The first installment of a three-part series on hiring agile marketing leaders
CEOs may have taken note of agile marketing, but few know what to look for in an agile-capable chief marketing officer. As an agile marketer who has gone through the experience of building agile marketing teams, I’ve pulled together a short primer on how to recruit agile marketing leadership.
Recognize that your recruitment team isn’t ready
Agile marketing is still relatively nascent, so there are very few seasoned agile marketing leaders out there. And unless your recruitment team already supports an engineering or product management organization, it’s highly unlikely that they have much, if any, experience hiring agile leaders. Also, the agile marketing certification program (whose curriculum I contributed to) was only launched last year. Eventually, the program will help build a pipeline of talent that will come online in the next five years. For now, though, most of the people getting certified are early or mid-career professionals.
That leaves you with three options for hiring talent. You can either elevate agile managers into leadership roles, train your current leaders, or bring in agile leaders who lack marketing experience. Of the three, I’m most bullish on the first option. I have nothing against incumbents, but agile leadership requires a very different mindset, one that existing leaders often struggle to adopt without significant intervention (cue the management consultants). Basically, this surfaces the classic innovator’s dilemma: the very mindset that propelled existing leaders to success is often in conflict with agile values and practices.
Identifying Up-and-Coming Agile Talent
Broadly speaking, I’ve found two criteria that are helpful for identifying potential agile leadership candidates. Of course, these are in addition to all the normal qualifications that should be present in leaders:
Operational Experience: The best candidates will have had success implementing agile within their teams or functions. Having gone through rounds of retrospectives, they have a strong handle on what it takes to adapt an agile method to their team and initiative. Most critically, they’ll have operationalized the practice with agile tools such as Asana or Jira. Ideally, this will connect team backlogs to a strategic planning process such as the objectives and key results framework (OKR).
Mindset Modeling: Operational experience with the agile method is not enough; agile leaders must also model the mindset for their teams and peers. Agile marketing leaders must be able to not only educate their teams about agile, but they must also reset expectations about how agile works with peers. For example, projects will be released incrementally rather than at a pre-set deadline. Finally, this also means knowing where to apply and not apply the agile approach (agile is not for everything).
Investing in Success
Finally, agile marketing leaders, especially those that you are grooming, are going to need more support than other leaders because they’re likely going to be doing a lot of on-the-job learning. Plan on investing in their success with training and coaching. And, if they are building a team this will mean extra recruiting support because mid-level agile marketers are also hard to find!
If your CMO isn’t knowledgeable about, or bought into, agile marketing than the chances that agile will continue to gain traction in the organization and become transformative aren’t good. The big consultancies are banking on this as trusted advisors, and digital transformation guides, they have the CMO’s ear and see an opportunity to deliver value if they can get the CMO to understand how agile marketing is a competitive advantage for the company. But if your CMO isn’t engaged with a consultant there’s another option—your web team.
All customer experiences lead to your website
Your company website is your core digital experience, as such everything that marketing does ultimately drives to your website. This puts your web team in a unique position to influence other functions because they manage the core experience. They can set the terms of engagement.
In practice, web teams are service organizations that field requests from across marketing. Agile web teams know that web experiences that are developed iteratively are less risky and more focused on driving business results. Following this, they structure their internal-client engagements with an agile mindset—deliver initial value quickly and iterate towards a fully featured experience based on feedback and data.
Some internal functions and teams will balk at this initially but disciplined web teams ultimately win them over on the merits of the approach.
Why agile web teams win
Web projects have many moving parts but they are grounded in the reality that websites are software. When software teams embrace agile they’re tapping into a best practice that’s been proven over the last 25 years. Agile derisks releases, delivers results more quickly, is more focused on results, as well as the end customer’s experience—these are hard won truths that have transformed software developers into the cool kids.
If we focus on just the last ten years a parallel change took place in the marketer’s world, namely an almost 50-fold increase in marketing technologies. In other words, marketers are managing more software than ever before and, by the way, a good deal of that software connects to the website.
So if your web team isn’t leveraging agile they’re not playing the game right and there’s a good chance that other technical marketing teams aren’t either. What’s different about agile marketing, though, is that it’s not constrained to software. Websites are not only software, they bring together a cross-functional team that includes both technical and non-technical roles that need a shared process to collaborate optimally. Web teams that win facilitate this by extending agile beyond software.
The hidden multiplier effect of agile
What I, and many other marketers, have discovered is that the benefits associated with agile go well beyond having a lingua franca of shared process. The benefits of shared process are real and important but agile becomes a substrate that encourages teams to align on a range of other fronts that are often unexpected and outsized.
In my agile marketing and WebOps webinar, I share a case study from Cornell University that is emblematic of this multiplier effect. They invested in adopting agile practices, and agile tooling to support those practices, with the stated goal of driving results through a shared process and governance model. They achieved those goals but drive an even bigger value proposition:
One of the bigger benefits is how it’s aligning the institution, we’re all coming together around a common way of presenting information
– Rebecca Joffrey, IT Innovation Officer
Across hundreds of university websites, Cornell’s story and branding became incrementally more consistent over time. In short, a community of shared practice creates a venue for collaboration, and alignment, on everything from storytelling to innovation. While it’s still a minority of cases where agile transformation is driven from the bottom up, when it happens there’s a good chance that the web team made it happen.
For the last couple of years I’ve been working to increase the agility of a web-team within the Oracle corporate marketing group—in this post I’ll share a bit about that experience. As context, this is a case that highlights impediments to fully embracing agile when markmarketing relies on IT to manage their platform and infrastructure. That’s the situation that most marketers are in so I hope you’ll find this article useful. It also related to why I’m so excited to be joining Pantheon to lead their marketing team.
Embracing Agile with Centralized IT at Oracle
In 2016 I turned my attention to upgrading Oracle’s content marketing capabilities. My team worked on two related areas including our platform for publishing periodic content (i.e. blogs, articles, magazines, etc) as well as the training and support we offer to upgrade each team’s content marketing practice. It was a classic pairing of platform and practice modernization with the roll out of contemporary publishing technology and training for content creators who leverage that technology to be more effective content marketers.
As background, we were replacing a very outdated platform (Apache Roller) with a recent Oracle acquired technology (Compendium – now called Oracle Content Marketing). Following an agile approach, we worked on developing a minimum viable product (MVP) which we could roll out to a small group of users as the first step on the path to a global roll out to thousands of content creators around the globe—that process is now complete.
As is the case in many organizations, our infrastructure and platform were managed by our centralized IT function. This presented some impediments to operating in an agile fashion because we didn’t officially manage the back-end development resources working on the initiative. Fortunately, I’d developed a strong rapport with engineering management at Oracle so they agreed to follow our lead when it came to adopting Agile—without executive buy-in on the IT side of the house it would not have been feasible to embrace Agile.
Among other things, this meant transitioning all team members into Jira and a code management system developed by the corporate marketing group. This was a challenge for the marketers on the team because they were not accustomed to working in such a highly structured way. We addressed this with ongoing support and training for the team. On the development side, we didn’t have a full DevOps setup. We had development, staging, and production servers but there was little automation in place for testing, integration, or deployment. Any DevOps improvements that we needed required the back-end development team to invest in developing and maintaining such services. When combined with a significant security constraints and business process this meant that we’re able to establish a robust DevOps practice.
To get going with agile the team built out our backlog, set up scrums, demos, and retrospectives—some of the foundational agile practices. Considering that the entire team was not accustomed to working in an agile method, we consciously selected a less prescriptive method to start. The practices we embraced were more consistent with Kanban than Scrum at first though we evolved towards two week sprints for releases. As we advanced quarter after quarter we established a rhythm and the team ultimately became more confident in the process.
Within just a quarter we started to see significant results when it came to regularity of releases, overall productivity, and adoption of the features we were releasing. And, our counterparts in IT recognized that this was not only a better way of working but that it helped them align more effectively with the business. It’s worth noting, that it’s pretty unusual that the business would drive agile into the IT team … usually, it’s the other way around because agile emerged from the software development world.
Agile Alone is Powerful, With DevOps it’s a Super Power
We demonstrated that it’s possible to embrace agile and derive real value without fully owning the technology stack, managing the backend development team, or having true DevOps in place. In fact, despite that context our marketing initiative advanced much more quickly than those being done in the traditional way.. While our sites outperformed waterfall oriented web-teams, it’s important to recognize that we took on a lot of everhead to keep our development environments in sync, to deploy and rollback code, to automate tests, and all the rest.
Owning the technology stack that supports your websites can be a powerful enabler for marketing teams that aspire to operate in an agile fashion. That may seem counterintuitive at first because managing a tech-stack does not imply agility, it’s not in the traditional marketer’s wheelhouse, and it represents potential overhead. In fact, if done poorly it can be a real drag on productivity. When done right, however, it’s a powerful accelerant for the iterative approach, the race to product/market fit, and the ongoing optimization of experiences that contribute to the bottom line.
This is where the web-specific DevOps platform that Pantheon offers comes in—it’s a managed service that decreases the cost and overhead associated with DevOps while structuring how teams embrace agile. This let’s marketers focus where they can provide the most value—developing truly great digital experiences. I can only imagine how much further we’d have been able to advance if we’d had Pantheon at Oracle. That’s why I’m incredibly excited by the prospect of empowering thousands of marketers to compete more effectively on the basis of digital experience.
In previous posts I’ve written about how the ecosystem that supports and facilitates the adoption of Agile in marketing has been gaining momentum. When I present on The State of Agile Marketing I sometimes include the following slide:
In this post, I’ll zero in a bit on the first bullet about consulting firms because I want to clarify how I see this as a validation and the role they play. What’s clear is that the top consulting firms are publishing more and more content on Agile Marketing. As one example, consider McKinsey & Co. whose organizational insights page now includes a section on “business agility” and if you drill in deeper you’ll see that marketing is one of the most popular content areas within business agility. But if you really want to understand where the consulting companies are coming from, I’d recommend listening to this recent podcast from McKinsey:
For those of us who have been immersed in Agile Marketing for a while, it’s pretty clear that what’s being offered here are not fresh insights but rather a set of insights that have been known to practitioners for some time. Reading between the lines a bit, I hear what sounds like a gap between theory and practice that is characteristic of teams that are still early on in their adoption. In other words, the fact that these consulting firms are invested in Agile Marketing is wonderful and will drive adoption overall but it’s also important to understand that they are still very much figuring it out.
To the degree that these firms can connect—and relate—Agile transformation to their existing digital transformation practices they have a valuable role to play when it comes to executive education. And it’s important to acknowledge that our interviews from The Marketing Agility Podcast make it clear that executive buy-in is the single biggest requirement for agile transformation to succeed in enterprises.
The mindset changes required to succeed with Agile are very hard to embrace often put a spotlight on the innovator’s dilemma. In my view, outside consulting firms are optimally positioned to influence executive mindset, and openness to adopting Agile in general, though I am not sure that I would advise engaging such firms to do much on the implementation side just yet.
If you’re a senior marketing who has worked with a top 5 consulting firm to support an agile transformation, I’d be thrilled to connect with you whether it’s for the podcast or just to learn about your experience.
This is a quick post to share a recap of my presentation from MarTech SF 2017 in San Francisco. It was a lively event and one that I’ll likely return to because it’s becoming a stomping ground for some of the most passionate advocates for bringing Agile to the marketing world.
The Agile MarketerTuning Customer Experience Into Your competitive advantage
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