Urgency: The Difference between a Sale and a Fail

Among prospective customers, urgency is the difference between a sale and a fail. Many people incorrectly assume selling requires creating urgency in the prospective client’s mind. This mindset is both hubristic and harmful: Manipulating someone into altered priorities is a speedy way to make them resent you. In subscription sales, especially, it’s a recipe for churn.

You can’t create a new priority for someone. You can uncover someone’s current priorities and find ways that your product helps. 

Buying software is a high-risk activity. Customers don’t buy because of your product’s efficiency, intuitiveness, or simplicity. They buy because it solves a problem that they need solved right now. 

Seeking Urgency Triggers

After decades of experience leading go-to-market teams, I’ve noticed that customers only feel urgency for one of three reasons:

  1. an authority shift,
  2. a mandate, or
  3. personal drive

Closing a sale quickly requires one of these three. You have to find potential buyers experiencing a trigger moment – you cannot invent the trigger.

Authority Shifts

Authority shifts are changes to an organization’s power structure. They bring the need to work differently. Typically, these come in the form of a new boss or key hire – sometimes when your prospect becomes the new boss. They can also arise after a merger or acquisition when the “dust settles”.

Mandates

Mandates are required changes on a timeline. They can be external (such as a new governmental regulation with a deadline) or internal (products that must be shipped, formerly-active teams laid off, or leadership planting a stake in the ground to address a public problem or opportunity). While mandates are less common than authority shifts, they can be even more powerful because they make change a necessity.

Personal Drive

Ambitious employees identify opportunities to improve the organization and incite change. Not all employees have sufficient ambition to risk driving change, but those who do might use product purchases to accelerate that growth. This urgency trigger is a buyer thinking, “This product can launch my career.” 

If you’re aiming to harness someone’s personal drive for your sale, be honest with yourself: can your product really accelerate their career? The first Salesforce administrators, for instance, launched their careers through the platform (LinkedIn has 4,497 open Salesforce Administrator jobs posted). The first people who used product management software did not.

A personal drive is the rarest urgency trigger, as it combines precise buyer psychology with powerful potential in your product. When found, however, it naturally turns your buyer into a motivated champion for your product.

Using Urgency Triggers

If a prospective client isn’t experiencing one of those urgency triggers, your product is a “nice to have” for them, not a necessity. Time is the most precious resource and your sales team cannot waste it chasing people who do not have both the problem and urgency to solve it. These clients should generally be kept at a comfortable simmer until an urgency trigger erupts.

To leverage urgency triggers to focus your sales and marketing, start by noting the triggers that typically power your sales. While every urgency trigger will likely be an authority shift, a mandate, or a personal drive, your company will have its own commonalities and sub-types. For example:

  • If your industry is highly regulated, shifting government mandates may power your growth
  • If you sell to early-stage startups, you may find personal drives abound
  • If most of your customers are large enterprises, authority shifts may be your best bet (and easier to research)

You can find your most-effective urgency triggers by interviewing current and lost clients. Ask, “What was happening in your company that made buying our product such a high priority?” or “What are the most pressing priorities that outranked the problem solved with our solution?”.  Listen. Don’t sell – the buyer will talk if you respect their choice. The answers become a list of triggers to close new opportunities and inform questions to ask during discovery. You want to identify buyers without urgency triggers as early as possible – to focus your sales and marketing time on the most probable buyers.

Ask Directly

When talking to new prospects, ask directly about urgency. Some salespeople avoid asking, “Why is our product important to you right now?” because they’re afraid of hearing that it’s not. Salespeople are incentivized to believe each opportunity is closable, so they are often hesitant to ask questions that will disqualify customers.

Simply fantasizing that a prospect will become a customer doesn’t mean they ever will and wastes precious time.

By asking every prospect what urgent need your product solves, you’ll either learn that you’re a helpful fit or that you should pursue them later. Learning “not now” is not a disappointment: it’s a liberation. The less time you spend on non-urgent leads, the more time you can spend on leads that close fast.

Beware False Triggers

Not every company transition creates urgency for your product. In the middle of a merger or acquisition, for instance, nobody has the authority to make new buying decisions. Immediately after the acquisition settles, urgency often abounds.

To avoid false triggers, ask yourself “Does the person with urgency have the authority and influence to buy?” and “Is it extremely clear that our solution will address their actual urgent issue?” Be willing to conclude that those answers aren’t sufficient, and that you should learn more or circle back at a later date.

Rigorously Disqualify Leads

In sales, focus is the key to success. Focus means pursuing the opportunities that have the highest likelihood of success while spending minimal resources on those that fizzle.

I recently advised a sales team with a top-performing salesman who had burned out and was considering leaving the company. After looking at his numbers, I proposed he should take fewer meetings, not more. Over the previous quarter, he had met with 81 new prospects, from which he had created 37 opportunities. The seller with the second-highest number of meetings on his team held 47, which had resulted in 35 opportunities. The first seller had taken 34 unnecessary new meetings, each of which required prep, research, and follow-up. This salesman had been tilting at windmills, driving himself to burnout. He would have performed better by disqualifying more leads. 

A customer’s urgency changes over time. Buying a product requires budget, authority, confidence, consensus and urgent need. Some prospects simply won’t be ready. In these circumstances, consider telling them honestly. Especially if your product is a subscription, they will appreciate the small cost savings and significant avoidance of headache thanks to delaying the purchase for a few months. Instead of earning a few months of revenue from a dissatisfied client who may feel disgruntled and churn, you’ve found a trusting relationship with a client eager to recommend you to peers and who will become a buyer when the urgency trigger inevitably hits.

The best sellers are curious. They are maniacal about forming relationships. In many cases, this priority means leaving some leads on a simmer, and following up later when the need is more urgent.

Looking Forward

Every sale happens in an instant. At that instant, the customer must need your product enough that the financial and time is more important to spend with you than on their dozens of other priorities.

Urgency enables you to use your sales resources more efficiently.

When you meet a new customer, find out why they need a solution now. If you can’t answer that question, ask them directly and be willing to circle back if the need is not urgent enough. The customers who need you now will happily buy, while those who don’t are costing you too much time.

Top Four Concerns about GTM Flow

While GTM Flow certainly sounds like a desirable state, achieving it may sound challenging. For the subscription businesses I help, the most common concerns are:

  • “We don’t have time.”
  • “We don’t have to fix our entire process. All we have to do is…”
  • “We already understand our success based on [x] metric.”
  • “Even if we wanted to achieve GTM Flow, we don’t know how to get there.”

Fortunately, the effort is generally worth it. If you operate a subscription business, flow is the single most valuable state for your company. If you’re hesitating about moving toward flow due to one of those concerns, perhaps these perspective shifts can help:

1 – No Time

Many business leaders believe themselves to be too busy to optimize their revenue operations. In the short term, they may be right. In the long term, however, they’re costing themselves success. 

Fearful business leaders may be correct that aligning toward GTM flow will slow down some operations to enable future growth. They may also be right in prioritizing other issues instead. However, people often overestimate the costs of changing and underestimate the value of compounding improvements. In these cases, it’s important to ask: How long are you willing to have multiple teams sprinting in different or wrong directions before correcting course? 

2 – Seeking a White Knight

Subscription businesses require many pieces working in tandem. In addition to exceptional leaders in product, marketing, sales, and customer success, they require high-quality interfacing. If your company isn’t achieving flow, no single fix or new hire will solve it. I call this belief the “white knight hypothesis” because companies often find themselves saying “All we need is a great leader in [product/sales/marketing/customer success]” instead of recognizing the real, systemic issues that pervade their company.

In a subscription business, there is no shortcut. No single marketing campaign, product feature, or team leader will solve your problems. Your organization is ever-changing and adapting, so it must continuously align all its elements.

3 – Legacy Approaches

Some business leaders may say “I don’t need to know my Revenue Flow Score. I can tell how well the company is doing by our [sales productivity/pipeline growth/other metric].”

While legacy metrics are meaningful  measures, they’re trailing indicators. They don’t tell you if your system is about to break, nor do they tell you where it’s being held back and how to fix it. A quarterly assessment of alignment may uncover opportunities for growth or problem-solving where you least expect them.

Typically, people find themselves more willing to invest in new approaches like RFS when growth slows. This strategy only patches problems instead of maximizing your overall success. Even if sales numbers are good, your company could still be falling significantly short of its potential.

In some cases, companies need to exhaust every other answer in order to realize there’s truly no substitute for flow. They always do, however… or else find themselves replaced by a company that does.

4- But How?

Some functional leaders are reluctant to shift toward a flow mentality because the change is frightening. They may fear the change as a threat to their career or be skeptical of their ability to impact every aspect of their organization. These are real, human concerns that need to be addressed through effective human resources strategies.

A cohesive team works very differently from a siloed workforce. The first step is recognizing and realizing the importance of making a shift toward flow for the business as a whole. The second is instilling that recognition in every leader. Only then can you align all those leading individuals toward a single, cohesive state of flow.

Interested in overcoming the blockers between you and a flow state? Learn more today.

GTM Flow: The Optimal State for Subscription Businesses

For enterprise subscription businesses, go-to-market flow is the paragon of operational efficiency. When you achieve it, every part of the business aligns, accelerating employee satisfaction and company growth.

Anyone who has experienced go-to-market (GTM) flow remembers it as their most satisfying work experience. In a frequently chaotic and anxious business culture, flow feels safe and predictable:

  • The product team builds a differentiated offering that fits the market’s needs
  • Marketing makes customers understand why they want and need your product
  • Sales walks precisely-curated prospects through a comfortable, cohesive buying journey
  • Customer success ensures customers realize the potential value you offer
  • Handoffs between departments happen smoothly and comfortably, with each team confident in the others’ success

To employees, flow feels like the smooth actualization of purpose. Work is effective, not merely killing time. Flow feels like the entire company will succeed–not just some individuals. It fosters a safe environment in which creativity abounds. It’s the foundation for breakout growth, and is achievable in any organization.

Who Needs GTM Flow

While every company lists customer satisfaction as a top priority, it is particularly important for enterprise subscription businesses as their entire survival depends on sustained customer satisfaction. These businesses must earn customers again and again, so they must re-satisfy them at every juncture.

Despite every realtor or car salesperson wanting repeat business, those items are purchased infrequently. Similarly, if you’re selling high-cost technology with large implementation and change costs, year two and three utilization of your solution is less important to your bottom line.

Companies that sell one-off individual goods or goods with high switching costs can succeed with a few high-quality performers and less internal alignment. However, if you offer a subscription product with low switching costs, flow is a must. 

Flow is also not the highest priority for early-stage companies that have yet to create a minimum viable product. Before turning their attention to internal operations, these subscription businesses should invest their effort into creating a product that satisfies everyone in their viable category. Only after developing that satisfactory product are they ready to pursue minimum viable repeatability and create a scalable go-to-market process. (For those familiar with the Traction Gap model of revenue, flow is a priority when a company is ready to reach minimum viable repeatability.)

How to Achieve Flow

GTM flow is the alignment of every element in your organization. If the organization is not yet aligned, getting to flow can be messy. You’re aligning broken bones, a process that takes strength, effort, expertise, and time.

Practically, flow first requires an interested internal mindset and then organizational structures that promote alignment.

Contribution and Growth Mindset

Flow is a shift from siloed activity to teamwork. It requires team members to see themselves as contributing parts of the whole, not merely leaders of individual activities.

To be interested in contributing, your organizational leaders must recognize that flow is the most exciting and efficient way to execute go-to-market activities and benefits them personally with increased job satisfaction, greater expertise, more wealth, and faster career progression.

The leaders who thrive in flow are those who have a growth mindset. They see misalignments as opportunities for systemic change, not as personal failures.

A flowing team feels like many parts of a restaurant operating in concert to create a beautiful meal. If one dish tastes funny because an ingredient was undercooked, uncover what caused this issue instead of apportioning blame. While it’s possible the chef merely made a mistake, it’s also possible that the chef felt time-pressured because the host seated more people than planned, or that the purchasing office bought a type of ingredient that requires more cooking time than the chef expected.

Alignment is the mantra of a flow-based leader, not blame. Every team member can always improve their ability to help the overall organization and focus on delivering the best possible and profitable customer experience.

Structural Shifts

As an entirely different method of activity from siloed optimization, flow demands updated approaches and metrics.

If you continue to measure siloed metrics, you’ll continue to optimize for siloed functions:

  • If you measure how many leads marketing delivers to sales, your marketing team will optimize for delivering leads… regardless of those leads’ quality.
  • If you measure how many bugs the product team resolved, you might find more resolutions… but not the desired improvement in customer satisfaction.

Subscription businesses need measurements that analyze the entire system. Shared metrics can help, including win rate, churn, revenue growth, and customer share. These shared metrics provide a vantage point into the company’s overall health. However, they’re generally trailing indicators that fail to highlight the right areas to improve. In measuring flow itself, I have found one new metric to be particularly helpful.

Revenue Flow Score: A New Leading Indicator of Go To Market Effectiveness

Revenue Flow Score (RFS) measures a company’s level of flow while simultaneously diagnosing its areas for improvement. After surveying different team members and weighing their perception of strengths and weaknesses, it outputs a simple score that measures the alignment between teams, key areas of strength and concern with detailed analysis highlighting areas to improve.

An accurate view of alignment means turning opinion- or emotion-driven assessments into data. After spending two decades optimizing revenue for many tech companies, I noticed that the practice still lacked a single leading indicator to objectively determine where the organization needed improved operations. Now, much like Net Promoter Score or the MEDDIC sales process, RFS makes tangible what was formerly perceived as artistry or devolved into emotional arguments. It offers an objective measure across personnel and over time. Instead of merely guessing at your overall effectiveness, RFS informs you whether your entire organization is moving forward or backward, and at what speed. It also tells you how to improve, both in times of crisis and while the company thrives.

Going Forward

How much does your company require continuous systemic improvement? For businesses with simple mechanics or one-off sales strategies, flow may not be necessary to achieve your goals. For subscription businesses, it’s an increasingly important state in our hyper-competitive subscription environment.

Currently, most company GTM functions assume the artistry of expert leaders, plan for alignment merely by hoping, and only reflect on their effectiveness after a sales cycle ends. GTM inefficiencies are far more expensive and less effective when fixed at the end. By continually focusing on flow and analyzing it through objective metrics, we can measure and optimize for success as a whole, improving every aspect of the company and powering its growth.

Interested in measuring and improving your company’s flow? Learn more today.

10 Unexpected Ways to Fix your B2B Demand Gen Problems

Every founder, early-stage investor and growth executive focuses on the size and growth of their business. Often, these same people are looking for experts who can “fix” the demand gen problem which is usually 25% demand gen and 75% deeper problems. I call this the demand gen iceberg .

True demand generation problems are overwhelmingly execution challenges. They are often relatively easy to fix but unless these common items are the true source of the issues, they won’t fix your pipeline.  The demand gen “quick fix” list is:

  1. Targeting – is your demand gen strategy too broad – generating a lot of junk, or too narrow and not generating enough demand?
  2. Compelling offer – are you offering the prospect something they need and want? Is it a free trial or other promotion to lower acquisition costs? Is it an invitation to download and read something? If it is an eBook – does it have unique data or innovative thinking? And is it short?  If it is something else – why would a reasonably busy prospect value what you offer for your demand gen?
  3. Form optimization – are you asking for the least amount of information in exchange for the value you are delivering? Solutions like Chili Piper reduce form fill overhead and other solutions such as ZoomInfo can enrich data you collect with other available information.
  4. Media mix – are you spending your time and money in the media where your ideal customer dwells? Don’t get caught up in vanity visibility – if your customer doesn’t engage on Snapchat, for example, you don’t need to be spending there.
  5. Bidding strategy – there are extensive analytics available to help determine your bid, your distribution, your timing (best time of day, day of week). There are countless agencies happy to help you with this and the other four “quick fix” problems.

But what of the rest of the iceberg?  According to Gartner, 70% or more of the buying process occurs before a buyer will speak with a seller and then they only spend 17% of their total effort talking with vendors. The buying process is often difficult for the buyers irrespective of the sellers. To really drive pipeline and sustain it, leaders need to explore the issues below the surface.

    1. No clear customer profile. Countless companies target broadly and the result is that the variety of interested buyers who explore their digital presence often cannot find solutions to their specific problem.

      If you cannot choose how to describe yourself and the problem you solve, don’t expect a prospect to waste their time figuring it out.

       

      Focus on your most valuable customer profile and build an intuitive buyer journey for that customer.

    2. No clear urgency driver. The world is full of excellent products that are nice to have. Because the buying process is difficult, products that aren’t desperately needed have a hard time maintaining sales momentum. Existing customers often hold the key to understanding urgency because they experienced it and made a purchase. A combination of detective work and excellent pattern recognition can determine what combination of context and attributes leads to urgency for your product, enabling you to identify ideal target customers who can make a purchasing decision very quickly.
    3. Confusing buying journey – demand generation is not a “one and done” experience in the enterprise. Rain Group reports that 8 touches are needed before a sales conversion, and I’ve seen upwards of 12. Any one of those touches that is irrelevant is the equivalent the Monopoly “Go Directly to Jail. Do not pass Go”
      Monopoly Jail card - Hasbro TM
      Trademark Hasbro

      card. It is imperative to map out and then to execute against multiple buying journeys, which is another reason to focus on a single IDEAL profile and the URGENCY driver y to be relevant for every touch with that valuable prospect.

    4. Too many messages – when you have multiple buyers and you are trying to communicate a value proposition to each of them, you often wind up with competing and confusing statements. It’s relatively easy for a salesperson to read the room (or Zoom) and adjust their message to the precise audience – but this is not easily done on a website or other marketing collateral.  There are technologies like Bloomreach DXP (my former employer) that can personalize websites based on visitor data and preferences, but this works best with retail/CPG products, and are less applicable to B2B companies.
    5. Undifferentiated. This often cuts to the hearts of founders and early investors because they rightfully love their product. Differentiation starts before the product is built, based on a belief about the problem and what would be a 10x better way to solve that challenge. Differentiation must be:
      1. Self-evident
      2. Valuable to the ideal buyer in their urgency moment of need
      3. Assume competitors are smart and competent…they will copy anything valuable if possible – it should be difficult.
    6. Too much content – marketers and sellers often bury the prospect in an overwhelming flow of high quality, potentially useful content.

      It’s helpful to remember that buying your solution is NOT your buyer’s full-time job.



      They simply cannot and will not spend excessive time sorting through lots of content and links. Instead of being helpful, you are driving them towards their own confirmation biases, or worse – you are convincing them that your solution is even harder to buy.  Buyers want you to organize information for them and ensure they have what they need and no more. Gartner’s CEB team has excellent guidance on this point and the real economic impact it will have on your revenues and sales productivity.

    7. Inconsistency between what the buyer discovers digitally and what they hear from you live. If your sellers say or present information inconsistent with your digital assets, they will undermine trust in themselves and the company – making the buying journey more difficult. Get aligned first and stay there. When you need to change the message (and you will), do it deliberately and bring EVERYONE along – marketing, sales, solution consulting, customer success and product.
    8. The product isn’t delighting the customers. Like differentiation, this is tough love to founders and early investors who must have an almost irrational belief in their offering. Data will tell the tale of how often and how extensively customers are using the product. While there is often a learning curve to develop a habit, if this habit of regular usage doesn’t evolve, it’s time to revisit the ideal customer profile, urgency and differentiators because you simply cannot put lipstick on a pig (or – as is more likely – hire a customer success team to attempt that endeavor). Time to refocus the farm. 
    9. Losing momentum because there’s too much time delay. The moment an ideal prospect is on your landing pages or website AND asks to engage (through a sign up, a form, engaging with a chat bot like Drift) – that is the moment when they have made time in their day to THINK about you. You need to ensure your systems can rapidly identify ideal prospect versus not and quickly trigger the best available person to assist the prospect on their journey. Too often, SDR/BDRs are trained to push for scheduling the meeting (because that’s usually how they are paid) but don’t understand when to push to schedule the meeting as soon as possible.
    10. Losing momentum because you aren’t sharing what you’ve learned across your go-to-market organization.  There’s a vendor I work with and have bought at multiple companies. Their sales cycle is quite involved and they have excellent content available as part of their demand gen and nurturing campaigns. Inevitably, several people from their company will contact me as if it is the FIRST time anyone there has spoken to me.  I’ve taken to answering their calls by asking if they’ve looked me up in their CRM and telling them to call back after they do.

      You cannot WASTE your buyer’s time by asking them to re-educate you on what you should already know.



      Information your company learned in prior engagements – through forms or conversations – and information you can easily learn through research online is not information you need from your buyer. Treasure their time and spend your time ensuring you are current.  If your systems don’t make this easy for everyone in your company, then fix them because this is mandatory.

Demand generation, building pipeline, and closing deals is a continuous dance between insight, ambition and problem solving. Openness to exploring the source of each opportunity to improve will lead to a continuously growing pipeline and less expensive demand generation, freeing resources for investment and growth.

Agile SAAS Enterprise Marketing Metrics

The day started with the social media team excitedly sharing that they were achieving their impressions target and earning 600 clicks per week.  They reported, proudly, that they were achieving their KPIs (key performance indicators). That’s when the COO noted that in spite of 600 clicks, no one completed registration – so those accomplishments were not driving positive business results. The social media team was not empowered to improve conversion, but their activities drew attention to the number of converted prospects. They partnered with the product team to address conversion issues, and conversions started to rise. With the systems were optimized to drive customer conversion, the social media team refocused on targeting audiences most likely to convert, driving business results. 

Measuring what matters is crucial for go-to-market (GTM) leaders in high growth SAAS ventures. An agile marketing team (and an agile sales team) needs to embrace the Agile concepts of user stories and short sprints in order to create and execute campaign tests that reach, engage and convert prospects into customers. It’s critical that sales and marketing teams clearly understand the most important business objectives of those sprints. Every function within sales and marketing often has their own metrics. However, optimizing for too many metrics means not truly optimizing any.  The most impactful metrics provide early issue detection and insights from which to improve, especially those that tie to velocity and friction in your GTM operation. Connecting metrics that a team directly impacts versus metrics that drive the business is a crucial leadership function.

The metrics that matter vary depending on the type of business itself. Often, teams confuse their key metrics (very few and most important indicators of the business health) and the optimization metrics to help diagnose and improve their process. High velocity, low price businesses often focus on the fewest touches to an initial conversion – perhaps with freemium offers. 

Freemium  

Key Metrics

  1. Number of customers acquired cost to acquire
  2. Traffic volume, cost and performance by source

Optimization Metrics (use to improve)

  1. Conversion rate from landing page to user (by campaign, by landing page, by offer)
  2. Conversion rate from users to paying customer
  3. Abandonment rate (and where in the “checkout” process the abandonment occurs)
  4. Number of visits/engagements before conversion
  5. Renewal and upsell by campaign, landing page, offer, persona.

A critical distinction is that a high velocity, freemium model is most likely purchased by an individual.  That individual can likely use a credit card and expense the initial purchase. There’s no complex negotiation or contracts. When compared to an enterprise purchase, it’s faster and simpler.  Even freemium companies such as Slack, Dropbox, DocuSign and Wrike have had to create new sales playbooks for the transition from individual user/buyer to an enterprise license.

Enterprise Sales

For enterprise sales motions without a freemium value proposition, the metrics are more complex. The average enterprise buying team has 5 members and conducts 70% of their buying process prior to speaking with any sales team member. There is no single contact or lead that is a buyer – it’s an account. There will be a contract and a negotiation. The metrics that matter are different:

Key Metrics

  1. Sales Accepted (or Qualified) Opportunities created (by industry, by use case, by primary customer profile, by month) ÷ Sales and Marketing Expense
  2. Revenue in pipeline by stage
  3. Revenue in late-stage pipeline

Optimization Metrics

  1. Time from demo request to demo scheduled
  2. Time between initial engagement to SAL (by industry, by use case, by persona).  I prefer to create a “stage 0” opportunity associated with the first meeting with an account to accurately measure this duration because that’s an irrefutable moment of increased interest. 
  3. Number of engagements per targeted account per month. Engagements have different values – a prospect attending a webinar is more valuable than receiving an email. One can measure engagements by ICP within the target account to be more precise
  4. Engagements per qualified opportunity
  5. % conversion from each stage of the sales process
  6. Duration of each stage in the sales process (by industry, per persona, by use case)
  7. Sales productivity by rep, region and segment
  8. Retention rate
  9. Time to first expansion (by industry, segment, persona, geography)
  10. Total Contract Value (TCV) – by industry, segment, persona, geography

As customers, competitors and marketplaces shift, so will the friction points or bottlenecks in the go to market operation. With the limited metrics above, teams and leaders can inspect, identify and prioritize the opportunities to improve targeting, efficiency and revenues. It’s crucial that the entire GTM team is using the same high-level metrics to determine investment and optimizations – the metrics that drive the business forward.

The secret of sustainably agile teams

Business wants everything to be agile. Agile marketing. Agile development. Transform to be more agile. At Harvard Business School, companies spend significant funds teaching their people “agile.” Often this starts by understanding the concepts of agile development (such as the Agile Manifesto) with clear stories, small scrum teams, short sprints delivering software every two weeks, minimum viable products with frequent iteration, continuous conversation and self-organizing, motivated teams. 

As agile moves beyond development, enterprises often explore the SAFe Agile framework to align agile development with budgeting and strategy. And while agile is founded on the efficacy of teams, the secret of truly agile teams – teams that can adapt, align and execute in the face of continuous change – is emotional agility. 

The secret of truly agile teams – teams that can adapt, align and execute in the face of continuous change – is emotional agility. 

2020 and 2021 demonstrated to people across the globe that change can be both instantaneous and radical. In effect, every team in every organization suddenly had to be agile and the emotional strain of constant change was more apparent.

For larger businesses, the rate of change was unprecedented as contracts were delayed or canceled, key individuals left or changed roles (or worse), and priorities in the market shifted. Teams had to be agile in assessing new information, developing their new strategy, executing and reassessing. 

Teams are made up of people, and while those people were endeavoring to understand and make good choices for their business, they were all dealing with the personal ramifications of a global pandemic. And, for the first time, many people found their home and work boundaries completely obscured. While we slowly return to whatever the new normal is, the rate and amplitude of change are unlikely to slow due to more information, capital and choice. And the people who make up teams will continue to bring their emotions to work (because there’s no way to leave them “home”). If managers don’t recognize and adapt to people’s emotions, their teams will struggle to be agile.

On Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. Dr. Susan David addressed agility: 

You say you want innovation, but innovation dances an intimate dance with failure. You say you want a collaboration. Collaboration dances an intimate dance with conflict.”

Dr. Susan David, Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. part 2

Emotional agility, as defined by Dr. David, is the ability to recognize and label emotions, resist the urge to make the emotions go away (there is a lot of talk about toxic positivity in the podcast and I highly recommend it, but that’s not the focus of this article), and help your team’s members use their emotions as “signposts” to their values. Those signposts can easily become motivational and inspirational. 

People are inherently emotional, and there is no way to turn off our emotions. Leaders who are uncomfortable with emotions cannot create the psychological safety needed for teams to innovate, collaborate and be truly agile. Innovation and collaboration entail a high risk of failure and conflict – both experiences that trigger emotional reactions, mostly  avoidant. For our teams to be truly and sustainably agile, team leaders must be comfortable encountering and facing the full range of emotions.

For our teams to be truly and sustainably agile, team leaders must be comfortable encountering and facing the full range of emotions.

Team leaders need to develop their emotional intelligence to create emotionally agile teams. 

  1. Acknowledge emotions
    The team leader needs to respect that each person on the team is coming to the team with emotions, and the more effective the team leader is at recognizing those emotions, the better the team will flow. Dr. Susan David recommends “labeling” emotions – in journals or even verbally. In a one-on-one conversation, a team leader can ask “I wonder if you are feeling [label]” or “Before we get to work, what’s happening for you (emotionally) right now.”  Of course, they’re not under any obligation to share their feelings with you, so don’t pressure, but ask.
  2. Don’t fix or dismiss emotions
    Don’t try to fix/solve or “look on the bright side.” That tells the other person that you care about making their feelings go away so they can focus on the work. That’s the route to dysfunction, resentment and friction within the team. Instead, try compassion and empathy. Every person wants to be seen and to know they are not alone. In fact, authentic acknowledgement of an emotion will increase the amount of time team members can focus on the work rather than fighting for their teammates to acknowledge their emotions.
  3. Encourage emotional curiosity on teams
    Model using your own emotions for “signposts.” Dr. Susan David’s incredible insight is that emotions are signposts to values about which we care deeply. — values we can act upon. For instance, being curious about why you’re upset can reveal what you care about, asking yourself : “what signposts are my emotions showing me?” is powerful. Emotional agility is born of the ability to respect and inspect your emotions for the signposts they provide to your values. When a team has the psychological safety to discuss and align on shared values, that team can achieve flow and be more agile and effective.  That’s a team that gets a great deal more done, is sustainable and effective in every circumstance.

You are not being driven by your feelings. Rather, you are using the wisdom of your feelings to guide you in your values.

– Dr. Susan David

How to hire a CMO that lasts

With an average tenure of only 18 months, the Chief Marketing Officer is the most difficult executive role to fill for most B2B Tech companies, with the potential to derail the success of the company. Time and money spent to find, integrate, and subsequently off-board CMOs impacts value to investors. 

I’ve been a CMO for almost 20 years. Recently, I had the opportunity to reconnect with two of the CEOs with whom I partnered as CMO for 3.5 and 4.5 years, respectively, to explore why some CMO-CEO combinations work and why others fail. These discussions illuminated the challenges CEOs face creating space for their CMO to succeed; determining if they are hiring a long-term business partner or a functional expert and understanding what they need most from the CMO in the next 18-24 months.

Many founders are righly passionate about their product and their brand. Many of them were the first marketer and first salesperson for the company and they have more market experience with their product than any new CMO can bring. It’s difficult, painful and uncomfortable to allow someone else to take your creation in new directions. It’s impossible that a CMO will do exactly what the founder/CEO would do because they are different people. So the first question – are you ready to let go and give your new CMO autonomy?

CEOs also struggle with assessing a potential CMO’s strengths. The CEOs with whom I lasted all sought a business partner who could execute through marketing. The CEOs with whom I flamed out wanted a marketing expert with specific frameworks that aligned with their thinking and would apply to their business. Neither of these desires is wrong – but they necessitate different types of people who will bring different strengths to your team. The CMO scope is quite extensive and very visible throughout the organization. Second question – what’s most important to your company for the next 18-24 months of it’s growth?

Every CEO should prioritize the CMO scope (four circles above), with their leadership team and Board, based on the needs of the business over the next 18-24 months before creating a job spec or interviewing candidates. No one is expert in all four circles. Virtually every early stage start-up gravitates to demand gen – think hard about how much time and money you may waste in demand gen if you don’t know your target customer and differentiators that matter to them (Product Marketing).

Of course, demand gen is a terrific vehicle to test messaging and verify if target prospects respond. Operations is key to scaling and is the right priority if your business is taking off and you need to ensure you grow smart. Brand is how your customers will discover and remember you. Brand is also how you can establish higher value for your offering. You need all four capability circles, but not in the same order of priority at the same time.

Most CEOs bias towards hiring a functional expert. The experience of the CEOs I interviewed who hired functional experts is that once they solve the problem the business is facing right now, they often don’t have the “expertise” to solve the next problem – hence – 18 month turnover. Business partner CMOs have, by definition, less functional expertise. They may know the space in which you compete and have an impactful reputation. They may be an avid problem solver who can partner with you to deploy marketing tactics differently based on the changing needs of the business.

The CEOs with whom I lasted found more durability through a business partner who can deploy marketing because their business changes and in the CMO role, they needed an executive who adapted with it.