“Who Asked You to Do This?” and the Critical Path to Work Success

dell vostro, i believe
The Vostro: I Believe Page is Gone

My mentor had a great question that often threw light on the murky subject of “ownership.”

“Who asked you to do this?” she asked, when I came to her with almost every new problem I was trying to solve.

After trying to explain how I had been asked to do a certain task she would smile and say, “That’s not your job.”

Wow. I can’t tell you how many times this question and reasoning from my “manager” saved my butt.

The biggest example I have of this was when I was assigned to be the global contact for large business when Dell ramped up to launch a new brand, VOSTRO, in the summer of 2007. While VOSTRO was aimed at small and medium businesses, the “channel businesses” did not want to miss out on the opportunity to tell a new story and sell a “new” computer. There was a great campaign that I was proud to be a part of called, “I Believe.” It featured testimonials from small business customers and how Dell believed in small business, because, “After all, Dell was a small business once too.”

My role on the project was to assess the marketing materials Dell’s small business group was putting together for VOSTRO and then make sure my “clients,” the business segments in all of the countries where Dell did business, including the US, were provided with large business appropriate materials. So banners and web pages and graphic design that said things like, “Helping Small Business Do More With Less” would become “Helping Your Work Force Do More With Less.” [This example is made up and does not represent actual Dell slogans from the campaign.] And then I would make sure 1. that the business partners in all of the major country groups were aware of the upcoming launch and materials AND 2. deliver all of the necessary images and banners and advertising copy was delivered a month in advance of the launch in the 30+ languages of the countries where Dell would be launching VOSTRO.

I had been at Dell a total of two months when my manager gave me this job. But rather than tossing me to the wolves and letting me “figure it out,” she would patiently listen to my overwhelm and then come back with her simple question. “Who is asking you to do this?”

It turned out that there were a lot of people working on VOSTRO! And a lot of people assigned to delivering creative and technical assets to the “other countries” and “other groups.” What she helped me understand was, while I felt the world on my shoulders with the project, my task was not to create or translate the 100 or so banners. My task was to 1. stay organized and not get overwhelmed; 2. continue to ask for what I needed on behalf of my “clients” the non-small-business leaders around the world; and 3. when I could not secure the delivery of the banners and content I needed to escalate that request to her. That I could do.

So while the massive machine of Dell hummed along around me, creating and building new web pages and new banners and new flash demo files, I was continually asked to refocus my attention on what I COULD manage and let go of the things that I COULD NOT manage. It was a great lesson in large corporate negotiation and navigation.

A number of things broke down in the process of launching a new global brand. And I am certain I could have been targeted for responsibility for those breakdowns, had I willingly accepted all of the tasks that were pushed my way. But I was actually much LESS powerful than all that.

I asked again and again for non-flash assets for the foreign countries. [Flash is still not a global standard, and with slower connection speeds it’s actually quite a problem.] I raised the issue in every meeting I had with the creative and production teams. But it was not my issue. I could not create the low-bandwidth images myself. [I knew how, and could have executed on a couple of them, but…]

A week before the launch, my manager and I put the finishing touches on my final wrap-up PowerPoint deck for VOSTRO. And along with the slide where I detailed the request for NON-FLASH assets in BOLD and ALL CAPS, we made a note that we were still not able to confirm the delivery of these mission critical files.

She sent the slide show to the VP of our group with a note regarding the lack of non-flash demos.

I was honored to be on the short list (5 people) who received that email and the ensuing chain of messages that crackled down like thunder for the rest of the day. The fallout from the miss rippled through our organization for the next two weeks as VOSTRO was delayed in some countries. I continued to be amazed that my manager had included me on the thread. After all it was my project, my slide show and my issue that I had not been able raise enough alarm about to actually get the non-flash content created. [I learned later, under different management how zero transparency worked.]

The most amazing response came from the VP at the time.

“Don’t we always create low-bandwidth non-flash assets for every launch?”

John McElhenney

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