Managing Others: Advice for Brand Leaders on managing and developing Marketing Talent

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

Most new Brand Managers are bad bosses. I was.

I don’t mean to sound too cynical but that statement is a reality. I used to tell my newly promoted managers that “you’ll really struggle managing others till your 5th direct report”. Becoming a good Brand Leader takes time, self assessment and maturing. New Managers get very little people manager training or coaching, and are just thrown into the fire.  A few weeks into the new Manager role, just as they are about to finally delegate, they just say “oh, I can do this faster than it will even take to explain it, so I’ll just do it myself”.  Instead, new Managers hoard all the good activities and just give the lousy easy to accomplish work to their direct reports.  

They see themselves as managing a series of tasks, and miss out on the idea they are managing someone’s career. A recent Harvard study has narrowed down what the modern leader is looking for from a boss:  they want career advice and coaching.  It’s not whether the boss is nice, funny, inspiring or challenging–not whether they are too involved or not involved enough. What really separates an OK boss from a great boss is “do you give a damn about my career?”

Think about your people in terms of skills, behaviors and experiences

Most Managers focus on strengths and weaknesses, because that’s the old school method for managing people. We even ask it during interviews and use it on year-end performance reviews. Most new Managers figure their role is to fix the weakness so their direct report doesn’t look bad, or even worse, make them look bad as a Manager. One shift I’d love to see Managers make is to work with their direct reports on closing Gaps, instead of fixing Weaknesses. The difference between a Gap and Weakness might seem like semantics, but I see it as a management philosophy.

  • With a “weakness”, you can’t really fix it, and it may even be dangerous to fix it because you risk changing the person too much. I’ve had managers who tried to get me act more like them and when I tried, I found that I wasn’t being true to my authentic self.  I believe that a weakness and a strength are usually directly linked. So as you work to minimize the weakness, you might be dulling the related strength at the same time. For instance, “challenge too much” came up in many of my reviews as a weakness, and it has gotten me in trouble on day 1 and year 20. Not until I had a boss coach me through my style did I learn to manage “how I challenge” and how to turn it into a strength instead of a weakness. Even as a consultant, I say my role is to challenge.
  • With a “gap”, it is something you can close through learning, coaching, application and feedback. For instance, early on in my career, I had a gap in with advertising because I wasn’t on a brand that did much advertising. Because I lacked the experience, I lacked the right skills and behaviors. I didn’t really know how to give feedback, I didn’t really know the role of a brief and had very little knowledge of the advertising testing methods. I had good instincts, but unsure how to deliver them. Once I got significant experience, observed the right behaviours and added in various skills linked to writing a good brief, giving effective feedback or judging on what would work in the marketplace, I was able to close the gap in the advertising area. Advertising to me, was never a weakness–just a gap that needed closing. And 15 years later, I’m now training Brand Leaders on Advertising.   

When you start to think about Gaps, you can observe if your direct report is meeting the standard of their peers or the expectations for the current role. You can also make decisions on their readiness for promotion, and possibly use the Gap analysis as a way to close on a few specific areas before the promotion. And finally, you can provide an assessment to help focus the colleague to work on to continous ways to improve.

In terms of coaching, think about three layers of coaching:    

  • The obvious Year End Review is the most formal document you’ll write on behalf of the company. Nothing in the year-end should surprise your direct report, and every point should have been discussed many times throughout the year. There’s nothing worse than sitting down and having no idea what your boss would say. When I was doing reviews, I even emailed out the written review document 48 hours ahead of time, giving people the chance to digest all the thoughts and to come prepared ready to discuss each point.  (when I did “anonymous” feedback at year end, I made sure I signed my name to it)
  • The next layer down are Quarterly Reviews, which I think are essential to helping someone grow. It’s my belief that marketers can grow faster than we think–but they can only grow with timely feedback. Use these meetings to review accomplishments during the quarter, and to focus on ONE THING they are working on, get them thinking of one skill and one behaviour they were currently working on. With great marketers, I found with good feedback they could quickly close the gap within one-quarter.
  • Use day-to-day feedback, providing consistent and regular On the Spot Feedback. With agreement on the ONE THING, it’s important that you highlight when you see examples of them closing or not closing the gap. 

Below, I break out the essential skills that every Brand Leader needs, the leadership behaviors that Great Brand Leaders exhibit and the experiences you need to gain. 

Marketing Skills

I have mapped out 32 core skills a Brand Leader needs to be successful.  I have broken down the skills under one of 8 core areas:  

  1. Seeks to understand: skills that help use data from all sources, reports and methods.
  2. Analytical: skills for asking the right questions and getting beneath the surface.
  3. Strategic Thinking: skills to enable you to focus, staying on strategy and guiding strategically
  4. Stays organized: skills around projects, meetings, budgets and various functional needs
  5. Innovation: skills for brainstorming, developing and testing concepts and taking ideas to market
  6. Advertising: skills related to briefing, giving feedback and making decisions on media and creative ideas.
  7. Go to Market: skills related to working through customers, merchandising
  8. Leadership: skills related to managing others to maximize the talent pool, working the system and managing up and sideways.


10530900_10154328451135332_274029533138390707_nEach of these skills can be learned with a balance of classroom training, coaching, feedback and learning by doing. The big myth in marketing is “you will learn all this on the job”. No you won’t. If you don’t learn how to do it right, you’ll learn to do it wrong. By the time you move up to Director, you want to make sure you can close most of the skill gaps.  As a junior marketer, there is nothing worse than reporting to someone who lacks any of the essential skills on this list. 


Leader Behaviors

I’ve also mapped out the 15 leader behaviors that you need to be a succesful Brand Leader.  I have broken down the behaviors under one of 5 core areas:

  1. Accountable to Results: need to see you take the lead, make things happen and make the right decisions
  2. Strategic Thinking: a great leader stays the steward of the Brand Vision, holds everyone true to the strategy and pushes for new ideas within the strategy.  
  3. Broad Influence: as you move up, this becomes more crucial but we want to see it in the more junior folks so that we know you’re worth investing in. This means you actively listen, seek out other solutions, increase your sphere of influence across various functions and come across like the owner of the Brand. 
  4. People Leadership: to be great with people, it’s less about your own personality and how much you care about your people’s careers. You need to give regular and balanced feedback for growth.  And your own leadership will be on greatest display during times of pressure–as one boss said to me during a crisis: “this is when they really need us”.  
  5. Authentic Style: It’s not how charismatic you are, how inspiring you are, but rather how well you know yourself and how truthful you show up. Great leaders show a curiosity to be a constant learner and is always trying to improve at every stage of their careers.  

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The following experience areas are crucial for a marketer, but do take some experience before you can become proficient: 

  • Writing the Brand Plan: As you gain this experience, make sure you go deep, that the ideas are yours and not overly influenced by your boss and that you’re proud of the plan you present.  
  • Managing a Team: By the time you get to the point of leading an entire team, you’ll realize that it can be a very lonely, once you figure out you can’t be friends with your employees do you get really good at getting the most from your team. 
  • Launching a New Brand: Launching an entirely new brand is an amazing test for how broad you can think, how broad you can influence across and organization and lining up all the moving parts.  As you dig in, you might be shocked at what you didn’t know yet.
  • Leading a Brand Turnaround: To me, what separates a good marketer from a great one is their ability to turn around a business.  Most Brand Leaders who take on a turn around don’t focus on what’s really holding the brand back. Try to avoid trying to do too much and risking that nothing gets done.   What I have found in turn arounds is to layer in three separate stages so that you aren’t trying to do everything at once.  
  • Leading New Advertising: Usually when you have to lead new advertising, it means your brand has struggled in this area for a certain time.  When you have a blank slate, the ambiguity can really destroy a marketer. 
  • Leading through a Merger: I’ve been through 4 of these and I hate them. I keep hoping mergers are done, because I don’t think the Brands are winning.  But we’ll all go through them and the only advice I have is be extra careful of how you show up, be patient on the decision-making and avoid saying anything about anyone that you might one day regret. 
  • Leading cross functionally: I was at a senior level when I first got the chance to manage a cross functional team. Once you get outside of marketing, you’ll realize how the different functions behave–not the A-types, overly enthusiastic, decisive, action oriented leaders that we marketers are used to working with.    
  • Firing an Under-performing fellow Marketer: I know this might sound a bit morbid, but letting people go is a reality.  Marketing is a tough career, and to get better as a team you have to push as hard as you can and the reality is that not everyone can keep up.  How you go about firing someone and ensuring the company is protected and the person maintains their dignity is a tough balance to get right.  


If you can make people better, you will be an even better Brand Leader


With your best people, make sure you identify the experience gaps they have and be fair to them with the next assignment. It’s far too easy to keep relying on a person’s strengths but it’s more important that you round out that person’s experience. If they advance too far without covering off those gaps, they may find themselves struggling later in the job. I’ve known newly promoted directors who had very little advertising experience coming up that all of a sudden found themselves on a desk with lots of advertising. Their team even had more experience than they did. Regular people reviews can really help identify the experience gaps that people might have.

To read about managing the careers of your Marketing Team, read the following document:




Graham Robertson Bio Brand Training Coach Consultant 

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