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The Three C’s of Growth

It’s about courage, curiosity, and a willingness to be candid.

Having spent the better part of the last five years going from one opportunity to another, a three-month break was just what the doctor ordered.

Keep in mind the break wasn’t exactly planned. I had accomplished a twelve-month project in just under six months, looked around at my professional situation and found myself stagnating in my growth. The question was, what exactly does growth actually mean?

At the time, I was reading a book called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. In this book she imparts some important wisdom that if you’re not getting what you need from a situation; “you can’t forget to quit.”

Fresh off a huge professional win but with not a lot more growth ahead of me in that particular position, I heeded her advice. I packed up my stuff and decided to take a month or two off.


The decision took a lot of courage. I was walking away from a job I had taken just that year. What would future employers think about a move like that? How do I explain taking time off for myself in a world where “hustle” is the thing?

I had to jump, though. I couldn’t go on the way I had been and I had to trust that something bigger and better was out there. The courage to walk away ended up being the first prerequisite of my growth.


The second prerequisite of growth was that – for the first time in a long time – I didn’t know what I wanted.

I ended up having dozens of conversations with former co-workers, friends, executive mentors, and recruiters. I sorted through piles of job opportunities, notes from feedback sessions, and professional evaluations.

What was interesting is that I found out that the opportunities where I was both the most successful – and where I built the best relationships – were the environments where I could focus on being curious.

Not all places I had worked enabled this. They might say they encourage curiosity but they don’t actually enable teams or individuals to be curious.

In my experience, at least, curiosity leads to questions and questions lead to challenging assumptions. If teams and leaders aren’t ready for assumptions to be challenged, I personally probably won’t be good fit.


This is where Kim Scott’s work comes back into the picture. During the three months I ended up taking off, I read an enormous amount including finishing up Radical Candor. One of the key points is that to grow you have to have an environment where growth is possible.

For instance, if you want an environment where the focus is on getting along and being nice, that’s great. However, there have been multiple studies that have shown this isn’t just bad for organizational and professional growth but is actually bad for employee relationships. Kim Scott calls this “Ruinous Empathy.”

On the other hand, you can’t swing to the other side of the spectrum. Focusing on just being direct or just having open communication often encourages teams to throw empathy out the window. This situation ends up being what Kim Scott calls “Obnoxious Aggression” and it ends up promoting defensiveness over growth.

The Job Search

My goal was to find an environment where I could both care deeply about what I was doing and who I was working with. I wanted to care so much to the point that direct communications were a forgone conclusion. In other words, I wanted to find an opportunity where curiosity – both professional and personal – was the focus.

Now, this was a great insight for me personally, but this isn’t exactly something you can filter for on LinkedIn. I had to find a way to probe for this in my conversations with potential bosses and/or employers.

What ended up happening is that, during interviews, I brought up my personal experiences with radical candor. When the subject turned to how I work with people, I brought up examples in my career of using curiosity to balance caring about people and the job and how open and direct communications played into that. I was also candid about the times that I wasn’t able to achieve that balance and why.


Being honest about what I wanted and what I was looking for might have closed some doors for me. My interview-to-offer success rate was definitely impacted. However, the offers I did receive were not only better, but I was more excited about them. The fires of curiosity were stoked even more so by the open communication and honest empathy created through the interview process.

In the end, that was the key to finding the right growth opportunity. I decided to accept an offer with a company where I can bring radical candor to work.

I know they subscribe to candor not only because I asked about it, but because they brought it up themselves. I’ve been told my job is to grow the function by being curious about client opportunities, about the relationships we need to capitalize on those opportunities, and the ways the function can integrate and innovate.

I would tell you I’m excited but that’s an understatement. These last three months have been an unexpected gift.

As much as I’m glad to be moving on, there’s a piece of me that has loved the struggle of where I’ve been. By reconciling what I want with what my next opportunity needs I have found not just the right opportunity but one that will offer the kind of growth I’ve been looking for.

It’s also a nice way to sum up my learnings about growth. First, you have to have the courage to make a move. Second, you have to have curiosity to learn the truth between what you’ve been through and what you want. Finally, you have to be willing to be candid about what you want.

Haggling Over The Truth

My grandfather was legendary for his ability to haggle.  In fact, he would often say there wasn’t just one price for an item – there were three.  There was the price the shop owner wanted, the price that he wanted, and the price that the item would ultimately sell for.

My grandfather used this line over and over again to disarm even the most contentious salesman. It’s part of what made him fun to work with and left a lasting impression on anyone who did business with him.

Despite his passing, his voice still rings in my head whenever I enter into negotiations with anyone. Most often, it’s applicable not just in prices, but in ascertaining truth in a situation.

Think about it. We’re all motivated by something. Oftentimes we’ll spin the truth in our favor if we think it’s going to help our cause.  Put two people together with two different sets of motivations and you’ll likely get two different versions of the truth.

The thing is that there aren’t just two versions of the truth – there are three.  The third and final version is the actual truth of the situation, sans any spin or backend motivation.

In negotiations, almost no one wants to acknowledge this version of the truth.  The reason for this is that the actual truth doesn’t help anyone.  In fact, in most cases, it finds fault and value in both parties.

The more I experience in business, the more convinced I am that this third truth is what we should be aiming for. Rather than trying to forward my own version of the truth, or trying to discredit yours, why not do what my grandfather did? Why not cut through the cross-talk and acknowledge the differences?

Rather than viewing differences as weaknesses, we can view as them as a part of the truth.  Perhaps then we can spend more time working towards what really needs to get done.

The funny thing about my grandfather’s technique was that he often didn’t get the best price for what he was asking for.  Then again, the shop owner didn’t get the best price, either.  Ultimately, the price fell somewhere in the middle.  The funny thing is that the more you look, the middle is also where you’ll most often the truth as it actually exists.

What The Burger King/McDonald’s “Peace” Situation Teaches Us About Strategy

Yesterday on Facebook I got into one of those heated discussions only strategy geeks get themselves into. My friend thought McDonald’s missed a huge opportunity passing on an “International Day of Peace” integration with Burger King. I, on the other hand, thought McDonald’s responded perfectly for their business situation.

My friend is probably one of the best PR strategists out there, if not one of the one’s most versed in how to use social media for prime gains in brand reputation. He made some excellent points including the fact that any other burger chain could easily step up, take the challenge, and score some easy and effective “brand points” in social media.

Now, don’t get me wrong. “Brand points” are great but rarely, if ever, have a lasting impact on earnings and/or revenue. If this manufactured PR tiff turns long-term, then we’re talking a different ball game.  However, and as I pointed out to my friend, to the people that care about McDonald’s this stunt is inside baseball and no one outside of the die-hard brand loyalists care.

Where some see McDonald’s as “lame” I see them as smart and measured. McDonald’s long-term strategy is about improving revenues by improving quality – or at least that’s what they say.  Their restaurants are now more cafes than they are drive-throughs and that’s a calculated measure.  They realize their revenues are being hit by the fast-casual segment, which draw away regulars.

What McDonald’s wants to do is reclaim their positioning not as a burger joint but as a wholesome food outlet.  Wholesome and McDonald’s don’t sound like they go together but when they first started out, they very much did. Roy Kroc realized that there was a vacuum in the 1950s for a clean, consistent alternative to the one-off drive-in diners. He captured the “family meal” dollar and that’s what they are trying to do, today.  That’s also what you see in McDonald’s reaction to Burger King’s overture.

Burger King, on the other hand, knows it needs to make its brand “hip” again.  It’s been on a 10-year guerrilla media blitz starting with it’s relationship with advertising powerhouse Crispin Porter.  They want to be the cult favorite in the burger wars, which is why their tactic was on-brand for them.  They knew that the McDonald’s strategy playbook wouldn’t allow them to engage and deviate from a planned and purposeful journey and that’s why they did it.  Their fans loved the overture and I’m betting it did just what it intended to do which is woo back McDonald’s customers that have defected to higher-end chains.

McDonald’s, meanwhile, is laser-like focused on building a new kind of customer.  That customer is more interested in the “family meal” than it is the latest social media craze.  McDonald’s reaction wasn’t exactly socially-savvy but it was a smart business play that not only met but exceeded expectations of their core audience.  Proving they are trying to be adult alternative may not please strategy and social geeks like my friend and I but it does show clarity of purpose and a focus on the audience behind the brand.

The conversation my friend and I had is the key difference between insider baseball and the real world. We might care about these things and even Burger King customers  – both current and potential – might care. However, PR and social media strategies have to serve the bottom-line rather than the needs and expectations of us, the “chattering class.”

Perhaps this dynamic might change in the future?  Perhaps if Burger King keeps hitting McDonald’s and the “family meal” dollar can’t be convinced to abandon their new-found love of Chipotle social media tiffs like this might make a difference.

In the meantime, though, we have to remind ourselves that we don’t get paid because customers “like” a brand on Facebook.  We get paid because they walk through the door of our client’s establishments and plunk down cold, hard cash.

Advice to the first generation of “social media managers” just hitting middle management

Sandwiched somewhere between having the sobering reality of direct reports and the mundane accountability to senior executives, social media managers are now finding themselves in a purgatory without the guarantee of parole.

Indeed, for anyone who has ever watched Office Space or read a Dilbert cartoon, the jokes about middle management are plentiful. The problem for today’s social media managers is that most aren’t old enough to get those references. Even if they did, I doubt they would think they are that funny in their present situations.

Having taken a slightly less conventional path to my current position (read: MBA) I can tell you that middle management tends to get easier with time. However, its still really fun to watch “the young’n” grapple with their first review as a manager. Even funnier is their first time realizing that there might be someone “younger and hungrier coming down the stairs” after them.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel for them. However, after sitting through endless management courses and 360 reviews, I can’t help but feel a twinge of schadenfreude.

I will this say this; being in middle management does get better. Once you settle in to the realities of corporate life you start realizing that there is much more to business than marketing. You start to see how your role relates to finance, to accounting, to strategic planning.

Finally, I will offer a piece of advice. Think of middle management as a turning point. If you like business, stay in business. Start reading business publications like HBR and see if you can’t expanding your horizons. If you don’t like it, there’s always freelancing.

Just know that you’re path ins’t set. No one is forcing you one way or another and there is no one “right” direction for your career. If things get tough, which they will, keep in mind the words of Mark Twain: “Make your vocation your vacation and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

In the meantime, if you could remember to fill out your TPS reports, that would be great.

Explaining The Advantages Of Emma Email Marketing Vs Outlook To Non-Techie Co-Workers

Working with folks that are decidedly non-digital can be challenging. It can also be a hell of a lot of fun…if you play your cards right. For instance , a coworker was asking about our company’s recommended move to Emma Email Marketing.

Now, for anyone who has managed any type of email marketing campaign, the reasons NOT to use Outlook are pretty obvious. However, part of digital strategy is explaining things in clear and simple terms. Observe:

Dear {Coworker},

There’s an easy way and a visual way to explain what happens when you send a blast email out from outlook:


The kitten in this picture is a blast email via outlook.  It looks like it’s all cute and normal and nothing’s wrong with it.   The things in the background…yeah – that’s the metaphorical manifestation of collective spam-sensitivity karma of the internet.

The only thing is that the karma doesn’t get the kitten…it gets the system that the kitten came out of.  In this case our company. This is what karma does to our servers when it catches up:


Karma rips up any authority our servers have because it thinks that we’re spamming people. It puts us on what’s known as a blacklist.  When you get blacklisted, it looks like this:


Basically, our ability to send any type of email is compromised because our email tends to go to spam folders.  This is what happens to Mike, our IT manager, when our servers are blacklisted:


So, in summary….

As to not incite the collective wrath of the internet, grind our ability to send emails to a screeching halt, and cause Mike a nervous breakdown, use EMMA.


PS – I might be overstating a bit for dramatic effect but that’s pretty much what happens… http://www.bluegrassdigital.com/blog/2011/june/29/why-sending-bulk-email-campaigns-from-outlook-is-a-bad-idea/

As you might imagine, this kind of response endears me to my co-workers.

Third-Party Website Functions Can Ruin Customer Relationships

It’s not like anyone likes to get a traffic citation but at least the Dekalb Country officer that pulled me over for a rolling stop was nice about it.

Despite the fact it was raining, the officer politely explained what I had done, pointed me to the online instructions on how to pay the citation, and even apologized for the inconvenience. As a customer experience, particularly in setting expectations, it was a textbook encounter.

Initial interactions like these can go a long way in building trust and the long term potential value of a customer. For instance, though I don’t currently reside in Dekalb Country, should I ever consider moving here or even spending more time and money here, that encounter set a positive expectation in how I might be treated. However, that encounter was only one touch-point.

To maintain that level of trust and continue building that relationship, that expectation of clear and transparent communication has to be upheld.

Now, I realize that only customer strategy geeks like myself intellectualize a traffic citation like this but follow along…Flash forward to a couple hours later: thanks to the officers explanation, I see I clearly deserved the citation and I decided to go ahead and pay the fine.

Flaw One – Long URLs & Broken Redirects

I followed the instructions on the citation, only to find that not only was the website they were directing me a very long URL that I had to enter manually, the page it did send me to was dead. Not cool but not altogether frustrating. After all, sometimes it takes a while to update text copy on receipts and forward progress on shorter URLs are always a good thing, right?

Flaw Two – More Than 3 Clicks To Get To What I Need

After arriving at the broken link I decided to go back to Dekalb County’s website. Surely traffic citations and other forms of revenue must be one of the more important things to the city so it can’t be that hard to find, right? Apparently not. Not only did it take me more than 5 minutes on their home page to find the right link, I had to click through several more times just to find the link to the right form for traffic citations.

Flaw Three – The Third-Party Payment System

At this point, my experience with the polite cop has been eclipsed by the “typical government bureaucracy ” frustration. All I want to do is pay the fine and get back to playing on Facebook. The fine itself isn’t that bad but apparently I also have to pay a court fee and a “convenience fee.”  Neither of these fees are explained and I feel very much taken advantage of.

This kind of experience underscores how third-party website functions can undo any goodwill for a customer.  Explanation and consistency is key to keeping a strong customer relationship. If you do have to go with a third-party system, think about those three major flaws and how you can avoid them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the citation for a rolling stop has drained me of my lunch money and I now have to go heat up my ramen noodles.

Moving On



One year ago today, I was laid off. It was swift, it was unexpected and they handled it in the most unprofessional way imaginable.

For a while now, all I’ve wanted to is use this anniversary to close the book on the whole affair. After all, I am now in a better paying job with a company that is far more stable.

I should be able to move on but I can’t…

There is something deep inside of me crying out – particularly because I saw it happen time and time again to other people in the same organization.

I can’t tell you how many of these posts I’ve drafted and then thrown away. Would they make any difference? Probably not. They would make me feel better, though. Perhaps they might even help one or two people.

The truth is much different, though…

The truth is that the world will go on turning no matter what I say…

The truth is that the only way I can move on is to say “I forgive you.”

… … …

Oh, and I bought some of your domains and pointed them to a website with nothing but Alan Partridge playing air guitar to “Get Lucky”…

Now, I can move on.

PS – Just to show you “no hard feelings,” the domains are going back up to auction for purchase on Monday.  All proceeds from that auction will benefit the SHRM Foundation.

What “Work Hard, Play Hard” Actually Means

Ever notice that companies love to talk about what kinds of perks they offer as a way of explaining their company culture?

For instance, they talk about “flex time” when they value loyalty and longevity.  When they value energy and hyperactive productivity, they talk about “cross-functional training.”  My favorite “perk pitch” though is when they say they “work hard, play hard!”

You hear this phrase a lot in the agency world.  Most people take this to mean that the culture is young, fun and driven. Companies talk about all the fun things they do like Thursday afternoon socials, wild and crazy holiday parties, and sometimes even cruises.

What it really means, though is that they company wants you to gloss over the time you spend in the office in preference for remembering the good times when they got you plastered.

In my experience, the companies that tout a “work hard, play hard” mentality use it to excuse a lack of attention and interest in the actual working environment.

Now, maybe this is something that other people knew, already. Perhaps its an accepted fact and people are perfectly fine excusing the 8 to 14 hours a day they spend in the office as long as they get to blow off that steam at the end of it.

To me though, this is a relatively new realization.  I say “relatively” because I stopped working at those kinds of companies when I stopped drinking. The least rewarding part of my job became the times I have to stand around during office parties watching other people make idiots out of themselves.

What I wanted in a work experience changed and I became a lot more cognizant of the time I spend in the office. To me, I want a company culture that works for a purpose and cultivates their employees talent with peer-to-peer development and a chance to explore your own career potential.

I’m not trying to disparage recreation with your co-workers. I’m really not.  I just find there’s something to this pattern I can’t ignore.

Photo Courtesy of Whatleydude

My Life In Association Communications

When I joined Kellen, the leading management and communications company for industry trade groups, I knew my job wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Working with trade groups (aka associations) is lot like herding cats. Well…it’s kind of like herding cats, if the cats had the added disincentive to cooperate of anti-regulatory scrutiny.

Associations, by their very nature, are meant to appeal to the consensus. The association doesn’t take action until a majority of the members finds it in their best interests to cooperate. This makes movement on anything from issue advocacy to picking the font for their logo painfully slow. For someone used to working “at the speed of digital” this can be…let’s just say slightly frustrating.

The fact of the matter, though is when an association takes action it has the potential to move an entire industry. Once you do get a consensus, all of the members – more or less – have a vested interest in supporting the decision. Having the backing of not just one but sometimes dozens of Fortune 500 corporations helps a great deal in executing an industry-level agenda.

Working for Kellen also has the benefit of sticking me in the middle of some of the most talented communications professionals on the planet. I’m not joking!

These guys are like the Army Rangers of public relations. They don’t just deal with one issue or one company, they have to speak and advocate for an entire industry. Achieving and articulating that kind of consensus and while facing down a highly organized issue-opposition takes mad skills, not to mention patience and confidence.

Sure, Kellen works with more than just associations. In fact, our communications team has quite a few “individual” clients. These clients are less complicated and usually move at a pace akin to a “normal” agency environment. READ: “OMG…I need it now!!!”

Ultimately, a lot of the work we do is thankless outside the rarefied air of the representatives of the companies we work with. When we win, it reflects on our members rather than our firm. You almost never hear of Kellen in the news.

For agency veterans this can sound like a dreary existence. I assure you, though the work never lacks a challenge. What’s more, there’s an element of accountability that Kellen’s work has to have on behalf of its clients. For me, whenever you talk about measurement or tracking, I am all about that!

Associations aren’t the most exiting clients. The work is intense and it’s largely a behind-the-scenes job. The fact of the matter, thought is that not everyone can do it. It takes skill, mastery of industry-level dynamics, and a lot of patience.

However, when you’re effective, there is no better feeling in the world than knowing you didn’t just impact one business but multiple businesses. That’s why I do it and that’s why I’m proud to work at Kellen.

Blatant Sales Pitch

Just so you know, Kellen does work with non-Association clients. In fact, most of them value our industry-level focus. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to reach out to me.

Why Search & Social Are Now (Pretty Much) The Same Thing

I’ve never been one of those guys that drank the “SEO Kool-Aid.”  To me, technical tweaks and keyword-loading were always, and continue to be, an excuse for crappy content.

Thanks to recent patents filed by Google regarding their search criteria/algorithms, the rest of digital humanity is slowly catching on. For a not-so-brief explanation of what I mean, Moz.com has done a brilliant job covering the news and detailing what these patents mean to digital marketers.

Since Moz does a lot better job explaining the technical implication of the patents, I’ll stick to what I do best – connect the dots to businesses’ bottom line.

What this means for business is that your website strategy and your social engagement strategy are now, pretty much, the same thing.

Even casual mentions of your brand without direct links are now being considered in the criteria of where your website comes up in search rankings.  Given the fact that 95% of all traffic on the web is driven by the top page of search, this is a big friggin’ deal.

Not only does your content have to compel consumption the websites with the most traffic are now going to be the ones that can compel the most conversation, as well. Even for B2B brands, the B2B brands that can get people talking are the ones that will get the traffic, not to mention the sales.

From a measurement perspective, this news underscores the importance of keeping tabs on how many mentions your brand has, online and finding ways to increase that total volume.

Sure, you can play around with Google Alerts but trust me when I tell you that you need detailed data to this effect. Personally, I swear by Netbase even though you really do need to know a little bit about brand research in order to make the most out of it.

I have no doubt that we’ll see more of this type of news in the future.  The implications however, will remain the same – don’t settle for temporary fixes, just create better content.  This advice appears to be relatively simple but, like I said, there are a ton of lazy-ass marketers out there that still love their SEO Kool-Aid.

To them I say “keep doing what you’re doing ’cause you keep me looking great!”

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