Five lessons from five years at LinkedIn

From content marketing strategy to never wanting to feel comfortable, with life and leadership lessons mixed in – the five most important things I’ve learned

August 10, 2018

I’m proud of the B2B marketer that I was when I first walked into LinkedIn’s offices five years ago. I had come a long way in a short space of time: from the frustrations of working in a music industry that was fighting digital technology and losing, to establishing myself as the type of digital marketer I really wanted to be. I was confident in the skills I had and my ability to learn new ones, I had a personal brand that felt strong and genuine. I had my own voice that reflected my passion for hard rock, science and Seinfeld. And I had a great network of B2B content marketing friends and mentors that had helped me get to this point.

When I look back now though, I realise that I was just getting started.

The five years I’ve spent at LinkedIn have changed me in different ways to the tumultuous few years just before I joined. The transformation that I went through before I arrived here was a question of survival: I had no choice but to change. The transformation journey I’ve been on since is an on-going choice. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned to embrace and enjoy the experience of challenging myself, and challenging the things that I thought I knew. That experience has changed many aspects of how I approach being a B2B content marketer, colleague and friend – and just as importantly, it’s reinforced my convictions about the things that really matter.

Here are five of the most important things I’ve learned:

Feeling comfortable should make you feel uncomfortable

The thing that worries me most is waking up with the feeling that I know everything I need in order to do my job. I know that wouldn’t be true – or at least, it wouldn’t be true for long. It’s not just that innovation in marketing is a constant and that there is always a future worth getting more familiar with. I believe it’s just as important to become more scrappy and self-reliant with the technology that’s already around you.

When my team and I don’t have the budget to execute a particular creative idea through agencies, my first instinct is always to learn how to do it myself. I won’t become the best sound mixer, film director, video editor, magazine designer or coding whizz, but I’ll learn more of what it takes to get by. I’ll have a far better understanding of the platforms and creative formats that I’m working with – and I’ll often come up with different ideas as a result. LinkedIn has been a fantastic place to explore this punk-style, DIY approach to marketing – and I think it’s something any marketing department should encourage.

Avoiding the feeling of comfort isn’t the same as living permanently on your nerves or staying awake at night fretting about the change on the way. It’s about making continual learning part of your natural state, so you have far less call to worry about these things. Surrounding yourself by people smarter than you, whom you respect and want to learn from, is a great principle for achieving this. So too, is running towards the developments that seem most likely to shake things up. As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I’ve got a bit of an obsession developing with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its role in marketing and life in general. I can feel the concerns and the suspicions but I’m also fascinated by it – and it’s this fascination that I really try to keep hold of. I’m not happy to take somebody else’s word for what AI is capable of, or what its impact on marketing and the workplace will be. I’m determined to understand it for myself. I love hearing the stories about new breakthroughs and hearing from experts about the issues around the technology. I know it’s going to be a big part of my future, and engaging with all of the issues and ideas around it is the best way to feel fulfilled and excited by that future.

Leadership is about much more than direct reports

The essence of great leadership is the ability to influence change without the need to control it directly. This type of leadership doesn’t flow just through reporting lines and hierarchical systems; it’s really about the ability to inspire others across those lines and systems. These are some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned over the last five years. And I’m not convinced I would have experienced them in the same way in any other business.

Outside of the C-suite, far too much of the general discussion around leadership tends to involve the day-to-day business of managing direct reports. At LinkedIn, I’ve been encouraged to explore leadership in a much more holistic sense: empowering others to transform while developing myself at the same time. It’s meant that I no longer think about leadership in terms of how many people happen to sit beneath you in an org chart.

I think the professional world needs a bigger and more inclusive leadership discussion: about coaching, influencing and inspiring rather than managing and directing. These are the soft leadership skills that are increasingly important within marketing. As B2B content marketers, we need to energise potential content creators across different business lines and verticals and leverage the expertise of large numbers of people who aren’t part of our teams. Meanwhile, within those teams, we need to give others the confidence to try new things and use their initiative. It’s the only way to keep evolving the skills you need to cope with the constant stream of new innovations and technologies.

Content Strategy must evolve

In my early years at LinkedIn I developed templates, toolkits and playbooks for content marketing that seemed to represent a proven formula for driving results every time. But that’s not the way that content marketing works. I’ve learned that it’s insanely stubborn to expect the tactics and techniques that you were using five years ago to work just as well today – and it’s arrogant and misleading to keep preaching that same gospel to other content marketers. You have to keep challenging your approach to check that it still fits the reality of how audiences are engaging, the formats they prefer, and their expectations of your content. The way I approached ‘Big Rocks’ and ‘Turkey Slicing’ in my early LinkedIn days are no longer the approach I take today. The joy in content marketing isn’t repeating yourself – it’s experimenting with new formats (video, magazines, podcasts, TV shows), and finding new ways to deliver value to your audiences.

You also have to keep challenging your own assumptions about content strategy. If you’d asked me five years ago about the value of lead generation versus brand awareness, I’d have told you to focus on lead gen every time. Today, you’ll get a very different answer. Finding space for brand awareness activity in B2B is one of the most valuable changes that I’ve made to my content marketing approach – and one that the measurement tools we now have available make it far easier to demonstrate ROI for. Challenging assumptions in the light of new evidence is what keeps the content marketing conversation fresh.

Side-hustles are an essential psychological investment

I’m a heart and soul kind of guy, and in the past I’ve always assumed that the best thing I could do for a business is to hurl myself into it to the absolute exclusion of everything else. LinkedIn has encouraged me to think beyond this. My colleagues haven’t just empowered me to bring my whole self to work – they’ve also prompted me to keep exploring other aspects of myself, outside of work.

Over the last five years, I’ve been able to develop my side-hustle as a concert photographer at the same time as my mainstream career as a B2B content marketer. It’s helped me to build a distinct and differentiated personal brand, it’s provided me with loads of skills that are hugely applicable to what I do for LinkedIn (shooting and editing images and video), it’s a rich source of creative inspiration, but more importantly than any of this, it’s kept me sane.

The older I get (and the more experienced I become as a professional), the more I’m convinced that expecting one job to provide all of the fulfilment and satisfaction that you need in life is a recipe for disaster. It leaves people feeling frustrated, trapped, and potentially depressed. We can see this in the growing number of young professionals describing ‘quarter life crises’ where they start losing sleep about the lack of meaning in their working lives while still in their mid-20s.

We are all multi-dimensional, nuanced people with evolved psychological needs around fulfilling all aspects of our potential and finding meaning in our lives. For the vast majority of us, that involves exploring more than one type of work. Encouraging constructive, meaningful side-hustles is really an investment in the health and welfare of your workforce. It plays an increasingly important role in motivating employees, retaining talent and ultimately, keeping your business agile and responsive.

 

Personal branding gets more effective with restraint

I’ve always believed in the value of personal branding – and I always will. Taking charge of my personal brand in those months after I left the music industry helped to transform my professional life. It gave me the confidence to express myself authentically, and the conviction that I could have a career that didn’t compromise who I was as a person. I went from waiting and hoping for thing to happen to me to inviting those things to happen to me.

As with any other form of branding though, it’s important to set limits and remember that positioning yourself in the right way isn’t the same as endless self-promotion. There’s definitely a diminishing return to constantly pushing yourself forward – and there’s a cost involved if your personal brand grows by obscuring those of others. Personal branding doesn’t have to look like narcissism – and if it does, then the chances are it’s not delivering the results that you need. Keep the focus on those around you and build personal brand partnerships that can support colleagues and connections as well as yourself. An optimised LinkedIn profile and an active role in the LinkedIn feed are a great way of getting this balance right. Build your personal brand with a degree of restraint and you’ll get a far greater return on the effort you put in

Looking back over the lessons I’ve learned during my time at LinkedIn, there’s an obvious theme that connects them – and that’s the importance of relationships. I always knew that these mattered. I now know that they matter more than anything. Nothing that’s happened to me over the past decade in marketing could have happened without the support and involvement of others. And the moments I’m most proud of have tended to start with caring about other people, and being imaginative about what I could do to help them. It’s a constant struggle to balance everything in life (especially with another little one on the way very soon), but I’ve learned that the time you make to engage with others, take a genuine interest in what they are doing, and keep asking questions, are some of the most valuable time you will spend.

I’m planning to do a lot more of the same over the next five years.

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