Lessons from a Life in Marketing Leadership

by | Marketing Leadership

lessons from a lifetime in Marketing

This past week I said, “Happy retirement!” to the best manager and leader with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work, Nancy Pechloff at Andersen. I refer to my time working with her as my “karate kid” days. The things she taught me have become such a part of who I am and how I lead that it’s hard to separate the effects of her tutelage and my own learning from the subsequent teams that I have led.

To honor Nancy and the teams that have helped me become the leader I am, I offer some of the lessons I have learned from a life in Marketing leadership.

Take what you like and leave the rest:


Enabling my team’s success is my only job as a leader. Their success is my success. Period.

There is a helluva difference between management and leadership. Management makes the trains run on time and completes HR’s annual review requirements. Leadership unleashes and channels the best in people day by day, moment by moment.

Marketing, teaching, therapy, and priesthood are all the same basic profession. Each role begins with the goal of helping someone become who they were meant to be. Each role meets a person where he/she is in his/her life’s journey. Each role listens to the other before he speaks. When each role speaks, it speaks with empathy, asks more questions than makes statements,  and speaks in terms that the listener is capable of hearing and understanding. Finally, each role accompanies the other along his/her journey to becoming the person they were meant to be.

Brands rise and fall. Market opportunities come and go. Capabilities ebb and flow. Culture remains. A leader’s role is to shape the culture. You can make a lot of money in a bad culture, but you will never build a legacy firm.

Marketing is pretty easy. Understand your customer’s need and meet it better than anyone else. Needs evolve and so must your solution. The rest is noise.

Most agencies just care about their own awards and creative accolades, not results. Use them accordingly.

Highly-paid business strategy firms will take 6 months and charge you a lot of money to reach 2 conclusions. One, sell more of what you already offer to your current client base. Two, attack something they refer to as a monolithic “middle-market.”  Cowardly leaders pay these firms big bucks to cover their own asses and do the hard work they are unwilling to do.

Branding firms will take 6 months and charge you a lot of money to tell you 3 things about what your clients want from a preferred brand. 1. Expertise deeper than their own. 2. Results that they can’t deliver on their own–on time and on budget.  3. A relationship with a firm they can trust and is easy to do business with.

Strong interpersonal relationships–marked by honesty, humility, confidentiality, sincerity, and tempered by time–overcome a lot of miscommunication, bad days, and mutual mistakes. Always begin with the relationship.

Smart people like to work with smart people. Never stop learning on your own or helping others learn to be better SMEs, leaders, and human beings. I’ll take an enthusiastic learner over a competent, credentialed non-learner any day.

Smart people prefer to agree rather than obey. Sure, it takes longer to get agreement and therefore to get things done, but consider how you like to be treated and this maxim becomes self-evident–not to mention liberating.

Fight for what you believe. A well-reasoned argument and the courage to stand up for your convictions will earn you more respect, greater accomplishment, and strategic impact than being an agreeable floor mat. But, only pick good fights.

Never fire someone impulsively, poorly, or vindictively. That means don’t abuse power, don’t make needless enemies or hide behind HR legalese.  Get rid of people only for not pulling their weight, malfeasance or bad cultural fit. Everything else is up to you as a manager to fix.

You have to choose family or work. No matter what anyone tells you, you can’t have the best of both worlds. “Quantity” time trumps “quality” time.

Utilization is a necessary evil. Even high-performance pro services geniuses are human and will meander, under-perform, and fall out of shape if not monitored and pushed. That does not mean that it has to be THE primary measure.

Lawyers are smart and law firms are prestigious but you could never pay me enough to work in one. Go work where your talents are appreciated, you can be developed, and someplace where you could actually have a positive impact. Know what your equivalent of my “law office” is for you and act accordingly.

CRM, content marketing, marketing automation, inbound marketing, and social media have been the absolute best and the absolute worst developments in my marketing career. Look for ways to exploit a trend without falling prey to the fad that is driving it. 

Managing brand identity is the most boring job in professional services marketing once a new “brand” is launched. Don’t take this job unless you’re a control freak and enjoy being in the Gestapo. 

Marketing ruins everything if you let it. Don’t let it.

Technology fixes nothing. It either makes problems more visible, more voluminous, more irritating or all of the above. Fix the underlying problem first then add technology. It will make the benefits more visible, more voluminous, and more pleasing.

Sales and marketing are the exact same thing with one exception. Marketing communicates one to many; Sales communicates one to one.  Once you start speaking in “we” and “they” you’re on a downhill slide. Always use “we” and if you’re inclined to start using other pronouns, find out why.

If you’re aspiring to become chief “anything,” then, become a CEO. All the other c-levels jobs have all of the responsibility with no bully pulpit and half the fun.

Make sure you have an idealist on your team to keep you, your team, and your firm from becoming cynical.

NEVER just sit there and accept bad behaviors from another leader in your firm or the negative actions resulting from a dysfunctional culture. Stand up, push back, be the example. To not do so makes you a co-conspirator. That means you must be willing and prepared to either be fired or walk away. Leadership requires character, virtue, and risk. Build your life and career accordingly.

I’ve learned more from reading the WSJ and dissecting my mistakes than I ever did from my formal education. I wish I had started reading that paper earlier and had made more good mistakes. After every decision, action or initiative, ask 1. “What did I (we) do right?” and 2. “What would I (we) do differently next time?”

Not all good ideas come from a partner, senior leaders, functional experts, a single country or the firm’s biggest offices. They often come from quiet outliers which means you must work to surface the best ideas. You will not find them without believing in the possibility that they actually exist.

As Mr. McGuire counseled Ben in The Graduate, “I have one word for you, Behavioral Economics.” BE is the new Marketing. Study up.

Take more risks. Learn to discern the difference between when you are being a coward and when you are acting prudently. There is a big difference.

Our lives are shaped by what we live for. I suggest that you not live for money, a title, a corner office, or some other fleeting material object. Instead, live to make each of the lives you touch better than you found it.


As Nancy humbly responded to me at her retirement party when I thanked her for all that she had given to me and I assume all the others in the ballroom, “I didn’t give any of you anything. You all gave it to me.” To lead, you must talk less, listen more, and be THE example.

Nancy led by example to the very end.

Thank you, Nancy.  Thank you, teams.


Be prudent.


About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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