When I work with the leaders of marketing teams, I’ll often hear that their job has slowly mutated into mere oversight.
As Michael E. Porter wrote in his famous HBR piece What is Strategy?, “In many companies, leadership has degenerated into orchestrating operational improvements.”
They may have thought that their job would be developing great ideas, leading their team to implement them, and collecting accolades along the way. But, instead, they found that they’re mostly checking everybody’s work, attending meetings, signing forms, jumping on last-minute requests from other teams, and shuffling emails between departments.
It’s not that their hopes were misplaced. Leaders should, Porter writes, be “defining and communicating the company’s unique position, making trade-offs, and forging fit among activities.” In short, they should be leading.
To reclaim their ability to make meaningful contributions with their teams, leaders need to be able to trust them to do great work even when unobserved, and to make great decisions absent of direct oversight.
So how can you trust that the people you lead will make good decisions, do their best work, and put in the effort and time necessary to advance your organization’s mission?
You design, articulate, and communicate your strategy.
To do that, let’s take apart our definition of strategy: “Strategy is the structure to work efficiently to get what you want.”
Start your strategy document or diagram at the end: What is it that your organization wants? Begin with its ultimate desire, such as changing the way people perform a task, making a measurable mark on the community, building important connections in the world, or eradicating a common problem people face.
Then, articulate how you would know that you’re making progress toward that ultimate desire—these are stated as your goals. These might include revenue targets, market share percentages, social media metrics, or a specific increase in qualified leads.
These are the short-term causes that create the long-term effects you wish to see. It should be clear how each goal, upon achievement, will demonstrate progress toward your ultimate desire.
Even if your goals are dictated to you by someone else, it’s a marketing leader’s job to demonstrate to their team how achieving those goals advances the mission of the organization—and how the work of each individual directly contributes to it.
Be as specific as possible, and remember that your goals must be attainable in the near-term to be motivating.
As astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote, “Good leadership means leading the way, not hectoring other people to do things your way.”
Once you’ve determined what it is you truly want, the next component of our strategy definition is how you will efficiently perform tasks to reach those goals.
Efficiency depends on your resources, such as your budget, the size of your team, and the existing level of awareness in the market. A strategy that assumes more time, money, or people than you currently have is a recipe for disappointment and physical or financial burnout.
So, for some organizations, efficiency might require you to focus on lower-cost, slower-burning approaches like positioning your CEO as a credible expert in your industry.
For some, efficiency might mean using your sizeable budget to build momentum quickly with aggressive lead generation efforts.
For others, efficiency might mean building relationships with decision makers at key target organizations, one at a time.
This has the beneficial side effect of reducing the arbitrariness of your marketing, and building team alignment. Your team members might understandably ask, “Why are we spending so much time writing content?” and it’s important to have a better answer than, “That’s what our competitors are doing,” or “That’s what we’ve always done.”
Instead, we can answer: “Because we’re working to establish our CEO as an expert in our industry with a unique perspective, and we have a near-term goal of generating more inbound leads based on that expertise. Content marketing is the most efficient way we’ve found to implement that approach, so far. But can you think of ways we could be even more effective with our current resources?”
Note how that answer provides direction for your team—it tells them not just what to do, but why to do it, creating the opportunity for creative thought and novel approaches to implementing the strategy.
The final component of strategy is its structure—what is the structure that will focus and constrain your marketing tactics, based on your chosen approach and your stated goals? This is not a list of specific tactics or ideas, it is the process you will follow to generate and judge those ideas.
Without a structure, how do you tell a good idea from a bad one? How do you know a good deal on a promotional opportunity from a bad deal, or a risk worth taking from an existential threat?
Write down or diagram in a flowchart your framework for making marketing decisions. How do you measure what’s working and how do you know when to cut something that isn’t?
Who will work on what elements of your marketing, and how much time will they dedicate to each component of their job each week? How often will you reassess your budgeting, your results, and your efforts?
I know that every marketing team on the planet is inundated with last-minute requests from sales and the CEO, as well as short-term opportunities they need to seize. That can make a rigid structure feel unachievable or even unreasonable.
But interruptions only create chaos where chaos already reigns. With a clear, ordered, and structured strategy, interruptions are creative opportunities to reinforce your marketing position in new ways. Because you’ve already accounted for the time, the money, and the energy you’ll need to tackle them.
At its most essential, your strategy document or diagram will, in as few words or illustrations as possible, express:
What your organization wants long-term (e.g.: “We exist to help thoughtful business owners stick with their marketing long enough for it to work.”)
The 1–3 specific, near-term goals that, if achieved, will demonstrate progress toward that ultimate desire (e.g.: “We’ll know we’re making progress if we get x number of inbound leads each month, regularly increase our media exposure, and receive enthusiastic testimonials from our past clients.”)
Your efficient approach, based on your current resources, for achieving those goals (e.g.: “We’ll achieve those goals by consistently and visibly positioning our CEO as a credible, reliable expert with a uniquely valuable philosophy.”)
And your step-by-step process for making decisions and measuring the performance of your tactics (e.g.: “We’ll constrain our efforts by always asking, ‘Does this reinforce our marketing position?’, we’ll only pursue tactics that can be affordable and sustainable for years to come, and we’ll reassess our efforts every quarter.”)
Armed with a strategy like that, your team will have the freedom to pursue opportunities, and the wherewithal to correct errors and change course when needed.
As Porter continued, “Indeed, one of the most important functions of an explicit, communicated strategy is to guide employees in making choices that arise because of trade-offs in their individual activities and in day-to-day decisions.”
We don’t want our people to merely operate like robots obeying orders. We want them to be people—people who stop, think, consider, and then act.
One 19th century general attributed an army’s success to the fact that “they not only worked like a machine, but the machine thought.“
But if our team members don’t understand the organization’s marketing strategy, on what basis do we expect them to make decisions?
If we don’t explain to them, precisely, what we’re trying to achieve, who we’re targeting, what we’re willing to spend in money and time to reach them, how we can best reinforce our marketing position, and how we’ll know whether a specific tactic was successful, how can we expect our teams to do anything other than choose the cheaper option?
Or the easier option?
Or the faster option?
And if we hold all the important detail in our own head, we can reliably expect our teams to only half-do their jobs, knowing that we’ll just end up changing the work anyway, based on information only we had.
But if we want our teams to perform at their very best, and at the level our organization requires, we must trust them.
And we’ll only trust them if we know they have everything they need to make great decisions.
Strategy—structure—is the root of all effective collaboration.
In fact, as Clayton Christensen once put it, “The way an organization’s employees work together toward common goals is the basis of its culture.”
Our strategy, our ability to articulate it, and our team’s ability to understand and execute it is the basis of our company’s culture.
It’s the basis of our marketing’s success.
And it’s the basis of our team’s ability to do their jobs.
It’s worth getting right.
And it’s worth doing it right away.