Leadership, teamwork, communication…. Yup. We’ve heard these words before. Many times. But nowadays if we want to be outstanding marketing leaders we need to plunge a little deeper into the more nuanced behaviors within and aside from these motherhood skills. That way you can get closer to even more specific practices of an exceptional leader. Then, you can think about how to shape your own behavior, or better yet, decide if you’re a match for this kind of career.
I worked for a company that created a team that dedicated 18 months to study and ultimately define the essential characteristics of a great leader. They did a fantastic job with it but in my mind only got about 80% there. I will borrow from this and several other documents and policies I have been exposed to, to round out what I believe is a complete offering of attributes. This is a long post; there’s a lot here, so for your own career and development you’ll need to prioritize by studying your organization to see what is most valued at each level. I can pretty much guarantee, though, that all of these will be valued, whether they are called out specifically, or there are unwritten expectations of these kinds of attributes.
These are in no particular order, but I will kick off with a few essentials:
This one comes first and I’m considering deploying all the function keys on my keyboard to find a way to highlight, bold and add in animated .gif explosions around the header. I have to coach this trait into every interview prep session because few find this attribute intuitive to talk about. This is the destination, whereas everything else is part of the journey.
That’s an important point if you choose your career to, say, follow your passion. Remember that passion is context as well, not necessarily the destination. Unless you’re Mark Cuban, who can self fund his own company, you are accountable to shareholders. And shareholders expect growth. If you tap out a market opportunity, be prepared to pivot away from your passion area to keep the financial ball rolling. This is why entrepreneurs especially can become disenfranchised and cash out.
So, yeah, once you’re on the job, be all about ‘the number’ or the goal. Full stop. It’s the context for everything you do. Care about the important result(s) and be seen as being on top of understanding and leading your progress towards it. As well, leaders tend to overlook a slightly deviant path to the goal if you ultimately do hit your financial and other targets.
An essential component of being focused on results is not letting obstacles get in your way. You are seen as results oriented when you deliver under the most trying circumstances. CEOs of public companies can’t get on a quarterly earnings call and claim to have missed the number because of a bad breakup. If you have ambition, best start learning to persevere now.
Net net, you want to be the person that makes Great. Things. Happen. Because. You. Are. On. The. Team. Construct your personal and professional life to be able to showcase your results, and your resume, career and life will be going places.
SENSE OF URGENCY
The common buzz phrase is ‘being proactive’, which is another one of those general terms I’d like to work through in this blog.
It’s not just about being ahead of management, it’s what you do and how you do it. Your company’s leaders look for an appropriate sense of the level of urgency in how you operate. Looking beyond, your action steps also define your ability to achieve results, so think about not only when you communicate, but with what tone, in what forum and to which people.
I will advise throughout this blog to be seen as ‘on it’. Urgency + results orientation = a lethal combination of skills which form the basis for achievement.
My all-time fave. Earlier in my career one of my bosses busted this word out in a coaching session and it hit my intellectual hot spot. She was bang on with this descriptor, and I have to say I have used this precise word on multiple occasions, and with great impact. This word just sticks with people. And it’s a good one.
This is the important leading edge of being adaptable, which to me is a more medium-term proposition. But when crisis and conflict happens, you need a leader who keeps their cool at that moment. Everyone wants that in a boss who shields you from the ongoing hysterics of corporate life.
Try using the term and watch the almost explosive reaction you get. Find a leader in your org that everyone respects. Someone you think is unflappable. Ask others why this person is a great leader and you’ll get all the standard and wonderful leadership traits. Then when they are done, say, “I also appreciate how he/she is unflappable in the way they lead” and watch the reaction (e..g “OMG yeah, totally! Great word!”). Happens often.
When you pair this trait with a Results Orientation you get resilience. In the entrepreneurship space especially, I’m coming across a number of aspiring leaders who give up pretty easily, or adopt avoidance and other shady behaviors when times get a little tough. Yes, being unflappable is not just controlling your emotions; it also means nothing shakes your resolve; nothing changes your work style or way of dealing with people. More on that later.
Sadly I have born witness to situations where someone lost their cool or, good grief, cried at the wrong time (not out of passion but out of frustration, mostly). Curtains. You can do a million things well, but one false move at the wrong time and you’re branded for life. Similarly, keeping your act together and showing it at critical times can raise eyebrows in a positive light and thus immediately signal your potential. I believe it takes awhile for a person to get promoted or lose their job because they are not adaptable. But, being unflappable has instant and noticeable impact.
ABLE TO MANAGE COMPLEXITY
The next few relate to elements of problem solving – another big-picture trait I’m going to dissect.
You will constantly be faced with befuddling circumstances or information that is some degree of incomplete or contradictory. You have to learn how to sort through situations or how to integrate your gut into the equation to reconcile gaps or inconsistencies. Or, where there is no process to deal with something, you make your own process. Great leaders can find the path through murky waters, if not total darkness. I will admit I subconsciously metric how often my direct reports get stumped…and to what degree. I’m not talking about not knowing how to execute the next steps in a plan; that’s just training. I’m talking about the inability to rationalize or substantiate what the next steps might even be. Even partial steps.
A component of this is functioning in white space. You have an opportunity or an objective but nothing else; no direction, unclear resources, no steps. All on you to create outcomes. Does that inspire you or scare you? I have effectively told my interviewer when applying for a job “just show me my desk and give me an objective. I got this. I’ll call you if I need something.” Said in the right spirit, that approach has been consistently valued.
Your dependence on others to guide you through problems will be a limiting factor in your career, if you plan to go far. Have no fear in asking for guidance, but put some thought into how much you rely on it.
Resourcefulness is a companion to managing complexity when solving problems.
Being resourceful doesn’t always mean being independent. A huge part of it is building your network and understanding how your organization functions, some of the first things you need to do when you join a company. You don’t always have the answers or your tools yourself. Your network does, and a network is important to help you decrease your reliance on your team.
Resources are not just people. There are other tools within organizations that take the form of systems, processes and information that are available to boost productivity and generate answers.
Being resourceful has two primary net benefits: demonstrating independence and boosting productivity. Your end goal is to be seen as someone who can just take care of business.
Leaders will struggle to solve problems and, importantly, break new ground without solid consumer-based marketing instinct.
You can easily identify those who don’t have it. Next time you’re in a situation where something new is being attempted, such as an inventive marketing program, watch how leaders evaluate and make decisions. Do they search for and rely on data exclusively to make a call or do they integrate their own understanding of the consumer and the marketplace? If you experience the former, your team will struggle to be original. Spreadsheets cannot predict the results of innovation; at most, they can only help prioritize and weed out less sensible options.
RIGHT BRAIN/LEFT BRAIN ADEPT
The best marketers balance a winning combination of analytics and intuition; this is a variation of instinct that also deals with subjectivity. Become as adept at pouring through spreadsheets as you are arguing with an ad agency about why the talent should be dressed in blue. You’ll be praised for your versatility, and also likely seen as ‘creative’ (another of those overused terms that is far too vague for my liking).
This is the final, catch-all that relates to problem-solving and decision-making. Always tell your direct reports that you will evaluate their judgment in reviews; if they screw up and you struggle to insightfully explain why, you can always tell them they exercised poor judgment! Tough to be wrong with such a subjective performance criterion.
So yes, judgment is difficult to metric, explain or teach. People have it or they don’t. It involves when to put your head down and go or when to push back; when to speak up or when to shut up; when to push people and when to give them space; when to take risks and when to take the conservative route. People with superior judgment know how to pull in all relevant information and balance facts, ideas and emotions flawlessly.
Now for a few on communication, although I dedicate a more thorough discussion here.
IDENTIFIES THE BULLS-EYE
(When I first wrote this section, I ended up with almost two pages in Word. Ironic, much? Cut to me, editing…)
In today’s entry, I will highlight the single biggest communication complaint I would hear from senior management: getting to the point.
Those who have worked with and for me have no doubt heard me say that you live and die in presentations or meetings by your opening, or set up. This goes double when talking to senior management. The goal here is to wire their brains. Execs have a voracious appetite for problem solving, so if you don’t help them immediately understand why you have gathered (goals/objectives) and how they can help, they will become anxiety ridden. Their world of meetings runs in 5-15 minute increments whereas yours run by the hour. They won’t wait that long, and will begin interrupting to accelerate the path to the decision within ten to sixty seconds. Observe this dynamic for yourself when you sit in meetings with the high-priced help. If the presenter seems to begin with some kind of story that runs chronologically, they’ll be stopped. Guaranteed.
Don’t be afraid to tip your hand in the set up. Take a minute to wire the brains of your audience to begin any discussion – even if it’s bad news. You’ll experience much smoother sailing as you run through your agenda. Engage your manager to practice, and perfect this skill when running meetings with agencies or your peers.
The other element of the bulls-eye is insight — that powerful, ‘a-ha’ moment of an opportunity or idea. Marketing is about storytelling, and it’s those power moments in how you see the marketplace and share what you’ve learned that will engage and sell your audience. If you manage complexity well, you can consider the chaos of a business situation and extract the key elements.
ABILITY TO INSPIRE & MOTIVATE
At the core of understanding people is knowing them. Self-centered people think about how the world impacts them. The opposite type are hip to how they impact others. So many of the other characteristics mentioned here need to be deployed to motivate people, but to me, the basis of inspiration is the selflessness of being all about your audience.
Best example: go on a sales call. Your chances of getting what you want are tied to your ability to frame the discussion around how to help the retail buyer achieve his or her objectives. They will listen.
When people ask me about my preferred criteria for a lifetime partner, I list this ability near the top. Once the laughter stops and I explain, I usually win them over. And then I double down by sharing how important this is in business, too.
You build or strengthen your most valued relationships through the process by which you manage the bumps in the road. The more human skills of listening, empathy, negotiating, generosity and diplomacy all come into play and are magnified by how you navigate difficult situations and discussions, individually or in teams.
From the beginning of my career I have said “conflict is an agent of understanding and progress”; I still feel that way today. Only a few months ago I had a very difficult situation with the President of a PR agency that I engaged to work on a project. We agreed not to work together again on my current list of projects. Ten minutes after that tough phone call she emailed me to appreciate my professionalism and the extent to which I chose each word carefully. Today, we are working together again in a different capacity, supporting each other’s businesses and careers.
Also, if you become adept at dealing with the tough stuff, you will in turn energize appetite to tackle the challenges and complexities of your job. Your productivity and career trajectory will benefit since you will be last to avoid situations that even decent leaders are afraid to tackle. Having difficult conversations — even when conflict isn’t involved — is a routine part of driving for results. Work on ditching your avoidance skills — while crafting those of diplomacy — early on in your career.
CONSISTENCY and AUTHENTICITY
One of the recurring themes that will emerge in this blog is my appeal to you to develop and nurture your ‘brand’. After all, you’re a marketer, so how much more practically can you apply this skill set than to yourself? You are a product and certainly not a commodity. Consistency and reliability in your brand will instill the confidence in others that comes from knowing what they are getting. So, among these glorious traits, determine which ones you could be most naturally known for and be exactly that. Always.
And, be believable. Be you. I often coach my team to “be a great leader in the (insert name) way”. That means to simply fine tune your leadership style in a way that leaves people believing it’s still you and not a clone of some other person respected in your company.
Once you have mastered everything discussed until now (ha!) you can tackle this one. At lower levels this is more aptly called intellectual curiosity, which ladders up to your ability to strategize. A vision is curiosity plus creativity matched with powerful understanding of business and the marketplace. Curious people uncover opportunities that ultimately fuel strategies and plans. They dig more into the why and how of business and marketing so that they can figure out how to do it better. Curious people want to bring ideas that others don’t…or before they do.
If you REALLY want to go far (and certainly be an entrepreneur) be visionary. It’s a key ingredient to ensure your business continues to evolve so that the competish doesn’t obsolete you. Good luck with that, though, as it’s almost impossible to teach. You just have to have it, being so far ahead of the curve that people have no choice but to follow. There are only so many people out there named Gates, Jobs, Brin or Zuckerberg. Companies will thrive during their tenure, but risk eventually becoming shadows of themselves when these visionaries move on. You just can’t succession plan sheer brilliance.
Update: July 2018
I want to add if you are considering a career in entrepreneurship, you may still have success without a full toolbox of the above skills. These may apply more directly to established and larger companies although they ALL come in handy when starting a company.
The jury is still out on what norms are expected in the world of startups. Part of the reason for this is the relative newness of the field and the diversity of backgrounds and skill sets of participants. I mean, you don’t have to qualify to be an entrepreneur, really — you just join and go!
Consequently, in my recent work in entrepreneurship I’m coming across a range of powerful strengths while at the same time glaring deficiencies in many of these skills. I find many more spirited people with vision, and certainly those with unbridled passion. What doesn’t always go with that is the drive and perseverance to find solutions, overcome obstacles and hit milestones…all while adeptly managing the stresses of their relationships and career along with the complexities of their environment.
My role in all of this has been to adapt…and to assume nothing. Understand that each person I meet is a new person who must be audited for the way they work and the unique set of assets they have. It’s very different from corporate life where the range of profiles is comparatively much more narrow. Not a bad thing….just need to be aware and prepared!
Google conducted a thorough internal study and in June 2017 published the results of what employees valued most in their bosses and leaders. Check #1. (I like my word choice better!)
In August 2017, Fast Company projected to 2025 and in this article on 7 needed skills for leaders we are seeing evolved soft skills and a renewed focus on results