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.
Enabling excellence within an organization
I grew up professionally as a marketer in tech. I experienced the frustration of wanting to do so much creatively but often being hampered by my technical ability. That’s one of the things that drove us over 10 years ago to create a product that democratized that ability for marketers. People like me — marketers inside enterprise companies — no longer had to feel stifled. Those with technical abilities could focus on innovation instead of responding to another ticket from marketing. Everyone could do their best work on the wings of speed, flexibility and scalability.But product excellence alone doesn’t cut it anymore. If you don’t believe me, read this quote from Christopher Lochhead and then get some fresh air.“The easiest competitor to crush is the one who thinks the best product wins.” An excellent product is table stakes. One of the clearest ways to set your brand apart is through customer experience. According to Gartner, it drives more loyalty than brand and price combined.In a recent People Changing Enterprises episode, Golfbreaks’ Head of Digital Jon Richards reveals that customer experience is their competitive advantage. When you’re helping golfers’ dreams come true by booking bucket list vacations all around the world, it has to be. One bad experience can be the point of no return.Here are some lessons I’ve learned about excellence from years of building customer-centric companies and helping them surprise and delight their customers every day.People + tech make it happenI run a tech company, but I can’t claim excellence is all about the tech. We’d be nowhere without our tribe.Tech enables people to excel. People have the ideas and build the relationships; tech helps them bring those ideas to life.When the pandemic hit, you can imagine how it wreaked havoc on the Golfbreaks business. But their tech stack allowed them to pivot into customer service mode. They quickly spun off an app focused solely on refunds — which they knew, from listening to their customer service agents, was the only thing top-of-mind for their customers during that time.That sole focus worked; Golfbreaks retained 80% of that business once travel opened up again.John also shared another human-centric example of how tech and people combine to achieve greatness. Travel comes with delays, long lines, crowds, missing drivers and more that can lead to grumpy customers. But tech allows Golfbreaks to stay notified up-to-the-minute and alleviate any grumpiness.So, when they know their customers are arriving much later than expected at their hotels after a long day of travel, they will find a special treat — imagine warm cups of coffee and cookies courtesy of Golfbreaks. Excellence should be enabled and measuredExcellence might seem like a nebulous KPI to track. But here’s how we’ve broken it down at Contentstack when it comes to customer experience:Inspiration: Do we have the right feedback loops to inspire and be inspired by customers and each other? For us, this can look like Customer Advisory Boards where customers and Contentstack come together for moderated discussions, Slack channels where we share wins and customer success stories, or inviting our customers to share their stories in our customer community or at internal company events. Innovation: Do we have enough time and resources to think and build bigger? We build that time into our workflow. For example, we have several special project sprints per year of which 80% are allocated to innovation projects. (The other 20% of sprint time addresses priority customer requests.)Measurement: Customer retention and expansion paint the best picture for us. Even better is when our customers become our champions and choose to share their stories externally — through our podcast, ContentCon customer conference, or even through media.Here’s something I love about excellence: It can be achieved no matter the size of your organization. Levis employs over 15,000 people. Few would deny their greatness. Golfbreaks employs just over 140.Contentstack was just as committed to customer success when we were starting out as we are today as a 400 plus person company. With the right people you can always reach for excellence — and the right tech makes the dream possible.
How 3 content creators changed Icelandair’s approach to customer experience
When faced with the unexpected, the best solutions often come from the people who simply have to adapt quickly. No one knows this better than Óskar Völundarson, Edvardas Paskevicius and Hallur Þór Halldórsson, the three-person content team at Icelandair that quickly stepped up to create a content strategy to handle the chaos of the pandemic shutdowns and beyond. Völundarson, Paskevicius and Þór Halldórsson recently spoke with us about how they took on authority, created a center of excellence and changed the way Icelandair approaches the digital customer experience.Project to product mindset Dealing with rapid changes and limited resources during the pandemic made it clear that the old way of looking at content requests as one-off projects wasn’t going to cut it anymore. “We started thinking of new features in terms of how we can use them in the future,” said Völundarson, UX copywriter at Icelandair. “Thinking more about the broad structure of the web rather than just this particular page, this feature, for this individual project.” This big-picture view helps the team prioritize where to allocate resources and gives them a better understanding of their arsenal of digital tools. This means they are often able to handle requests for new features quickly by repurposing existing capabilities. Being guided by long-term, high-level outcomes of a product rather than a project checklist also makes it easier to adapt to any change along the way. It allows for a more flexible environment that welcomes feedback and new ideas from all levels of the organization. “Every project gives an opportunity to find new insights, or new ways to approach things, and to improve the way we work and collaborate,” said Paskevicius, content manager at Icelandair.“The important thing is that you understand what you’re trying to achieve; the way you achieve it doesn’t really matter,” explained Þór Halldórsson, digital product manager at Icelandair. “Just make sure that if it isn’t working you acknowledge that, and go back and revisit what you were initially trying to do. Be curious and learn from everything.”Proactively manage expectationsBecause Icelandair is an international airline, many of the projects the content team is involved in are complex operations that involve multiple departments, global translations, tight deadlines and rapidly changing customer needs. The team has worked to create a “no drama” approach to keep these projects running smoothly under pressure and a major factor of this is clear, up-front communication about what they can deliver. “Conflict often tends to stem from different expectations around what the web can deliver,” Völundarson said, explaining that people often think of the web as a blank canvas without understanding the systems that guide content creation. The team handles expectation management in three main ways. First, by defining the responsibilities of the content team. As there is plenty of material that needs editing and translation, but only a subset that falls under the “user experience” material that the team has the capacity for. Second, by aligning new requests with the technology and design process already in place. Third, by communicating what is achievable in the time frame when taking into account the design, development and editing resources available. “Being aware of the expected outcomes is really important as a first step in becoming empowered enough to have authority,” Þór Halldórsson said. Transparent decision making Decisions aren’t just guided by what is possible in a practical sense, but also by content goals and brand guidelines. Being able to communicate these standards, and the purpose behind them, makes it easier to handle conflicting priorities. “You can say this new idea is in line with the policy that we have for this area of the web, or it isn’t. That will be the deciding factor, rather than what might seem like a personal decision,” Völundarson explained. Taking on the responsibility of defining standards for user experience, tone of voice, brand design and other aspects of content creation has also allowed the team to grow into a more advisory role. “Creating ownership and certain authority within the company helps you to take the necessary steps to become that center of excellence,”Paskevicius said, “where you become someone who can guide others and help them deliver the expected outcomes.” Through this center of excellence the content team has been able to gradually change how the organization thinks about communication, going from using the website as a bulletin board for what the company wanted to say to making decisions based on the customer experience.“It’s really hard to shift the mindset from company to customer,” Þór Halldórsson said. “One of the key roles that the content team has played is to bring about that view, to keep the customer at the forefront.” Processes that simplify success Driving change within an organization is not only about setting high standards, but being able to reliably and quickly deliver work that meets those standards. “I think our biggest asset is, and will always be, that we’re a small company which gives us the ability to move fast,” Þór Halldórsson said. “At the same time, we’re working in a really big market and we need to keep up with the competition.” “We have to be innovative and find ways to deliver at the same pace,”Paskevicius said. “This is where our technology gives us a key advantage.” The team leverages technology to put processes in place that allow them to run projects efficiently, across multiple departments, while minimizing risk. This can be as simple as having a file naming system or being able to roll back changes with version control, as well as creating templates with mandatory fields and granular levels of access that allow other departments to manage their own content independently. Of course, technology alone isn’t enough to guarantee efficiency. A key role the Icelandair content team plays is to translate business ideas into practical technology capabilities, working closely with developers at every stage of the process to create solutions that are intuitive for everyone that needs to work with them.“In my experience, things always tend towards complexity,” Völundarson said. “If you want to have things clear and simple, you have to specifically aim for that and keep that at the back of your mind in making decisions.”
How to do more with less — and turn it into your greatest strength
At some point in our careers, we’ve all heard this phrase: “We’re going to have to do more with less.”We don’t have enough people. We didn’t allocate enough budget. That deadline is coming up pretty quickly.It’s a response that can make our stomachs sink and our palms sweat. But on the other hand, more is not always better. More does not always guarantee a successful outcome. It’s what you do with the “less” that matters — something that became even more important during the pandemic for our customers, Icelandair.While Icelandair services several markets, their team is still quite small. When the pandemic hit, their content team – Hallur Þór Halldórsson (digital product manager), Edvardas Paskevicius (content manager), and Óskar Völundarson (UX copywriter) – had to figure out how to create and update more content with fewer resources in a way that would make a measurable impact. Airlines were, after all, one of the hardest-hit industries in 2020.As we head into a time of further uncertainty and possible recession, studying how this team used the resources they had to see them through the pandemic is something we can all learn from. Outline your constraintsIdentifying your constraints is important. These tend to be absolute. You cannot get rid of them; you just have to find a way to live with them. But what if you could find a way to use them to your advantage?I’d recommend adding “A Beautiful Constraint” to your reading list. One thing the book underscores throughout: If used correctly, your constraints can lead to bolder, more innovative solutions.When the pandemic hit, our Contentstack team in India and I were in the last stages of a complete user interface redesign. This was a major release for us and suddenly we had to send our team home to finish remotely, despite not even having the equipment in place to continue. Our constraints to overcome were the product release date — we could not push the release back — and the remote work environment. We could not change these, so we had to figure out a way to work around them.Icelandair’s constraints were that they were a very small content team in a pandemic that constantly changed the path ahead of them. But rather than let that defeat them, they looked to technology to help them move faster and become more innovative.Understanding the constraints you have to work within will help you overcome them. It’s only once you know the rules of the game that you can figure out how to hack them.Set your goalsNow let’s shift. What are your goals?Think long-term. Your goal shouldn’t be to survive the recession. Stretch your horizons a little — what do you want your product to look like in three years? What problems do you want to have solved by then? What kind of process efficiencies do you want to create?Using the same Contentstack example, of course we wanted to release the new user interface in our new, remote environment. But the point of the release was to make content creation, publishing and experience development easier. Once we did that, our customers could execute their visions more easily. The more we could help enterprises do that, the bigger we could grow and prove ourselves to be the category leader, which was our goal.Icelandair needed to create and update content for 11 languages, but in a way that was quick and sustainable. Airlines were really struggling, so they needed to be able to pivot their strategy to whatever was necessary for that moment.Of course, there will always be more immediate goals to accomplish. My suggestion: Ruthless prioritization. Make a list of your short-term goals. From there, figure out which will deliver the greatest impact. Once you achieve it, measure the result and then adjust your list based on where to go next. Ruthlessly prioritizing, measuring and revisiting goals and priorities was what helped Contentstack during the pandemic.Your goals will help you pinpoint the “more” you want to achieve. Now you can look at the in-between part.Get scrappyIt’s time to figure out what you have at your disposal to overcome your constraints and deliver on your goals. Ask yourself a series of questions like:How much budget am I working with?How many team members can work on this?What are their skills?What technology tools do I have to reach my goals?This is also a good time to get scrappy and show some creativity. For example, let’s say I’m trying to deliver a product feature that our customers are asking for and I can’t put it off any longer. But, at the same time, my team is moving the needle on other, equally important projects and we’re in a hiring freeze. What can I do? I have to figure out the best ways to use what I have. I could get a group of development interns together. I could spend some of my time supervising them and get the project into a good enough place that I can get my full-time employees on the project to finish it.Icelandair already had a Contentstack headless CMS in place, so they decided that was where they could get scrappy. They looked at all the components, content types and workflow capabilities available to them through the CMS. They used these capabilities to enable their content teams to become more independent, so developer time could be spent creating new business capabilities, like self-service FAQs, instead of helping to publish regular content updates. Doing more with less can be stressful, especially in a period of uncertainty, but with the right strategy and the right tools, you can make it pay off. I like how the Icelandair content team said it at the end of the “People Changing Enterprises” episode:“Our biggest asset is and will always be that we’re a small company, which gives us the ability to move fast. At the same time, we’re working in a really big market and need to keep up with the competition, so we have to do a lot of things very fast with a small team. So we’ve been using technology that enables us to do that.”Understand your constraints. Know where you’re trying to go. Get creative with the resources you have. No matter what the market looks like, this framework will get you to where you want to be.
Thriving in complexity: organization, process, clarity
I’ve worn out the repeat button on this video. It features Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson being straight with her team: “If you have a meaningful pursuit in life, it will never be easy. What happens is you handle hard better.” As Lawson explains, waiting for things to get easier means you're never conquering the next challenge. You’re just waiting for a shift outside of yourself to happen. And that may never happen. The shift has to come from within. In a lot of ways, thriving in complexity is a mindset shift. I've worked hard at that myself by building resilience, learning from rejection and purposefully celebrating big and small wins. But I also know that leaders can help their people and partners thrive in the “hard.” They don’t have to go at it alone. Complexity is a given for growing companies. We see it every day as we scale, innovate and support partners through change. For example, a recent survey we conducted showed less than half of retailers believe they can effectively manage their digital operations over the next 12 months. That’s proof that complexity can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.I agree with what the Icelandair content team — Hallur Þór Halldórsson (digital product manager), Edvardas Paskevicius (content manager), and Óskar Völundarson (UX copywriter) — said on our “People Changing Enterprises” podcast. “We love processes, organization and clarity.”Helping people thrive in complexity requires those three things. I’ll detail them below.Organize teams to give people authorityAt Contentstack, we use the RACI methodology to get clarity on roles and responsibilities. At the onset of big, collaborative projects, the leads outline who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. Everyone signs off on that document so there is no question down the line who has the authority to make decisions. What I love about the methodology is that job titles don’t come into play — a junior person can have more authority than a senior one depending on the specific initiative.One thing Icelandair did to establish authority was create a Content Center of Excellence. Before that, Hallur described it as “a bit chaotic.” He explained: “There were a lot of good people contributing even though they weren’t brought up within content…. We also relied on a lot of third parties that didn’t always see eye to eye.”In other words, lots of complexity.The Center of Excellence moved Icelandair from chaos to organized by building authority. As a unit, they developed expertise and made changes to easily recognize it across the organization. One move they made was to update titles from Content Manager to to UX Writer. “It gave us more leeway into actually working on the copy we got, not just receiving content and making it ‘live.’ We had the authority to say this needs to be better and we can improve it,” shared Hallur.Build processes that simplify complexityWhen you’re swimming in a sea of complexity, the waters can seem rough. Processes can help calm them. If the next step or the point of contact for tasks are clearly defined, people don't have to guess. Guessing leaves room for error.Icelandair largely focused on minimizing the possibility of error. Not in a way that stifled scalability or innovation, but instead in a way that removed doubt. For example, the content team made certain fields mandatory and limited access to specific areas of the CMS so web management didn’t run wild. Using Contentstack also gave them a level of freedom knowing, as Edvardas explained, that “when things break or hiccups come up — like issues with third-party integrations — we know we can always roll it back easily.”We help build structures and processes outside our organization to help customers take on the challenge of moving from legacy CMS systems to composable ones. This includes our Community, where users interact with each other and our experts to share experiences, answer questions and offer inspiration. It also includes being one of the founding members of the MACH Alliance, an industry-wide organization that helps enterprises shift from tech stack to suites to meet — and even anticipate — consumer demand.Clarify desired outcomesWe use #OneTeamOneDream as a rallying cry at Contentstack for a specific reason: It unifies people around a common goal. For us, that goal is to make Contentstack indispensable in helping enterprises tell stories and connect with customers.Explicitly communicating a desired outcome is critical when working with people and teams with different perspectives across the globe. When it works, that difference is a plus; the perspectives help illuminate diverse ideas tied to achieving an outcome. The organization moves from us vs. them mentality to every team for the greater goal. That minimizes complexity.When it doesn’t work and teams keep strictly to their perspectives, they can become blockers to the end goal and complexity spreads.Icelandair’s content team became outcome oriented — shifting to a customer-first content lens — instead of department oriented. As Hallur said, “It became about what the customer needs to hear instead of just what the company wants to stay.”That outcome serves as a lighthouse in the sea of complexity.Coach Lawson said it best: “Hard will not go away.” It’s tough for me to even think back to a day over the last decade as an entrepreneur when I didn’t experience one or several complex challenges. But processes, organization and clarity help. I know Icelandair would say the same.
Danielle Diliberti helms multiple market leading brands. Here’s how she empowers teams to make big changes
If there’s anyone that fully understands both the technology and business challenges of leading a modern enterprise it’s Danielle Diliberti. She is the CTO of the wellness brand and health club, The St. James, the CEO of the fast-growing marketplace, Sommsation, and Senior Director at the investment firm, Eldridge Industries. All at the same time. Danielle recently spoke with us about how she gets it all done, how she empowers teams to move fast, and the advice she has for other leaders making waves in their industries. Invest in alignment Putting a strategic plan in place requires balancing the goals of the organization, ideas of different stakeholders, data insights, and the practical aspects needed to execute it. As well as thinking about the order of operations along the way to make sure you’re not breaking one thing to fix another. The level of alignment and communication needed to do this can be especially challenging for companies with a diverse audience, a multifaceted business model, or a remote workforce. One initiative that Danielle has found to be successful in getting everyone on the same page is internal summits: multi-day, in-person events that focus on a particular aspect of business such as engineering, sales, data and analytics, marketing, or operations. Dedicating time to dive into one area, as opposed to high-level status updates from every department, helps people better recognize where small adjustments to their own processes can make life easier for colleagues in other areas of the business. “When you step into the room and know that you’re talking about marketing, the accountant can take off their accountant hat and think about it from a marketing lens,” explains Danielle. “That creates not only some continuity between different business groups, but I’ve also seen that it really helps the culture because people can connect in a different way.”Pass the torch As a company changes and grows it’s important to make sure individuals also have the opportunity to evolve. Giving people the time and attention to develop skills requires investing in knowledge transfer instead of doing it yourself. “If it’s something that I’m confident we know how to do, I usually step back and empower my team to move it forward and hone in on their skills,” says Danielle. “If it’s something that I have experience in, then it’s important for me to understand where people are on their learning curve and set them up for success in that specific situation.” Throughout her career, whether learning a skill or teaching it, Danielle has approached knowledge sharing with the “3-3-3 rule”. To teach a skill or transition a task you must first have done it at least 3 times yourself, then have the learner shadow you 3 times, then shadow the learner 3 times. Setting the 3-3-3 rule as a company standard encourages people to speak up if they feel stuck with tasks that aren’t in line with their skill sets or goals, and makes sure that responsibilities are transferred in a way that gives the learner time to feel confident in their new role. “Passing the torch really does help everyone,” says Danielle. “The whole team gets smarter, the business becomes more valuable, and you can move a lot faster. That investment up-front will really pay dividends in the long run.” Find partners to grow with Enabling an organization to move quickly is not only about developing the right skills in the team, but also making sure they aren’t spending time reinventing the wheel. Leaders should have a good awareness of what’s happening in the market, which organizations are interesting to partner with, and how these partnerships could best serve the business.“Really leverage them in a way that makes you feel that you’re letting go of some things internally in your organization,” says Danielle. “Especially in the technology space, there’s so much out there and we’re moving so fast that trying to do everything internally doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore.” With a background in investment, it’s no surprise that Danielle evaluates potential partners with future value in mind.“Understanding the management team of our vendors and our software is really important to me,” says Danielle. “Knowing what their roadmap is and making sure that there is alignment long-term as opposed to just looking at the features that you can deploy right now.” Finding partners that have similar goals to your organization ensures that you have a network of tools and support that can grow alongside you as your business needs evolve. Make your toolkit API-first Part of what makes leaning into the partner ecosystem so attractive is the rising availability of modern, agile technologies. Instead of having one large platform with a suite of interdependent capabilities, a stack of best-of-breed tools can be easily integrated via APIs and swapped out as needed. Companies can leverage solutions from multiple partners while keeping their processes technology agnostic, removing the risk of becoming too reliant on any single vendor. “You won’t be able to compete as an organization if you don’t have API-first, cloud-based tools. That’s just the reality of where we are in the world,” says Danielle.An API-first, cloud-based toolkit allows organizations to quickly change directions when new priorities arise. Danielle’s team at The St James had built out their API-first technology stack with the intention of digitizing the member experience, making it more convenient to book classes and amenities across the health center. A year into that transformation the pandemic hit, safety was suddenly the number one priority, and the team was able to use the new architecture to quickly spin up solutions for equipment reservation, contact tracing, and capacity management. “Customers entered the doors knowing they were safe,” explains Danielle. “Had we not had an API-first infrastructure that would have never existed.”