I walked into a conference room with my report. It was my third week into this large organization that I had recently joined. I had spent the last two weeks ideating and refining the strategy based on everything I heard from my bosses and colleagues.
As I started presenting the report, we moved from long movements of silence to occasional questions. Towards the end, I was given a few suggestions on how to make the slides better. The strategy was never used, and I could gauge that it will never be used based on the reaction.
When I look back to analyze what really happened, I believe there are two key learnings from the discussion.
- Most marketing leaders don’t like to be told what they should do. Few years into any organization, most folks want to maintain the status quo. (After all, what I had proposed was not wholly aligned to the current status quo.)
- To capture someone’s attention, you have to earn their trust first. Yes, it doesn’t matter where you have worked before or how many years of experience you bring to the table. You are always back to square one when you join a new workplace.
I believe every organization has two cultures that influence how work gets done and how people collectively behave. Most of us are familiar with organization culture that is driven by the top management or the founders.
Then you have sub-culture, which I like to refer to as team culture. Team culture is defined by your immediate boss, the head of your department, and your colleagues.
Culture is a complex organism that is difficult to be defined and evolves mostly through gradual shifts in leadership, strategy, and other circumstances.
How politics, focus, and mediocrity influence team culture?
Every employee who joins an organization wants to do great work, see cause and effect and leave a legacy that they are proud of. But the problem is everybody has a different set of aspirations while few of us are incredibly ambitious for others; the job is a means to an end.
While some of you may believe that you need to be a subject matter expert to succeed at what you do, but that is hardly enough. It doesn’t matter whether it is a start-up or a large matrixed organization.
Let’s start with the ugly truth. Politics, Focus, and Mediocrity, are three aspects that destroy any team’s sub-culture, not just marketing.
You can’t avoid office politics. You can deny your feelings about it. But politics is dirty, manipulative, and evil.
In one of my previous organizations, I was part of the content marketing team. We were working on building a microsite. Out of my excitement for the project, I developed a mock wireframe for the project. I thought it would be helpful for the digital team to design the microsite with the agency’s help.
However, I got a call from my immediate boss a few hours later, suggesting that the digital team’s head was unhappy with me sharing the wireframe. He felt I was invading his turf by developing the mock wireframe. I felt frustrated, threatened, even angered by the situation.
Turf wars are pretty common, especially when you are part of a large team. Turf wars are ultimately about establishing who has authority over a particular aspect of the job. Instead of doing what is in the organization’s best interest, individuals start doing what’s in their best interest.
People rarely keep their personal egos aside and do what is in the best interest of the organizations. To navigate the bureaucratic maze means following two simple rules.
- Understand who has power and influence.
- Follow the unwritten rules. (Don’t pick a fight that you can’t win.)
Disputes can feel personal at times, but you must act rationally. If your manager is unwilling to support you during the process, consider whether continuing to fight the battle is worth it. Politics, whether it is at a team or organizational level, destroys people’s confidence.
I was part of an annual marketing review of an organization. We were reviewing our annual marketing tracker, which had hundreds of line items. As we moved to discuss the marketing plan for the next financial year. I expressed my concerns about strategy, how we were spreading ourselves thin by taking up several activities.
The senior members of the team started defending their higher-ups. As the discussion progressed, I realized that the higher-ups & senior management wanted to retain the status quo.
Focus is ultimately about deciding what you don’t want to do. If your team agrees to all the requests coming from external teams, you start functioning like an assembling line to service all the needs.
If your senior leaders are too focused on the short-term, you miss out on creating any brand value in the long term. In a large organization, the goals are usually structured around quarterly results, which makes short-termisim a norm.
Short-terms also steams out of people’s self-interest, which means that they are too pre-occupied with pleasing their higher-ups because they are focused on getting that next promotion or role rather than creating value.
A leader always has to follow this simple rule to make sure that their actions make a difference.
- Do what’s in the best interest of the organization.
- What’s in the best interest of the team.
- Finally, think about what’s right for you.
Altering this order is a recipe for disaster. Because people can usually see through your hidden motives, by the way, you act and behave. If you are part of a team that lacks focus, cut your losses fast, and move out.
You pitched an idea to your team, they rejected the idea, and a few months later, you see your competition launching the same project or idea. Sounds familiar? I’m sure all of us have seen this happening.
Let’s face it; no team or individual wants to do mediocre work. People who do average work often don’t realize it. In marketing, even great work can become average over time without you realizing it.
Status quo is mediocrity’s biggest ally. Often marketing teams don’t have a window to the outside world. The more time people work in an organization, the more complacent they get, conditioned by their experience.
Mediocrity sometimes is the result of excessively looking inwards. The work you do gets assessed by your internal teams, including sales and product functions. While marketing leaders try to manage their perception, they forget what the ultimate goal should be.
If your strategy is inside-out, then it is difficult to determine if it is working. Internal teams might applaud that your team is doing great work, while people outside the organization wouldn’t have even heard of your brand.
Mediocrity is not always bad; there will be times in your career being average and faster is better than being perfect.
Secrets of a high-performing marketing team
It is easy to create a bulleted list of facts that make great teams, but there is only one – people. Great teams are made up of great people who are led by an exceptional leader.
This is a story that I heard while I was working for an IT services organization. The head of the business unit had been with the organization for a decade. On a busy working day, he received a call from his family, mentioning that his dad had a heart attack. He immediately rushed to the hospital.
On his way to the hospital, he got a call from the heart surgeon, stating that his dad needs a bypass heart surgery, and they need six lakh Indian rupees in deposit to commence the procedure. He immediately rushed to the bank to arrange the amount.
By the time he reached the hospital, his dad was already in the operation theatre and with one of his colleagues waiting to receive him. His colleague mentioned that his boss has already deposited the amount on his behalf.
The leader in question and his team have stayed intact all these years. The team had near-zero attrition in the last decade. Exceptional leaders built high-performing teams.