A few months ago, I was sitting on my couch—noodling on a marketing challenge that had been driving me crazy for weeks at work.
Without going into specifics, something wasn’t clicking with the way our company was positioning and selling its products. It felt like we’d outgrown the strategy we had introduced only 10 months before.
I remember it being Super Bowl Sunday, and I was so obsessed with this “project” (I actually wouldn’t even call it a project at that point) that not even the flashy commercials could take my eyes off of my laptop screen. In Photoshop, I’d mocked up a little chart that mapped out an idea for a new product positioning/packaging model.
The idea I had was stupidly simple. Impossibly obvious. My gut was telling me it was the way to go. But it would be a pretty sharp departure from the model our marketing team and company had worked so hard to build over the course of the previous year.
I had two options here: (1) Continue business as usual or (2) speak up and potentially alter how our marketing, sales, customer success, and product teams talked about our products. I ended up choosing #2—which sent me headfirst into some of the most difficult but rewarding months of my budding career.
This article isn’t about the idea and whether or not it bred results. (That’s to be determined.) Instead, I’m sharing my thoughts on how to help drive change across a team or organization as a junior/young employee*… because people don’t tend to write about this stuff from the rookie point of view. This article is about how to—tactfully but confidently—be the voice of dissent and shepherd an idea to execution when you’re definitely not in a position of leadership and you’re feeling a little (well, a lot) in over your head.
*The definition of a “junior employee” varies… for context, I’m almost two years out of school and employed at a 50-60 person B2B software company. Also worth noting: when I started this project, certain circumstances left our four-person marketing team with a fairly flat structure. This meant I had more agency than I might have had otherwise.
For my peers out there, here’s what I learned from my experience pushing for change—successes and missteps included.
1. SPEAK. UP.
If you have an idea that is quite literally gnawing at your soul, you’ve got to say something. (As an introvert, I know how tough this can be.) Float the idea to your manager or a fellow colleague and get his or her initial reaction. If the response is positive, great! But don’t stop there…
2. Once you’ve gotten a positive initial reaction, circulate the idea to key people across the company whose work would be affected.
I’d recommend doing this through quick 1:1 chats. In my case, I tried to speak with representatives from every part of the company (sales, customer success, product). Not only is this an opportunity to get feedback on the idea itself, but it’s also a chance to gather commentary for your business case. What challenges are your colleagues facing that this idea, if implemented, could help solve? How would this make their jobs easier, if at all?
Keep digging and make it clear that you’re looking for honest answers. While you probably have a hunch for what they’ll say, oftentimes these conversations will unleash perspectives you simply hadn’t thought about before.
3. Talk to customers.
If the idea/proposed change will impact customers in some way, don’t leave them out of the process! (This is probably second nature for product teams, but marketers often forget about this step. I know because I’ve been guilty of it.) Your idea may be solving a marketing challenge, a sales challenge, a company challenge—but is it also addressing a customer challenge? Set up 30-minute phone calls with customers to walk through the idea and collect their feedback.
Since I wanted to provide context and visuals during the calls, I found it helpful to present the idea to our customers via a slide deck. I kept my presentation short and let them do most of the talking by asking open-ended questions such as: “How does this relate to how you think about our products as a buyer?” and “How would you pitch our products to one of your colleagues or peers in the industry?”
Listen closely to what they have to say, take detailed notes, and don’t interrupt. If done right, your customers will help you think about the problem/solution in a new way and you’ll have little lightbulbs going off in your head afterwards.
4. Listen to feedback, but trust your intuition and remember that you don’t have to take every piece of it.
I struggled with this part the most. Because everyone I spoke with about the idea was senior to me, I kept trying to implement every suggestion I got—for better and for worse. This caused some unnecessary backtracking.
5. If you have the opportunity to present the concept to the executive team and/or CEO, prepare a business case.
If you did a good job talking to colleagues and customers, you should certainly have enough fodder to craft a business case. This is your chance to consolidate all of the research you’ve done into an argument for why this idea/project is worth undertaking and how it will benefit the company.
I would recommend extracting the main takeaways from your interviews/conversations, and wrapping them up into a story that conveys the challenges of the status quo and creates a sense of urgency for change. It’s always a nice touch to include direct quotes from your colleagues and customers. For me, it was helpful to organize my thoughts by first writing out my business case in a Google Doc. Then I translated it to a slide deck, which I eventually presented to the CEO and different cohorts of the company.
6. Take ownership over your idea and the plan for making it happen.
Okay, so your idea is out there. People like it. You have the green light.
It took me some time (and a few fits of self doubt) to realize this, but don’t assume that because key stakeholders/executives are on board, someone else is going to start being your voice. No matter how important the idea/project is, people are busy with their own jobs and YOU need to be the one who keeps pushing to make it happen.
Until I understood this, I mistakenly assumed that I could step back and let my higher-ups take care of things. I was convinced that I was no where near qualified enough to introduce this kind of change across our company. Eventually, I got over this hump, took full ownership over the project, and stopped being ashamed to proactively coordinate the moving parts. That’s when real progress was made.
7. That being said, you can’t do it alone. Lean on your teammates for support and guidance.
Your teammates (hopefully) have your back and want to see you succeed. Never be afraid to ask for help—or for someone’s ear. You’ll need it.
Keep in mind that this is just what worked for me. All companies are different, and I know that some workplaces aren’t as receptive to the ideas and opinions of younger employees. To that, I’d still echo item #1: “SPEAK UP.” Even if things don’t pan out as you’d hoped, it’s a good habit to develop and shows you care about the work you’re doing.