Marie Danzig of Blue State: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team

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I think it’s important to know when to synchronize and when to decentralize. Specific markets or functions don’t always benefit from a central playbook or structure.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie Danzig.

Marie Danzig is Head of Creative and Product at Blue State, a values-led creative and campaigns agency that partners with leading causes and companies to help them transform how they engage with audiences.

Prior to Blue State, Marie helped lead the digital efforts of the Obama presidential campaigns. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two boys.

Marie graduated from Stanford University where she spent most of her time playing ultimate frisbee (and has the national championship trophies to prove it).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Thank you for the conversation! Always fun to take a step back and talk about leadership.

My backstory: I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” I excelled at math and science in high school but majored in comparative literature in college. I decided to be a ski bum the winter after graduating but ended up taking a job at the local paper and starting a mini career in journalism. I went to NYU Law School but dropped out after a semester.

All these experiences, though seemingly haphazard and unplanned, built a strong foundation for a career in digital marketing and mobilizing communities — a beautiful combination of art and science that allows me to pursue my passion for social justice. I ended up in a field that didn’t even really exist when I entered college, and I’m grateful for not pursuing a traditional path but rather keeping my mind open to what ultimately felt like a perfect fit.

I’m not quite sure exactly how and when I shifted from individual contributor to people manager and team leader, but I suppose it was rather gradual and felt natural, and even though I’ve been at Blue State in the same leadership role for 9 years, I have learned so much, and the company has evolved so dramatically, it feels like a fresh set of responsibilities and challenges each year.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Helping to lead the digital efforts of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign was beyond interesting, it was life changing. Barack Obama was the most inspiring boss I’ve had the privilege to work for, and the job was a major accelerator for me professionally. I worked with the best of the best copywriters, designers, analysts, video producers, organizers — many of whom I’m still lucky enough to continue to work with here at Blue State — and we were able to reach people and experiment at incredible scale.

Here we were, a bunch of 20-something often-barefoot “new media” innovators, surpassing even our own expectations in an odds-defying bid to elect a senator with a funny name and change the way elections are won.

It showed me what was possible when you combine a worthy mission with incredible talent, and I haven’t ever settled for anything less.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can laugh at this now, but it nearly gave me a heart attack at the time. In my first year as a consultant, I was working with a major nonprofit organization to build and engage their online supporter base. My role included a bit of everything — we didn’t really have specializations yet in online campaigning, nor did we have sophisticated platforms — and one of my tasks was to manually add a data field for all email subscribers. I had to download and re-upload the entire supporter list, and somehow, I scrambled the data fields in the process; when I looked up my record, it gave me someone else’s first name and location.

I fought off a panic attack. I was already the last person in the office, and we were launching a campaign the next day. It’s a bit of a haze, but I remember staying till 4am to undo whatever I did and ensure 100% data integrity. (None of my colleagues — or the client — ever knew about this!)

Experiences like that have given me a foundational understanding of the intricacies of running a program and the importance of each component — which I hope makes me a more empathetic, forgiving, and capable leader across a range of disciplines and functions.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

It’s true that a bad or uninterested manager can spoil someone’s experience, even if the job is otherwise fulfilling. It’s essential to give managers the tools to succeed at every stage of the lifecycle of the employee:

  • Hiring: Our process is quite rigorous, which gives both our company and the candidate an opportunity to truly evaluate whether Blue State is the right long-term fit. One small but important detail: We ask candidates for a diverse group of references, including various gender/gender identity, race, age, professional relationship etc. and more specifically at least two female references. You’re less likely to look elsewhere when you’re surrounded by thoughtful, talented, and collaborative colleagues.
  • Onboarding: This is perhaps the most difficult, underrated, and essential aspect of someone’s experience, and it sets the tone for everything else. After surveying our staff, we developed a company-wide onboarding regimen as well as detailed project team onboarding to set up new employees for success.
  • Feedback and goals: After a 90-day review, and then at regular intervals, including after annual performance reviews, managers set and revisit goals with their direct reports, working off a template (if desired) we’ve developed. In parallel, we’ve introduced a “motivation chart” that provides a rubric for someone to share what motivates them professionally and whether their current situation is meeting their needs and expectations. That alone has surfaced really meaningful conversations.
  • Professional growth: We’ve outlined multiple paths for growth for each position at Blue State, as well as examples of where we’ve supported people who have switched disciplines, so that no one feels limited in their potential. There used to be a perception that management was the only way to move up, which we dispel from week one. One might instead choose the “expert” track, becoming the leader in one’s craft or capability. I also make a point to understand someone’s broader aspirations so that we can have a genuine conversation about what’s next and ideally work together to achieve those career objectives, whether at Blue State or beyond.
  • Exit interviews: I generally feel I’ve failed when a departure is a surprise, and I always collect feedback on the person’s full experience. Our HR team does this methodically and aggregates the feedback so that leadership can learn from it.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

First, I think it’s important to know when to synchronize and when to decentralize. Specific markets or functions don’t always benefit from a central playbook or structure.

That said, after years of working with enterprise nonprofits and brands, we are very familiar with how organizations tend to be siloed, and the types of tensions those silos tend to produce — unclear ownership or accountability, or on the flip side, too much territoriality. We’ve helped organizations make sweeping change and break out of legacy processes and programs.

Our work on presidential campaigns, where you can start with a clean slate — no institutional history, no baggage — has provided the opportunity to build a new staffing structure and model of mobilization that we think is the goal post for other organizations. And you can see that reflected in the way Blue State is organized, breaking down superficial barriers between offices, between teams, between online and offline communications efforts.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

  1. Listen. What does your team need? What helps them thrive? We try to collect feedback in all manner of ways — one-to-ones, team retrospectives, staff surveys. We also have a digital “Suggestion Box” as an open space to provide feedback directly to the executive team. Ideas from every corner of the company have shaped who we are today, including our unlimited time off policy.
  2. Invest in good leaders. You can’t go it alone! Surround yourself with people you can trust to not only solve yesterday’s problems but also set a vision for tomorrow. Equip them with what they need to do that successfully, be accountable for it, and set an example of how it’s done. Strong leadership must also include people from all backgrounds — especially underrepresented backgrounds. We have more work to do to become the most diverse company we’d like to be, but we’ve made great strides in the past few years. In a big shift from two years ago, our exec team is now majority female and 46% BIPOC.
  3. Challenge the status quo. Don’t let the familiar stand in the way of progress. The pandemic has shifted the way we work, and we’re not afraid to adopt a totally new model of doing business. The Blue State of today looks very different from the Blue State of last year, and so on. We relentlessly focus on continual improvement — for our clients, for ourselves, for our agency.
  4. Learn from your mistakes. It requires you to be vulnerable to admit when you’re wrong and to emerge a better leader. An example: For too long, I was blind to the toxic behavior of an employee because they were a high performer. When confronted, and when the pattern of mistreatment became clear to me, I apologized and fully owned my mistake, and have since become more proactive at intervening and shutting down (micro)aggressions.
  5. Give clear and direct feedback. It’s impossible to build a culture of excellence if people aren’t pushed to achieve it (or aren’t aware when they do achieve it). Candid and frequent feedback strengthens individuals, the company, the output, and our impact. We invested in outside training on how to give and receive feedback for every single one of our staff, enlisting the excellent Ramona Strategies.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

I have become a major champion of Working Agreements, and encourage all leaders to adopt them for their teams. Our Working Agreements are a set of values and expectations to guide how we work internally at Blue State and how we want to engage with our clients as well. They were created to help us pay more careful attention to our own behaviors, so we aren’t advertently or inadvertently undermining a truly equitable working culture — so every person is able to fully contribute to the effort across our team and our partnerships.

I find them essential to building a culture where everyone can succeed, and everyone feels they can belong. We also use them to help frame peer feedback, not just for annual performance reviews but also for one-off interactions.

Oh, one more thing: Encourage vacations that are two weeks or longer. We work hard and, no matter how much we love what we do, it’s crucial to unplug! That second week is always so good for the soul.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A colleague recently shared a study with me that I found fascinating, even if unsurprising. Political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kallis did a field experiment where they incentivized a sample of regular Fox News viewers to instead watch CNN for one month. This shifted their beliefs, attitudes, and overall political views.

Imagine if we were able to break through to everyone who is feasting on a diet of a biased set of information, find more common ground, and restore our democracy!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Barack Obama said that in a February 2008 speech when he was still a long-shot candidate for president. He taught by example to be the change you want to see. Don’t wait for others to step up. I’ve taken that with me to every job and every challenge.

Thank you for these great insights!

Marie Danzig of Blue State: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.