When we think of “leadership” in a company, we often think of people who run massive teams or those who have spent decades working their way up a ladder. But some of the most innovative companies are developing leaders in a totally new way: they’re cultivating the works of high-level individual contributors and letting them double down on the areas they love.
This episode focuses on the work of Mathew Sweezey, Principal of Marketing Insights at Salesforce. Though he has no direct reports, he has an outsized impact on the company’s brand and growth. Salesforce is rethinking the “traditional” career path of increasing direct reports and instead, embracing the idea of the individual contributor. Individual contributors have the freedom to maintain focus on their unique skills; Mathew notes that turning one’s attention to people management often means giving up on other activities:
Becoming a manager often leads you away from what you’re good at and what you love.
Instead, Mathew is able to focus on the areas where he’s uniquely talented. He spends his time developing and sharing thought leadership around the future of marketing. This means research, writing, and speaking on how marketing has evolved and where it could or should go from here.
This adds value for Salesforce in a number of ways: Mathew’s work fosters brand awareness, since he’s out keynoting at some of the biggest events in the world. It also allows the company to lure important customers and prospects to Salesforce-hosted events; The CMO of AT&T, for example, might not show up for a sales dinner but will attend if there’s an opportunity to hear about Mat’s newest research. Last, but not least, Salesforce prides itself on being at the forefront of sales and marketing trends. Mat’s work underscores this position and ensures they remain at the cutting edge.
As Mathew notes, this alignment between his work and the broader mission of the company is critical for a role like this to work:
They see this as a part of their mission and purpose: helping customers be better at their jobs
This alignment must take place at the highest level. You have to have buy-in from the CEO directly, so that there’s clarity and trust in the decision to invest in this kind of work, (especially since it involves a lot of out of office time!)
Though this is Mathew’s full-time job, he suggests that more companies should cultivate this kind of work among many people in the organization. It behooves the company to have a number of thought leaders. Help make it part of their jobs. Look for those people who may already have a passion for this work. Seek out those who already engage with research and writing on their own. Look for those with side projects that align with the company’s focus. Allow team members to grow as individual contributors, and you may find yourself with some amazing brand ambassadors and thought leaders.