Managing stakeholders: an interview with Elle Woulfe

As our recent A Stakeholder Through the Heart piece explains, we’ve been kind of obsessing about stakeholder management lately.

It’s pretty simple: when everyone’s aligned around the same goals and same definition of what good looks like, there’s nothing you can’t do. And when your extended team is misaligned, there’s almost nothing you can do.

At Velocity, we’re lucky to be able to work with some of the best stakeholder-aligners in the business. People who’ve earned their authority within their companies; who are trusted by senior executives; and who respect that status by involving their stakeholders in the right ways at the right moments. The result: great work that happens fast, motivated teams, fame, fortune and glory (actual results may vary).

Elle Woulfe, VP of Marketing for LookBookHQ, is one of the best we’ve ever worked with—at this and at many other aspects of marketing.

Elle is that rare thing: a super-creative marketer and data-breathing geek who runs her demand gen like a balance sheet. Before the LookBookHQ gig, she held senior roles at Lattice Engines and Eloqua. Now, in addition to raising awareness and filling pipelines, she’s a regular speaker at industry events and a thought leader in the field of demand generation and marketing operations.

So we asked her how she approaches this stakeholder thing.  And this is what she said:

How much of your job—or any senior marketer’s job—is spent in getting stakeholders onboard (vs actual strategy and execution)?

Today—not that much but I’m blessed to work for a CEO that trusts my judgement and hired me because I’m an expert in my field. This means I’m often asking for feedback and input from him and the rest of the senior team instead of asking for permission to do something—that’s a nuanced but critical difference.

I also work for a relatively small company where there aren’t layers of bureaucracy or legal hoops to jump through. This allows me to be pretty agile and focus more time on doing vs. selling in.

You’ve worked in a few tech companies. Have they varied much in the stakeholder management challenge?

Absolutely and it’s always a top-down thing. Having worked in companies (of a similar size to this one) where I spent far more time bringing stakeholders along  – the key difference is management style. Companies that trust their people, empower employees to do the jobs they were hired to do and believe those employees are experts in their given profession tend to put marketers through less bullshit selling their ideas.

If it’s a culture of trust, transparency and autonomy, you tend to be less focused on building consensus and more on getting input and feedback.

I have certainly worked in companies where the management philosophy was much more authoritarian and I spent FAR more time trying to sell my ideas and bring people along. It’s always the same thing—it’s just a lack of trust in the people hired to do the work. It’s usually a CEO that wants to micro-manage everything and marketing isn’t the only department that falls under this dictatorship.

Today, who are your most important stakeholders?

It’s the entire senior leadership team. We work very closely and it’s important we’re all aligned which is really cool because it’s not like I’m trying to please one person (a CEO) – I’m typically working to ensure all 5 of us are in lockstep.

Beyond that – depending on how material it is, the board might be a key stakeholder and honestly, the employees. I want them to understand what marketing does and why we do it and I want them to like it and be excited about it. Their interest and support means a lot to the success of our marketing.

How do you approach getting them on board for your strategies and tactics?

It’s a pretty delicate balance. Generally speaking, I’ve found that if you share things too early, it can be confusing for people (when things are still highly conceptual) and if you share them too late—you can set yourself up for failure and end up re-doing a lot of stuff.

Again, we have a culture of trust and autonomy so I’m not out there selling every little thing the marketing dept does. For bigger, more material projects, I bring them to our bi-weekly meetings and we just discuss as a group. I tend to share iterations—i.e. I’ll show things early in development, just to be transparent and take the temperature of the group – and then I might not share it again until we’re much further along.

As an example, we’re working on a big website re-launch, so I shared early mocks and wireframes of a few key pages just to make sure no one on the senior team had an allergic reaction to the direction. They won’t see the next rev until we have an actual site built. Some of them are contributing content or delegating that so they are involved, but they’re not really there to tell me what to do or how to do it—any feedback they have would be pretty objective and in the service of making the site better (vs. just throwing opinions around).

You really need to know your audience. If I worked for a CEO that needed a ton of communication and wanted to weigh in on every little thing, I would approach it very differently but then again, I probably wouldn’t work there.

As a marketer, I want the ability to do great work and to spread my wings, so having to defend or sell every idea and being dictated to by someone who isn’t a marketer is kind of a breaking point for me. I have worked in those organizations before and it’s always what has driven me to leave.

It would be one thing if I felt that kind of micro-managing made the work better but typically it waters it down, demoralizes the team and results in really messy development timelines and execution. I’m not saying that other senior execs don’t have great ideas and input, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow when people who’ve never been marketers think they’re experts in the discipline I have chosen as a profession and worked hard to become an expert in!

Ever lose a great idea because you failed to prepare the ground for stakeholders?

Yes, but again—I really blame it on the management philosophy of the organization. I’m not curing cancer so the fact that I’ve had to kill projects because I didn’t stroke someone’s ego has always seemed absurd to me. I have mostly worked in growth stage companies where operating with urgency and taking small, calculated risks should be encouraged. When that hasn’t been the reality is when I’ve had executives interfere because they were uncomfortable and typically those companies were working very slowly and doing stuff that was a bit boring and predictable.

I was once working on a big campaign and I got pretty far down the road with what was a very cool concept but I waited too long to share it with the CEO. I think he felt like he didn’t get a chance to shape the aesthetic and he forced me to go with a whole different concept that was incredibly basic and lacked any thematic gravitas. That to me just feels silly – someone needs to put their stamp on it and their ego is driving the agenda.

Working with you, it’s clear you’ve earned quite a lot of freedom and autonomy within LookBookHQ. What would you say to fellow marketers who want to get to that place?

Pick your job carefully. You’re never going to change how your company operates. You might influence it, but the company is either the type where marketing is trusted and has autonomy or it’s not. If it’s the latter—then yes, everything will likely be an uphill battle.

That said, I think there is safety in numbers so if you need to sell a CEO, it can help to have already sold some of the folks that surround that person and who’s opinions matter. And data – always use data where possible to sell an idea.

Again, if you know that you’re going to have to really work to bring people along, being as thorough and making sure you’ve really done your homework matters a lot. Don’t assume you can show a mood board if you’re dealing with someone that wants to see really fleshed out concepts as an example.

I worked for a CEO that could not wrap his head around early concepts. He needed to see stuff when it was fully worked through – real images, real copy, real layouts. It was a nightmare because we would invest all this time and get stuff near completion before we shared it and then he would want to make a million changes. In my opinion – he was never making the work better. He just needed to micro-manage everything but the fact that he also needed fully fleshed out ideas to react to just wasted tons of time.

How do you deal with powerful stakeholders who just don’t get what you’re trying to do?

It’s difficult. I think you need to be really consistent and you need to know your audience. Again, if you’re talking to the board, don’t show up with some really rough, loose idea. Bring data, show the background, anticipate the problems and issues they will have. And then be consistent and stand your ground. Passion and preparedness can count for a lot.

I also try to provide examples. If it’s fear that’s getting in the way, I’ll give a few examples of companies that have done something similar and try to illustrate why and how it worked for them.

Any advice for marketers who have lost or damaged their credibility inside their company?

That’s a tough one and I tend to think credibility is the same as trust – almost impossible to win back once you’ve fucked it up. However – successes and wins also count for a lot so if you can claw your way back by showing success in other areas, that can help.

How important is data in your communications with stakeholders?

Wildly important. I always lead with data and I always try to envision the big issues people might have with one of my ideas so I can be prepared to address concerns. We’re incredibly data-driven in everything we do so that’s just how things are done, but it’s hard to argue with data (though I have known some execs that do) so it’s pretty much always a starting point for me.

Even in cases where there may not be a lot of data to back something up – there is usually something objective, whether that’s research we’ve done, testing the idea with peers or customers, etc.

What do you do when key stakeholders disagree on something fundamental?

This happens – I mean, some parts of marketing are entirely subjective. Someone might love the look and feel of a campaign or appreciate the tone of your copy and someone else might really dislike it. For really important things, I typically try to offer more than one concept or version to see where opinions land. When you start with a single option, that can be really limiting for people that have wildly different opinions.

I do think we’re very lucky in our org – our senior team is all pretty like-minded so we tend to not be too far apart on things, but I would also say that no one feels like it’s their job to make sure their opinion dictates our marketing direction. They can say, “I don’t love this”, but also be okay with the fact that their opinion might not change what we do. There’s not a lot of ego driving our decisions. I think that’s essential.

That said—I will work to resolve different points of view and bring things closer to a middle ground to satisfy different stakeholders. A very wise CMO I worked for taught me the concept of the “architect’s window” and I try to always leave space where I can change something to make people feel better about an idea.

For example, we’re working on some creative right now that everyone on the leadership team has opinions about—it’s something that touches all of us and is really important in terms of the impression it makes. I presented it with some draft copy and that was the architect’s window. I wasn’t going to make big changes to the look and feel but I could take some input and change the direction of the copy so people felt like they had an area to provide some input – a window they could move or remove.

Are you the stakeholder for others in your company?

Sure – I am a stakeholder for the rest of the marketing team. I mean, I don’t control what they do. I get the best out of my team by giving them a lot of autonomy so they sometimes need to bring me along on an idea that I wasn’t involved in developing. I am also a stakeholder for other members of the senior team and I try to be as respectful of their processes and ideas as they are of mine.

How do you treat your own role as a stakeholder?

I really only provide feedback or input if I think my ideas can make something stronger. I don’t offer opinions just to offer opinions. It’s noisy and doesn’t help anyone do their job. But yeah, the big thing is just being respectful and knowing that the people asking for my input are experts in their respective fields. They have done far more thinking about the thing they’re asking me to weigh in on than I have, so I typically trust their judgment and try to point out something they might have missed or something I think lacks clarity.

As a stakeholder, how do you wish people would approach you?

It’s really preparedness that I’m looking for. I want to know that whoever is asking me for input has really thought about what they’re presenting and I want them to be clear about what they’re asking of me. It’s not to say I can’t react to a half-baked idea if that’s what I know I’m being asked to do but even something half-baked had to come from somewhere – show me some passion and conviction and give me some background. Don’t assume people know where you’re coming from.

Joining a new company feels like a critical time for earning credibility and building relationships with stakeholders. How do you approach the first few months?

Totally true. My biggest advice is to operate with urgency. Especially with marketing leaders, people want to see progress and they become skeptical if you’re very slow to launch anything. I have a “done is better than perfect” mantra because I think people often just want forward motion.

When I joined LBHQ they were desperate for marketing – any kind of marketing. I was focused on a lot of operational and process stuff in those early days – building out our infrastructure and demand gen processes. But I knew I needed to balance the stuff people couldn’t really see with things they could. I made a commitment on day one that if it killed us, we would publish something on our blog once a week. I would show progress even if it wasn’t some huge, sexy thing. I wanted people to know that work was being done. I launched a few ugly campaigns but it was all progress and it bought me some time to get the more foundational work done.

Anything in all of this that you wish you’d known when you were starting your career?

I wish I had trusted my gut more. I have worked for three companies where I think I knew going in that I would be hamstrung because of the overall management philosophy. Like, it was clear when I was interviewing that the CEO or the senior team were control freaks and that I would be micro-managed but I had happy ears and I thought… how bad could it be? And then it was sort of miserable.

You need to be very clear about what kind of person you are and what you’re willing to live with. I’m a marketer… my self-worth is wrapped up in doing cool stuff and not having someone else control my creative ideas so those environments were never going to work for me.

The other thing is – it took me a while to learn how to adapt to what was required in different situations. If you are dealing with someone that needs to hear things a certain way or needs to see things at a certain point, if you ever want to make any progress, you sort of have to adapt to that reality and stop thinking you can force your own process or agenda. Knowing your audience and communicating in a way that works for them is pretty critical in those situations where you have no choice but to build a lot of consensus.

Yowza.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I’m getting large blocks of this interview tattooed on my bingo wings for easy reference. I LOVE these answers.

If you haven’t checked out A Stakeholder Through the Heart, go take a look. Feels like Elle could have written it.

And we’d welcome your thoughts on this issue as a lotus flower welcomes rain and, maybe every 2-3 weeks, some nitrogen-based fertiliser.

Comment, you lazy lurker!

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