Storytelling is a marketing leader’s most important skill

Marketing is only one piece of the customer experience puzzle. To create a truly remarkable experience, other departments must also be heavily involved. The challenge is that colleagues in these other departments don’t perhaps report directly to you. You must find ways to mobilize them, starting with sharing your vision through a powerful story (from my column).

It’s no secret: powerful words help leaders to mobilize their people. Dusty McCoy, CEO of marine, fitness and billiards company Brunswick, for example, tells his staff, “We do what we say, and we say what we do.” Microsoft’s Satya Nadella used “Mobile first, cloud first” to describe his new company direction. And most of you will remember Apples’ “Think Different,” which has served as both external and internal aspiration for years.

In our recent global The Marketer’s DNA study, Patrick Barwise and I could prove for the first time that visioning and storytelling are sizable factors in marketers’ business impacts, especially for career success. Ford’s former CMO, Jim Farley, even told me, “Storytelling is your most important skill as a marketing leader.”

Of course, you don’t have to be the marketing super-hero of a Fortune 500 company to use stories effectively. Consider the example of Jaime , a marketing manager whose customer vision helped transform an ailing door handle business. In a speech delivered to his staff, he said something like: “For generations, our products have been used by millions. Let’s become the number one choice again. We can’t compete on price. But customers have told us how to win: let’s make quality our hallmark, but let design be our new signature. Because when we do, customers will say: ‘I want this one exactly—this feels great, and it looks great.’ Let’s all write history together. I need your ideas for how to make the best and the most attractive products again. Let’s put our door handles back in people’s hands.”

So, how can you write a story that captures people’s imagination? Make sure that you include three essential elements: heart, head, and how-to.

1. Heart: An inspiring vision

A great story has a big aspiration that people can sign up for. In the door handle case, this was “becoming the preferred choice again,” and “writing history.” Stories like these can get people’s imaginations going, but craft them cautiously; people can quickly turn cynical if your ideas are too far-fetched (e.g., take over the whole market, change everything we do). Unrealistic stories also hit the heart–just in a way you don’t want. The best stories are simple and paint hopeful, yet realistic, pictures of the future. Try to find memorable phrases for your story. Jaime’s “Let’s put our door handles back in people’s hands” or Dusty McCoy’s “We do what we say, and say what we do” are words that people can easily recall.

2. Head: Credible evidence

People may disagree with a leader–but nobody can really disagree with the customers (at least not for long). Make sure you include credible evidence, ideally from customers. The marketer at the door handle company used the customer response in the product test to make his case for design: “I want this one exactly.” To make your story believable, include evidence and ways for the company to achieve its dream.

3. How-to: Personal relevance

Suppose you’re a staff member listening to your leader’s vision. Immediately you ask: “How does this affect me? What do I need to do?” Make sure your story answers questions like these. Jamie stated directly, “I need your ideas for how to make the best and the most attractive products again.” He invited his colleagues to act.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “A leader is a dealer in hope.” As a senior marketer, to give colleagues hope and to mobilize the organization in the customer’s interests, you need a powerful story. What’s yours?

Why CMOs are always the first to go

The average chief marketing officer in large U.S. firms leaves after just 4.1 years, while the CEO stays around for eight. It is not good for business (from my column).

Korn Ferry’s latest numbers make for a chilling read. According to the search firm’s brand new C-suite study, top marketers are the first to fall off the C-suite cliff—staying half as long as their bosses.

The study found that the average CMO in large U.S. firms leaves after just 4.1 years, while his or her boss, the CEO, stays around for eight. No other C-suite executive gets fired (or decides to leave) more often.

It may be true that the CMO role can be difficult. But there’s a lot CMOs can do to make it in the C-suite.

CMO: It’s Complicated
“Today’s customer-centric CMO role is exceptionally complex and requires the right balance of left as well as right brain skills, and, very importantly, a differentiated set of leadership competencies … In some cases, short tenure can be attributed to the organisation not being well aligned behind the change that the CMO is tasked with leading,” said Korn Ferry expert Caren Fleit.

CMO failure is a big issue—not just for the CMO but for the company, too. If CMOs fail in making the organisation customer focused, its long-term prospects will suffer. And if CMOs move on, they may take years of customer understanding, new product ideas, and growth strategies with them. CEOs and marketers have an obligation, then, to be jointly successful. But how?

Leading The Way

Success in the CMO role is all about leadership. Patrick Barwise’s and my latest large-scale CMO research confirms the need for strong CMO leadership competencies. In our global CMO research, leadership competencies explained over half of what makes CMOs successful (55%). Successful CMOs know how to lead teams. But, more importantly, the best CMOs excel at leading upwards (their bosses) and sideways (their non-marketing peers). Functional marketing skills, in comparison, were much less important (>15%).

The good news: for success, things CMOs have little control over, such as personality, industry type, or gender didn’t matter that much (all below 5%). But CMOs can learn the specific leadership skills listed above!

The Tough Parts
Even for the best CMOs, influencing the “wicked” problems inside many organisations that drive a quarter of CMO success (25%) can be hard:

  • Conflicting goals. If sales, production, R&D, and business units within one company are chasing different goals, it can be hard for marketers to cut through. In our research, lack of internal alignment is the number one complaint of CMOs. It’s important that marketers spell out this problem, involve the CEO, and press for more alignment—wherever possible.
  • Small budgets. This isn’t to say CMO success requires big budgets. But some marketers’ funds are so tiny that you wonder why there’s a marketing department at all. Marketing budgets are investments in future revenue. CMOs must continuously make the case for these investments—ideally together with (not for) finance.
  • Lack of clarity on what marketing actually does. Everybody knows what finance does and what to expect from HR. But, for marketing, things can be fuzzier. In some companies, marketing is principally in charge of the “4Ps,” while in others it’s just “advertising” (most organisations fall somewhere in between). We all know that satisfaction is the difference between what we expect and what we experience. And if people don’t know what to expect from marketing, life for CMOs can be tricky. It’s, therefore, essential that top marketers create extreme clarity around how marketing helps the company succeed.

Here’s a piece of advice for the problem that’s hardest to solve. What if, despite best attempts, the CEO and the rest of the top team still don’t get customer focus? What if they talk the talk but don’t support marketing efforts to build long-term value for the customers and the company? Start looking for another job! If the CEO really doesn’t understand the necessity of customer focus, CMOs are on a road to nowhere, and the company is probably doomed. Get out while you can.

How to recruit the wrong marketers?

What’s the best tool for recruiting the wrong people? A long competency list. If you want too much, you may simply not spot the best marketing leaders. Cut to the chase and ask yourself a simple question: “What distinctive skills do we need?” (from my column).

People often tell me: “finding the right team members is difficult”. When I ask to see their job descriptions, they invariably show me needlessly complex documents.

For example, one leader gave me a list of the traits for a new marketing manager in her customer retention group. It had nine personality traits (agility, creativity, entrepreneurship, flexibility, innovation, openness, self motivation, tenacity, tolerance) and seven functional skills (below the line marketing, customer profiling, content creation, campaign tracking, data mining, retention pricing, retention promotion management). When I questioned the long list, she admitted what really mattered were data mining skills and entrepreneurship. The rest were just standard competencies of their HR framework. No wonder her team could never agree on a candidate!

Don’t get me wrong: Most competency lists are well intended. But for marketing leaders, long lists create two big problems. First, you and your team will have a hard time picking candidates because you have too many variables. Second, such long lists often produce average hires who “tick all the boxes” instead of bringing distinctive skills.

For building a winning team, focus matters. As a McKinsey Partner, I’ve interviewed and hired with my team hundreds of the brightest future marketing leaders. Finding the best people was hard—but never difficult. For each candidate, our team conducted separate interviews. We then compared notes on three to five criteria. A winning candidate had to be above the bar on all criteria—and distinctive in one. In 90% of cases we agreed on a candidate within ten minutes. The McKinsey approach is still widely credited as one of the most successful.

“What distinctive skills do we need?” Answering this simple question helps you be clear on what you are really looking for in a candidate.

It’s All About Value Creation

Your marketing team exists to expand the Value Creation Zone (or “V-Zone” as Patrick Barwise and I call it for short)—the overlap between what customers want and what the company wants.

Your “V-Zone” determines the distinctive skills you are looking for. For example, a team that wants to increase margins by 55 percent through retaining the company’s best customers looks quite different from a team that aims to grow revenue by entering new regional markets.

Once you are crystal clear about your team’s Value Creation Zone, define three things:

1. The Distinctive Functional Skills

Don’t write a long list of basic skills (most decent marketers will have those skills anyway). Focus on the top one or two distinctive skills— the things the individual must truly excel at. PS: Make sure you’ve thought about both analytical and creative skills: most marketers focus on one of these, rather than both, reflecting their own personal preference and interest.

2. The Distinctive Personality Traits

For your team, which top one or two personality traits matter most? Do you mainly need people who are entrepreneurial? Or people with a lot of stamina who’ll never give up? Ideally, you’d have all of these, but which are the traits that will really make a difference?

3. The ‘No No’s’ (The ‘No Asshole’-Rule)

Find people you like to hang out with,” says Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Agree the one or two personality traits that are an absolute “no no” for your team.

If your list gets too long: cut it.

During the recruiting process, focus on the distinctive skills. It’s often sufficient if a person is distinctive in one of your key skills and traits and “above the bar” on the others.

More than once, people have called the one-question approach simplistic. But here’s the issue: the more complex your criteria become, the harder it is to see the forest for the trees. I’m convinced: more doesn’t mean better.

PS: Recruiting for distinctiveness is even compatible with sophisticated recruiting models. Some companies, for instance, use cognitive abilities tests, which predict career success. That’s no contradiction. Use standardized tests to screen candidates first. Then, during the interviews, look for distinctiveness that helps your expand the V-Zone.

As a marketing leader, you need the best talent you can get. Don’t get lost in recruiting. Go for distinctiveness!

Inspiration is a leader’s most powerful weapon

As a customer-focused leader, you are in the inspiration business. The biggest part of your role is to mobilize people in your company to make a great customer experience happen. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just issuing orders to those around you. Your best bet is to inspire them. But how? (From my column).

Being a customer advocate can be hard as I’ve written before. Think about it. Your boss can say no to your ideas. Your colleagues can choose to ignore your opinion. Even your team can vote with their feet if they don’t agree with your direction (e.g. work half-heartedly or even leave).

All your customer ideas are worth nothing unless you get them executed in your company. Inspiration can be the key to success!

But how does one inspire? It’s actually quite straightforward. To inspire others, you have to be inspired yourself. It’s that simple. Let’s take a closer look.

Inspiration is often seen as a magical power that some people have and others don’t. Here’s the good news: you actually don’t need the grand ideas of a Henry Ford or a Mahatma Gandhi to inspire other people. You also don’t need the on-screen presence of a Matt Damon or a Meryl Streep. Inspiring others is much simpler than that—and you’re already doing it.

Try this. Think about a topic you don’t care much about—something boring at work, doing your tax return, whatever isn’t your thing. Then stand before a mirror. Imagine that your reflection is a colleague. For 30 seconds, talk to your colleague about that boring topic. Look closely at the reflected face as you speak. What do you see?

Next, think of a topic you genuinely care about—something that excites you, something you really like. Again, for 30 seconds, talk to your colleague in the mirror, but this time talk about the topic you care about. See a difference? I’m certain that your face will show more excitement. That liveliness behind your eyes is the flicker of inspiration. If you show others that flicker, they’ll be inspired, too.

It’s often the small things in your day-to-day behavior that inspire others—behaviur that you may take for granted. In leadership workshops, for example, marketers routinely discover that they already inspire others far more than they realize. And it’s often small and simple actions that most inspire when they read in their feedback “You make me laugh, even when it’s tough,” “You’re so committed to your team,” or “I love your passion for customers.”

Here’s how you can up your inspirational power:

1. Find Out How You Inspire People Today
Start by reading through feedback that you received at school or at work. How have you inspired in the past? To learn more, ask five to 10 people (friends and colleagues) how you inspire them. You want their honest opinions, so keep things as anonymous as you can. One option is to give people three white index cards and suggest they write down one way you inspire them on each card. Ask them to hand the cards back to you in a sealed envelope. Don’t track who wrote what, and open the envelopes only after you have them all back.

What did you learn? What are the one-to-three ways you inspire people today?

2. Double Up On Your Inspirational Behaviors
Even if you have the spark of inspiration, it takes energy to show the flicker in your eyes consistently, especially if you are leading change in your company. (See here for more ideas on how to lead change.) Some years ago, I led a large global team. Yet despite having major business success, the team wasn’t fired up with excitement. I soon realized that I needed to provide them with more spark. They always needed to see the flicker of my own inspiration, especially when things got busy. It seemed odd at first to try to set people alight with every interaction, but it did help me build inspired teams. How about reminding yourself of that, too? If you want to lead, set others alight with your inspiration in each interaction you have. Once you know how you inspire other people, double up on these behaviors.

Can you inspire people without being inspired yourself? Is there a work-around? No. Inspiration is easy to spot and tough to fake. Body language and facial expressions are so subtle and complex that even the most powerful computers can’t fully simulate them (yet). That’s why replacing humans in movies with digital look-alikes still doesn’t work. The flicker isn’t real. There’s no shortcut. The key to inspiring others is through your own inspiration.

So how about including this in your New Year’s resolution: “doubling up on my inspirational powers”?

Three leadership skills every customer experience leader needs to master

Shaping a company’s customer experience (CX) is, perhaps, the biggest leadership challenge of a business. Yet the leaders in charge of this crucial endeavour rarely receive targeted leadership training. It’s time to change this (from my column).

Recently I made the case for more rigour in marketers’ training and development paths. I remain convinced that better training is urgently required in marketing. But why leadership training? Aren’t marketers busy enough keeping up with all the technical skills needed to survive in this new digital world?

Think about what it takes to make the customer experience happen, and it becomes immediately clear why the key is leadership. First, customer experience is about the future. To get on the C-suite agenda and secure budgets, marketing leaders must convince hard-nosed finance leaders and other top managers that a better customer experience will—eventually—lead to more revenue or profit. That can be pretty hard to do. And it requires serious negotiation skills. But here’s an even bigger challenge: dozens, maybe hundreds, of employees who design the actual customer experience don’t report to marketing or IT. Mobilising them requires exceptional leadership skills.

Another challenge lies in the complexity of digital marketing. Marketing leaders can no longer aspire to know it all. They have to build great teams of experts and generalists and then help them to all pull in the same direction. Does leadership matter for customer experience leaders? It’s essential!

Fewer than one in 10 customer experience leaders has received specific marketing leadership training, according to my research. Even more surprisingly, most of the senior marketing leaders I train haven’t received any leadership training. Some went through a generic leadership course or two, which may be useful, but didn’t equip them with the three most essential marketing leadership skills: mobilising the C-suite, mobilising peers in other departments, and building teams of leaders.

Let’s take a closer look at the leadership skills required in marketing and customer experience.

Mobilising The C-suite

It’s crucial for marketing leaders to get a seat at the top table. Customer experience is a company-wide issue. And most CX decisions require top-team buy-in. Even if customer experience is important to the CEO, it needs to be important to all departments, including sales, operations, HR, IT, marketing, and so on. That’s why customer experience leaders must play at the C-suite level. They need to learn to connect the wants of the customers (which most CX leaders know very well) with the needs of the C-suite (that’s often harder).

The best marketing leaders understand the “burring platforms” of the company board. They are skilled enough to make CX relevant for C-suite leaders from all walks of life. This also means translating customer metrics, such as Net Promoter Score, into company KPIs, such as revenue or profit. And to secure the all important budgets, marketing leaders must ultimately convince the C-suite that CX drives long-term profitable growth. Changing C-suite minds is a leadership challenge.

Mobilising Peers

Most employees who have a hand in creating the actual customer experience don’t report to marketing or IT. These members of staff have their own agendas—and convincing them to act requires pretty strong leadership. One important leadership skill is storytelling. Napoleon Bonaparte said that “leaders are dealers in hope.” Marketing leaders can’t move the needle if their peers don’t listen. But they can tell them a story of hope, a story that gets to people’s hearts.

Former Ford CMO Jim Farley emphasised that “storytelling is a marketer’s most important skill.” But storytelling is only the start. Getting people from across the company to move requires lots of hall-walking and one-on-one negotiations. Marketing leaders are change leaders. They must be the role models that others want to follow.

Mobilising Your Own Team

Gone are the days when marketing leaders can know it all. The plethora of marketing and customer software available opens completely new opportunities to understand and interact with customers. But CX is complex and requires specialisation. Instead of chasing every detail, leaders must learn to lead complex teams. They must integrate specialists and generalists into a cohesive tribe that strives together for a common goal. Instead of controlling everybody’s work, the best leaders spend time aligning their teams around common goals (that can be harder than you think). They help the specialists see the bigger picture—and they help the generalists go deep, selectively, to understand important CX tools. Leading CX teams isn’t complicated—but it requires new skills.

What Next?

Marketing leadership training isn’t on the agenda of most organisations. But that’s starting to change as people realise that actually creating better customer experiences requires leaders with strong leadership skills. It’s time to put leadership skills on the marketing training agenda.

Trust and how to build it

In a marketing team, trust is the foundation for everything. No matter how good your team’s marketing skills are, they won’t make a dent in the market unless people give their best and take some risks. The condition required? Trust! Trust doesn’t happen automatically. Building it takes a conscious effort—by you (from my column).

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved,” – George MacDonald.

Team trust is key. You need it, so your team will dare to take risks. You also need trust because you want people to be candid. In all organisations, people hide problems from their bosses and the bosses underestimate the extent to which that happens—despite doing exactly the same with their own bosses. “The toughest thing in my role is that people don’t dare to tell me things anymore,” says former Ford CMO Jim Farley. You want people in your team to bring forward ideas and to take the initiative. But you also want them to reach out to you when they face issues, to avoid nasty surprises and to help them find solutions as soon as possible. Trust is crucial.

Who do you trust? Why do you trust them? Let’s use a simple equation to explain how trust works (you may have seen it before). It suggests that, to trust someone as a leader, you first need proof of their professionalism (expertise, reliability, etc.). But professionalism alone is not enough to build trust. You need to know a little more about that person as well (intimacy). Finally, you’d lose trust in that leader if they showed lots of ego. In other words, the trust you build through your professionalism and intimacy gets divided by your ego. It’s that simple.

Let’s look at some practical ways for you to build trust within your team, focusing on the three elements in the trust equation:

Foster Professionalism In Your Team

Obviously, you expect professionalism from every marketing team member (and they expect it from you). Everybody is the role model. If you miss deadlines or come in late, so may others. Make sure you:

  • Keep your promises. That, or don’t make them. Apologise if you do fail to keep one.
  • Follow the rules. Visibly adhere to company policies on expenses, confidentiality, equality, bullying and harassment, health and safety, and so on. You need to be pedantic and boring about this. You may think violating rules makes you cool—in reality it will erode people’s trust in you.
  • Don’t pretend to know everything—you don’t, and everybody knows that. If someone knows more, celebrate them. Add value by asking wider questions like, “What are the limitations?” “How can we do this even better?” More often, admit if you don’t know something. Instead say: “Great question, I need to find out.”

Foster Intimacy

Can people on your team speak openly about their challenges and weaknesses? Can they easily ask for help? Teams reaching this level of openness and intimacy are the most productive. Leaders who are willing to talk about their weaknesses create intimacy and also higher trust within the team. But talking about weaknesses isn’t easy. What can you do about it?

  • At the most basic level, share small personal things within the team; your family, your hobbies, your last holiday, etc.
  • Ask for help. Say things like: “Here’s the plan, but these details about XYZ aren’t my strong suit. Can you help me?”
  • Share what you’re good at as well as what you’re not good at. Michelle Peluso, former CEO of online shopping site Gilt, shared her 360-degree assessments with her team and asked for help.
  • Trust-building workshops with professional coaches are good ways of helping people better understand themselves and their colleagues.

Again: lead from the front. As the leader you must open up first. Once you reveal more about your own weaknesses, you give others license to do the same.

Fight Your Ego

People pick up immediately on a leader’s rampant ego. Ego is a trust-killer. Here are other examples that will show your team it’s not all about you and your ego:

  • Make your corner office a team room.
  • Let other people present in important meetings, including to your boss.
  • Back people up in a crisis.
  • Stick to reasonable call times, especially for people in other time zones.
  • When you receive praise about the team’s work, pass it on to the team itself.

Great leaders make sure their teams can shine. When Tim Cook was giving the closing keynote at Apple’s big product event in the fall of 2015, he asked all the Apple team members in the hall to stand. In front of the large audience, and with millions of viewers online, Tim said it was a privilege to work with people who worked so hard making other’s lives better. You can’t put a value on that.

Next time you walk into your office, ask yourself: “How much trust is there in my team? How can I build more trust today through my professionalism, my intimacy—and less of my ego?