Fair Exchange: Learning through the ranks for effective leadership
by Erna George (@edgeo23) Must a chief marketing officer or specialist director start in the junior ranks of brand management or may they join from general business, strategy or other communication fields?
When I last wrote about the balance between experience and a novel and newer perspective, I concluded that the “focus must be on balancing the effect of practised knowhow and proficiency with relevance and fresh thinking”. This stimulated a debate among a few colleagues about what this means for senior leadership within marketing. The opinions were multiple and fairly split but, when I asked for the ‘why’ behind the sentiment, shifting opinions and strong general themes became apparent. After the general chat, I posed this question in depth to about 15 people across the various levels within marketing, from senior HR parties to senior GM.
The minority view was that time through the ranks isn’t a prerequisite.
Thinking started along the lines of it may work if “you are a strategic person and have the expertise and experience (in any field of marketing)”. Given the focus of a senior director’s role is on setting the vision and providing strategic perspective on branding, a few seemed comfortable that this is possible. A key benefit cited was that, with this strategic focus, it would be easier to avoid the person delving into the detailed inner workings of campaigns or projects which disempowers (the word used was “suffocates”) junior team members. It’s tempting to fall back into a comfort zone, with the result that one never allows team members to push boundaries, explore fresh options or lead the thinking.
What was interesting as conversations unfolded is that about half that started backtracking on their initial views. The provisos ranged from:
- Perhaps they wouldn’t have been a brand or marketing manager but it would be highly beneficial to have had at least more junior roles to ensure understanding of the dynamics, the processes and progression through the levels.
(We did discuss that this would constitute learning through the ranks!)
- Some thought it was idealistic to expect hands-on experience; exposure could be driven from in-depth research on the tasks and shape of junior positions or to immerse themselves with the teams across various aspects of the roles to understand critical focal points, challenges and opportunities. Listening would be the most-important requirement in this journey. So, with a sound strategic background within a different field (eg a strategist from an agency), one can apply thinking from the past but needs be open to learning about ‘the other side’ to build the ability to navigate and lead on elements such as commercial, innovation, sales focus etc.
Some weren’t keen on a definite yes or no; it was all about the context.
The industry was deemed a critical determining factor. In particular, for FMCG, it was felt that it was a distinct advantage, if not requirement, to have had junior experience to avoid lofty principles being applied in time-pressured and fairly structured environments. For many in this group, it wasn’t a blanket aye or nay and, beyond the qualifier of industry, the following were vital:
- A passion for the field beyond the boardroom or strategy — a willingness to walk the walk.
Leaders without experience in marketing junior positions, or new to the industry of the business, were expected to participate in a cross-section of interactions to immerse themselves in the value chain the marketing team is working within. Why? So that they understood where to break rules and where toeing the line is more beneficial and how to judge between these.
(Doesn’t this sound familiar from the first group’s expectation of exposure or immersing in the value chain their team operate within?)
- The other area, where concession wasn’t an option, was a curiosity and commitment to be consumer-led.
Overall, it was interesting to listen to the hemming and hawing, and the conclusion from this group was indeed a level of discomfort as, while they didn’t want to be definite, many struggled to find examples of where they have seen people without direct exposure succeed in the long-term or without fairly tough and steep learning curves.
For the majority, it was a resounding no and the critical aspect was around leadership principles.
For these people, it wasn’t to say that the person wouldn’t be able to do the job overall, as many skills are transferable, especially in the corporate world. The key consideration was how could one provide guidance and make optimal decisions without specific knowledge and skills or without having experienced that environment themselves and having executed the daily tasks of a marketing professional? This belief rests within the perspective that are certain skills and approaches one learns through trial, and this is important to manage when empowering others.
The comparison was made to an HR director, with only general management experience, trying to deal with an angry or militant union; he or she is likely to fair better with some experience under their belt. Having built muscle around actual trial would make application easier and more pertinent.
- The incumbent must have an appreciation for the context marketers are operating in to be an effective leader. Having an understanding of the work and requirements from his/her team helps with clear output expectations, realistic timings and relevant problem-solving guidance. In addition, this group felt that actual time in marketing teams allows a leader to credibly cut through the bull quickly so the real opportunity won’t be missed.
- The biggest areas of concern were around effective leadership:
- Empathy for the team having walked the walk
- Delivering or judging talent progression journeys, and
- Rallying the team with gravitas
Most were adamant that their history with leaders who had no direct experience resulted in a limited ability to provide the best support and guidance or offer clarity in directing activities. Theoretical views aren’t sufficient. Rallying behind a way of working and vision requires more than general views and strong magnetism.
While there were some subtle differences across the three groups, when it comes to senior leadership roles in specialist areas, there were strong similarities in opinions:
- While experience in the field is preferred, without this the next best solution is to immerse oneself in the industry and specific inner workings of the marketing department in the first 10-days plan; this enhances the planning and execution of strategies and workings of the team for progression planning
- Listening is critical in this journey — looking for the nuances allows the person to have a critical eye to optimise what’s working and relevantly fix what needs work but also to effectively guide, support and empower the team
- Keep the consumer at the heart always (hopefully the easiest to deliver on)
What was more interesting is that there were few strong features that could be distinguished between each group, except that the resounding “no” group was made up of the most junior (seeking strong leadership and guidance) and the most senior, in addition to most of the cross-functional team views (offering some experience beyond the marketer perspective). A bigger sample is definitely required.
Overall, it was an interesting conversation with areas of discomfort for many, perhaps indicating an opportunity to have greater clarification and gravitas in the articulation of the responsibilities and career trajectory for marketers. But, for now, the conclusion is that specialist marketing director roles require insight and experience on specific skills or abilities within the industry and/or on the client-side; this prior experience, in conjunction with curiosity, would facilitate an ability to develop strong future-growth thinking.
After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.