consistently – communicate all of these things.

The Line needs to be:

  • Common sense
  • Easily understood
  • Visible in action
  • Second nature
  • Permeable

And here’s a mind map where I’m playing with this concept some more. I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to this one.

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Career Pivot

Kentucky - Barrels & Amps, Georgetown, TXPhoto: Barrels & Amps in Georgetown, TX

Back in September of last year, I began as Plant Manager at Framebridge in Richmond, KY. I run the day-to-day production operations as well as planning and implementation for the production operations’ organizational development. For me, this was an opportunity I could not pass up. It allows me to work directly for and with someone in which I have utmost respect and trust, and at a company with aggressive goals that is grounded in a strong vision and core values.

So why the pivot?

Before my role as VP of Marketing at Ranch Hand, I spent four years doing what amounted to business consulting through the lens of Customer Journey work. This showed me the importance in the alignment between Go-to-Market strategy and Operational Excellence. Practically every project demonstrated a qualitative and quantitative need to change the way the business operated based on what Customers want and need.

My time at Ranch Hand allowed me to get directly and deeply engaged in being a part of connecting those two things. In the process, I was able to learn the philosophy, concepts and tools of Lean. Lean has given me a common sense-based tool set to connect previously disparate concepts into workable ideas and actions.

And, thus, a career pivot into Operations occurred.

I’ve always enjoyed creating ways that allow people to work better together. It doesn’t matter if the thing being made is content by a team of creative types, code that empowers bits and bytes of information to flow from and to where it needs to go, components or finished goods that comprise a business-to-business or consumer product, or a custom frame to encase an autographed jersey or some other treasured memory.

While I will grant it can help to have a bit more technical knowledge in some industries and verticals, my years of experience show that a large amount of general curiosity, an interest in helping people succeed, and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get in the midst of the work while continually looking for a better way to connect dots can get you where you need to be in most industries pretty quickly.

My background in Marketing, Communications and Media certainly helps in understanding and articulating the value proposition from the perspective of the Customer. Perhaps most importantly, my background taught me the value in the perspective of what I think is the most powerful component of any brand:  the people making the product or creating the experience on behalf of your Customer.


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Confirm (don’t just check for) Understanding

stupidest question

I have no fear of asking “stupid questions.” In fact, I’m that guy who leads with, “This may be a stupid question, but…”

If I do not understand something or if I look around a room after something is said and see this…

so confused…and no one else, especially the speaker, feels compelled to confirm understanding, I just do it.

Or if I just don’t get what was said and the rest of the room is like this…

einstein bobbleheads…I have to assume I’m in a room full of geniuses and need to be enlightened. Learner is one of my strengths in life, so I embrace it whenever I can.

Or if neither of those things occur, yet nothing is said to indicate understanding, I am more than happy to go ahead and ask the stupid, obvious questions just to make sure everyone’s singing from the same song book.

(I’m, also, that guy who will frequently ask, “Does that make sense?” as I answer questions, present or just run a meeting. I feel like I do this so often it’s a tic, and I sometimes worry people might think I’m being patronizing. I promise I’m not.)

Why do I do this? Is it the left over vestiges of the youngest of four siblings being a pain in the butt and asking “Why?” over and over just to be annoying? Could it be I am never anywhere near the smartest person in the room and just need that much help (to be sure, I never assume I’m the smartest person in any room – we can all learn from what’s happening around us at any point in time, even if we are the teacher or facilitator in the room)?

What I have learned, often painfully, over the years is the chance of a direct, linear, immediate connection between…

1. What Person A says

2. What Person A means

3. What Persons B-X hear

4. What Persons B-X understand

5. What Persons B-X do

6. What Person A expected to be done

…is not as common as we hope.

It tends to play out like this…

not confirmed

While CONFIRMING understanding goes something like this…


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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.

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 1.20.37 PM.png

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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