How the idiot curve shows up in every new marketing role

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

In every new job, it took me around 90 days of feeling a bit dumber, before I finally caught up to where I was on my first day. I call it “The idiot curve.”

The basic rule of the idiot curve is you get dumber before you get smart again. 

When you first land an Assistant Brand Manager job, there’s just so much to learn, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. Having observed 100 of them come in, I find it takes three months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day. It’s overwhelming at first, and yet you see all these other Assistant Brand Managers doing it, so that’s even more intimidating.

However, the idiot curve is inevitable. It just shows up differently for each person. No matter how hard you fight it, you have to ride the curve. (But, please fight through the curve, you have to for your survival)

The idiot curve lasts typically up to 3 months, and then things start to click. You’ll experience your own version of the idiot curve in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict.

The first thing to go is your natural instincts. With so many new facts in your head, when pressed, you reach for a new data point instead of your instincts.

The second thing to go is your ability to make decisions. You are caught like a-deer-in-the-headlights, trying to impress your boss, maintain composure, and deliver, even when you aren’t sure how.

The third thing to go is your natural strengths. Don’t spend so much time covering up your weaknesses, that you forget to allow your incredible strengths to shine through. 

The idiot curve shows up as a new ABM, Brand Manager, Director, and again as a VP. 

New Assistant Brand Manager

When you first land an Assistant Brand Manager (ABM) job in marketing, there’s just so much to learn, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. I find it takes 3 months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day. It’s overwhelming at first, and yet you see all these other Assistant Brand Managers doing the things you are struggling with, it’s even more intimidating. 

But the idiot curve is inevitable. No matter how smart you are, how much you try to fight the idiot curve, it’s there. It shows up differently for each person. So my advice is instead of trying to fight it, I recommend you just ride the curve. In the end, the ABM job is a stepping stone to Brand Manager. There are many painful days, with constant bumps and bruises as you learn, and as you strive to get promoted.

So what separates the ok ABM from the exceptional ABM that gets promoted? There are two factors that I have seen consistently: #1: They get what they need, and #2: What they need is the right thing to do. Very simply put, great ABMs get both. The rest either fail on #1 or #2. An exceptional ABM can tell stories, where others just see data. The great ones take action and move before being asked. Even in a busy job as a do-er, the best ABMs find a way to put their strategic thoughts forward.

An exceptional ABM is accountable in the ownership of their work–they have to be because the Brand Manager has to be an owner, and if we can’t see you take ownership of your work, how can we see you own your brand.

New Brand Manager

In the first few months as a Brand Manager, they keep doing the ABM role because that’s what they know and comfortable doing. They keep recommending and acting small rather than start deciding and stepping up to the leadership role. If they have a direct report, they will frustrate the hell out of their ABM by doing the stuff the ABM should do. Don’t tell your ABM this dirty secret, but most managers suck at their first five direct reports. 

Now don’t use this as an excuse, but the only way you’ll be good at #6 is if you learn from the first five. I remember a new Brand Manager telling me that his role was to get his ABM promoted, and he would do everything to make sure that happens. I said, “what if your ABM can’t do the job, and we have to let them go?” Yes, it’s honorable to do that, but not always realistic. Once you start to show ownership, you’ll be able to get out of the idiot curve.

You run the brand; don’t let the brand run you

Be thoroughly organized, well planned, and know the pulse of your business. Oddly, the more planning you do, the more agile you’ll be, because you’ll know when it’s ok to “go off plan.” Stay in control and hit the Deadlines; don’t give the appearance that you’re not in control. Know your business, and don’t get caught off-guard. Make sure you are asking the questions and carrying forward the knowledge. 

What separates many Brand Managers is the inability and even refusal of some Brand Managers to rely on their instincts, instead of just the textbook answer. It’s not easy to sit there without the answer, but sometimes if you just wait a bit longer and keep pushing for an even better answer, it will come to you.

My challenge to you: Revel in ambiguity. 

Enjoy the uncertainty and find the answers to the unknown. A great BM takes ownership of the brand. The best ones provide the vision and the strategies to match up to that vision. The great BMs learn how to be a people manager, and they spend the effort to make their ABM as good as can be. The best Brand Managers learn to show composure in the face of pressure–the pressure to deliver results, hit deadlines, face ambiguity, and build relationships.

New Marketing Director

At the Director role, just like they had a hard time, they continue to be the Brand Manager. They get nervous where they shouldn’t, whether it’s with senior people in other functions or even within marketing. They prefer to keep doing, and at that moment, there is nothing “to do,” they walk around and start doing other people’s jobs. But this is the first role where being a leader is more important than being a do-er.

Ensure a policy of open communication with no surprises: Make sure you keep your team informed and involved. Keep senior management informed. You are the champion of the team. The best ideas are those that erupt out from the brand team–not from a top-down perspective. All the best work I was part of, met a significant degree of resistance. You have to expect this and work through it. It will now be your role to make sure the great ideas happen, and that no one can see the wrong ideas.

Once you get past the first 90 days, you have to begin focusing on creating consistency for your team. You are the leader, and they have to understand. You have to hold them to a consistently high standard of work. Moreover, you need to be consistent in how you think. You need to be consistent and even predictable in how you show up to your people. No mood swings. No changing your mind constantly, which just creates spin. You need to be the decision-maker on stuff, or nothing gets done. At this level, you need to show up consistently to the sales team so they can rely on you as a partner.

New VP Marketing

The first time at the executive level is difficult. At the VP level, the first few months are lonely as you no longer have peers; you can bounce ideas off. Your former peers will treat you differently, almost at arms lengths. Some may even be mad; you got the job. Most now assume their career rests in your hands, and they will treat you as the boss. They aren’t your friends anymore. Sorry. Your new peers assume you can do the job, and they don’t want to hear your problems.

I remember being a new VP and having a “people issue” on my team, and I was sitting with my sales peer. I thought this was a great bonding opportunity to ask for help and advice from my new peer. He said, “we all have problems, good luck on that one.” While your people run the brands and the execution, you should run the P&L and mostly run all the marketing processes. I do have a belief that if you focus on the People and the Results will come. You should be spending 50% of your time on people. The counter to this belief is bad people will hold you back. You can’t do their job, nor compensate for their weaknesses. And, you either make them better or move them out. You don’t do anything anymore. At all. Let your people do it, let them own it, and let them shine.

Not only do you not do anything, but you also don’t know anything. You should be the dumbest person in every meeting–well, the least knowledgeable. Not knowing the details is power–because you can use your instincts more. And instead of having your head filled with great ANSWERS, it should be filled with great QUESTIONS, If you think you are an influential leader because you dictate every move on the team, just wait till you shift towards the power that comes from asking questions.

Five ways to make the idiot curve a little easier


1. Say “I’m new” A LOT!!!!

Let your guard down and say, “I have never done this before, so if you could help me out that would be great” to as many people as possible. It’s my experience that people are willing to help those who let their guard down a little.  Just not the same person every day, or that one person will think you are the biggest idiot ever. In other words, spread out your stupidity with a little for everyone around you.

2. Respect subject matter experts.

The oddest thing about marketing is that you have to get people with way more knowledge and experience to follow you. Not a comfortable balance. But realize, they see many marketers come and go. Marketers don’t really do anything, but they do get to make decisions on almost everything. When a marketer tells a subject matter expert what to do, they weaken themselves. Be realistic: you don’t know anything, and yet you just ignored the one person that does. Ask them what you should do. It doesn’t take away your decision-making power. They’ll be more motivated to help you.

3. Keep reaching for your instincts.

Take your time. Even take a breath. Think back to what you would say if you were thinking clearly, free from all that new information that is cluttering your brain. Listen to your inner thoughts; they are in there. Too often, people fail because “they went along with it even though they didn’t like it.” The problem is that sometimes your instincts are hidden away. You get confused, you feel the pressure to get things done, and you’ve got everyone telling you to go for it. You get scared because you’re worried about getting promoted and want to do the ‘right thing.’ But your gut is telling you it’s just not right. My rule is simple: if you don’t love the work, how do you expect the consumer to love your brand. The worst type of marketer is someone who says, “I never liked the brief” or “I never liked the ad.” If you blame your agency or team after that, I have a word for people like you: “useless.”

4. Use questions as a source of power.

When you’re new to marketing, ask, “how do I do this?” When you’re a Leader, ask your experts, “what do you think we should do?” And at the executive level, steer the team by being the one that challenges well-thought strategic questions that make your team think, push for their instincts, and make the right decisions.

5. Make sure your idiot curve ONLY lasts 90 days.

The more you push yourself to learn as much as you can in that short 90-day window, the more you can do the job at the end of the 90 days. As you look at the curve again, you have to be as smart on day 90 as you were on day 1. If you are three years into a job and saying, “how do I do this?”, it won’t be pretty. I’ve managed some, worked alongside others, and even worked for a few whose idiot curve seemed to last for years. Eventually, it caught up to them.

Don't fight the idiot curve. We all face it. Ride it. Learn from it. And then get beyond it.

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