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9 things I wish I knew starting as head of digital.

Congratulations!

You’ve been hired as a Head of Digital, at an agency, in the middle of a pandemic.

For the past 5 years, I’ve worked Director or Head of Digital roles both agency side and in-house. Speaking from personal experience, it’s been rewarding, challenging, stressful, tiring and exciting.

Despite the extra grey hairs, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.

That being said, if I could travel back in time and give myself some advice there are a few tips I would share. These are likely the same for any new manager position but I will be speaking from a digital agency perspective.

1. Shut up and listen

The first thing most people do when entering a new workplace is to sit down in introduction meetings. Once you’ve gained a bit of confidence it can be tempting to comment on the current approaches or draw conclusions.

Don’t.

Coming in as a new manager without understanding the bigger picture and making bold assertions as to how things should be can leave you with your foot in your mouth. Often, things are the way they are for a reason. It takes time to understand the broader context.

In the meantime, keep a list of issues you find and save it for discussions with your manager.

This goes double for observations about team capability. Wait till you understand the social and functional context before opening your mouth.

2. Find your peers

Manager positions can be lonely. As Hanks tells us, “Gripes go up, not down“. But talking to senior managers is generally not an appropriate time to vent in the same way it’s appropriate for your team to vent to you.

Finding people in the business at a similar level gives you a chance to talk through issues outside of more formal relationships. This can be handy for getting a better understanding of the ins and outs of the business, but also great for your mental health.

3. Establish your responsibilities and goals

You may expect your manager to come to you with clearly defined responsibilities and goals. Don’t count on it.

For everyone’s sake, if this isn’t addressed in the first week you should ask:

  • Who am I responsible for?
  • Am I responsible for a P&L?
  • Where can I find information and processes relating to the management of the P&L?
  • What costs am I responsible for and where can I find a list of costs?
  • How will you measure my success and what does that look like?
  • What existing planning and documentation is there for my team?

Whilst we are trying to define your area of responsibility, this is not to the exclusion of other responsibilities. However, doing so gives you a baseline to work from and avoids the potential of managerial shenanigans down the road.

4. Define measures and tracking

Once you understand your goals and responsibilities, give them visibility in a sustainable way. Are you prepared to answer questions about your numbers when you’re suddenly asked in a meeting?

The first things I look for are:

  • Revenue and hourly rate by client/channel and totals
  • Contracted hours
  • Available team hours
  • Sales pipeline

Managing these numbers effectively is a job in itself and in my experience, there is a great deal of variation between agencies in their ability to do this. Those who do this effectively are typically better organised and more profitable.

5. Track client commitments, time and output

Tracking commitments and output on client contracts is key to efficient delivery.

Most agencies will have some form of timesheets, but these are rarely completed in a way that allows you to reconcile deliverables effectively. Establishing effective project tracking and timesheet management is the least glamorous and most impactful job any “head of” can do.

6. Be proactive

In any “head of” position, it should go without saying you need to be a self-starter.

As you might have already discovered, the effectiveness of onboarding between companies varies greatly. In more junior roles, getting started is somewhat easy. One of your managers gives you tasks to complete, and it goes like this for the first couple of weeks before you find your feet.

Not so as a “Head of”. In this role, you’re expected to find what needs to be done and do it. Whilst in an ideal world your manager will come to you with some starting points, this isn’t a given and you shouldn’t wait for it. Every day that goes by is a day where you aren’t working towards your teams’ performance which you will be held accountable for later.

So what steps can you take to hit the ground running?

Before you start, think about what you’d like to achieve, what your ideal digital team might look like. When you start, begin by auditing everything. Understand the lay of the land. Take notes on things you’d like to work on in future. Consider:

  • People: Team resourcing, capability and satisfaction
  • Clients: Client contracts and delivery
  • Profitability: Profitability of delivery
  • Products: Product mix, how well defined it is, and promotion of these products

7. Stop and think

Before you start your new role, you hopefully have an idea of what you’d like to achieve. But after a few weeks, it’s easy to get swept up in the day-to-day. Over time you can stop striving for something bigger in favour of dealing with the immediate need. This is when you stop developing professionally.

Scheduling some time on a quarterly basis to think about your big hairy audacious goal can help you keep working towards something bigger.

8. Gold miners mentality

It can be easy to be dismissive of team members who don’t meet your expectations in terms of performance. This is often (but not always) a mistake.

By lowering your expectations of people you lower the expectations they have of themselves. Imagine a teacher who expects their students to be incapable of learning. No one wins. The same principle applies to your team.

The gold miners mindset assumes that everyone has ‘gold’ inside, and only they can find it. It’s your role to help them find it.

By encouraging people to step up you provide opportunities for growth, and build a happier, more productive team.

9. Make it your own

Each person has their own way of working. My approach is shaped by my experiences and the needs of previous employers. In a Head of Digital role you’re there to define an effective way of working for your agency. You are then tested in the process of competing with other agencies.

That is to say, I have my way, but your way might be better. It’s up to you to discover an approach that plays to your strengths.

 

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