Anatomy of a Leader: The practical skills you need to get to the top

According to Marketing Week’s major new study on the ‘Anatomy of a Leader’, modern marketing leaders are focusing on driving strategy and using their skills to champion the next wave of talent, rather than attempting to be brilliant at everything.

Human, empathetic, rational, emotional, brave and agile – just a snapshot of the “essential” attributes a modern marketing leader must possess.

From being data literate and adept at driving sales, to having the ability to tell a rich brand story, marketers can feel under real pressure to excel at every aspect of the role in order to succeed. This pressure, coupled with the shrinking length of CMO tenure, is putting marketing leaders under the microscope like never before.

To examine the key skills and attributes required by a modern marketing leader in 2017 Marketing Week has carried out an in-depth qualitative and quantitive study, mapping out the ‘Anatomy of a Leader

The first part of the study looked at the core responsibilities of a marketing leader, with our survey of more than 600 marketers finding that sales and commercial awareness (74%) is considered the most important responsibility for marketing leaders.

Now, switching the focus to the essential attributes of a modern leader, it is strategic thinking that most marketers (86%) believe is imperative.

Relationship building came in a distant second (61%), followed by people management (60%), vision (59%) and problem solving (57%).

Conversely, visual presentation emerged as the least important skill for a marketing leader (14%), followed by practicality (15%), general knowledge (16%), specialist knowledge (16%) and written communication (20%).

READ MORE: Take our quiz to find out if you have the Anatomy of a Leader

Recognition of the importance of strategy is welcomed by Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson: “In recent years, marketing has become more and more tactical and we have lost the art of developing clear strategic direction first. We like to debate the knobs and dials of communication, but do not have a clear strategy for our brands first.”

Adaptability (87%) was identified as the attribute growing most in importance for marketing leaders, followed by strategic thinking (83%), vision (81%) and technical proficiency (77%).

“The fact that strategic thinking, commercial awareness and vision are now seen as being more important is unsurprising since more marketing leaders are moving into roles with a broader set of commercial and customer accountabilities,” says Direct Line Group’s marketing director, Mark Evans.

“What is perhaps surprising is that more marketing leaders believe that technical proficiency has simultaneously become more important. I suspect that this relates to being literate and staying fresh with regards to all things digital. However, there is a risk of being a jack of all trades and a master of none.”

Evans recognises that not all digital skills are a must-have for marketing leaders and while it is helpful for CMOs to understand developments in digital, it is better to remain channel agnostic.

“CMOs may feel pressure to personally build digital skills, but I don’t think it’s something to lose sleep over if you have invested in your team,” he adds.

Bacardi head of creative excellence, Zara Mirza, agrees it is less about being a “super CMO” who can do it all and more about building strong teams. “At Bacardi, we have more than one CMO. We have me, we have a head of data, head of PR. Together we figure it out and we all report into the CEO.

“That’s a smart move as there’s not going to be one person as a super CMO. Having lots of perspectives and figuring it out together will give you a better chance of success.”

READ MORE: Russell Parsons – The modern marketing leaders might not be who you think

Character building

Looking ahead, problem solving (77%), the ability to listen (74%), resilience (74%), people management (67%) and risk taking (67%) are key attributes that marketers say are becoming the DNA of a marketing leader.

By contrast the research finds that experience (11%), specialist knowledge (10%), tactical execution (9%) and assertiveness (7%) are  the attributes marketers are most likely to identify as becoming less important to the make up of the modern leader.

LinkedIn CMO Shannon Stubo believes asking the right questions and using the answers to solve problems is the hallmark of a successful leader. Reflecting on her own background in PR, Stubo explains that despite not having the typical marketing experience of most CMOs, she understands how to set a vision, hire great people and build excellent teams.

“Marketing leaders need to be able to identify the right talent, but also be relationship-focused with key stakeholders. They need to be able to dedicate time to mentoring and coaching to help teams develop, as well as navigate and adapt to increasingly fast-moving trends,” she adds.

READ MORE: LinkedIn’s CMO on being a marketing boss with ‘PR DNA’

Reflecting on the skills he feels are missing from the top survey findings, Britvic CMO Matt Barwell highlights the ability to lead creatively and encourage an environment of creative thinking, which he argues are attributes far more likely to deliver “true breakthroughs”.

Humanity and empathy are the stand-out traits of a brilliant marketing leader in the opinion of Tommy Hilfiger CMO Avery Baker, who argues that leading without an ego is the only way to get the best out of people.

However, these ‘softer’ skills fail to impress Ritson. “All this wank about humanity and bravery is the outcome of sitting around on yachts in Cannes feeling each others’ pain. It’s time for marketers to wake up and smell the coffee. Our role is as a fundamental part of organisational success, not some personality-driven, self help group for sensitive people.”

Peugeot marketing director Mark Pickles disagrees, arguing that marketers ultimately have to be brave and adaptable in order to succeed.

“It is only by understanding the core desires, motivations and demands of consumers, and being brave enough to consider how to quickly adapt the enterprise to deliver these that the modern marketer can survive and prosper.”

However, in the opinion of IBM CMO Lisa Gilbert, the perfect marketing leader is ‘T-shaped’. She defines this as a mixture of general leadership skills, like the ability to set a vision or the tenacity to bring an idea over the finish line, combined with expertise such as the ability create a compelling narrative or get to the root of a data problem.

This mix of skills is underpinned by empathy and the ability to manage your energy, explains Gilbert.

“Being a leader in this fast-paced industry takes stamina. Fortifying yourself with people who lift you up, coupled with a few good night’s sleep are critical to winning the marathon of leadership versus the sprint.”

At its core Marketing Week’s research reaffirms how essential it is for marketers of any level to possess strong commercial awareness and strategic thinking, talents that are superseding functional skills such as copywriting and design.

To be a successful marketing leader the key is to recognise that you do not need to be good at everything and that fundamentally it is far more valuable to ask the right questions, listen to the answers and empower your teams to execute your vision with confidence and creativity.

Marketing Week will further explore the necessary qualities for leadership on the ‘Realising Your Potential’ stage at the Festival of Marketing in October. For tickets, visit