Here Right Now – first 5 episodes

5 episodes in, I think we’re off to a good start.

Episode 1 – Exploring esports with Angela Natividad

Featuring esports agency entrepreneur and strategist Angela Natividad, our conversation spanned gaming culture, esport stereotypes, the brand of sports vs esports, athleticism and health, the quirks of intellectual property law & the business of esport. A free-ranging conversation about part of the world I knew so little about beforehand.

Episode 2 – Deep Fake, bots & Synthetic Art with Eric Drass

Featuring respected synthetic artist Eric Drass – who you may know as Shardcore – about his work playing with neural networks, machine learning, Deep Fake, bots, conspiracy theories, and his work using all of these to create art. And, at the heart of the conversation, the increasingly pressing question of how we can know what is true and what is not.

Episode 3 – The Future of Food with Dr Morgaine Gaye

Featuring food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye – you’ll hear Morgaine’s rarely-shared predictions for future themes in our food, confront what Dr Gaye believes will be an extended period of disruption and unearth newer, clearer connections between fashion, technology, geopolitics and broad societal change.

Episode 4 – Online Investigations and Open Source Intelligence with Eliot Higgins

Featuring Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, the foremost pioneer worldwide in online investigations and open source analysis, whose work uses publicly available online resources and content freely – and often bizarrely – shared in social media to expose alleged Russian state killers, and identify the exact anti-aircraft unit involved in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Episode 5 – Digitizing the City of San Francisco with Carrie Bishop

Featuring Carrie Bishop, Chief Digital Services Officer, sharing her perspective on the gritty realities of ‘digital transformation’ in public services. Considering San Francisco’s 976 lines of business, there’s an exhilarating aerial view of what can be possible, together with an unfussy account from the frontline of just how creaky legacy systems that power our world can be.

So what’s next?

I’m enjoying it enough that I’ve decided I’m going to do another 95 episodes.

And you can help shape those 95 episodes. If you have ideas about potential fascinating, diverse guests who can give an interesting perspective on how a facet of everyday life is changing right now, I’d love to hear those suggestions – here, on Twitter, wherever.

Join us.

If you haven’t already, join me and the growing community of other smart listeners on the journey towards 100 episodes – subscribe for free here. Thanks for listening 🙂

Books and resources I recommend for first-time managers

I’ve been asked twice in the last few weeks by super-smart and very capable humans what resources I’d recommend to them as a new manager. It’s an exciting moment in a career and just to ask that question is already a wonderful sign. I knew when they asked that I wanted to write this down rather than just send it once, so here I am with you writing these words that you are reading.

Only problem is I have an exciting Zoom meeting (genuinely) on SEO for one our high performing business units so I’ve got 16 minutes to get this done 🙂

1. Management is fundamentally about communication…

So I recommend Crucial Conversations.

The principles and very practical method has worked highly for me in saying the things that need to be said and hearing the things that need to be heard. Whatever I have tried at and failed at as a manager and a leader (and the list is not short), I have not swerved the conversations that mattered most. This framework gave and gives me scaffolding for those crucial moments. You can also find the courage this approach gives you to be useful in the rest of life too. (I’ve also heard good things about Radical Candor and love the core concept, so you might try that one too – Radical Candor by Kim Scott – which is worryingly the only resource produced by a woman in this list).

2. Management fundamentally requires self-management…

So I recommend The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

By ‘self-management’, I’m not only talking about prioritizing and so on – I’m talking about self-awareness, self-development, mutual benefit. I think better managers know and manage themselves better, which in turn amplifies their ability to be a decent helpful manager. This book is 25 years old, which sounds a lot but then there’s a small tree in my garden that’s probably older than that, so when you consider the age and timelessness of human wisdom, that shouldn’t really matter. There isn’t a day that I don’t myself apply some principle from this slightly cheesy but helpful, clarifying book. (I’ve got 11 mins until that meeting!)

3. Better management is about coaching rather than directing…

So I recommend the Coaching for Leaders podcast series, hosted by Dr. Dave Stachowiak.

Of course there are books and stuff, and I especially recommend going on a course – I did a 5-weekend course with CTI that was hugely beneficial but a big commitment and even a 1 or 2 day course can give you massive gains in this area, as can being coached yourself – but given the year is 2020 I’m going to recommend this podcast. There’s a huge back catalog, they are relatively easy listening but jammed with tips, approaches, scenarios, ideas. I just scroll through, pick one that sounds right for my mood and current challenges, and I always, always get something valuable from each one, even if I finish early or don’t love the guest or they don’t solve the universe in one go, whatever.

4. GREAT management is about developing your portfolio of approaches and styles…

So I recommend the Leadership That Gets Results article from Harvard Business Review which I personally and other developing managers I’ve worked with found somewhere between helpful and life-changing.

I have returned to this seminal piece once or twice a year for many a year [looks to camera with elderly twinkle in his eye]. It is so utterly freeing to realize that there are styles of management available to us, and that when and how we use those styles is situational, and that some styles will feel very comfortable, and others may feel, especially at first, a massive reach. And that THIS is the work of being a good manager. Trying always to stretch, learn, to adapt between the moment, the characters, the challenge and what will elicit the most productive, helpful response. Great article. 20 min read and reflection. Get it! Balls, 2 mins left, will have to finish this later.

5. Management has a huge role to play in the battle to overturn systemic racism

So I currently recommend Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, though it is not a ‘business text’ I found it to be a great read to truly confronting and understanding the nature, influence and roots of systemic racism – in this case, with a British history and lense. White Fragility, which I haven’t read yet, may be a better American perspective. This Confronting Racism at Work reading list from Harvard Business Review brings these issues and opportunities firmly into a business context. And this visual model from Andrew M. Ibrahim, MD is a neat device to conduct a shallow self-assessment from. I need to go much further myself to provide a fairer playing field that draws from the most broad and exciting talent pool that exists, so I share these as a fellow traveller not as someone sat on their laurels.

Bonus content:

Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager by James Stanier. Whilst cast through the lense of software engineering management, I’ve skimmed this very recent, fresh book by my Brandwatch colleague Dr. James Stanier and it is very clearly THE GOOD MODERN MANAGEMENT PLAYBOOK regardless of managing software developers or [insert other jobs].

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Just a good primer on the craziness and intensity of managing in a high growth, high turbulence environment where the demands on leaders and managers are high but the guardrails and supportive processes less visible.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Prof. Richard Rumelt. Y’all talk about strategy. You use the word strategy. If I asked you to create a strategy, I think it might likely be a plan that you create and I think this book might help you – as it did me, MASSIVELY – in getting very clear about what strategy is, why it exists, what makes it so powerful, and what the components are. Not about people management, but it’s the next neighborhood over, my friends, so peek over the hedgerow and see if you like it.

Good to Great by Jim Collins. It was old when I read it. It’s probably ancient now. Doesn’t matter. Core concepts endure. An absolute central piece of the ‘business / MBA canon’ and rightly so. I learned loads of good principles and ideas about organizations, teams, leadership and management from this book.

I should also recommend my own book, Culture Shock. You can do a little vomit in your mouth all you like at the self-promotion, but ultimately I sat down to try and encode what I believed then about management and it’s in the book. Personally, since I wrote it 8 years ago I’ve changed my views on the direct application of ‘democracy at work’ stuff, but the principles and direction of the book are still very representative of what I believe is required of managers and organizations to thrive today.

Good luck. Given how big a part of daily lives our work is, and how influential management is on peoples’ lives, this is a worthy endeavour and one I salute, whoever and wherever you are.

PS. The Zoom meeting was at 10.15 am. I finally finished this at 2 pm between calls and a bit o’ lunch 🙂

In praise of the side project

I knew side projects were good.

I can’t trace back to where or why, but I know that earlier, when I was running my own business, there were times I felt highly possessive of a team member’s time and attention. Like I owned them. Like anything other than THIS was betrayal. Even though we looked for and hired people with a breadth to them, who demonstrated through action their creative energy. (I can only apologize. I was young).

It wasn’t quite as binary as I make it sound there, but in time I came to see that only great things emerged from team members side projects, their creative explorations, their learning. Of course they fucking did. It’s embarrassing to write, now. But I guess I get and indeed first came from that ‘all in’ mindset that many leaders, investors and managers may still feel.

As I grew and evolved myself, as I saw team members bring so much richness from their worlds outside of work, as I wrote a book that was mine alone but also helped our work, as I stopped running my own business and shifted to a purely friendship based relationship with ex-colleagues and saw them crafting and learning outside of work and how that made them so good and unique in what they offered to their clients, their users and employers, I saw more and more clearly the extra contribution that side projects made. It wasn’t and isn’t even a neutral sum, it’s a positive add – of course it is.

Since then, I’ve been a better, more enlightened supporter of team members’ side projects. And starting my Here Right Now podcast project has been the best thing I’ve done for me, creatively, in years.

A side project has given me creative independence and autonomy that you just can’t come by, even and maybe especially in a more senior role. I can use CAPS if I want to. I can explore fringe topics. I can shape it and screw up and blunder my way through and it’s all mine and all on me. I make every decision.

It has re-awoken and actually increased my empathy and respect for creators of any kind. Every side project comes from a good place, from an energy to see something in the world – artists, activists, entrepreneurs, lifelong learners. When I see someone’s initiative pass me by now I feel: I feel a connection with someone striving for something. And I want to support them somehow, see them succeed more.

And doing my side project has helped me realize that most of the time most people don’t give a fuck. The apathy, even of those you might’ve thought would be right there with you if they knew how much it matters to you, it’s utterly humbling. In a good way. I get more interaction for a photo of a pizza than a podcast I put hours of work and thought into. It’s got me back on a level. I am reminded what it takes to get something going. No one really cares that much. Oh well – so no one cares – cool, well let’s have at it then 🙂

New practical skills is an obvious benefit. I’ve learned new stuff about microphones, audio quality, transcription, about podcasting services and platforms, but also – as someone would’ve graded themselves as highly competent at hosting and chairing panel discussions (lol) – doing the podcast has forced me to confront that I’m actually an average-to-poor interviewer, that great interviewers have actually mastered their craft, and that instead I have to edit out 50% of my long rambley questions, my weird affirmative MMMMMMs and other quirks. Good learning.

Extra networks are created through side projects, too. Just 3 episodes in, and I have 3 new connections, 3 super smart humans out there in the world that I know and that know me. This is how good things happen, and if the right moment or project arises, we will find one another.

Lastly and by far the most important benefit, it’s reminded me who I am. I am not my job. My job is not my total identity. I care so much about my work and about the last two organizations I’ve worked for (my own and then another founded by a friend in my home city) that I have allowed them at times to over-dominate and to try and meet every need through them. Breathing space and variety is good. I’ve also allowed myself to not think of myself as creative, and defaulted to always allowing others to take the creative lead. That’s a mistake, I’m very creative (honest) and having a solo project allows me to stretch all of that unfettered and unrestrained. I AM CREATIVE!!!!!!!

And all of this? All of this washes into everything that I do every day in my fantastic, demanding role at Brandwatch. This stuff isn’t divided from my committed work in my day job by some impermeable membrane, some ‘imma build a WALLLLL’. Just as Anna’s artistic experimentation feeds into her work delivering creative, life-changing digital transformation at Hyper Island, Jed’s music writing and curating must add richness to his strategy work and client relationships at Initiative, I have seen Phill’s consumer psychology podcast directly contribute to his product positioning and messaging at Brandwatch, and Ross’ playful experiments in video making are a conduit for behavior change at one of the UK’s biggest banks. This stuff makes us better at what we do. I know I am a better, livelier, more energized CMO for Brandwatch since I started this than I was before.

I praise the side project. What’s your next endeavour, just for you?

While you’re here, you should probably sign up for Here Right Now – it’s a podcast about the future that’s already here. Also available on Apple podcasts and Spotify.

Exploring the Here Right Now

As a creative experiment I have started a podcast called Here Right Now, and I wanted to let you know about it as a reader of this here weblog.

Inspired by that incisive – and for some, overlabored – William Gibson quote, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’, Here Right Now explores the future that’s already here.

Each episode a special guest brings a new perspective on how a facet of everyday life is changing right now. Through their expert eyes we go deep into emerging new trends around the world, from the rise of esports to the changing design of cities, from interesting new food trends to the latest evolutions in dating behavior.

I hope that each episode is a beginner’s guide to the evolution of our everyday life.

If you’re interested head to HereRightNow and subscribe. You’ll get an email each time there’s an episode, with links for popular podcasting apps.

My promise to you is that my guests and I will do everything we can to warm your earlugs and edutain your brain.


Global habit change. Now.

I am writing this in the midst of the early ‘lockdown’ response to Covid-19. I do not underestimate the gravity of the situation – my view on that has been both bearish and I hope empathic from the start. The impact of this virus is going to affect us all in very serious ways. But in this moment here I do want to spend time thinking about not the pandemic itself, but an interesting consequence unravelling in parallel.

Most of what I know about habits, I learned from Professors Karen Pine & Ben Fletcher.

I will butcher and simplify their academic research as professors and practitioners in pyschology to say that Karen and Ben identified that our habits are not isolated but each members of a web of many interconnected behaviors. And when wiggled and flexed through a sustained and deliberate effort as a web of habits, we as individuals discover an ability to make greater changes to some of the specific habits we wish to change in our lives.

In short, doing lots of things a bit differently to quite a few of our normal routines and reflexes created a space in which we could then change our smoking habit, our fear of leaving the house, our first response in an argument. Karen explains it clearly and eloquently with stories here at Meaning Conference.

Habits, though, are powerful.

As a I remember it from Karen and Ben as well as the work in books like Thinking, Fast & Slow, we outsource much more of our daily decisions to our body or lower ‘thinking’ functions than we realize, and conserve precious brain power as much as we can. Habits run most of our world.

Take a second to think about yours. How you respond to notifications on your phone. How you travel to work in the morning, y’know, when you did. How you get washed and dressed at home. How you respond to criticism, or worse, to praise. How you parent. How you collaborate. The traps you trip yourself into in meetings or family moments.

So with all that in mind, it strikes me that the response to Covid-19 is a globally synchronized habit change program for billions of humans. If habits run a good chunk of each of our everyday personal worlds, if we scale up to the societal and global level, is it too much to suggest that the same is true at national and international levels?

I propose that this is the largest simultaneous habit change event in the history of humankind.

Suddenly our habits and usual patterns of life and work have been utterly disrupted. The walk to work. The time apart from or together with children or partners. Who we can see and when. For those working from home, our whole working environment. Exercise routines. Diets. Every relationship. It isn’t uniform, by country, by profession, by age. But it is affecting very many of us right now.

At a global scale.

That wiggle room in the web of interconnected habits we all have has been – well – wiggled.

In history, as a non-expert I imagine that the changing of habits and of behaviors usually diffused through populations over extended periods of time. Often first unlocked by technology or (more powerfully, sometimes) through ideas.

I imagine that as the advent of the printing press catalyzed change in religion, in power, in communications, the spread of that took time – decades and centuries to exert its full influence. Habits then, maybe they changed quickly – I’d love to learn more. But I do guess that in general the spread was slowed by distance and the lack of connectivity.

What is happening today is spreading very fast. Both the virus itself and the chain of reactions in response.

Individually, as well as staying safe and healthy and sane, and as well as providing to family and to employers and to our community (it’s a lot, I know), we have the opportunity to consciously think about new habit creation and old habit disposal.

What new habit pathways do I want to lay down now during this time?

What old habits do I want to work on and leave behind?

And which habits do I see more or less of emerging around me? Handwashing. Videocalls. Distance-learning/telemedicine/worship/everything. The list of emergent behaviors here is fascinating.

We have this opportunity as individuals. In all of this change and chaos and uncertainty it is one of the few things we can control.

And we have this opportunity as leaders of teams and organizations, as policy makers, teachers, doctors, as providers of products and services, aid workers and entrepreneurs. To notice what is changing, and be conscious about what can and will change next.

Then zoom out from your life. See your street, your city, your nation and the world. And ask, what habits are going to change at scale in the world that emerges from this pandemic.

I see a changed landscape. I see people reevaluating their work, their lives. I see big phase change from this marker in history. Global habits are changing from this moment forward.

Maybe you’ve already noticed this happening. I’d love to hear if you have.

Pacing Change

The Operators series is for people in operating roles in high-growth startup and scaleups. Written from experience. For founders and their leadership teams, plus those talented motivated people interested in the bigger picture.

This title makes me chuckle. ‘Pacing change’. Yeah right.

Reminds me of the poem Ozymandias. As if we  – little ants – can pace and speed or slow the great forces exerted on our little firms, in our little lives.

And yet I still see pacing change as integral to the role of a leader in a growth organization.

In Managing Chaos and Momentum I gave a point of view on how as operators we can both handle the chaos of high growth and more positively, can harness and direct energy into a forward-movement.

Pacing change relates to both of these, and nonetheless is perhaps a third dimension in its own right too.

Maybe in driving terms Managing Chaos is the accelerator, Momentum is the travel forwards, and Pacing Change is our clutch pedal – the interstitial layer, the place where we hold energy, time energy and direct energy from.

Change is constant. Yes.

Change in start-ups and agile, disruptive orgs is even more constantly felt. Yes.

Too much change, too badly managed, too constantly, is bad for our organizations. Also Yes.

In fact, too much change, too badly managed, too constantly, will lead us to:

  • Customer dissatisfaction
  • Team attrition
  • Personal fatigue
  • Poor decision making
  • Bad reputations (externally, internally)
  • Greater friction everywhere
  • Loss of direction
  • Loss of momentum

…all of which can reduce or entirely suffocate:

  • Growth
  • Quality
  • Profitability
  • Wellbeing

pacing change

Great graphic huh.

So how do we pace change?

I guess the artistry in leadership is doing one’s best to figure out what change is going to be helpful, what change can or can’t be resisted or deferred and then plotting courses to helpfully pace change such that your team of five or five hundred can best digest it, process it and then perform through it.

To bring that to life, maybe there are 3 over-exaggerated caricatures of approaches you can take:


This approach is where a wave of changes come and although they are several (or maybe many) in number, and not insignificant (so it’s ‘a lot’), the context you’re operating means that you are compelled to pass the changes on wholesale and right-fricking-now, because anything else would not be best for the business and therefore the team.

So ‘pull the band aid off’ is just launch all the change straight through to the org with little filtering, little packaging up, little optimal timing. No amelioration. No mitigation. No management.

This approach has strengths in its authenticity, in not creating much upfront management overhead (because there is no timing, holding, confidentiality-managing, massaging), in giving the team the respect of receiving the information full-bore and in realtime. It also can powerfully create Momentum. This is Nokia’s ‘burning platform’ memo or Lou Gerstner’s turning IBM around or [insert your favorite turnaround / sports comeback  / military history story here]. In Horowitz’s ‘Hard Thing About Hard Things’ this is wartime CEO mode.

It also just gets it done, and in growth mode, it is often the case that done is better than perfect.

This approach’s weaknesses are that it will rock some people (which creates work for you and them), it will reduce your team or unit’s momentum (which creates work for you and them), and done repeatedly, it will create a culture of constant chaos, firefighting on a daily basis and that will have significant and lasting downstream consequences. These are significant downsides, my dudes.

If this is happening too often, you and your fellow leaders need to urgently go upstream and work on whatever’s creating too much constant change. Once or twice a year, a wave of changes is OK. Once or twice a quarter, really not good.


This approach is the caricatured yang to ‘pull the band aid off’s’ ying.

Here you just absorb 99% of the change as a leadership. You take the hits, process the turbulence, and do your best to immunize your team or org from it.

That can mean withholding information. That can mean managing your own emotions and ego. That can mean needing to challenge your peers or boss to manage their emotions and ego too – not only are you holding the line yourself, you’re also holding others to hold the line.

This is NOT EASY. Holding the space and providing the aircover for the team is a silent kind of tiring.

But it’s sometimes what people want from their leaders, and I understand and appreciate why. ‘That’s why you get paid the big bucks’. Sometimes they don’t want to know, but they do want you to deal with it so that they can do their jobs and deliver the results they know you and others are depending on them for.

My best advice is to channel your anxieties and perhaps understandable desire to confide or vent, and direct those energies into a quiet dignity that you’re doing your best to do the right thing, and only talk to the others on your team who do rightfully know. (That and go upstream – sorry for repetition, but if you’re pissed off at having to absorb too much change, go and fix the causes).

The strengths of this approach are the downstream space it creates for your team. There’s no change for them to process if, in your pacing decision, you’ve decided to block all of the waves of disruption.

The weaknesses are that you may just have delayed rather than avoided the change, and that can be a hiding place for avoiding challenging issues that urgently need grasping. Maybe you pace it right. Or maybe it just came back twice as hard a month later. With this option you can also reduce your team’s trust of you, if they feel like you absorbed and withheld something they feel they should have known there and then. Just don’t take this option thinking it’s a universally good option. You might feel saintly, but life, leadership and scaling organizations ain’t that simple.


The classic! Everyone’s absolute fave. It’s like the Margherita pizza of the pacing change world. Palatable, universal, utterly unremarkable. You pass on some of the change and you withhold, deflect or defer some of it for another day!


And tbh probably your principle operating style today, and mine too.

As leaders we are constantly pacing change in this way. Saving some stuff up for bundles to deliver at a quarterly offsite or a well-thought-out team meeting or a face to face 1:1. Whilst also passing on the seamlessly shareable everyday changes – the small stuff, the incremental. Here, we’re in the middle lane – neither stressing the org with a never-ending wave of change, nor absorbing literally every possible change like a big friendly black hole.

The weaknesses of this option are in its ambivalence and mediocrity.

Sometimes, Option 1 is the must-do. Anything less than all at once is a poor leadership decision and patronizes the smart, resilient people we lead.

And sometimes, Option 2 will make the most sense. The team aren’t ready or it won’t help the org at this moment in time, which means absorbing every damn ounce of it is what’s needed.

So I guess the steer is to check that we’re not missing the benefits of 1 or 2 by only ever being that middle-lane driver.

One final note – on narratives and internal comms

As story-telling apes, the change is a narrative, and if you don’t provide a narrative for me to at least pick at, I’ll invent one my goddam self, so the communication piece here is massive. HOW you communicate the waves of change that you do pass on is critical. By video? In person? Town hall? With Q&A or without? In an email? The internal comms bit of this is very significant and worthy of a post on another day. What I will say for now is that communicating change – especially big waves of it – is very hard to do, no one will ever think you got it quite right, and the all-time best you can hope for is a majority of thumbs up – some grudging, some encouraging. But being real I will say that often you won’t get that, because in the environment of a scaling company, this shit is hard to get right. It is what it is, you guys. It is what it is.

In summary

You’re dealing with very challenging circumstances. It’s judgement and instinct, not science. The job here is not perfection, because it doesn’t exist. Instead it’s doing the best that you can with what you have. I do see pacing change as an integral aspect of leadership through growth and disruption. It is an incredibly influential part of our role. It’s another lever we have, another muscle for us to grow and flex.

We cannot determine when change comes and how much of it does, often. But we can set the context, the boundaries and the mood, and we can do our best to intelligently pace some of how and when some of it arrives. And in doing so, we can have a surprisingly powerful impact on the conditions for our teams and our selves to perform in.

Written on WordPress, whilst drinking cold black tea and listening to the Voodoo album by D’Angelo, which was inspired by the amazing Broken Records podcast conversation between Questlove, Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell


The Operators series is for people in operating roles in high-growth startup and scaleups. Written from experience. For founders and their leadership teams, plus those talented motivated people who are interested in the bigger picture.

The first post of Operators was Managing Chaos.

It was first intentionally because when you’re scaling a business managing chaos is just a fact of life. It is perhaps the defining experience and feeling of scaling. So you gotta manage it. That or basically die :shrug:

Fortunately, chaos has a friendlier twin: Momentum.



Remember when you were 17. OK, 16. (Ok, what 14? Wow… ) And you were walking towards the door of the nightclub. The club you really had to get into. You can hear the music. You can see a partial view into the club’s interior. You can smell adventure (lol). Eye contact with the bouncers. That burst of extra adrenaline. YA-ya-ya-YAAAA. Now pause right there: it was at this exact point I used to imagine I was walking through the door. No slowing. No subtle inertia. No pre-conceived rejection, unwittingly conveyed by subconscious cues of body language. A mental trick to our own adolescent brains – ‘I’m sailing through yes I am and that bouncer is gonna have to ask me to stop and and and I’m innnnnn’.

Momentum and a fake sense of confidence (or a fake ID) carried us through.

Just earlier in cold British sunshine this morning my younger boy – new to the game of rugby this year – catches the ball, runs at the opposition and just before contact, slows. In rugby you need to run through people. Or over them. Or if you’re clever, around them.  (Imagine American Football, less the body armor and the constant stops in play.) He’s caught, contained. That fraction of a second of hesitation was everything. A quick cue from a coach and in the next play he runs at and through the opposition. Legs pumping. No imagined slowing down. No trace of hesitance to allow the opposition to tackle. Momentum.

Sales people understand momentum. They sense for the heat and velocity of a deal, of a customer in-store, intuiting for that ‘propensity to buy’. Of course, great sales people don’t just feel it – they create it. One to one, asking questions that deliver a cascade of yeses. Or in the more sophisticated and subtle world of selling to groups of buyers in the enterprise, they build a groundswell amongst the prospects’ stakeholders. Through their orchestrated sales campaign they build positivity, an unfair bias and alignment across the boundaries of client-side functions and politics. And how to pace to it – when to go with the customer’s flow, when to speed it up. Momentum.

Momentum is magic in business. I really believe that.

It is waves of progress upon waves of progress. It’s ‘oh, and another (good) thing’. It’s rolling goddamn thunder. It is launch followed by client win followed by awards followed by big new hire followed by another client win. It’s you saying to the inside world of staff, investors, one another – that latter one of self-belief in the leadership is perhaps most important in some ways – and of course to the outside world: ‘hold on to your motherfucking hats, WE’RE WINNING, WE’RE MAKING THIS HAPPEN, AND EVEN MORE IS COMING’.

I reckon momentum is a big piece of the game in building a successful growth company. And as a CMO or a CEO especially, it’s one of the biggest opportunities you have. Even better, it’s free of charge. I certainly see it as one of the biggest things I can do to support a company.

How to create momentum

  1. Look for it
  2. Make the links explicit
  3. Timing is everything
  4. If you don’t hype, who will?

Let’s get to it.

1. Look for it

Momentum has to be real. To convince you and your team, let alone analysts or potential clients or investors. I mean, you can put some sizzle on it but people sense bullshit and hate vaporware and if you don’t know it and feel it nobody will.

So to create a sense of company momentum, you need to first spot the waves. Externally they might be things like:

  • New product announcements
  • BIG customer wins
  • Acquisitions
  • Funding announcements
  • New talent / leadership / board members
  • Partnerships
  • Big events
  • Awards and endorsements (but good ones, you guyz)
  • Major publicity
  • Real impressive results – sales growth, outcomes, revenues, data you’re willing to share and stand by and if necessary prove

Internally, you’ll know what big moments of success are. It will vary massively according to your circumstances.

So spot them. See them. Name them. Commit to them. And proceed to step 2.

2. Make the links explicit

This is important. Probably the most important and directly controllable lever you have in creating Momentum.

See not the one wave in isolation. Look back and figure out when your last ‘big announcement’ was. Look ahead and figure out when the next will be. If you can, the one after that too. Put the waves together into a sequence of positives in your head and then make these explicit to the people you’re communicating with.

What you’re aiming to do is help the company bounce a one-off success and ping pong it into another in the near-future to create the sense of a string of successes. Then you pull something else forward or new out of the bag, and now you have a 1-2-3 and yes! the flywheel of positive momentum is spinning.

Yours is the company on peoples’ lips, front of mind, the one with extra heat.

Develop the habit to always talk about momentum in series rather than one-off. Mention the multiple examples of mojo. One or two positive items is just unrelated good news. Three or four is undeniable momentum. So in your internal all-hands or in the press release, reference the previous big announcement – ‘coming off the back of our recent successful fundraise…’ / ‘following last week’s amazing news about BIG BRAND CLIENT signing up for 2 years…’. Help others see what you see. Let no positive milestone stand alone!

And if it helps and you’re happy to, preview what’s next ‘and with our [committed next big thing] just around the corner, even more good news is coming’. It feels good. And it’s real. And it’s momentum.

About that flywheel: it takes more effort to get started than it does to keep it whirring. Don’t let it slow. (Note to self: Will, remember this always, even though you know it, never forget it).

3. Timing is everything

Be smart about timing. If two good waves are about to crash at the same time, make sure that makes sense in your head – ‘could we pull them apart by just a few weeks?’.

Consider your most important trading periods – figure out how momentum can carry you into this with a surge of an unfair advantage over the competition. Get out the blocks before the rest of the pack. Do the unexpected!

Thoughtfully stage the waves. Whilst plenty of this is opportunistic, some of these you can gently steer or even orchestrated. Great strategy is about coherence. Wouldn’t it be cool if this good news could happen at the same time as the major industry event or landed just a week after we told the team about the good news on new hires.

And pay attention to the mood. Of your staff. Of your customers. Of the market. Let that be an input to this too. Not in some kind of bankrupt ‘we gotta get good news to them, desperately!’ way. Just as another input to your timing.

There’s no playbook for this stuff. It’s just putting a little bit of thought into it and trusting yourself because frankly anyone can do it. All I’m suggesting is that developing the habit of thinking about when you want the fair winds to blow will help you maximize the boost that they give you.

4. If you don’t hype, who will?

This one pisses me off.

There’s this idea that you should quietly earnestly build rather than hype the effort and care from your team, their hard fought victories, the sweet occasional relief of some things going well and great product being shipped. In this line of thinking, the logic goes that the world – perhaps internally, your leadership, your board, or externally an influential client group, or journalists and analysts covering your space – will take care of noticing your hard work and if you’re lucky, send the appropriate rewards, credit, publicity. In some circles, and you will sometimes strangely feel it amongst your own, there is this dismissive view of people promoting their hard work. Seriously, fuck that.

Don’t let others foibles and insecurities or your own internal critic get in the way of the whole team’s greater good.

Most of the time you’re more down on what you’re doing than your fans and happy customers are because you see what didn’t get shipped, what isn’t where you want it to be, yet. In the team environment, the people around you are occupied with their role, their work, chopping the wood and need a helpful reminder to step back and see their collective progress. They also will want that permission, that space and that validation from you as a leader or from someone that isn’t their doubtful second-guessing self.

Plus, if we’re honest here amongst friends, most of the time the broader market or public essentially don’t care. In the nicest possible way, they don’t have enough attention available to pay to you. If you’re not putting yourselves on the line and saying ‘THIS MATTERS. I ask of you your attention. I won’t waste it’ well, most people won’t bother.

So call out the positives, the big chunks of progress, and don’t hide them. Because if you don’t hype it, who will?

  1. Look for it
  2. Make the links explicit
  3. Timing is everything
  4. If you don’t hype, who will?

Momentum puts a multiplier on your growth. It creates inbound you can’t attribute – resumés, leads, invitations for coffees with investors, unexpected outreach from partners. It creates a glue in your team that you can’t buy – a feeling that they’re in a good place and on a winning team. It increases sales outcomes and accelerates them too, and decreases sales and marketing expenses. It quite fundamentally lifts the value of the business in boardrooms and on the street and the feeling of momentum makes working more fun.

And the best thing is it’s free.

I love momentum. 

Post #2 in The Operators Series. Feedback welcome ~ WM

Introducing The Operators Series with ‘Managing Chaos’

After 5 and half years as one of the leadership team scaling up Brandwatch I’ve learned lots more about growth, chaos, ambiguity, resilience, culture, business, people, hiring/firing, org design, marketing, sales, boards and investors and so on.

In that time, we’ve grown from 130 people to 550, 5x’d revenue, made 3 successful acquisitions, are completing 1 merger, have expanded globally and hit EBITDA profitability now with $100m in recurring revenues. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been involved in all of that.

And when it comes to scaling tech businesses like this, you can find a lot of very good stuff written by investors/VCs. (Maybe they’ve got more time than the rest of us :)). But there’s not much out there from operators, and when I mentioned to one of our previous board members that I was impressed with how smart a new investor seemed to be, this board member countered immediately with a wry smile: ‘Yes! He is very smart, Will! But he is not an operator… We are the operators. We make it happen. Don’t forget this’.

I haven’t forgotten that respect for the operator. So this series is for the Operators.

By operators, I mean people in operating roles in high-growth startup and scaleups. Usually the CXO and VPs. The founders and their leadership teams, plus – importantly, to me – the many smart motivated people that you get in every decent high performing company who are relentlessly learning themselves and care about the bigger picture, even if they haven’t reached formal ‘leadership’ roles just yet.

These people are doing the work of growing companies on the inside.

I take a broader view than just a classical CMO perspective, mainly because in my tenure I’ve played a wider role than my title of CMO, secondly because I think that’s more interesting selfishly, and thirdly because it’s more applicable to more of you than a deeper by-CMO-for-CMOs viewpoint.

Managing Chaos

Everything is already exaggerated in a small company trying to grow at 50-100-150%+ a year.

You’re already trying to do something differently to how everyone currently does it. Growth creates constant challenges.

An experienced SaaS CFO we interviewed once used the metaphor of one of those shaped balloons for kids you get from street entertainers, at parties and theme parks – twisted into shape to resemble a poodle or a light sabre. This CFO pointed out that growing a SaaS company, you tend to find that any one time a particular part of the business will be squeezing and swelling out of sync with the others. Whether it’s new customers to be onboarded, new inbound leads from a territory that aren’t being followed up, sudden demands on systems capacity as new users stream into a successful launch, a ton of open requisitions that the recruiters and managers suddenly need to fill. And whilst you focus on solving that problem and squeeze improvements back into a manageable and potentially new shape, new problems swell and start to burst out elsewhere. POP!

It’s all interconnected.

Plus you’re a small ship sailing big seas, where the global environment is already characterized by VUCA – gotta love that Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, eh. A context that is further amplified when you have limited resources, no precedence or process, entrepreneurial leadership, and when everything by its nature is ‘the first time its been done’.

So fundamental to leading a growth company is managing chaos.

Managing chaos is not about avoiding it or eliminating it. You just can’t. In my experience, the chaos moves too fast. It is a rogue shapeshifting force and pops up in new places, manifested in new shapes. The causes of it are not just internal and therefore even controllable – they come from the outside, sometimes in waves or combinations that feel overwhelming, on top of the many crises you inevitably also create yourselves.

In crisis management circles the saying of hopeful British politicians and public relations practitioners is ‘today’s front page news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’. In growth companies too, yesterday’s crisis is a distant memory – and you’re often already on to the next one. (Sidenote: agency people know what this is like. Which is why I think agencies are a great hiring ground for startup/scaleup talent that’s got grit and resilience and know how to smile when the going gets, well, dramatic.).

So what can you do, apart from just get through it?

  1. Communicate
  2. Drive out ambiguity
  3. Harness what is useful
  4. Watch energy levels
  5. Find the wins

Let’s take them one at time.

  1. Communicate through chaos

The biggest mistakes I’ve been involved have absolutely been made worse by poor communication. Usually internally. And usually just not thinking to communicate, and with the best intentions, just ploughing forwards with the ‘bias for action’ that everyone loves to cultivate/hire for/role model around. But whilst this is mainly about internal communication, it is true for external comms in moments of crisis too.

With managing chaos, I’ve learned that the worse it is, the more I need to quickly and efficiently keep a cross-section of people informed about. I pick a group that I think represent the broad edges of the issue at hand. I look for functional and geographical representation. And I keep it fast, lean and – when things happen over a day or two – provide updates.

The reflex you want to create in yourself and others is simple: if the shit’s going down, start communicating as you also assess and start to fix the problems.

2. Drive out ambiguity

In times of chaos and challenge, ambiguity is not my friend.

Yes, we have to live with ambiguity in growth businesses – but where possible, when the pressure is on, we need to drive it out. The last two most stressful big announcements I worked on kept tipping over from one day to the next. It wasn’t possible for us to know when THE BIG THING was happening, but we knew it was 99% happening. That uncertainty was really hard. It kept us in a state of limbo – unable to trigger actions with other groups of people, shuffling calendars and priorities on a day to day basis, ripples of disruption that cascaded across teams and continents, our small group containing the pressure of what comes next, without the relief of ‘anddddddd GO!’. Nothing you can do in that situation.

But when I’m working in chaos, I’m consciously trying to find the ambiguities that CAN be controlled, that can be named, that can be defined and boxed in and closed off.

I chase them down, these grey areas. I hate them. I push for short, functional documents that are shared by the working group to force the definition and agreement of subjects. (Documenting things doesn’t seem particularly fashionable these days but I don’t give a shit. If we write it down, we understand it better and can agree/disagree more specifically). I get people together if they seem to be saying different things. I push as hard as I can for clarity and simplicity. The goal is to force out the unknowns. Define, eliminate, name what’s left. And if you do this too, it will massively help. It will reduce stress for the whole team, and as the knowns increase, the remaining unknowns feel and are much more manageable. The problem you’re trying to solve lifts out of the fog, while everything else falls away.

3. Harness what is useful

Like in judo, yes? The assailant comes at you. Big, ugly looking, hairy like me. You crouch, pull their sleeve closer towards you, tilt your hips, start to twist and oops, the big ugly assailant is in the air, rolling across your shoulders and – BLAMM – lying flat on their back. Cool, bro.

Crises and chaos have an energy about them. Harness it.

I’ve found chaotic times to be hugely positive learning experiences for me and people working with me. We’ve had developing team members take career-defining steps forward in their growth through painful projects and exhausting, high pressured phases in the company’s history. Time and pressure creates diamonds – cheesy yes. Also true.

So I try and if possible take moments when they arise to make sure the people working with me are seeing that. It helps them to see it as a growth experience as well as scary cool big assed thing to work on. It helps them to see more explicitly their learning as it happens. And it helps us recap, regroup and really bake in those learnings afterwards. ‘So what did you learn?’.

Secondly, these moments can also create strong internal impetus for change. Don’t waste that. Provoke the conversation that needed to happen. Propose the way to avoid this in future. Challenge the bullshit status quo.

And these moments of chaos and tribulation can also motivate your team in a David v Goliath way. Screw the competition. Fight the incumbent pressures and mindsets. Ship the product better, faster, shinier. Find a unique design solution to the seemingly ‘all is lost and we have no resources, no time and no hope’.

Harness what is useful.

4. Watch energy levels

As an operator and a leader, if you’re managing too much chaos too much of the time, you’re gonna feel its toll.

This is not a good or sustainable way to operate. The nice list above is the choice highlights amongst what is generally really hard work and not brilliantly good for you. The bad stuff – well that’s everything else. The stress of this is unhealthy. Me personally? I’m coming off the back of a serious rolling phase of managing different chaoses (is there actually a plural for chaos?) and it’s not been good for me. I need to reset. I can feel it in my energy levels, see it in my moods, other people are reporting it back to me, asking me if I’m OK (normally they don’t!). And I know my team and the people around me have been depleted too.

I gotta get my lifejacket on, and then after or if possible at the same time make sure they get theirs on too. Some mindfulness. Take some breaks. Connect with people outside. Sharing the problem. Exercising. Reading before bed. Simple healthy habits are what work for me.

So we need to notice that. We/I need to increase the check ins – ‘how you doing?’ is simple but good. ‘Please make sure you take the time back’ is not just fair and reasonable, it’s fucking important. Rest. Reset. Don’t let your people or your self burn out. I’ve learned through outdoor pursuits and through working under pressured that actually silence can be the worst sign. Look out for people quietly drowning, or those that have gone unusually quiet. It’s often not a good sign, and only costs a quick check-in to see if it’s quietly productive or silently sinking.

This modern business phrase you may have started hearing of ‘being athletes’ (lol), well at least let’s take something good from it: rest is a crucial and fundamental part of an athlete’s training program. And thankfully, we are living in a time where mental health is finally coming out of the shadows and margins and being bravely put center stage. Makes it easier to get on the table.

I believe one of life’s worthwhile pursuits and an essential part of a successful operator’s tool kit is locating and returning to the recuperating strategies that work for ones self. And encouraging and coaching those around them to find theirs too.

5. Find the wins

Finally and most obviously, sustain yourself and those around you by finding the wins. (My current team may laugh darkly at this one – they probably don’t think I do this enough/at all, but I do). Celebrate survival. The passing of a crisis. The growth in experience and new skills and capacities. A very wise lady I’ve occasionally worked with at Hyper Island recently said ‘life will never move this slowly again’, and she’s right, so we will might as well enjoy the chaos or at least the pauses in between!

There you have it. Some thoughts on Managing Chaos. And the first post in a weekly series for Operators. Feedback welcome.

~ WM

PS. On hitting publish on this, I’m reminded that part of my inspiration to do this was fellow Brandwatcher James Stanier’s wonderful The Engineering Manager. Thanks for the inspo to get writing again, James.

Always Go Upstream

I played rugby, which commentators like to say is a ‘collision sport’. As a result of those collisions I spent quite a bit of time with the physiotherapist. Working with physios, the most amazing realization – and many of you will have experienced this – is when you tell them confidently where the problem is.

‘Yes it hurts there, just under the left shoulder blade, when I twist like this’…’ah! YEP. That’s it’.

They start doing their thing. Tracing back.

‘What about this? Hmmm. And now, what about if you try to touch your toes? OK, and now lift your arm and twist to me – what about here?’.

And suddenly – KABLAMMO – they prod a completely different part of your body – sometimes literally your butt not your shoulder, or your inside foot and not your lower back – and you are rewarded with a completely unexpected electric shock of pain.

Physios call this ‘referred pain’. And in these sobering moments you learn a few things:

Firstly, you don’t know shit about your own body. Secondly, physios are not only professional sadists – the experienced ones call on thousands of hours of practice, such that their work can feel more like magic than medicine. Thirdly, the actual cause of your issue will very often be in a completely different part of your body than where you experience it.

Just like our bodies, our teams, organizations and societies are organic, and are interconnected, complex systems. And often I find that – quite understandably – in work our focus is on the symptom that is most obviously present. The customer enquiries left unprocessed and unloved. The high turnover in a particular role or team. The lack of verve in some marketing copy. The failure again to restock a particular product two days before it runs out.

And the takeaway that I find useful today is that most of the time we’re fixing downstream issues. Consequences of something else. The ‘referred pain’. Symptoms, not causes.

As leaders, our job is to always be going upstream.

Like physios, we need to track back. Call on instinct and experience. To trust the curiosity and intelligence of our teams and ourselves and ask why the things happened that led to the particular issue that has presented itself today.

Downstream we can make quick fixes. Band aid the problem. Temporarily alleviate the pain. But it won’t go away.

If we don’t really go and do the work on the root cause, our body, team, organization or society may well cleverly reroute around it, patch things up, do the best that it can. (I have a left knee that doesn’t bend fully, a right forearm that won’t grip totally, a wonky shoulder that leaves me with a stiff neck sometimes – I function, but old unfixed injuries hold me back). Things can still function. 

It’s upstream that we’ll actually solve it.

It’s upstream that we can really amplify our impact by locating and fixing the issue at its cause, once and for all. It’s upstream that we can fundamentally reroute how resources are allocated and directed to unlock the best performance. It’s upstream that taking the time to be calm, deliberate and bigger picture will pay 10x, 100x or often 1,000x back over the coming weeks and years. So leadership – for me – is all about going upstream.

A sidenote to finish.

There’s another benefit to always going upstream. It takes us to interesting places. We learn more. We’ll end up speaking to interesting people about bigger opportunities in areas that are often ‘outside’ of our direct scope. Whether we’re fixing problems in a company we’ve lived in for many years or being recruited somewhere new, when we ask ourselves and the people we’re working with ‘OK, and why is this happening and where does it start?’ we open up a much bigger horizon of opportunity for them and for us.  And that’s not only good, it’s how interesting explorations and big adventures begin.

Always go upstream.

My sounds of 2015

The year

Seen as a whole year I can’t but help snark at myself a little for how easy listening these Tunes are. It’s like a poppy electro love fest. But then I think about the classic music I play at home (and was played at my home growing up) – Motown, The Eagles, Hall & Oates, Barry White, Bob Marley. I am what I am, I suppose. But then when I look at my favorite Mixes there’s a bit more edge (OK, only a bit more).

Anyway, these are those favorite tunes I came across and spent time listening to in 2015. Not all of them were released in 2015 – I don’t really give a fuck about that.

The tunes

Hello by Erykah Badu – this is a beautiful track. I just love it. Andrew 3000, tick. Erykah waxing lyrical, tick. Catchy, sexy, lovely ❤

Blackbird (Live) by Jordan Rakei – cover of a Fat Freddy’s Drop tune, just a beautiful funky mellow tune. Recommended by Arthur at work.

Another Love by Tom Odell – another smooth, upbeat, slightly lovey-dovey tune. Catchy. I must be getting old 😉

The Less I Know The Better by Tame Impala. Gorgeous float-away psychedelia. And one of three or more tunes from the album that I could have chosen. Brings to mind my brother Louis, when he’s in his lets-go-mode-but-not-yet-raging-hedonist-point, doing his hilarious dancing. He introduced me to this. Thanks brother. Play it loud and accompany with bubbles. Also works with headphones and eyes shut.

Steal by Maribou State. No surprises. Sultry, a bit moodier, but on the theme of the year: female vocals spread over electronic.

Fantastic Man by William Onyeabor. Different, brilliant, bizarre, and insanely catchy. Whole album is worth checking out. Music that makes me smile. Via my brother I think.

Get Over It by Bucie. I feel a guilty about including this one, because it won’t stand the test of time. It’s just a nice easy tune. But I have listened to it a lot. Thanks Arwa.

I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) by Jamie XX. To be as talented as this guy. Wow. Anyway, this tune makes me want to be in London on a sunny day with a cold beer somewhere near a massive sound system.

Can I Get A… by Jay Z. Never been that big a fan tbh, and I’d never heard this until it came on at my gym and it was love at first listen. The louder you play it the better it gets. Yes. Nothing more to say.

F***in’ Problems by A$AP Rocky. What can you say. Probably my favorite hip hop tune of the last decade. Outstanding. Play it loud.

Grown Up by Danny Brown. Such a good vibe but an even better story. Head-nodding nostalgia. Brilliant lyrics. A-OK emoji.

Actin Crazy by Action Bronson – This whole album is good. I just love Action Bronson’s ridiculous exuberant lyrics. I originally got into Action via Ross who shared a video of him eating brisket; you must follow him on Instagram if only for his trademark #fuckthatsdelicious hashtag (he started out as a talented chef before going fulltime with music).


Whereas my Spotify listening has got noticeably poppier, this year more of my listening on a day to day basis has been in Soundcloud and I’ve loved finding whole new worlds of music I love that I’d never explored. More harder, faster, better music for me to work and exercise to, these are some picks.

GORGON CITY, KIDNAP KID & MY NU LENG @ W Los Angeles My go-to mix of 2015 (annoyingly on YouTube). Outstanding, not too lightweight, proper momentum but somehow, for me, never tips into too dark or heavy. Like a Goldilocks’ porridge but sexier 🙂 And with specific points where I can dive in and get right into a decent flow for work (50 mins ish, 1:25 ish in particular). Thanks Prycie.

Magic Tape 43 with The Magician Good bouncy fun-times mix, and lots of these Magic Tapes are great but none of the others start with as good an opener as this one 🙂 “MY FRIEND HAS A SWIMMING POOL!” whump whump whump. About 60% of the Soundcloud likes I have I owe to GT – thanks maestro.

RAP RIDDIMS & R&B STYLEEE MIX One of 4 insanely good Krazy Kids Radio mixes (also check out: Producers Mix, Morning Coffee and OG FM Gold), but I had to pick one so I picked this one from Fran – a friend of ours – because it is FANTASTIC. Love the individual selections but love even more how they’re blended. Perfection.

Anjunadeep Edition 41 with James Grant Earlier this year I was training for a half-marathon (thwarted by an injury that persists – bah!) but this was a gorgeous to-run-to mix. Flowy, lovely, deep house. Now when I listen to it I can place the landmarks at key points – the power station up in Long Island City, back over the Puliaski Bridge to light industrial Greenpoint. Thanks to Tom Farrand for this one (I think).

Weekend Workout: Episode 124 with Felix Cartel Don’t amble into this one. Ready yourself. This is the mix I use for quick nasty workouts. It starts with a slightly ominous grimey industrial vibe and quickly ramps into the ultimate ‘throw yourself at the wall repeatedly like a deranged animal’ session. Perfect for anything that requires intensity and pain 🙂  No idea who this was – Ross maybe?

That’s it. I loved music in 2015.