CMO Leadership Lessons

Success, Failures and Vulnerability: CMOs share their leadership lessons

We asked senior marketers: Have the last two years changed the nature of leadership? What are the failures that made you?

By Creative Salon

That idea of leadership being indefatigable - where every single idea is a masterstroke, every goal a triumph and any glitch simply a distraction - is limiting. And thankfully no longer an accepted narrative around what effective leadership looks like.

And there is an alternative. There's been a steady increase in leaders who recognise vulnerability and authenticity as the traits to being a good leader. We talk to a few marketers who are flipping the script when it comes to the old notions of what leaders and leadership should look like.

Nature of Leadership

Creative Salon: Have the past two years changed the nature of leadership? Not simply in terms of Covid, but other shifts such as the related great resignation, demands for greater work/life balance, recognition for greater action on diversity and inclusivity, economic crisis/inflation, and, not least, living in the spectre of the Russia/Ukraine war?

Mark Evans, managing director for marketing & digital, Direct Line:

Leadership hasn’t really changed at all in that it has always required a need to show vulnerability to lead authentically. In that sense the more things change the more they stay the same.

However the events of the last couple of years have taken a toll on everyone and so the need for these leadership fundamentals has been accentuated. Everyone’s ability to cope has been severely tested and so leaders have really had to turn up the dial on empathy and compassion.

The age-old quote “Be kind - everyone you meet is fighting a great battle!” captures it perfectly.

Zaid Al-Qassab, Chief Marketing Officer at Channel 4:

I hope the long term benefit of the miserable couple of years we have just lived through will be an increased awareness of mental health. Sadly, the evidence is that 1 in 4 people suffered mental health concerns in lockdown, and amongst younger people that rises to 1 in 2. As leaders we have to get ahead of this with new workplace policies, employee support groups, and removal of stigma. I’m not convinced many leaders in our industry truly understand mental health unless they have experienced challenges themselves, and most of those who have done so are not confident in talking about it.

I understand that better than most, having lived with depression for years before feeling comfortable enough to say so in the workplace. But with such a huge proportion living with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns, we need to all educate ourselves immediately.

Sonal Jhuj, global brand strategy, The Lego Group:

[These are my personal views and not related to the Lego Group].

For me, the beginning or ground zero for change in the nature of leadership for advertising was the #metoo movement. It forced the industry and especially all leaders to acknowledge the terror that lived comfortably within their organizations. It brought angry, emotional, triggering conversations out into shared hallways. Leadership has never been the same.

From that moment on, leadership could never live only in board rooms restricted to conversations about shareholder value. Leadership was about getting comfortable with vulnerability, emotion and ethics in full public view. In some cases, it meant also having to acknowledge that you hadn’t done enough, or worse, that you were part of the problem. You could no longer conveniently separate the job you did, from the person you were.

I remember an open and honest chat with my team during #metoo and finding myself sobbing because of a cocktail of emotions – feeling triggered, feeling responsible for the industry and feeling angry. The invisible line separating the professional leader ‘Sonal Jhuj’, from the mother, woman, daughter ‘Sonal’ had been breached. And I’m better for it.

Over the past few years we’ve had to get comfortable with living in full view with the camera pointed at our kitchen tables, watching us cope with COVID, natural disasters, rapidly changing global politics and even war. Leadership wasn’t just about coaching a colleague before a big business pitch, it was finding the words to comfort a colleague’s wife as she watched him struggle in a hospital ICU.

Leadership, today, is showing yourself for who you are, completely and vulnerably. And therein lies the bravery.

There is no room anymore for anything but honesty. To some this came naturally, to others it’s something they’ve had to journey to. But one thing’s for certain, there’s no going back.

Dom Dwight, marketing director, Betty's & Taylor's of Harrogate:

The nature of leadership was already changing (perhaps it always has been) but I’d certainly say the past two years have accelerated that change, and thrown in new considerations. The growing need for leaders to have better EQ and to be more awake to wellbeing concerns was really amplified when everyone’s lives were turned upside down. These days we’re all encouraged to think about how everyone in the team will respond differently to change, but this was a rare instance where everyone experienced massive change all at once.

For the last two years, I feel I’ve had to pay much closer attention to maintaining connection and rapport – originally as a crisis response to keep things on an even keel, but now as an enhancement that makes team relationships feel more real than before. The new challenge is working with the different preferences that have emerged and, in some cases, become established – which of those should be embraced as part of a more flexible approach, and which of those need to be phased out? Is it okay if some people want to work 100 per cent remotely? And if they’re the exception, should we not get distracted by them and instead focus on the majority who want a healthy mix? Because even just within that group there is a lot of difference to work with.

Now more than ever, I think leaders need to develop better active listening skills, and learn how to get under the skin of things to figure out what’s really driving new behaviours.

Sharing Failure

CS: What are the failures that made you the leader you are today. Do you think demonstrating vulnerability can be a strength?

Mark Evans, managing director for marketing & digital, Direct Line:

My main weakness as a leader has been to be overly achievement oriented. When overdone that is unsustainable and liable to lead to burnout for me and others. The relentlessness of “next, next, next” doesn’t leave enough space for reflection and learning. It can also lead to conditional happiness - “I’ll be happy when” - which is an ugly trap and prevents a full appreciation of the moment in the here and now.

Over time I have mellowed, and had some great coaching, and now have a better balance of still being ambitious and goal oriented - but in a more measured way. It’s always still a juggle to decide how driven to be in any given moment. However, I have found ways to appreciate things more in the flow, and to dial down on the relentlessness trait which hopefully helps me to lead towards more sustainable growth of brands and people.

Zaid Al-Qassab, Chief Marketing Officer at Channel 4:

I’ve been through 4 major company acquisitions – P&G acquired Clairol, Wella & Gillette, and then BT bought EE. Each time, I was the manger responsible for a large part of those mergers. With Clairol, we lost pretty much all the staff within the first year, and with it a lot of the expertise. That happened through the arrogance of assuming the smaller acquired brand would just fit into the existing company approach. And yet what made those businesses special was the things they did differently. I was young and foolish, and assumed you could force fit people into roles and systems without tailoring the approach to each individual and their career desires. By the time the Gillette acquisition came along, I was able to do it the other way round. It led to some unusual outcomes, I had Finance and Supply Chain managers running Marketing departments, and Marketing people in charge of Sales, because they would commit to the long term in return for those career experiences. And it worked, brilliant people learn fast. It’s a lesson that goes way beyond mergers.

Never forget that it’s the people working on the business that make it what it is. Nurture them, and the balance sheet will take care of itself.

Sonal Jhuj, global brand strategy, The Lego Group:

[These are my personal views and not related to the Lego Group].

My first time as a people leader was an absolute disaster. It’s hard to say it out loud, but it’s true. I was not only uninspiring, but also lost. I had never led anyone before and was asked to lead a talented strategist. I blundered my way through it, trying to be smarter than them in every meeting so I could feel worthy of the position I had been given just a few years into my professional life. It was a painful experience. Through that short-lived misadventure, I learned my most valuable lesson in leadership: you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to be the kind of person that smart people want to work with.

Ever since, I’ve very nearly made it my mission to focus on bringing the best out of people. Today when someone tells me I’m a good leader, I wonder if I should tell them the story of how it all began.

Dom Dwight, marketing director, Betty's & Taylor's of Harrogate:

I’ve got an embarrassment of riches to choose from when it comes to mistakes in my work – some of them I can talk about, and some I’m hoping no one ever mentions! I can think of one particular failure that really shaped my approach to leadership, which dates back to when I first became Marketing Director for Taylors of Harrogate. I’d enjoyed a pretty spotless track record for Yorkshire Tea but Taylors of Harrogate was trickier to pin down – a brand that straddled speciality tea, where things felt refined and quite traditional, and roast and ground coffee, which was more modern and dynamic, but being constantly disrupted. We had too loose a hold on the brand identity, a patchy record with advertising, and an overgrown portfolio that didn’t hang together.

Quite rightly, our family shareholders called us out on it, and I embarked on a mission to create an updated, coherent and distinctive brand identity, with a complete redesign of all our packs across tea and coffee. It was a great project, and I’m still really proud of the bold designs and the insight we surfaced about the brand – but we had a rough time of it when it all launched.

Firstly, the drop in the pound that immediately followed the Brexit referendum threw a massive spanner in the works – with pricing conversations suddenly souring conversations with retailers just when we needed their support for a new launch. But in truth, some of the challenges were of our own making – we focussed so much on internal alignment and getting clear in our minds (which was quite a feat given how confused we’d been) but we hadn’t spent enough time checking what the consumer would make of it. Yes, they thought the packs were beautiful, but actually, when they were on shelf, the things they really needed to know, to be able to see in an instant so they can make a quick and near sub-conscious decision, just weren’t prominent enough.

It might seem obvious to everyone reading, but for me it was a crucial lesson in the vital role of consumer empathy. Who is your audience? What do they need to see, and what mood are they in at the point when you’re trying to connect with them? As a business that’s done so well following its own convictions rather than being too led by consumer insight, this was a tricky adjustment that had been heading our way for a while. This experience, and the following years or untangling and redoing, certainly embedding the learning, which has helped me figure out a better way to balance internal belief and external awareness.

Have I cracked it yet? Depends on the day you ask me!

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