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CMO Spotlight: Interview with Edward Vesely, Vision Solutions

By The Sterling Report

The Sterling Report recently spoke with Edward Vesely, Vision Solutions’ Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, about marketing leadership. We got several interesting perspectives about how some leaders are better suited for management rather than leadership roles.

The Sterling Report (TSR): What do you think is the reason behind the truncated tenure for so many Chief Marketing Officers?
Edward Vesely (EV):
I really don’t think company owners or top executives have had the opportunity to experience how a successful marketing leader can impact his or her business. I once was asked by a superficial executive during a breakfast interview several years ago, “What’s your Red Zone marketing strategy?” My assumption is he had read about Red Zone marketing in the United Airlines Magazine en route from Silicon Valley. There’s nothing wrong per se with Red Zone marketing – it’s the fact this guy was so buzzword compliant that he had me looking for the door while the orange juice was being poured.

TSR: What issue have you encountered during your journey as a marketing leader that you see others facing as well?
EV: The old adage ‘resolve to lead or forever bleed’ is a good example. Years ago, I met the Director of Marketing Communications at a company I had just joined. As the new Head of Marketing, one of my first requests was to review her marketing plans and recommendations, along with her goals and budget. She handed me a nicely bound ‘advertising spending’ study that was prepared by an advertising agency. It was even more startling when she proudly declared, “This is what we need to do because our competition is doing it.” The conversation got worse as she introduced six-figure branding proposals prepared by other consultants.

TSR: So what do you suggest a marketing leader do if he or she faces a similar situation?
EV: Be a leader. In the situation I just mentioned, the Director of Marketing Communications wasn’t interested in new ideas or growing her skills and kept citing the length of time with the company as a primary reason she had earned her position. Unfortunately, fear was pervasive throughout the department, reminding me of a global consulting firm where it was said success was worth 100 points but failure was a punishing minus 1,000 – leaving most people thrashing below the radar.

Talented marketing people worked at the new company starving for leadership. Ordinary professionals who once empowered would achieve extraordinary results. People with great attitudes and aptitudes but hungry for a leader they could trust and follow.

TSR: What is the main ingredient of a good leader?
EV: Leadership isn’t magical or charismatic, and it certainly isn’t a replacement for management. Rather, they are complementary systems. However, most businesses with which I’ve interacted are over managed and under led. Strong leadership and weak management can be much worse than the opposite.

In today’s economy, so much importance is placed on profitability to ‘ride out the economic storm.’ One could argue strong management is more essential, but being able to capitalize on an economic downturn and emerge a more dominant industry leader as IBM is doing, requires great leadership and vision. At the same time, if your business is paralyzed, it might be from having too many managers and not enough leaders. C-level players may need replacement to facilitate change across the company.

It can be argued management is about dealing with complexity while leadership is focused on change. Not everyone can handle both. In order to be effective in bringing change to an organization, a marketing leader must be relatively hands on with current technologies and best practices, even bringing technical expertise to the equation. Understanding the wide array of new media, CRM and business intelligence options can have a dramatic effect on business performance and profitability.

Last but not least, giving proper credit is one of the most powerful attributes of a confident leader. Keeping a humbler profile and aligning with the CEO and other senior leaders is the most important visibility a marketing leader can have as opposed to taking credit for other’s accomplishments. And a leader is always ruthless about hiring the best people the company can afford, which is essential to building a world-class team with complementary skills. How can you take great risks without a great team at your side?

TSR: How have you successfully encouraged other marketing professionals to think outside the box?
In the company I referred to during this interview, many of the marketing professionals had grown up in the IBM world with the ‘Think’ mantra, I soon launched a new initiative, ‘Think Different.’ I stressed the importance of developing systems that eliminate redundancy, enabling marketers to do more with less and focus on the more creative aspects of their jobs. As a result, they became more productive, expenses declined, most outsourcing was eliminated and performance skyrocketed.

I moved the Global Marketing Team through several important stages, successfully creating change across the organization and business following an approach outlined by John P. Kotter of Harvard Business School (What Leaders Really Do):

  • Created a Sense of Urgency – Got the word out that ‘business as usual’ is no longer acceptable for the ongoing viability of the company.
  • Created a Solid Team – There’s so much emphasis on rock-star creativity in marketing, but it takes a village, and you’re only as strong as your weakest webmaster or copywriter.
  • Created a Shared Vision – The team needs to know in which direction it is going and how much better life will be – for them and the business – when they arrive.
  • Communicated the Vision – You need buy-in from key stakeholders across the business. Especially the CEO and heads of Sales, R&D and Finance.
  • Empowered Employees to Act – Let them know ‘it’s not Air Traffic Control.’ If they make a mistake, they’re not likely to kill anyone. People need to take educated risks, and leaders need to encourage and support them.
  • Produced Short-Term Results – We launched a viral campaign that sent web traffic off the charts, then publicized the success and gave full credit to those who contributed and took the risks.
  • Built Momentum – From there we transformed an expensive ‘traditional’ marketing mix to an optimized balance of proven methods and new media strategies that leveraged the latest technologies.
  • Anchored Behavior in Organization Culture – And we never stopped! The bar continues to be set higher, people are empowered and recognized for their accomplishments and the status quo is never tolerated.

TSR: What is the downside for a company without solid marketing leadership?
EV: Marketing executives who don’t lead are likely to fail, creating plans, checklists and budgets rather than the visions and strategies needed to lead the business forward. Leadership is inherently more difficult than management because it is less formula-driven, while management is a more systematic enabler of a vibrant vision and strategy. Companies simply cannot compete in today’s compressed cycles without strong leadership.

TSR: What role does education and empowerment play in the workforce?
EV: I’ve found a more educated, empowered and knowledgeable workforce understands this and demands and even respect top quality leadership. People recognize change cannot be managed without the right leadership, and more change demands more leadership.

I always smile when I hear someone, particularly in a high-technology industry, talk about their ‘staff’ because smart leaders always work through complex relationship webs. They don’t simply give orders; instead, they listen, think, communicate and develop meaningful relationships. Managers are generally more concerned with hierarchy. In contrast, effective leaders think more about dependencies, relationships and networks, not simply hierarchies, formal authority and management.

One of the smartest practices of a strategic marketing leader is the discipline of staying close to customers, sales people and partners to understand their preferences, behaviors and needs. This practice helps a leader maintain a global perspective and fosters breakthrough thinking, resulting in armor-piercing strategy and influence over the business planning process.

TSR: How do trust and competence play into the overall success of a company?
EV: I cannot overstate the importance of establishing a trust-based culture, especially across the marketing organization. Let’s face it, most good sales people are hunters, individualists who prefer to be left alone unless someone can help them achieve their personal objectives. Marketing professionals, on the other hand, are often people pleasers who enjoy being part of communities. Trust is important to marketing professionals who should be given a clear vision, enabled with the tools to accomplish the objectives and supported to facilitate success.

All healthy business relationships require trust and competence. Know that mistakes most often occur when people lack time or knowledge, factors that can be overcome by an effective leader who is in constant communication with the team.

Trust enables companies to move quickly – generating change more rapidly. Leaders who encourage participation, listen and negotiate are usually rewarded many fold. While complex and time-sensitive circumstances can require aggressive tactics, reserving coercion unless it is necessary is also important because short-term gains can be overcome by longer-term resentment that erodes trust.

TSR: Should you really consider ‘firing’ your company?
I swear I’m not crazy when I say marketing leaders must decide whether their company and culture will permit them to succeed. For many important reasons, a world-class marketing organization has a superior arsenal to increase revenues and profits more than any time in history.

Where does the marketing leader report in the organization? Reporting into Sales or R&D can be a recipe for disaster. Marketing should lead sales to help enable its success. Likewise, a qualified Marketing Team also provides R&D with invaluable insights and can lead them to the promised land of greater innovation and success in addressing market needs and opportunities.

Another consideration is whether a marketing leader has budget authority, which is usually, ‘yes’ if the leader is trusted. However, there are ‘marketing founder’ and ‘owner operated’ businesses where a marketing leader will simply never be trusted or empowered. Perhaps a strong marketing manager is the most appropriate profile for this type of business. In the end, a marketing leader should have a ‘seat at the table’ and be empowered to effect change, revenue and profitability.

TSR: What do you tell those less optimistic about making a real observable change in a company?
Most people don’t come to work saying, ‘I want to do a lousy job today.’ Quite the contrary, they crave the opportunity to succeed in their career and contribute to the business in significant ways. Marketing leaders carry the awesome responsibility to help achieve a wide range of highly important business objectives, creating challenging opportunities for employees to develop their leadership skills along the way.

Change happens when it is woven into the corporate fabric and becomes ‘the way we do things.’ It takes time and occurs in phases. Skipping steps may create the illusion of progress, but it seldom produces desired results. In fact, 50 percent of companies reportedly fail in the first phase by not establishing a great enough sense of urgency. President Obama articulated a strong vision and created an incredible sense of urgency to pass has economic stimulus package. Now the country is eager to experience short-term wins, which would garner more support.

Finally, in economically stressed times, know that bad business results can be a blessing and a curse. While losing money catches the attention of boards and shareholders, it also gives less room to maneuver.

Edward Vesely leads Marketing and Business Development for Vision Solutions (visionsolutions.com) a leading provider of high availability and disaster recovery solutions for IBM Power Systems. He is an entrepreneurial marketing executive with a consistent record of growing revenue and market share through state-of-the-art communications, field marketing, product management, product marketing and telemarketing. Edward serves on several advisory boards and is the author of Code to Commerce, High Technology Marketing for Maximum Brand Performance. For interview feedback, contact Edward at veselyusa@gmail.com

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