The crucial role of soft skills in marketing leadership

Soft skills are more important than technical expertise when it comes to the top roles in marketing, according to Deloitte.

soft skills in marketing leadership

In many ways, the role of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) has transcended traditional departmental boundaries, becoming integral to the overall strategy and success of organisations. As custodians of the customer experience, CMOs are tasked not only with envisioning and strategizing marketing efforts but also with fostering collaboration across various functions within the company.

This demands a profound understanding of soft skills like communication, collaboration, and leadership – that extend far beyond technical expertise. Furthermore, as this piece will explain, the dynamics of leadership in marketing have shifted over the years, placing greater emphasis on social skills and emotional intelligence.

How to become a successful CMO

According to research presented in a Deloitte report titled; How to become and be a successful CMO, modern marketing leaders find themselves at the forefront of corporate leadership and collaboration. Soft skills have emerged as the cornerstone of effective cross-functional collaboration. These skills enable marketing leaders to navigate the intersection of consumer behaviour, technological innovation, and human storytelling.

The ability to manage relationships with a diverse range of stakeholders, both internal and external, is paramount for success in marketing leadership roles. We covered this subject in an article titled; Why social skills have become so crucial for career success in late 2022.

The Deloitte research highlights a number of fascinating insights. Two findings that are most pertinent to this discussion about ‘soft skills’ are;

  1. Senior marketers spend 70% of their time work with people from functions outside Marketing (68% if you’re a Senior Marketing Exec and 72% if you’re a CMO)
  2. Over half (58%) of the CMOs and senior marketing leaders (64%) surveyed say making the right connections and forging networks was the biggest challenge they experienced en route to their current role

The chart from the Deloitte research below shows responses to the question; “What skills are most useful for your current role?” While technical expertise remains important, the value of soft skills – such as leadership, communication, and strategic thinking – far surpasses that of tangible, technical abilities.

Rank top 3 with 1 being most useful
Deloitte report Deloitte report; How to become and be a successful CMO. 
Question: What skills are most useful for your current role? (Rank top 3 with 1 being most useful)
Deloitte report; How to become and be a successful CMO.

This shift reflects the evolving nature of marketing leadership, where the ability to connect with others, understand their perspectives, and navigate complex human dynamics is increasingly important.

The growing importance of soft skills

The importance of soft skills in leadership identified in the Deloitte report echo findings from a separate study conducted by Harvard Business Review in conjunction with leading recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates. HBR studied nearly 5,000 job descriptions over a 7-year period.

The analysis revealed that companies have significantly redefined the roles of C-suite executives. While traditional capabilities such as management of financial and operational resources remain highly relevant, when companies today search for top leaders, especially new CEOs, they attribute less importance to those capabilities than they used to and instead prioritize one qualification above all others: strong social skills i.e. soft skills.

These two studies underscore the growing importance of soft skills in today’s business landscape. Companies are increasingly seeking leaders who excel in communication, relationship building, and people-oriented problem-solving. For marketing leaders, social skills are particularly critical because effective communication and people management are paramount.

The graph below from the Deloitte study shows responses to the question; “What personality traits are most important for your role”? Again, communication and collaboration, both soft skills, are seen as most important.

Rank top 3 with 1 being most important
Deloitte report; How to become and be a successful CMO.
Question: What personality traits are most important for your role? (Rank top 3 with 1 being most important)
Deloitte report; How to become and be a successful CMO.
What has this to do with client-agency relationships?

Social skills play a pivotal role in driving productivity and fostering strong client-agency relationships. Furthermore, the ability to understand and empathize with others’ perspectives – referred to as “theory of mind” – is crucial for building rapport and trust, both with internal teams and externally with customers and partners.

As organizations rely on both internal and external agencies for creative work, effective communication and collaboration between senior marketers and the agency partners is essential. For example, the ability to coordinate a coherent creative strategy between in-house teams and external agencies hinges on strong social skills and interpersonal dynamics. By fostering open communication, mutual respect, and a collaborative mindset, marketing leaders can maximize the value derived from agency partnerships, ultimately driving business success. As we like to say, stronger relationships build stronger business.

The lesson here is that when evaluating team performance, it is imperative that we look beyond the functional skills and assess the nuances of human behaviour within the teams involved.

At Aprais we mined our extensive database of team evaluations to determine seven key behaviours that distinguish the best teams from the rest. Challenge, accountability, trust, functional ability, resilience, communication and goals. The overlap with Deloitte’s work is uncanny.

These behaviours are important because unlike scope-specific disciplines which can differ depending on the job function, these behaviours are common to all teams. As a result they allow us to compare team behaviours. For example marketer and agency teams.

In closing

The importance of soft skills in marketing leadership and agency team leadership, cannot be overstated. As the role of CMOs evolves to encompass broader responsibilities and cross-functional collaboration, the ability to communicate, collaborate, and lead effectively becomes paramount. Likewise, to encourage the best from partnerships with agencies, strong social skills are essential for team motivation, aligning strategies, managing expectations and driving creative excellence.

By prioritizing soft skills development and fostering a culture of collaboration and empathy, marketing leaders can navigate the complexities of the modern business landscape and drive sustainable growth and success.

To conclude, here are three key recommendations for CMO’s from the Deloitte study. They make good sense;

  1. Network and make connections outside your function
    To be an effective CMO, you must build your network outside your own function, connecting the marketing function with wider business objectives
  2. Develop your soft skills
    Soft skills, like communication, collaboration and leadership, are more important than technical expertise when it comes to the top roles in marketing.
  3. Be resilient
    CMOs come from a wide range of backgrounds and face a huge variety of potential challenges. To be an effective CMO, you must relish these challenges and be comfortable making difficult decisions under pressure.