The right personality to run a global web estate

Bringing order to a complex online presence requires the versatility of Leonardo Da Vinci and the resourcefulness of Machiavelli, but to really get things done web managers need the charm of Mother Teresa, David Bowen says.

Why is it that the world’s most sophisticated organizations – multinational corporations – find it so hard to get their web estates right? It’s one of those ‘We can send people to the moon, but we can’t cure the common cold’ questions. Websites are really not that complicated to design or build; there is a general acceptance that it is a good idea to have a set that gives off the same messages around the world. So why do the people at the centre so often struggle to get their colleagues around the world help them create a beautifully manicured online estate?

The answer is that, while some of their colleagues will be the most obliging and professional folk anyone could imagine, others will not. They will:

  • have no interest in websites, and regard any attempt to get them interested as waste of time
  • have too much to do already, and resent any attempt to get them to do more
  • be bosses who feel – and perhaps are – chronically understaffed, and resist efforts to divert their underlings to webby matters
  • know far better than the centre what is needed. Every web manager I know has at least one business or country that always knows best
  • on principle resent any interference from the centre
  • be any combination of the above

Last time I wrote about governance, I pointed out that it is impossible to be dogmatic about the ‘correct’ model, because each big organization has its own structures, its own culture.  But I did manage to pull out a few common rules, including the need for senior backing, the need to cover social media as well as web and ‘a team leader with the right personality’.

I want to zoom in a bit more on this last point, because it is particularly important when trying to get people you do not know to do things they do not want to do in countries you are unlikely ever to visit.

Three managers in one

Running a web estate is a notably challenging job. What makes web managers different from most of their colleagues is that they have to work with people across all disciplines and locations. They are not the only ones who have to do this, of course – others include IT people and general managers. But they do have a particularly tricky issue. Everyone knows they need IT – they rely on it – and they have to do what general managers say because … well they do. But very few people know they need a website – unless it is the sort that sells things. And web managers tend to be of the middling sort – not with a rank that means they will get their way whatever.

I said a year ago that they needed to be a combination of Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. Mother Teresa, for charm, Leonardo, for Extreme Multitasking, Machiavelli – for getting what you want in whatever way you can. I think that last choice was perhaps misplaced because he was clearly talking about bosses (‘Is it better to be loved than feared?  … It is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved’). But getting your own way is undoubtedly (as he would never have said) a key skillset. 

Cultivating your soft side

The word ‘governance’ tends to cover the formal aspects of running a web estate. These are vital – and often woefully lacking. The whole business of guidelines, committees, reporting lines, training, monitoring, carrots-and-sticks. But the soft side is at least as important. ‘What is your main skill?’ I asked one charming web manager. ‘Charm’, she said. Leonardo would have been good at the formal stuff, handling all that complexity, but to really get things done, Mother Teresa is essential. The trick is to get people to want to do what you want. I’m sure even Mother Teresa shouted at people from time to time, but that – I am equally sure – was not her key skillset (as I hope she wouldn’t have said).

The good news is that in my experience most of the people who are trying to do this difficult job are well suited to it. First, I have never met one who is a scrabbler up corporate ladders – it is not that they lack ambition, but their ambition is not to run a multinational. They are bright enough to know that if they want to do that, online comms is probably not the place to lodge themselves. Second, they are interested in what they do – in that sense they are rather like engineers, the happiest people I know. It’s nice listening to the chatter at our conferences where there is real enthusiasm for, and debate about, the subject – like an academic conference, but without the backstabbing.

A happy coincidence

Third, returning to Mother Teresa, they are good with people. It may be a coincidence that most group websites are run by corporate communications folk, but it is a happy coincidence. Corporate communicators are, one would hope, good at communicating. In the early days websites were usually run by IT, which didn’t work so well because IT people are not hired for their ‘people skills’ (they may have them, but it is not a prerequisite). And the (still many) sites where control is with marketers are also often the ones that are least well run. They are interested in getting one thing done – marketing – and they have little inclination to pussyfoot around keeping less important people happy.

Judging when it’s safe to let go

I was talking recently to the boss of one of the best run web estates. We have worked hard to pull things together, he said, now we need to work out how to let go – without letting the whole estate fall to bits. This must surely be the ultimate goal for web estate managers: to have your colleagues around the world so well trained, and so convinced websites are the most important things, that they will do your job for you. It’s a lovely idea, but for most (perhaps all) organizations it will remain a pipe dream for a long while yet. They will need Leonardo and Mother Teresa – and perhaps Machiavelli – at their hearts. And if they don’t already have them, they should be out there looking. 

First published 18 March, 2015
< Back to Commentaries