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Marketing Leadership: How to Step Up in Uncertain Times

Credit: Deloitte Digital

Uncertainty makes life colorful; too much of it, though, breeds doubt -- even fear. Over the past few years, I have been working with global companies on their transformation efforts in the face of disruption. I've noticed that collective fears of the unknown can create paralysis.

As I've navigated my career, my own fears and experiences have taught me a key lesson that serves as my bedrock in dealing with so much uncertainty. I sum it up in three simple words: Take the step.

In a world that is changing rapidly, our biggest challenge as marketers is working with the unknown. Yet as I've learned, three key steps stand out as critical:

Step 1: Step into the lead even when you don't feel ready.

I grew up in China. Early in my career, I worked for a leading Australian consumer research and analytics company that pioneered "single-source" data. More fluent in the art of analytics than the craft of English, I was more comfortable poring over data. After a while, I saw the firm could win more by offering an industry-focused data service.

Our CEO liked the idea. She also suggested that I lead the offering. She gave me a big promotion with a team of experienced account directors and researchers. You'd think I would have been ecstatic, right?

Instead, I panicked. What if I couldn't get enough clients? What if I turned out to be terrible at managing a large team of seasoned professionals? What would the others think of me, rising so fast?

"Trust yourself," my mother advised me. "Unless you take the step, you'll never know how far you'll go."

So I did—and I learned a lot about managing professional teams, making a market, winning new business. After falling flat on my face a few times, I got pretty good at this challenge. I grew a steady book of business, expanded teams and led some exciting client projects—all opportunities I'd have lost if my insecurities were in charge.

Step 2: Have the courage to take an intentional back step.

Eventually, I was introduced to a partner at a top-tier strategy consulting firm. Fascinated by the mental intensity and business model of a consulting firm, I began thinking about consulting as a potential move. But there was a catch with this particular firm: "You don't fit into our recruiting model," the executive said. "We only hire from top business schools, so you'd have to get an MBA and start from a lower level."

So I gave up a high-growth career with a six-figure salary and went to business school.

In 2003, I joined Deloitte Consulting as an entry-level MBA hire and moved to Chicago. I worked on exciting corporate strategy projects in telecom. I also did everything I could to mimic the partners around me, copying everything from the way they dressed to how they spoke in an effort to fit into my new industry—and my new country.

It was a good step -- until it wasn't. One day, a partner gently pulled me aside to say, "Frances, you are not enjoying what you're doing." The care in his voice and the truth hit me like a freight train. I didn't realize how miserable I was, and that led to the third step.

Step 3: Trust yourself enough to believe in your unique strengths.

I needed to stop playing a part and find my own way. So I reached back to my customer and marketing roots and pursued a new direction aimed at the intersection of digital, customer and technology. In 2012, I was promoted to managing director with a focus on building CMO services in the high-tech sector. At the time, this was a whole new path for Deloitte and our competitors.

Step by step, I started to experiment, knitting together new offerings across strategy and technology boundaries. I built a reputation as someone who is not afraid of the edge, who could effectively work across silos to solve complex digital and marketing issues with others.

No one asked me to do this. But I trusted my gut—and learned that if you have a point of view and the will to make a difference, like-minded people will join you.

Taking the step

Today, I work closely with colleagues who study how organizations respond to disruption and what we can learn to prepare for a future that's different. Much of this comes down to taking steps and becoming comfortable moving into the unknown.

As marketers, our success requires us all to rethink how we operate, organize and behave to connect with customers better. The point, ultimately, is this: In our rapidly changing world, there is no path to follow. You have to take your own steps. And when you're at the edge in uncharted territory, learn to believe this: "The best of me is the best out there."

Courage to trust yourself is an essential ingredient in this time of change—otherwise, we won't be able to keep moving forward.

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Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd., a U.K. private company limited by guarantee (“DTTL”); its network of member firms; and their related entities. DTTL and each of its member firms are legally separate and independent entities. DTTL (also referred to as “Deloitte Global”) does not provide services to clients. In the United States, Deloitte refers to one or more of the U.S. member firms of DTTL, their related entities that operate using the “Deloitte” name in the United States and their respective affiliates. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting. Please see www.deloitte.com/about to learn more about our global network of member firms.
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