How to Lead in Marketing When You’re Not the Captain of the Boat

Matthew Taufa'asau Nov 8 2017

How to be a marketing leader when you're not in charge of the team

At Portent, we often get asked to advise on the ideal marketing team structure. The answer is almost always ‘it depends.’ Today though, we’re talking about something almost universally true for the mindset of successful marketing teams. Whether you see one person in each role here, or ten, this approach will make any team work more cohesively. For instance, you can have a number of specialists that work in defined hierarchies, silos, or you may have teams that are relatively flat.

Here at Portent, I’m always amazed at how collaborative and encouraging our client teams are. Team dynamics hit home with me. In my spare time, I coach a team of outrigger canoe paddlers.

I’ll use this to outline some of the lessons about how to run an effective marketing team, even when you’re not in charge. If you’re Thalassophobic, you can always skip to the takeaways.


(The Seattle Outrigger crew. Also, new Portent theme-song, anyone??)

So, what the heck is an outrigger canoe?

If you’re a fan of “how-many-times-has-McGarret-been-shot?” cop dramas, then you might have seen one on Hawaii 5-0. If you’ve spent time on any of the Hawaiian islands, you’ve likely encountered one. The Polynesian wa’a or va’a go way back in history. Canoe racing is the state sport of Hawai’i, and its popularity is gaining. There are racing clubs across the U.S., from Washington D.C. to L.A, with stops in places like Austin in between. There are major races in Sydney and Hong Kong. It’s crazy fun, and it’s a heck of a lot better workout than paddleboarding.

So how do you get a team of individuals to race 40 miles in the ocean consistently well, when the ocean itself is incredibly inconsistent, and what does this have to do with marketing leadership?

In a six-person outrigger canoe, each seat has a responsibility based on that person’s skill level and experience. Some roles are better suited to generalists, while some are decidedly more specialized. It’s important to note that much like a flat organization of people with T-shaped skillsets, everyone here at least knows how to paddle. When a paddler first begins the sport, it may seem that all they have to do is get in a seat and move the boat forward. However, as they grow with the sport, they find that each seat has responsibilities that go beyond individual effort.

More importantly, each seat has a set of eyes and ears. Input here is key. While a boat full of people yelling at one another is a bad thing, a collaborative, communicative canoe that knows the right way to use individual skills and collective awareness will thrive.

Below you’ll find a few things that can help your digital marketing team run like a fast outrigger canoe!

Seat One – The Stroke

While not necessarily the leader of the boat, the stroke sets the pace. Keenly aware, this person can feel how the boat is running, and can often see the big obstacles before anyone else. He or she will receive input from others on the team and is empowered to make pacing decisions that will affect everyone’s outcome. This person is an individual contributor, though it is very important that this person have a feel for the pulse of the boat. And while they may ultimately defer to a rate set by a steersman or captain, this person is quick to communicate clearly and loudly to the team behind him when there is danger or a better way forward.

There are times when you will have to lead your boat even when you’re not in charge of it. Be aware of the conditions, listen to your team, and find the right pace. They’ll get you where you want to go.

Seat Two

Balance and timing are critical to a smooth-running canoe. Balance is attained by having paddlers stagger the side they’re paddling on. Odd-numbered seats follow seat one, and even numbers follow two. Therefore, seat two must transmit the rate exactly as she sees it. This effectively makes seat two the stroke for her side of the boat. Yes, she has to follow the lead from seat one, but you had best believe that this person is providing constant feedback on what is working and what isn’t. A stroke can get caught up in a runaway rate or even paddle too slow at times. Seat two will offer actionable feedback.

Everyone has a hand in leading their part of the project. Individual contributors have their own deadlines and may need to solicit help from or offer feedback to other teammates. This can help with project pacing and a killer end result.

Seat Three – The Captain in the Middle?

Depending on who you talk to, the captain of the boat is usually the steersperson who sits all the way in the back. This person plots the course, calls for sprints, and generally encourages the boat. However, there are teams that are now offloading some of these tasks to another I.C.: Seat Three. Previously, this person was often tasked with shouting out a command that notified paddlers when to switch sides. Now the role has expanded to include rate increases based on competitive and environmental conditions. This increase in responsibility means that the steersperson can concentrate on where the boat is going rather than worrying that the boat is keeping up with the conditions. A veteran boat with a seasoned seat three will instinctively speed up to catch a wave.

When you have a well-trained and savvy team, you can start assigning out additional responsibilities to individual contributors. With an eye to the strategy, these team members challenge themselves to work smarter and more efficiently.

Seat Four

Seat four is known as one of the ‘power positions.’ Power positions are typically seats three and four (and sometimes five). While this individual contributor may be tasked with heavy lifting, a nose-down, get-it-done type of role, their input is invaluable. The work these people output cannot be overlooked, so periodic check-in is suggested. Make sure they’re not burning out and that they have what they need to sustain all the way to the finish line.

There are many challenges in each race to the finish. Even the most stalwart contributor can encounter project fatigue or other blockers. Be sure to know when you need to check-in.

Seat Five

Growth is good, and planning for the future is vital for continued success. In an outrigger canoe, some seats are better suited for beginners or promising understudies. Seat five is a prime example. If you had a boat full of experienced paddlers and needed to integrate a novice, you might consider placing that person here. He or she doesn’t need to pass the rate along, by virtue of their spot. This person also sits right near the steersperson / captain who can give direct input. However, for bigger undertakings seat five should ideally be a budding or experienced steersman himself. You want this person to be able to assist in a pinch.

In big waves (as with major projects), it can help to have another steersman who can assist with keeping the boat balanced and, frankly, upright. If a project is big enough, having an assistant project manager along to assist with steering at critical moments is essential. Your five-seat knows the leader’s role as well as his own, and the minute the boat is off-balance he knows it and shifts seamlessly from strong individual contributor to a second steersman.

Giving up some of the responsibility to an up and coming leader not only provides stability, but gives them fantastic room to grow and train.

Seat Six – The Steersman / Captain / Project Manager / The Guy in the Back / Strategist

The “steersman” is tasked with getting the boat from point A to point B, and plots course and plan of action in advance. Just like any leader, she will likely encounter many obstacles or barriers that will need her attention. Winds change, currents shift, and people in her boat might find themselves fatigued or distracted. In addition, seat six is also a paddler.

If her boat is completely out-of-whack, she’ll need to make frequent course corrections (different, less-powerful adjustment strokes or drag-inducing pokes), and these keep her from actually paddling. The steersman must look at the boat as a whole, the factors affecting it and take corrective action. A smart steersman lets her paddlers know what’s going on, encourages those that need it, and relies on input from them. This synergy of information flow makes for a smooth-running boat that can go hard for miles and finish strong.

Takeaway – Marketing team leaders know what’s happening and where the boat is going. They will guide the team with encouragement and by soliciting feedback from the team

Where to from here?

Your team is smart, and they’re even smarter as a whole. They can collectively see when they’re biting off too much or moving too fast to be successful over the long-term. Be demanding as a leader, or as a highly skilled and highly collaborative I.C., but listen to the natural feedback. You can lead in any number of ways, but before you start shouting caution, direction, or pace, get in sync with your team. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll win together for years.

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