Values-based leadership goes beyond platitudes
Content is the best way to become an executive, entrepreneur, expert, or all of the above.
That’s the wisdom Walter Chen passed on to Devin Bramhall when he stepped down as CEO of Animalz, the content marketing company he founded. Bramhall is now CEO, and in a way she exemplifies Chen’s assertion, having used her long career in content marketing to rise through the ranks at Animalz.
“One of the reasons I was excited to join Animalz was Walter’s belief in content as a career path. He said, ‘Writing is thinking, and thinking is a career path. This is how I went from community manager to CEO and this is also the opportunity I want to create for others.
Indeed, Bramhall is responsible for managing talent globally. While not a necessity brought about by Covid-19 – the team has been distributed globally for the majority of Animalz’s existence, according to Bramhall – it still poses alignment issues.
“Each article is touched by a content manager, an editor, a proofreader, a researcher, a strategist. It’s at least five people, five different perspectives, from Hawaii to Vietnam,” Bramhall said in a recent interview. “It’s really about uniting the perspectives of all these teams.”
Achieving this unity is a process of continuous and never-ending improvement, from Bramhall’s perspective.
“We are constantly refining our operations and working towards greater inclusiveness. Like the mission of our company, it will never be complete and should not be. We will continue to improve and evolve to adapt to changes in the world and our industry and make it an open dialogue with our team.
But this open dialogue is a delicate balance, Bramhall is quick to point out. Step back too much as a leader and you’ll leave people looking for more direction.
“It’s less about the degree of your involvement than how you get involved. People want to feel a sense of agency, but they also need creative direction and restraint to thrive. It’s a balance that I haven’t mastered yet, but I’m working on it.
One solution that worked was to unite the team around the company’s vision, mission and values, which Bramhall and his team recreated in 2020.
“Our previous values were all about winning and going fast, which is fine for a start-up company, but with 100+ people and new management, they no longer made sense.”
Their new values reflected the company they want to bewhich gave the team and management a guide for making big decisions about where the business is going as well as how the team works together and thinks about its own role.
Curiosity, bravery, teamwork, ownership and genius – these values serve as a guide for Bramhall in the midst of rapid and continuous change.
“Values mean nothing unless you act on them.” Bramhall said. “Values are most effective when you embed them into your day-to-day operations, celebrate teammates for embodying them and most importantly for leadership, using values as a guide for all major decisions.”
A big part of leadership is building the plane while you fly it, so Bramhall relies on values to keep the plane on track as she grows as a leader while developing Animalz.
At the heart of teamwork for Bramhall is vulnerability.
“I wake up every day knowing that I rely on over 100 people for Animalz to exist. I don’t matter without them, and it’s comforting and even a little exciting for me. My brain is limited by his own makeup and his own experiences. But wow, imagine what’s possible when we work together. I know it sounds corny, but it’s what gets me out of bed every day: the unknown possibilities when you bring together people. “
How Bramhall defines brilliance at Animalz is key to bringing together a multitude of unique perspectives into a cohesive whole, while striving to be the best of the best.
“For us, brilliance is not a measure of intelligence, it’s an understanding that the most unique ideas arise from diverse perspectives.” Bramhall said. “Imagine it like a diamond, right? There are many facets, many colors that together make this thing beautiful, rare and unique. I don’t believe we can be a marketing agency cutting-edge content if we’re not brilliant. If we have all these different people influencing each other at work, I hope each of them develops each other. And then the quality of their work is better.
Ownership is what Bramhall attributes much of her career to, but she stresses that it’s not about working alone.
“It may sound antithetical to teamwork, but it really is a crucial part of working with others. Ownership is about taking responsibility for yourself, your actions, your future, and figuring out how to use that agency in a team and in the world to get what you want.
Bramhall ownership is also about empowering the team to pursue their careers no matter where that takes them.
“At the core of Animalz, it’s very much an education business, and it’s something I’m excited to delve into more of in the years to come.” The structure we have created to serve customers also helps people improve their content marketing skills. It leads to more opportunities for them, here or elsewhere, and we accept that. I feel like I’ve done my job if people progress in their career working here.