How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge: A Manual for Marketers

Ian Lurie

There are few things more butt-clenchingly aggravating than watching a great set of marketing recommendations decay in a stakeholder’s rubbish heap. It happens to me. A lot. So I ponder the problem. A lot. I figured it out:

We’re asked to lead, but we’re not in charge.

Stakeholders—internal or external— hire us to provide direction and leadership. They pay a premium for our knowledge. But the moment we enter the room, we’re powerless. We don’t control budget. We (usually) can’t fire or hire. So we get all brilliant and stuff. We deliver our genius.

And it molders on the stakeholder’s shelf.

Do stakeholders just love watching us suffer? No. We’re brought in to Improve All The Things. But the stakeholder is stuck between two competing goals:

  • Improve things
  • Don’t break anything

That causes a communication problem. We show up and speak of Hope and Dreams:

Hopes and Dreams: “Hey! We’re gonna improve this and fix that and it’s gonna be great for you and let’s gogogogogogogo.”

But along with your enthusiasm, the stakeholder gets a different, three-part message:

Risk: “Mwahahahaha I’m going to fucklebucket the hell out of your work and leave you with nothing. When you get fired, I’ll get a sweet long-term contract out of this.”

Effort: “I’m going to give you recommendations that take time and effort. Good thing you have to do the work.”

Ambiguity: “I’m not sure if this will work. If it does, though, it’ll make a great case study.”

That’s what we bring to the table: Risk, effort, and ambiguity. So stakeholders push back against the tactics you recommend. They resist because:

  • They know they’re risking their bonus/reputation/performance/career/goals
  • They know they’re going to have to invest resources they may or may not have
  • They do not know what the outcome will be

If we want to lead when we’re not in charge—if we want our stakeholders to take action—we have to clarify the risk, minimize the effort and get rid of the ambiguity.

We can do that by establishing frictionless clarity.


Clarity smashes risk and ambiguity to bits. It’s a big concept. Provide these three things, though, and it’s attainable:

An easily explained, planned, and resourced task

Define a tactic on which the stakeholder can act. A mushy, ill-defined task amplifies risk and ambiguity:

“Invest in content” is not well-defined. I can’t explain it. Stakeholders can’t plan it. And there is no way to determine how much effort it will take. I can’t begin to identify cost, schedule, or outcome. It amplifies risk and ambiguity, frustrates the stakeholder, and leaves the marketer with a doorknob-shaped imprint on their tuchus.

“Hire a professional editor to manage content production” is well-defined. It’s clear. Stakeholders can write it down. They can set criteria for hiring. They can appropriately delegate. They can figure out the cost (risk) and make a decision.

A perceived, relevant benefit of executing the tactic

Show that the tactic has ginormous upside. Say this and watch a rational human being roll their eyes back and stare at their sinuses:

“People will read your stuff” or “you’ll improve engagement” doesn’t work. Why does the stakeholder care about “engagement?” They probably don’t. They have a specific goal they want to accomplish. You just explained why their investment would check a box on someone’s resume.

So you must translate “engagement” to something meaningful for the stakeholder. You don’t need to create a direct action-to-dollars connection. Just show a benefit the stakeholder understands. Abstract connections work just fine:

“People will stay on the site longer, increasing the chances they’ll buy. They will also share our content more often, which will help us rank higher in search results and get us more social media visibility. And, if we stick with it, we might get media coverage.”

That explains the tactic in the stakeholder’s terms. They want more customers. They want more social media visibility. They’d love some media coverage.

Any task has defined Good Things that may happen if they act. It’s your job to explain why an action matters, not in your terms, but in theirs.

A perceived, relevant penalty for inaction

Show that inaction has a clear downside.

“We are losing share-of-voice and will continue to do so if we don’t increase visibility. That will continue to hurt search rankings and brand strength, which will hurt revenue,” describes a penalty that’s darned relevant.

You can describe previous problems, too:

“We got laughed off the Internet for the typo in our last article, but we can’t expect perfection from the copy team. Only disciplined editing will help us avoid the next mistake,” may not feel directly relevant. But everyone cringes at the thought and wants to avoid a repeat.

Don’t cry catastrophe every time, though. You’ll lose credibility. I don’t recommend this:

“If you don’t invest in content, you’ll be out of business in 2 years.”

It may be true (I guess), but who’s going to listen to that?

Show a clear penalty for inaction. Make sure it’s something the stakeholder can get their head around.

Clarity? Check

Clarity gets you one step closer to that lovely place where stakeholders are ready to act, rather than resist. It reduces perceived risk and ambiguity.

Clarity makes it far easier to lead when you’re not in charge.


In science, friction involves coefficients and forces and Greek letters and stuff. From my perspective, friction is what keeps me from wrecking my car.

In marketing, friction is a ratio:

Friction = Benefit:Effort

The more the benefit outweighs the effort, the higher the ratio, and the closer to frictionless you get.

I like to play a lot of “what if” games. In my experience, they work best.

Here’s my favorite: I spend a lot of time coaching stakeholders to compress their images. It’s never a priority when we start. I’ve created a bald spot banging the back of my head against the wall behind my desk chair, all because no one compresses their images. What does work? Showing stakeholders the benefit to effort ratio of compressing a single image:

“Compressing this one image will reduce home page load times by 50%. It will take 1 hour and we can handle it. That costs you $125, total. Your average order size is $50. If this increase helps generate ten orders, we’ll see a 3.2:1 return on investment.”

That’s easy. Compressing that one measly image takes one hour of my time. It doesn’t require any stakeholder effort. If it helps generate just ten orders, this action has a 3:1 return. Why would you not do this?!

More important, why wouldn’t you go through the whole site, compressing every image? To support that, you might say:

“You think that’s good?! If you compress every image on the site, you can reduce average page load time by 3 seconds. It will take 4 hours and we can handle it. It will cost you $500, total. Your average order size is $50. If this generates just 100 additional orders, we’ll see a 10:1 return on investment.”

It doesn’t matter if my numbers are exact. The story is clear: The benefit crushes the effort required. This tactic is nearly frictionless.

Unclear benefit? Compare costs

Sometimes the benefit isn’t clear. Then I compare the cost of my recommendation to the cost of the alternative:

“Producing a great blog post will cost you $1,000. Say we do four of those. That’s $4,000. If just one post gets three links from sites with NN citation flow and NN trust flow, they’ll help us with SEO for a long time to come. On the other hand, if you tried to buy or knock on enough doors for equally high-quality links with no new content, you’ll pay $5,000+ per link. That’s $15,000. I don’t know the exact benefit. I do know that this tactic costs less than one-third the alternative. Oh, and it’s safer.”

This doesn’t reduce friction. It shows friction is relatively low. Which is almost as good.

An easy out decreases friction

Sometimes you can reduce friction by emphasizing that a tactic is easy to reverse:

“I know you like having ™ after each mention of our brand. But that’s using up 3–4 characters in our PPC ads. We can use those characters to write better ads. That’s our main way to improve clickthru rate and quality. If we don’t improve quality score, we’ll continue paying 130% per click. It’ll take a few minutes to change. Our brand resonates without the (TM). If we can improve clickthru by .5% we’ll get 500 more visits a week, which at current conversion rate means 100 more customers. And, if it doesn’t work, we can switch back.”

Here, the context is the company’s PPC advertising performance. There’s fantastic upside. Most important, we can reverse the change anytime. Why not try it?

Frictionless? Check

If the benefit to effort ratio is high enough, a tactic becomes nearly frictionless. At that point, the stakeholder will act on your recommendation.

How To Grow The S**t Out of Frictionless Clarity

There are specific things that’ll help you create frictionless clarity:

Have the answers at your fingertips

Fast responses to relevant questions reduce friction. The longer the delay between question and answer, the greater the friction.

If you don’t have answers when they need them, you cause round trips. Every time you take a question back to your team or another expert, you force everyone to disengage and re-engage. No one likes that.

Unless you have one hell of a memory (I do not) you need all the useful information at your fingertips.

The best way I’ve found to get close to perfection? A knowledge base: A collection of useful information you organize for fast, question-based reference. That’s my definition, by the way. I accept responsibility if I butchered the real one.

This knowledge base should at least include:

  • The numbers that matter: Revenue, cost per conversion, etc.
  • A list of relevant stakeholder questions that crop up frequently
  • Even better: Answers to any relevant stakeholder questions
  • Answers to common questions in the various disciplines

Evernote is great if you want information on and offline across several devices. You can answer questions with a delay of a minute or two. You can enter each item as a note, tag them and then collect them into folders.

You can share Evernote notebooks with others, using it as a team resource.

If that’s not what you want, check out Atlassian’s Confluence Questions. It’s web-based and built as a knowledge base from the ground up. It comes with their wiki product, Confluence, so you can build out more detailed explanations and answers.

You can also use a spreadsheet, a bunch of text files (for the nerdier among us) or an actual database tool. Just make sure it’s fast and easy to search.

Do not expect stakeholders to use it. That doesn’t just create friction. It glues them to the floor. It also forces them to wade through subject matter and fogs up clarity.

The knowledge base is your tool, designed to help you answer questions. Frictionless clarity.

Maintain a consistent narrative

Never, ever contradict yourself or your team. Or at least be prepared to explain why you’re changing course. Avoid the accidental course change. It’s stressful for everyone, causes many, many round trips, and erodes everyone’s trust in you as a leader.

If the narrative careens off-course, everyone focuses on the confusion. Clarity goes spiraling down the toilet. Friction turns all surfaces to sandpaper. It’s not pretty.

You can maintain a consistent narrative by recording it. Create a place where you can take a glance at previous messages, meeting notes, etc. all at once.

I use text files. I also like to use Evernote. If I’m working with my team I send notes, etc. to our project management tool. Most PM tools provide an e-mail address for each project. Anything you send to that address gets added to a single message thread.

I still screw this up all the time, by the way. I always will. But this cuts my screw ups in half. Progress!

Don’t beat a dead jellyfish*

Politics can ruin anything, of course. Since we’re not in charge, we can’t just say “Get over it.” We don’t control who pooped in whose proverbial cereal bowl.

We do control how we explain tactics to stakeholders. So focus on that. Establish frictionless clarity.

So, if it’s clear the stakeholder can’t or won’t execute on a tactic, move on. Hounding them will only frustrate them. You’ll distract from the doable stuff, increase friction, and suck the life out of every meeting.

*Jellyfish disgust me. Also, one stung me and I had a rash for a week. So the idea of a dead one, or a beaten one, doesn’t haunt me.

Get help editing

I won’t say “have someone edit everything you write.” My editor says this all the time. But sometimes she goes on vacation. Or sleeps. Slacker. The reality is you can’t always do that. So have a few automated backups:

Grammarly is a godsend. Paste, review, revise, save. Be sure to read the edits before you approve them, by the way. It’s still a computer trying to speak English.

Don’t test everything

The whole point of frictionless clarity is that some things don’t need to be tested. You don’t have to test whether a faster site is better. You don’t have to test whether good writing is better.

Take action. Then measure the result. Do A/B tests on the subtle stuff.

Most folks won’t agree with me on this. But not everything needs to be tested. We get paid for our expertise. Sometimes you have to rely on that.

Do learn everything

Leaders who aren’t in charge must know how stuff works. That lets you bring clarity through quick answers and reduce friction by reducing round trips.

Learn new stuff. At least one new thing every month. Examples? Learn:

  • To be a better marketer, by learning the basics
  • To be a better writer
  • How web servers and browsers work
  • HTML basics
  • CSS 101
  • A little bit of one scripting language
  • How to leverage the crap out of Excel or Google Spreadsheets (or both)
  • How to use Powerpoint without making stakeholders’ eyes bleed

Lead Without Being In Charge

As marketers, we have to move organizations closer to goals through effective communication. We can’t do that if recommendations sit on conference room tables. Stakeholders have to act on our advice. It’s up to us to make that happen.

It is not easy. You have to be brave. When you start, you’ll get dirty looks, and hear how you’re “stepping on toes.” Hold your ground. Be diplomatic and respect everyone on the team. Don’t take it personally if stakeholders resist. Remember, they have to assess risk, effort and ambiguity. They have to be skeptical. Doing otherwise would be irresponsible. The tension between risky change (you) and secure status quo (stakeholders) is a natural and important result.

If a business is anything short of a disaster, that tension will always tend to inaction. If you want stuff to happen, you have to lead. But you’re not in charge. To do that, demonstrate frictionless clarity and move the audience to “Why not?”

Go change the discussion.

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  1. Thanks for this detailed and well-thought-out post, Ian – I know this comes from extensive experience on your part. This topic really resonates with me because it surely can be a struggle at times to communicate well enough to get stakeholders to see the importance of implementing existing and/or proposed recommendations. Daily I practically obsess over this topic and do a lot of hand wringing wishing I were better at this.
    A somewhat related kind of thing I run into sometimes is where stakeholders see SEO from a paid search mentality, especially in a multi-channel engagement, and that requires careful education and communication in that regard (hmm, maybe fodder for a future blog post by you? 🙂

    1. I do sometimes see stakeholders who want to track and value individual keywords and clicks from organic. That’s a tough one. I still haven’t worked it out. But I try to always emphasize that while SEO is more qualitative, the potential upside is huge, and you can still measure results on a channel-wide basis.
      Thanks David. I hope all is well.

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