GE’s CMO Linda Boff on why marketing leaders must be ‘growth hunters’

Resilient growth hunters ready to grab the opportunities of the gig economy will be the marketing leaders of the future, according to the General Electric CMO.

“Every marketer needs to know the language of business and finance, and the language around the metrics and KPIs that are critical to their company. Those are the table stakes,” argues General Electric CMO, Linda Boff.

A firm believer that marketers need to be “growth hunters”, Boff thinks it would be a big mistake for any marketer not to be thinking about the big picture or how to push the business forward.

The marketing team at GE has therefore adopted a growth hunting formula, focused on creating new demand, shaping opportunities and capturing demand. Boff encourages her marketers to use technology to drive as far down the conversion funnel as possible, so that any leads they hand over to the rest of the team are real business opportunities.

While sales and strategy have always been important to marketing leaders, she thinks the real change has come with developments in technology, data and the speed to market being demanded by consumers.

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“If you can order something on Amazon that’s going to be here tomorrow, if not today, the whole expectation of the marketplace is different and I don’t think it matters if you’re a business person or a consumer,” says Boff.

“It always starts with the customer and the audience, and taking an approach that puts the marketplace first, working backwards on what are the available insights, what aspects of your marketing will meet those needs and how you bring those two together.”

The GE CMO believes the rise of the gig economy is having a big impact on the transfer of functional skills, like copywriting and design, away from marketers in favour of outsourcing to specialists.

You can be a hard-nosed business leader and still be highly empathetic and collaborative.

Linda Boff, GE

General Electric works on special projects with startups like Catalant, a software specialist that is part of the GE Ventures portfolio, hiring skilled marketers, strategists or project managers on a short-term basis.

“I see us leaning more and more into this gig-like thinking at GE. Every team does not need to look the same and teams can have permanence and impermanence, depending on what the needs are,” she explains.

“I think there are so many ways to gig that every skillset does not need to exist in a single person. There’s this interesting opportunity around the future of work and the team that’s needed for a particular project may be a very different team to the one that’s needed for something else, so I think that’s exciting.”

Transition period

As an organisation GE is experiencing a huge leadership transition after its CEO of 16 years, Jeff Immelt, stepped down in June. His replacement, John Flannery, began his career at GE 30 years ago and was responsible for the turnaround of GE Healthcare and launch of Sustainable Healthcare Solutions.

This change at the top has encouraged Boff to reflect on what makes a good leader.

“I would say it’s somebody who’s a constant learner, who sees what’s next and what makes the team and the company better. To quote Satya Nadella [Microsoft’s CEO] it’s about a ‘learn it all culture’, rather than a know it all culture,” Boff explains.

“To be that learner is insanely important as a leader, because it gets lonelier when you’re leading a team and I think if you close yourself off, and you’re not able to listen and learn, you stagnate.”

Boff is a strong believer that both soft and hard skills can knit together in a single marketer. She argues that you can have cultural skills like curiosity, humanity and empathy and still be a commercially intense leader, who is innovative and driven by the bottom line.

“Empathy is understanding what a customer wants, understanding what your team needs and what the marketplace is about. It’s a close cousin of being a great listener,” says Boff.

Empathy is understanding what a customer wants, understanding what your team needs and what the marketplace is about.

Linda Boff, GE

“Being a great listener is critically important because as you grow in your career you give oxygen to the team, you give them permission, you support them, challenge and question them in a way that helps the team grow. So you can be a hard-nosed business leader and still be highly empathetic and collaborative.”

Boff defines herself as a collaborative leader, who loves the opportunity to roll up her sleeves with the rest of the team and start digging into a project. However, she says knowing when to take a step back and “get out of the room” is essential, because if you’re hiring people who are fantastic then they should be given the space to excel.

Empowering your team to take control also means having transparent, well-understood goals that take into account the impact of change and give people the ability to feel like they can take the right kinds of risks.

“And then resilience,” Boff says firmly. “There’s good days and bad days in everyone’s life and when you’re a leader you have to be resilient for your team.”