Timing Is Everything

For the past six weeks I’ve been pestering Mitel CMO Martyn Etherington with interview requests. Although he responded quickly and thoughtfully to several rounds of interview questions, I learned through those interviews that he displays unexpected restraint in his strategic decision-making. By doing so, he demonstrated mastery of a crucial and often overlooked element of decision-making: timing.

The science of decision-making has made great strides in recent years. As a result, more of us can sway, nudge, spot our irrational biases, see the invisible gorilla, and make decisions in the blink of an eye. What all of us–especially those of us in the marketing realm–need to bone up on is when to make decisions.

Twenty-five year marketing and tech-industry veteran Etherington joined communications software solution provider Mitel in late August. His marching orders were straightforward: take responsibility for all aspects of corporate marketing strategy and programs while delivering value to customers, simplifying the marketing function, and helping the company grow profitably. Executing these types of missions, of course, is how CMOs earn their hazard pay.

Etherington’s initial decisions are brimming with “whys, “how’s,” and “what’s”: add or prune staff, reorganize, eliminate some programs, expand others, etc. Yet his first decision was purely about “when.”

Rather than plunge into change, Etherington embarked on a tour, visiting as many employees, partners, and end customers as possible. Although Etherington was itching to apply his marketing leadership on Day One, he instead invested his time collecting more information by doing the following:

1. Active listening: “Like anyone who has a bias for action,” Etherington explains, “active listening and not jumping to any early conclusions is perhaps the toughest but most important” quality to exhibit in his new tenure.  Etherington leveraged his transition from one industry to another to ask fundamental, even rudimentary, questions. Not for effect, he asserts, “but truly to ask why, how, and what if?” Doing so helped him grasp some of the idiosyncrasies of his new industry while concentrating his attention on the most important problems he needs to address.

2. Experiential learning: Etherington also says he say he made an effort to “identify the positive deviants and highlight people who demonstrate desired behaviors.” For example, one marketing staffer discovered a negative Facebook post on a personal site about a Mitel product and then proactively responded to that customer. This staffer owned the problem and made sure that the customer’s issue was resolved. Etherington held up the exchange as a prime example of how he wants the function to A) put customers front and center so that this focus drives all decisions moving forward; and B) own a problem through to resolution. 

3. Seeking out truth-tellers. On his road tour Etherington made it clear that he wanted to talk to people who are willing to call, er, shenanigans on current processes and practices. “I resonate with and am attracted to people who have courage and conviction to express a point of view that is based on fact and data,” he says. “As my boss says to me whenever I express an opinion: ‘As evidenced by what?’” Because it’s impossible for a single executive to know about all of the problems in his function, Etherington understands the need for engaging his people so they produce fact-based insights. 

Etherington will share much more of his marketing strategy, along with operational and time-management tips, in “Diary of a CMO,” featured in the print edition of Direct Marketing News over the next 12 months (and coauthored by me).

Like a top professional tennis player or a .300 hitter, Etherington elongated the time before he first acted in his new role. That’s also what separates top professional athletes from amateurs, notes Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. Partnoy explains that the best returners in tennis and top fastball hitters in baseball act later rather than sooner than their less talented competitors. All professional tennis players have about half a second to react to a blistering serve; the best tennis players take an extra 100 milliseconds to absorb information (the ball’s speed, rotation, and other crucial factors) before swinging.

This advantage applies to longer time periods and other realms, according to Partnoy’s research, including financial decision-making on Wall Street (where the most successful high-frequency trading systems are not the quickest systems).

As Etherington demonstrates, the timing of decision-making also applies to marketing; by delaying his planning and execution for a couple of weeks, my sense is that Etherington amassed valuable information and increased the odds that his ensuing decision-making will be a smashing success.

  In keeping with the theme of deferring decisions until the optimal time, freelance journalist Eric Krell delayed his submission of this entry until the last minute. Based in Austin, Krell will be on the phone to Etherington each month to delve into the CMO’s latest marketing endeavors. 

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