3 Roles Marketing Leaders Should Abandon

Marketing leaders are asked to wear a lot of hats. They have many different titles and potentially many more roles: customer advocate, growth expert, idea generator, budget manager, technology user, brand builder, lead finder, team leader, culture builder and others.

No one can do everything. In order to shine at the most vital roles, today’s marketing leader might need to abandon some old assumptions or identities.

Over the years, as a former CMO and now advisor, I have noticed how easy it is for current (or aspiring) leaders to slide into some identities that ultimately don’t serve them or their organizations well. At some point, I had to recognize and deal with all of them myself.

The Leader Is Not a DJ

As a young entrepreneur, I ran a couple of small-market radio stations. As is the case with so many small businesses, the leader does a little of everything. Almost by default, my business partner and I recorded the morning show — before we headed out to sell advertising time and do a dozen other things each day.

There was some allure to being the DJ. It’s fun to do in the moment and comes with an ego stroke: to be recognized in the community. But I found that over time the perspective of a radio DJ can lead you to the wrong place. The DJ’s content comes out of a studio environment, where you cannot see the audience in anything close to real time. Our metrics for engagement were quarterly audience numbers, which were vague and lagging.

Programming was filling the time, but it was impossible to know what the audience enjoyed and talked about. My cohort and I cracked ourselves up during the morning show. It’s likely that we weren’t really that funny. Marketing leaders don’t want to be the DJs, creating content and programs that seem to fill the required market space but actually might be missing the mark. The DJ role can lure you toward an ineffective message.

The Leader Cannot Be a Professor-Guru

In a prior professional life I was a marketing and communication professor on three campuses. In my classes I had a captive audience. It was easy in that context to demonstrate brilliance. The audience had to come to me, and they were somewhat obliged to be engaged in my content. A similar dynamic often defines academic conferences. The lure is to be the guru on the mountain — accepting the accolades and being the sole or rare source of truth in some narrow domain.

That can be a trap. I have seen that great marketing value comes not just in what you know but also in what you make possible as a guide, mentor and/or coach. Your expertise needs to be constructed and distributed in a way that lots of other people can apply, the more immediately, the better. The professor-guru role can limit your impact by limiting your scale. It’s as important to build messengers as it is to exalt one’s expertise.

The Leader Is Not Just a Resource Dispenser

I am now a decade removed from serving as a CMO, but I remember the time fondly. Not that it was easy — our mid-size private company made big changes in its message, product portfolio, packaging, pricing and distribution in what seemed like days — but it is a heady position. Today marketing leaders often have responsibility in areas such as digital and technology that were barely on anyone’s radar a decade ago.

I saw many CMOs whose sense of importance was tied to their budgets, headcount or agency relationships — basically, the resources they could dispense. Over time, I came to appreciate that the marketing truth is less about assets and resources and more about building the business. It is about connections both external and internal. It is about management effectiveness.

I admire those marketing leaders who can build the message, expand and deepen relationships and drive relevant behavior. There is no better role for today’s marketer than growth driver.


About the Author | Jim Karrh

Jim Karrh, Ph.D., is a consultant, speaker, and author helping organizations transform their customer conversations and become more effective through “Managing the Message.” He is also a consulting principal of DSG, a sales enablement firm.