As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Anderson.
Scott Anderson, the Chief Marketing Officer at Cloud Communications company, Intermedia, is responsible for all aspects of marketing to grow the business and strengthen the brand. He joined Intermedia in the Fall of 2018. With 25 years in B2B tech marketing, Anderson has made a career of building technology brands, accelerating business demand, driving go-to-market strategies, and increasing customer loyalty for companies that have ranged from start-ups to the top Fortune 500 enterprises.
Prior to Intermedia, Anderson was CMO at Digital Experience Platform provider, Sitecore. He has held marketing roles at a number of companies including Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems (now Oracle), Bazaarvoice, Weyerhaesuer forest products company, and CNN International. He was named a Top Digital Marketer by BtoB Magazine (now Ad Age) two years running, and has been listed as a Top 100 influential B2B Marketer.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I entered the workforce at a fortunate time. While I am inherently creative and love to design great experiences for people, I am also analytical and am drawn to technology and all things digital. During the early years of my career, I had to choose between IT and marketing and therefore bounced between the two for a number of years. How fortuitous it was when marketing, and business in general, digitized, the digitization of marketing offered me the best of both worlds and sparked a life-long career in B2B marketing.
From a great experience as a foreign exchange student in Germany during high school, another passion of mine became understanding different cultures. My interest and subsequent actions eventually led me to a graduate degree in international marketing which later converted to years living and working in London, Amsterdam, and positions that took me to so many other geographies. The perspectives I’ve gained from everyone I’ve met in various roles is invaluable.
I’m a planner and as I knew I wanted to be a CMO someday, I plotted my career course to learn each of the functional areas in marketing. Advancing from the agency world to field, brand, product marketing, and corporate positions in companies of all sizes, I’ve assembled a broad view of the marketing function with a healthy level of depth in each area. The experience in so many areas has helped me to lead effectively as a CMO.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
While it wasn’t funny at the time, I do have a story about a mistake that resulted in a good learning. During the early days of digital technology I led a couple of companies to launch their products globally via live webinar and digital experience for the first time. Doing so is a common practice today but was not at the time. While successfully crossing the chasm on many occasions there was one instance where an IT person who managed the servers failed to load-test for the immediate spike in traffic from a global audience tuning in all at the same time. In that instance, the high volume of visitors overwhelmed the server and the experience was poor. Needless to say, a poor experience at a global product launch is not ideal. My learning was two-fold. First, in a digital world, the business owner is responsible for ALL aspects of the experience, regardless of org chart and even including the IT infrastructure underlying the event. Second, I took personal accountability for the poor experience and made sure that the next one was stellar. I strongly believe that leadership most definitely includes accountability.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I turned 18, I joined a volunteer fire department in my hometown and proudly served my community for the next decade both as a volunteer and full-time firefighter during summers and holidays. During the young adult years, a lot of personal development takes place and I was blessed to work for a fire chief who gave me a lot of responsibility while also taking the time to coach me along the way. As a firefighter, responding to emergencies where lives may be in peril and the path to resolution requires calm nerves, quick thinking, and an actionable plan, I learned a lot about effective teamwork and leadership. My fire chief helped me to model good leadership and was instrumental in helping me to shape how I approach business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Intermedia was founded in 1995 and became the largest independent provider of Hosted Exchange email services (which it still is today). Several years ago, recognizing the promise of cloud communications, Intermedia built upon its success to become a leading cloud communications provider, offering unified communications as a service (UCaaS) & contact center as a service (CCaaS) solutions for businesses of all sizes, in addition to the Hosted Exchange email services.
Today, Intermedia offers a tightly integrated business communications and collaboration portfolio that includes business phones, video conferencing, contact center, file sharing and backup, chat, and email in one unified platform. We are most definitely purpose built and serve over 125,000 business customers and 6,600 channel partners.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I’m guessing that most people would agree that March 2020 may very well be one of the most disruptive junctures in recent history when the COVID-19 ‘shelter in place’ restrictions took hold and dramatically changed daily life for everyone across the country. In the business world, most had to shift from office environments to working from home and it all came about within just a few days’ notice.
For myself and my company, the priority was for the safety of our employees and their families first and foremost. We shifted quickly to a remote work model and stayed close to frequently updated information during a rapidly evolving environment. Fortunately, as we use our own cloud communications platform, we didn’t face any communications challenges when moving from our in-office environment to remote working. We simply leveraged the desktop and mobile applications of our platform to chat, talk, video conference, email and share files from our PCs and mobile devices. The transition was seamless.
Understanding that many business may be struggling in this new environment, Intermedia’s marketing team and I realized that we were in a position to help out. Acting on what we viewed as a higher purpose, helping people to keep their businesses afloat despite the sizeable challenges posed by the pandemic, we focused on doing the right thing. Our first order of business was simply to share best practices from our experience as a company with a lot of expertise in remote working. The team authored several helpful pieces ranging from how to work remotely and managing a remote team, to tips on running a professional video meeting. Our partners and customers appreciated the useful information and the content was in high demand.
We also realized that while we were able to quickly shift to our own AnyMeeting video conferencing platform, a lot of businesses had little or no experience with video conferencing. So, we offered AnyMeeting for free until 2021 and put the word out that a free tool was at hand to solve at least one of the communications challenges that businesses faced. The volume of AnyMeeting sign-ups and users increased by orders of magnitude when we made that offer and we were pleased to have helped so many.
With a focus on helping others, a clear vision for doing so, and a solid execution plan, we wasted little time to get moving. The team literally worked around the clock for several weeks to help as many businesses as possible with helpful information and access to the right communications tools. We created webinars and attended panels. We fielded questions and created more assets as we learned about evolving needs. We interviewed customers and helped share their learnings with other business leaders. During what is likely deemed one of the most uncertain times in our lives, I couldn’t be more proud of my team and my company for taking that moment to rally with purpose.
My recommendation for leaders facing uncertainty during difficult times is always to understand the environment, get clear on the right path forward, and then to help the team achieve a focused plan. It’s a state of mind as much as it is a disciplined approach.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Despite working the long hours and weekends, I never heard a single person in the marketing team or at Intermedia in general complain about the mission we were pursuing. There is a difference between individual ownership and accountability vs. being told what to do. As we all shared a common mission with an outcome that we believed in, everyone pitched in to do their part. I even had to advise a few people to take a nap from time to time because they had been working around the clock and foregoing sleep over getting things done. I noticed that the team bonded over the shared experience and it’s brought us even closer together.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership requires clarity of purpose, energy, and inclusion. The role of a leader is to understand market dynamics through infinite curiosity and continuous monitoring via customers, partners, colleagues, and any other source — and then to work with the team to plot a course in the right direction. Nothing worth fighting for comes easy so positive energy, trust, reinforcement, and continued engagement can rally a team. And finally, drawing from the power of the team not only instills a sense of personal drive and ownership but also opens so many more perspectives than one can come up with alone.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
People want to win. They want to win at something that matters. Who doesn’t? While an uncertain future may bring stress for many, it reveals opportunities for those who are comfortable with uncertainty. A leader can inspire by picking a solid path, helping people to see the personal and collective opportunities, and then both challenging the team to bring its best while also highlighting steps in the right direction. The power of the team should never be underestimated. When good people unite with a common purpose and tremendous velocity they can achieve great things together.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Authentic, honest communication is always the best way to communicate news, regardless of the audience. When doing so, I also recommend showing up with solutions and a personal dedication to solve whatever the issues is. Even in the toughest circumstances, a good leader addresses issues head-on and with accountability.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future has always been unpredictable, especially in the tech environment where I’ve made my career. Technology continues to advance, formidable competitors can emerge from anywhere, and consumer tastes change continually. Navigating change requires understanding the environment, seeing opportunity, picking a path, and then driving forward while staying open to adapting as needed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
For business leaders it’s all about understanding your audience’s needs and making sure you continue to deliver value based on those needs. While this notion may sound glib, the challenge during COVID-19 was customer needs changing rapidly, often, and sometimes to extremes.
For example, if you manage a popular Italian restaurant when a local ordinance banned dine-in for all restaurants, patron’s needs just changed. In that case, curbside pick-up and a solid phone system to accommodate high volumes of phone orders may do the trick. When outside social-distancing dining became permissible, that’s another change.
We encountered this same shift with our audience. Pre-pandemic, businesses purchased business phone systems primarily for the office. In March, when workers went home, business leaders were searching for communications systems to connect their remote workers and keep their business operating. Our platform is ideal for remote work, so we adjusted messaging and highlighted various attributes that became more important for working from home, such as video conferencing and mobile and desktop cloud communications apps. Later, we saw business leaders shift to seeking longer-term solution for maximum workforce flexibility, enabling their employee base to work better from wherever. We shifted again. My advice is to stay close to customers, understand what they need and deliver value.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
In the tech sector, where I’ve made a career, the environment changes constantly and what worked yesterday may not necessarily be the choice for success tomorrow. Some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen are:
- Inward focus: When times are challenging, there may be a tendency for a company to turn inward, taking their eye off the customer and instead focusing on internal processes. As is the case at all times, but especially during difficult times, understanding customer needs and delivering value to them is the path to growth. When the pandemic prompted shelter in place mandates that, in turn, forced material shifts in purchasing behavior, our very top priority as a marketing organization was to understand shifts in customer needs to determine how we can help customers most.
- Loss of purpose: On multiple occasions I’ve worked for companies that experienced wild past success but then were un able to adjust when market drivers changed. It’s the classic Innovator’s Dilemma. Fortunately, Intermedia’s culture is one of continued innovation where everyone is encouraged to ask tough questions and adjust, as necessary, to continue serving our customers and partners.
- Analysis paralysis: Tech is a fast-paced environment. At times in the early stages of my career, I worked with some business leaders who were unable to make important decisions during challenging times. Because the competition waits for no-one and the information available will never reach 100%, I’m drawn toward innovative companies, such as Intermedia, with a mix of market, product, and customer experts where discussions are collaborative, focused decisions are made, and teams move forward with purpose.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
A marketing’s job is to drive demand, strengthen the brand, enable the channel, and foster customer satisfaction (customer satisfaction is everyone’s job). To be effective, marketers must be clear on the business strategy and growth drivers for the company, determine measurable goals that align with the business strategy, have a clear plan and vision, and then ruthlessly execute. None of this changes during a difficult economy.
In fact, I always find it useful to ensure good team hygiene and discipline when times are relatively smooth, so the team is battle-hardened and ready to weather the storm together when challenges arise. I mentioned earlier that Intermedia has a great culture of customer and partner-centricity as well as open collaboration where we continually challenge ourselves to improve. Doing so has kept us sharp and focused as an organization and as a company.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay focused on customers: Your buying audience drives growth and as the economy ebbs and flows, their needs may shift as well. Stay close to what they care about and make sure your company is delivering value at all times. I mentioned earlier in this interview how we tracked changing needs during the early days of the pandemic and shifted to continually support their needs.
- Communicate authentically: Yes, I’m a marketer and yes, I cringe at some of the tricks, and gimmicks ginned up by some members in my profession. However, I don’t subscribe to such tactics. When one engages authentically with customers and partners, trust is established and loyalty can prevail in any environment. It’s how we approach communications at Intermedia.
- See opportunities where others may fear the unknown: Of course, uncertainty causes anxiety with many but change also comes with opportunity — opportunity to help others, opportunity to think up a solution that didn’t exist in past circumstances, opportunity to try something new. Conquer your fears and embrace change. When the pandemic forced remote work, we shifted without a beat and focused on how to help. Our customers and partners appreciated the help.
- Have courage: Leadership matters most when times are tough. When challenged, true leaders rise to the occasion. So, accept the challenge, pick a path and continue forward. Inspire your team to stay focused and to forge ahead with confidence.
- Support your team with motivation and focus: Everyone wants to be part of something bigger. Help them to do so. Paint a vision, collaborate, bring your positive energy, focus, and celebrate wins.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A life quote that I’ve heard somewhere in the past, that especially resonates with me is: “You can’t always choose the hand your dealt, but you can always choose how you play it.” I’ve known people who have been dealt tough hands in life but who inspire me with the most positive spirit. I’ve also known some incredibly fortunate people, who can’t seem to find their positive mojo. Yes, we can improve our fate by working hard and being smart. In doing so, however, life will always throw curve balls at the best of them. What we achieve is ultimately in our hands and has everything to do with our own mental disposition and how we play that out through each of our actions.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow me on Twitter @ScottsVoice or visit Intermedia.com