Seven Critical Marketing Skills: #1 Strategic Vision and Process

Sycamore and Company has identified the Seven Critical Skills which separate successful marketing executives from the rest of the pack. The first of seven installments.

About Our Seven Critical Marketing Skills Series

The world of marketing is changing rapidly. Technology, competition, channels of distribution. Things are changing so fast that the old rules of doing business may longer apply in all cases.

These changes impact marketers and their companies. We all recognize that you just can't do business the way you did in the past. There is more information, more choice, more competition. With all these changes, the question arises, "Will the marketers of the future need different skills than they have in the past? If so, which ones? And how do they develop them? If you’re the hiring executive what skills, experiences and capabilities do you need in your most senior marketers? And, if you’re the employee what skills do you need to develop? And how?

To answer these questions, we went to the people who are doing the job today and hiring the marketing executives of the future. These are the people who are going to be held accountable for a smooth transition to the next generation of marketing executives. Through a combination of a quantitative survey and a follow-up one-hour, one-on-one interview, we identified the Seven Critical Skills which separated themselves from the twenty-one we proposed and the dozens written in by the executives. This is the first of seven installments that reviews each of the Seven Critical Skills.

#1 The most important skill - Strategic Vision and Strategic Process

We defined this as having the ability to gather a wide range of ever-changing variables, analyze them, and make some sense of them. The senior executive needs to have raw brainpower plus a strategic, longer-range perspective. To be of any value, they need to be able to translate strategic thinking into plans, and then they have to execute those plans with successful results.

Strategic vision was the overwhelming first choice by the executives. It is the starting point for all business success and it is the thing that separates the good from the great. A visionary can look into complexity that makes up the marketplace today and quickly distill out a picture of the future for the firm. A vision allows the company the opportunity to set its collective sights on a goal. But, to be truly valuable a visionary must also be able to articulate the steps that need to be taken to reach that goal. Here’s what they said:

"Raw brain power plus a strategic, longer range perspective. The ability to envision the end result of a plan. To me that is the essence of what visioning and long range planning is all about. It doesn’t mean that you’re right. It means that at least I have some idea of where I want to get to. And, I can inspire a group of people to work against that.”

“I really value a person who can see (that vision) in the future and who’s able to make short term business decisions to move the company forward, but at the same time has an understanding of where the real value in the marketplace is in the long run.”

“I sort of look at strategic vision as what you bring to the party... I can hire a lot of people who can crunch numbers for me, who can read reports for me, who can interpret data for me. But I think it’s important, when you get people who can actually create a vision and can say, 'I’ve looked at this data and based on this data we need to go in this direction and here’s why.'"

As important as it is to have a vision, however, the consistent message from our executives was that the successful marketer has to be able to rally support for this vision, to engender enthusiasm in both the management and the troops.

"It's the issue of stuff that comes from the heart as opposed to the stuff that comes from the head. Because vision, to a degree, is about being able to see something off in the future. But, vision is also, to a degree I think, the ability to infect people with the enthusiasm, vis a vis what you do see in the future, and get those hearts pumping a little bit faster."

"Being able to articulate clear, long term direction is the most important capability of any executive team member, but particularly the marketer."

"If you can't see it, draw it, articulate it and shepherd it to reality, you don't succeed."

To be valuable, the visionary has to be able to stay true to the vision, not to the point of not considering options, but to the point of fighting off the ever-present demands for short term success. The vision has to provide the company with that touchpoint which helps it set priorities and make choices that are strategically right for the long-term health of the business. In fact, a true vision needs to extend well beyond the area of marketing to embrace the entire business.

"You have to understand what it is you're trying to build. And a lot of people still, unfortunately, think about it increment to increment, fiscal year to fiscal year, quarter to quarter. As opposed to setting a goal that everyone can understand and painting a picture around it based on a highly desirable end game or end result."

“A long-range plan that sets priorities that help a company select from among all the various levers they have to pull in the business and the opportunities. I just think that as the world gets more complex, strategic vision gets more important.”

"I think it really is the notion of understanding who you are and what you are and what piece of the marketplace you own. And, in a strategic way, where you want to take the business.... I think vision does look beyond just the marketing area and getting a true picture of what's going on in the marketplace."

Not surprisingly, these very pragmatic executives were quick to point out that vision is only half the story. The marketer of the future will still have to execute. Even more so in the future than in the past, the marketing executive will have to be a doer.

“...fundamentally, the main role of marketing/advertising is to connect the brand with the consumer need. And that is a vision and process...But, unless the strategy is right and the vision is there, unless you know how to get to a vision, and that’s done through good process... the rest is’s the ability to get there and to know how to get there.”

“But, in the absence of being able to make...that vision happen, I think that’s sometimes where a gap occurs in an organization. You may have someone who has great strategic vision, but can never make it happen because they can’t get it into plans or get the people around them to make it work.”

"...You can have a great strategy, but if you don’t have alignment it doesn’t matter. And, alignment is harder than strategy...strategy is the idea and the direction and the choice...That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting...120,000 execute against it. And execute well.”

As more and more industrial and technical companies have started to embrace the idea of becoming more "marketing driven" it is important to understand that marketing is a way of doing business, not a department or function. Being marketing driven starts with the vision of the company. Many companies don't really embrace the concept of marketing, they don't use all the principles believing that they can cherry pick elements which fit their situation, "because our business is different." That is not a formula for success.

“It sounds like we’re all products of our environment, but those time- tested principles I’ve seen work now in six or seven different industries. And, I’ve seen them work consistently. And, I’ve seen deviations from that get penalized.”

Now, having sung the praises of a vision and its value for a company, it is important to recognize the downsides and one of the most difficult is knowing if the vision has staying power. As one of our executives pointed out, lots of people can have a vision, but that is only the start of the process.

“The difference between (strategic process and vision) is one kind of deals with the more knowable today and short term future and the other deals with the less knowable longer term future... I found this whole industry has got a plethora of strategic visions. And they kind of come and go... But, it is extremely difficult to know with enough specificity what’s going to happen to be able to figure out how to leverage it.”

The bottom line take away is that vision is far and away the most important skill a senior marketer must have to drive the business. As the world gets more and more complex, this skill will only become more valuable.

“...there’s so much information around you’ve got to provide some method to the madness. You’ve got to make sense out of it all. And, I think that’s what makes great executives, and decreasingly do I see a marketing executive as a functional executive. I see this marketing executive as a general manager with a twist -- an ability to think holistically. But, with a consumers’ point of view... a long time ago I stopped being a pure marketer and became a general manager with a marketing orientation.”

“I think no matter what changes happen, and there’s a ton of change happening, all great businesses have a real clarity about what they’re trying to do. And they can also break it down into specific priorities to get it done... when you’re operating any business the key thing is to be very clear about what your mission is, what your vision is and make sure everybody understands it.”

The downside of process

As we discussed Strategic Vision, we also wanted to understand the role and importance of Strategic Process in the success of a marketing executive. The cautions were straightforward: don't allow the process to overwhelm the thinking. This may be particularly true in technology companies where much of the management has an engineering background and processes are used to breakdown large tasks for "sub assembly". Overly engineered processes can interfere with the ultimate goal of creating a powerful vision. And, in a world of reduced staffs and competitive pressure for speed, excessive process can be deadly.

"Lots of organizations that I see...spend so much time on...the process ...And, when they get done with it, they're so exhausted and have used up so much time that they don't really get much quality thinking done about the strategy. They're too focused on the process and completing the steps of the process."

“The way you try to run big companies is through good process...that can be repeated and improved upon... good processes should not handcuff people. It should basically represent a road map of how to get to the answer, and then it’s their job to ...find the answer.”

Can you train vision?

Given the importance of strategic vision to a company's health, we wanted to understand how this skill can be developed and how an individual could develop it in themselves. The question we posed was whether strategic vision was something that can be trained or it was something inherent in the individual which could only be nurtured and developed. There was very broad agreement that you cannot train vision.

"...I think some of that you're either born with it or you aren't."

“I think you can train for process. I think you have to have vision innately.”

What you can and must do is to take the time to develop the skills of your people. You have to look for these capabilities early in the person's career, even during the initial recruiting process. Then you need to develop it. Or, allow it to develop.

“...I think you can improve it in somebody, but I think you’ve got to hire someone that’s got the raw intellect to be able to have vision and intuition.”

“I think a person has to have innately those underlying traits that you can build into vision. Some people are doers and some people are leaders and visionaries. And, I think it’s hard to take a doer and turn it into a visionary. But, I think it’s easy to take somebody who could be a visionary, who’s 24 years old and help him over time get to be there.”

“I think to a degree people have it or they don’t have it. But, I also think you can show people how to bubble that up.”

One counterpoint to this view was the feeling that companies can create a structure, a fertile ground where vision can develop. In some cases, even those people who may not have the skill in great measure might be able to build on what they have by being constantly exposed to the best minds.

"...some people, brilliant marketers, are those who have incredible left brain/right brain capabilities, who can see beyond the analysis and create analysis and approaches which are revealing in a way that other people aren’t. But, I think that process can be taught...and becomes part of the culture. I think that developing that culture with strategic vision and giving people a right framework to exercise in, including the tools of the training, is probably the number one marketing skill that we need.”

The final point to be made in this section is one that will carry throughout this analysis and that is that if the next generation of marketers is to be developed, companies will need to invest the time and resources in their training. There was a time when companies sold themselves to prospective recruits on the quality of the training they would receive. Somewhere during the rush to cut costs and drive short-term shareholder value, many firms cut out the time and resources needed to keep their future populated with high quality executives. That was very short-term thinking.

“I don’t think we have time anymore to train anybody. It there’s anything that’s changed, it’s that.”