Buy-In Is Key to Leading Through Transformation

Your teams need a loosely held vision to strongly believe in

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The challenge

At Shutterstock, we faced the classic innovator’s dilemma: How to evolve the business for the future when we already have something that works.

What I learned in the years working in management at other tech startups, before joining the company this spring, was the necessity of fine-tuning the pace and integration of transformation. Move too fast and you risk total rejection. Move too slow, you lose momentum.

As a leader, you have to define and safeguard a vision for the future while empowering every team member to be part of it. The vision: Learn, take risks and optimize their role. There’s a lot to gain in this process and a lot at stake. Success, however, ultimately relies on the ability to bring people with you through the process.

The process

We took time and care in defining our vision at Shutterstock, which was to be an end-to-end creative platform for individuals and businesses. We knew our actions had to align with and underscore this vision every step of the way. So we started making moves.

We executed major acquisitions that gave our users access to everything, from the largest marketplace of 3D objects in the world and high-quality editorial content to AI-powered, low-cost music licensing. Meanwhile, we reorganized internally, too. We launched Shutterstock Studios, a global creative and production studio, and Shutterstock Editorial to leverage our globally distributed network of thousands of photographers and creatives. We also put our money where our mouth was, starting The Create Fund, a grant program to help more artists have a positive impact through their work.

While we made these significant changes behind the scenes, we soon reached a new and vital phase of the transformation process. It was time to tell the world.

Marketing, both internally and externally, is key to shifting brand perception. Just as we had defined a clear vision for the changes we wanted to make in our business, we also set a clear vision for how it would be communicated to our various stakeholders.

Creating buy-in among employees and executives is a vital first step to creating true and lasting transformation. So we distilled our vision into a simple message that could be echoed consistently with shared purpose across the organization. When our team members share our passion for where we’re headed, it’s palpable. When they are empowered to communicate our mission and feel connected to our vision, more of our audience becomes connected, too.

For our top target accounts, we undertook substantial A/B testing to ensure the way our message was delivered resonated with each prospect. This greatly accelerated the sales cycles, helping our teams secure meetings and close business faster. Incidentally, we apply this same A/B testing to the content we create for our brand clients, helping them pinpoint what content works best with their target audience.

When it came time to more formally shift Shutterstock’s image, we sought out “lightning strike” moments to deliver our message and control the narrative. Whether you’re addressing a new audience or trying out a new channel, finding these big moments can get the market to sit up and pay attention.

We used Cannes to launch our new story. It was unexpected for many. We got some quizzical looks sharing our work in 3D objects, standards and the metaverse. This rapidly created a buzz around our work that was entirely different from anything in the past and a lot more effective than a steady drip of display ads.

Moments like these make a splash, but don’t undermine the consistency of vision and messaging. Bringing social channels, PR and all outgoing communications into alignment allows you to maintain momentum without sacrificing the magic of history and progress.

The takeaway

While our transformation is still underway, our results have been encouraging so far. In the quest to create that unified message, it’s important not to water down the core elements of your brand that made you stand out in the first place. Your history laid the groundwork for your growth to date and can be honored even as you continue to evolve.

Transformation takes time. Painting a strongly believed but loosely held vision not only keeps your organization agile but empowers your team to contribute their own expertise along the way. With this approach, you can more thoroughly tap into your talent pool across the entire transformation timeline.

Change, by definition, requires doing new things. Not every experiment will work out. Embrace the process completely by setting up incentives that make it clear that innovation is rewarded at your company. Prizes like Craziest Experiment and Biggest Lesson Learned are great ways to lean in. Communicate often and reiterate the importance of each team member’s place in the overall vision.

Remind them (and yourself) that when we learn to skate, we will fall down. But transformation is well worth the cost of a few scraped knees.