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5 Things You Need to Lead a Successful Marketing Team

It's hard to believe I've accumulated over 20 years of experience in the startup industry. I've helped brands turn uncertainty into opportunity. I've worked to help small businesses turn into big, successful ones. And I co-founded Wheels Up Collective, our team's beloved, boutique marketing agency. One thread that ties all my various experiences together? A passion for effective management. Partly because I know how painful and ineffective work can be without it!

That passion, and the refined skillset that I forged because it, is probably what landed me in an article by Authority Magazine about what it takes to successfully manage a good team.

Here are the 5 things I shared in that interview.

Image of a successful marketing leader

1. Managers Need to Manage

After spending a decade in tech, I moved back across the country to my hometown to help my mom after my dad passed away in an accident. South Jersey isn’t exactly a hot spot for startup tech, so I ended up working at a very large, privately/family-held, $1B+ company. It could not have been more different than what I was used to. The leadership style, the corporate culture, the employee profile — it was all almost the opposite of what I was used to. They sent me to a full day of psychological analysis and cognitive/IQ testing to see if I’d be a good fit for a leadership role, and thought I’d fit in perfectly. TL/DR: I did not.

There were a lot of very happy people in this organization, and many productive teams packed with lifers. But what was so surprising and jarring to me was the culture of manager-envy. Everyone wanted to be promoted to be a manager, not because they aspired to help develop talent or produce a high-functioning team, or they wanted more strategic responsibility. The company had a comp structure that was packed with perks reserved for manager + levels. They were very committed to promoting from within, so mediocre managers led mediocre teams that promoted from within to produce more mediocre managers. I remember one specific 1:1 I had with one of my younger direct reports where we talked about her career trajectory and aspirations. “I just want to be a manager!” she said with stars in her eyes. When I asked her what about being a manager she was most excited about, she said she didn’t know, she just wanted to be eligible to go on the year-end trip for managers.

We forget that when we cross over from individual contributor to manager/director/leadership, we (in part) hold our team’s livelihood in our hands. We have the ability to make coming to work every day something they look forward to, or something that jeopardizes their mental health. Can they afford the mortgage on the bigger house? How much time can they spend with their family? We are so defined by our professional lives, and the leadership of a company can have such a profound impact. I think about that when I sit down (remotely now) to start each day with our team at Wheels Up. I’m not suggesting that I’m always doing it right, but I am saying that being in a leadership role needs to be taken seriously. It’s not just a pay bump, it’s taking responsibility for and accountability to your team in a very different way. It’s your job to set them on a trajectory that’s going to fuel their career growth. It’s not enough to just hire great people; you have to focus on ongoing talent development.

2. Make sales easy.

At the end of the day, a marketing team’s #1 job is to drive sales. My experience is predominantly in sales-led B2B organizations, and while our company may ultimately be selling to other companies, my marketing team’s customer is our sales organization. Marketing exists to make their job easier. My job is to deliver prospects who are fully qualified and ready for a contract. The less time our sellers spend with (ultimately successful) prospects, the better. Calibrating on this tenet ensures that my team is all following the same North Star.

Sometimes this is easy because the product or service is a knockout and sells itself, or you have just super stellar sellers who close all day long. Sometimes it’s harder. (Particularly if there’s not a great culture of sales and marketing collaboration at the company to begin with.) But that kind of doesn’t matter — it’s your job to do everything in your power to make sales easy.

We were in an annual planning workshop with a client that was having a soft year. Their sales organization was almost entirely new hires, and they weren’t closing very many deals. The sales organization blamed marketing for delivering junk leads. The marketing team blamed sales for not doing their job. Leadership just wanted the revenue issue fixed. This theme of finger pointing came up a few times throughout the two-day workshop, and our team kept bringing up sales support as a recurring missing component to the marketing programs we were fleshing out.

Exacerbated, one of the marketing managers asked: “how long do we need to keep spoon feeding the sales team?” My equally exacerbated response was: “UNTIL THEY HIT THE NUMBER.”

I may have been too sharp in my reply, but I stand by the sentiment. It’s marketing’s job to make sales successful. It doesn’t matter how thought-provoking your leadership is, how well attended your webinars are, or how many thousands of likes your last Instagram post got if no one buys whatever it is you’re selling. Patting yourself on the back for those metrics in the absence of successful sales is blindly following vanity metrics. You may be producing fantastic marketing, but it’s not doing its job, which is to drive sales.

3. Get marketing out of the red and into the black.

Historically, and notoriously, marketing has been a huge red number on the company’s budget. Your CFO has preconceived notions about the value the marketing organization holds because of your typically disproportionate department budget. Historically, the lack of attribution data has made it difficult to tie marketing dollars to actual revenue, forcing your CFO to throw their hands up in the air and watch as you light money on fire. CFOs hate this. As a marketing leader, you must get ahead of this. Otherwise marketing will always be on the chopping block when money is tight. And the bummer of that is that stunting good marketing will most likely stunt the company’s growth.

Luckily, we live in a time with tremendous data. You have the opportunity to align with your financial team and build your reporting to support and inform the KPIs they are tracking at a high organizational level. You can aspire to build predictable campaign models that deliver demand on time and at scale. You can be a partner to DevOps, helping with capacity planning, pipeline analysis, and headcount decisions. You can make responsible program decisions because you’re able to measure true ROI at a campaign level. You can cherry-pick marketing initiatives because you know which are profitable and which are just pretty marketing. You can do it. It’s not easy, but building a strong relationship with the CFO will get you working with them instead of against them.

4. Have plans A-E, but be ready to throw them all out the window and roll with it. Preparation is mostly a ritual — your experience is really the most important.

I ran the first-ever customer conference for a startup with little to no leadership direction. The CMO told the CEO we were having one that calendar year, then put it on my personal goals worksheet. Surprise!

My team spent the better part of a year planning the event. There were so so so many wins that first year — selling out, great speakers, (mostly smooth) operations. There were so so many laughs — trying to talk Customs into releasing our custom LEGO swag at 2:00 AM the first day of the event. Some not-so-fun surprises — the Airbnb we lived in for the 2 weeks leading up to the event was infested with mice. And some absolute heartbreaks — meeting a new colleague in the bathroom while she was miscarrying. But it all worked out because at the end of the day, you can be uber-prepared, and end up throwing literally everything out the window and winging it. Have confidence in your chops. You can do it.

5. Do not become the marketing help desk.

The CEO wants to change the background image on a slide in their pitch deck and needs new stock art. One of the product managers was hoping you could just help them with a new screen mockup real fast. Customer Success is launching a new project management tool and they need the logo resized to fit the header. HR is planning the annual picnic and needs help ordering t-shirts, and oh by the way, designing them too. These are just a few of the requests I’ve personally received over the years as someone in senior marketing leadership.

I’d like to think that my expertise can be better focused on something more important than resizing a logo, but to that CS VP, that was the most important thing marketing could do for her that day. This was particularly disappointing because there was a ton marketing could have done to help her launch her new PM tool to the customer base. But she didn’t think of marketing as a strategic partner that could help her programs be more successful. She thought of us as someone who had Photoshop and could resize a logo.

Falling into the trap of becoming a marketing help desk is dangerous for 3 reasons:

  1. Marketing help desk culture is very difficult culture to change. Once the company sees you that way, it’s so hard to get them to open their eyes to the possibility of you as a strategic partner.

  2. It’s going to be really hard to move from the red to the black, not only because you won’t be able to spend time on impactful programs that drive revenue, but also because headcount is expensive and you won’t be doing work that’s valuable enough to justify the overhead.

  3. You will drown in low-level tasks, constantly context switching, trying to read people’s minds, and doing low-value work. This will drive your team crazy, they’ll feel undervalued, it will be difficult to provide professional growth opportunities, and you’ll ultimately deal with high team turnover.

So how do you avoid this? In short, building cross-functional value. Understand how your work can complement and assist other departments. Marketing holds tremendous value by owning customer intel and relationships. Work with your senior leadership to align marketing programs, KPIs, and budget to high-level business goals so they see the value in what you are working on. And practice what you preach! Marketing teams need to market themselves sometimes. Share the work you’re doing with the rest of the organization through lunch-and-learns or guest speaking appearances at other teams’ planning meetings. Make sure marketing has a standard time slot in every sales kickoff and QBR. Lastly, keep your marketing queue visible, and when someone comes to you with a help-desk type marketing request, you can have a serious conversation about priorities and decide together if their request really does outweigh the other work you have in motion.

Remember, marketing isn't just about metrics; it's about driving results and propelling your company forward. Want to dive deeper? Check out the full article for more.

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