How Lateral Leadership Transforms Digital Marketing Teams


The concept of lateral leadership is nothing new. For several decades now, business journals and organizational psychologists have hailed it as the way of the future. A recent McKinsey study shows that managing sideways can “improve your business impact and career success.”

And it’s certainly an idea that everyone can get behind in theory. Any CEO will tell you that rigid, pyramidal organizational charts are becoming obsolete, while networking and coalition-building are vital skills. “Yeah, yeah,” you might be saying, “Everyone’s a leader.”

But hear me out: Lateral leadership isn’t just a nice-sounding platitude. It’s a concrete description of how effective marketing really gets accomplished. If your team isn’t engaging in this way, I can almost guarantee that your marketing efforts, including SEO, content marketing and growth marketing in general, are coming up short. In other words, marketers frequently miss their goals not because the channel or tactic is wrong but because the team dynamic isn’t working.

Seeing these massive opportunities missed on a daily basis, I’ve found myself dwelling more and more on leadership style and how it makes (or breaks) marketing efforts. Below, I’ve spelled out four ways that digital marketing teams succeed by leading laterally. I hope this list can help spark change for any team that’s trying to become more efficient and effective.

Lateral leaders communicate directly.

Old-style leadership tends to funnel information through choke points (e.g., product managers and CMOs) whose responsibility is to communicate with other team leaders and pass along chain-of-command directives. This is good for optics and not much else. Communication bottlenecks frustrate individual contributors while stifling great ideas — and they occur not only in large organizations but in startups just beginning to scale.

Whenever possible, marketers should be encouraged to work directly with other teams. This will allow potent new ideas to germinate and develop, while potential issues are flagged early. You’d be amazed how many mistakes are avoided when teams are tapped into each other’s concerns, rather than receiving a top-down plan through vertical channels. Higher-bandwidth communication is simply more efficient, for reasons that should be obvious.

Lateral leaders take more risks.

Again, everyone likes the idea of “failing fast.” But in real-world businesses, small and large, I constantly see teams lobby unsuccessfully for new marketing tactics (e.g., bold new content schemes). Or worse yet, they don’t even float their most exciting ideas.

This kind of conservatism makes perfect sense in the vertical leadership model. Why wouldn’t managers become deeply risk-averse when they’re held personally accountable for their team’s failures? No one wants to gamble with their reputation — much less their job. And in the most bureaucratized organizations, where multiple layers of management are involved in every decision, approval is often needed from stakeholders who don’t understand what will actually move the needle.

The solution here is easy: Digital marketers need more autonomy. Teams should identify their own stakeholders and get buy-in accordingly — not by following an inflexible, top-down protocol. This is especially important for ideas that push a company’s historic brand or explore its voice. Those experiments are exactly how you’ll find a winning content strategy. Remember, removing a content, article, landing page or asset that doesn’t fly is as easy as publishing it.

Will there be failures? Of course. The goal here is to lower institutional risk aversion, so you can learn what works.

Lateral leaders keep reporting simple.

There are two kinds of marketing dashboards in this world: those that help executive teams understand the inner workings of marketing and those that actually inform marketing activities. Marketing teams dread the former and thrive with the latter.

So why does anyone build the first style of dashboards? Because top-down, hierarchical leadership often demands “visibility.” I’ve seen teams spend countless hours conceptualizing a dashboard, debating the technology used, etc., only to find that nobody actually uses it to inform marketing activities.

This style of “defensive metrics” is an enormous waste of time and resources. Teams should be held accountable for results, not for metrics. And that’s exactly what you see among marketers who lead laterally. They’re tracking the numbers that drive their daily decisions, rather than worrying about optics.

I recommend that marketing teams never report on more than four KPIs. These include leading indicators like impressions, keyword position, channel level traffic and ultimately conversion. Anything more is almost certainly excessive.

Lateral leaders ‘go slow to go fast.’

Vertical leaders like to build plans, set rigid timeframes and hold their teams strictly accountable. I completely understand this impulse, but it often excludes voices that later turn out to be crucial.

The better approach is to “commit to and advocate the desired outcome but invite peers to participate in defining the process for achieving that outcome,” in the words of Jay A. Conger, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School. This lateral approach allows marketing teams to hear upfront from all of their stakeholders and contributors — even those whose commitment isn’t formally required.

Although these efforts can seem a bit chaotic or touch-and-go initially, they often turn out to be much faster in the long run because objections have already been heard and agreements have already been struck. In other words, momentum can coalesce across a powerful, cross-functional coalition.

If you’re apprehensive about going slow, I recommend assembling a short list (five items, maximum) of things that must be accomplished, no matter what. Make sure it’s syndicated, then set it aside. That will allow your team to think more creatively instead of getting boxed into the pressure of immediate demands.

Lateral Leadership: The Bottom Line

Lateral leadership is a less-hierarchical organization style that is beneficial to every part of your organization, but especially critical for growth marketing, which hinges on speed, efficiency, clear communication and seamless collaboration. In my experience, lateral leadership is often the difference between marketing programs that thrive and those that languish.



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