We've all dealt with managers and leaders in business, and all of us can quickly tell you the good ones from the bad. But leadership is situational and different situations call for different kinds of leadership. I wrote about Leadership Lessons a few years back and wanted to expand on it because it is so critical to success.
One situation that is particularly challenging and where many otherwise good leaders fail miserably is in leading go-to-market (GTM) teams of sales, marketing, sales development, and product people. That’s because GTM, particularly with SaaS companies is very much a team sport. No one department or individual can do much on their own. Whether it’s a one-time GTM initiative like a product launch, campaign or major event, or ongoing GTM activity, they must work in very tight concert with their colleagues in other departments for the GTM engine to fire properly. Of course, these departments have their own initiatives and different priorities, so sometimes there is conflict right off the bat.
Why is GTM leadership different?
GTM leadership is challenging and many GTM leaders fail to achieve goals because it is by definition a cross-departmental and cross-functional leadership role that includes leading people who might report to you and many people who don't. You’ll need to convince people in different departments and different functions, who are likely already overloaded, overworked, and stressed out, to take time out of their busy day to join you on a different project to achieve a GTM objective.
Most GTM teams are also made up of many different functions within each of these departments, Designers, SEO specialists, brand people, demand gen, copywriters, sales people, sales management, product managers, etc. They come from different functions, often different levels of seniority and experience, and many of them are used to working in a silo where they have not had to coordinate their work with other groups.
Faced with this challenge, poor GTM leaders often make the same mistake: they think “I’m in charge of this, so you need to follow my lead and do what I say.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The single biggest leadership mistake that I consistently see in GTM and SaaS companies:
There is a huge difference between leadership and being in charge.
Leaders who emphasize that they are “in charge”, let’s call them in-charge leaders, often quickly alienate the teams they are trying to lead because they don’t understand the dynamics of a GTM team. They are failing before they even get started because:
You can’t be a leader when everyone is running away from you.
By definition, leaders have followers. And in GTM, many of those followers are voluntary followers. If no one wants to follow you, you are not doing a good job as a leader.
Having spent a couple of decades in GTM leadership roles in SaaS companies, I’ve seen the good, the bad, the downright ugly, and everything in between. Here is what I have learned about how to be an effective GTM leader to get the most out of your team and crush GTM goals.
I decided to list 5 key leadership principles that define good GTM leaders versus “in-charge leaders”. But I quickly came up with 12 and this list is not exhaustive. Good GTM leadership is hard. There is a lot to get right here! This is not meant to be a general leadership guide, but many of these principles will apply to a lot of leadership situations in addition to GTM.
Here are my top 12. Which other leadership principles would you add?
Probably the first thing any good GTM leader needs is a vision or a goal of where we are going and a plan for how we are going to get there. It has to be a clear vision so everyone can understand and buy into it. Timelines and measurable objectives can help to track progress.
Ideally, it's an inspiring vision that gets people psyched to work hard together to achieve it. I had a CEO once tell an entire public company that our big goal for the year was to increase our profit margin to 15%. A good financial goal? Yes. A good goal to get Wall Street Analysts excited? Probably. A vision or goal to motivate and mobilize the workforce? Absolutely not. Have a vision for where are going that everyone can rally around, and you’ll do a lot to energize the team doing the work.
A good GTM leader will create a sense of mission in achieving that vision, and then sell the mission to the team and the company. For example, we are at a critical juncture of this company. We are faced with a unique opportunity in our industry. We are all in this together, and we need to raise our level as never before to achieve something amazing. And if we can do it, we’ll be total rock stars. And we’ll look back on this years later and say, “Damn, that was awesome!.” That creates motivation and fosters better teamwork. A leader has to sell that mission to get buy-in and motivation to work hard to achieve it.
A good GTM leader builds personal engagement with every team member. You’ve heard people say “I’d run through a wall for them” or “I love working for them.” These team members have established a personal connection with their leader, which builds trust and engagement, which produces better efforts and better results.
This stands in stark contrast to blind loyalty or team members who will just do whatever the leader says. In-charge leaders often like these team members because they don’t question anything, and just do what they are told. But you want people who will think for themselves about how to do things better. And who are not shy to stand up and say, wait, there is a better way. And the leader needs to be not just receptive to this kind of feedback, but encourage it. If just doing what the leader wants is the bar for success, prepare for a team of yes-men and lapdogs.
So many leaders focus on getting their message out, “Here is where we are going’, and “Here is what we need to do” that they forget to listen to their team members. In-charge leaders think they have all the answers and don’t need anyone’s input. But time and time again, the wisdom of the collective far exceeds that of any individual. And listening and soliciting ideas is so powerful in terms of team engagement and cohesion. Sometimes, good ideas are buried inside someone’s head until you ask them what they think so they can bring them out.
In Super Bowl LIV, the Kansas City Chiefs were down 20-10 to the SF 49ers late in the game. Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes was playing horribly. So rather than call yet another play that would likely not work, Chiefs Coach Andy Reid asked Mahomes what he wanted to do. He said he liked the Jet Chip Wasp play. So Coach Reid called it and it resulted in a huge play that swung the momentum of the game and led to Kansas City’s comeback victory. Ask people what they think. Better yet, ask them what they need to be successful. This question often stumps people initially because no one ever asks them what they need. Ask and you’ll be surprised what you find. And how it solidifies their confidence and engagement in the initiative.
Delegating decisions to others is an incredibly empowering move that increases buy-in for cross-functional initiatives like GTM campaigns. When told what the decision is coming from above, and they are just asked to execute it, many will feel like they are just doing what they are told with little input into how that decision was made. But when a decision has been delegated to them, they immediately take ownership of it and work hard to make sure a good decision is made and executed. It's a leader’s power move that also engenders loyalty and appreciation from the team.
Do everything you can to recognize the work of others. Find ways to make good ideas come from others, not yourself. Even if it was your idea. And find ways to recognize even the smallest of accomplishments. Especially for people who are operating under the radar and don’t get much attention or recognition. You’ll be surprised how far a little recognition goes in terms of team engagement. No one wants to hear from a leader who thinks everything good that happened was a result of their brilliance. Give people room to succeed.
Many in-charge leaders will insist on taking all the credit so their management, the CEO, or the board can see what a great job they are doing. But when those people see a successful project and a highly engaged and motivated team that is praising the leader for getting the best out of the team, they’ll know they have a winner.
People generally try to avoid things that they don’t like. And if your initiative is one of them, they’ll find a way to avoid that too. Or give it a minimum of effort. I feel like a lot of in-charge leaders really miss the boat here. They act as if they can demand your complete commitment to something just because they’ve been put in charge of it. As if you owe it to them. But engagement and commitment are earned, not demanded. A better way to gain engagement and commitment is to make the initiative fun rather than yet another chore in their daily grind. Keep meetings light and loose. Get people laughing when appropriate. Have a sense of humor when presented with challenges or setbacks. Keep the meetings short and focused. Hand out awards or create silly contests that keep things loose. I’ve given out whale-shaped bottle openers to top performers in recognition of a job well done. You might think it’s stupid, but every single one was prominently displayed on that person’s desk after they received it. It's not about the bottle opener. It's the recognition it represents. Keep it light, keep it fun and you’ll get all the engagement and commitment you need.
Business leadership is about managing and motivating people to achieve something amazing that drives business results. But it is very difficult to manage or motivate someone if you don’t have a relationship with them. If you are just the one telling them what to do, you are just another boss who sees them as yet another cog in the machine. Get to know them. Establish a rapport with them. Learn about their interests and activities outside the office. Take an interest in them as a person, not just an employee. If you are having a hard time connecting with them, ask them about their kids, or their family or their pets! Everyone loves talking about their kids and pets! I love to see photos as well which they are more than happy to share (careful though you may soon be seeing dozens of kid and cat photos!) As simple as it seems, you are doing so much more than just asking about their lives. You are saying, “I see you. I appreciate you. And I want to get to know you better.” You will find no more loyal and dedicated employees than those who know their boss cares about them.
Show each member of your GTM team how this project is relevant to them. I.e., what is in it for them? Show them how they will be successful as part of this initiative. While most employees want their company to be successful, and the initiatives they work on to be successful, ultimately what’s in it for them personally will play a large role in how they view their participation. “What’s in it for me” is never far from top of mind. Many employees can put this together themselves, in terms of increased responsibility, skillset development, executive exposure, and being a key part of a highly successful initiative that drives company performance. But it’s best to spell it out for each individual when the opportunity presents itself. As a leader, I usually like to do this in concert with thanking them for their work or recognizing them for achieving something significant. The main point you are making is this is not just another pile of work to dump on the already overloading pile of work you have, this initiative is a great opportunity for you to advance, grow, and develop, and at the same time show everyone else what you can do.
Communicate communicate communicate
How are we doing? Where are we going? Are we there yet? What challenges we are facing? Don’t keep people in the dark because they don’t need to know as that just leads to disengagement and a disgruntled workforce. Bring them on the inside. Give them the tea! Also, I have found that when you as a leader think you have communicated enough to get the message across, you are just getting started. You know what you want to say in terms of where we are or what challenges we face. You are probably thinking about this all the time. But the team needs to hear it again and again to internalize it so they can independently take action on it. Over-communicate (or what might feel like over-communication) and you are slowly getting there.
No one likes to do things because they have to, or because someone tells them to. Particularly when something is really hard to accomplish, is a gritty thankless job, or is over and above the pile of work they already have. I have found that being openly appreciative of each team member's effort is such a breath of fresh air compared to In-charge and other leaders who seem to expect the team to drop everything they are doing and jump when they ask.
It is so simple to show appreciation and so few leaders actually do it. I’ve been there and a lot of times, it's because the leaders don’t feel particularly appreciated themselves. Or they feel like we are losing as a team and should be doing better. Or they expect performance to be higher than it's been, so are in a non-appreciative mood. All these may be true, but the team doesn’t really know that or care to be honest. As a leader, you need to bury your own personal frustrations to get the most out of the team. No one wants to work for a petulant boss. And you will not get a better effort by kicking people in the backside over and over again. Bury your issues and present an openly appreciative face to the team to get the best performance.
A good GTM leader is relentlessly positive. Looking for things that are going right instead of things going wrong. I worked for a CEO at a very successful company and if 99 things were going well and the team was crushing them, he would find the one thing not going well and totally focus on that, to the detriment of everyone’s attitude. I asked him once why he continually focused on the negative, and he said that’s how his parents raised him. They would constantly focus on his negatives as a kid. And it stuck with him and was normal for him. But it crushed the souls of the team and in the end, the whole company as it became a bad place to work.
Now sometimes, you will need to deal with negative outcomes or poor performance, You can’t ignore them or hope they go away. But you can do so in a positive way. I like to highlight 3 or 4 things that are going well before bringing up the ones not going well. By doing this, you are saying, I see what is working and that is awesome. Now let’s improve in this other area. The team will appreciate this balanced perspective and keep a positive attitude going forward. Particularly when you are leading people who don’t report to you, it's easy to lose them if you are overly negative. They will just tune you out. Keep them engaged and their heads in the game with a positive outlook.
Those are my top 12 traits of a good GTM leader. Which do you think are most important or which others would you add?
Al Campa is Founder and CEO of Rocket Scale, which advises companies on how to accelerate revenue with powerful go-to-market strategies. He can be reached via www.rocketscale.net.