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6 traits of top marketing leaders (and how to cultivate them in yourself)

Stepping into a marketing leadership role can stir up a mix of emotions: excitement, optimism, and, often, a gnawing doubt. "Do I have the right skills to truly lead and inspire?" If you've ever wrestled with these uncertainties, you're not alone.

Last updated

7 Sep 2023

Reading time

9 min


This article reveals the traits that separate good marketing leaders from great ones, and offers actionable steps to elevate your leadership. We also share insights from a marketing leader here at Hotjar.

Summary: 6 traits of top marketing leaders

  1. Knowing your customers: ensure a deep understanding of the customer's journey

  2. Balancing vision and flexibility: merge long-term strategies with adaptive decisions

  3. Showing deep empathy: cultivate a culture of connection within your team and with your customers

  4. Championing quantitative and qualitative data: integrate hard numbers with customer-centric insights

  5. Recognizing individual strengths: acknowledge—and take advantage of—the talents within your team

  6. Pursuing continuous growth: keep up to date with industry trends and innovations

1. A deep appreciation for the customer's journey

Customer journey mapping involves more than recognizing touchpoints and building user personas: it's about stepping into your customers’ shoes, from their initial discovery of your brand to their first purchase and beyond.

When you truly grasp the nuances of the customer journey, you’re better positioned to create strategies that address specific pain points and communicate them clearly to your team. For example, instead of a vague objective like 'improve our mobile site', you might go for 'reduce our mobile site's load time to under 3 seconds, given that 70% of our visitors use smartphones'. 

Leadership built around real customer needs helps your team increase efficiency and inspires confidence in your decisions. The result? An empowered team, more impactful campaigns, and a brand that truly resonates with its audience.

How to develop a customer-centric mindset

Customer-first thinking prioritizes customers’ needs, preferences, and values above all else. Here are some ways to foster this approach in your team:

  • Engage with customer-facing teams: set up regular meetings with sales and support. Their direct interactions with customers offer invaluable insights that can shape your marketing campaigns.

  • Continuously collect customer feedback: while all good marketing leaders run feedback initiatives, great marketing leaders have an ongoing dialogue with their customers

  • Iterate based on customer data: don't just collect feedback—analyze it to identify patterns and areas to improve. Use your insights to adjust your strategies, ensuring they’re tailored to meet customer needs and preferences.

🗣 How Hotjar’s marketing leaders use feedback

Nick Cullen, Product Marketing Lead at Hotjar, champions the power of feedback to foster a customer-obsessed team culture.

He advises, “Lead by example—think customer-first and try to live outside of the four walls of your own company. Get out and talk to people, even if it’s just sending out a survey.”

Hotjar tools like Surveys and Feedback make it easy for marketers to tune into the voice of their customers, uncovering fresh insights that drive high-performing campaigns.

Open-ended survey questions are a powerful way to understand your customers

2. An ability to juggle long-term vision with short-term flexibility

Imagine you've built an AI tool and planned a big campaign around its time-saving abilities. Days before launch, a competitor brings out a similar tool with additional features for even faster results. Now what?

A long-term vision is important—it sets the direction and purpose for your team, creating a clear path for everyone to follow. But every marketing professional knows that markets are unpredictable, competitors innovate, and customer needs change. In such a dynamic environment, sticking rigidly to a plan could fail.

Going back to the AI example above, a great marketing leader would quickly tweak the strategy: instead of focusing only on the tool’s time-saving benefits, they might highlight other features that differentiate their product, like ease of use or excellent customer support. 

Ultimately, great marketing leaders set clear goals, but they're also not afraid to pivot when the situation demands. This way, teams remain productive and efficient while also aligned with the company's evolving needs.

How to build your adaptability without losing focus

Adapting on short notice doesn't come instinctively to everyone, but it's a skill you can grow. Here are some actionable strategies to nurture adaptability and ensure you're always prepared for what's next:

  • Check in with your team regularly: keeping communication open ensures your team stays aligned and up to date with any changes. Establish a weekly meeting or a dedicated Slack channel where everyone shares updates and insights.

  • Stay on top of market trends: leaders who are aware of shifts in the industry are better equipped to make adjustments when needed. Sign up to relevant newsletters and follow prominent industry figures on social media platforms like LinkedIn to keep your knowledge current.

  • Introduce change management: adopting a structured approach to handling changes means you can make adjustments quickly and systematically. Document your projects where everyone can see them (platforms like Confluence or Miro are great for this). Make note of challenges or relevant customer feedback, and record any resulting tweaks to your strategy.

How Nick balances immediate needs with future goals at Hotjar: a case study

🏋️‍♀️ The challenge

As the Hotjar platform continues its expansion, Nick noticed an issue emerging within his team: 

We’re releasing more than ever before—from small changes on existing features to game-changing, high-impact features and products. A recent challenge we faced was in how we prioritize our product releases—knowing how much effort should go into any single release over another.”

He had to find a way to ensure the most crucial releases stood out, while also aligning the team on the marketing expectations for each release.

🛠 The solution

To address this, Nick adopted a systematic approach. “We implemented a tiering framework designed to make sure the effort matches the reward,” he explains. 

The framework involves a table of questions that helps pinpoint the priority of each release depending on how they’re answered. 

To get the full picture, both the Product Marketing Manager and Product Manager complete the table independently and then compare the results.

🏆 The outcome

The revamped strategy is already making an impact. 

“We’re now firmly underway with this process, and it’s working very effectively. Our overall volume of promotional communications has reduced, allowing for the bigger releases to more clearly stand out, all while maintaining our expected levels of feature adoption.”

3. Empathy for team members and stakeholders

Empathy—the ability to truly understand and connect with others' feelings and perspectives—is an often-underestimated leadership trait, yet it's foundational to effective marketing leadership. Cultivating empathy equips leaders with a powerful ability to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics and drive better results.

Your team may have poured weeks into a new campaign, only for it to receive mixed reviews from stakeholders. Instead of making hasty decisions, you could exercise empathy by gathering your team and stakeholders for a debrief to help everyone understand your choices and have an open dialogue about the feedback.

This approach might lead to potential solutions and improvements that may not have been obvious at first. It's a win for your brand, your team, and your stakeholders—and it's all rooted in empathy.

Understand your team at a personal level and lead by example. We’re fully remote, so it’s even more important to connect with and understand each team member as individuals, from their motivations and aspirations to their home life at any given time.

Nick Cullen
Product Marketing Lead at Hotjar

How to foster more empathetic communication

Building on Nick's insight, there are several practical ways to foster this connection:

  • Provide individual attention: schedule regular one-on-ones with each team member to keep the lines of communication open and build solid relationships

  • Practice active listening: fully focus on the person speaking. Maintain eye contact, ask open-ended questions, avoid interrupting, and use non-verbal cues like nodding.

  • Be transparent: openness builds trust. Being clear about decisions and challenges reassures your team and stakeholders, highlighting the importance of mutual understanding in all communications.

Great marketing leaders choose Hotjar

Discover why top marketers trust our insights to shape user-centric campaigns.

4. A knack for bridging quantitative data with user needs

A broad range of existing tools for marketers provide plenty of quantitative data, giving teams precise metrics on everything from user demographics to click-through rates. However, these numbers only paint half the picture.

Take, for example, an ecommerce website showing that 70% of its users abandon their cart before making a purchase. Are the users confused by the checkout process, deterred by shipping costs, or unsure about a product detail? 

Qualitative insights answer these questions. Great marketing leadership lies not just in understanding these figures, but also translating them into actionable insights.

Nick explains how this works at Hotjar: “We pride ourselves on being empathy- and customer-led first, and then we back it up with the data insights. But this can, of course, play out the other way round in our day-to-day work—a data point sends us down the rabbit hole to better understand our users, who we then talk to for a clearer understanding.”

It's the delicate balance between what the numbers tell you and what your users truly need or feel.

How to make data-informed decisions without losing sight of your user

Being data-informed is essential for success, but it's equally important to maintain a human touch in your decision-making process. Here are some strategies to ensure you stay connected with your users while leveraging the power of data:

  • Combine quantitative and qualitative data: while metrics provide a foundation, qualitative feedback adds nuance. Using both kinds of data gives you a comprehensive view of your user experience.

  • Explore customer narratives: remember, behind every data point is a human story. Making a point to learn more about your users helps enrich your understanding and create marketing campaigns that resonate more deeply with your audience.

  • Question your data: having a pool of data is just the starting point. Dig deeper. Sometimes, the most important discoveries come from looking at data patterns that seem insignificant at first.

💡 Pro tip: unlocking the stories behind your marketing data is easier than ever with Hotjar's tools.

  • Complement your analytics with Surveys or Heatmaps to unveil the nuances of user behavior

  • Watch real visitor journeys with Recordings, pinpointing whether it’s a glitch or a content misstep turning visitors away

  • Run user interviews with Engage to understand challenges for specific user personas

Engage enables you to get qualitative data from a diverse pool of users

5. A keen sense for recognizing individual strengths

When you embrace differences in your team, you unlock the potential for truly innovative marketing strategies and tactics. 

Just because we have the same job title doesn’t mean we’re carbon copies with the same abilities. Each person has their own strengths—their superpower—and it’s important to recognize this and help them double down on it.

Nick Cullen
Product Marketing Lead at Hotjar

With marketing teams often expected to do more with fewer resources, it makes sense to let individuals shine where they're strongest and most passionate. By aligning tasks with individual strengths, teams operate more efficiently, feel more motivated, and produce outstanding results—a hallmark of great marketing leadership.

How to identify and harness your team members’ unique capabilities

Every team member has something unique to offer, and effective leaders ensure these talents don't go unnoticed. Here are some ways to foster individual growth in your team:

  • Hold regular feedback sessions: this allows for two-way communication where leaders recognize strengths and areas for growth, while team members express where they feel most competent and passionate

  • Initiate cross-functional projects: encourage team members to collaborate with different departments. This exposes them to diverse perspectives and allows them to apply their unique skills in different contexts, promoting personal growth and broader team collaboration.

  • Offer tailored training opportunities: think about areas where each team member excels and where they could use more development. Offering specific courses or workshops enhances their existing skill set and shows your investment in their personal and professional growth.

6. An insatiable thirst for learning

With new technologies, platforms, and consumer behaviors emerging continuously, great marketing leaders can't afford to rest on their laurels.

By staying updated with trends in your industry, you position yourself to seize emerging opportunities and outpace competitors. But more than that, knowledgeable, proactive marketing leaders also find it easier to bolster credibility and confidence within their team.

For the business at large, this means adopting new marketing strategies takes less time, opening the door to increased brand relevance and more potential revenue opportunities.

Keeping on top of the latest developments and honing your skills makes the difference between being a good marketing leader and an exceptional one. Here are some actionable tips to ensure you remain at the forefront of your field:

  • Attend industry-specific events: make it a priority to seek out webinars, workshops, and conferences. These platforms provide firsthand insights into the latest trends and offer a space for interactive learning from experts.

  • Find a mentor: you may know a lot, but nobody knows everything—there’s always someone with more knowledge to share. Seek out and establish relationships with seasoned marketing professionals for guidance and insights drawn from personal experience.

  • Network with like-minded people: engage with your peers, both within and outside your company. Regular discussions expose you to new insights and tools, so you're always expanding your marketing knowledge.

💡 Pro tip: looking to expand your knowledge? Check out Nick’s recommended resources for growing your marketing know-how.

  1. 🎙 Podcasts: Women in Product Marketing

  2. 📚 Books: Play Bigger, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, Unleashed

  3. 📰 Newsletters: Elena Verna, Tamara Grominsky, and Harry Dry

Begin your evolution as a marketing leader

The road to becoming a great marketing leader is one of continual growth. It's about recognizing and honing your strengths while also being open to feedback and new experiences.

Truly exceptional leaders understand their customers deeply, always prioritize their team, and constantly learn. Data is valuable, but the best leaders also recognize the power of the human touch. By embracing these six key traits and using these strategies to nurture them, you're on your way to being an outstanding leader who makes a measurable impact on your business.

Elevate your marketing leadership with empathy-driven insights

Use Hotjar’s tools to understand your customers and fuel data-informed decisions.

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