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Top 5 traits of great marketing leaders

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Marketing is a complex field, and every leader faces unique challenges. But are there any common traits we can attribute to great marketing leaders? What makes a good leader, and what qualities should they possess?

And most importantly, can these qualities, these leadership skills, be developed?

My answer to the "what makes a good leader" question would be like this: great leaders can see things in ways others don’t. They can think outside the box and develop new strategies and tactics. They can communicate their vision effectively so that it resonates with their audience. And most importantly, they can execute those visions not only across their teams but also across other teams.

To become the great and inspiring marketing leaders everyone needs us to be, we must dive deeper beyond professional skills. Apart from skills, marketing mastery requires specific personality traits. So, let us dive into the top characteristics of marketing leaders.

1. A growth mindset: everyone can develop the qualities of a successful leader.

I consider a growth mindset the most essential trait of any leader. A growth mindset encourages us to believe that intelligence, creativity, and even things like love and friendship can be developed through experience and practice. Growth mindset leaders are not bothered if something doesn't work out right away because they see setbacks as learning experiences rather than failures.

For everyone with a growth mindset, my answer to the question "can these leadership skills be developed?" would be a definite "Yes!".

To me, the nature versus nurture discussion was settled after I read Mindset by Carol Dweck. It confirmed what I had seen before: how great talent can be wasted if not nurtured and what extraordinary achievement persistence, will, and determination can deliver.

When it comes to success in business and profession, I am a believer in the process. I believe that evaluating something or someone based on the process is more important than assessing it based on the achievement alone; even a mediocre player can win one game (based on luck, i.e., even a 0.05 chance materializes sometime) but will lose long-term without a proper process in place.

However. Even though I consider success has much to do with the process and effort, we should not take it to the extreme to advocate for false and toxic positivity, become obsessed with effort, or even negate talent. It is about a combination; it is about embracing the challenges, building the process on top of the talent, and embracing challenges and failure. And importantly, acknowledge our limitations (such as limiting beliefs) and work on them (yes, even when we believe we are missing the talent).

2. Unifier mindset: leaders look well beyond marketing departments to achieve their goals.

A modern enterprise requires an agile, cross-functional workforce operating outside the silo mode. Successful marketing executives know how to harness talent across all departments. They know how to work collaboratively with sales teams, product development, human resources, executives, and others.

This requires an open mindset focused on empowering others and aligning everyone across a joint mission. And I can tell you; this is highly challenging yet extremely important.

I like the term McKinsey coined, Unifier mindset. It is about speaking the language, understanding our peers' perspectives, and ensuring they know marketing's diverse roles and contributions. I have already talked about the crucial relationship with and what it takes for marketing executives to speak the language (factual data) of the CEO and CFO regarding marketing budgets. And similar is true when it comes to the relationship with B2B sales leaders.

To me, a Unifier mindset is also much about empathy. Rather than leading with authority (or autocratic leadership), we need to lead with empathy. This is one area where marketing leaders can leverage their knowledge of marketing- what else are our colleagues than user personas, and what else is empathy than being customer driven 😉,

Based on this "cross-functional mindset" need, it should not be surprising that many successful marketing leaders have diverse professional backgrounds with experience ranging from sales, business operations, and finance to technology and IT.

3. Curiosity and a learning mindset: leaders embrace change and constantly learn and seek new ways to leverage knowledge.

As customer needs and behavior are constantly changing, so must our strategies. Openness toward change and learning is one of the secrets of successful marketing leaders; marketing leaders must evolve themselves and their teams to stay ahead.

When I first got into marketing, the internet was in its infancy, and the term digital marketing was not even invented. Nowadays, we're at Marketing version 5.0, which means we've gone from having a glimpse of the Internet to rich digital experiences and using technologies that sound like they came out of sci-fi movies: Chatbots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, workflow automation, data platforms.

A significant challenge to learning is the extreme range of areas we must be familiar with and be good at; from understanding market shifts, customer buying patterns, product management, marketing technologies, data analytics, analyst-influencer, and partner relations, to the more "arty" part of marketing such as copy, storytelling, user experience, and design, even behavior psychology.

As challenging as this is, it is also the more exciting part of marketing. Great marketers will always look for new ways to improve their skills and grow their knowledge. They will look for a growth mindset and diverse skills, not just for themselves but also for the team. They will seek out, provide and encourage new learning experiences by "learning through their own mistakes" or through training programs or mentorships. When staffing marketing teams, we should look at these qualities as well.

To master change, a learning mindset must be augmented by the ability to build and run such learning organisations. An agile learning organisation supported by an adaptive planning and operations system enables marketing to respond quickly to emerging opportunities and ongoing business challenges.

4. An analytical mindset: about goals and facts-based decisions

Focusing on data is critical for marketing to build truly adaptive, customer-orientated strategies. Marketing leaders must identify the correct data to course-correct the strategy and optimize operational plans and tactical execution.

The challenging part is to cut through the noise, find the signal, and digest the data quickly and smartly to identify the right metrics to measure their success.

The emergence of digital channels and analytics made it easier to be accountable for delivering value and operating within an ROI mindset. There are no excuses anymore not to build a culture where the whole team monitors activities closely to determine whether they generate value and removes any that aren't.

The analytical mindset is also about the culture that the leader has to build from the top down. It is about metrics and KPIs and how to leverage them to drive the team's behavior.

Such an ROI mindset helps marketing leaders fulfill their mandate as growth drivers and helps build credibility with the CFO to unlock budgets.

But the analytical mindset does not apply only to metrics. It is also about being systematic when it comes to planning marketing strategies and putting them into operations, and it all starts with a deep understanding of clients buying behavior- why they buy, how they buy, who, and what influences the decisions.

5. Customer-focused mindset: more than about your products, it is about understanding and advocating for your clients.

To create meaningful brands and customer experiences, leaders need to know what their brand stands for to their customers and stakeholders and communicate that meaning clearly. Brand Strategy is one of the essential capabilities.

Customer values and behavior shift over time. As the COVID crisis has progressed, so has our understanding of how we need to adapt our marketing efforts. A simple set-it-up-and-forgot-it approach no longer suffices. COVID has shown us how a single global event can change customer behavior. In B2B, it moved large parts of the buying cycle (also for complex and expensive solutions) online, forcing us to not only develop rich online experiences but also redefine the role of marketing, especially when it comes to the relationship with Sales organizations.

Modern marketers must be aware of the challenges of complexity and scale they must meet to achieve customer-centricity. They involve commitments to several areas:

  • Understanding market shifts and industry-specific strategic initiatives that make leaders

  • A design-thinking approach to solving customer pain points and unmet needs

  • A data platform with a unified view of customers pulled from every possible touchpoint.

  • The continuous generation of insights from customer-journey analytics

  • The measurement of everything customers see and engage with

Instead of a conclusion

Well, no one can make it on their own, and to successfully leverage these traits, marketing leaders need the support of their broader organizations. Therefore, it is essential that the whole organization is open and agile- an organization that has the flexibility to adapt its plans and activities in response to changing market conditions that drive marketing initiatives.

An organization characterized by a culture of openness to change, with a structure that allows fast decision-making to react quickly to changes in the market environment.

However, the only thing we can control is ourselves. So, the time to start developing these traits to become a great marketing leader is now.

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