The Mandalorian’s guide to the search galaxy: Evolving from SEM lone wolf to company leader
If you build a team that shares your commitment to quality, you can scale success in ways you can't do by yourself.
“I work alone. I don’t trust droids.”– The Mandalorian
Hollywood wants us to believe in the hero (or anti-hero) because we all know who to root for in the battle between good and evil.
Even if you haven’t yet seen The Mandalorian, you are likely aware of the Baby Yoda memes. Based on those small snippets of information, you can guess the kind of story and character arc that plays out in the series. You know, because we’ve been taught to expect it.
What has this got to do with search marketing I hear you exclaim?
I came to realize in my own career journey that the success we can achieve in our careers is influenced by our chosen identity and the work we do on a daily basis. Is it enough? Is it too much? Am I moving in the direction I want to in my career? Am I stuck in a box that isn’t where I intended to be?
For instance, I walked into a global client’s New York office to be greeted with, “Hey it’s Keyser Soze! We weren’t sure you were real.” I realized I had a different relationship than I thought as a remote worker and faced the career cost of being the Mandalorian-style lone wolf. Especially when another client says, “Results are great but the big problem is how do we scale you?”
In this case, the real issue was about networking, and what happens when you actively avoid it.
As a huge fan of the late Eric Ward, as well as people like Aaron Wall, I adopted the idea early on in my career that if you truly did great SEO and PPC work, people shouldn’t even know you were involved. It’s the idea that the quality of the work itself was the reward, and that referrals would follow.
The rebel perspective worldview I had would rather turn my nose up at industry awards than consider making them the cornerstone of agency positioning.
So my work varied between remote and in-house and I didn’t exist in LinkedIn, didn’t go to conferences, didn’t pitch articles, and told myself that I work best alone. I didn’t trust “droids” (those who think you can solve all problems with software and automation).
I was wrong.
If you build a team that shares your commitment to quality, you can scale success in ways you can’t do by yourself. Especially in PPC where ideas beyond automation require fresh perspectives.
Luke might have destroyed the death star but it was everyone else who helped him get there that we cannot underestimate. The Mandalorian eventually comes to see that the biggest challenges require more than one person to fix – no matter how much you like your odds!
Practical tips to improve leadership skills
“We have you 4 to 1. I like those odds.”– The Mandalorian
Let’s be honest. High achievers who manage others can sometimes be perfectionist control freaks. Yes, I’m projecting. As a recovering perfectionist with occasional relapses into control freakery, I know this only too well. I’ve clocked up 17 years in SEO and PPC, and in my early years my biggest failures were:
- losing the room by talking in an overly-technical way to demonstrate competence
- inability to delegate in a way that best served the team or project
- turning every little thing into a crusade and wasting energy on the wrong priorities
It’s not exactly like the meme that asks, “are WE the baddies?” Rather, it’s the toxic male genius trope that remains an issue for many tech businesses.
If my first SEO manager in 2003 hadn’t been an exceptionally talented and patient German woman, I might not have developed the confidence to have a career in search and ultimately run a business that specializes in it. Leadership skills can shape people’s lives.
So, no pressure.
One of the greatest strengths you can develop as a leader is self-awareness. You have to catch a thought and understand where it’s coming from before you speak or act. There are occasional weeks in SEO and PPC where the greatest learnings come from close monitoring and not changing anything until you can see the bigger trend.
When I say self-awareness in relation to leadership what I mean is, can you interrupt your first instinctive thought to check if you’re having a fear-based reaction or decision? How cool are we really under pressure?
Here’s another example. New managers who keep name-dropping their previous blue-chip company experience and are quick to trash talk previous staff, that’s a red flag. They lack awareness and will be poor at inspiring others to do their best work. That costs companies money.
Being short-term risk-averse to making difficult decisions will often cost a lot more in the long run. What I’m saying is, intergalactic ship airlocks have accidents. It happens. Put the team first over the individual.
In years to come, rookies and colleagues won’t remember exactly the criticism but they will remember exactly how it made them feel. It’s worth remembering the industry we work in isn’t life or death. No one is going to die if we make a mistake. As The Mandalorian will tell you, carbon freezing is a much healthier way to get your point across. It keeps the rookies on their toes.
The folly with micro-management
The book “Drive” by Daniel Pink explains that without individual autonomy, motivation suffers. Drive showed me the role of autonomy within project framework.
How much support framework someone needs within a team will vary but suffocating others through unnecessary micromanagement is how to fast-track conflict and discover the SEM cycle of underwhelming results followed by more micro-management followed by more underwhelming results and so on.
In a hurry? At the time of writing the YouTube overview of “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” had over 17 million views. It might be the best ten minutes you’ll ever invest in leadership.
In SEM, you can easily kill project momentum. How? The list is endless.
- Not enough or too much communication (the latter is identified when you realize the clients from hell website exists for a reason)
- Too many emails asking for specific tactic examples and explanations.
- Patronizing skilled professionals by asking if they need further training in front of other staff.
- Constantly demanding a proactive approach to you personally. Translated it means “keep showing me what you’re working on so I can control you.”
Is it any wonder people wake up one day and think, “I want my life back. I quit.”
Projecting team value matters
In the book “Lost and Founder,” by Rand Fishkin, there are two chapters highly relevant to SEM leadership. They will resonate with agency owners and team leaders because I’ve seen it first hand.
Chapter 10 covers team values and why upholding them is hard. TL:DR – Don’t ignore early warning signs of culture clashes and choose short-term results over long-term victory. You can’t scale an individual but they can do a lot of damage.
Chapter 14 goes to the heart of the conflict between lone wolves and managers. Seeing a manager out of their depth (the Peter Principle) is the kind of self-justification that will ignite a lone wolf’s righteousness in fewer parsecs than Han Solo’s Kessel Run.
Perfectionism and wanting to be right all the time is how we often defend ourselves from criticism. You’ll hear people talk about going to the gym but no-one talks about emotional muscle building. Learning how to take a punch emotionally. For instance, you have to fire a colleague; a client fires you; you realize Baby Yoda gives your bounty hunting life meaning; the list is endless. But getting back up from a punch is a game-changer.
The best SEM teams are not afraid and have the right balance between feeling safe from unfair criticism and not getting complacent. Managers who choose to rule with fear cannot inspire others to the same heights as those who simply lift everyone up to do their best work. Management is not for everyone.
As Rand rightly suggests, don’t make management the only ladder employees can climb. Every agency and tech business should read and memorize this chapter if you want to build and maintain talented teams.
Other books that can have a huge impact on your leadership skills include:
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott
- Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith
- Clockwork by Mike Michalowicz
I hope I’ve helped you in some small way on your own adventure across the search galaxy. Tools don’t always change results. Mindset and better processes often do. They just have smaller marketing budgets.
Trust the droids? I’ll leave that up to you.
New on Search Engine Land