Finding the Right Agile Management Style

Second in a three-part series for CEOs and marketing executives on hiring agile marketing leadership.

In my previous post, I wrote about two qualifications that every agile marketing leader must possess. Here, I’ll take on something that’s harder to assess but no less important: determining the right management style for your agile CMO. 

Agile leadership is about empowerment

In my research I’ve found that successful agile leaders tend toward management styles that empower teams. This makes sense because agile recognizes that the individuals who are closest to the problem are more likely to solve it. It’s a flip of the traditional command-and-control structure. 

A traffic analogy drives this point home. Some management styles are more top-down, as represented by the stop light. The program that controls the stop light is intended to optimize throughput based on the analysis of historical traffic patterns. The centrally developed “program” is pushed out to every stop light in a given traffic zone so that it’s possible to know exactly when each one will turn green, yellow, or red. 

The roundabout, on the other hand, represents a distributed decision-making model. It’s based on what’s happening on the ground in real time, not on historical data. Like the agile approach, it empowers drivers to make decisions about how and when to navigate through the intersection. This model puts more responsibility on the driver, but it’s worth it because roundabouts allow the most throughput. 

When unexpected traffic flows arise (which happens frequently) the traffic light model exacerbates the situation, while the roundabout suits it beautifully. Increasingly, marketers are operating in a world of changing customer expectations and technologies (akin to those unexpected traffic flows). Historical analysis won’t predict what’s going to drive results—thus  the need for agile.

Agile-Compatible Leadership Styles 

With the above in mind, here are some common leadership styles to look for that are compatible with agile leadership:

  • Servant: Focuses on empowering teams, removing barriers, and this compliments agile because of its emphasis on bottom-up innovation. 
  • Pacesetter: Focuses on the commitment to continuous improvement and complements agile’s focus on delivering value iteratively at a steady cadence. 
  • Coach: Focuses on developing team performance while aligning to the broader goals of the organization. Complements agile because frequent iterations provide frequent opportunities for feedback and coaching. 

Agile leadership is less compatible with these leadership styles:

  • Democratic: Diffuses authority away from those closest to the work.
  • Autocratic: Conflicts with bottom-up innovation. 
  • Transactional: Conflicts with the need to adjust and adapt to change as this approach is based on repeatable and well understood processes.


Management Style, by Company Maturity 

In determining the right management style, consider your company’s life stage. Mature  companies tend to have more management layers, each with its own unique requirements. Not all agile leaders will be able to navigate the layers and stages of growth—and that’s completely normal. Companies with more layers might orient more towards leaders with Servant and/or Pacesetter styles, whereas smaller companies may orient more towards Coaching. These are not hard rules, and styles are not exclusive, but this framework is useful in assessing a candidate’s strengths. 

Another consideration for companies with more layers is that agile encourages flatter organizational structures. Restructuring, however, takes significant time and commitment so new leaders must be able to manage the existing organization. Compounding this complexity, the agile approach was developed for small teams not large organizations and it doesn’t provide guidance on scaling. There is no dominant pattern for scaling agile across marketing. In the agile software development world frameworks to scale agile are gaining maturity (e.g. SAFe, LESS, etc) but they’re rare on the marketing side of the house. In short, agile leaders at bigger companies are going to be doing a lot of learning on the job in order to build a scaled agile marketing organization. 

Next up in this series: The Most Revealing Questions To Ask Agile Marketing Candidates

And, if you’re interested in learning more about agile marketing, listen to my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience into Your Competitive Advantage. 

How to Recruit Agile Marketing Leaders

The first installment of a three-part series on hiring agile marketing leaders

CEOs may have taken note of agile marketing, but few know what to look for in an agile-capable chief marketing officer. As an agile marketer who has gone through the experience of building agile marketing teams, I’ve pulled together a short primer on how to recruit agile marketing leadership.

Recognize that your recruitment team isn’t ready 

Agile marketing is still relatively nascent, so there are very few seasoned agile marketing leaders out there. And unless your recruitment team already supports an engineering or product management organization, it’s highly unlikely that they have much, if any, experience hiring agile leaders. Also, the agile marketing certification program (whose curriculum I contributed to) was only launched last year. Eventually, the program will help build a pipeline of talent that will come online in the next five years. For now, though, most of the people getting certified are early or mid-career professionals. 

That leaves you with three options for hiring talent. You can either elevate agile managers into leadership roles, train your current leaders, or bring in agile leaders who lack marketing experience. Of the three, I’m most bullish on the first option. I have nothing against incumbents, but agile leadership requires a very different mindset, one that existing leaders often struggle to adopt without significant intervention (cue the management consultants). Basically, this surfaces the classic innovator’s dilemma: the very mindset that propelled existing leaders to success is often in conflict with agile values and practices. 

Identifying Up-and-Coming Agile Talent

Broadly speaking, I’ve found two criteria that are helpful for identifying potential agile leadership candidates. Of course, these are in addition to all the normal qualifications that should be present in leaders: 

  • Operational Experience: The best candidates will have had success implementing agile within their teams or functions. Having gone through rounds of retrospectives, they have a strong handle on what it takes to adapt an agile method to their team and initiative. Most critically, they’ll have operationalized the practice with agile tools such as Asana or Jira. Ideally, this will connect team backlogs to a strategic planning process such as the objectives and key results framework (OKR). 
  • Mindset Modeling: Operational experience with the agile method is not enough; agile leaders must also model the mindset for their teams and peers. Agile marketing leaders must be able to not only educate their teams about agile, but they must also reset expectations about how agile works with peers. For example, projects will be released incrementally rather than at a pre-set deadline. Finally, this also means knowing where to apply and not apply the agile approach (agile is not for everything). 

Investing in Success

Finally, agile marketing leaders, especially those that you are grooming, are going to need more support than other leaders because they’re likely going to be doing a lot of on-the-job learning. Plan on investing in their success with training and coaching. And, if they are building a team this will mean extra recruiting support because mid-level agile marketers are also hard to find! 

Next in this series: Finding the Right Agile Management Style for Your Organization.

To learn more about agile marketing, listen to my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience into Your Competitive Advantage. 

Your Agile Transformation Team is Hidden in Plain Sight


If your CMO isn’t knowledgeable about, or bought into, agile marketing than the chances that agile will continue to gain traction in the organization and become transformative aren’t good. The big consultancies are banking on this as trusted advisors, and digital transformation guides, they have the CMO’s ear and see an opportunity to deliver value if they can get the CMO to understand how agile marketing is a competitive advantage for the company. But if your CMO isn’t engaged with a consultant there’s another option—your web team.

All customer experiences lead to your website
Your company website is your core digital experience, as such everything that marketing does ultimately drives to your website. This puts your web team in a unique position to influence other functions because they manage the core experience. They can set the terms of engagement.

In practice, web teams are service organizations that field requests from across marketing. Agile web teams know that web experiences that are developed iteratively are less risky and more focused on driving business results. Following this, they structure their internal-client engagements with an agile mindset—deliver initial value quickly and iterate towards a fully featured experience based on feedback and data.

Some internal functions and teams will balk at this initially but disciplined web teams ultimately win them over on the merits of the approach.

Why agile web teams win
Web projects have many moving parts but they are grounded in the reality that websites are software. When software teams embrace agile they’re tapping into a best practice that’s been proven over the last 25 years. Agile derisks releases, delivers results more quickly, is more focused on results, as well as the end customer’s experience—these are hard won truths that have transformed software developers into the cool kids.

If we focus on just the last ten years a parallel change took place in the marketer’s world, namely an almost 50-fold increase in marketing technologies. In other words, marketers are managing more software than ever before and, by the way, a good deal of that software connects to the website.

So if your web team isn’t leveraging agile they’re not playing the game right and there’s a good chance that other technical marketing teams aren’t either. What’s different about agile marketing, though, is that it’s not constrained to software. Websites are not only software, they bring together a cross-functional team that includes both technical and non-technical roles that need a shared process to collaborate optimally. Web teams that win facilitate this by extending agile beyond software.

The hidden multiplier effect of agile
What I, and many other marketers, have discovered is that the benefits associated with agile go well beyond having a lingua franca of shared process. The benefits of shared process are real and important but agile becomes a substrate that encourages teams to align on a range of other fronts that are often unexpected and outsized.

In my agile marketing and WebOps webinar, I share a case study from Cornell University that is emblematic of this multiplier effect. They invested in adopting agile practices, and agile tooling to support those practices, with the stated goal of driving results through a shared process and governance model. They achieved those goals but drive an even bigger value proposition:

One of the bigger benefits is how it’s aligning the institution, we’re all coming together around a common way of presenting information
– Rebecca Joffrey, IT Innovation Officer

Across hundreds of university websites, Cornell’s story and branding became incrementally more consistent over time. In short, a community of shared practice creates a venue for collaboration, and alignment, on everything from storytelling to innovation. While it’s still a minority of cases where agile transformation is driven from the bottom up, when it happens there’s a good chance that the web team made it happen.