"What skills do I need to develop to be a successful head of growth / growth marketer?".
That question -or at least some version of it- is one of the most common questions I get asked, usually followed by 'I'm really passionate about learning'. And it's no surprise either. Talk to any millennial yuppie and they will joyously tell you about their diehard passion for learning (don't worry, I'm the same). And that's fundamentally a good thing! After all, learning is key if you're taking a lean, experimental approach to growth.
The problem is that there is a big difference between 'learning' and 'training', just as there is a difference between 'theory' and 'practice' or 'knowledge' and 'skill'. It's one thing to know in theory how to do something, a totally different thing to actually do it, and do it well.
Learning can be easy. Developing a skill is not. Many marketers don't know the difference
This distinction is important because people throw the word 'skill' around like it's something you can buy at the supermarket. You can learn about things relatively quickly with minimal effort. But that is not the same as developing a skill. I can watch an episode of Planet Earth and learn plenty about great white sharks, but that doesn't make me a skilled marine biologist and it most certainly doesn't mean I'm qualified to be anywhere near within at least 10 miles of a great white shark (preferably holed up in a bunker, at least 50 miles from the shore).
Learning is fun and learning is always good! But learning about things, in theory, also doesn't always require that much time and effort. These days, we can easily consume endless amounts of insights through books, podcasts, videos, events and conversations. And that's a great thing. But becoming skilled at something requires time, effort and repetition. And unfortunately, whilst lots of aspiring marketers might spend a lot of time learning, many of them don't spend the time building skills.
And this is the problem with the current state of marketing. As more and more people don the badge of 'digital marketer', 'growth hacker' or whatever it is they call themselves, conversations on the topic have become increasingly superficial. So many people think they can watch a few videos, post a bunch of pseudo-inspirational stories on LinkedIn and then call themselves a marketer. If you've tried hiring marketers for your team, you'll have encountered these people; and they're not the minority! The world of marketing is full of people who have learned a lot in theory but developed absolutely no skills.
How many times have you seen someone obnoxiously post some kind of obvious, useless, rehashed marketing 'tips' or 'hacks' on LinkedIn only to be in utter shock of how many marketers sing their praises in the comments, as if they had just solved humanity's biggest problems?
Some harsh realities
Before I get into the 'meat' of things, I wanted to share some harsh realities that I feel a lot of marketers need to know (and that, to some extent, I wish somebody had told me a long time ago).
Let's start with a simple one: Growth hacking is not a skill. Neither is marketing for that matter. To be good at either, there is a number of skills you can develop, but they, in and of themselves, are not skills.
Stringing together 5 words without making grammatical errors does not make you a good 'copywriter'.
Companies with the most skilful teams win. Every company I've worked with has gone through the same process: you start off by hiring passionate juniors because you don't have the budget to hire for experience. Over time, some of these juniors develop skill and step up to the plate, whilst others fall behind and eventually leave. As companies grow, they constantly look for more skilled and experienced people, because that's what is needed to succeed in the long run.
Passion is important, but it's not enough. I've seen countless passionate people who are excited to learn everything but when it comes to investing time into building the necessary skills, fail. It takes time to develop a skill. It won't happen overnight. And you cannot learn all the skills.
If you have no formal experience, practice or training as a graphic designer, you are not 'skilled in design'. Making asymmetrical images on Canva that only a layperson would think looks decent is not design. You do not know design. Please admit it and let an actual designer do your design work. The same applies for any highly-specialised and complex skill.
(Ok that last one was a bit facetious but it's true and I couldn't resist).
You cannot learn all the skills
You've probably all seen the T-Shaped Marketer before:
Even though it is a useful framework for young startups looking to hire 'all-rounder' talent, I have become frustrated with how the T-Shaped Marketer is often interpreted.
The problem with this framework is simple: to many, it suggests that the ideal marketer is good at all of those skills. Nobody is good at all of those skills. Ever heard of the saying "jack of all trades, master of none"? Exactly.
And if you speak to the folk who are big fans of it, many will surely tell you that it is not meant to suggest that you should or that you can learn all those things. Rather, it is an indication of the skills that are out there and that you should be aware of / able to work with. And whilst that is fair (although there are many versions of this and the choice of skills are always pretty arbitrary), that is not how most people interpret the T-Shaped Marketer. Most of the time when I see people reference it, the narrative suggests that as a good 'growth hacker' you need to have all of those skills.
That simply isn't realistic. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you will begin to plan accordingly and work with people who actually do have those skills.
The Growth Marketing Skills Matrix
It's easy to complain and point out problems, so a few months ago I decided to take a crack at developing my own skills model, based on my experience hiring for different marketing roles at different companies over the last years.
This matrix aims to cover a broad range of hard skills that fall into what I (quite broadly) refer to as 'marketing & growth'. The skills are broken down into 4 categories: Foundational, Company, Specialization and Strategic skills. Let's go through them, one-by-one:
Foundational skills: The name pretty much says it. These skills are fundamentally important to anyone who works in marketing. Writing good copy, understanding OKRs, knowing the general customer journey, doing basic qualitative research; these are skills that any well-rounded marketer should at least dabble in. Of course, you could spend years becoming a specialist in any one of these skills, but having basic experience with them will improve the efficiency and results of any marketer.
Company skills: These are the skills that pertain to the particular company you work for and may differ from business to business. Generally speaking, if you want to be successful in marketing, you need to know your product, your industry and your customer like nobody else. This is also why outsourcing to even the most skilled professionals often doesn't work; because they don't understand your business like you do (and possibly never will).
Specialization skills: This is where we start to get into the meat of things! These are precisely the skills that require in-depth knowledge, proper training, experience and repetition. You cannot be an expert at all of these. In fact, you probably cannot be an expert at more than 2-3 of these, maybe even less. This covers the range of specialized skills that I have found to be needed in most marketing teams.
How many of the specializations you choose will depend on your personal development goals, your job role and your company's needs. At Reveall, I try to make sure all of these are covered, but that nobody 'owns' more than 2 or 3 of these. Whilst in theory, it may not differ too heavily from the T-Shaped Marketer model, it is important to distinguish between the skills that are worth broadly adopting (like the foundational and company skills above) and the ones that really don't create much value unless you properly build the skill over time and become good at it.
Strategic skills: I've worked with a lot of highly skilled people over the years who have struggled to leave a mark because they have lacked the strategic focus needed to effectively prioritize, get buy-in and deliver their best work. These skills are crucial for marketing managers, but if you work in a startup or any company where everyone is expected to take ownership, you will need these skills regardless of seniority.
If you are wondering what skills you need to be a successful marketer, then I suggest you first work on developing all of the foundational and company skills, because those will act as a force-multiplier, making you better at everything you do. As you take more ownership and gain in seniority, the strategic skills will become key to your success, so develop them early and set yourself up to be part of the big conversations when the opportunity presents itself.
As for the specialization skills...well, that depends a bit on whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist.
Generalists vs. specialists
You might look at this and wonder, "do I have to be a specialist to succeed?". And the answer is, absolutely not!
I may have lamented how many marketers out there do not possess any skills, but there is a big gap between having no skills and being a specialist or expert. It's a common misconception that 'generalists' lack skill. That is not the case. Both generalists and specialists have skills, just the former possess them broadly, whilst the latter possess them deeply.
Scott Adams -creator of The Dilbert Blog- says that you can either be the very best at one thing (a specialist) or in the top 25% of 2 things or more ( a generalist). This has also been quoted by Marc Andreesen. And the same applies to the specialization skills in my model:
You can either become one of the best at one (maybe 2) of these specialized skills (which, combined with the foundational, company and strategic skills would make you a total boss - both figuratively and probably eventually literally too).
Or you can try to be in the top 25% at 2 or more of these skills, which again, in combination with all the other non-specialization skills will set you up well for future success.
Neither of the above two options is better than the other. It depends on your strengths, experience and goals. I myself have followed the path of the latter, but I know many successful marketers who have done the former. The one thing I can vouch for from my own experience is the importance of developing strategic skills early.
As mentioned at the start of this post, there is a big difference between learning things in theory and developing skills in practice. Whilst both are important, a lot of marketers tend more towards the former and neglect the latter. This is why we have such a significant skills gap when it comes to commercial roles in tech.
Marketing has become somewhat of a catch-all career option for young people interested in tech. And a lot of people seem to underestimate what it takes to be a good marketer. The field of marketing is more exciting and offers more opportunities than ever before. If you want thrive in this world, you need to think about which direction you want to grow in and which skills you want to develop.
Hopefully this model offers some insights into what these skills might be.
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