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Make sure you talk about the team in a way that reflects reality.
REFLECTING REALITY

Does your team need to rebrand?

Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Former engineering manager, Automattic

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Advice, observations, and real-life examples.

Some leaders are fantastic at “team branding”—communicating about their group in ways that give the rest of the organization a good understanding of what the team is all about. Others are squarely focused on “team public relations”—telling a great story about a team that, if we looked more closely, we might find is not delivering or functioning very well (it always comes out in the end).

Team PR is usually overly positive, glossing over the hard questions. It’s about generating the right illusion. But when what you say (i.e. your PR) doesn’t align with what people say about you (i.e. your branding), it’s a surefire way to undermine trust in your leadership.

Don’t get me wrong. PR is a legitimate part of the team branding process. You need to be able to talk about your team’s strengths and accomplishments. But to build a brand that reflects and projects reality, you also need to be able to talk about your team’s failures, and the gap between where the team is now and where it hopes to be.

When I joined the mobile group at Automattic, the team was pretty siloed, and generally maligned. Laboring under (and resenting) the perception that they weren’t delivering, the crew was desperate to rebrand. We quickly set out to revive the team’s reputation through a PR campaign of sorts. We talked more openly about what we were doing and why, and became more deliberate in sharing our launches.

This worked, somewhat, but my boss called me on it, and asked what was really happening in the places that I couldn’t shine a light on and celebrate, yet. Over time, as the team became more functional, we could genuinely do team branding.

As I moved to lead another group I saw that this team was generally talked about as a product team but a significant portion of their work was infrastructure. Again, we employed a strategy to rebrand the team so that their critical contributions to infrastructure were better understood. This recognition helped us talk about our work in a way that made the team’s impact clearer, which in turn made people more motivated and meant we delivered more.

A well-run, consistently delivering team reflects well on everyone involved, especially those who lead it. But remember to separate the team from your personal brand, and the need for team recognition from your own personal need for recognition.

At the same time, it’s important not to go too far the other way. Even if you haven’t mastered the art of talking about your own work in a way that doesn’t feel like bragging, you need to learn to talk about the work of your team in a way that reflects well on them. Just make sure you learn to do so in a way that is authentic.

Here are some sub-steps of team PR that you might want to take. They’re based on experiences from the world of software engineering, but they have plenty of parallels in other industries.

Rebranding projects

Engineering projects often focus on the technical details and challenges, but always, always, need to be talked about outside the team in terms of customer impact. What are they improving? Are they addressing common support issues? Improving new user experience? Existing user experience? Better supporting internal customers in some specific way, for example in release cadence or uptime? What metrics do you expect them to effect? Support volume? Sign ups? Retention?

Owning achievements

It’s important to make sure you celebrate and let other people know when you deliver! Within that, you can mark smaller things, sharing individual achievements or things people are grateful to their teammates for. (Our team likes to share monthly snaps.)

Marking progress

Big projects tend to start and end with a bang. There’s the excitement of the initial forming of the team, the thrill of the big launch. In between, it’s easy for things to turn into a slog, which can lead to a lack of engagement, a spike in turnover, and ultimately a failure to meet goals.

Remember: All progress is made incrementally, whether or not that’s how it’s ultimately described. Learning how to talk about progress—and show progress—in ways that people can actually connect with can be a really important part of team branding, especially around execution. Laying out the end state is key, but so is clearly demarcating the milestones on the way, and being transparent about progress marked against them. This also can be a helpful way of surfacing and addressing problems early, rather than finding a nasty surprise at the end.

Clear retrospectives

How can acknowledging failure possibly help with branding? Well, failure is inevitable (the goal can only be to fail less and fail better) so the best way to diffuse whispers of failure is to be open about it. This gives you the opportunity to own the narrative.

When people speculate, they are always missing information. When you are called to answer for it, it’s easy to come across as defensive. But when you proactively lay out the circumstances that led to the situation, clearly articulate how it was handled, and describe any process changes that resulted, you demonstrate ownership, accountability, and awareness. It inspires confidence.

It’s also an opportunity to thank people outside the team who stepped in. It’s rare for the effects of a failure to be isolated to one team. There may have been teams that were depending on you that felt let down, teams running systems that you inadvertently overloaded, teams handling customers who had a sudden surge in requests for support. When others know that you take the impact on them seriously and work to address it, they are much less likely to complain.

Rebranding people

Sometimes part of rebranding a team means rebranding people—especially those who were seen as responsible for the team’s previous underperformance, or who had struggled to be effective under the previous structure.

Sometimes the reputation is deserved, but far from always. Most people don’t want to fail. The challenge of rebranding is to understand the reasons for the failure—perhaps some were structural, and some were personal—and working to address them. Were people in the wrong role? Had they not gotten the right feedback? Were they not set up to succeed?

Once you feel the structure is addressed, you can start positioning them more positively, working with and showcasing their strengths. Often you also need to rebrand people in their own eyes too—helping them see themselves as a leader when they used to be an individual contributor, or helping them understand their strengths lie in technical leadership, not people management. You also might need to rebrand the environment to them, moving them out of a victim mindset into one that is more empowered.

In every failing team I’ve encountered, there were people who weren’t a good fit and needed to leave to move forward. But also in every situation there were far more people who, with the right feedback, coaching, and encouragement, were able to surprise everyone (not least themselves) with what they were capable of. Making sure those people got the recognition and credit for their work, in terms of both personal growth and business impact, is a key part of a good team rebrand.

Starting at the end

If the team’s brand is what people say about your team, a great place to start when you set out to talk about your team is with the objective strengths of the group, and what the desired brand of the team is. The objective strengths are the things that are true today, that you can already talk about. The desired brand is the gap between where you are today and where you want to get to.

As you consider your aspirations for the team brand, you’ll want to put processes in place to support your desired outcome. If you want the team to be known for dependable delivery, you’ll need to be sure it stays on target, on top of communicating a lot about delivery. If you want people to think your team has a supportive, open environment, you’ll need to do a lot of work to foster that kind of environment, both before and after you talk about it.

The metaphor I like to use to explain the process of branding is the Yoko Ono creation Grow With Me. The word “LOVE” is engraved on a bean, and as the plant grows, the word LOVE appears on a leaf. This is brand. The core is expanded, what is inside becomes what is outside.

When PR is inauthentic, when the outside doesn’t match the inside, it’s an exercise in fantasy. But when you can talk about your team as-is—the successes it leans on, the failures it learns from, the aspirations it’s working toward—you’ve made PR a valuable piece of your team branding.

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