Born to Run the Marketing Team: Lessons on Leadership from Springsteen & Steven Handmaker, CMO of Assurance
In partnership with The CMO Club, The CMO of the Week series profiles CMOs who are shaping, changing and challenging the world of modern marketing, many of whom are in Drew's new book, The CMO's Periodic Table: A Renegade's Guide to Marketing. For Drew Neisser's complete interview with CMO Award Winner Steve Handmaker, click here.
Think about the leaders and mentors you've known throughout your life. Could you find just one adjective to tie them together? Probably not. Leaders are who they are because they're not only effective, but unique, as no two styles of leadership are alike. Just ask Steven Handmaker, CMO of Assurance and a Leadership Award recipient at this year's CMO Awards. His role model? Bruce Springsteen - a real boss if ever there were one. In fact, I did have the opportunity to ask Handmaker what makes him tick, and he provided a fresh take on leadership that ought to have any marketer dancing in the dark. So bear with the Springsteen songs hidden in this article and enjoy our enlightening conversation below.
A Reason To Believe
Assurance stands apart from its competitors thanks to a unique brand positioning by Handmaker and his marketing team. Acknowledging that the insurance broker industry can make one feel lost in the flood of indistinguishable companies, Handmaker's team instead looked inward, using Assurance's "quirky" company culture to define the brand. The "Happy Employees = Happy Customers" campaign, as it's called, turns the focus on the employees and provides the marketing team with a wealth of fun, distinctive content, which has earned a good dose of goodwill from customers and staff alike. Not only is Assurance outperforming many of its rivals as a result, it's also now enjoying its glory days as one of the top 5 places to work in Chicago-a sure sign of outstanding management.
When I posed my initial question about leadership traits to Handmaker, I asked him to get introspective for a moment. His own leadership style, he says, aims for inspirational. It's important for people to have a hungry heart and want to follow you, after all. "I work hard to have those I lead understand our ultimate vision," he says, "and allow them the freedom and flexibility to use their talents to help us get there." A micromanager, Handmaker is not. He tells me that after giving his team a reason to believe, his next priority as a manager is to uplift. "I'm a big believer in consistently showing appreciation," he says.
You might say that Handmaker picked up these traits from his idol. "Personally, I worship at the altar of Bruce Springsteen. I mean, he is the ultimate Boss." Admitting that he's one of those superfans, the kind who would drive all night to Nebraska in a pink Cadillac to see him in concert, Handmaker recommends that other marketers-even non-fans-take note of Springsteen's leadership style. "He's a master storyteller, first and foremost, with legendary desire to connect with his audience." He may be onto something. Who else could get both Jon Stewart and Chris Christie to agree on something so passionately?
Aside from inspiring his team, I wondered what other challenges Handmaker has faced while shaping Assurance from the inside out. Instituting new technology, he tells me, is sometimes rocky ground for employees. Being a B2B organization and in an industry that's "woefully behind-the-times" technologically, he says, new marketing tech is not always embraced by everyone in the company, especially Assurance's top-ranked salespeople, who of course built their success without it. For his part, Handmaker instituted a state-of-the-art Eloqua automation system that has helped Assurance establish "an engaged audience of prospects and clients, rich with data." Getting the whole team one step up, Handmaker says, is an ongoing project.
Meeting Across The River
And because no leader, no matter how effective, is a jack of all trades, Handmaker says that his peer network has been an invaluable driver of innovation for Assurance. "I've learned (stolen) so much from marketing leaders, particularly in other industries," he says, "which I've been able to take back and apply in my own environment." He mentions again that because the insurance industry is often its own worst enemy in terms of marketing innovation, applying outside strategies in this way has proven immensely helpful. "It's not too difficult to identify some amazing things we should have probably been doing 4 years ago," says Handmaker of learning from his network.
Even for those of us not in the CMO's seat quite yet, Handmaker offers similar advice: to venture outside your area of expertise. He tells me that it's the best advice he's ever received. "Anybody can follow a job description, do exactly what is asked, and produce positive results," says Handmaker. However, standing out and proving yourself as tougher than the rest requires going beyond your job description. "What else should you do to help those around you and the company succeed? Do that, and success will follow," he says. "If you apply this ideology to your personal life as well, you can expect the same results." With that, it sounds like Handmaker was simply born to run his marketing team-and that's why he's the boss.
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