As the new leader of the American Marketing Association, it is a privilege to have your attention. I hope that you’ll stick with me because if you’re a professional marketer, academic scholar or aspiring student, my purpose in life is to inspire you, and to spur you on to greater things.
Throughout my career, I’ve made a concerted effort to offer professional development opportunities to my team. Some opportunities have come in the form of formal training. Others have come in the form of “teachable moments,” a few minutes out of the day during which my team and I have reviewed an approach to a presentation, say, or reviewed a postmortem on a past program. I’d like to think that my efforts have paid off. If you’re not spending 10 to 25% of each workday on your team and on your own self-examination, you’re failing to invest in the most important asset in your organization. Try keeping track of just how much time you’re spending on your people. My guess is that it will shock you into action.
I keep a running count of the currently 39 individuals who have worked on my teams during my three decades in the field of marketing who have gone on to C-suite positions or higher, including several individuals who will surely reach milestones that I’ve never touched. These successful executives all share certain things in common. They were all highly versatile individuals with varied backgrounds that allowed me to move them around in the organization to hot spots requiring “A” players. They were of high emotional intelligence, aware of how they make others feel, able to read a room and knowing when to lean in or to have the restraint to hold back, and they understood not only what people said, but also what they meant. Finally, they rarely needed to be asked twice and they displayed resourcefulness such that I didn’t need 10 interim meetings with them before they returned with the deliverable, and they almost always over-delivered. They had the old field general’s “command of the glance,” and they were extremely quick studies, which contributed to their versatility. These were individuals who, through all of these skills, gained my trust and made empowering them effortless.
To be a successful CMO in the modern marketplace, you need to be a valued and versatile colleague first and a successful marketer second. Of course you need a mastery of your brand and a deep respect for your audience, and you had better understand there’s no such thing as a great strategy if it doesn’t result in competitive advantage. Still, one of the most misunderstood skills that every aspiring marketing professional must master is “stakeholder management,” as opposed to “consensus management.” Effective stakeholder management requires honesty, eloquence, perseverance, empathy and, most of all, managerial courage.
I always explained to my boards and my stakeholders that I owed them the opportunity to understand where I’m headed and why I’m headed there, as well as the opportunity to change my mind or to cause me to think differently, but in the end, I am going to make the decisions in the realm for which I am accountable because I’m the one who will face the consequences if it doesn’t work. Stakeholder management means putting yourself and your ideas out there in front of your toughest critics, and having the durability to listen for what may be ways to improve your thinking or even change it.
My favorite fortune cookie read, “Your critics have important information, your friends are withholding from you.” Indeed, it’s true that friction polishes, and sometimes we all have blind spots that need to be opened up for us by hearing from others. But as I said, stakeholder management is not consensus management. I don’t take votes on matters of strategic importance. I decide. As a CMO, and now as CEO, I’ve found that a lack of decisiveness is a disease that will infect the entire team. I believe that if you are respectful as a decisive and effective stakeholder manager, your critics will appreciate your leadership so long as they know that they had their day in court with you early enough in the process that they can pivot from being critics to supporters. Early collaboration is central to effective stakeholder management. Nobody likes to be held hostage over time, or feel like his or her input is moot due to poor timing. Don’t let others make you feel unpopular for making a thoughtful, principled decision, particularly if you’ve given them a chance to change or revise your thinking in a timely manner.
Unfortunately, there will always be critics and observers out there who relish the safe haven of the sidelines as they lob in criticisms, cautionary tales and idealizations of the absent. All you can do is square your shoulders and face them with a confident stakeholder management plan. On key projects or initiatives, I make a list upfront of the important stakeholders who I ultimately need to “convince or be convinced” in order for the organization to be able to go forward in an aligned fashion. I plot them on a “plus,” “neutral” or “minus” graph with the objective of moving them from “minus” to at least “neutral” and from “neutral” to “positive” through an honest, complete and early collaborative process. There’s nothing manipulative or cold about using a process like this to ensure that you’re identifying important stakeholders, and that you make earnest and best efforts to bring them along with your thinking. Try it the next time that you feel like you’re never going to get something bold approved or supported by a group of stakeholders.
If you’ve succeeded and you’ve attained your career objectives, let me know what got you there. And if, along your journey to fame and fortune, you’ve shared in my vision that empowering your team to succeed not just in their day-to-day jobs, but in their careers beyond your company’s doors is worth your while, let’s talk. Let’s work together to raise the bar for the marketing industry, and to spur us all on to greater things.
Russ Klein, CEO