This year I turned 41 years old. Why does this matter? It matters because I work in an industry that is driven by image. What’s more, the sub-set of that industry that I have built my career in, namely digital marketing is one that is characterized by rapid change, speed and disruption, all elements that are associated with youthfulness. I can remember early on in my career being the young pirate, railing against established norms and processes. I can also remember very clearly the moment I realized I wasn’t that person anymore. It was in a meeting 2 years ago with 8 people in the room, and I suddenly recognized that I was the oldest person at the table. I didn’t contribute much to the discussion after that point, but was pretty troubled by that fact. I had become the legacy, the establishment, the management, and everything that is associated with that. I was disturbed by this, just as I was disturbed by the fact that people considerably younger than me are starting billion dollar companies in the industry I have worked in most of my career.
This discomfort also comes from the fact that unlike many of the people I work with today, I am not a digital native. I did not grow up with the reality of the Internet and the digital economy. My little boys are growing up in a world where mobile technology and highly functional digital experiences are a given. They refer to my laptop as an ‘iPad’. But I grew up in a different time, where computer power was measured in kilobytes, where programs where loaded by tape and where email represented an incredible improvement to a work environment that was frustrated by faxes and tortured by telex.
Finally, I was anxious about this because I’ve seen it all before. One of my favourite movies is The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah. It’s the story of a group of outlaws who ride out for one final score, realizing only too late that they are out of step with the times and that the world they once thrived in no longer exists. I was part of the wave of digital talent that displaced our predecessors in broadcast and print media. Most of the people that built their careers on that media have either left the industry or continue to struggle. But not all. A few have managed to pivot and transition into this new reality. And in looking at what they have managed to do with their careers I am inspired about what the rest of mine needs to look like, and how to get there.
I’ve heard it said that the key to a long-term career is to stay relevant. I don’t believe this is true. Relevance is table stakes. It’s the minimum required to deliver against expectations. Relevance, in the wrong light can look like mediocrity. I think a long-term career in this industry is about more than being relevant. It is about being vital.
Being vital is much harder than being relevant. It takes more out of you. Ironically, it probably ages you faster. But it is that much more rewarding, and frankly necessary to maintaining your edge in this industry. So how do you stay vital? Here’s the 4 things you need to do:
- Remember who you work for. All too often, in an effort to stay relevant to the organization, we focus on the wrong things. We focus on internal org structures. We focus on building our own empires. We focus on systems and processes that get the work done efficiently, but often at the expense of the quality of the output. This is how people stay relevant. But being vital is about looking beyond your role, your department, your company and asking how best your work aligns with the person that matters, namely the customer. Being vital means focusing on delivering with only the customer in mind. Being vital means aggressively tackling responses like ‘that sits in another department’ or ‘we don’t do it that way’. The customer doesn’t care about your org chart, and the more you are in step with the customer, the more vital you become.
- Move yourself close to the revenue. In any organization, there are cost centres and there are profit centres. Delivering efficiently makes you relevant. However, associating yourself and your work with the source of the revenue, and demonstrating clearly and repeatedly how your contribution leads to revenue growth makes you vital. After all, it’s a funny business without clients. This isn’t a recommendation that we should all work in sales. After all, virtually every position in an organization can find a way to impact revenue in a positive way, whether through the development of new products or the automation of systems that allow for faster collections. The key is to ask the question of how your role impacts revenue, and if you can’t answer that, to make a concerted effort to change the nature of the role.
- Make yourself uncomfortable. Being relevant means being great at your job. Being vital means not only being good at what you do, but also understanding deeply what the others around you do and in turn demonstrating how their work connects with yours in a way that both aligns with your customer needs and drives revenue. Being relevant means, as my esteemed colleague Katherine Jones says, being ‘comfortable in the machine’ of the organization. Being vital means, as my other colleague Dan Temby says, ‘creating an environment where your perspective and experience are requested as opposed to injecting yourself into situations in an effort to stay relevant’. And this rarely happens just because you are the domain expert in your space. It happens when you can connect your work to the work of others. This is a hard thing to achieve, and it means regularly trying new things outside your area of expertise. An example? This blog and podcast. I’ve never done anything like this before, and there was a considerable learning curve, but the discipline associated with it has opened my eyes to possibilities I hadn’t previously considered. This type of first hand experience also gives you a deeper appreciation of the work your colleagues do, giving you the empathy you need to lead.
- Make yourself redundant. This seems counter-intuitive given the idea of staying vital, so bear with me here. It is a fact that if a task can be executed cheaper, faster or better, someone will figure out a way to do it. So always assume that the work you do today will end up being outsourced and / or automated at some point. This assumption is a motivator to find ways to impart your knowledge on others, training them to take your place. This effort makes you redundant in one area, but also frees you to focus on applying yourself in a new space. It is the collection of these experiences that give you a unique, holistic, and yes, strategic perspective. And that is what makes you vital, now, and in the future.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.