Every time I conduct a training session with marketing leaders, we start by agreeing on a definition of what Agile marketing leadership actually means.
“Hang on,” someone frequently chimes in, “this just sounds like good leadership.”
I love it when someone says this, because it often shows that the prevailing ideas about how leadership is supposed to work in this organization are in sync with Agile values.
Also, they’re not wrong.
Agile leadership does sound a lot like good leadership in general.
But when we get into Agile marketing leadership, there are some important nuances we need to unpack. Marketing leaders are particularly prone to some bad habits that need to be broken if they’re going to enable Agile ways of working.
There are many ways that leadership can get tripped up as it tries to support agility, but these three are the ones I’ve most often seen Agile leaders nail while non-Agile leaders fumble.
Agile Marketing Leaders Protect the Team... Even From Themselves
We often refer to team leaders in an Agile system as “heat shields.” They’re the first line of defense, protecting the folks doing work from unnecessary interruptions.
Sometimes this means completely refusing requestors access to the team. The team lead, also known as the Marketing or Product Owner, runs interference. They vet the communications, prioritize what deserves the team’s attention, and turn down things that don’t line up with objectives.
The higher up the chain we go, the more important this behavior becomes.
Protecting Agile Marketing Teams From External Interruptions
If someone with “executive,” “president,” or “chief” in their title brings something to a team, it’s really tough for most team-level leads to tell them no or not right now. But really, that conversation should happen rarely, if ever.
Senior marketing leadership should teach their peers to bring requests to them first. Then, knowing the larger goals and objectives of marketing as a whole, they can decide how to handle them.
Some requests might warrant attention by a team, but those that are more in the “I heard this cool thing on a podcast during my run this morning and we should do it right now!” vein shouldn’t make it to a backlog without a business case.
It’s much easier for marketing leadership to have this tough conversation than it is for a team lead staring down the Vice President of Sales.
Of course, interruptive requests don’t only come from outside the marketing function. Many senior leaders are guilty of the dreaded swoop and poop.
Protecting Agile Marketers from Seagull Marketing Leadership
When marketing leadership dives bombs a team, messes up their lovely sprint plan, and leaves someone else to clean up the mess, they’re a seagull.
They swoop in, poop all over everything, and swoop out again.
Sometimes this happens because instead of being the mega-heat shield and pushing back on random ideas that someone heard on a podcast, marketing leaders want to be an agreeable colleague and accept any and everything that senior leadership brings to them.
They dive bomb the team(s) and derail everything.
Then they wonder why nothing ever seems to get done.
So take a look in the mirror, marketing leadership. If you want colleagues to accept marketing’s expertise show the same respect to your teams.
Bring requests, not demands, and be prepared to be told no.
Agile Marketing Leaders Prioritize With Confidence… Even if They’re Not Confident
One of the most tricky parts of Agile marketing is the need to prioritize a wide variety of inputs.
Whether we serve multiple stakeholders or business units, need to blend ongoing “business as usual” work with strategy projects, or spend most of our time serving other teams, prioritizing is tough for marketers.
Agile marketing leadership, therefore, needs to provide strong direction about what’s most important for their teams at any given time.
This may not take the form of actually dragging work items higher in a backlog, but it does require consistent communication. Every team lead should be able to articulate the top three priorities for marketing as a whole, as well as the most important ones for their specific team(s).
If they can’t, it’s usually the fault of marketing leadership, not the team leads.
Sometimes prioritizing is tough for even the most senior of marketers. They may not be sure what the organization’s priorities are, or how marketing is meant to contribute to them. But it’s those scenarios when prioritization matters the most.
I actually once had a group of marketing vice presidents ask me what they should do if their organization didn’t have any goals.
After picking my jaw up off the floor, I told them they couldn’t allow that lack of direction to impact their Agile marketing teams. They had to set marketing-level goals their teams could work toward, or they’d just be using Agile to do the same old hamster wheel work faster.
Whether they’re sure about the ultimate future or not, Agile marketing leadership must set priorities like they are.
Agile Marketing Leaders Ask Questions… Especially if They Know the Answers
Many of us in the ranks of marketing leadership got there by being good at our jobs. We were strong marketers ourselves, showed an aptitude for leading others, and eventually became the boss.
The problem with this path is that it brings with it expectations around expertise.
If I started out as an awesome content marketer, I’m going to be prone to injecting myself into all things content-related.
I once worked with a VP of Design that still looked at every single piece of collateral her team produced.
As you can imagine, they loved that. It really helped with efficiency.
When we can’t let go of our subject matter expertise, marketing leadership can become a spectacular bottleneck.
One of the best ways to sidestep this issue is by breaking the habit of providing the answers to your teams. Don’t tell them what the headline should be, or why that keyword choice is off, or that you think they’ve missed the point of the design brief.
Ask questions to help guide them. Be willing to let them get some things wrong. Only by probing and exploring alongside your team will you develop the capabilities necessary to make yourself obsolete as a subject matter expert.
Which is, in fact, a good thing, since it allows you as a marketing leader to spend more time acting as a heat shield and prioritizer in chief.
Agile leadership and good leadership may share a lot of characteristics. But for marketers there are some major missteps we need to avoid on the path to both.
Whether it’s saying no at the right time, avoiding the swoop and poop, or using questions to build up your team’s capabilities, Agile marketing leadership has to be mindful of our idiosyncrasies.