Some time ago, a CMO asked me to assess his global team’s capabilities. After two years and a six-figure training investment, marketing – in the eyes of other departments – was still seen as a lightweight function. My diagnosis stopped him in his tracks: “Deep functional expertise, but almost no leadership.”

Based on my assessment, 90% of his team was now digitally savvy. Half had attended a generic leadership course (with a focus on leading team members). But nobody had the most critical marketing leadership skills: mobilising people for change within the organisation. For this team, it was back to square one. They reminded me of my first career mistake: believing that a great marketing strategy is all it takes to succeed.

At the time, I worked for a well-known consumer goods company. I had just been promoted to marketing director. A member of the firm’s high-potential programme, I had completed numerous marketing courses, most with distinction. My career had reached a new height. But still, I was ready to leave.

My brand was tricky: kitchen towels. Competition was cut-throat and we were losing money. Overcapacity meant producers were flooding the market with cheap products. Private label was on the rise. Rumours circulated about a major competitor entering. But that wasn’t the half of it. Our research clearly showed customers couldn’t care less about their kitchen towel brand.

I worked day and night on a radical turnaround plan. We had to bring costs down, simplify operations and cut the number of variants so our factories could run at full speed. On the shelf, we needed to draw more attention with a stand-out design, more convenient packaging and two new innovative variants. Customers, I learned, spend about one second deciding which kitchen towel to buy. This single second was the race we needed to win.

Lack of leadership

The turnaround plan earned me an MBA thesis distinction, but inside my company it went nowhere. With the competitor entry on the horizon, our well-intentioned product developers, going over my head, got the CEO excited about an expensive ‘blow dry’ technology, which would produce softer and more absorbent towels. I lost the battle.

Dismissing my turnaround proposal, the company embarked upon a multimillion-dollar plan to make towels that customers don’t care about a bit softer.

I decided: if the company wasn’t ready to listen to marketing facts, I shouldn’t waste my energy. It was time to move on. I quit.

Later, I learned the…