Born To Lead Marketing Teams

Born To Lead Marketing Teams

“Models are born, not made. You don’t learn to become a model. You are born with it,” proclaimed the master of the ceremonies for this particular modeling agency. My daughter had dragged me into this talent-finding event and my level of discomfort ratcheted up a few more notches as I heard those words. The man seemed pleased with his authoritative assertion, but I deemed it fundamentally unfair. So, if someone was absolutely committed to becoming a model, he/she may never succeed because they were born with a certain sequence of C, A, G, Ts in their DNA that did not meet this man’s expectations.

Now that I lead a marketing team, I wondered if this is also a skill that requires certain innate qualities in order to be really good at it? Do I need to be, by nature, a certain type of person, have certain behavior traits and proclivities, a certain disposition in order to do well or it is something that can be learned to smooth out any rough edges? Thankfully, we chose a profession where we have a shot to be as good as we want to be. I suspected this even before I started digging for information. I entered the workforce as a research scientist but then studied business administration with a focus on strategy and marketing. There are many people who suspect that scientists and marketers are bishops of two different colors; their tracks just don’t meet. But that does not appear to be the case. Unlike modeling, a marketer is not doomed to fail at birth by their genetic make-up.

Nature vs. Nurture

But the next question is, are there some personality traits that are difficult to teach or inculcate to be a natural in this profession? Are there certain things that we should look for in a person before we elevate them to manage a marketing team? The answer is yes. But first, let’s talk about the Peter Principle which was an observation by Laurence Peter in 1968 that there is a tendency in organizations to promote people to higher-level managerial jobs if they show competence and achievement in their technical jobs. Peter postulated that competence at your current job, which requires a vastly different set of skills, leads to a rise in hierarchy until you reach a position of relative incompetence and promotions stop.

Three professors, Alan Benson of the University of Minnesota, Danielle Li of MIT, and Kelly Shue of Yale, wanted to put this theory to test. They analyzed the performance of 53,035 sales employees at 214 American companies from 2005 to 2011. During that time, 1,531 of those sales reps were promoted to become sales managers and they found Peter Principle to be valid. High-performing salespeople were promoted to be sales managers, which was a double whammy. Now you no longer had a good sales rep selling while had a poor manager managing a sales team.

So, this seems to be a poor way to promote people to the managerial ranks without proper training and presence of certain personal qualities. But what are some of these core qualities that can be challenging, but not impossible, to teach?

Teachable but Difficult To Teach

The first one, according to Virginia Vanderslice, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, is a deep level of self-confidence and self-assurance. I once had a manager at Baxter Healthcare who would not teach me how to make cells competent for transfection. I knew a way to do it, but he had learned a technique that was quick and incomparably effective in his previous job. I guess he wanted to be the only person in the department who knew how to create ultra-competent cells. He lacked a sense of confidence and self-security. He was more concerned about being indispensable, the sole possessor of this ability rather than a manager’s mindset to grow capabilities of his team.

The second, according to Michael Useem, Wharton management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, is being comfortable with ambiguity and unpredictability. A manager needs to move forward and make decisions with inadequate or less than reliable information. More often than not, the situation is opposite. There is too much information, and one needs to figure out what is relevant and what is inconsequential. You have to separate wheat from chaff, signal from a deafening amount of noise. We are wired a certain way and many people have difficulty functioning in a haze of uncertainty.

The third quality which is hard to teach is being devoted to learning what makes people tick. We all are different; we are motivated by different things, have different levels of appetite for managerial oversight, learn in certain ways, reside at a certain level on the introversion/extroversion scale, like to be at work early or late, etc. A manager needs to celebrate diversity of opinions, thoughts, and motivations and manage them without a hint of, “my way or the highway” mentality. You have to embrace becoming a life-long student of human nature.

The last quality is selflessness. Several studies have shown a rise in narcissism in the country. It is a destructive force in a team environment. I have been in teams where the managers and talkers inflated their contributions while quieter teammates sulked. It really rips your heart out. You work hard, solve problems, make the team look good while a manager insinuates in a meeting, “Hey, look at me, aren’t I awesome and deserving of all the glory.” I was once talking about my work and did not mention contributions of a technician. It was a terrible mistake and I don’t think our relationship ever fully recovered. I feel embarrassed just writing about it.

It is wonderful if you are naturally gifted in what you do. But many of us take on or are pushed into a role where we are not. Thankfully, in a vast number of cases, we can learn to be good at what we do.