8 key leadership characteristics B2B marketing leaders need

By Chuck Leddy

Editor’s note: We’d like to thank our long-time friend Steve Kellogg, VP of Marketing Automation at UBM, for contributing insights from his own leadership story to this blog post. Earlier this month, he and his family faced mandatory evacuation from the California fires and we’re thankful that they’re all safe. 

Leadership is necessary for the success of any B2B organization, but it’s difficult to define. We know it when we see it. Much existing research, including the most recent B2B leadership survey from SiriusDecisions, asserts that the leadership characteristics that drive B2B success depend on the situation the leader is in. So a leader who thrives in one situation may fail in another situation where different leadership characteristics are required.

Leadership is situational

Leadership takes a careful, laser-like focus on people, on systems, and on processes, not to mention aligning all three around an organization’s strategic goals. To complicate matters, leadership must be adaptable, changing as situations and contexts change. As the saying goes, leaders are like “horses for courses,” meaning some leaders perform better on some terrain and tracks than others.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for instance, was a spectacular and world-inspiring leader in wartime. He met the urgency of war with unwavering courage and an inspiring focus on national values/purpose. But he was far less effective as a peacetime leader and was ultimately ousted as Prime Minister. Churchill was simply unable to adapt his leadership approach to the changing circumstances of a post-war nation that sought compromise and accommodation, not rousing wartime rhetoric and iron will.

8 key B2B leadership characteristics

There is an abundance of research on the traits of effective leaders, and how important each of these traits are in different situations. SiriusDecisions has entered the leadership fray with a terrific survey based on insights from some 300 B2B business leaders in marketing, sales, and other operational areas. The clearest takeaway from this SiriusDecisions survey is that leaders must constantly adapt, augment, and adjust their leadership characteristics depending on the needs of different situations. Here are the eight key B2B leadership characteristics described in the SiriusDecisions survey:

1. Strategic vision. Leaders look around corners and map out a course where the organization should go and grow next. They have a destination in mind and develop a roadmap (a strategy) for taking people there with them.

Kellogg: Leaders act like GPS guides, using their experience, as well as those of others to identify the trends and opportunities that are not quite visible yet, and then possess the courage and conviction to chart the course, identify where the roadblocks are, the quick wins and ultimately, a clear understanding of what success looks like. but leaders can’t be glued to the course. Good leaders constantly evaluate whether to pivot or persevere. I have a sign on my wall to remind me that “The Only Thing That Doesn’t Change, is Change.”

2. Effective communication. Leaders understand that the entire organization must buy into the why and the where, so leaders should continually talk about purpose and how to achieve that purpose. Any change initiative requires a massive degree of communication across the organization. Leaders know that effective communication is a two-way street.

Kellogg: Having recently been impacted by the Malibu fires, we as a community were constantly looking for answers. “When will be allowed to go back to our homes and inspect the damage?” “When will power be restored?” “Is there water and if not, when will there be?” “When will the road closures be lifted?” There is a collective frustration amongst the locals because most of these questions never got answered. I still don’t know when power will be restored at my house. There is talk of replacing the entire city management. Good leaders become the catalyst for up to the minute information.

3. Developing people. There can’t be a strong leader with weak, incapable followers. Leaders understand how to develop people, bringing out the best in them so that they grow as individuals who in turn help the organization grow. One sure sign of a great leader is that she’s developing other great leaders around her.

Kellogg: I currently have the best team I have ever worked with. They are effective because their strengths and weaknesses are fully supported by other team members. They were all hand-picked because of their unique abilities. Their deliverables are aligned to each person’s DNA. Their job function is naturally where they live. And where they are most likely to grow.

4. Industry knowledge/expertise. Effective B2B leaders are also “thought leaders,” experts in their industry and their field who bring their know-how to bear on behalf of their organizations. A leader in marketing operations, for instance, may understand the latest trends in artificial intelligence/AI and Big Data, leveraging that know-how in order to implement and deploy new systems that drive marketing ROI.

Kellogg: Most of my team are “center-brained” meaning they use both sides (Analytical + Creative) to problem solve. I really think this is a requirement in today’s data-driven marketing roles.

5, Business knowledge. Leaders don’t get trapped in silos. So an effective marketing leader will have a clear focus not only on his own area, but on the entire business operation. The best B2B leaders seek to align business areas to create value-generating synergies that drive efficiency. Leaders must see the big picture across the organization, and hone their business acumen. So B2B marketing leaders need to grow skills in finance, sales, service, IT, not to take over from their peer in those departments but to be able to see how marketing’s piece of the puzzle influences the overall customer experience.

Kellogg: As VP of Marketing Automation, I made a point of joining myself at the hip with our VP of Data and our VP of CRM. I realized early on, I would not succeed without them. Circle the wagons you need to be successful. No good leader goes it alone.

6. Enabling process to drive efficiency. Strong B2B leaders constantly improve processes based on data and new insights gained from that data. Process improvement, as every B2B leader knows, is dynamic, requiring a leader who can map, analyze and improve processes, as well as the way people follow them.

7. Data-driven decision-making. More and more, effective B2B leaders must be masters of data, though not data scientists. They understand how to access and leverage relevant data for better decision-making.

8. An ability to foster collaboration. The need for collaboration extends far beyond the marketing function and includes cross-functional collaboration that may include sales, IT, operations, and other key business functions. Effective B2B leaders build teams where different strengths are leveraged and respected, where people feel psychologically safe enough to bring forward their best ideas and express their opinions openly to achieve organizational goals.

Kellogg: I created a Marketing Automation Maturity Model that identifies maturity stages across 7 themes: Strategy, Targeting, Data, Reporting, Process, People, Technology. We conduct workshops to plot each business unit’s current stage and define roadmaps to get to the next stage, across each theme. This prevents trying to boil the ocean and focuses on small wins to keep progress moving.

Deploying leadership characteristics in context

What’s the right mix of the 8 leadership characteristics? As SiriusDecisions makes clear, the answer depends on the situation and the strategic goals. If a leader is helping to develop a new offering, for example, then an ability to foster cross-functional collaboration (involving marketing, sales, production, finance, and beyond) may be a key leadership characteristic to deploy. If, on the other hand, the business wants to drive efficiency, then a focus on process and process improvement may come to the fore.

Major change management initiatives involve the careful coordination of people, systems, and processes. In that case, communication will be a major factor, as leaders must explain the purpose of the change, how to get there, and what success looks like. When change involves digital transformation, then leadership characteristics around strategic vision and data-driven decision-making may become more prominent.

When it came to evaluating the potential acquisition of another company, the SiriusDecisions survey found that strategic vision was most important. When it comes to boosting productivity, it found that developing people was considered the most important leadership characteristic, while fostering collaboration was tops when it came to developing new offerings (products or services).

The takeaway: “It depends”

There are no simple answers when it comes to defining what effective leadership looks like in different situations, other than “it depends.” The best leaders have all the tools in the toolbox and deploy them according to what the situation requires. While this truth offers you no easy answers, it does force B2B leaders to think more deeply about the situations where they are called upon to lead and what those situations might require of them.

For more information on the SiriusDecisions Leadership Survey, see the webcast replay that describes the survey findings. To learn more about how to lead your organization to peak performance results, contact us today.