Talking to the MD About Digital

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to run a session with a company as they started to work on a new B2B Digital Strategy (see end of article for more on this) to complement their existing and semi-mature B2C offering. They operate in a number of countries and have a staff of approximately 400, most based in the UK.

The session was a good one; lively, enthusiastic, with some good points to move forward on.

Following the session, I spoke with the Managing Director who had originally approached me to run the workshop. She had introduced me to the group but had been unable to attend the session.

Candidly, she spoke to me about her feelings to Digital. She recognised it as key to future plans and said she believed she had a team in place who were well equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities (having just come out of the session, I agreed). She didn’t question the importance of the role digital will play within the company but, she admitted, she didn’t personally ‘understand it’.

She referred to a scene from ‘The Office’. Now; referencing David Brent has become a cliché in itself when discussing workplace clichés, but on this occasion, I knew exactly what she meant. She was talking about the scene where Brent sneaks off to check something on the internet to then return to the conversation (long since finished), to casually drop in some pertinent fact he clearly hadn’t been able to contribute in the moment.

“I don’t want to be like that…” she said.

This director, who shall remain nameless but who has said she is happy for me to write about this, is not a Luddite. She’s not ‘hands-off’ – she knows the name of pretty much everyone on her staff, regardless of their level, and further has more than a passing knowledge of what they do. She can talk about the overall digital business strategy as well as she can about all other aspects of the company. She’s one of the most engaged managers I’ve known, and she reads independently and voraciously. In my, admittedly limited, experience of her, she’s about as far from that Brent persona as I’ve known.

“I understand the strategy – I wouldn’t be signing off on it if I didn’t.” she told me, “but I don’t pretend to follow the detail and it would be nice to a bit more than I do. I don’t want to be coding the stuff, but…just understand the detail and implications a bit more.”

As we talked, it seemed to me that she was doing what I would have liked a Managing Director to have done when I was heading up a Digital team – to show interest (don’t assume that is a given), to ask questions without team members fearing their choices or approaches being negatively challenged by ‘the big boss’,  or (as I’ve seen before) being casually asked why the company can’t have a website like AmazonBBC/ a.n.other business featured in a Harvard Business Review article…

This manager is more than happy to address the areas she is less confident in. She didn’t want to be Brent, or as she put it, come out with the “Explain it to me as if I’m a ten-year-old” line. (Not least she said because her 10-year-old would get it a lot quicker than she would.)

What she would like, she told me, was a conversation. Not with her staff – and not because she was unwilling to expose her ignorance to them, but for similar reasons to why she didn’t sit in the meeting (other than, what seemed to me, a massive workload…) she thought it would become too tactical – too internal and slow things down. : (This was, she admitted, an occasional issue the board had when teams involved in technology presented to them in board meetings.) She could attend an ‘Introduction to Digital’ external session but from previous experience had found they didn’t necessarily cover the questions she had and the limited Q&A sessions at the end were either too short, too perfunctory, or, like the Office scenario, people asking questions they’d already researched the answer to in order to show their knowledge. (Having presented to external groups I, unfortunately, recognise her concerns – that’s why I prefer to do my Intro sessions with one internal group). She could scour the internet and find all that stuff out herself, and she did/ does read a lot, as I already mentioned, but as we all know, if you laid every internet digital article end-to-end you’d be looking at over 10 billion Sheppeys (Yeah, I can do geek stuff…).

What would be good, she said, would be to have her own Q&A session; on a one-to-one basis. Where she could ask the ‘stupid’ questions and get answers that were neither in-depth tech (which is good, because I’m not your humanoid for that),  nor the superciliousness of the Not the Nine O’clock News record buyer (we’re of a similar age to both smile at the ‘Woofers and Tweeters’ reference she made…)

So that’s what we ended up doing.

We went out for a coffee (the company has a lot of good things going for it, but its coffee isn’t one of them), and, while not under the anonymity of All the President’s Men’s Deep Throat, we had a chat about Digital today.

She asked her stupid questions (note– there weren’t any), I did my best to answer from my fifteen years of experience. What did we talk about? A bit of SEO, a bit of use of Social for business and how it differs from personal use, a few things around augmented reality, AI, big data (and what, given they were the ‘hot topics’ they really meant for her business),  what analytics are realistic from what platforms – you know, all the things that there are a million and one articles floating around about.

We did it without flip charts or laptops (but with a couple of Flat Whites – the place did really good flat whites, but under the promise of anonymity I am unable to disclose where it is), and it was more of a conversation than a ‘Q&A’. We related the issues as to what it should/ could mean to her company, but we didn’t get into specific projects either inflow or forthcoming.

And we both came out of it with something. I asked her what she got out of it and, with her permission, I summarise a few points here – that she won’t request her team to ‘SEO the website’ as though it were a flick switch. That she will review the 20-page monthly activity reports she currently gets down into a shorter, readable summary of analytics that really matter, and most importantly I think, that she will no longer think of ‘Digital Strategy’ in a silo. Now the ramifications of that, as well as being a cause to cheer, are huge in terms of budget allocation, resource and prominence in high-level discussion: and all of that may take a little time to embed. I was glad to hear it because we’d been talking about those exact breaking down of ‘walls’ in the earlier workshop.

But she also got immediate ‘action points’: a couple of podcasts for her drive-in to work that are non-jargon, short, and actually pretty listenable. A couple of websites to look at that do a similar job. A plan to meet with the digital marketers in a format that I think they’ll both find more conducive to relaxed conversation, oh – and one other thing: to look at supporting those team members who do have to present to the board in providing more guidance and support in what and how to present – and that’s certainly something I know a lot of us would have benefited from before those ‘formal presentations’ where we really did get some stupid questions and were unprepared in how to answer them.

I got a lot out of it too – it was immensely useful for me to hear the sort of things that senior managers who are prepared to be honest are aware/ unaware of. Where their misconceptions are. What things I have taken for granted as ‘obvious’. What I need to do a bit more research on to understand better myself.

Ultimately this ‘anonymous consultation’ was a new experience for me in a consultancy sense but was completely natural as we started to talk because, well, I have some social capability. It was a good experience – and not just because there was no prep work (there was – it took about fifteen years to do…), or no formal follow up, but because it was a non-confrontational, non-ego soothing or grandstanding conversation – and that, opposed to a workshop or presentation, was very interesting.

If you think you might be interested in a similar talk, why not get in touch?


Simon Bewick


2 thoughts on “Talking to the MD About Digital

    1. Hi Mearah, thanks for the comment. The podcasts I recommended were: Social Media Marketing with Michael Stelzner, Digital Marketing Podcast by Target Internet and The Digiday Podcast – ranging from most tactical to general themes but all good for finding out about what’s new and what’s working for other companies today. Then on a more strategic level I suggested the HBR IdeaCast (not digitally exclusive, but interesting generally), All of them definitely worth listening to!


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