What’s Your Unique Contribution?

20130527-221426.jpgA few years ago a manager said to me, “If Adriel went away tomorrow, what wouldn’t get done? The answer to that question is your unique contribution to this organization. Think about it carefully, and don’t forget it.”

Lots of introspection and half a bottle of Scotch later, I came up with what I thought was a pretty good list.

Every now and then I take out the list and re-evaluate whether those unique contributions are still true. But more importantly, I assess whether they’re still creating sustainable value to the organization that happens to be ‘leasing‘ my capabilities at that moment. Because if they’re not, I’m in trouble.

I work in a heavily matrixed, sales-driven environment where top-line growth and margin improvement rule the day. That’s not a unique situation by any means, but it does force you to be really crisp when describing what you do, and by extension, marketing’s unique contribution to the business.

And it’s equally important to continue updating that story, because marketing’s unique contributions have evolved since the Mad Men days. Here’s my latest list.

Set the brand strategy.

Notice I didn’t say “own the brand”. That’s not a unique contribution. Today, every single employee is a brand ambassador. How they treat someone on a sales call. How they respond to a customer who’s having a technical issue. How they engage in their business communities online. All these interactions reflect on your brand.

But marketing has a unique responsibility to establish what the brand is, the principles it will stand for, and set the rules that will empower the rest of the organization to tell that story.

Orchestrate the conversation.

Companies don’t own the conversation with customers, much less any one department within the company. Conversations take place where customers want them to and with who they decide to have them with.

For the successful companies that are invited to these conversations, marketing plays a critical role in orchestrating those interaction points. Sales people reach out to customers to sell. Customer service is there to handle questions and address problems. The public relations team is (hopefully) surrounding customers with earned media that shines a positive light on you. In addition to interacting with customers in a meaningful way themselves, marketing also has a role in orchestrating the conversation across all touch points.

During my time at a large US bank, we did a ‘day in the life’ analysis of real communications we sent to a real customer. I don’t know what this poor schlep did to deserve it, but we couldn’t have designed a poorer coordination approach if we tried. Nonetheless, the result was a powerful illustration of how essential orchestration had become.

Look around your organization. I bet no one else is doing this.

Predict the future.

Luckily, predicting the future has come a long way since the days of crystal balls and tarot cards. Turns out predictive analytics and big data have a much better success rate.

Clearly, marketing isn’t the only team using data to make decisions. But they are the ones most uniquely positioned to make sense of the myriad real-time data sources now available to us. What do our customers think about us? What do they think of our competitors? Where’s the white space we can turn into new markets? What sales pipeline has the best chance to close?

Marketing’s unique contribution is to go beyond ‘reporting the news’ and help the company see where their fortunes lie.

There are other unique contributions on my list, but those are more directly related to the business I’m in and the dynamics of the organization that employs me. If you’re in marketing, the above should resonate with you, regardless of what your company does. Use the framework of unique contributions to create your own list.

And don’t stop with marketing overall. Extend the assessment to each team within marketing. You’ll often find many teams’ self-described ‘unique’ contributions aren’t so unique after all. Done properly, this exercise will eliminate redundancies, take your resources further, and create a more harmonious organization.

If you’re not in marketing, the question I started this post with is a powerful one that will help almost anyone be more successful. We all carry around a unique set of experiences, approaches to problem solving, ways of communicating, and technical skills. Consider how to shape these personal characteristics into a compelling story of what makes your contribution unique.

If you’re still having a hard time describing your unique contribution, then maybe it’s not so unique. In which case, you have some work to do.

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