#F90D: The Search for the Truth

or: How I became Sherlock Holmes and found all the bodies

This is the third entry (Weeks 3 & 4) in my journal documenting my first 90 days as a VP of Marketing (#F90D). If you’re just joining, you can find Week 1 here and week 2 here.

I had a total of 6 business days in weeks 3 and 4 combined, so I decided to group them into one post. I call it efficiency, you can call me lazy. These weeks can be titled: “The Search for What is True.”

There’s always a gap between what you learn during an interview process and what’s real. You hope that the gap is not too big, and that the fantasies and dreams you were sold to, are not nightmares but simply an embellishment. In the first few weeks you should be on a hunt for the truth and finding where all the bodies are buried. It’s best if you have someone who knows where they are and can show you the way, but usually, it’s a task you will need to take on your own.

I deploy several methods for finding the truth. I categorized them for simplicity.

  1. People (listening — in the company)
  2. People (listening — outside the company)
  3. Data (analyzing)
  4. Documents (reading)
  5. Projects (doing)
  6. Presentation (talking)

People (in the company)

This method is the fastest and easiest, but also has the lowest level of credibility since people are extremely biased (as you will become too in a few weeks), want to make a good impression on you, or have an agenda. However, they hold the keys and knowledge to thing you will never find out without them. For example, you will not find the history and context of certain decisions without the people who were there. You can’t learn the truth about the culture without seeing it in action. You won’t find the truth about skills, competencies, gaps and issues, without observing your people and talking to them. They are your first and most important path to uncovering the truth. But remember, it’s their truth; you need to find yours.

When it comes to people, I set 1:1s, join meetings, set meetings, go to informal events (happy hour, lunches, etc.), ask questions and conduct interviews. I also like to be direct and ask them about issues as well as ask them to surface EVERYTHING to me. It can be, and it is, a lot, so you need to be prepared to capture a lot of information, categorize it and also communicate the fact that you are just listening at this point. But if you listen carefully enough, the truth will start to emerge. Just remember, the truth is in the eye of the beholder, so just make sure you talk to a lot of holders.

People (not in the company)

A few years ago @ScottFallon told me that “the truth is not in the building” and I love that sentiment. If you want to know what people think about your company and your product, you need to go outside the company to find out. There are several ways and methods for doing it, which is not as important as simply doing it. You can talk to customers about their experience; ask random people, family and friends about the category and product; join sales calls and demos to listen to leads and how they react to the sale pitch; connect with partners to learn about how they see the company and the market; reach out to ex-customers or lost opportunities to learn about their experience and what made them go with the alternative. There are many ways to learn the truth about your company, product and market that is not by listening to the people in the company. Even if you don’t do all of these, at least do one.

Data

Personally, diving into the data is one of my favorite ways to learn the truth about performance, challenges, opportunities, and deficiencies. It’s relatively easy to do, it provides an objective* picture of the situation, and when presented back to stakeholders, it usually draws reactions that help you find more truth. The funny thing, though, is that in the last few companies I joined, as well as the companies I interviewed at, I found that the data was flawed in many ways, or simply didn’t exist. However, that’s also a truth that needs to be uncovered and documented.

Even with flawed or missing data, there’s always some data you can use. As a B2B marketer, I try to figure out the funnel (or micro-funnels) and construct it using the available data. It helps me identify the key areas of breakage and establish a baseline performance. I also look for customer data like revenue, churn and retention, upgrades, CSAT (customer satisfaction scores) and any other data about customers. I research online to find data about the market to understand market size, market trends and market projections. I ask for other marketing data like website data, landing page data, email performance data, budget and paid campaign costs. Finally, if there’s any HR data, I tend to look for it as well. Internal surveys, employee satisfaction, peer reviews, and other information that can help me paint a better picture of the team and culture.

I surround myself with data that helps me identify some of the core issues and corroborate or debunk some of the truths I heard so far. But the biggest benefit of searching for the truth in the data, is the journey to get the data. I uncover more hard truths about the business when I ask for the data, then what I can actually find in it.

*philosophically, true objectivity doesn’t exist. Data can be misleading and whoever entered it as well as the person who’s reading it, bring their own biases. So while it’s more objective than people’s opinions, it’s definitely not pure of bias.

Documents

This method is not for everyone, and I know people who can’t follow this tip and do just fine without it. But I’m a reader and a process-enthusiast (the least offensive term I can use for my obsession with finding processes that work), so for me, it’s one of the most effective ways to find the truth or at least uncover where it might hide. I like to ask and see all the documents people can share with me. Planning documents, research papers, presentations, briefs, debriefs, summaries, and any other company document. I don’t necessarily read in details all of them, some I skim and some I ignore, but I do read a lot of them. It helps me identify themes, tribal truths that need to be challenged, logic and rationale (or the lack thereof) in planning and analysis, existing processes and areas that will benefit from appropriate process. It also gives me an impression of how people approach projects and challenges, and a sense of the culture in the company and my team.

My biggest challenge with documents is finding the right way to categorize and “index” them so I can find them later. I have not found a good method yet, and find myself asking for the same documents again and again. I still ask for more documents though.

Projects

I know this is the preferred method by most people, and I highly recommend it as well, just don’t use it exclusively.

Starting with a project allows you to put to test a lot of the stories you heard from people and get close and personal with the truth. Projects that force you to work with many people, preferably cross-functionally, are the best, but you want to choose a relatively contained, short-term project since the purpose is to learn the truth and not get involved in a major project (you will have enough opportunities to do so soon). You want a project that will allow you to learn about the organization, people, product, culture and market, and find the truth about them. If there’s no project available, you can make one up or join one that is ongoing. It’s important though, that you take an active role in the project and not just join it as an observer. If you’re not leading the project, take a role that forces you to get something done. It will stress-test all your assumptions and shed better light on what you think is true.

Presentation

At some point, you will need to stand in front of your stakeholders and present what you found. You need to confront them with what you think is the truth, and let them poke holes, support or debunk it. You might find out that your truth is missing context or information; you might surprise them with your findings; you might realize that you are way off or dead on; more than likely, it will be a mix of all of these and some other realizations. In any case, your truth needs to be discussed and tested, and more importantly publicized so it can become the truth of the organization and not just yours.

It’s your job to be the Sherlock Holmes of your on-boarding, no one will do it for you, and if you don’t do it intentionally, you will be surprised when the truth smacks you in the head.