The Gross Misunderstanding Of Digital Talent

When most general managers put together a team, they focus on filling positions. You need a pitcher, a catcher, 3 outfielders, a 2nd baseman, a shortstop, a 3rd baseman, the 1st baseman and of course a bench of “role” players. They work within the confines of a budget or a salary cap, depending on the sport. Ultimately, every team is looking to win their league’s championship. Every team wants to put a winning team on the field. Of course, the only exception is the Miami Marlins; but I digress. It’s how you architect that team that greatly influences whether you win or if you’re just playing for second place.

When I think about building great digital organizations, I and others like me, suffer the same challenges as general managers in sports. We need to field a team that has us winning more than we lose and of course brings home championships every year. Now, the definition of championship will certainly vary by company and category. What’s considered championship worth by one organization may simply be the baseline expectation of what happens when you step on the field.

I’ve built a lot of digital organizations. I’ve talked with many people, smarter than me, who’ve put together digital organizations. While we may disagree on where to recruit from, what areas of the company to support the most or how many people you need; we never disagree on the fact that most organizations think about digital staffing the wrong way. It’s true.

If you want to build a great team you need to put great players on the field. Notice, I didn’t say the BEST players. While you don’t need the best, you certainly can’t put a minor league team on the field and expect to compete in the majors. It just doesn’t work. Ask the Marlins. The way most organizations build a digital organization is very hierarchical. They have a leader at the top, a handful of mid-level managers and several less experienced people to fill out the roster. In essence, they have many specialists (SEO, Social, Media, etc.) and handful of generalists and 1 person to lead them. The closest visual would be a pyramid. To be clear, you need all of these roles and types of experience. Though I’d rather see an hourglass represent a digital organization, much more so than a pyramid.

I was having breakfast on Friday with a really sharp head of digital at a large public company. We couldn’t be more lock step in the above. The reason a traditional pyramid model doesn’t work, is because for all their brilliance, most organization fail to grasp the concept of scarcity when it comes to building digital organizations. Scarcity? Yes scarcity. It’s one of the oldest economic principles. Scarcity states

limited supply, combined with high demand, equals a lack of pricing equilibrium. Typically, demand and supply will gravitate prices to a stable balance; however, scarcity of a good or service changes the way buyers will value the purchase, thus leading to new market conditions.

Simply put, if there’s less of something people value it more. This isn’t a new concept for organizations. They purchase commodities with a great understanding of scarcity. They acquire companies, distribution routes, patents and more, with an understanding of scarcity. But, when it comes to digital talent, they treat the marketplace as if it’s an over-saturated market, when it fact it’s a scare market. Let me qualify this for a second. There’s NOT a dearth of digital talent. Quite the opposite. There’s a significant amount of digital talent. What there is, however, is a very small amount of senior level (and senior doesn’t mean years, it means experience) 5-tool digital talent. I often remark that most organizations want a digital unicorn. The digital unicorn is the 5-tool digital talent.

  1. Marketing: They think of digital through the lens of marketing
  2. Strategy: They think of digital with a strategic foundation, not a bright shiny object syndrome
  3. They have the requisite technology background to understand when and where to leverage the right technology, platform or partner
  4. Execution: Unlike say a McKinsey consultant, not only can they talk strategy, they can also create direction and make something happen; often times leading the initiative
  5. Battle Tested: They’ve seen it…a lot of it…maybe all of it…and they’ve seen it again and again

How many digital unicorns do you know of? You probably know 1000s who fit 1 or 2 of the above. When you get to 3 or 4, you get into the 100s. But, if you were being honest with yourself, you probably only know a dozen or so who have all 5.

If given the option of putting a team on the field, where each player had only 1 of the 5, or putting a team on the field where every player was a unicorn, which would you take? It’s obvious right? You’d take a team of unicorns all day long.

So why don’t most organizations do this? I have 3 theories.

  1. They don’t value digital talent as business building talent. When’s the last time you saw a head of digital become the CMO or the CIO? Better yet, when’s the last time you saw a Director of Digital elevated into a VP of Marketing role? It’s rare. More rare than a unicorn. If an organization doesn’t see their digital talent as being major players in the future of the organization, it makes all the sense in the world to not to invest in unicorns.
  2. They don’t see digital talent as being scarce. They see the talent pool as wide, diverse and deep. When in fact, it’s narrow and shallow.
  3. They’re organizational structure was built on the traditional hierarchy model. You have a CMO, with a VP of advertising who has directors by specialty, who have managers by business unit who have specialists by brand/category. There’s nothing wrong with that model. It works really well. But, it doesn’t allow you to run an alternate model at the same time.

In addition to the 3 theories outlined above, I think there’s 1 other major element. Ego. In Michael Eisner’s tremendous book, “Working Together, Why Great Partnerships Succeed” he tells of the very pivotal moment in his career, when he almost didn’t ascend to run all of Disney. Bill Simmons, covered the topic when talking about Lebron and Wade teaming up. His narrative is much better than mine, so hear it is.

The company arranged a meeting between Eisner, one of its corporate lawyers and a former Warner Brothers executive named Frank Wells. Eisner expected to be offered control of the company, but there was an unexpected twist: Disney actually wanted him to share power with Wells. Co-CEOs.

Instinctively, Eisner turned them down. He knew himself well enough to say, “That can’t work.”

So what did he know? Still in his 40s, Eisner had already thrived in a successful alliance with Barry Diller before Diller left Paramount a year earlier. He wanted to run an entertainment company himself; not just for the financial and creative upside, but because he needed to know, Can I do this? Can I be The Guy? He doubted that two competitive people could run a complicated company like Disney and, for lack of a better phrase, share the ball. With that many decisions to make, one person needs final say. It’s the same reason we would never have co-presidents or co-NFL coaches.

Eisner realized all of these things in less than two seconds.

That can’t work.

Sitting a few feet away, Wells processed that same dilemma in those same two seconds. He was wired differently than Eisner, more of a free spirit and a thrill-seeker, someone who checked out of Hollywood for a few years to climb the tallest peaks in six different continents. You would never call him conventional. His next few words? Definitely unconventional.

“OK, you can be chairman and CEO,” Wells said. “I’ll be president and COO.”

Eisner quickly agreed before Wells changed his mind. But Wells’ intentions were genuine. He had no problem becoming Eisner’s Scottie Pippen, an unselfish sidekick who filled in the blanks, didn’t care about his stats and took pride in helping his team reach its potential. As Eisner wrote later, “We learned that one plus one adds up to a lot more than two.” Their partnership thrived for a decade before Wells died in a tragic helicopter crash, but not before they had transformed Disney into a multimedia empire. And it only happened because, in the matter of a few seconds, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells arrived at two separate conclusions that basically meant the same thing.

Most digital unicorns would never want to work with another digital unicorn. A digital unicorn, my self included, has an ego. To recognize that pairing up with another great digital unicorn would be the best move for an organization, would be a recognition that there is no “head” of digital. In today’s marketplace, where we’re still fighting for digital talent to have a seat at the adult table in organizations, it would be a difficult concept to wrap your head around.

But, think about it, if the current leader of digital in an organization broached the subject, wouldn’t an organization be more open to rethinking things? Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. When you’ve been doing something the same way for so long, it’s hard to recognize the need to change. That’s where a leap of faith is needed. The leader of digital must sacrifice his/her status as the 1 leader for the greater good and realize that to win…and win again…you need not, 1 digital leader, but several. If you’re smart and you can abandon your ego, you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter who the leader is. What matters is winning.

But, what do I know…I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, talking about unicorns, like they’re real.

  • Erica Jaclyn

    Unicorns are real :)

    Great perspective.

  • Mr. Tom

    Mr. Adam.

    Great points indeed. What makes a great team is a great leader and that leader demands little to no spotlight. And we in the digital space have been puffed up with “guru” titles and it takes our rethinking of how we manage our teams to keep us from imploding on ourselves, like we do over and over. Thanks sir.

  • steve slivka

    pretty good one, Adam. well done.

  • nuggettyone

    I think part of the issue might be that many times, businesses don’t recognise unicorns, precisely because they’re a bit rare.

    Or rather, they only recognise them in hindsight, after months of fruitless searches for a replacement. And by then, it’s a bit late.

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Digital dad to Cora and John. Love ironing, bourbon and BBQ; no necessarily in that order. Living life, like I stole it. I'm always up for a

spirited conversation. These are my thoughts and ramblings, not those of my employer.
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