What matters more than skill?

Michael Valos and Alvin Lee discuss whether technical mastery or interpersonal mastery matter more for chief marketers.

michael valos alvin leeIn 2016 we’re examining the types of mastery needed to become (or continue to be!) a successful CMO. These articles reference the ‘Three Mastery Framework’ proposed by our colleague Erik Zimmerman, CEO of Littil. The Framework arose from his experiences designing internal learning centres, executive coaching and senior marketing roles in firms such as ANZ and Unilever. The three masteries are technical, interpersonal and personal. This article focuses on interpersonal mastery.

From an academic perspective, top tier business schools focus on equipping future leaders with skills to tackle any problem in business. This is shown in their selection criteria. Referees for graduate students applying to top Australian, US and UK universities are asked about a candidate’s communication and leadership skills, their ability to function under pressure, how they handle teamwork and whether they have the aptitude needed to complete a master degree.

In class, professors focus not only on helping students understand and master advanced technical skill sets, they also cajole students to think critically, organise efficiently and collaborate to achieve targets. Are all these skills equally important? Can we develop a good and effective manager who is especially strong in people and organisational skills, but is not a marketing discipline specialist?

Previous articles in this series suggest that CMO roles are influenced by such issues as marketing performance measures, CEO background, the organisation’s degree of innovation, emphasis on differentiation and other top management team members’ marketing expertise. This suggests that chiefs holding different positions have different emphases for the three masteries. Nonetheless, we believe that all three are significant in determining the success of a marketing team.

RELATED: Valos and Dr Lee’s previous article, on whether or not the lack of clear definition for the CMO role is a necessary evil. Read more »

In an interview with HBR (Harvard Business Review), Stanford researcher Lindred Greer surmised that leaders who were technically competent in their area led teams that performed better than leaders who did not have the level of technical skills needed. Their discussion was based on points raised in a soon be published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

However, that research did not compare teams that had leaders with equivalent technical competence, but different levels of interpersonal and personal competence. This type of comparison would more clearly delineate the limits of technical competence in contributing to the performance of a team. Commenting on the article, a user named Lesley Durham-McPhee pointed out the importance of non-technical mastery. “I lead a team where I’m definitely not the most competent. If I recognise this fact, can I compensate for it by encouraging more collaboration and delegation?

“I literally start from a point every day where I recognise the skills and expertise of the people on the team. My goals are to help them become more integrated within the wider organisation, so they can be more responsive to needs, to find efficiencies wherever possible.”

This highlights the whole point of working as a team, which comprises specialists in different roles. Importantly, Durham-McPhee’s argument points out the important role of leaders, to get the best from their team. These contrasting views prompted us to go to the market and interview experts and industry leaders. They had very strong views.


Marketing issue badge The Social issueAccording to Erik Zimmerman, the capability to coach others will, over time, deliver two key benefits: “A marketing team that can think for themselves and develop a higher propensity for innovation,” he says.

Describing an approach to harness team members’ diverse experiences and develop members to become more independent of you as a leader, Zimmerman explains that the CMO must have, “key interpersonal skills, such as the ability to ask powerful probing questions (coaching), the ability to deliver an effective message (storytelling), the ability to listen (empathy) and the non-verbal aspects such as body language.”

Buy-in for marketing

Lee Tonitto, CEO of Australian Marketing Institute, writes, “Having the right people with the right skills is paramount, but marketing isn’t an order-taking role. As a leader you need to encourage creativity in the team and provide a sense of security to your team.

“Only once the trust is engrained in the team will creativity flow,” she says. This emphasises the importance of managing and developing good people, stressing technical skills as a given property. A group of good marketers will be very proficient in the ‘doing’ of marketing; it then falls on the leader’s people skills to make the technically proficient group into a great marketing team.

Zimmerman takes this in another direction: “The marketing team is often relied on to build a strategic direction for the next 18 months (the ‘what’) and to build a believable story behind growth targets (the ‘how’). The capability to enrol others in an uncertain future is core to all marketing efforts.”

Chiefs of marketing need technical expertise to create external-facing persuasive dialogues for customers, but equally important are skills to create persuasive dialogues within the company to reach projected goals.

Difficult conversations

Peter Little, general manager of member marketing and communications at Cbus Super Fund, thinks that coaching is a key role of CMOs, and key to coaching is clarity in communications. Preparation is key to the art of interpersonal exchange, he says. “Prepare prior to the conversation, be aware of the other person’s feelings and beliefs, but also be clear in the conversation about the issue, so that it is addressable and so solvable by both parties.”

So, cookie cutter methods where all staff are treated the same way don’t work. What works is an individualised approach that is sensitive to the person’s background, personality and values. What is important is whether the differences can be solved. Where something is not solvable – for example, where the solution requires a change in a person’s personality traits – then a workaround needs to be proposed and mutually agreed upon.


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Michael Valos and Alvin Lee are regular Marketing columnists. Purchase a subscription and never miss out on their insights.

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Michael Valos
BY Michael Valos ON 11 May 2016
Dr Michael Valos is senior lecturer in the School of Management and Marketing at Deakin University, co-author of Integrated Marketing Communication 3rd edition, and chair of Marketing's industry advisory board.