11 Traits of Highly Effective Growth Leaders

Love it or hate it, the martech and customer experience industry indicator illustrates three things about our general marketplace: As consumers, we are complex, dynamic and interconnected. Yet brands still struggle to expand their engagement with us beyond broad buckets of classification.

The study of marketing technology is the study of ourselves.

The number of vendors in the 2018 martech landscape has grown exponentially from just under 1,000 to nearly 7,000 in a few years. While recent predictions pointed to consolidation or contraction, there does not seem to be any evidence of the martech landscape slowing its expansion. In part, this is due to marketing’s impact expands beyond just the department such as sales, customer success, legal, operations, finance, etc.

If this landscape reflects our complexity as a consumer, how have growth leaders thrived in a dynamic and overwhelming customer-driven marketplace?

According to IDC, data will expand 44-fold from 2009 to 2020 to reach an astounding 35.2 zettabytes (1.8 trillion gigabytes). At this astounding rate, in three days, we will create more data than an estimated number of grains of sand on earth.

Growth leaders will leverage data across an organization’s operations, the dynamic marketplace, and through customer engagement to serve and adapt. This resilience shapes the future of how businesses will thrive.

Having enjoyed nearly 20 years of operating and investing in the technology arena with 15 of those in startups, marketing and sales, I’ve found success betting and investing in people as much as the technology.

These are the 11 attributes and characteristics I’ve identified in the most successful growth leaders from startup to large enterprise organizations:


Growth leaders with data enabled marketing, sales and technology savvy are highly considered to become the next generation CEOs.

Why? These leaders have developed experience in operations, financial attribution, brand value management, and customer engagement responsibilities. The best performing investors across the spectrum are looking for leaders who have a data-driven judgment on customer interactions with the brand in a dynamic marketplace.

Anand Sanwal, CEO at CB Insights, shared in his recent A-ha conference keynote that CEOs are increasingly fired or put on warning because of complacently accepting anecdotal positive signs. The consequence a gradual decline followed by a sudden drop in performance.

Growth leaders on the fast track toward CEO have a significant advantage from their experience wielding digitally-driven insights when wielding their knowledge and instinct of customers, communities, and the marketplace.

More organizations require vision and the dynamic thinking to transform and meet the needs of a changing landscape. Not due to a lack of intelligence or vision, many CEOs who underperform today have a disconnect with their internal talent or, more importantly, their customer’s perceived value of the brand.

Growth leaders have elevated to areas of customer-driven top and bottom line revenues over the last five years. The best in their field parallel a CEO mindset.


The variety of interconnected options available to engage customers, offline and online, seems limitless. But while these options may help deliver rich experiences, the process can easily become burdensome and complex for both customers and employees.

In Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he emphasizes, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” To improve the customer’s experience, leaders must understand how those brand interactions make them feel.

Companies like UPS and Chick-fil-A onboard every employee — even executives — through the front lines, where the empathy can be experienced at the direct moment of engagement with a customer. Having empathy for the digital interactions in a customer’s journey is now of critical importance too.

According to a Watermark Consulting study, customer experience leaders outperform laggards by nearly 70% in cumulative shareholder return on investment. For high-growth startups, this difference can be magnified many times over. The best growth driven leaders serve as the internal advocates for customer sentiments at every digital touchpoint.

The first and recurring practice in CX digital transformation is for growth leaders to experience the journey themselves along with other stakeholders.


We operate in a very noisy marketplace. Because the marketplace is constantly evolving, it’s easy to be attracted to — or distracted by — every new shiny new object or clever phrase that comes a consumer’s way. Entertainment is fine, but achieving real revenue driven performance milestones is better.

The price of many cloud or SaaS-based offerings is perceived to be low. However, the cost to invest time and effort in learning and churning too many technologies alone can be considerably more expensive.

For the time being, we are beginning to see a shift of spending from go-to-market technologies to instead improving people, processes, and data.

While room for experimentation is necessary, growth leaders should qualify the acquisition, resources, and the bandwidth it will take to put a new solution into practice and deliver value. This will not only help you weed out impulsive purchases but help build a resilient and well-utilized ecosystem. (Your CFO will also appreciate it.)


The authors of Winning with Data, Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien, promote data democratization. The concept as they describe it is well articulated:

“When we say data-driven, we’re talking about companies that operationalize data. We [are] talking about workers who wake up every morning and use data to tune their actions throughout the day.”

For growth leaders who recognize their operational role in the overall go-to-market strategy, solid data analysis skills are incredibly valuable. Knowing the operational data reveals a stream of company insights to better understand the health of the organization. Knowing the engagement data reveals customer and marketplace insights. The intersection allows marketers to tap into a dynamic story.

With team training to develop better data judgment and decision-making ability — and a common language around such data use — an organization can improve the accuracy of forecasting by up to 83% (according to superforecasting expert Philip E. Tetlock). With data democratization, there is not only greater transparency but also a better sense of a teams role and clarity.


Something I always emphasize…especially in marketing:

Technology only magnifies the quality of the people, processes, and data behind it.

Once again, with customer-centric strategies behind increasing top-line revenue growth and profitability, growth driven teams need to continually monitor and improve digital engagement. To achieve this, the organization needs to hire the right people internally to connect with the customer and the marketplace.

For this reason, culture has become the other side of the equation to customer-centricity.

The highest performing growth leaders exhibit emotional intelligence and technological prowess. They must also be storytellers who can connect, empower, and energize teams inside the organization. They strive to create customer advocates, who bring long-term resilience to the company.


Most conversations on traditional business resilience are related to mitigating impact or responding to social and environmental risks (e.g., hurricanes, social unrest).

In an ever-increasing digital and dynamic marketplace, there are now new and different risks and liabilities too. Security, privacy (GDPR), rapid shifts in customer sentiment, workforce culture, and the rise of startups are newly identified risks to a business. Even incorporating new technology solutions, especially in an ad hoc fashion, adds risk and distraction from growth.

Great growth leaders monitor and respond to these threats and policies.

Managing the technology, processes, and training across multiple silos is a balancing act that great growth leaders learn to master. One example of bridging across silos is customer data platforms (CDPs). With the expanse of detailed and customer-identifiable information collected in CDPs, companies have powerful new data resources to better understand customer engagement and their aggregate marketplace. But this requires new collaborative intersection with other parts of the organization in order to cultivate and nurture the information contained within it.

Another area of focus is the impact of the brand through customer success(feedback, support, enablement, advocacy) where systems, policies, and talent with emotional intelligence can shift the sentiment of a brand costing or making millions.

The expanded definition of resilience translates into businesses finding a competitive advantage through better customer engagement and operations to meet or exceed those demands. Also, let’s not forget that growth leaders themselves need to develop personal and professional resilience to handle the waves of changes.


One of the rarest traits.

We are all in a sense marketers. With so many customer engagements and experience technologies in existence, the industry is as varied as we are human beings. If it were to consolidate too much, we’d be living boring lives. The many pieces of solutions, tactics, and segments open up new possible go-to-market strategies that can be constructed and deployed in an exponential number of ways.

Also, the rapid iteration of tool deployment into an organization’s ecosystem without a methodology erodes the positive cumulative effect which companies can build upon. This thrashing effect, by shoving tech into stacks, creates lots of noise with an appearance of accomplishment. But in actuality, it creates a greater gap in utilization and a residual mess of time, energy, and resources. Customers feel the impact of unfavorable, unexpected, or unpleasant experiences.

The best growth leaders are grounded in fundamentals and focused on higher-level goals. On the other hand, companies can advance through trendspotting and adaptation through planned proof of concepts (POCs).

There is a kind of cognitive dissonance that is okay here. Growth leaders must incrementally evolve their organizations, to seek breakthroughs, to gain advantages. But at the same time, they need to continue to earn cumulative dividends from previously effective investments.


There is an anxiety of a team witnessing the successful implementation of an innovation elsewhere, whether it’s a passing fad like Pokémon Go or mainstream advancements in e-commerce.

Growth leader scan relieves that emotion through methodical experimentation. While a bold step can be creating an opportunity to experiment, it is the deployment of a proof of concept into the larger organization that requires true fearlessness.

So then, what about failure?

The culture of learning through failure has become popularized in the startup world through the lean methodology in the book The Lean Startup. A bittersweet process, especially for those just beginning, the takeaway for growth is that having a mini R&D budget has become a necessity to both drive iterative innovation steps and continue to keep the next-generation workforce satisfied.

Taking calculated risks is now part of the job of a growth leader. Owning the swagger of being fearless is contagious.


At a glimpse, a growth leader may seem like a role of a tinkerer who is more concerned with solving problems than making persuasive business cases.

But at the executive level, leaders rely on relationships and recognize the importance of customer experiences, marketplace dynamics, and internal business complexities. Successful growth leaders exercise significant EQ, with the finesse to manage with more than just logic to rally the different stakeholders in their ecosystem.

Practicing data-driven storytelling is an essential skill. Not only is about visualizing the data, having enough empathy to shape and make relevant the narrative to the stakeholder, but using data effectively to tell a story is important for building rapport and relationships. It’s all about credibility.

Also, with the varied experiences and knowledge required by growth, they now need to become chameleons in different crowds they interact. Always pushing their comfort zone, these leaders now learn to be authenticated, active listeners who work to elevate others interests along with their own.

Customer empathy is more than looking at a wishlist, it is bridging the gap between the pain and potential.


It seems natural to meet complexity with sophistication. However, as we described earlier, the rapid changes actually require growth leaders to keep processes and experiences simple to gain a competitive advantage. These initiatives are usually considered digital transformations.

The key to successful digital transformations is less about the number of tools, but the integration and coordination challenges across business functions, people, processes, and data.

Renaissance figure Leonardo Da Vinci is associated with the aphorism that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The effort and thoughtfulness placed in transforming a complex problem into one that becomes or appears simpler is a powerful asset.

For growth leaders, carefully crafting the implementation of systems or solutions to bring simplicity to digital operations lowers costs, increases clarity, and improves customer experiences. Resistance to over-complication creates elegance in their infrastructure, which enables much higher utilization across the enterprise.


Growth leaders rarely emerge with a single field of experience. With the other attributes of growth leaders listed above, the one that is most is prevalent is the characteristic of being a polymath.

A person who is a polymath has a wide range of knowledge and constant learning ability. As an example, the marketing technology field incorporates marketing, sales, technology, psychology, industrial engineering, human-computer interaction, anthropology, politics, computer science, statistics — the list goes on.

Growth leaders with a wide range of interests solve problems and find opportunities faster by leveraging inspiration from other disciplines.

Conventional wisdom suggests we focus on one area. However, with multiple interests, learning transfer empowers these individuals with unique and out-of-the-box thinking. This is one of the most useful attributes of future world-class leaders — and is regularly found in most successful executives.


Top leaders in these roles will deepen their roots in marketing, sales, and technology. However, as the role has evolved, both in breadth and importance, these attributes have expanded well beyond the knowledge of just technical systems.

Using technology, intelligence, and training to humanizing customer engagement at scale is the “secret ingredient” of a world-class organization.

By developing and nurturing these rare breeds, an organization can become as adaptive as the modern digital customers who are now driving not only the bottom line today but an organization’s very opportunity to thrive in the future.

Here’s to you data-driven customer whisperers! #FeelTheData