Marketing is changing, and so is the leadership needed for it to have the impact you need.
I know because I have lived through the recent digital and generational transition, which has rendered much of my expensive Marketing MBA obsolete. I’ve also learned hard lessons by making mistakes and having to reflect on those.
In short, I believe today’s great Marketing Leaders are ambidextrous between “bird’s eye view and worm’s eye view.”
They need to be able to switch seamlessly from vision and mission to the tactical. They need to be both data-driven and people-driven.
I believe the days of simple delegation are largely over in most organizations, and that soft skills are more important than ever.
Here are the 10 characteristics I’ve observed that a great marketing leader must possess today:
Customer Focus: This one sounds like it’s too obvious to mention, but I’ve seen many marketers settle on creative, messaging, branding and distribution decisions from their own gut or in a meeting. Sometimes it works. Often, it doesn’t. I know because I’ve tried. Effective marketers will have clearly defined personas and lots of research that gets into their heads. Big decisions should not be left to chance. Ongoing metrics will allow for instant course-correction.
Working Knowledge of All Marketing Functions: It’s healthy to be able to do all the jobs in the department. This doesn’t mean being better than the email marketer, PPC and SEO experts, creative manager or content strategist. Having a working knowledge will allow the marketing leader to give informed, detailed direction and know when their people are performing.
ROI Focus on the Department: A recent CMO Survey showed the most stressful aspect of the job is being able to constantly justify the cost of marketing efforts. Having systems to attribute customer activity to marketing campaigns is critical. If those systems are automated, that’s even better. And being able to navigate conversations around top-of-funnel efforts that don’t directly convert to transactions is also critical. The C-Suite conversation around the justification of Marketing budgets will never end.
Constantly-Refreshed Digital Fluency: This dovetails with a general Growth Mindset. But out of necessity, Marketing leaders need to always be looking around the corner at trends like Generative AI and thinking deeply about how they will affect the enterprise and how to pivot. Only a genuine curiosity about Digital will enable this to take place.
Team Leadership: This means having a psychological understanding on some level of all team members. What are their motivators? Blockers? Fears? Usually, the more talented team members are a handful to manage. The ability to build trust and respect is especially crucial with these individuals. This is also critical for being able to have those hard conversations about performance, productivity, attitude and growth. Too many managers try to be friends with their team members. Everyone can see it and it doesn’t work.
Ability to Think Around Corners: Someone in the enterprise has to always be thinking about what’s next, how new trends will affect customers and provide opportunities. What is the competition doing? This is also a critical area of team leadership. Some of the best ideas will come from team members. Giving them a safe space to innovate should be a core company value. Many companies say they do this, but then penalize innovation when it fails to instantly produce.
Communication and Influence: Great marketing leaders have excellent listening skills and seamless, crisp speaking skills. They are able to pivot difficult conversations into productive ones and use sharp reasoning to effortlessly articulate a point of view. This comes from both personality and credibility. Great marketing leaders know they have to give respect to gain it. They know how to do more than just present a Powerpoint, but to take people on a journey.
Accountability: The buck has to stop somewhere. I once was part of a group that was involved in a very public misstep and everyone was pointing fingers. Then one manager simply said, “I’ll take the blame.” That individual faced no recrimination, and was subsequently promoted several times. Accountability should also accompany learning and action: “As a result of this campaign’s poor performance, we will now make these changes.”
Resilience: Everyone in business has taken a few bullets. Exceptional leaders know how to move on, better than ever. I’ve found it inspiring to see people in business (and in life) suffer incredible setbacks, only to learn, grow and bounce back.
Passion: This cannot be faked. Great marketing leaders see their roles as more than a job, but a mission. They are driven to succeed and help those around them do so as well. In addition, it’s more fun to work with people who care.
Bonus characteristic: Growth Mindset. I believe excellent Marketing Leaders need to always be learning, evolving and not be stagnant in their perspectives. I’ve observed that people who approach life this way are generally happier and more fulfilled. They influence those around them to also question their own status quo. This means not being afraid to admit they have been “looking at it wrong.” This is especially important for individuals like me who have been in the workforce for a few years. Going through life this way just keeps it fresh.
A great Marketing Leader can provide the heartbeat every organization needs to be exceptional. High-performing companies don’t get that way by accident.
Key team leaders make the difference.