A view from Chris Macleod

TfL marketing chief: Good leaders talk less and listen more

If you don't have a fascination with what makes people tick, you might be in the wrong business, writes Chris Macleod.

Forgetting someone?

With the increasing focus on technology, it is easy to forget that marketing and leadership are "people" activities.

If you don’t have a fascination with what makes people tick and a urge to understand their feelings, motivations and foibles, you might be in the wrong business.

Strong insights come from an understanding of customers and motivational leadership comes from an empathy for your team; you are generally only as good as they are. Of course, some managers are naturally good at "people stuff" and, while it can be challenging to move from technical specialist to generalist and leader (and there’s a difference between those skills), in the end you need to develop your own management style.

Despite what the textbooks say, there is no "super leader" blueprint.

Are you listening? I said: are you listening?

How many times have you been in a meeting surrounded by people all on "transmit"? When the only solution seemed to be to turn up your volume?

If an understanding of people is the primary focus of good marketing and leadership, listening is the most important skill for achieving that understanding.

Marketing is often seen as a function that sets great store by presentation skills, in pitching the big idea. But listening enables you to get the full picture and build insights, and sometimes it’s the things that people don’t say that tell you what you need to know.

Good leaders use listening and guiding, not talking and instructing. Most people know the right things that need to be done and simply need an attentive and receptive manager to give them the confidence to do them. And people relate to people who listen to them.

Ideas are important but implementation is everything

There is a lot of emphasis in marketing on the power of ideas. But ideas are nothing without implementation.

"A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week" was a motto of General Patton and, apart from the violence, it has a lot to commend it. And striving constantly for the big idea should not blind you to fixing the little things that can make a big difference to customers.

Behavioural economics, for example, is showing the value of "nudges" in achieving marketing objectives.

Marcoms isn’t marketing

One of my own hobby horses is the unfortunate tendency for marketing to be seen as synonymous with "marcoms" and channel management, with marketers overly focused on campaigns and outputs, not outcomes.

As a result, they can be seen as uncollaborative, concerned with a narrow set of issues such as "brand", "awareness" and vague concepts such as "look and feel".

The opportunity is to be the real customer expert, going beyond channel expertise to understand the whole customer journey. Influence can be as important as power, and marketers are well-placed to deliver the insights and data that can direct the total business.

We need to avoid a debate about the ownership of silos of activity and lead through collaboration and customer focus.

How to make it look easy

We’ve all seen those people who make things look easy. They were around at school, at university and now they seem to have popped up at work, getting noticed and getting the plum projects.

How do they do it? I’ll tell you how. By working harder. Yes, there are lots of gifted people out there but, for the rest of us, there is sometimes just no substitute for putting the hours in.

As golfer Gary Player said: "The more I practise, the luckier I get."

Sharpen the saw

But, of course, you can overdo it. In his classic self-improvement book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talked about the need to constantly "sharpen the saw". By this, he meant the need to continually focus on self-renewal to maintain your abilities and help deal with the challenges we all face.

He identified four areas to work on: the physical, where eating properly and exercising are important; the social or emotional, with value in making meaningful connections with others; the mental, where continual learning or teaching can be rewarding; and the spiritual, including meditation, music or art.

This seems to be sensible advice in a world where the pace of life and the rate of change can sometime seem frenetic. Me? I’m off back to work.

Chris Macleod is the marketing director at Transport for London, which he joined as head of marcoms in 2007 via Papa John's after a career in agencies, including Saatchi & Saatchi and Collett Dickenson Pearce.