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Life at a digital marketing agency can get rather hectic. With a growing team, schedules constantly changing, and new projects always on the horizon, it can be easy to get lost in the mix.

With so much activity going on, I have found that there are two keys needed in order to balance the chaos, and they go hand in hand: communication and organization. 

Just as a talented sports team will inevitably fall into confusion and failure when lacking communication, so will a digital marketing agency. Productivity is greatly inhibited when you are constantly having to ask who is doing what. As schedules are disrupted and plans are changed, projects can slip through the cracks and tasks can easily be forgotten. Every member of Symposia’s team plays a unique roll, but we strive to be one united team. This requires everyone to clearly communicate what they will be responsible for handling and what they may need help with, in order to serve the client the best that we can. 

Poor organization results in more time spent sorting through and prioritizing the work rather than actually doing the work. It is also difficult to communicate your work to other team members when you are unsure of what you should be working on yourself. Prioritizing your tasks will keep you on track and ensure nothing important is forgotten. Keeping your work organized will help you and your team stay on the same page and function smoothly. 

While you certainly cannot control everything that gets thrown into your schedule, it helps to stay on top of your responsibilities so that when something unexpected comes up, you can easily adapt and adjust to accommodate, rather than adding to the chaos.

Before interning at Symposia, I had a very limited perspective about what digital marketing entails. Beyond social media advertising, digital marketing also includes: search engine optimization, PPC (pay per click advertising), content marketing, marketing automation, email marketing, online PR, and more. After stepping outside of a classroom, I found that much of this was new to me, and about a month ago, I would not have been able to tell you what any of those terms mean.

As a business student, I was curious as to why I had not been introduced to the field of digital marketing in my classes. This made me think that perhaps digital marketing cannot thoroughly and effectively be taught in a classroom. As trends and technology continue rapidly changing, digital marketers are tasked with adapting and innovating in order to stay ahead. With this in mind, it is easy to see how a digital marketing classroom textbook would quickly become outdated. 

Additionally, unlike many other subjects or industries, digital marketing does not always have right and wrong answers. It is often a complex strategy, requiring trial and error, and constant efforts to improve. There is not one universal formula that provides a solution to every problem. Each client requires a unique and personalized equation in order to achieve their specific goals. 

With that said, you may be wondering: what is the best way to learn about digital marketing? You can certainly learn a lot from talking with experienced professionals in the field, or by dipping your toes into the world of digital marketing to discover it for yourself. As a student, I strive to take advantage of real-world opportunities offered outside of the classroom, such as crash course sessions taught by professionals, Q&A panels with experts, internships, and any other hands-on learning experiences. Either way, just remember that whatever you learn today could change tomorrow.

When I first started in the field of digital marketing (we just called it social media marketing back then), I was a lone wolf. Growing up as an only child, I found that a natural place to be. Me. Myself. I.

But then a vision started to unfold. I came to understand that if I really wanted to create digital transformation of any kind, it wouldn’t be possible with just one person. I needed help ‘painting the fence.’

One talented person at a time, the Symposia team began to build up. We collected around a shared mission of leveraging the power of digital marketing to further the message of organizations here in the Midwest.

And slowly but surely, I realized that my role was to be the leader of that team.

Without a great coach, even the best sports teams tend to produce more failures than wins. As a team, Symposia is knocking our wins out of the park this year. However, as a leader, I have my own list of failures that have become more clear as our team has grown and daily pressures have increased.

Personally, I am wildly enthusiastic in general and extremely comfortable with conflict. These attributes, like any, are often a double-edged sword. Below are my two biggest failures so far this year as a leader–and how I plan to learn from them to the betterment of our team.

Pushing the Wrong Way
It is important to be able to move things forward. Sometimes the team, an individual, or a client needs a bit of encouragement in the right direction. But I have found that sometimes I go about this the wrong way. In my determination to get something to move forward, I can forget the value of gentleness and kindness; doing so undermines the entire objective. If you are careless, you can hurt someone, causing their natural response to stop and react to that aggression rather than moving forward on the issue. When done right, pushing can be very helpful–and I am learning how to encourage the right way.

Forgetting to Celebrate
My wife and I recently purchased and moved into our first house in Holland after living in Grand Rapids for a few years. In preparation, I had been on a mission for three solid weeks to get things done. Between all the packing, paperwork, and phone calls, it occurred to me that we’d never celebrated the fact that we just bought a house. We hadn’t really celebrated the great time we had living in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. As a leader, I’ve made this same mistake far too many times.

When the entire team is working toward an important milestone, I sometimes forget to celebrate reaching it. There are always going to be more tasks on the to-do list. There are always going to be more goals to reach. But it’s important to stop and celebrate. A true leader takes pause to note what has been accomplished before just moving to the next thing.

So take the time to celebrate the successes, the milestones, the joy. It makes the journey sweeter.


Do you see what I just did there?

If you’re familiar with the Enneagram I hope you appreciate the irony, or if you’re still fuzzy or new to the conversation, then I invite you to read along.

Yes, the Enneagram can be confusing, and at times feels like a secret language. People who know about it will quickly jump into, “I’m an 8,” “I’m a 3,” “I’m a 7, wing 6.”

Which may lead you to say, “I have no idea what that means.”

In short, the Enneagram is simply a map for self-discovery and personal growth. It is an ancient personality system that recognizes 9 inherently different (and yet connected) personality types that frame and describe the why behind what you think, feel, and do.

Got it figured out?

The Challenge of the Enneagram

The inherent challenge of the Enneagram is that nothing with it is brief. It takes time to understand, and even more effort to utilize as a leader. Even so, I am convinced that it is a proven leadership tool for individuals and teams to lead themselves better.

The hard work of leadership always begins with the most difficult person we will ever lead: ourselves.

So, if you are looking for a quick fix or silver bullet strategic process to grow your own leadership and the impact your team can make, this is not the tool for you.

It’s more like a long road trip that happens one mile at a time, and if you don’t understand how to read the map, you can get turned around, lost, or in a fight about the exit you just missed.

Why Does it Matter for Leaders?

Every leader has to first lead themselves, and the Enneagram will help you as a leader grow in your self-awareness by understanding the “why” behind what you think, how you feel, and the ways you behave.

The wisdom of the Enneagram is that it gives comprehensive language and precise description to 9 different ways people show up. Its language describes how you experience the world and how others experience you in the world.

And that is also why it matters for teams.

Why Does it Matter for Teams?

When individuals are willing to do the hard work of understanding who they are and why they do what they do, they will also begin to understand who others are and why they do what they do. I contend that leadership always begins with an individual leader and their willingness to lead themselves for the sake of others.

The Enneagram is important for teams because it can tell us what gifts we have and don’t have on our team.

In my approach to the Enneagram, I find that the names of the 9 different types tell us so much. What gifts does each type bring to the world? What dynamic tension are they always trying to resolve? In some ways, each number is a superpower, which is both a leadership gift and task to manage.

So here they are: 9 reasons the Enneagram matters for leaders and teams (and yes, these are the 9 Enneagram types because we need all of them).

One more disclaimer: There is a variety of names for the 9 types, and I think all the resources enhance our understanding of each. In what follows, I invite you to notice what these descriptions communicate about each type’s leadership gift and potential struggle. Think superheroes discovering how to use their superpower for good or ill.

Where Do You Fit?

1. The Moral Perfectionist
Principled | Purposeful | Self-Controlled | Perfectionistic
We see what is wrong and we make it better.

2. The Supportive Advisor
Generous | Demonstrative | Loving | Hospitable
We see where to help out and we say yes.

3. The Successful Achiever
Adaptable | Excelling | Driven | Efficient
We get stuff done 24/7, 365. What else do you need?

4. The Romantic Individualist
Expressive | Creative | Authentic | Introspective
We make the world and its people beautiful; make sure you let us feel all of it.

5. The Investigative Thinker
Perceptive | Innovative | Curious | Objective
We observe, think, and then think some more. You may need to ask us what we are thinking.

6. The Loyal Guardian
Engaging | Responsible | Prepared | Practical
We are reliable and consistent. You should always have one of us on your team.

7. The Entertaining Optimist
Spontaneous | Versatile | Acquisitive | Confident
We have more ideas and energy than all of you, and we don’t have an off button.

8. The Protective Challenger
Self-Confident | Decisive | Compassionate | Resilient
We are who you want to take to a fight or close the deal. Everyone should have one of us in their life.

9. The Peaceful Mediator
Receptive | Reassuring | Generous | Diplomatic
We smile because we believe we can all get along.

All 9 of these personality types matter, and have the potential to make significant leadership contributions to any team, business, and organization.

I invite you to take a one step forward your own leadership growth through the power of self-discovery that the Enneagram provides.

It matters for you, and it matters for those you lead.

Take a step!


For more information, check out Joe Graham and his Enneagram coaching.

No Time For Introspection

We didn’t have time for it.

Our plate was more than full. We were onboarding new clients, defining new roles, a hiring campaign (oh, and moving into a new office) all while approaching the holidays. We just didn’t have time for it.

But sometimes that’s the perfect time.

As Symposia approached Fall 2018, the team was experiencing another major growth spurt. We were gearing up for a big year ahead and doing so with two new employees on the team.

Introspection is important to Symposia – it’s a task we often put on our clients as well.

Riley Waugh, our outgoing User Experience Specialist, had a proposition. As part of her sunsetting from the company (to heed the call of westward expansion), Riley recognized a constructive project she could take on: Conduct an in-depth report on the User Experience of Symposia Labs.

Without getting into the complete blueprint, the scope was essentially to gather information through interviews with staff and clients, evaluate the data, and provide detailed analysis and suggested action steps for development.

Sounds romantic, eh?

Honestly, it was music to our ears. The fact that Riley, who had been with us since 2017 and experienced all the progress and success and challenges Symposia had along the way, would be conducting the research was a unique advantage. Not only would this be an internal effort but would also include client-facing components.

So began the work to assess our current landscape and to define Symposia Labs 2.0.

What Is User Experience?

User experience refers to a person’s emotions and attitudes about using a particular product, system or service. It includes the practical, experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects. –Wikipedia [ref.]

For Symposia, this meant asking, in plain language: How are we doing? What are our strengths, our challenges? How can we better serve our clients? How do we better serve our own talents and skills? How can we prepare ourselves as a company for the best, most successful year in its lifetime? Where are the areas that need tightening up? How do we optimize?

There were three categories that the research fell under: Process, culture, and satisfaction. We reviewed the tools we use, our communication, and recognitions; we reflected on journeys and longevity. Through a series of interviews with employees, clients, and interns, a mountain of data was collected. We had taken a look under Symposia’s hood. So Riley worked her magic, cataloging the complex musings of many. The result was not only an inventory but also a sort of map: where we were, where we are, and the paths ahead.

From a Symposia client in the client-facing portion of the research:

“As you grow and evolve, make sure that your culture is strong to find ways to always win together!”

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Beyond marketing efforts, Symposia’s purpose is to be the change agents our clients need through our commitments to adaptability and progress. As deeply invested as we are in our clients and their success, so too should we be invested in our culture and internal relationships.

The digital marketing industry moves so quickly that it’s easy to get caught up in catching up. You may blink an eye and realize the organization switched programs three times over without gathering feedback on what’s the best fit.

Every piece has its purpose. Whether it’s your CRM or your internal task management system, they are all components of a larger machine. As Symposia’s work for our clients continues to be more all-encompassing, whether it’s transforming how leads are managed or results are tracked, we encourage our clients to consider the whole picture. That consideration creates a synergy that really shows how transformative digital can be for organizations of any size.

Your business, your workflow, your processes, deserve to be assessed not only when it’s convenient or when you spot an ad for tickets to a team-building workshop. If you expect 2019 to bring big shifts in your organization or industry, or you want to impact the way you interact with your customers or internal team, consider this advice to take time to determine how to get where you want to go by understanding where you are.

A Startup’s Growing Pains

As I stood on the deck surrounding the small indoor lap pool with 7 of my coworkers, reading off notes about job roles marked up on poster board, the spring of 2014 flashed in my mind.

That was when I met Tim Haines. He was a consultant who was tasked, in part, with training me in a social media manager position I had taken with a local city department. By summer, I would find myself with the opportunity to join his budding digital marketing agency later known as Symposia Labs.

The work started out as part-time and I shared one room of a small office with the only other employee, another social media manager. She and I did the same type of work on separate accounts: content creation, social engagement, lots of Excel sheets and Photoshop files. Tim would rush in and out between meetings, check in with us, engage and encourage us with questions.

Many hats were worn between the three of us. There were contractors here and there, many of whom I never met or sometimes knew existed.

Our client list grew quickly and the needs expanded. We took on the lease of the entire office we’d been sharing with other agencies. We welcomed in-house designers, paid media specialists, marketing assistants, interns. The growing pains were real.

We met with development coaches. We explored our share of diagrams and flowcharts in efforts to determine how best this new machine would work. And we worked to define and develop our strengths as individual experts.

A swim lane… distinguishes job sharing and responsibilities for sub-processes of a business process. When used to diagram a business process that involves more than one department, swim lanes often serve to clarify not only the steps and who is responsible for each one, but also how mistakes are most likely to occur. [ref.]

How We Define Swim Lanes

Since the early days, one of Symposia’s values has been to empower and trust each other in our areas of specialty. We believe in the power of individual experts, and that trusting those talents helps the machine operate at its best.

Too often we see agencies fail to prove their strengths because they’re trying to be all things to all people. Our experience has been that great work is done when the experts are allowed to do what they do best.

That’s where the swim lanes concept comes in.

For Symposia, swim lanes indicate one’s area of expertise. We believe that in a perfect world a paid media specialist is not writing all the ad copy on the spot when setting up a campaign. In a perfect world, a project manager understands metrics and how to track them, not necessarily the ins and outs of how to test them. And whenever someone is seeking guidance, they know whom to ask.

This is not to be confused with a “don’t touch my stuff” mentality. On the contrary, it’s about a team leaning on each other to get the best results. There exists plenty of overlap between roles, whether it’s design and photography, or copy and PPC. Swimming in your own lane involves understanding how to navigate this.

Consider this example:

A project manager briefs the team on a new campaign requiring photos and ad copy for Facebook and Google.

The photographer and graphic designer work together to determine the raw photos needed which will provide the groundwork for the final designs. The graphic designer doesn’t direct the photographer, but having the designer’s input is crucial for the photographer to be efficient.

Meanwhile, the copywriter speaks with the paid media specialist about what types of ads will be run to determine any platform-specific constraints or keywords. The paid media specialist doesn’t have to worry about creating the ad copy, but knowing pertinent PPC-related details helps the copywriter to provide the right thing on the first go.

Creative and copy are put together in mockups and boom – the project manager has a first round of creative and copy with less chance of needing revisions before going live.

This is of course a simplified scenario. A million other tweaks can be happening here and there behind the scenes. But understanding whom to partner with is an excellent example of where swim lanes may overlap (or “touch”) but remain separate.

Working together and leaning on each other for support or information during the process helps the process to run smoothly.

The Whistle Blows

I won’t bother trying to put my sentimentality aside. It was quite a vantage point, standing there around the pool (all of us fully clothed, I might add) with 7 of my now 10 in total coworkers, discussing our swim lanes in that humid metaphor just a few weeks ago.

We’ve grown so much and not just in terms of staff or clients. Adaptability is crucial in digital marketing as we learn this industry’s evolving trends and tools. And Symposia understands firsthand why adaptability is so important internally for a growing team of specialists.

We’ve recently welcomed another project manager and an automation specialist (meet Andrew and Adam in their blog posts!) and as we face toward all that’s ahead for 2019, things are looking great.

There are times in our professional lives when we choose to hold our cards close: a client keeping the hard numbers of their budget to themselves, an agency vetting a lead by aiming high in a quote for services. These situations are common and have strategic reasoning.

Then there are other situations, such as an individual keeping an aspect of themselves private to the point it becomes harmful. This can easily become an unhealthy habit that holds them back from connecting with others. It becomes a crutch, an excuse for silence.

Although I’ve been raising my voice at Pride events since my teen years, I still often hold my own story very close out of habit. I’m a confessed people-pleaser which can come at the expense of my own comfort or happiness. As a bisexual person, I have shied from sharing this fact about myself in past circumstances where it would have been appropriate; I worried it would risk changing the tone of the conversation or causing discomfort. Looking back, I realize the discomfort I was avoiding was my own and I’ve walked away from too many opportunities to share and learn.

Many people make the decision to keep quiet about themselves simply out of survival. I recognize that there is much heteronormative privilege in my life. It’s easy for me to use this as a safety blanket and let others presume what they may.

But what I’ve been reflecting on this Pride month is another privilege I live with: my incredible colleagues and the business I’ve been working with since 2014. Our founder is an excellent leader and teacher and has been supportive of me from the beginning — as a member of our team and as an individual.

Our experiences flow through us and influence our reactions to what life presents. I am grateful to work in an environment where alongside my coworkers with their diverse skills and backgrounds, every voice is heard. I am inspired by their talents and heartened by the support we offer one another. Listening to the people with whom we spend so much of our time holds us together and makes us a stronger team.

Looking within the community where I live, I see opportunities for progress as well as cause for celebration. When I attend professional events or discussions on diversity, I see the West Michigan digital community reaching out and using its reservoir of innovative thinking to create an increasingly inclusive space.

We make the choice to listen. And when we chose to make a habit of listening, it becomes behavior. The same applies to speaking up.

As I reflect on all of this, what I aim to do better is speak up about who I am and share my ideas. To not shy away. To be an example.

You can encourage a person to speak by listening when they do — you may never know how difficult it was for them to do so.

Each of us has something to share, something to bring to the table. Let’s be sure we’re making room.

Happy Pride Month.

My wife and I have two cats that we love a little bit more than we maybe should. I always blame it on the fact that we don’t have kids. Don’t worry – we’re not dressing them up in cute little costumes or anything that crazy, but we for sure love these two little animals.

When I’m at work, I usually forget about cats. Do you do the same?

I was in a meeting the other day with a client who had to reschedule a significant part of a project our team was working on due to an unexpected trip to the vet with their cat.

I have to admit that my first instinct was to think about how this negatively impacted me and the rest of the team. It would put us behind schedule, and it would require a bunch of rescheduling.

“Ugh,” right?

This may be your instinct as well. Should we really be letting our pets impact our professional life?

My answer is yes! Yes, we absolutely should.

If it is truly our mission to care about our clients, then it is critical that we care about those big-little moments that impact their daily life.

The graduations and weddings, their kids, a loss of a loved one. And yes, even their cats.

If we don’t care about these things, we don’t have empathy.

Without empathy, the task becomes the only focus. Without empathy, we forget why we do what we do and sometimes resent anything that gets in the way.

Is there anything more backwards than resenting something that impacts the life of someone we’re trying to help?

Life will happen regardless of professional calendars. As we seek to be adaptable in life, we believe we should do the same in our work.

And always with empathy.

You’re a tool.

And we are not talking about the proverbial cog-in-the-wheel. You are a unique blend of skills, values, abilities and traits. In the world of leadership, the most important and valuable resource is the self. You alone have access to your inherent potential and power. Who you are is how you lead.

Yet, leadership development initiatives have historically been singularly focused on an outside perspective – the “how” and “what” rather than the “who” of leadership. This approach simply layers on proficiencies and focuses on skill-building while the authentic strengths you embody are buried. When focusing solely on skills, the focus is shifted from you, the leader, to the tasks at hand. This approach is a futile attempt at change without long term results. This approach treats symptoms of poor leadership rather than inspiring the cause of great leadership. Who you are determines how you lead.

Here is where I need to stop and say emphatically: What you do as a leader is essential to being a good leader. Finely tuned and intentional leadership skills are vital to effective leadership. Vital. I am not suggesting that who you are is more important than how you lead – I am calling attention to the direct relationship between the two.

Who you are as a leader drives how you perform as a leader. The two are inextricably linked. Both are vital. However, the “who” of leadership has historically been ignored when both elements are necessary for transformative development.

Redefining leadership through specific and intentional focus on the inner landscape of the individual (strengths, weaknesses, biases, meaning-making systems, values, etc.) is crucial for innovation of organizations, companies and cultures.

It can be difficult to recognize your own strengths and abilities because they seem “normal” and unremarkable. Creating transformation in the inner-landscape of leaders happens most effectively through relationship with key people who are witnessing your potential, offering vital feedback, and helping you unpack these internal elements of your identity. Diving into the complexity of who you are allows these various elements to be used in service of and not against your leadership effectiveness. We can’t use or change something we don’t realize is there.

This growing awareness of your unique capacity unleashes a new realm of operating, full of choice and opportunity.

Developing the potential of leaders with specific attention on social influence – who you are and how you show up in the world ­– sends rippling effects of change and transformation to all individuals, teams and organizations to which the leader is connected. This way of redefining leadership is the most effective, and possibly the only, way to create lasting transformation within any corporate culture.

You are not just “a” tool. You are the tool.

Abbey Johnston is co-founder of AG Collaborative, unlocking inherent potential and unleashing leaders to transform teams, maximize results & create vibrant cultures.