Nurturing your natural talents

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We asked 54 top executives what they look for in their top marketing officers of the future. What they told us says you'd better be a good judge of talent because you can't teach the skills you really need.

Our firm specializes in finding executive-level marketing talent. Our hypothesis was that such changes as the faster pace of business, the influence of technology and the consolidation of both manufacturers and channels would have to have some impact on the key skills demanded of a chief marketing officer. We did in-depth, one-on-one interviews with top executives in more than four dozen companies, covering a number of product and service categories. Here are the skills at the top of their lists:

* Strategic vision and strategic process. For companies to succeed, someone needs to be able to gather the key data, sift it and not only set a long term direction but also lay out the steps to get there. Vision is not enough. You have to be able to rally the troops and get action. Importantly, the executives generally agreed strategic vision is not something that can be taught or trained. It can be developed and nurtured, but only if the skill is recognized early and encouraged

* Intuition and the ability to react. The world is too complex and moving too fast for classic analytical tools to cope. You can't wait to gather all the data, and even if you could, the data would change before you could react. Executives must be able to set reasonable hypotheses and then react to the market. Can intuition be taught? Not in the opinion of our panel. But it can be killed early in a young manager's career. Intuition demands that people trust their judgement, take risks. If companies hammer a young manager for a market failure, will he or she ever take a risk again? What you can teach these young people is how to mitigate risks, how to cover their bets. That would be valuable.

* Change agent. It's perhaps one of the most overused terms, but the need is very real. Companies have always needed people who would tilt at windmills and challenge the status quo. But this skill is no longer limited to dreamers thinking about the long term. Today, mainstream management needs people who can find their way through the maze and break through policies and procedures to react to the marketplace. Just how would you teach this skill? How do you train someone to balance the brashness of a new idea with the sensitivity to get things done without breaking too much glass?

* Creative development and innovation. Innovations in products, services, advertising, promotion, compensation, etc., are the lifeblood of a business. Top executives either need to be innovators themselves or need to be able to recognize creativity in others and be able to nurture it. With fewer and fewer resources available, companies can no longer just try a dozen ideas to see which one works. Creativity is more critical than ever.

Innovation cannot be taught. Creativity cannot be taught. Tolerance of creative people can be taught and must be taught if companies are to develop the resources that they do have. Creative people are different. What they produce, whether it is a piece of art or a product design or a marketing plan, is a part of them. Reject it and you reject them. Too much rejection and the creative person will just shut down. Companies not only need creative, innovative thinkers. They also need the environments where these people can thrive.

* Desire for accountability. True leaders want responsibility. Let's be clear. This is not the willingness to accept responsibility. This is the desire to take responsibility. Risk is a challenge to be taken up. And these people are rare. Can you train it? Or do you just see it in their eyes?

* Communication. Our executive panel pointed out that communication is about more than the ability to write a clear, concise memorandum. Communication at the top levels of a company is about being able to formulate an argument and a recommendation in a way that gets not only acceptance but support and enthusiasm. In a world of cross-functional, worldwide, multidivisional businesses, the risk of miscommunication has increased exponentially.

This is a skill that can be taught, although it's amazing how many major corporations are still doing business using chart decks with bullet points. These decks get sent around to people not at the meeting, who did not hear what the speaker had to say or the discussion that ensued, but who are expected to learn something from the bullet points. Amazing.

* Action orientation. There was a time when senior-most executives would set goals and review plans, leaving the execution to the managers. Those days are over in many, many firms. Organizations are flatter. Decisions need to be made more quickly and without the luxury of multiple layers cogitating on each step of the plan. Executive teams need players whose instinct is toward action. Can you teach this? Is it a skill really or an approach to life?

Of the top seven skills our executives wanted to see in their chief marketing officers in the future, maybe one can be taught and trained. All the rest demand that great talent be identified early, hired and then nurtured, sometimes even protected. Or you need to be able to identify proven executives who have been cultivated somewhere else and then fold them into your firm. Either way, the premium is on talent scouting.

Mr. Tazzia is managing director, Gundersen Partners, a global executive search and management consulting firm that specializes in marketing and marketing communications ([email protected]).

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