Let’s get real for a moment: As much as we hear about positive team cultures and healthy work environments in the digital marketing space, many of us encounter workplace scenarios that are far from the ideal. Some of us might even be part of a team where we feel discouraged to share new ideas or alternative solutions because we know it will be shot down without discussion. Even worse, there are some who feel afraid to ask questions or seek help because their workplace culture doesn’t provide a safe place for learning.
These types of situations, and many others like it, are present in far too many work environments. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way?
Over the last ten years as a team manager at various agencies, I’ve been working hard to foster a work environment where my employees feel empowered to share their thoughts and can safely learn from their mistakes. Through my experiences, I have found a few strategies to combat negative culture and replace it with a culture of vulnerability and creativity.
Below, I offer four simple steps you can follow that will transform your work environment into one that encourages new ideas, allows for feedback and positive change, and ultimately makes you and your team better digital marketers.
Vulnerability leads to creativity
I first learned about the impact of vulnerability after watching a viral TED talk by Dr. Brene Brown. She defined vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She also described vulnerability as “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” From this, I learned that to create a culture of vulnerability is to create a culture of creativity. And isn’t creativity at the heart of what we SEOs do?
A culture of vulnerability encourages us to take risks, learn from mistakes, share insights, and deliver top results to our clients. In the fast-paced world of digital marketing, we simply cannot achieve top results with the tactics of yesterday. We also can’t sit around and wait for the next Moz Blog or marketing conference, either. Our best course of action is to take risks, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and share insights with others. We have to learn from those with more experience than us and share what we know to those with less experience. In other words, we have to be vulnerable.
Below is a list of four ways you can help create a culture of vulnerability. Whether you are a manager or not, you can impact your team’s culture.
1. Get a second pair of eyes on your next project
Are you finishing up an exciting project for your client? Did you just spend hours of research and implementation to optimize the perfect page? Perfect! Now go ask someone to critique it!
As simple as it sounds, this can make a huge difference in fostering a culture of creativity. It’s also extremely difficult to do.
Large or small, every project or task we complete should be the best your team can provide. All too often, however, team members work in silos and complete these projects without asking for or receiving constructive feedback from their teammates before sending it to the client. This leaves our clients and projects only receiving the best one person can provide rather than the best of an entire team.
We all work with diverse team members that carry varying levels of experience and responsibilities. I bet someone on your team will have something to add to your project that you didn’t already think of. Receiving their feedback means every project that you finish or task that you complete is the best your team has to offer your clients.
Keep in mind, though, that asking for constructive feedback is more than just having someone conduct a “standard QA.” In my experience, a “standard QA” means someone barely looked over what you sent and gave you the thumbs up. Having someone look over your work and provide feedback is only helpful when done correctly.
Say you’ve just completed writing and editing content to a page and you’ve mustered up the courage to have someone QA your work. Rather than sending it over, saying “hey can you review this and make sure I did everything right,” instead try to send detailed instructions like this:
“Here is a <LINK> to a page I just edited. Can you take 15 minutes to review it? Specifically, can you review the Title Tag and Description? This is something the client said is important to them and I want to make sure I get it right.”
In many cases, you don’t need your manager to organize this for you. You can set this up yourself and it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Before you finish a project or task this week, work with a team member and ask them for help by simply asking them to QA your work. Worried about taking up too much of their time? Offer to swap tasks. Say you’ll QA some of their work if they QA yours.
You will have greater success and consistency if you make QA a mandatory part of your process for larger projects. Any large project like migrating a site to https or conducting a full SEO audit should have a QA process baked into it.
Six months ago I was tasked to present one of our 200+ point site audits to a high profile client. The presentation was already created with over 100 slides of technical fixes and recommendations. I’m normally pretty comfortable presenting to clients, but I was nervous about presenting such technical details to THIS particular client.
Lucky for me, my team already had a process in place for an in-depth QA for projects like this. My six team members got in a room and I presented to them as if they were the client. Yes, that’s right, I ROLE PLAYED! It was unbearably uncomfortable at first. Knowing that each of my team members (who I respect a whole lot) are sitting right in front of me and making notes on every little mistake I make.
After an agonizing 60 minutes of me presenting to my team, I finished and was now ready for the feedback. I just knew the first thing out of their mouths would be something like “do you even know what SEO stands for?” But it wasn’t. Because my team had plenty of practice providing feedback like this in the past, they were respectful and even more so, helpful. They gave me tips on how to better explain canonicalization, helped me alter some visualization, and gave me positive feedback that ultimately left me confident in presenting to the client later that week.
When teams consistently ask and receive feedback, they not only improve their quality of work, but they also create a culture where team members aren’t afraid to ask for help. A culture where someone is afraid to ask for help is a toxic one and can erode team spirit. This will ultimately decrease the overall quality of your team’s work. On the other hand, a culture where team members feel safe to ask for help will only increase the quality of service and make for a safe and fun team working experience.
2. Hold a half-day all hands brainstorm meeting
Building strategies for websites or solving issues can often be the most engaging work that an SEO can do. Yes that’s right, solving issues is fun and I am not ashamed to admit it. As fun as it is to do this by yourself, it can be even more rewarding and infinitely more useful when a team does it together.
Twice a year my team holds a half-day strategy brainstorm meeting. Each analyst brings a client or issues they are struggling to resolve its website performance, client communication, strategy development, etc. During the meeting, each team member has one hour or more to talk about their client/issue and solicit help from the team. Together, the team dives deep into client specifics to help answer questions and solve issues.
Getting the most out of this meeting requires a bit of prep both from the manager and the team.
Here is a high-level overview of what I do.
Before the Meeting
Each Analyst is given a Client/Issue Brief to fill out describing the issue in detail. We have Analysts answer the following 5 questions:
- What is the core issue you are trying to solve?
- What have you already looked into or tried?
- What haven’t you tried that you think might help?
- What other context can you provide that will help in solving this issue?
After all client briefs are filled out and about 1-2 days prior to the half day strategy meeting I will share all the completed briefs to the team so they can familiarize themselves with the issues and come prepared to the meeting with ideas.
Day of the Meeting
Each Analyst will have up to an hour to discuss their issue with the team. Afterwards, the team will deep dive into solving it. During the 60 minute span, ideas will be discussed, Analysts will put on their nerd hats and dive deep into Analytics or code to solve issues. All members of the team are working toward a single goal and that is to solve the issue.
Once the issues is solved the Analyst who first outlined the issue will readback the solutions or ideas to solving the issue. It may not take the full 60 minutes to get to a solution. Whether it takes the entire time or not after one issue is solved another team member announces their issue and the team goes at it again.
- Depending on the size of your team, you may need to split up into smaller groups. I recommend 3-5.
- You may be tempted to take longer than an hour but in my experience, this doesn’t work. The pressure of solving an issue in a limited amount of time can help spark creativity.
This meeting is one of the most effective ways my team practices vulnerability allowing the creativity flow freely. The structure is such that each team member has a way to provide and receive feedback. My experience has been that each analyst is open to new ideas and earnestly listens to understand the ways they can improve and grow as an analyst. And with this team effort, our clients are benefitting from the collective knowledge of the team rather than a single individual.
3. Solicit characteristic feedback from your team
This step is not for the faint of heart. If you had a hard time asking for someone to QA your work or presenting a site audit in front of your team, then you may find this one to be the toughest to carry out.
Once a year I hold a special meeting with my team. The purpose of the meeting is to provide a safe place where my employees can provide feedback about me with their fellow teammates. In this meeting, the team meets without me and anonymously fills out a worksheet telling me what I should start doing, stop doing, and keep doing.
Why would I subject myself to this, you ask?
How could I not! Being a great SEO is more than just being great at SEO. Wait, what?!? Yes, you read that right. None of us work in silos. We are part of a team, interact with clients, have expectations from bosses, etc. In other words, the work we do isn’t only technical audits or site edits. It also involves how we communicate and interact with those around us.
This special meeting is meant to focus more on our characteristics and behaviors, over our tactics and SEO chops, ensuring that we are well rounded in our skills and open to all types of feedback to improve ourselves.
How to run a keep/stop/start meeting in 4 steps:
Step 1: Have the team meet together for an hour. After giving initial instructions you will leave the room so that it is just your directs together for 45 minutes.
Step 2: The team writes the behaviors they want you to start doing, stop doing, and keep doing. They do this together on a whiteboard or digitally with one person as a scribe.
Step 3: When identifying the behaviors, the team doesn’t need to be unanimous but they do need to mostly agree. Conversely, the team should not just list them all independently and then paste them together to make a long list.
Step 4: After 45 minutes, you re-enter the room and over the next 15 minutes the team tells you about what they have discussed
Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
- When receiving the feedback from the team you only have two responses you can give, “thank you” or ask a clarifying question.
- The feedback needs to be about you and not the business.
- Do this more than once. The team will get better at giving feedback over time.
Here is an example of what my team wrote during my first time running this exercise.
Let’s break down why this meeting is so important.
- With me not in the room, the team can discuss openly without holding back.
- Having team members work together and come to a consensus before writing down a piece of feedback ensures feedback isn’t from a single team member but rather the whole team.
- By leaving the team to do it without me, I show as a manager I trust them and value their feedback.
- When I come back to the room, I listen and ask for clarification but don’t argue which helps set an example of receiving feedback from others
- The best part? I now have feedback that helps me be a better manager. By implementing some of the feedback, I reinforce the idea that I value my team’s feedback and I am willing to change and grow.
This isn’t just for managers. Team members can do this themselves. You can ask your manager to go through this exercise with you, and if you are brave enough, you can have you teammates do this for you as well.
4. Hold a team meeting to discuss what you have learned recently
Up to this point, we have primarily focused on how you can ask for feedback to help grow a culture of creativity. In this final section, we’ll focus more on how you can share what you have learned to help maintain a culture of creativity.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: I show up at work, catch up on industry news, review my client performance, plug away at my to-do list, check on tests I am running and make adjustments, and so on and so forth.
What are we missing in our normal routines? Collaboration. A theme you may have noticed in this post is that we need to work together to produce our best work. What you read in industry news or what you see in client performance should all be shared with team members.
To do this, my team put together a meeting where we can share our findings. Every 2 weeks, my team meets together for an hour and a half to discuss prepared answers to the following four questions.
Question 1: What is something interesting you have read or discovered in the industry?
This could be as simple as sharing a blog post or going more in depth on some research or a test you have done for a client. The purpose is to show that everyone on the team contributes to how we do SEO and helps contribute knowledge to the team.
Question 2: What are you excited about that you are working on right now?
Who doesn’t love geeking out over a fun site audit, or that content analysis that you have been spending weeks to build? This is that moment to share what you love about your job.
Question 3: What are you working to resolve?
Okay, okay, I know. This is the only section in this meeting that talks about issues you might be struggling to solve. But it is so critical!
Question 4: What have you solved?
Brag, brag, brag! Every analyst has an opportunity to share what they have solve. Issues they overcame. How they out-thought Google and beat down the competition.
Creativity is at the heart of what SEOs do. In order to grow in our roles, we need to continue to expand our minds so we can provide stellar performance for our clients. To do this requires us to receive and give out help with others. Only then will we thrive in a culture that allows us to be safely vulnerable and actively creative.
I would love to hear how your team creates a culture of creativity. Comment below your ideas!