The four polarities marketers need to become leaders by example
A view from Helen Edwards

The four polarities marketers need to become leaders by example

There are several clearly defined attributes common to business leaders, but it is possible to rise through the ranks and display true leadership quality without them, says Marketing columnist Helen Edwards.

Advice on how to become a leader is often about as useful as those articles that tell you why some people stay healthy into ripe old age – where it amounts to "Have good genes."

Leaders, we learn, are ‘charismatic’. But what if you’re not? Charisma is a character trait, an essence that exudes from every pore of those who are blessed with it. Working at it is probably a foolproof way to ensure you will never have it.

Leaders, we are constantly informed, are ‘visionary’. This seems to imply more than simply having a vision, which can be done modestly and doggedly, to suggest a kind of evangelical, burning zeal. But what if that is not your style, and never will be?

Tougher still on most of us, leaders are often physically impressive: a Fortune 500 survey showed that 30% of US chief executives are more than 6ft 2in tall – when just 3.9% of the US population achieves that mark. Height, like so much in leadership, is something you either have, or don’t.

This is too defeatist. There are other ways to the top spot and, in marketing, one of those is complete mastery of your craft – leadership by example.

For those determined to pursue this route, the bad news is the same as the good: marketing is remarkably difficult, requiring the suppleness to embrace polarity. While the sheer effort involved is no picnic, it does at least ensure that weak-willed rivals will fall by the wayside.

Here are the four big polarities every budding chief marketing officer needs to master:

The picture and the pixels

‘Big-picture’ people, the ones who say "the rest is details", founder in marketing because detail is everywhere and it constantly bites back. Marketing mastery involves looking outward, at culture, at society, at the big issues, to deter­mine what your brand believes – then looking inward, at the nitty-gritty of finance, operations and HR, to under­stand what must be overcome to turn purpose into reality. Anyone can say "We need to be kinder to the planet"; it takes a flawless grasp of the detail to make it happen.

Numbers and narrative

Marketers have more data than ever before and many complain that it’s having a deadening effect. Here’s the advice from Millward Brown’s chief marketer, Marc de Swaan Arons, at this year’s US ANA Masters of Marketing conference. Gather all your data from multiple sources, blow it up big and put it up around the walls of a single room. Walk around it with your team and ask yourselves again and again, "What story is this telling us?" Numbers without narrative are unhelpful; narrative without numbers is akin to speculation. You need both.

Best practice and new ways

It’s become fashionable to assign the notion of best practice to the scrapheap because, as one high-profile CMO recently put it: "We can’t expect what worked last year to work today." How would we feel if a surgeon told us there was no such thing as best practice? Wouldn’t we question the value of all those years of experience? That said, we cannot be closed to those who champion new ways of working. But the burden of proof is upon them; can they show why the new ways are definitively better?

Decision and collaboration

Some leaders decide crisply and finally, and don’t care how many colleagues they upset in the process. Some like to gain consensus and tend to fudge decision-making a bit.

A rare few manage to achieve the virtue, and avoid the vice, of both. It’s technique, not talent: it can be learned, and it should be.

The road to marketing mastery

may be paved with the unglamourous stones of study and application, but an interesting thing happens when you finally get there.

Your complete grasp of the macro and micro factors will mean you articulate your vision with a precision and firmness that others will read as evangelical zeal. Your fluency with the data will help you win round detractors with unthreatening ease, in a way that others will perceive as charisma.

And there’s nothing quite like the confidence of truly being on top of your craft to help you walk just that little bit taller.