Creating a culture of empowerment
Most people would say a CEO's primary responsibilities are things like "maximizing profits" and "building operational efficiencies." I believe my job is about rallying, unblocking and getting out of the way.
It's simple: We focus on hiring people with skills that make us stronger and more diversified. Why wouldn't we want to unleash those skills and see where it takes us?
But a culture of empowerment doesn't just happen, despite everyone's best intentions. Leaders have to enable it with systems and structures.
In our latest People Changing Enterprises podcast, Sommsation CEO Danielle Diliberti shared her employee empowerment tips. Here, I also share mine. What I loved most was how she boiled it down to "being a good team member." It really can be that simple.
Make the transfer of knowledge a priority
You will grow nowhere if one person is the designated collector of knowledge. What happens when that person leaves? Their absence leaves a gaping hole, and everyone else starts at zero.
As you grow, there is more work, and you have to move quicker within a more complex environment. Any barriers to speed must be removed. Spreading knowledge is one way to remove those barriers. Transferring knowledge gets your organization to the next level.
Danielle shared an awesome framework she's used as she's scaled: the 3-3-3 rule.
The first three: As a leader, if you want to train someone, you must have done something 3000 or three times. (In a hypergrowth company, new challenges present themselves every day. I get it!)
The second three: At this point, you move on to having that person shadow you in that role three times.
The final three: Here, the leader shadows the employee to ensure that the full transfer of knowledge loop is closed.
As Danielle said, "Passing, the torch really does help everyone. The whole team gets smarter, the business becomes more valuable, and you can move a lot faster. The investment up front will pay dividends in the long run."
Build cross-functional connections
It's easy for everyone to "stay within their lane." In our location-neutral world, it's become even more of the default. But if you want to build a culture of empowerment, leaders must break down that default bit by bit.
Within organizations, empowerment comes from what you know and also who you know.
We incentivize cross-functional and cross-geographic connections. We enter anyone at Contentstack who sets up a 30-minute zoom call with somebody in a different department into a gift card raffle. What has made it even more special is that participants started sharing pictures of the conversations on Slack with some fun facts about the other person. It has become an awesome way to build connections.
Those connections come in handy. If you've ever wanted an answer at an organization that nobody around you is equipped to give, you understand. If someone unexpected from across your organization has ever called you for your experience and input, you also get it.
Connections build confidence in your position and contributions at a company. Confidence is required for real empowerment to break through.
Danielle hosts "Summits" at Sommsation, bringing together cross-functional groups in person to align on roadmaps for different areas of the business. We do quarterly, in-person meetings with our executive team ("The Dreamguard") and more.
These efforts also make our hybrid and remote cultures more tangible.
Create an open-door policy
Sometimes it's nerve-wracking for leaders to "get out of the way." You can be left wondering if things will get done well. You know the way you would do it.
But the truth is "getting things done well" and "the way you would do it" are not the same. There is often more than one way to reach an end goal. Believe me, this is coming from someone who bootstrapped one company for 10 years and exited without a banker.
Fight the urge to do. Instead, assess everyone's level of skills and confidence and then create an open door policy as they do.
Not everything will go off without a hitch. That's okay. Encourage your team to come to you with questions, concerns and potential solutions. Hear them out, and work with them on those solutions. I always start my open door policy conversations with: “This is a place and space with no judgment.”
Part of the open door policy is spotting when you may need to step in. In Danielle's previous experience as the CTO at The St. James, she realized the legacy CMS was hampering their agility. Their marketing team relied on developers to make updates to content, which could take weeks. It wasn't sustainable for a business focused on delivering customers personalized, of-the-moment health and wellness experiences.
She stepped in to usher in a new MACH-technology era at The St. James. Without that transformation, her other people empowerment strategies wouldn't go far.
We say it often: Innovation will come from your people. It's probably more accurate to say: Innovation will come from your people only if they are empowered. Focus on transferring knowledge, building connections and creating an open door policy as a leader, and the skills you hired for will be the skills that take your organization into the future.
How to create a 5-star content strategy: Tips from Juliette Olah of Booking.com
When it comes to content strategy, Juliette Olah knows that a key part of reaching a vision is planning a smooth journey to get there. As senior manager, Editorial at Booking.com, she skillfully blends the needs of customers, technologies and creative teams to define the editorial roadmap for the global travel brand. Olah recently spoke with us about creating high-value content, getting organization-wide support for change, and the advice she has for other leaders driving editorial strategy. Keep the focus on the customer When Olah joined Booking.com in 2020, the editorial content was mainly used for paid social media ads. She quickly saw an opportunity to use these long-form articles in a much broader way to support the brand’s own social, organic and email channels.“I wanted to show that potential but, at the same time, keep focus so that it didn’t seem like I was trying to solve all content challenges through editorial,” Olah said. “If you go too broad, too quickly your message can start to become lost.”A key part of defining and keeping a focused content strategy is taking a customer-first approach — creating a roadmap and choosing themes based on what is most valuable for your audience and then figuring out how to tightly weave business objectives and marketing goals into the plan instead of the other way around. “A customer-first approach is essential; otherwise you lose relevance and value very quickly,” Olah said. “Audiences are incredibly sensitive and perceptive to anything that is slightly off or slightly irrelevant. If your content and your messaging isn’t coming across seamlessly you’ll lose attention immediately, and you’ll also lose trust.” Maximize the value of each piece “Editorial content does take a lot of resources to produce,” Olah said, discussing the research, writing, visuals and translation work required. “So if we’re going to do this, we need to make each and every story work to serve needs and fill gaps so that we’re supporting the brand rather than just adding more content.” Maximizing the value of content starts in the planning phase. For Olah and her team, this includes working with in-house researchers to identify travel trends, with localization specialists to make sure ideas are culturally relevant and with the social and email teams to create pieces that can serve the strategies of multiple channels. It’s also key to set up content for long-term value. This can include structuring content on the back end in a way that makes it easy to reuse across different channels, or enhancing the tagging and taxonomy of your archive to get more out of the content you’ve already invested in. “Editorial at Booking.com has been going on for many years, so we have thousands of pieces of content,” Olah said. “Surfacing that content in a relevant way, being able to curate it, to search through it and filter it efficiently is now really important for audiences to be able to get the most value out of it.” Build a 360 business case for technology change To reach their multichannel ambitions, Olah knew the editorial team needed a technology solution that would let them create, curate and optimize content more efficiently than would be possible with their incumbent, homegrown platform. Having worked with a headless content management system (CMS) in previous roles, Olah started exploring if this approach was a right fit for Booking.com. Through many discussions with tech and product leaders, as well as the creatives on her team, she built a business case that looked at the technology justification and functionality needs, as well as the impact on efficiency and editorial strategy. “The business case is part showing a comprehensive, 360 view of the technical benefits of the platform and part showing that you’ve done your homework on a robust content strategy,” Olah said. “From examples of execution, to tying in brand storytelling and campaign amplification, to details around distribution and channel use cases of the content.” Presenting an aligned, measurable plan for change was key to getting different stakeholders to understand the potential of editorial content and to get the buy-in needed to make the change successful. “Advocacy is needed at all levels and functions, from a leadership level that signs off to the people that are actually involved in using the products and the systems day-to-day,” Olah said. “They need to be happy and settled and feel confident that this is going to make their jobs easier and more efficient.” Don’t change for change’s sake To ensure the move to the new content solution went smoothly, Olah was careful to avoid a common stumbling block she’d seen at other organizations. “When companies launch a new platform, there’s a tendency to launch 10 other things at the same time— a new platform plus new brand guidelines, or an entirely new content strategy, or a refresh of everything that’s associated with the particular platform,” Olah explained. “I was very conscious of not doing that because that is extremely stressful and, in my opinion, unnecessary.” Instead, change was rolled out in stages and, where possible, tied in existing ways of working to make people feel comfortable during the transition. For example, the editorial team was very happy with the workflow that was created around the previous content platform. While a headless CMS might be able to support more efficient processes, Olah decided it was best for the team to first roll out the new platform in a way that worked with the existing workflow. “Don’t try to change everything under the sun at the same time,” Olah advised. “If something is working, keep it, and keep the business case focused on the current challenges that need to be solved.” Plan for potential Breaking transformation into independent steps, rather than a big-bang approach, is also an opportunity to create a content and technology framework that supports continuous change. “Once we launch, there’s still a lot of potential for editorial at Booking.com, and what we’ve been able to do with this platform is build for that potential so that the structures are in place,” Olah explained. For instance, with an API-first approach Booking.com is able to structure content so that it isn’t locked into only being presented as a static long-form article on the site. As the team explores new channels, third party syndication, testing tools and further optimization for local markets they can adapt existing content and processes to meet new needs. “This is a huge benefit of headless,” Olah said. “We don’t know what we will necessarily need in another five years, but we absolutely need something that is flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate that.”“There’s only so far ahead that you can possibly plan for,” she continued. “You need a system that helps you to flex and change in this environment.”
3 ways tech and business teams can help each other through a transformation
Not all great tech transformations are brought to the table by a developer, engineer, CTO or other technical person. We see great projects kick off because someone in marketing, sales or customer success raises the flag for change. Sometimes business people can see opportunities that aren’t as plain to the tech teams.That’s what happened when Booking.com decided to transition off its old systems to a headless CMS. Juliette Olah, senior manager of Editorial, realized that her teams had produced thousands of pieces of content over the years — but the capabilities of their current technology significantly limited the value that content produced in their local markets and possibilities for the future.Listening to her “People Changing Enterprises” episodes, I admired the way Juliette united Booking.com’s product and editorial teams from the beginning to pull off their transformation. Business and tech can either be each other’s biggest advocates or frustrating roadblocks.To avoid the latter, these are three examples of how tech and business teams can support each other throughout a transformation.Thoroughly debrief at the onsetAt the beginning of every project, we encourage organizations to sit down with their cross-functional teams and level set. Business and tech have their own KPIs and goals to achieve. In a project that bridges the two, there should be a frank discussion, ending in clear, written requirements of process and goals for both sides.Once Juliette realized a tech transformation was the answer to the editorial team’s needs, she became the living bridge between the editorial and product teams. Sitting down with tech stakeholders, they talked through what Juliette called a “comprehensive 360 view of the benefits to the technical side of the platform”:The editorial team’s strategy and the justification behind the new technologyReal-life examples of what execution would look likeThe business value of a central headless CMS would bring to each local marketOpportunities they were currently missing out on because of their current toolBecause she had clearly done her homework and demonstrated the need on both sides, the product team was eager to get started.Partner up to find and test new toolsFinding and testing new tools is an easy way for business and tech teams to partner effectively. When the new CMS was in place, the teams at Booking.com partnered to try out the new tool to make sure it worked for both sides.At Contentstack, once a new solution is initially developed, we pull in our business partners for User Acceptance Testing. They can test, catch bugs, or point out which workflows function trickier than anticipated — versus the tech teams doing it all themselves.Additionally, when you’re on the hunt for new tools, tag a business partner in for their opinion. From a different mindset, they might be able to raise questions or point out benefits you didn’t consider. Work together to phase out what isn’t neededA transition to composable is the perfect time to evaluate what tools you’re bringing into the new environment — and which ones you should retire. This is another area that tech and business teams should work together.A few years ago, we bought an analytics tool for the organization to use on their reports. It was low-cost and met some of our needs upfront, so we decided to take a chance on it. Six months down the road, we were spending a huge amount of time trying to force the tool to work. When a business person came to me and admitted the tool wasn’t helping their team meet their objectives, we decided to look into something else. On a composable project, it’s not always clear on the back end if a tool is working for teams as they need. That’s where our business partners come in. It’s a partnership.Babe Ruth once said, "The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime."It’s easy for business and tech teams to work in silos, but working together produces more value. Especially in a tech transformation, the two teams are different sides of one coin. Find ways to bridge the gap and you’ll see much more value in your resulting tech stack.
What makes content great?
"You're not just competing with other brands. You're competing with every other piece of content on the internet." That was a mic drop from Juliette Olah, senior manager of editorial at Booking.com, during a recent “People Changing Enterprises” episode. We get so confined in our worlds that often we're just asking ourselves: How can I do better than what I did last time? But shouldn't we ask ourselves how we can be the best in our niche? For Olah, that niche is travel. That means at any given time she's competing with everyone from Travel and Leisure to Airbnb, the Travel Channel, and Drew Binsky, a YouTuber with over 3.7 million subscribers. Consumers have endless options. That's why we need standards to ground us on what makes content great. These are my suggestions: Elements of great content Overarching, unique angle Listen Notes estimates that over 3 million active podcasts exist today. Of those, about 350,000 list "business" as their genre, which is where Contentstack's “People Changing Enterprises” sits. We could have produced a Composable DXP podcast since we are the category leaders. Instead, we focused on who we wanted to build relationships with: enterprise technologists and marketers. We made them the heroes as they share their learnings and stories of triumph every day. Our unique angle? Successful transformation stories from within enterprises. Drenched in POV Once you have your overarching angle, make sure every individual piece of content has a POV. Google clamped down on SEO-driven content for a reason. Its top 10 ranked articles tied to any search query all sound the same. Raise your hand if you agree! You can avoid that by applying some challenger brand techniques: Lighthouse your beliefs with each piece of content. Or, drench it in POV, as I like to say. This works no matter the channel. On LinkedIn, you'll never not know where CEO of Refine Labs Chris Walker stands on marketing attribution. Here's an example of when I spoke a hard truth — entrepreneurs come from anywhere, not just Ivy League schools — on the same platform. Be helpful This doesn't mean that it must be a "how to." It does mean that your audience must find it helpful in some way. Your content could be inspiring, make them think differently or save your audience time. Your content might be helpful simply because it allows them to lose themselves in storytelling after a busy week. (Thank you, New York Times Sunday Read.) Make it visual This can be as simple as making something easy to consume with white space, bullets and pull quotes. But video, infographics, original photography, memes, cartoons and VR storytelling work, too. With tech, the visual sky is the limit! You'll rarely see a single-spaced, dense article get mainstream play because we simply don't have the attention spans anymore. In an omnichannel content world, play to the strengths of each channel you're active in. Or do something entirely visually unexpected. Postmark, the email delivery service, created a series of comic books poking fun at common email problems like churn and getting stuck in spam folders. Prioritize speed Admittedly, this one isn't as "creative" as the first four elements. But it's what unlocks your competitive advantage. You can excel with the first four, and if someone beats you to it or your target audience simply moves on from a trend, you've lost an opportunity. Some retailers were able to move quickly promoting their versions of the Zara pink slip dress that went viral on TikTok. Most didn't. Our research shows that 78% of retailers say it takes them two weeks or more to execute a standard marketing campaign, and 63% struggle with the ability to update content. Speed is non-negotiable, so I'd recommend removing any barriers to achieving it. Booking.com's Olah said, "Remain open-minded that there's always going to be changes on a micro or macro level. You have to enable the ability to flex and adapt your approach." When you get the first four principles right — and wrap your entire process with the ability to move quickly — you can compete with the best content out there. You really can. If you don't believe me, listen to “People Changing Enterprises” for more examples of regular people accomplishing unimaginable things within their organizations.
How to build technology and culture to embrace change
Keith Mazanec isn’t afraid of a pivot. Ten years into a career in retail, he decided to take a coding boot camp and forge a new career path that aligned with his childhood fascination with computers. Now, as the director of software engineering at Brad’s Deals, Mazanec is leading the company’s transition to a modern content architecture. He recently spoke with us about the retail lessons that can be applied to software development, why building trust is so important to transformation and the advice he has for other technology leaders driving enterprise change. Expand the definition of customer service The catalyst to Mazanec’s career pivot? A spreadsheet. As a customer relationship manager at a major department store, he was tasked with filling out and sending a certain Excel sheet to corporate each month and it felt maddening that such a giant retailer was operating with such a tedious approach. “That really drove me to look back at technology and how it actually impacts people in the workplace day in and day out,” said Mazanec. “In particular, when technology is neglected and how that can have a really negative impact.” Coming from the very service-oriented retail space, Mazanec has developed a keen sense of awareness for how his work affects other people and has carried that across to his engineering career. “It’s all about service,” Mazanec said. “Who is the customer in my role now? At a department store it’s clear it’s the person walking in the door, but it’s also my fellow employees there. In a software role the customer is often other people on your team.” Fortunately, technologies that serve internal teams tend to have a knock-on effect on the end-customer experience. For example, setting up an automation system that saves the editorial team hours of rote data entry gives editors more time to curate interesting offers and write informative content for shoppers. “Customer service transcends retail or customer experience,” explained Mazanec. “It’s about who you are supporting in your activities day in and day out.” Build trust“Honestly, the technology is almost always the easy part,” Mazanec said when asked about the most important factors of a successful transformation. “It’s the people, and the processes, and the relationships, and the inner workings of teams that really is everything.” Mazanec attributes his interpersonal skills, which have been key to navigating the human side of business transformation, to his early career in retail. “In many ways it was my business school,” said Mazanec “It was my HR training. I learned how to manage people, I learned how to lead, how to coach and mentor, and I learned how to deal with difficult situations and have difficult conversations.”Ultimately, he learned that getting things done often came down to building relationships, whether with a customer that just walked in the door or a person you work with every day. “Retail, and sales in general, is a lot about trust, and working on a team of developers is also a lot about trust,” said Mazanec. “When there are issues that come up, or disagreements about how to solve a particular problem, if you have that trust amongst each other then you’re going to be able to overcome those things.” Even when the business value and risks of transformation have been calculated, the change can still feel scary to the people affected by it. Taking the time to understand people’s concerns and build up the trust that decisions are being made in good faith pays off by creating a culture that embraces change. “That mindset of we’re in this together, we’re going all in, we’re taking a leap of faith,” Mazanec said about the team culture at Brad’s Deals. “The sense that we’re linking arms and we’re doing this together.” Start at the end After looking into what drew return shoppers to Brad’s Deals, and what didn’t, the company realized the main way to improve the customer experience was to publish long-lived content more frequently. To do this, they needed to transform their existing content process that had editors moving between different legacy systems that were hard to maintain. Mazanec and his team wanted to make sure that the new solution was guided by the priorities of the people using it, and not by the capabilities of any particular tool. So they created a conceptual content model before even starting to look at technologies. “We started with the end in mind,” said Mazanec. “Where do we want our content model to be? Where do we want our site, apps, platform? What kind of capabilities do we want for the editorial teams that are finding and curating great deals? What kind of opportunities do we want to create for our partner teams to work with merchant partners better than we have in the past?” This big-picture model informs all technology and architecture decisions. From what parts to build in-house, when to bring in vendors, what legacy tools to sunset and how to break up the transformation into stages and avoid a big-bang replatform. Being guided by a long-term vision also helps the engineering team create a foundation that has the flexibility to adapt to each stage, as well as future needs. “Regardless of the conceptual model that we created, we knew that business was going to change,” said Mazanec. “The world would continue to change, retail would continue to change, publishing would continue to change, and so we needed to have a system that could change too, so that the model we came up with in 2021 could be iterated on and evolve for the next decade to come.” Expect a relay race Just as important as the flexibility of the technology, is the flexibility of the team. Transformation is often a multi-year process and, as people move in and out of the company, teams need to be able to adapt and progress. “You need to plan for business continuity regardless of how the team is going to grow and shift and change and shrink over time,” Mazanec said. “How do you keep momentum when it’s ceased to be a single race and it’s become a relay race?”As new team members were being brought on that weren’t around for the early decisions and beta tests, Mazanec realized that a lot of key information about the transformation happening at Brad’s Deals was living inside people’s heads. So the team quickly put in place processes to improve communication such as documentation, training and onboarding. “It really comes down to having a great culture of writing, a great culture of open communication and ultimately building and rebuilding trust,” Mazanec said, explaining that this culture makes the team more resilient to change and also makes it easier to incorporate the insights that new people bring. “A silver lining of going through some of these challenges is that you wind up on the other side with fresh perspectives,” Mazanec said. “We’ve come out the other side a stronger team overall. With better processes, better communication, and, most importantly, a better foundation to build on top of for the next decade.”Listen to the podcastListen to this episode of the “People Changing Enterprises” podcast to learn more about Mazanac’s career leap of faith and what customer experience lessons he learned while working in retail.
CMO shares expert strategies for digital-first marketing
As a three-time CMO with more than 25 years in software marketing, Susan Beermann knows first-hand just how vital it is for businesses to keep up with shifting customer preferences. In a recent CMSWire webinar, “Adopt a Digital-first Marketing Strategy,” Contentstack’s CMO shared her expert tips for ensuring your company leads the way when it comes to capitalizing on today's (and tomorrow's) digital opportunities.Read on for highlights, or watch the webinar to get all of the insights from Beermann and fellow guest Erica Heald, founder of Erica Heald Marketing Consulting, on these topics and more.What is digital first?Defining digital-first marketing, Beerman said: “It's really a digital strategy that is focused on engagement — engagement with your audience, whether your audience is your customers, your prospects, maybe it's even your employees or your partners — and how can we use digital technologies to really reach many people in a very effective and efficient manner and give a really great digital experience across whatever device they're using, whether it's their laptop, their their mobile phone, their watch, digital signage, and buildings or at events, digital billboards, the list goes on and on.” Why adopt a digital-first strategy?Customer expectations are the driver behind the rapid transformation to digital-first marketing, Beermann said. “We all want to have a great digital experience … and our customers are demanding really great experiences, and they will vote with their feet and move to a different provider if they have a better digital experience than you're providing.”What to consider before embracing a digital strategyWhen approaching a digital-first strategy, organizations need to consider both their people and the technology, Beermann said. On the people side, that means asking whether your teams have the right mindset and the right skill sets for new technologies. If not, you will need to decide whether to hire someone who specializes in the new technology or train existing staff.On the technology side, the first thing to consider is what you’re trying to achieve and then which technologies will help you get there as easily, quickly and cost effectively as possible.“And the great thing about the modern composable approach is you can pick components based on your unique business requirements that are easily integrated together and can operate as a whole, and just really get a tech stack that's very unique to what you're trying to achieve and not be locked into something that's very monolithic and difficult to change,” Beermann said.Choosing the right vendor is another important factor when considering technology.“You want that vendor to or that partner I'll say to meet you where you are today, but also take you to where you want to go in the future,” Beermann said. “So don't choose something that just solves today's problem, think ahead a couple of steps and ask them where are they evolving their product?” Beermann said it’s also important to consider return on investment is also an important thing to consider. “You need to really think through, how is this going to make money or save money or hopefully, both, and have a cost justification that you can give to your CFO.”Learn moreLearn how composable technology can help your marketing team keep pace with ever-changing content needs in our guide, “The ultimate marketer’s guide to composable DXPs.”Schedule a free demo to see how Contentstack can help you navigate your digital transformation and achieve your digital marketing goals.