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It’s undoubtedly tough to be a leader right now. With all the uncontrollable external factors piling on top of mounting workloads and non-stop changes, leaders face the challenge of keeping their teams—and themselves—motivated and invested, knowing that the next change is just around the corner.

As part of MTM’s Marketing Boards program, 19 marketing leaders collaborated on this topic and worked together to surface actionable solutions to help fellow marketers move in a more positive direction.

One quote that kept us grounded throughout the discussions is from former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who once said, “It’s important to be nostalgic about the past, realistic about the present, and optimistic about the future.”

Here’s a helpful guide on what leaders can do to better lead through uncertainty:

Build Psychological Safety

What leaders can do:

  • Initiate a “Hopes and Fears” exercise. This exercise helps remove uncertainty and anxiety surrounding change and builds confidence and optimism since resistance is often rooted in fear.
  • Conduct an audit of your routines. This audit will help you determine whether you have enough forums set aside for open, non-work-related dialogue (both as a group and individually). This extra time will enable team members to feel safe expressing their thoughts, concerns, and emotions without fear of judgment. 

    💡Pro tip: Don’t let this time for your team fall off the calendar. It takes time for some people to open up, so perseverance and consistency with these forums is key.
  • Use tools like the Kübler-Ross Change Curve as a support tool to help your team members better identify with how they’re feeling.
  • Get creative with prompts. Replace basic questions like “How are you doing?” and “What’s on your mind?” with questions that spark more thoughtful answers. Instead, try asking, “What one word describes how you’re feeling this week?” or “What’s one thing I can do to alleviate stress for you this week?” Ensuring you have EQ-based questions built into 1:1s and reviews will go a long way in building psychological safety.

Advice from a Marketing Board Member: “We need to meet people where they are. Let them grieve, dig through the worst-case scenarios to confront their fears, and then help get them on an upward trajectory.” 

Elle McCarthy, fractional brand executive, PayPal

Lead with Empathy and Transparency 

What Leaders can do:

  • Model the behavior you want to see in your team. Show vulnerability, admit when you don’t have all the answers, embrace change, and demonstrate the resilience you want to see in your team. 
  • Be vocal and honest with your leadership team. Outline the challenges and bring attention to their blindspots to help them make more informed decisions. 
  • Be real and be human. When sharing company updates, you may not be able to guarantee stability, but you can guarantee support. Most of the time, how leaders deliver news impacts how your team feels more than the news itself.
  • Maintain a mentoring relationship with skip-levels. Consider quarterly check-ins with junior team members. Ask for feedback and show that it’s safe for them to provide it so you can stay self-aware about your delivery.

Advice from a Marketing Board Member: “I believe we should show up as humans and not just leaders or managers . I share authentically with my team how I struggle at times and some areas of my personal development.”

Gemini Babla, Director of Marketing and Partnerships, Google

Provide a North Star 

What Leaders can do:

  • Try the C.L.E.A.R. goals method.  Instead of the traditional S.M.A.R.T. approach, set C – Collaborative, L – Limited, E – Emotional, A – Appreciable, R – Refinable goals. This method encourages collaboration and allows for more flexibility. 
  • Focus on milestones. Break large goals into smaller, achievable milestones to maintain a sense of accomplishment (i.e., the next three months, from now through year-end) to help make the work and new path ahead feel more manageable.  
  • Celebrate small wins. Make a practice of this especially during times of low morale. Acknowledging wins can be casual, sporadic, or built into regular routines—the key is to weave them into the fabric of your team and culture.

Heard on Visionaries Podcast: “When leading change, one of the biggest enablers is having stakeholders build a common, data-driven understanding to align on the path forward. There needs to be a single source of truth and agreement on leading KPIs, which drives consistency and speed.” 

Erin Cast, GM, Royal Canin, Mars

Find Ways to Co-create and Connect

What Leaders can do:

  • Invite your organization to fix problems with you. There will always be people who will resist change and those who will be grateful for it. When you bring the organization with you to fix problems and allow them to solve them alongside you, everyone wins. But the resistance will become stronger when leaders say, “I’m changing everything” without collaboration. Jed Berger, President, Kenneth Cole (heard on the Visionaries podcast)
  • Prioritize in-person gatherings. Look for business reasons (i.e., product/campaign launches, field research, strategic planning) to bring the group together for an offsite and incorporate a fun, inspirational, relationship-building element to the gathering. 
  • Consider rebranding your team or marketing organization. A rebrand may give the team the feeling of a fresh start and chance to reset expectations across the organization.

Advice from a Marketing Board Member: “One thing I’ve done is create what we call “Marketing Reimagined” for the entire global team to help create the plan of what we’re going to focus on this year.”

Chris Koehler, CMO, Box

Heard on the Visionaries podcast: “For transformation to take place, everybody has to be in, so we work to bring everyone together instead of just working on their independent projects. We have focused on collaboration, togetherness, inclusivity, and certainly diversity.”

Deborah Wahl, Global CMO of General Motors

Inspire Them as People, Not Just Employees

What Leaders Can Do:

  • Try the “Superhero” exercise. Ask your team members to share what they believe is their superpower and what is their kryptonite. You can even ask the rest of the team to share what they view as that person’s superpower to help build confidence. 
  • Celebrate hidden skills and outside interests. Celebrating the whole person vs. who they are in the workplace is critical to helping your team feel valued and seen. Uncovering these details is easy to incorporate into weekly team meetings and other routines.
  • Coordinate internal panels or invite guest speakers. You don’t have to be the only one inspiring your team! Bringing outside inspiration showcasing different career paths and innovative ways of working will keep your team motivated and inspired.
  • Incentivize learning and development. Make it a point to discuss career development in your regular 1:1 conversations and build this in as part of their reviews. Oftentimes, your direct reports may not even know what’s available to them. 

Advice from a Marketing Board Member: “The people part of every transformation is the most important part. Always. We’ve been on the transformation hamster wheel for so long. We need to train and develop for resiliency. Training and development is a prerequisite to driving a successful transformation.”

Jaqueline Woods, CMO, Teradata

Be Ruthless About Prioritization

What Leaders Can Do:

  • Consider a “Start, Stop, and Continue” or “Value/Impact” exercise. This exercise helps to understand what areas the team feels are most/least valuable to the business. 
  • Provide direction on what’s most critical. The team should know what is mission-critical, what the business needs, and the core things that will have the most impact.
  • Be the voice. Communicate prioritization changes to the rest of the organization. Have a firm rationale and stand by it to provide the stake in the ground teams need. 

Advice from a Marketing Board Member: “To ensure effective prioritization of our work, we consistently begin by asking ourselves, ‘What would be the impact if we chose not to do this?’ This straightforward question places ROI at the forefront of our decision-making and prioritization process.”

Joseph Taiano, Managing Director, Accenture Marketing & Communications

Heard on Visionaries: “One of my most effective conversations with my team is asking them to list what activities aren’t working clearly. We have found that when you stop doing things that aren’t essential, it allows for more innovation and productivity. … And if you’re going to add, you need to find where you can subtract, too. This doesn’t necessarily mean [subtracting] people; it can mean initiatives, strategies, tactics, or resources.”

Jed Berger, President of Kenneth Cole

Don’t Forget Your Own Oxygen Mask

What Leaders Can Do:

  • Give yourself grace. Acknowledge that it’s okay not to be perfect. Embrace your imperfections and learn from your experiences.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself. Recognize that self-leadership is essential for effective team leadership.
  • Invest in networking and building a support system. Actively seek out and build a support system (like MTM’s Marketing Boards program) to get new ideas and perspectives.
  • Establish your personal board of advisors. Seek out a small circle of mentors and/or coaches who you connect with regularly to fuel your personal and professional growth.
  • Fuel your own optimism. Surround yourself with things that make you happy, and be firm in ensuring you make time for those.

Heard on Visionaries: “There’s a difference between personal purpose and work purpose, and it’s important to know that your purpose can evolve. For me, I constantly check in with what makes me feel happy, and I am equally as clear about the things that don’t bring me joy. Then, I make conscious choices to step away from those things that aren’t serving me, my team, or my work.”

Nikki Neuburger, Chief Brand Officer, lululemon

Thank you to the following MTM Marketing Board participants who contributed to this guide on Investing in Talent: 

  • Adam Berlew, CMO, Equinix
  • Chris Koehler, CMO, Box
  • Dan Robbins, VP, Ad Marketing & Partner Solutions, Roku
  • Elle McCarthy, Fractional Brand Executive, PayPal
  • Gemini Babla, Director, Global Brand Marketing, YouTube
  • Jacqueline Woods, CMO, Teradata
  • Jason McClelland, CMO, DataStax
  • Joseph Taiano, Managing Director, Accenture Marketing & Communications
  • Julianne Hong Yi, Director, Google Brand Studio, Google
  • Julie Smith, Director, Brand Marketing, Zendesk
  • Kerry Chalmers, Director, Sales and Partner Events, Cisco
  • Kimberlee Archer, former Head of Global Marketing, AR & Camera, Snap
  • Rebecca Pollock, Global Head of Brand, Logitech
  • Sandra Kang, Director, Consumer Marketing, Clorox
  • Shannon Houston, Global Head of Communications and Marketing, Lazard
  • Sona Jones, former VP, Digital (Head of AthletaWell), Athleta
  • Stephanie C. Harris, Director, Global Strategic Insights, Visa, Inc. 
  • Victor Lee, President, Advantage Unified Commerce
  • Vivek Mohan, Divisional Vice-President, Corporate Global Marketing, Abbott

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