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Karl Feldmann of Hinge: “A culture of clarity”

A culture that promotes freedom to act without layers of red tape — supported by ownership/responsibility for accomplishment. Having cut my teeth in startup environments, I’m biased in favor of a more fluid delegation style that favors speed and action over elaborate process mechanics. While team leaders and clear delegation are essential to project outcomes. I believe […]

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A culture that promotes freedom to act without layers of red tape — supported by ownership/responsibility for accomplishment.

Having cut my teeth in startup environments, I’m biased in favor of a more fluid delegation style that favors speed and action over elaborate process mechanics. While team leaders and clear delegation are essential to project outcomes. I believe “who’s on first” can be a more fluid proposition than what I’ve experienced as the norm in larger organizations. When a team leader “passes the ball” to a colleague, they become the owner of that ball. When that ball gets handed to the next player or back to the team lead, it should have accomplished some meaningful success along the way. If teams build trust to have each others’ backs by doing their best to own success on each leg of a project, the finish line is extra sweet (and you might just set a new lap record along the way).


As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karl Feldman. He leads client service at Hinge, the leading research-based branding and marketing firm for professional services. He expertly guides professionals and their firms through the complexities of research, marketing strategy, brand building and high-performance website development.

Before joining Hinge, Karl was Director of Marketing at HITT Contracting, a top-50 general contractor with 700 employees and five offices nationwide. He was also Director of Marketing at The Healthy Back Store, a national retail operation, and Sit4Less.com. An inveterate entrepreneur, Karl has founded and run several small companies in his careeer.

An expert in high-growth strategies, Karl blogs and speaks about professional services marketing and strategy at events around the nation.

A compulsive builder himself, Karl spends his free time designing and unleashing a panoply of (sometimes useful) gadgets — from robots to drones to motorized skateboards. Karl studied computer science at Virginia Tech. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and son.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

Nearly half of my family has enjoyed a lifelong career in Healthcare, and many of the rest are engineers or CPAs. I opted for an easier route and studied computer science leading up to the dawn of our first “dotcom” bubble. A timely alignment of study, sweat equity, and market opportunity led to several VC and angel investor backed ventures early in my career.

The entrepreneurial bug had gotten under my skin as I worked my way from online retail, to larger B2B brands like Herman Miller, to professional services. I found a niche as a successful intrapreneur. I made a habit of assembling, training, and leading teams through business model transformations. Often, these transformations involved harnessing the power of online marketing and business development techniques that were quickly disrupting traditional approaches.

Navigating different organizational cultures through periods of significant change continues to be challenging, exciting, and, ultimately, satisfying.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

After working a couple of simultaneous full-time jobs and taking on side-contracts to fund my education, the hustle to raise my first 3M dollars of venture capital was challenging but not unfamiliar. My youthful optimism and thirst for learning carried me through years of sleep deprivation, constant business travels, and irregular schedules. My work-life balance was severely off kilter but since work was my life, I was able to sustain its brutal pace for many years.

I found myself in the depths of technology and strategies that would become commonplace years later. Content marketing for online retail was not an established “thing” in the late ’90s, and CRM solutions as we know them today, were still in their infancy. The bad old days of online development and infrastructure also involved many home-grown solutions that required extensive testing and collaboration.

When the tech bubble burst in 2000 I had enough savings to take a breath and consider my next steps. I should have opted for a shorter and more focused sabbatical, but I continued investing in small business ventures, before eventually plotting a more considered (and balanced) in-house path that included making space for my future wife and son.

I’ve never considered throwing in the towel, but building a richer life with family and friends outside of work has opened up new opportunities for learning and fulfillment that I had rarely considered earlier in my career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

File this one as funny in retrospect, but very painful at the time. A few weeks before a tour-de-force of VC pitches that had me zig-zagging across the country, I noticed that a couple of my molars were feeling a bit sensitive. Deadlines loomed large and scheduling shifted constantly. This was no time to stop for a dental appointment! By the week before travel, my touchy teeth had become a persistent throbbing and I finally succumbed to an eye-watering trip to the dentist.

Three impacted wisdom teeth were excruciatingly yanked from my mouth a mere two hours before hopping on my flight out of DCA.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Marketing and branding agencies that offer research are common. One of the big differences in our approach is the practical application of sound research methodology and rigor, grounded in behavioral understanding of professional services industries and their audiences.

We’ve invested heavily in our primary industry research to identify vertical specific trends and objective context to strategies we develop. In contrast to my experience in B2C and B2B, I believe that professional service firms are still realizing the competitive edge that research and data driven strategy can provide.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Remember to put your metaphorical oxygen mask on first — in addition to your COVID mask. With all the changes and uncertainties in play, problem solving and prioritization can become overwhelming. Be sure to maintain time (and sometimes, also prioritize) the things that bring you and your family joy.

Embrace and limit distraction. If your current reality of endless meetings and video conferences is driving you batty, I encourage you to embrace some limited distraction. Forcing yourself to take small breaks to do something unexpected or aimless may be just the perfect salve for eye strain or difficulty focusing. I’ve been using the heck out of my watches’ timer to keep my intermittent distractions contained.

Pay attention to opportunities for informal communication and empathy. Communication technology often imparts structure and scheduling to informal communication. If you’re chatting or slacking with your colleagues, you may be missing out on the fun personal cues that actually make collaboration fun. Finding a few meetings to finish early and share some low-stake notes on the latest Netflix binge-fest can help keep your social tank from running dry.

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?

It’s difficult for me to settle on one particular person who I’m most grateful for — there are so many! This question has reminded me how much gathering information brings me joy. I can trace my curiosity back to reading encyclopedias cover to cover, or studying radio shack catalogs for hours before quizzing the lonely store clerk on the finer points of bread boxes and rheostats.

Professors who patiently indulged ridiculous questions and embarrassing challenges. My sister who earned her doctorate in sociology and tolerates hours of discourse on the evils of automation. Current work colleagues and friends in a wide variety of professions.

All of these amazing individuals have shared wisdom that continues to shape my perspective — and bring me joy.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?

Effective delegation benefits an organization’s overall performance while supporting teams’ individual goals and passions, so improving techniques will have a positive impact on retention and productivity. This means taking a considered approach to where each team member’s greatest potential can be achieved — beginning with the team leader.

What hands-on experience will help to develop talent? Curating specific experience will allow promising talent to learn through hands-on successes and failures. As teams gain more tactical experience, rising stars will gain greater context to identify meaningful trends and take action.

In-turn, focusing these rising stars on their own delegation skills in the same way will help an organization scale up while also supporting individuals’ passions and personal growth goals.

Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?

Delegating is challenging because clear communication is challenging. Considering the evolution of communication technology, the medium for communication can often introduce layers of confusion. Considering our current pandemic driven videoconference purgatory, communication tools have taken center stage in the quest for clear communication.

Balancing confidence and vision with openness and empathy may also be challenging. Being an effective leader can be like walking a tightrope at times — and often the world will hurl hefty tomatoes at the most deft leaders to really test their mettle.

In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?

Remembering that no-matter the channel, delegation and collaboration is a person-to-person challenge — the tools and distractions are adjacent at best. Keeping focus on the individuals and teams by taking extra care to relay and confirm intent will never go out of style.

Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.

A culture that promotes freedom to act without layers of red tape — supported by ownership/responsibility for accomplishment.

Having cut my teeth in startup environments, I’m biased in favor of a more fluid delegation style that favors speed and action over elaborate process mechanics. While team leaders and clear delegation are essential to project outcomes. I believe “who’s on first” can be a more fluid proposition than what I’ve experienced as the norm in larger organizations. When a team leader “passes the ball” to a colleague, they become the owner of that ball. When that ball gets handed to the next player or back to the team lead, it should have accomplished some meaningful success along the way. If teams build trust to have each others’ backs by doing their best to own success on each leg of a project, the finish line is extra sweet (and you might just set a new lap record along the way).

Promote the courage to be vulnerable- it is OK to ask for, and accept help, when progress falters.

Courage and vulnerability go hand in hand and if leaders are able to create a space that’s safe for both to coexist, one of the greatest results can be surprising leaps of learning and creativity. Having the courage to say to your peer group that “I’m struggling, I’m a bit out of my league here — do you have any ideas? If not I’ll start researching and do my best but if anyone can point me in the right direction…” That’s great kindling for collaboration and learning.

Investing time and money in the search, hiring, and retaining of star players who fit with your team’s culture is worthwhile — especially for professional services.

Recruiting and retention is a business development requirement in professional services. If talented teams are what your buyers are looking for, it’s an arms race to attract, nurture and retain talent that outguns your competition. This is true in B2C and B2B as well, but I’ve gained deeper appreciation for the direct impact talent has in the professional services industry. Superstars don’t win the battle on their own, in fact they can be detrimental to team performance if they don’t collaborate well or fit your team’s culture. If your firm’s culture is “how you do things”, then part of the talent selection process must be an evaluation of value and collaboration style alignment as well as aptitude.

Promote a culture of clarity — what does success look like? Who may be valuable contributors? What obstacles should be avoided?

“A culture of clarity” — that sounds so simple and pleasant. In reality, it is devilishly difficult to achieve and takes constant vigilance to maintain. When delegating tasks, it’s crucial to relay clear parameters. Situations that require creativity make applying clear parameters more challenging.. Clearly defining “goal posts” and supporting a culture of “give what you can” and “pull what you need” is integral to scalable delegation in any fast moving organization. Developing the appropriate experience to identify the right time for collaborative brainstorming vs. independent action is a valuable and often overlooked focal point for many rising stars. Who has the best context and talent to share in a brainstorming environment, what obstacles may prevent independent action? These are all tactical issues to solve and expectations to set.

Empathy is still a key factor, and remote teams will continue to be a way of life post pandemic. Make sure you have the processes and tools to understand how individuals can achieve their goals.

“I feel bad for JJ, he’s slammed with 5 days of work and there are only 3 days until the deadline. I empathize with him”. JJ doesn’t need sympathy; he needs empathy! Understanding how he got saddled with 5 days of work, how important and urgent that work is, and how someone might be able to help him — (along with all the colleagues downstream who are relying on his timely work.) Infrastructure like project management systems, content management systems, or other similar structures that are easily accessible can help teams to maintain situational awareness and to identify areas where other resources can step in and alleviate bottlenecks.

One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?

“If I want something done right, I better make sure our team has the tools and training it needs to do it well.” Often when time is short, there can be a terrible temptation to “just knock it out” yourself. Sometimes it seems like training, or delegating can take longer than doing it yourself. The investment in tools and training is worthwhile because it can be a longer term solution — one that is more diverse and creative with fewer points of failure.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I think of delegation and owning accomplishments in 2020’s highly collaborative, globally virtual environment, I can’t help but consider how much content drifts out into the ether without attribution. Some content is fun, some vitriolic, some enlightening. I’d love to nurture something like blockchain applied to content on a broad scale. It may be odd coming from an online-focused marketer, but allowing greater control and accountability for online content might encourage a few more healthy conversations and recognition of fellow digital natives.

How can our readers further follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/karlfeldman/

Twitter: 
@KarlFeldman

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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