Why you should not hire a t-shaped marketer
Updated: Apr 22
If you’re a marketing recruiter in 2021, “T-shaped marketer” is the brief. That elusive combo: Broad “base knowledge” of analytics, psychology, UX. Plus deep tactical experience in one or two areas (e.g. paid performance marketing, analytics). It’s hard enough to hire a decent head of growth at all! If you can get this elusive “T”, why wouldn’t you? And who am I to tell you otherwise?
LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES
Over my career as a “growth marketing” director (3 Valley Startups, PayPal) and an early-stage VC (Partner @ 500 Startups), I’ve had the chance to recruit, manage, work with and invest in many marketers over the years. I’ve made every imaginable mistake. But I’ve made some extraordinarily good hires and backed some extraordinarily good founders too. And I finally have a sense of “what good looks like” (and what bad looks like).
SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH MR. T?
It’s not that the “T-Shaped” attributes are bad things themselves. But they distract from what you should actually be hiring for: A mindset and an approach, values and attitudes. And it’s hard enough to hire good marketers without imposing unnecessary filters on your search. Grr. Pity the fool.
1. PROBLEM: SKILLS & EXPERIENCE
The popular “T-shape” definition focuses on skills and experience. What makes the best marketers? Not knowledge or skills. Not at all. Not even a little. The best marketers I ever hired at PayPal had no prior marketing experience, no background in UX or Psychology or storytelling. What matters much, much more are personality, attitudes and values. (Ray Dalio talks a lot about values over skills in his book Principles.)
To succeed, a marketer needs to understand your customers’ mindset and your “growth equation;” and identify the rate-limiting step. Then they need to focus the entire organisation – Engineers, Finance, Product, even the CEO, on opening up that bottleneck. Re-aligning your entire company. They don’t teach you that in General Assembly Adwords Bootcamp.
2. PROBLEM: BLIND SPOTS
If you hire an experienced performance marketer, don’t be surprised if you end up spending a lot of money on Google and Facebook ads. It doesn’t matter how T-shaped we claim to be. When the pressure is on, most of us will revert to our comfort zone – doing what we’re comfortable doing (e.g. pouring money into Google and Facebook, doing a “rebrand”, etc.). And there’s a 90% chance that’s not what you need.
When you have a hammer, everything ends up looking like a nail. With T-shaped marketers, I just see too many hammers looking for nails.
3. PROBLEM: “GREAT MAN” THEORY
The “great man” theory of history is a fallacy that attributes huge historical swings to the vision and actions of a single man (e.g. Napoleon, Martin Luther, George Washington) when they were, in fact, broad societal changes with many fathers (and mothers!).
We make the same mistake in growth – ascribing the growth at Facebook, Dropbox, PayPal and AirBnB to single talented individuals. And that is never ever the case (as those famous individuals will tell you!). Growth is 100% a team sport. If you do not have the entire company aligned around your growth goals, from the CEO down, you will not succeed. You can’t bolt this on – you need to reconfigure your whole organisation to focus on growth.
Again, no matter what it says on LinkedIn, your head of growth is your CEO. And the single greatest strength your “growth hackers” need is the ability to align the organisation around a target and a plan and get them all to work together and execute well and fast. (That’s also known as “leadership.”)
WHAT DO YOU DO INSTEAD?
Maybe don’t hire a Head of Growth at all. For the price of one Head of Growth, you can get 2 – 3 really smart people who have a growth mindset. (Here's a post on what I do hire for). Set them to work executing against carefully chosen targets. (How you choose those targets, how you manage them – that’s critical to your success).
Manage them well and ask them the right questions. Have these smart people start in more junior roles, and have them spend a lot of time with your customers, really understanding their problems and how they think about the value you deliver. If you create space, they’ll grow into broader, more senior roles. Historically, home-grown leadership talent has always had a much higher success rate than outside hires.
THIS HIRE IS NOT YOUR BIG LEVER.
Most of all, please understand that your “Head of Growth” is not actually the biggest lever you have to pull. As the CEO of a pre-Series-B company, you are the head of growth. What could you possibly have to do that’s more important than finding and engaging more customers?
CEO AS HEAD OF GROWTH?
Being a great “Head of Growth” CEO doesn’t take much time. As I outline in our Playbook, you can probably do it in two hours per week. Here’s what you need to do:
Understand your growth formula, and define your KPIs
Find the rate-limiting step and make it your “North Star” metric
Align your whole company (not just a marketing hire) around that North Star metric
Drive a company-wide mindset change to enable you to exceed your goals faster – by modelling the right behaviour and setting the right expectations for your team.
Insist on a lean experiment-driven process that lets you quickly identify your riskiest assumptions and “turn unknowns into knowns” as fast as possible.
The truth is a lot of us would be lucky to get a good t-shaped marketer. A good t-shaped head of growth is valuable, but it’s a compromise. The best heads of growth have the mindset and understand the process. They won’t be the hammer looking for nails. They’ll actively eschew their own comfort zone and lead the entire organisation headlong into the unknown – to make it known.
Even the most talented head of growth cannot succeed without the explicit focus and support of the CEO and the rest of the organisation.
You could spend £10,000 to hire your Head of Growth. But, instead, spend 5 minutes figuring out how to help them be successful – read: CEOs – How to Manage the Growth Function in our Playbook.