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Beware of false harmony on your team: it can be hard to recognize. That’s the cautionary reminder that rang through the voices of 21 marketing executives who joined MTM’s marketing boards to tackle one of the toughest topics leaders face today: keeping the team happy and strong. The groups dissected how to strengthen team culture and morale from two different perspectives, surfacing actionable solutions based on what teams want most and how leadership can rise to the occasion.

Here’s their helpful guide based on ten things your teams really want and need: 

💡 Leaders to See Us Beyond Our Work

What Leaders Can Do: 

  • Use 1:1s more intentionally. Actively seek to understand your team members’ passion points, what they enjoy outside of work, their career aspirations, etc. This will not only help them feel more connected but will also help guide a more realistic career path for them.  
  • Encourage outside mentorship. Encourage your direct reports to seek mentorship from leaders outside the walls of your organization and encourage them to become mentors as a way to grow their own skills. 

“Encourage even the most junior member of the team to ‘adopt’ someone outside the organization and invest time in mentoring. It reinforces their impact as a leader and as a human being.”

Doug Zarkin, former CMO – Pearle Vision, EssilorLuxottica (Marketing Board Member)

💡 To Be Listened to, Not Just Heard 

What leaders can do:

  • Support culture from the bottom-up vs. trying to force it from the top-down. Your team members are the ones who truly create the culture and your role is to support and steer it in the right direction.
  • Establish a passion fund. Within the Travel and Expense budget, carve out a set budget and hold a monthly raffle for who gets to plan the team activity. This allows each team member the opportunity to show a bit of who they are outside of their role. 
  • Just as you would tell your customers how you are taking and implementing their feedback, do the same with your team. Celebrate and acknowledge the changes/impacts happening because of what they share with you. 

“To build culturally famous brands, we need to empower our teams in the trenches and not leave them on the side-lines. Giving them skin in the game and leveraging their insights not only strengthens team morale, but also ensure that the end product is much more in tune with what’s happening in their world.”

Mark Kirkham, SVP and CMO, International Beverages, PepsiCo.

💡 Breathing Room 

What leaders can do:

  • Acknowledge burnout. Recognize when you see it and when your team is heading down that path—instead of avoiding or deflecting. 
  • Conduct a meeting audit. Understand the purpose, agendas, and desired outputs to help you and your team determine who should be part of it, who should own it and if it should be a meeting at all.
  • Create sacred times. Whether you have “no meeting Mondays” or “Thinking Thursdays,” build in time for your teams to come up for air. Those blocks can be used for brainstorming, creative thinking, and personal time – encouraging your team to go for a walk/exercise, for example.
  • Rethink deck culture. Spending hours on decks is something every marketer is familiar with, but more often than not, that time could be better spent on something else. Encourage more simple formats and leverage decks more intentionally. 

“I often hear that there’s not enough think time and too many meetings so I’m “forcing” people to build that in by sending a planner for every other Friday morning for 90 minutes so everyone has time to do whatever they want/need to head into the weekend in a good place.”

Sarah Sylvester, EVP, Victoria Secret & PINK, Victoria’s Secret & Co. 

💡 Respect for Their Time and Contributions 

What leaders can do:

  • Proactively plan meetings and in-person get togethers based on desired outcomes (i.e. brainstorming and deep thinking for in-person, more tactical meetings OK to be virtual) 
  • Not everyone wants to spend after hours on “happy hours,” and for many, that is sacred time with their families. Leverage work hours for team building as much as possible.
  • Ensure everything your team works on has executive support and advocacy. They (and the rest of the team) need to know that you believe in the work and that it matters.  

“It’s not that most employees hate coming into the office, it’s that they hate commuting. Are you leveraging the team’s days in office as effectively as possibly? Are we justifying their commute taken from what could be time to recharge, reflect on work and even get more work done?”

Jeremy Schumann, Lead, Global Marketing Strategy & Creative. Amazon Prime Video

💡 Structure and Consistency 

What leaders can do:

  • Ensure everyone is clear on who the decision makers are (establish roles & responsibilities).
  • Encourage extreme ownership and reduce gray areas. For example, set up a RACI (a comprehensive chart of who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed every step of the way) for big-ticket items and socialize it–reimagined RACI (aim for one A with multiple Cs).
  • Come up with a consensus-based list of team norms. And when you put a new team policy in place, be consistent. Don’t fall into the start and stop trap. 

Leaders can help enable speed and growth by 1) being intentional with meetings: having a clear purpose and defining next steps and 2) establishing who’s accountable for every project (aim for one person!) and who’s consulted. The latter is particularly interesting as it gives employees at any level the opportunity to own a project while seeking critical inputs, which can accelerate professional growth across the whole team.”

Jessica Ulin, Sr. Director Marketing, Visa

The creation of effective systems and frameworks for any organization and team is key to creating certainty, comfort and an environment where team members can flourish and use as a launchpad; most importantly they remove uncertainty and ambiguity. By working within set parameters, it helps team members understand how far to push and pull to get to great work that creates impact on the overall business.”

Andrew Almendras, VP, Global Creative Marketing, IMAX

💡  Leaders to Practice What They Preach 

What leaders can do:

  • It’s so simple yet impactful when using the power of Outlook’s “schedule send” feature to keep emails within work hours. It can be a game-changer tool, but you should use it strategically. Space out your “sends” to be considerate of the recipients. 
  • Lead the culture shift to be more efficient and direct with emails (i.e. including “Please Review” or “Input Needed” in subject line). This provides clear actions needed from the recipient. 
  • When you’re on PTO, BE ON PTO. And require your team to do the same. 

“True leadership lies not only in words spoken but in actions taken. In leading by example, we initiate a powerful culture shift inspiring those around us to embrace the best version of themselves and foster a thriving work environment that values balance, productivity, and mutual respect.”

Rubi Chavez, former Head of Marketing, Tastemade

💡 Permission to Say No 

What leaders can do:

  • In a time when we’re all doing more with less resources, establishing that saying “no” with valid reason is not just OK, but necessary.
  • Encourage your team to be realistic about their boundaries. We often talk about being a team player and taking on stretch assignments which are great for development, but as leaders, we need to encourage our teams to know their limits and not be afraid to voice them. 

“When saying no to internal requests, be solution oriented. Don’t just identify and voice problems, be part of the solution. Be the sun and not the salt.” 

Anonymous Marketing Board Member

💡 To Feel Safe 

What leaders can do:

  • Understand people’s “hot buttons” (everyone has them) and work to actively address them.
  • Foster a culture of learning quickly and adapting through failure. To action this, you can build in time for marketing town halls and team meetings to talk about “failures” and what was learned. 
  • Ensure each member of your team has a clear understanding of how/when they can share feedback and concerns. Leadership can set the tone and guardrails/expectations for these safe spaces. One type of forum might not do the trick. You may need to bring small groups together but also use 1:1s to invite open and honest dialogue.

Ensure your team knows you trust them from day one. By creating a culture of starting with trust, your team will be more open to speaking their minds, collaborating with each other, and ultimately trusting their peers. This is the best way to build a positive and collaborative culture.”

Colleen Stauffer, Head of Marketing & Communications, Creative Juice

💡 To Form Genuine Connections  

What leaders can do:

  • Encourage your team to look laterally to form relationships and bonds between teams (especially those that are hard to work with or ones you don’t speak to every day) even before you are engaged on a project with them so you build rapport in advance. 
  • ERGs are great but can sometimes feel too formalized. Encourage sub-communities to form within your org (i.e., young moms slack channel, creative inspo channels). This uncovers unexpected common threads.
  • Incorporate personal icebreakers or “tone setters” during meetings before diving straight into the work. But as a watch-out, be sure to read the room and understand that there are likely times more suited for this than others.

“Life is about relationships and connections. We spend a third of our life at work. Actively seek out ‘your people’ who you have genuine connections with—this will be extremely valuable both professionally and personally.”

Amy Woodbridge, Marketing Lead, Zoetis

💡 To Enjoy Work 

What leaders can do:

  • Oftentimes, marketing sets the tone for culture for the entire company, so lean into that as a way to plan/host brand celebrations and campaign kick-offs. It brings pride to the organization and, most importantly, your team for the work they’ve contributed. 
  • Allow your team members to decide what would be the most enjoyable gatherings and activities, and build an informal social committee of 2-3 people to help plan—after all, they have a strong pulse on the team’s culture.
  • Put the work agenda aside to give a platform for relationship building.
  • Make existing processes more fun. Example: For the quarterly or annual swag marketing orders, enlist other departments to submit designs/concepts that teams can vote on. It’s a great way to encourage cross-functional engagement and add a little fun to routines.)
  • Build in time for team members to share who they are. i.e., “Share some Shit” Fridays where one team member shares something unknown about themselves, a hobby, something that inspires them. Some people talk, some drop links, and some put a short presentation together, but ultimately it spurs great conversation.
  • You don’t always have to be the source of the fun, but you can still support it. Example: Your team starting a Sandwich club. It’s not forced, leadership is not involved but they support it by not infringing on the time.

“Cotopaxi is committed to remote-first work, which is amazing for flexibility and accessing talent across the country, but also creates the need to make time for in-person connection to build relationships. One of the company traditions we have created is called Summer Camp, where we bring the entire organization together in the mountains of Utah, and spend three full days solely dedicated to spending time together in nature. There is no work agenda – just time together learning more about the people that you work with every day.”

Brad Hiranaga, Chief Brand Officer, Cotopaxi

“Enjoying work matters. Previously at Bacardi, it was the little things…a person that brought a ‘Colada’ (a large cup of 5 mini Cuban espresso shots) would become the MVP for the day. It meant people took a moment to pause and talk about things outside of work. Allow and embrace moments that cause subtle pauses—food, drinks, snacks, sports, music, and little ones to visit. It creates cultures that are that much warmer.”

Andrew Lanzziano, former Sr. Brand Manager of Grey Goose, Bacardi Inc.  

Thank you to the following MTM Marketing Board participants who contributed to this guide on Strengthening Team Culture and Morale: 

  • Brad Hiranaga, Chief Brand Officer, Cotopaxi 
  • Colleen Stauffer, Head of Marketing & Communications, Creative Juice 
  • Doug Zarkin, former CMO – Pearle Vision, EssilorLuxottica
  • Kristen D’Arcy, CMO, True Religion
  • Mark Kirkham, CMO of PepsiCo International Beverages, PepsiCo  
  • Rubi Chavez, former Head of Marketing, Tastemade
  • Samantha Maltin, EVP, Chief Marketing & Brand Officer, Sesame Workshop 
  • Sarah Sylvester, EVP, Victoria Secret Lingerie, Victoria’s Secret & Co. 
  • Tisha Domingo, Chief Marketing and Product Officer, Brightech 
  • Tracee Larocca, CMO, OCV Sports and Entertainment 
  • Tressie Lieberman, CMO, Yahoo
  • Alfred Wang, Sr. Director of Customer Segment Marketing, Sutter Health 
  • Amy Woodbridge, Marketing Lead, Zoetis 
  • Andrew Almendras, VP, Global Creative Marketing, IMAX 
  • Andrew Lanzziano, former Sr. Brand Manager of Grey Goose, Bacardi Inc. 
  • Chris Bruss, Head of Roku Brand Studio, Roku 
  • Erin Steuer, Director of Social Media, Sephora
  • Jeremy Schumann, Global Brand Marketing, Strategy and Creative Lead, Amazon Prime Video 
  • Jessica Ulin, Sr. Director of Marketing, Visa
  • Kara Lundquist, Director of Digital Marketing , Athleta 
  • Matt Karson, Media Director, Clorox