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A client asked me recently what was the #1 issue holding organizations back from stronger digital performance, across all sizes and industries. I hesitated a few seconds before arriving at leadership. Inside web teams, which we make a case for as the foundation of most digital success, face increasing responsibilities to not only serve the whole organization with publishing, but also lead entirely new engagement or mobilization functions, while driving innovation across all programs.

The challenge of leadership then is the poor way many digital teams are positioned internally. Many digital leaders are still seen as “the web gal”: essentially an end of the line content publisher who pushes out a few tweets, and maybe even a bottleneck for getting what others want done. Worse yet, their expertise is not seen as scarce, as everyone thinks they’re a web expert. If this is how you’re viewed internally, it’s going to be near impossible to lead new initiatives and build momentum to drive real organizational change.

Digital leaders would thus be wise to spend more time thinking about, and managing, how others think about you and your work.

Too much work = poor positioning

There are a lot of super smart folks leading online teams, and if you’re reading this you’re probably one of them. What I see holding us back from more leadership is often as simple as workload overload – a direct result of poor positioning. In other words, if you lack the ability or mandate to say no, you get pulled in too many directions, and can rarely produce truly game-changing work.

There is no way to control the firehose of new opportunities our field constantly presents. What we can control are the ones we choose to focus our best attention and resources on.

Digital teams are basically turning into consulting shops for their institutions, co-creating future models. It’s not easy work. Without the ability to focus more effort on work that is the best fit for your team’s skills and most strategic for our department and the organization, you’re constantly playing defence. All this while being terribly under-staffed. It’s not a pretty sight.

Learning positioning from the pros

So how do you properly position your internal group? I’ve recently worked with two very smart – and expensive – private sector consultants, David Baker of Recourses, and Blair Enns of Win Without Pitching. Helping agencies and consultancies like mine nail our positioning is one of the highest value services they offer. It’s high value because it’s really scary to actually pull off. Making hard choices to do this right is one the biggest decisions leaders can make.

I’m not going to define positioning here, there are many online definitions and resources for that. To paraphrase Blair, whose book is worth a download (read the free summary here), positioning helps reduce the real alternatives to working with us. It shifts the balance of power from clients to you. But it’s not about power, it’s about allowing us to better shape our client’s ideas, and be more respected for our time, processes, and expertise.

This is as relevant to an external service provider as it is an internal group, even though your mandate is to serve all comers in your institution. Strong positioning will help you attract stronger projects and filter out poorer quality ones. By shifting the balance of power, you will be seen and valued as the expert (more of that leadership stuff), attract better internal collaborators (fewer junior program staff delegated the web file) and maybe even better job candidates. It will also help you sluff off or outsource work that isn’t that great or useful for you to do, giving you more control over your workflow.

Finally, I believe stronger positioning of your team around the areas of specialized expertise your institution needs most will help you gain the additional resources you need.

The four steps of positioning

Blair Enns’ three steps for positioning are:

  • Choose a focus
  • Articulate that focus via a consistent claim of expertise
  • Grow your capacity needed to support the new claim
  • (my added one for internal groups) Find out how to drop or outsource work that doesn’t fit it

I’ll cover a step by step to re-positioning your internal group and shifting the culture of your institution in future posts. In the meantime, hire us and we’ll help you do it or coach you through leading it yourself.

I’ve heard numerous senior leaders tell me digital leaders have some of the most difficult jobs in the sector right now. We’re not just leading teams we’re leading change. Positioning yourself and your team as leaders with specialized, high value, and scarce expertise is the way to get out of the tyranny of tactical overwhelm, and shift the dynamics in your organization to have the digital experts driving the digital conversation more. And that benefits everyone.

Jason Mogus is Communicopia’s principal consultant and is the founder of Web of Change. He has been developing digital strategies for social change organizations for over 15 years. You can follow him at @mogusmoves.