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I recently had the opportunity to play a round of golf at Pebble Beach, where the splendor of the setting was marred by just one thing: my swing.

Disappointed in my performance, I reached out to a high school friend—a natural sportsman with a textbook golf swing. He took me to the range. As he watched me hack away, he offered some polite advice: "What you need," he observed, "is to unlearn some bad habits."

It was sound advice: In golf, as in business, bad habits can sink you.

But the more I think about "unlearning" in a professional context, the more I realize how important it is to be able to unlearn good habits, too.

At my company, we often remind new hires who have joined us from other companies to enter with a beginner's mindset.

To learn the #village culture our CEO and team have worked so hard to build over the years, they need to unlearn the culture from which they came, hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del on their operating system so they can start afresh.

That can be challenging. After all, those new hires were invited to join us precisely because of the experience they'd earned and the talent they'd demonstrated in their previous roles. How are we supposed to determine what to bring with us into future challenges and what to leave behind?

To answer that question, you need to know the difference between philosophies and playbooks.

The former are universal and strategic; the latter are situational and tactical. I believe that great leaders hold on to their philosophies—but rewrite their playbooks.

Unlearn your old playbook

As a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan, I remember when the Cowboys hired Chan Gailey, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator, to be their head coach. But Gailey attempted to bring the same playbook that had led the Steelers to so much success to Dallas. On a different team, with different players, that playbook was destined to fail—and Gailey was out of a job two years later.

I also remember when the team later hired Bill Parcells. Like Gailey, Parcells had been successful, winning two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. When he left for the New England Patriots, he took with him a philosophy rooted in toughness and resilience. But he wisely replaced the conservative, defense-driven playbook that had worked so well in New York with one that capitalized on the Patriots' strength: throwing the football and running up the score.

When Parcells led the Cowboys to the playoffs in his first season in Dallas, he became the first head coach in NFL history to do so with four different teams.

The secret to his constant success in varying environments? I believe it was his ability to unlearn.

Understand your new challenge

Once you're willing to accept that what got you to this point won't get you where you want to go next, you are free to consider what will.

In other words, the point of unlearning is to create space for understanding.

Lou Gerstner knew that. When he joined IBM, he brought with him a philosophy of customer success that had worked well at American Express and RJR Nabisco. But although many expected him to immediately rework IBM's operations in line with the way he had restructured his previous companies, Gerstner instead chose to unlearn his old playbook and spend time understanding his new organization.

Armed with that new understanding, he wound up not breaking up IBM, despite what everyone had expected; instead, he consolidated the company's various verticals, paving the way for its success in the '90s.

When you find yourself in a new position, it may be tempting to jump right in with both feet. After all, you were hired because of your talent—why not immediately begin to showcase it?

But I highly recommend taking 30 days to focus on showcasing your curiosity instead of your brilliance. That early window is a critical opportunity to ask key questions that will help you draft a new and successful playbook.

For example, a new CMO might spend the first month asking...

  • Why was I brought in? How do the CEO and the board view the role of Marketing in the organization?
  • How is our brand perceived in the marketplace? Are we defined as a leader in the space, or a disruptor?
  • How is the sales organization set up? Is it organized by product line, segment based on customer size (SMB, enterprise, etc.), or other criteria? And how can we align critical areas of our marketing organization to follow that paradigm?
  • What are the go-to-market motions driving success for Sales? What are the primary growth drivers for pipeline creation?
  • What is the current state of the department and where are the opportunities to find greater success? What are the critical areas in Marketing that are "above the line," and which ones need dramatic improvement?

The answers to those questions will lead you to build the right playbook—which you can then implement with more confidence on Day 31 than anything you could have put into place on your first day in the role.

Unleash your new approach

When I joined Coupa from Marketo, I brought with me a philosophy that can be summed up in five words: Set up sales to win.

All aspects of B2B marketing—from product marketing to growth marketing to corporate marketing—are aligned toward that simple idea. And I truly believe that, no matter the situation, you can design and execute a marketing strategy through that lens.

But the marketing playbook we run at Coupa is different from the one we had executed at Marketo. It has to be, because—as I discovered during my own early days asking those critical questions—the two companies have different needs.

For example, Marketo was mainly scaled on a midmarket go-to-market model with a velocity-based inbound engine that sourced most of the new business. Coupa, on the other hand, started with the midmarket but had also successfully scaled in the enterprise space, and it needed a go-to-market model with an emphasis on account-based marketing and mainstream advertising.

That experience was an illustration of how we must often be willing to unlearn even the most valuable tactical lessons for the sake of bringing a beginner's mindset to a new role.

* * *

It's one thing to move beyond ways of thinking (or golf swings) that haven't worked. Business leaders also need to be able to let go of tactics that have served them well in the past so they can start fresh and create space for new understandings of new challenges.

Such unlearning is the key to success. Although I don't know whether there's any hope for my golf swing.

More Resources on Marketing Leadership Skills

The Pain of Marketing Leaders: Why We're Overwhelmed and What We Can Do About It

How to Gain Influence and Effect Change: Four Skills Every Marketing Leader Needs

15 Leadership Lessons From Female Founders and CEOs [Infographic]

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Unlearn So You Can Succeed: Why (And How) You Should Rewrite Your Playbook

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image of Chandar Pattabhiram

Chandar Pattabhiram is the CMO at Coupa, a business spend management software company.

LinkedIn: Chandar Pattabhiram

Twitter: @chandarp