10 lessons on leadership from Clark Gilbert

Chris Lee | President, Deseret Digital Media | @cleepost | April 1, 2015

Our team at Deseret Digital Media congratulates Clark Gilbert on his appointment as president of BYU-Idaho. As Clark transitions to a board role at Deseret Digital Media and as his family relocates from Salt Lake City to Rexburg, I have had a chance to reflect on some of what we have learned together.

Certainly, Clark would deflect praise to those influencers who have taught him: Joseph Bower, Clayton Christensen, and Kim Clark — among many others. But it’s my pleasure to offer my perspective and gratitude to my colleague and friend, Clark.

Here are 10 lessons of leadership I’ve learned from working with Clark over the past five years.

1. Organize yourselves. Choosing the right organizational structure for the company is the first crucial step. Evidence abounds, particularly from the research of Clayton Christensen, that smart, capable people organized poorly will deliver bad results. Clark expanded on Christensen’s disruptive innovation model with the concept of dual transformation. The beauty of this concept is not just in the benefit it offers to the new disruptive business, but also — and perhaps more importantly — in the focus it provides for the incumbent business.

2. Embrace a mission. Business, and particularly the media industry, is too competitive and turbulent to justify the herculean effort required unless it is done with a clear and meaningful mission. Understanding the “why” of an organization is more important than the “what.” The mission should be simply stated, memorable, and stretch the organization to reach well beyond its current status. Survival alone is not a motivating mission.

3. Build culture. A leader’s job isn’t building a business; it’s building the people who build the business. The culture of an organization can quash even the most brilliant strategy. And culture must begin with the leaders’ own example. People are wary of mission statements meant to build culture through words alone. The actions of leaders must be consistent with the mission and fully authentic. Here’s one example. At our office, Clark’s old gold minivan parked next to the employee entrance each day became a symbol for both the frugality and family-focus needed in the early days of Deseret Digital Media.

4. Meet often. Especially in the formative stages of the organization, frequent group meetings, one-on-ones, and stand-ups should be held. These meetings should have clear agendas and preparation in order to be effective. Even in a digitally focused business that embraces technology, nothing replaces regular face-to-face interaction. As an example, in the first year of DDM, weekly all-staff meetings were critical tools for teaching and reinforcing the mission and building culture. As the company has grown to more than 200 employees, those meetings happen monthly or quarterly, but they are still powerful tools for building the team.

5. Act now. Execution is more important than strategy. Clark often says, “Strategy can account for no more than 49 percent of a company’s success.” The majority of the success is always attributed to execution. Like me, Clark began his career as a management consultant. He later became an academic and a prolific writer of dissertations, case studies and Harvard Business Review articles. This thought leadership has given our organization a great foundation, but Clark is self-effacing about the impact of thinking and strategizing. More important are the results of efforts like effective sales calls and agile software coding.

6. Measure and set standards. Any goal with short- or long-term impact can’t be reached without measuring results. During a period of significant transformation, where people need to change their skills, their roles, or their pace, metrics should be set up and monitored regularly — usually daily. Some organizations use the term “key performance indicators,” or KPIs, but Clark prefers the educational term “rubrics” to describe standards applied across a group, particularly applicable for journalists.

7. Give feedback. Small problems can do serious damage to an organization if they are not fixed early, but sometimes managers lack the courage to confront and correct. Direct, immediate feedback is more effective than indirect, delayed reaction. Organizations confronting disruption for the first time may bristle at or even reject attempts to infuse feedback into the culture, but leaders recognize that the disrupted environment will require significant change from all employees, including the leaders themselves. Rapid evolution requires a learning culture, willing to give and receive feedback.

8. Watch for second-order effects. Many decisions have unintended consequences. Leaders need to recognize both the negative and positive impacts beyond the direct effects of a decision. Establishing a rubric for journalism, for example, should expect to yield improved quality or productivity. But the rubric may produce a positive second-order effect of fostering a culture more open to feedback.

9. Deliver financial results. Any amount of new revenue can be viewed as either a success or failure — it just depends on the amount of investment and operating expense involved to achieve it. Multiple revenue streams are better than one. Over-dependency on revenues from a single source, a single platform or a single channel is perilous, particularly in the rapidly changing digital media market.

10. Be confident. And humble. Confidence plus humility equals good judgment. In any organization, a leader must take initiative with confidence. At the same time, leaders also need to be self-aware and recognize their own weaknesses. Balancing these two characteristics produces the best decisions.

Bonus: Lighten up. As Clark likes to say, “Nothing says fun like a white shirt and tie.” Take your work seriously, but find the humor in it, in yourself and in life.

Clark’s formative tenure at Deseret Digital Media has been crucial, but the story of DDM has just begun. Our mission, after all, is to be trusted voices of light and truth reaching hundreds of millions of people worldwide.