Getting Great Marketing Talent in a Hiring ‘Buyers-Market’

In today’s economy a hiring manager has a tough job to sort through the deluge of resumes that result from a job posting and find the right pool of candidates for the screening and interview process.  LinkedIn, The Ladders and other numerous job boards and notification agents have turned the local employment listing viral.

That response deluge, unfortunately, may not translate into a simpler task of identifying that ideal marketing candidate.  Hiring managers and their respective HR partners need to winnow the candidate pool quickly and efficiently.  Further, given the current economic environment, many managers feel that the power has shifted from employees and candidates to hiring managers.  As a result, managers may feel that they can raise the hiring bar and be more demanding when it comes to getting the exact right fit for the position.

One of the current ways hiring managers are quickly concentrating their candidate pools is to eliminate candidates who don’t have specific product or market experience.  Based on my own experience as a hiring manager of marketing talent over many years, I find this interesting and potentially a missed opportunity (that could be costly…see below).

If you have a hiring philosophy I suspect you’ve come to it from a mix of training and experience.  The best interview training I ever had focused on behavioral interviewing, and it’s a technique I still use.  I must admit, however, that my bad hires have been the most instructive; those times when I felt pressure to fill a position and selected someone who wasn’t a strong fit, or when I put a tactical (or downstream) marketer into a strategic position.  As a result, I’ve developed the following hiring criteria, in prioritized order:

  1. Intelligence
  2. Attitude
  3. Job specific skills
  4. Market/product knowledge

Here’s my thinking:

With regard to intelligence, is the person a lifetime learner?  Can they look across disparate pieces of data and synthesize it into meaningful insights?  Do they have the mental acuity, cycle time and processor to ask good questions, see patterns and think deeply and creatively about the business.

In summary, with regard to intelligence, they need to come with these skills and abilities and if they don’t bring it, in most instances (not including internships and the like), it’s hard to teach.

And the same can be said – perhaps even more so – of attitude.  A potential employee’s attitude has a huge impact on their cultural fit with the organization and whether they will ultimately have a positive impact on the business.  Attitude, that amorphous quality which I hope will substantiate itself as a can-do attitude, a sense of personal ownership and accountability, curiosity, pro-activeness when it comes to communication and the assembly of relevant information, and a commitment to being adaptable (especially when it comes to collaboration style)…I see attitude as critical to employee success and I try hard to assess this through behavioral interviewing.  And again, based on my experience, despite sustained effort, a person with a poor attitude or an attitude that doesn’t fit the company culture, is very tough to turn around or “teach”.

Job specific skills, the technical component of the applicant/position fit question, is fairly straightforward.  Resumes generally speak to the development of relevant market skills over time and probing questions centered on having the candidate speak to their specific role in a marketing program they participated in and are proud, can be very revealing.  I also like to probe about the chain of tasks, obstacles and impact of the specific program (increased sales, competitive wins, customer satisfaction, new product definition, marketing strategies, product launches, etc.).

Unlike attitude and intelligence, job specific skills can be taught as long as some building blocks are in place.  Functional excellence can be enhanced.  Your processes can be learned.  And while you want someone to hit the ground running, if you have someone with marketing skills and the right attitude and intelligence, great things can be accomplished.

Lastly, in my mind, comes product or market specific knowledge. While I admit knowledge about the market structure and dynamics, competitive and regulatory environment, technology, etc. are all extremely useful, it can all be learned.  If faced with selecting between Candidate A who is a strong marketer, seems very bright and has a great attitude but no similar product and/or market experience, and Candidate B, also bright, solid marketer, does have specific market and/or product experience but you have a small doubt in your gut about cultural fit, I’d always go with Candidate A.

There’s an additional reason to consider marketing talent outside of your specific product/market:  Marketers are tasked with developing business strategy, and by that I mean understanding customer, market and competitive dynamics and defining a sustainably differentiated path forward that only your company can uniquely fulfill.  At the heart of innovation is bringing forth “something new…a new idea, method or device” (per Merriam-Webster).  Seeing new opportunities can be fostered with the cross-fertilization that comes from bringing in fresh thinking and different market world view.

Further, disruptive innovation happens on a regular basis to folks within a market who fail to see new entrants with simpler, more attractive value propositions.  New eyes into your market may be your best defense for keeping your business focused on both the trees and the forest.  So while it’s tempting for hiring managers sitting in the cat-bird seat to hire only market insiders, I encourage keeping your options open.

What are your leadership personality traits? Pick only two.

Paul Maritz was recently interviewed for a regular column in Sunday editions of the New York Times called “Corner Office”, which regularly asks questions of prominent business leaders about their management style and thoughts on hiring.  It’s a fascinating column which I recommend (column RSS subscription link).

If you don’t know Paul Maritz, he is currently the President and CEO of vmware and previously was at Microsoft, ending his 14 career there as a member of the five-person Executive Committee and as VP of the Platform Strategy and Developer Group.

I found there were a number of nuggets in the interview worth passing on:

  • On leadership style: I’ve learned that you only really get the best out of other people when you do things in a positive way. There are negative styles of leadership, where you do things by critiquing and criticizing and terrifying other people. But in the final analysis, it doesn’t get the best out of people and it doesn’t breed loyalty..We’re going to run into problems.  We’re going to make mistakes.  And when that happens, you have to ask people to help you and to overlook the fact that you’ve messed up.”
  • On hiring: “First of all, you want to make sure that people have the necessary intellectual skills to do the job. Second, you want to see if people have a track record of actually getting stuff done. Then, third, you want to look for people who are thoughtful, and that ties into learning and being self-aware.”
  • On successful groups: At the risk of oversimplifying, I think that in any great leadership team, you find at least four personalities, and you never find all four of those personalities in a single person.

    1. You need to have somebody who is a strategist or visionary, who sets the goals for where the organization needs to go.
    2. You need to have somebody who is the classic manager — somebody who takes care of the organization, in terms of making sure that everybody knows what they need to do and making sure that tasks are broken up into manageable actions and how they’re going to be measured.
    3. You need a champion for the customer, because you are trying to translate your product into something that customers are going to pay for. So it’s important to have somebody who empathizes and understands how customers will see it. I’ve seen many endeavors fail because people weren’t able to connect the strategy to the way the customers would see the issue.
    4. Then, lastly, you need the enforcer. You need somebody who says: “We’ve stared at this issue long enough. We’re not going to stare at it anymore. We’re going to do something about it. We’re going to make a decision. We’re going to deal with whatever conflict we have.”

Interestingly enough, Paul stated that he had rarely met anyone who embodied more than two of those personality traits “And really great teams are where you have a group of people who provide those functions and who respect each other and, equally importantly, both know who they are and who they are not.”

It requires self-knowledge and confidence to truly know which personality traits are part of your authentic leadership style and then surround yourself (or build teams with) with fellow leaders which build a complete set of competencies.  While you can get lost amidst the sea of self-assessment tools available on the web, I suspect if you think deeply about your successful team experiences, the key players, and your role on the team, your own personality strengths will become clear.  And despite the temptation, pick only two!

Inform Your Gut!

Interesting HBR guest blog post “Hire Great Guessers”, those folks able to make cognitive leaps from limited information.  Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, rightly advances the use of analytics to drive decision-making but also carves out space for intuitive reasoning and how it can support a smarter analytical approach.  More than just common sense, it is invaluable to have folks on your team capable of informing their gut and driving better business outcomes.

The Power of Observation in Innovation

A number of years ago when Hewlett-Packard still had a Medical Products Group (prior to the Agilent spin-off and later acquisition by Philips), I had a chance to be a product manager in the echocardiography business.  My first big assignment was to assume marketing responsibility for a  development project focused on bringing new functionality specifically designed for pediatric echocardiographers and their tiny patients.

The project was already defined and the engineering team was deep in the implementation phase.  I was not only new to being a product manager but also a novice when it came to the complexities of congenital abnormalities that my customers were tasked with assessing.  Hearts the size of a walnut and beating rapidly, pediatric cardiologists have the difficult task of plotting treatment plans for complex heart issues.

One of the things I did to gain an understanding of my customers’ needs, clinical environment and competitive dynamics was identify the top 15 thought leaders in the market and speak to them face to face in their labs about how our product was performing on their patients.  Armed with a questionnaire and QFD survey (a valuable tool which I highly recommend when trying to turn qualitative needs into actionable information), I was able to see side-by-side demonstrations of how our solutions performed compared to the competition.

In the midst of this humbling and illuminating process I learned many things, though some of the most valuable take-aways didn’t come as the result of my questions.  In preparation for one of the planned key opinion leader visits, I contacted the head of the echo department at a fabulous children’s hospital in Ohio and asked him if he minded my shadowing him for the day.  I told him I wanted to understand his needs, the context in which our products existed, and how he used information in his daily job.

“Are you sure you want to follow me around all day?” he asked.

“I really do”, I earnestly replied.

“Then meet me at 6:45am tomorrow morning in the lab, ready to go.”

We started the next day by visiting his patients in the NICU, checking charts, speaking with nurses, and examining the patients, hearing how his patients fared over the night and how they were recovering from surgery or other therapy.  I watched him wheel our imaging system over, select a transducer, fiddle with the imaging settings, and then open both port windows of the incubator, putting one hand into the left port and the hand holding the transducer through the other port window.

I could clearly see that he was struggling to maneuver the transducer and asked him what the issue was.  Exacerbated, he told me that the cable of the transducer was heavy and stiff.  It was hard to get the transducer into the incubator and in the right position without letting the transducer put any of its weight on the tiny patient’s chest.  If he let that happen, he explained, the weight could cause an arrhythmia.

I nodded my head in acknowledgment, watched him struggle and eventually get the transducer in place, gently touching the baby’s chest, and get his assessment images.

I had arrived loaded with my questions and survey, ready to find out about image quality, frame rate, transducer frequencies and imaging depths….and came away with an unexpected gift, the opportunity to observe and let my customer’s needs reveal themselves. I didn’t know to ask about transducer cables.  It hadn’t come up previously and I might not have gotten to that insight in any number of surveys.  But fortunately I had the invaluable opportunity to simply observe.

It is a lesson I try never to forget.  While so much has become virtual and remote in this day and age…telephone survey, blog posts, internet panels and Twitter feeds…I encourage you to preserve time to be in your customer’s space, get a sense of what frustrates and motivates them, get a sense of how your solutions fit into their context, and find ways to add value that are meaningful to them.  Sometimes it’s the aggregation of little things which sum to significant, differentiable contributions.


For more information on the power of observation, I recommend the book “Customer Centered Growth, Five Proven Strategies for Building Competitive Advantage” by Richard Whitely and Diane Hessan.

I also highly recommend Eric Von Hippel’s work at MIT that discusses lead user innovation.

Freeing Up Your Prefrontal Cortex For Better Strategy & Execution

The proof is in.  Excellence in both Strategy and Execution  can be achieved!

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies indicated that while the prefrontal cortex is engaged during strategic thinking, those that are the “best strategic performers” engage other parts of their brain when embracing the tactical side of executing a sound strategy.

Emotional processing, planning based on conclusions from prior outcomes, as well as sensory stimuli processing and anticipation of organizational reactions to plans all come in to play.  See When Emotional Reasoning Trumps IQ in the September issue of HBR.  The authors state:

“People associate strategy with rational thinking and other high-level functions of the prefrontal cortex but the best strategic thinkers show more activity in parts of the brain linked with emotion and intuition.  Their nervous systems may even repress rational thought to free those areas up….

Of course, IQ-based reasoning is valuable in both strategic and tactical thinking – but it’s clear that managers integrate their brain processes as they become better strategists.  When companies realize that, they may approach strategy and execution more holistically.”

I may put that on my resume…integrated brain processing.

PR Crisis Management: “What Not To Do”

Recommended reading in today’s NYT regarding crisis management.  The article, “In Case of Emergency:  What Not To Do”, reviews three recent huge imbroglios impacting Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs and how they mishandled their crisis communications.

It’s a lengthy article but worth the read.  A critical quotation by Howard Rubenstein (aka The Fixer) towards the end of the piece:

“These companies made the sames mistakes.  They broke the cardinal rule of crisis management:  They didn’t seem to have a crisis plan in hand.  They sought to minimize the extent of their problems, and they never seemed to display an understanding for the situation they were in.”

A crisis is complex and paving the way for a common response from legal, regulatory, management, marketing and sales can be extremely tough…especially if not done in advance.  In the heat of the moment, where response time counts, excessive caution may get in the way of saying what’s prudent and human to preserve your brand (and it’s corresponding contribution to stock value), retain customers, and maintain positives that will impact future purchase consideration and market entries.

Another relevant piece in the same section of the paper under the heading “Metrics”, “Three P.R. Nightmares” shows some interesting graphics related to brand health (Measured components of brand health:  impression, quality, value, reputation, satisfaction and recommend) before and after Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs’ crisis compared to top competitors.  As you might anticipate, the crises has had an outsized impact on their brands’ health.  However, with advanced preparation, that impact can be mitigated and potentially garner positives (Ex. J & J Tylenol recall in 1982).

Internally Coherent Strategy

In “The Coherence Premium”, featured in the June edition of the June Harvard Business Review, Booz & Co’s Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi advance the idea that strategy should start with recognizing what your firm does well that customers value and that competitors can’t eclipse and then building a core set of best-in-class capabilities to uniquely deliver on those products/services.  If done well, the authors contend, the market will reward the company with higher growth and returns.

The three elements to deriving a company’s “Right to Win”:

  1. Way to Play – organizational alignment around the company’s value proposition
  2. Product and Service fit – portfolio alignment around the enabling core capabilities
  3. Capabilities System – the “engine of value creation is the 3 to 6 capabilities that allow companies to deliver their value proposition”

Great examples are provided in Walmart and the consumer health business of Pfizer (positive examples) as well as Anheuser-Busch and ConAgra Foods (not so positive).  Interesting chart correlating their “Capabilities Coherence Score” and EBIT.

It’s a very clean approach which is intended to create value for the corporation in the following four ways:

  • Strengthens competitive advantage by continually enhancing capabilities (employees and systems)
  • Focuses strategic investment (organic and inorganic)
  • Produces efficiencies of scale, leveraging capabilities across a “coherent”portfolio
  • Creates alignment between strategic intent and day-to-day decision making

They state:

“Most companies don’t pass the coherence test because they pay too much attention to external positioning and not enough to internal capabilities.  They succumb to intense pressure for top-line growth and chase business in markets where they don’t have the capabilities to sustain success.  Their growth emanates not from the core but from the acquisition of apparent “adjacencies” that are often anything but…”

Powerful idea, aligning your company’s “strategic capabilities system with the right marketplace opportunities”.

The Embrace of Attentiveness

Interesting video interview with Nicholas Carr regarding his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.  In it he speaks about a kind of tyranny of multitasking, where focusing on one thing is almost a counter-cultural activity.  Rather than casting “ubiquitous multitasking” as evil, he seems to be reminding us of the power of deep engagement and its link to true innovation.

I thought Carr’s warning at the end of the video clip not to lose “open-ended engagement with the world…[in favor of a] narrower definition of creativity as just a matter of problem solving rather than a broader definition that is all about challenging convention…” has salience when it comes to market leadership.  I think when you’re on the outside looking in, disruptive innovation feels so unsettling because while some were focused on simply solving problems, others were taking a more fundamental, deep look at the landscape and coming up with truly creative responses.

Faith in Finding the Way through LOTS of Data

“Sergey’s Search”, in this month’s Wired ( starts with the fact that Google co-founder Sergey Brin knows he is at a higher genetic disposition to develop Parkinson’s disease.  It’s helpful that his wife is a founder of 23andme, an online genetic testing firm.  And not surprising that given his genetic predisposition, massive fortune, Stanford computer science background and subsequent Google enterprise, that he would invest in advancing Parkinson’s research with a non-traditional, information-theory/computing orientation.

This orientation inverts traditional biomedical research on it’s head, from an emphasis on small, “purer” data sets to “tons of data, a deluge of information, and then wade in, searching for patterns or correlations”, sometimes referred to as an “exaflood” of data.  The article mentions that Jim Gray (Microsoft research and computer scientist) believes that the evolution away from the practice of proposing and then testing an hypothesis to looking for patterns in the data would revolutionize scientific research.  Andy Grove, also a Parkinson’s sufferer, has called for a “cultural revolution” in scientific research.

Beyond the direct implications for biotech research (which is significant in itself), it also made me think about research in support of strategy development.  How often have you felt that someone had an answer or scenario in mind and was just looking for confirmation as you entered the data gathering stage?  I can remember on more than one occasion working with my colleagues to suspend the need to fill in the white spaces with new product ideas and to yield to wading in the thick of the information and see what patterns emerge.  The best strategies, that are robust enough to stand up to a multifaceted review (market, competition, core competencies, technology, distribution, etc.) and yield sustainable competitive advantage, are often the result of just such data explorations.

Organization as a System vs. a Machine

In the current edition of Strategy and Business, the article “Seeing Your Company as a System” ( is worth reading. It provides background (and tools) on some insightful management thinking that lays out the case that the metaphor of a machine for the organization is outmoded and that systems thinking is a more viable framing.

I find many of the ideas very compelling, from Senge’s five disciplines which center on organizational learning to Thomas Johnson’s thoughts on Quantitative Distractions.

I have often thought, in managing teams, that organizations are like organisms…and, to use an over-used phrase, that attending to the ecosystem is critical. Driving functional excellence without attending to the principles of systems thinking can be misguided at best.