Bill Bernbach, legendary New York adman and major force behind advertising’s creative revolution in the 60s/70s, was known to carry around a note in his pocket that read, “They might be right.” Bernbach applied this mantra during meetings where clients may not have agreed with his pitch, recognizing that a true leader garners their influence through humility, openness to other opinions, and a keen ear poised to facilitate success.
It’s reminder that even the most accomplished leaders should keep in mind, and a central subject in a livestream on leadership I recently hosted with CMOs Tony Clayton-Hine of EY, Amy Messano of Altair, and Bill Strawderman of GS1 US. Below, find five empowering takeaways for current and up-and-coming marketing leaders.
Empower Your Team Through Listening
Leadership isn’t about telling your team what to do, it’s about empowering your people so that they can lead. Amy Messano kicked off the conversation with the shortest route to get there: by listening. A leader listens to each member of their team, learns what kind of a person they are, how they receive information, and what makes them tick.
This is all to determine what each team member needs to be successful in their function. Investing in and pulling the best out of your marketing team is a surefire way to grow a loyal employee base who will champion the brand they represent. Toni Clayton-Hine summed it up, “Who doesn’t want to follow somebody who understands the power of the team?”
Empower Belonging Through Generosity
Audience-driven communication is key. Toni shared that she was particularly struck by one boss who always opened a group conversation by thanking them for their time and for the work that they were doing.
Generosity and empathy should come through in both formal and informal ways. EY, for example, closes its firm for a week both for July 4th and Christmas to encourage work wellness. Amy connected with her people via personal, honest emails about the challenges of working during a pandemic because, in her words, “You spend more time with the people you work with than anybody else.”
Empower Alignment Through Assuming Positive Intent
Everyone thinks they can do marketing. It’s a challenge that many CMOs face through their tenure, but one where, as Toni said, should not be approached with a reactionary, “Well, who’s the expert here?” Instead, come at ideas with the mindset of “They’re trying to help.”
Assume positive intent by corralling their energy, celebrating their curiosity, and digging into the real problems they may be facing, even if they come at you in a funny, rude, or unbelievably strange way. Toni recommends finding an informed solution that will work to meet their needs, and then presenting it without the usual marketing jargon.
Empower Peers Through Curiosity
Bill Strawderman adds intellectual curiosity and restlessness to his list of leadership traits, as well as a growth mindset: “We’re not out there competing for resources. We’re out there really trying to grow people, grow the business, grow customers, and grow opportunities.” This comes with aligning with C-Suite goals, trusting your leadership peers who have a broader perspective, and A/B testing whenever possible.
If your C-Suite peers appear to be off-target in their requests, synthesize the root problem of what they’re asking for and then deliver a solution to the best of your ability. You never know what might happen. It’s how Diana O’Brien ended up developing the highly successful Deloitte University even though she didn’t think it was a good idea at the time—you can catch that story in her interview on Renegade Thinkers Unite.
Empower Growth Through Humility
One of my favorite quotes from our live show came from Bill Strawderman: “Leadership is more of a commission than it is a position.” That’s it—leaders must earn their role and prove it over and over again by garnering the respect and trust of their people. This is where humility and restraint come in.
It’s perhaps one of the most difficult parts of leadership, learning to respond rather than react, learning when to press the pedal down and when to put on the breaks. Marketing leaders should confront challenges with the prescience to pause, take a step back, and consider multiple points of view before diagnosing what went wrong. It’s far more effective than just lighting a fuse, and your team, peers, and overall organization will thank you for it.
One final note to aspiring leaders who may not think they have what it takes, sourced from fabled adman Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”