The 5 Crucial Skills of Marketing Operations Leaders

This article was originally posted on martechseries.com

It’s undeniable! The marketing profession has seen an incredible rise in marketing operations. The advent of sophisticated marketing technology and the steady progression toward a “digital-first” marketing mix has forced businesses to elevate their level of talent and spend. According to McKinsey and Co, companies that invest in marketing operations can experience a 25% increase in overall marketing effectiveness.

The rapidly growing role of marketing operations attracts hybrid workers — people who can think strategically and at the same time execute complex programs. As the talent and capabilities evolve, it is imperative that leaders take the reins and guide highly technical teams to success.

But what does a successful marketing operations leader look like? What key skills beyond technical expertise are required? In this post, we explore the five crucial skills of effective marketing operations leaders.

Growth Mindset

Today, marketing has become the growth-center of the organization, with influence on awareness, acquisition, adoption and advocacy. Hence, to compete today, marketers must look at themselves as the chief growth officers of the organization, and continually work to identify opportunities to take the business forward. Marketing operations leaders know that while efficiency and structure will be the foundation of the marketing organization, real growth occurs when you influence revenue. Always ask the hard questions: Are the team priorities aligned with the most important business objectives? Are we spending too much time on projects that will have little impact on growth and sales?

Being growth-minded also means thinking about the bigger picture. Paul Wilson, Director of Marketing Technology for Marketo, puts it this way, “Marketing operations teams are on the front-line for growth. A team that is disciplined to not build band-aid fixes ensures there is less technical debt and cleaner data. Simple practices such as enforcing standard naming conventions, archiving legacy programs, and regular data quality audits go a long way to prepare for growth.”

“Marketing operations teams are on the front-line for growth”

Never-Ending Collaboration

For marketing operations experts, it can be easy to fall into the trap of micro-managing projects, especially for those who have achieved great results working independently. In the long-term, this can be a weakness for a leader. To break free of the “constant execution habit” and grow into the “leadership mindset,” it’s essential to develop proficiency in collaboration and delegation.

The fast-track to collaboration is to build relationships beforehand. A colleague of mine, who is a fantastic marketing leader, employed this strategy. First, she made a list of all the key people and departments that her team would need to collaborate with, to achieve her priorities for the year. Next, she scheduled one-to-ones with each team lead, not only to discuss how they would work together, but to learn about their goals, priorities, and the challenges they would face. “For each meeting, I tried to look past my coworker’s work self, and understand what drives them, what they enjoy, and how they think.”

Careful Balance between Big Picture and Small Details

All too often, I see marketing operations leaders frantically moving from project to project, never spending enough time in any one area to make tangible progress. Too often, marketers become enthralled with all of the different tools and tactics available to them while forgetting about the underlying strategy.

“As a leader in this discipline, you need to look beyond technology,” Paul comments, when asked about marketing operations challenges. “You have to see your role as a solution architect, knowledgeable about the many layers that encompass a complete solution.”

“You have to see your role as a solution architect knowledgeable about the many layers that encompass a complete solution.”

At the same time, marketing operations leaders need to be detail-oriented and process-driven. Teams that can function with repeatable, scalable frameworks can get more done with fewer mistakes. Personally, I like to advise operations leaders to think this way: Dedicate at least 25% of your time to strategic planning and be ruthless about your prioritization. By working with top leadership to determine what the most important goals are, you can move your team into alignment and start delivering results. By setting aside time each week for planning, you can slice out unproductive time and accelerate your impact on revenue.

Willingness to Ask for Help

One of the marks of an effective leader is humility. While experience helps greatly, there isn’t a person alive that will have all the answers. Carve out time to talk, brainstorm, and ask help from your direct reports and superiors.

“You probably have really smart people reporting to you,” comments the director of marketing operations for a large organization. “Otherwise, why would you hire them? Brainstorm with them, learn with them, and that type of collaboration will bring about excellent results.”

A question as simple as “What do you think?” can have a profound effect on both the relationship you have with your team and your boss. This incites productive discussions that can lead to new ways of thinking and the development of new opportunities. It is especially key for a marketing operations leader to leverage the deep technical expertise of specialists on her team to architect elegant solutions to challenging problems. Pulling from those around you not only contributes to better work, but also helps to enroll team members into the spirit of the work, ultimately leading to long-term success.

A Laser-Focus on Attribution and Results

Never before has marketing been more tied to revenue, or held more accountable. The best marketing operations leaders embrace this responsibility and leverage it to secure a seat at the decision-making table. The key differentiator between a good operations leader and a great one is the ability to tie marketing efforts to business outcomes, and influence decision-making to make improvements in the future.

Let’s say you have two equally complex and time-consuming initiatives. Both will require weeks of planning and the work of multiple team members to implement. Given a tight deadline, which should you pursue? The one that will produce the best outcome for the business — whether it is in increased quality leads, engagements, opportunities and/or sales.

Marketing operations leaders must not only be focused on revenue attribution, but it is their responsibility to advocate that mission across their teams so that all members operate with the same goal in mind and infuse their work with the excitement and commitment that great results bring.