Tom Elgar

Marketing Strategy for Firms with Distributed Leadership

By: Tom Elgar | January 2, 2019 | 
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distributed leadershipAs services firms become larger, their remit becomes wider and more varied, making a centralized communications strategy increasingly difficult.

Each sector, and frequently, each large client, can become a very significant business in its own right.

And marketing leaders must accommodate these diverse needs to drive growth.

But the problem is each business unit has highly-nuanced and ever-changing needs, making a comprehensive, centralized view of marketing extremely hard.

Indeed, in many firms, employees in one part of the business have little beyond a passing knowledge of other areas of practice.

If they are fortunate, each of these business units and client accounts should have a competent, pragmatic leader who fully understands what is in their best interest.

And this means the role of the firm’s central marketing leadership, is not to try to understand and give direction to all of these multiple stakeholders, but instead to foster more leadership.

Great leaders do not create followers; they create more leaders. – Tom Peters

Enabling Distributed Leadership

To do this, they must deliver infrastructure to enable people to reach their various goals.

Jason Goodall, CEO at Dimension Data, refers to this as enabling ‘distributed leadership.’

In this podcast, he speaks enthusiastically about how a “small group of unbelievably smart people” have driven enormous value for their clients.

He also touches on modern leadership and how empowering others to lead is replacing older “command and control” models.

Clearly, enabling his “unbelievably smart people” to lead is central to Dimension Data’s continuing success.

Other examples, of organizations with distributed leadership are universities and large advisories.

Typically, universities barely have a ‘leader’ at all, and the line management is pretty much non-existent. One part of the organization may have little understanding of how the others work, and there is scant cross-pollination of ideas.

Universities have many complex, intermeshed, and highly politicized teams of individuals. The necessity for compromise leads to inertia but also to stability.

However, to suggest universities or advisories are badly run would be to draw the wrong conclusion.

To put the success of these organizations in perspective, the Big Four advisory companies began over 170 years ago. And our local big-hitting university, Oxford, got its start in 1096.

They clearly have a robust, flexible, and world-class management structure. But these ‘dysfunctional’ organizations are, in fact, highly successful.

At a university, academics have a lovely physical working environment, amazing technology to work with, and a brand.

And in large services firms, it is pretty much the same.

So the key question is how to provide an infrastructure used by staff to promote their aims, without unduly centralizing those efforts and therefore killing all the golden geese.

Empowering Distributed Leadership

At the CMO level, empowering distributed leadership involves ensuring leaders have marketing tools to drive growth in their own unit while maintaining oversight, brand consistency, and reporting.

From here, the relevant leader can determine the correct approach for promoting a specific business unit or engaging each client.

A helpful analogy for this type of distributed infrastructure is roads vs. railways.

As a centralized system, railways are a brilliant way to transport goods and people from one place to another. They have comparatively few drivers, very rigid timetables, and they always go to and from the same places.

Roads are somewhat less efficient but have ‘distributed leadership’ and many drivers.

There are rules of the road, traffic lights, and cars must be safe. But the driver can basically go wherever they need to, by whichever route is most appropriate.

In a fast-moving, modern business environment this is absolutely critical.

A Decentralized Marketing System

It is important to draw a distinction between a decentralized marketing system and letting everyone make their own plan ad-hoc.

Both roads and railways are purchased by central government because an integrated system is essential to the successful running of both.

But having no consensus on the gauge of a railway or which side of the road people should drive, let alone signaling would, in both cases, lead to rapid collapse.

Similarly, a decentralized marketing infrastructure needs to be leveraged across the entire organization by centrally assigning roles and responsibilities.

It may not be necessary to understand the nuance of every business unit, but it is important to ensure best practices for the firm as a whole to be able to grow and learn.

Given the number of stakeholders, you can best achieve this running a pilot. You will build a business case for a particular technology which has a copper-bottom ROI.

You can then socialize that success, with an increase in the potential for a wider deployment to build consensus.

For most content marketing initiatives, for example, there are profound network effects available from deploying one system widely rather than several competing systems in differing areas of practice.

It’s highly preferable to get all the stakeholders behind one technology.

The Best Marketing Strategy

For those services companies with many leaders, the best marketing strategy is to deliver homogenous infrastructure which enables distributed leadership.

And it’s important to trust these many talented individuals to look after the tactics.

Leaders within the firm can go in whichever direction they need to.

And if the roads are good, they can speed along effortlessly.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

About Tom Elgar


Tom Elgar is co-founder and CEO of Passle. Passle is a digital marketing platform designed around the needs of the busy experts at the heart of knowledge businesses. We enable time-pressured specialists to create online content that demonstrates their expertise and then we make it easy to publish and share with clients and prospects. Prior to Passle, Tom co-founded Serverside Group, the custom payment cards company. The company sold in 2012 to Gemalto, a French multi-national. Over 100 million card designs have been created through their systems so far.

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