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. 

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