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The Absolute Necessity of Talent

July 8, 2014


Lionel Messi, World Cup 2014

Lionel Messi, World Cup 2014

I had a lot of fun watching the World Cup. I love the sport when played at a high level, and the event-wonderfully covered by ESPN–was an enjoyable interlude for me.

While the U.S. Men’s National Team’s performance in getting out of the Group of Death was exciting and inspiring, it was also sobering. Most of the time we were playing on our heels. We were near last in time of possession because we were outclassed technically on the pitch.

In the wake of the team’s elimination, two questions have been asked–what went wrong, and moving forward, what does U.S. Soccer need to do? These are not new questions, but this time I’ve been encouraged that the media is finally getting it.

It’s not about the coach. It’s not about tactics. It’s about the absolute necessity of talent in the game of soccer, and how we don’t have enough of it. The harsh reality is that we don’t have top-level talent at every position, and we don’t have a world-class striker who can draw the attention of and score on the world’s best defenders.

Moving forward, Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer face a daunting challenge. How do we compete with countries whose talented kids grow up with a soccer ball at their feet and become world-class by playing other talented kids on the playground and later in soccer academies? There are no easy answers, if there are any answers at all.

As I’ve thought about all of this, the position Klinsmann faces is not unlike the challenge I face as a marketing leader. Bigger name universities and smaller ones armed with million dollar digital budgets frequent our various markets. I can’t invent a big brand university, and I can’t outspend the big spenders. There are no easy answers, only one that requires my full attention.

Like soccer, successfully competing in today’s difficult market environment requires top talent. In fact, the way I see it, talent is my most important asset as a marketing leader.

In soccer, well-coached talent scores goals. In marketing, well-managed talent achieves goals.

With the World Cup in mind, here are five thoughts on talent as related to marketing higher education…

1. Talent comes before tactics. In soccer, your talent dictates what tactics you employ. In marketing, market dynamics dictate your tactics. And in a market full of changing dynamics–from Google’s algorithm to changing consumer behavior to better resourced competition–talent rises to the top of the assets I must secure to meet my institution’s marketing goals.

I need talent that is flexible, adaptable, and creative. I need team players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, who can creatively operate in tight spaces and under stress. Otherwise, we’ll turn the ball over, miss opportunities, and end up playing on our heels in the market, being reactive instead of proactive. I need team members who are talented enough to find tactical ways to get out in front of the challenging market and compete confidently with tough opponents.

2. Commitment to the craft, then mission. Such technical ability comes from a devotion to the craft. While a sense of mission is integral to what we do in marketing higher education, it’s not primary. I don’t need well-intended average professionals. I need mission-oriented team members who see themselves first as marketing professionals who are going to push themselves professionally. Frankly, this means putting in the extra hours to develop your craft.

3. Secure talent at every position on the field. In this content marketing environment of multiple channels and platforms, we have to be good at content creation and curation on our website, and in social media, digital, print, PR, email, so on and so forth. Thus, I need to find and nurture top talent so that we produce outstanding work. At my institution, I’ve done so by assembling a talented team of employees, vendors for specific projects, and on-going relationships with small agencies who are a part of our team on our campus.

4. Nurture talent. Professional development is not all on the team member. It’s vital that I create a culture of talent and professional development in which iron sharpens iron, where we push each other to get better, and which encourages emerging stars to, well, emerge. For our team, this happens when we air out ideas and creative decisions, and generally shoot the breeze about marketing and communications, in weekly meetings, impromptu discussions, in email threads, and on social media; and by encouraging team members to take on challenging and cutting edge projects. Creating this culture takes a willingness by me to help prepare our team members for their next job, whether it’s here or elsewhere.

5. Keep the team focused on our goals and on performing well. Playing the beautiful game is useless if you lose. Just having talent isn’t enough. In marketing, we have to perform. We have to drive interest in our brand and do our part in growing our enrollment. Accountability keeps us focused on quality and the bottom line. Winning in soccer and achieving marketing goals require strong and creative leadership to keep the team excelling.

In the World Cup and in marketing higher education, talent is an absolute necessity. And it’s on me as a marketing leader to secure talent and create an environment for it to excel.

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