Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 196 – Ask Me Anything 2024 Answers

Dear leaders, thank you for your challenging questions this week. 

As you will see there are many great questions, covering Company Culture, Strategy, Google Gemini, Apple AI and my “controversial opinions”. 

Let’s dive straight in: 

Q. What do you think of Google’s release of Gemini and the backlash received? 

  • Google decided to release early, they felt rushed to compete and if I’m honest it appears they released a product that missed the mark. And in other ways, it overstepped the mark. 
  • Google created amazing advertising products (particularly AdWords) and is smart to understand when to play solo or when to be multi-player to own market share through collaboration (Android). This launch will worry advertisers and their business partners. 
  • The Gemini launch would suggest they are concerned about their competitors and misunderstanding what their customers want from an answers engine, not a search engine. Google is trying to balance being able to do both without upsetting their (primary audience) advertisers and their users. 
  • Google is the utility offering, it is the default site and most trusted site for many, and this won’t change for a long time – even with more botched Gemini launches.
  • Google will come back bigger and better but until they understand their part to play here, I believe Google will struggle to tame their shift in internal culture and answer user queries in the most effective ways. 
  • Always remember Google has a unique powerful ecosystem to leverage and distribute their product, Chrome, Android, and Google Search & importantly not being discussed inside Google Suite (Docs, Sheets, Slides etc) to test, iterate and apply market dominance, whereas others are forcing new behaviour. 

Q. How can brands learn from recent mass layoffs? 

There are a load of lessons that brands and company leads have to take away, here are my top 5 

  1. People have to come first, companies need their people they do not need a dream saying a more efficient company – people do not connect or resonate with this, even with huge bonus packages 
  2. Remove the (HR and business) jargon and quickly 
  3. Be first, be human – Don’t send an email, cut access and then force your employees to try and contact you about their employment 
  4. Many allow HR to do the letting go and tell their department leads not to contact their team members, this is an awful practice, managers reach out, make the time and explain the decisions to individuals – otherwise, you will end up on TikTok and news outlets explaining your bad decisions. Yes HR is there to protect the business however if you want to be a leader, lead from the front in the good and the bad 
  5. Layoffs should never be a surprise, if they are or will be in your business, share the business performance and what it will mean. 

Q. Meta has been on a tear, where do you think is their Achilles heel?  

  • Most likely would suggest it is Meta’s metaverse push. I believe it is their advertising and topping out on their cross-platform users. Unless they go into China (highly unlikely) Meta will struggle to grow further. 
  • Simply put, Meta is an advertising machine (like Google) that often hits them hard when their products struggle to convert users or the costs spiral. Meta will be around for years to come and is an important cultural tool in WhatsApp and Instagram, can WhatsApp make ads work in their chat app and can they squeeze more value from the Instagram app that is at best 20% creator (uploading content) and 80% viewers (who aren’t engaging in content as much and won’t create). 
  • WhatsApp being more popular in the US and Canada will delight Meta executives but it will also create trade-offs around advertising and paid subscription options (away from broadcasts) they have struggled to execute and ads are far from natural in chat apps. If anyone can make it work it’s Meta.  
  • Say what you want to but Facebook (their original product) is still an important part of their engine for Meta especially with older demographics and international audiences – this will decay over time but the Facebook app will continue to drive huge revenues and advertising opportunities, will another election be a problem for Facebook… 
  • I suspect Threads will launch an advertising product and won’t get the numbers to impress advertisers 
  • Unless Instagram releases a new killer product feature and increases organic reach from the everyday user a little more usage will slow and Instagram will be forced to show more ads and have more ad slots in the feed and within stories and even potentially DM like ads that LinkedIn have.

Q. Who will win Facebook or Apple in the VR space? 

  • VR is just a part of mixed reality and although Facebook owns a large percentage of the VR space it is not a space I ever see hitting the mainstream. 
  • For Zuck to come out and critique the Apple Vision Pro it is clear he is worried about an alpha product and the Apple hardware machine. 
  • The Vision Pro isn’t perfect but if you hear how people work in them, facetime in them and use them regularly for non-gaming tasks between the two I would say Apple has the advantage in the mixed reality (aka spatial computing) space. 

Q. What are a few unpopular or controversial opinions about today’s business world?

  1. Most large tech companies brought on company bloat themselves and never empowered middle managers and could keep running larger layoffs and feel the impact for 12-18 months – in 18 months time many brands will look back and say how did we really get here 
  2. Specialist managers are going to be invaluable for small and mid-sized companies. Especially those who want to be managers and develop teams and not just play politically. Large companies will have to embrace middle managers back into their hierarchy again.  
  3. The chat interface is not going to force mass adoption quickly enough for most AI companies 
  4. HR is going to become AI first – human-driven decisions second. HR had so many decision trees and the ability to add in performance data at an individual level that AI can make decent calls 
  5. Apple can win the current market in AI with two updates to iPhones – even though this is what investors demand, Apple will play the longer game and make time be on their side 
  6. Quarterly goal setting is never given enough time to be created, rolled out and evaluated 
  7. Re-forecasting in large businesses kills morale and wastes weeks of individuals’ time – it is a necessary evil in business, too many people are taken out every two weeks kills the delivery of work 
  8. There is not enough coaching within businesses and too many won’t push their companies to improve them professionally, most are happy to waste their L&D budget at conferences, waste on on-demand courses and cohort-based courses they will never complete  
  9. There are actually 4 layers to company culture, not just one. 
    1. Micro – 2. Sub – 3. Leadership 4. Company-wide. Micro culture(s) are between individuals and teams. 
    Sub-culture is between departments and cross-functional. 
    Leadership culture is how they set behaviours top-down and interact and engage with the company, leaders break culture as much as they make it. 
    Company-wide culture is a blend of other cultural formations. Most companies struggle with company culture because they ignore the day-to-day micro-cultures and sub-cultures and have not enabled buy-in from the leadership team and leadership teams are often too disconnected from what is happening causing disconnect throughout the business. 
  10. Instant messengers (Slack and Teams) encourage over-communication not deliberate or effective conversation and regularly contribute to misunderstanding between colleagues. Many companies never do anything to guide their teams on the usage of instant messengers and how to be effective. Win by telling your teams how to communicate, where and when. 
  11. Bad hiring creates 18 months of pain and slow decision-making around firing causes 6-12 months of pain – couple this together and the ripple effect is huge. 

Q. Is company culture dead in hybrid businesses? 

No, but it is hard and in most cases transactional, however, that is not always a bad thing if you are prepared to engage with team members more frequently and not just reward performance-first goals. 

The role of a manager in hybrid is likely the hardest it has ever been, many weren’t trained for hybrid, and even being four years into hybrid for most professionals it is still a work in progress and an operating style there was no manual for. 

Simple guidelines, agreed principles and training will help but not create a company culture without deliberate management and as I have recommended before a culture community manager is the person who helps to shape culture (micro, sub and leadership cultures) and interacts between the staff and the leadership teams. 

Many people will perform better in the office (they need a stage and an audience) and other people will struggle to perform when they do not have in-person buy-in and influence. This is some of why the mass return to the office is happening and in office policing (not management) is working for many who never wanted to change or adapt to this way of working. 

Q. My company needs help to connect departments to the company strategy – how could we go about improving their buy-in? 

Strategy means so many different things to different professionals. 

If you have multiple strategies you will lose. If you do not help your teams build their plans into your company-wide strategy you are going to struggle. This is why beliefs, bets, pillars and strategy are my go-to operating model for companies. 

You have to decide if you are top-down leadership first or a D Team (decision team that helps to shape important decisions and strategy) at a strategic level. 

Often the goals are set at the leadership level and then too many people are asked to be involved, causing no build towards your strategy. If there are more than 12 people in strategy you will experience death by opinion and leads defending their department. 

If you feel like the departmental plans are not built together with departments and their teams there will be disconnection and often this is where the middle management is lost and cannot help push the company forward in hard times or underperforming times.

So you will need to: 

  1. help the teams know how to ladder their tactics into the departmental plan,
  2. cross-functionally the departments will need to assign resources and then agree on priorities 
  3. Show and tell their department plans to the leadership team and the business while connecting to the core goals they have signed up for 

If you struggle with connecting teams and departments to leadership team set goals, then strategy is going to be extremely hard work. 

Q. What are the 3 ways to improve work for companies forcing a return to the office? 

  1. Explain why and how you are improving the office for everyone. If you cannot you are not ready for a full return to the office  
  2. Re-onboard the company into the office – so many don’t and won’t, you can win by bringing people on the office journey and asking for regular feedback away from why can’t we work hybrid. 
  3. Explicitly say how the office is going to be the connecting force within your company. Stop worrying about everyone else and have a dedicated plan for your office(s), how to collaborate and how to get into deep work mode without distractions. 

Q. What is the best advice you could give someone going from a department lead onto the C-Suite for the first time? 

Congrats on your promotion. Here are just a few to get you started –  

  1. Learn the business – learn the ins and outs and understand how decisions are truly made (if it is CEO first or always on the CEO or by committee will help you make smart decisions or fit into the leadership culture) – many don’t see this until on the c-suite or around the boardroom table 
  2. Know that the ELT and board meetings are battlegrounds and you will take many punches and knocks every meeting – you will have to grow thick skin and quick 
  3. Know when you are going to have to speak up and when you are going to allow others to speak 
  4. Find out quickly where the rest of the C-Suite lacks an edge and apply yours to that void  
  5. Your department lead experience is going to be invaluable, the difference between the most effective executives is those who use their expertise area, act like a translator and connect teams cross-functionally 
  6. Learn what your role is to play in the C-Suite and how you can be a subject matter expert and for instance, speak on behalf of the customer which many struggle to. 
  7. Understand where you need to create boundaries and own your own time, if you don’t everyone else will take it and remove all boundaries 

Read part 2 of 2024 AMA

I hope this AMA helped you, there are a couple of questions that came in over the weekend which I will turn into another leaders letter. 

This week’s focus action is to book an hour slot for yourself this week, take a step back and plan for Q2 and your development. 

Thanks for reading and have a great week, 

Danny Denhard