Going from Competent to Outstanding: Two Things You Must Do Before You Hire a New Marketing Director

How can you differentiate between a competent marketing director and an outstanding one who will positively impact your organization’s bottom line? Consider these two key steps before you extend an offer to even your “best” candidate.

If you’re in the position to hire a marketing leader for your organization, as a few of my clients are currently, let’s face it–you’re in an enviable position. First, it’s a buyer’s market, with record-level unemployment for highly educated and skilled professionals. As a hiring manager, you can leverage these macro conditions and be picky about whom you hire; You can get the best your labor pool can offer.

Next, never before has marketing been recognized as the critical role that it is within a profitable organization. As corporate leaders finally acknowledge that creating relevant marketplace differentiation is only possible when the entire organization adopts (and maintains) a market-driven focus on a company-wide basis, not simply within an isolated department labeled “Marketing,” your role as a hiring manager has been pushed into the spotlight. As such, your decision as to who should fill a leadership position within your marketing organization is ever more critical and potentially scrutinized. The stakes are higher than ever.

These are among many reasons why it has become essential for hiring managers to quickly and soundly differentiate between a competent marketing pro and an outstanding one. The difference–in terms of results–could mean the difference between “business-as-usual” and a visionary leader who inspires your team to innovate, compete and give competitors a run for their money. Getting from competent to outstanding is possible, provided that hiring managers are willing to completely transform how they select and interview candidates. The good news is, this can be addressed in two simple steps.

1. Examine–and if Necessary, Ditch–the Premises and Assumptions Driving Your Screening Process.

Before you can meet with candidates, you first must sort through applicants and screen out mismatches, which essentially means identifying–usually on the basis of only a resume–potential contenders for the job. Whether Human Resources does this first for you or you do this yourself, the baseline is still the same: A set of prescribed premises and assumptions guide and determine who makes the cut and who doesn’t.

Think about it: Whether you are providing your recruiting associate with the required criteria, skills or other mandates or employing those guidelines yourself, the “parameters” you set are based on assumptions. And from what I’ve seen and heard in the marketplace, some managers could benefit greatly by examining and resetting their assumptions.

Here’s an example: Suppose your criteria for hiring a Marketing Director include the requirement of 10+ years experience. While this isn’t an inherently bad requirement, by any means, it’s essential to be honest about why this is deemed “required.”

First, do you require 10+ years of experience so that you are screening out entry-level candidates? Possibly, and if so, that is fine. Are you seeking overall experience and a seasoned perspective? Also a valid goal. However, phrases like this one raise a potential red flag, because the intent could be something other than disqualifying newbies from the get-go. If you’re really using the requirement to attract candidates who can boast a long-term commitment to a single employer, ah, then it’s a different story. If that’s the case, you might be attracting–and subsequently disqualifying–candidates who bring well over 10 years of experience and that experience is rich and diverse, having grown along a path that includes three or four major employers. What’s more, that type of job history could well demonstrate a solid ability to adapt and assimilate within many organizations and different corporate cultures–a key indicator of a good team player and being easy to work with.

The point is, if you are using screening criteria somewhat surreptitiously, you could be misleading candidates, for one, and worse, eliminating solid, winning candidates who might bring innovation and results. Further, it never hurts to examine and challenge your assumptions: Is it really that important that your candidate show s/he can “last” at a company for 10 years? How do you know why s/he worked at only one other company? Sure, such a job history can indicate loyalty, but are you hiring for the position of personal assistant where loyalty is a “first/foremost” qualification? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to ensure that wherever your new Marketing Director worked in a marketing context, s/he added value and made positive change?

You get the picture. Outdated assumptions like this can derail your own search and lead you to competent, but not outstanding. The point is, be honest about why you are requiring something from a potential candidate that makes the cut. List the real qualities, skills and abilities you want to hire, and then design and define the qualifications honestly and accordingly.

The following are a few common and dangerous outdated assumptions that I believe are deserving of serious scrutiny and challenge. Why? For the simple reason that many of these assumptions are not rooted in reality, and as such, they could be holding you back from hiring outstanding marketing talent and instead, leading you down the well-worn and familiar path of “competent and qualified.” Further, it’s critical to recognize that “familiar” is not necessarily “safe.” The marketplace is rife with examples of companies and industries (railroads, for one) who believed that “same old” was “safe,” and whose bet went horribly wrong. Some of these faulty assumptions (and a counter-argument refuting them) include:

  • It’s easier, safer and smarter to hire from within first; too risky to take a chance on on external candidate.” (First, familiar and easy do not guarantee a safe choice; internal candidates may be close to burnout, and may have clouded, subjective perceptions when you really need an objectively fresh eye. If you are determined to hire from within, be honest about it as to why. Save on salary? Save you time in terms of training? That’s okay…but be honest, and don’t expect outstanding just because it’s someone you are familiar with.)
  • “I’ll be saving the company money and resources if I hire a less-experienced candidate at a lower salary, whom I can train and ‘bring up to speed’ on my own.” (Most marketing leaders are so stretched for time, they barely can squeeze in a one-hour interview. Will you really be able to mentor, teach and nurture a more junior candidate? Seriously?)
  • “Older, more seasoned candidates lack technical know-how.” (Rather than rely on a broad assumption that lumps all experienced candidates into one homogeneous group, ask meaningful, detailed questions that will reveal whether this particular candidate can demonstrate s/he has worked to remain technically savvy and proficient.)
  • “I’m not comfortable with a candidate who seems overly confident. We don’t want any ‘stars’ on our team…we’re a team, after all.” (If you want to hire a drone, admit that, and then seek out someone who is content following directions and who doesn’t want to contribute new ideas. Otherwise, discard this self-limiting, well, limit. It could be holding your organization back.)
  • “Our firm’s culture doesn’t need maverick, weird ideas, we need a team player who can get along with others.” (See counter argument directly above.)
  • “Candidates who have a checkerboard job history concern me…not sure why, but they do.”  (First, ask yourself why a varied job history bothers you. Make a list of the potential benefits of a diverse career path and compare that list with your concerns. You may find that if you are seeking an innovative leader who can adapt quickly and work well with many kinds of people, you actually may prefer a candidate with a more diverse job-history background.)
  • “A candidate who has been out of work for a prolonged period is likely out of touch with current trends, technology, and therefore, won’t ‘onboard’ as easily as someone who is currently employed.” (Rather than assume someone is out of touch, ask hard questions that will reveal whether a candidate has undertaken steps to remain in touch. Assuming is guesswork not rooted in evidence or even an educated conclusion.)

As you can see, these assumptions can be handily shot down with real-world marketing success stories as well as common sense. If you believe you may be harboring some of these assumptions, consider this quote by renown American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler:

      The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

Examine your own assumptions, and ask, “Are these assumptions grounded in truth? Am I myself resisting change and refusing to ‘unlearn/relearn’ what it takes today to identify a marketing leader?” Most important, ask yourself:

Are my own assumptions leading me to select an outstanding new hire, or merely a competent one? Or, am I just playing it safe?

2. Discard Decades-Old Interview Questions and Replace Them With Effective, Relevant Questions. 

After over 20 years of either working on-staff in the marketing divisions of large firms or as a consultant to these professionals, I’ve watched hiring managers miss tremendous opportunities when interviewing for a new staff member, particularly if they are hiring for a leadership position. The biggest mistake you can make is to rely on outdated, stale and “stock” interview questions you pulled off the Internet to interview for a high-visibility leadership position that will report to you and ultimately reflect your judgment.

For example, too many hiring managers recycle the same, predictable and largely ineffective questions when meeting with candidates. These tired, listless questions include:

  • What are your strengths?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Could you discuss your background in more detail?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?

While there’s nothing unlawful or offensive about these questions (other than the fact that they are dreadfully predictable and dull) their worst offense is that they are ineffective. For example, can you really determine a candidate’s strengths by a 2-minute answer delivered by the candidate him/herself? And in a market such as the current one, asking a candidate why s/he wants to work at your company is somewhat disingenuous, in my opinion, and maybe even a bit cruel. Most candidates today are among hundreds of others vying for the same spot; many have been seeking a marketing-related position for months. It would be preferable–and more creative and original–to ask instead, “How much do you know about our organization and the way we interact with potential and current customers? Share with me some aspects about the way we market our services that appeal to you, or, what you would change, and why.”

The difference in approach will be evident in the answers  you will receive; From the answers delivered to that question, you will be able to discern whether  a) s/he did at least a moderate amount of online/in-person research about your company’s marketing machine and has given thought to how to improve or innovate; or b) the candidate is winging it because s/he didn’t expect a real, substantive question like this.

Instead of reusing “Where do you see yourself in five years,” which doesn’t tell you anything other than how well a candidate can keep a straight face when asked a rather silly question, why not ask what you really mean to ask? After all, if you are trying to find out whether the candidate is seeking upward movement within the organization, or whether s/he intends to stick with this career choice for the long term, why not simply ask that directly?

Rehashing cliched interview questions won’t tell you what you really need to know in order to discern between competent candidates and ones who will lead change, innovation and produce results. Ditch these tired fall-back questions, and consider instead these (and the potentially useful, necessary information they may reveal):

  • Would you describe the difference between a brand and a marketing strategy? (Reveals if a candidate can translate theory into actual practice)
  • Name at least two specific marketing tactics that drove results at a prior position, and please explain why you believe these tactics were effective. (Tells you first if candidate knows the different between strategy and tactics, and also helps illustrate whether candidate can develop tactics that are effectively tied to larger strategy/mission statement)
  • What is the first step in building an effective marketing plan? (If candidate doesn’t even mention a mission statement, possible red flag)
  • What’s the worst mistake a marketing team can commit when developing a marketing plan? (Look for gaps in planning, or no planning, or a disconnect between strategy and execution, etc.)
  • What key elements are necessary to build an effective mission statement? (Look for mention of defining target audience and whether soliciting input from key individuals is included)
  • When you have experienced “creative block” in your marketing work, what do you do? (Look for innovative responses and creative solutions)
  • Do you believe sales and marketing should be lumped together? If so, why? If not, why not? (Tells you whether s/he knows the difference, for one, and then whether s/he understands how the two functions are interdependent/interrelated)
  • What do you think our industry should do–in terms of reaching customers–that it currently isn’t? (Reveals if s/he is keeping current with marketplace trends, demographics, etc.)
  • What customers do you believe our company should be reaching, but isn’t? Why does this particular market segment appear to be a good target for our services/products? (Helps you identify if candidate holds a more-than-general understanding of your organization)
  • What would you prefer, given the choice: To participate in a long-term, large-team effort that included representatives from many areas of the company or a project that involved you leading a smaller team of fellow marketing professionals and which focused on a more narrow scope or set of tactics to accomplish? Why? (Helps reveal if candidate likes to lead, or, lay low below the radar; tells you if s/he is comfortable working in large, cross-functional teams or if s/he prefers smaller-group dynamic)
  • What key factors drove your job history? How much of your career path was driven by factors other than personal choice? (Helps you understand the real reasons for a person’s job history. If candidate is honest, answer may likely contain both personal choices to move around as well as market forces and other factors)
  • How have you remained tuned-in to current market trends, our industry sector’s development as well as technology during your job search? What makes you different from other senior-level professionals seeking a position currently? (Look for willingness to take a class, stay productive, perform volunteer work, engage in mentoring, etc., which shows that candidate is devoting time to staying abreast of skills and the marketplace)
The Work Will Pay Off in the End

Of course it’s difficult to examine our own prejudices, assumptions and stodginess. But to do so is not only necessary, but extremely rewarding. Taking these two simple steps can help you become more confident as a corporate leader and decision maker, and can help you shine. Would you rather be recognized as a marketing leader who is exceptionally skilled at identifying mediocre new hires, or the marketing VP who hired future company executive leaders?

Consider the words of Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, when commenting on the importance of research in any creative process. After all, hiring a new marketing leader is based on research (resumes, interviews, referrals) and demands creativity (developing sharp, effective questions to uncover a candidate’s actual skills, strengths and potential):

“Research is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”

As always, this article is intended for information only and is not intended to be construed as formal consulting services provided by Hazel Communications LLC. 




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