What I didn't know about leadership

What I didn't know about leadership

We ask three board-level marketers what they now know about the qualities and experience required to lead, that they didn’t know before they took the top job – and get some key advice for up-and-coming professionals.

James Elias is chief marketing officer at education tech start-up AVADO. He was Google’s UK Marketing Director for four years, and currently plays a key role in driving Squared Online.

“Leadership requires you to flex and adapt. Most of us tend to have one style that comes naturally. But there are times when something different is called for, and learning when and how to change your style is key – even if this can feel uncomfortable at times.

This became apparent partly through feedback. Partly through finding it hard to connect with some people – team members, key stakeholders – and then experimenting with different styles. I’m more aware now when I may need to take a different approach to a conversation, meeting and so on.

Roll up your sleeves. It’s too easy to get removed from the day-to-day, and marketing changes so fast. There’s no substitute for staying close to the action and picking one or two areas to go deep on. That way you can continue to add value as a leader.

“Storytelling is key. That’s the job of marketing when it comes to building a brand and a business, and it’s every bit as important when it comes to setting a vision and showing the value of marketing internally.”

Sara Bennison is chief marketing officer for Nationwide Building Society. Prior to this, she was chief marketing officer at Barclays for seven years, and before that was head of marketing communications at BT.

The most important thing is what some people these days refer to as your ‘leadership shadow’. Before, when I was looking up at people in more senior roles, I was thinking ‘I can do that – technically, I can do that job, I can make that decision, I understand everything about that’. You think about the role in terms of the skill and experience you have, but you get slightly frustrated – not really understanding what you are missing.

“What I’ve learnt over time is that clearly you need the skills and experience to do the job, to set the vision and the strategy, but that alone is not enough – it doesn’t make you a leader. Also, what I’ve learnt as my teams have grown – and it’s very different when you’re leading a team of 20 to when you’re leading a team of hundreds – is that every little thing you do or say is analysed for meaning, because people don’t know you in the same way as in a smaller organisation.

Leadership of scale is a very different thing – you have to pay such attention to that ‘shadow’ you’re casting and understand what your behaviour is saying about you, and that making choices that appear quite small to you can have an awful lot read into them by others. But if you have a good coach or mentor who can help you understand these things, suddenly you have a whole different level of self-awareness. 

“One of the secrets to leadership is finding a style that’s authentic and works for you. It’s coming to terms with and developing your personal style and finding the place where that’s going to work with you. And recognising the fact that you, your style and your talent is not always going to work everywhere.”

Based in Sunnyvale, California, Jillian Mansolf is chief sales and marketing officer at Xirrus, a US$100m+ global provider of wireless and high density Wi-Fi networking products and services.

I used to think that being a leader meant that the people you managed had to do what you said because you were in charge. I’ve learned over the years that you are only a leader if you turn around and people are following you.

“People don’t listen to you because you are in charge, they follow your lead if they respect and trust you. Understanding this made me value the critical importance of communication and collaboration. I approach every project with a strong view of the direction I want to take, but I keep an open mind and give everyone the opportunity to express opinions and suggestions.  Often the best ideas come from sitting around a table and just talking things through, and allowing the creative process to organically take shape.

Don’t feel like you need to be the smartest person in the room, even if you think you are. Everyone has something to contribute, which is why they are on the team in the first place.

One piece of leadership advice I would give to a marketer moving into a senior job – create a forum for everyone in the organisation to participate in the process. Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected places. If people are afraid to make mistakes, then they don’t do their best work. I always say, ‘If you aren’t making mistakes then you aren’t pushing hard enough.’ Making mistakes is how we learn and is important to growth. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Looking to boost your industry knowledge? The CIM Marketing Leadership Programme has been developed with the help of the world’s top leaders to build key leadership competencies. Find out more.

Phil Lattimore Journalist and Editor
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