Death to Quick Wins

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Credit: Illustration by Francesco Zorzi

You've heard this one before: There's a new boss at work and the first thing she wants to do—all the new ones I've met, anyway—is identify a tangible goal to impress her own boss. Depending on which business books she's read, this might be called "low-hanging fruit," "getting points on the board" or, if not into orchards or sports, the "quick win."

Quick wins, business gurus will tell you, help your boss and your colleagues feel like they're seeing progress. They "excite and energize people," as Michael D. Watkins, the author of management bible "The First 90 Days," puts it, "and build your personal credibility." Done well, Watkins says, quick wins "help create value for your organization."

Simple as that.

There are many reasons a new boss wants to achieve something tangible, not least of which is she was likely hired to do something—and would like to demonstrate she's at least living up to that part of the bargain. The problem lies, ironically, with the problems.

If something is solvable quickly, chances are it's not actually that important. In short, the wins that build "personal credibility" and those that "create value" for the organization are rarely aligned. Or, in non-business-speak: New executives tend to pick the easiest problem because it makes them look good.

This isn't always the case. There's also the theory that a new boss should tackle the most difficult problem—the management equivalent of picking a fight with the biggest inmate on your first day in the prison. But that attitude, in my experience (in business, not prison), is pretty rare.

That's because successful managers are typically adept at what's called "managing up," commonly known as "sucking up," which often involves maximizing the credit for the things that you can solve, and minimizing the importance of those that you can't. What it all means is that the first thing a new manager does is identify a problem that's easy to fix, rather than doing something that's actually, you know, useful.

This is what's known in business as a misalignment of incentives, and it's particularly prevalent in marketing organizations. For example, I once watched a new marketing leader eager for a win spend the first two months worrying about the shade of blue to have in the company's logo. In another, I saw a chief marketing officer make it a mission to solve product-market fit, which in that case was the equivalent of picking a fight with the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood.

For marketing leaders, getting a quick win invariably means a rebrand. In my 15 years working in tech and media businesses, literally every new marketing exec has prioritized rebranding. Not only that, but all the marketers I've ever interviewed for a job (which I once spent a lot of time doing) have said a rebranding would be on their list of things they'd do in their first 90 days. Now, this is obviously anecdotal information and, of course, it's possible that every company I've worked for has had massive branding problems, but if you've worked in marketing for any length of time, I would bet that you can relate.

So what gives? For one, the brand is the one part of the business a marketer can actually control. Other issues, like revenue or customer acquisition or retention, depend on other parts of the business for success. And more important, those are difficult, thorny, complicated problems that don't lend themselves to quick solutions, so you don't get to look immediately effective. And while rebranding can be—and often is!—important, its effectiveness is hard to quantify, which I'd wager is a large reason why CMOs get fired every two years.

So what's a new marketing hire, and her boss, to do? One thing is to get early agreement on what the major, systemic issues are, establish a timeline for addressing them and not get distracted by the easy pickings. If she thinks she needs a quick win or two to establish credibility, let her have them—but make sure she's held accountable for the long-term wins too.

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