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Before the 2020 Global Pandemic the notion of having organizations be practically 100% remote seemed like an experiment, reserved for articles you would read in the New York Times or Harvard Business Review.
But the Pandemic forced millions into remote work and while for many companies this seemed like a really good idea on paper the reality is that it affected organizational culture more than you imagine.
In the video below I discussed strategies to create organizational culture in the modern world. But if you are more of a reader feel free to read the summary included with this article.
Intro: The world has changed, forever
In 2020, I came to the realization that the world had changed and we were never going to be living life like we used to.
Fast forward to today and almost half of the population at least in the US are working remotely some partially and others in a full time capacity.
Remote Work: A blessing or a curse?
But is remote work good for us? Or does it hurt us more than we think? Depends who you ask.
While you could say remote work gives you flexibility in time, others feel they are working all the time.
While some say remove work eliminates the need to commute to the office, others feel that home becomes too connected with work.
You may think that remote work forced you to learn to use other channels (such as Slack, Zoom, etc) to collaborate with people but others may feel that this produces a lack of interpersonal relationships.
I believe one of the main issues with an organization with remote employees is that as time goes by, people start working in their own island, creating their own idealization about what the organization is.
Additionally, as new people join the organization (specially entry level people) their onboarding experience becomes more fragmented and transactional.
To bring people together, for them to believe that they are all pushing towards the same direction, you need to build an Organizational Culture.
What is Organizational Culture?
Organizational culture is generally understood as all of a company’s beliefs, values and attitudes, and how these influence the behavior of its employees.
When you lack a sense of community, of culture, then your organization starts being siloed.
Creating Culture in a Decentralized World
To create organizational culture, you can implement a method that I like to call: Values In Practice which consists in 3 simple steps:
Step 1. Define your Values
Meet with your leadership team and think of employees you consider excel in your organization and represent what you stand for. Then write a list of such adjectives. Each person in the leadership team should do the same. Once you finalized with the list of words, discuss with your team which adjectives would you combine or remove or keep. You want to end with a list of 3 to 5 adjectives. These will become your values!
Step 2. Communicate them
For each value, add a short description of what each value represents and why they are important to you.
Share them out with your team in different ways such as team meetings, digital media, swag.
It is important that you don’t communicate your values once but you are making sure that people understand (and more importantly agree with) your values.
Step 3. Put them in practice
The final and most important step to bring people together and create organizational culture is to put these values into practice.
Form a Values In Practice (or VIP) committee with members of different teams and locations (if you have people in different countries, for instance).
I believe that there’s a misconception that the culture of an organization is driven by HR or the Managers but in reality everything works better when the culture is driven by different team members of your organization.
The committee should meet once a month to plan a calendar of activities surrounded each value, see the example below for reference:
Once you implement the VIP method you will notice dramatic change in your organizational culture.
You will begin noticing that you can use your values not only to bring people together but also in other processes of your organization such as performance reviews or hiring.
Organizational Culture begins with setting the standard for the values your team stands for. When people agree with these values, they all push towards the same direction as a unified force and good things happen.
As marketing technology leaders, we hold the keys to unlocking our team’s potential and driving exceptional results for both our clients and those on our team. While some of the aspects of leadership discussed here might seem obvious, it’s important to recognize the critical role they play in building a supportive environment in the workplace.
The important takeaway is that it is our responsibility to not only see our team members as colleagues and important organizational resources, but as human beings with a diverse set of challenges, needs, backgrounds, and motivations. Fostering leadership from a standpoint of individual growth and support creates an inviting atmosphere, a sanctuary where employees desire to contribute, be part of, and thrive in, all while driving exceptional work for the organization.
Let’s look at a few pillars of leadership that can be important for leading effective, and happy, teams.
To me, one of the most important aspects of being a successful leader is empathy and communication. So many of us in this industry have had a unique path to our current position and have challenges or circumstances that might not be readily apparent at first glance. Starting from a place of trust, and privacy, with your individual team members can help provide them with a channel for communicating issues they are having and how those might be impacting their experience on the team. This ensures that you’re aware of any issues that might impact the team and are able to provide the needed support to help in whatever way that you can.
Work is an important part of our lives, but it is not the only (or most important) part. Setting the expectation amongst your team that personal development and relationships are paramount helps to create a scenario where they feel more protected when discussing how their work may be impacted by factors both external and internal to the workplace. Taking the opportunity to approach each situation with empathy, privacy, and understanding, rather than rushing to conclusions, provides a safe space and helps create an open dialogue, leading to a motivated and united team.
While it might not hold true for all teams and situations, for those managing engineering resources, it is critical that you possess the technical knowledge necessary to understand and guide your team. In positions of marketing technology leadership, you will be called upon to be a subject matter expert across a wide variety of domains and disciplines and will be able to make important decisions that will impact the day-to-day work of those on your team. A failure to understand the opportunities, and challenges, on a technical level can set everyone up for failure, and lead to spiraling costs and burnout amongst your team.
To effectively guide engineering teams, we must delve into their challenges, struggles, and the evolving tech landscape. Staying informed about industry trends and developments allows us to make informed decisions and offer relevant support. This deep understanding earns our team’s respect and trust, fostering an environment of growth and achievement.
Speaking of growth, the commitment to empowering your team members to reach their goals and potential is one of the most critical aspects of being a leader in this space. For most of us in this field, a lot of career growth and development has been on-the-job and supplemented by encouraging managers, books, and online resources. Understanding that the day-to-day work environment is not simply a mechanism for providing benefit to the organization but is also an important training ground for everyone on your team is an important step in building a culture of growth.
One of the primary challenges you might encounter are team members who have the ability, and desire, to further their skill set and development but are unsure about the possible paths or means of taking the next step. Building out a clear development and learning path for your team is critical to ease concerns of those who might find it overwhelming and to help guide everyone towards the next step in their career path.
Assigning non-urgent work in a domain someone might be interested in learning, creating training sessions, providing FTO for external training and providing means to attend conferences are just a few additional ways that you can help encourage a mindset of growth and development on your team. The important thing to note is that all knowledge and experiences can benefit your team, even if they fall outside of the traditional areas that we work in, so you can never go wrong encouraging employees to pursue and grow in the areas that interest them.
Transparency is a cornerstone of effective leadership, and it should be exercised as often as possible where discretion allows. Obviously, some circumstances prohibit this, such as receiving a sudden client or initiative pivot that is out of your control, but even then, steps should be taken to ensure that those who are responsible for the effects of those updates are informed as early as possible so that they can mitigate its effects. Never underestimate the simple power that simply keeping people informed in an honest and constructive way can yield.
This applies even more to the expectations and relationship that you have with the members on your team directly. We must communicate clearly and openly with our team, setting clear expectations from the start. If a team member falls short of expectations, address it early and constructively. Timely feedback fosters growth and encourages accountability. A transparent culture builds trust, ensuring our team feels supported and valued in their roles.
Keeping your team informed on both individual and department initiatives helps everyone feel more accountable and part of an overall direction rather than a cog in a machine.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it is remarkable how often driven team members at organizations feel unrecognized or adequately compensated for the value that they provide. As a leader, it is your responsibility to understand where great work is being done and to reward it with whatever means are both available and appropriate.
An extra FTO day to aid a long weekend for someone who has worked tirelessly on a critical project, a gift card to enjoy a free lunch on the company or public recognition in calls internal and external to your team are only a few ways to reward accomplishments that deserve to be recognized. Lastly, there is likely a reason that you’ve got a high performer on the team, and they have their own goals and interests that are driving their great work.
Try to understand what motivates them, and you might find even more opportunities to create a satisfying work environment for them whilst also doing great work for your organization.
As marketing technology leaders, we hold the power to transform our teams into trailblazers in the dynamic marketing technology landscape. By embracing the pillars of Empathy, Understanding, Growth, Transparency, and Accomplishment, we create an environment where collaboration, innovation, and continuous improvement thrive. Let’s lead with a human-focused approach to management and create innovative, happy, work environments that we ourselves would thrive in.
Failure. It means different things to different people. It means different things at different stages of life.
I am no stranger to failure. But learning how to use it to my advantage is only a recent thing.
My earliest memories of failing go back to when I was 4 or 5 and learning how to ride a bicycle. We lived at the top of a big hill. I had mastered riding around my driveway and yard. But I wanted to prove I could venture further, down the hill, and come back safely. I had no idea what the speeds would be like, or how to stop at such speed. I crashed pretty hard into a friend’s yard. I don’t recall specifics, but I do recall being incredibly upset and in pain, and walking the bike back up the hill to my house. I do not recall a good response from my father, only adding to the sense of failure I felt. It was very powerful, so much so it is still one of my most vivid memories from 45+ years ago.
Professionally I have had my own string of failures as well. Find me at a conference or call me sometime, I’m happy to talk about them. They used to be an embarrassment to me, until the mother of all failures hit. I have shared the story before, so I will put it on you to go <span style=“text-decoration:underline;”>listen</span> if you are interested. It was some time after this epic failure, that occurred on a national stage, that I really started learning how to embrace my failures. I give credit to <span style=“text-decoration:underline;”>Alex Williams</span>, then at Trendline Interactive, for starting conversations with me around the idea of acceptable failures. It is a concept that bears some thought - both because total perfection is not realistic, and because people need to grow.
Before diving into what acceptable failure looks like, it’s important to understand why some failure needs to be expected and appreciated. Kentin Waits outlines what I think is the best list of things you can learn from failure in the article <span style=“text-decoration:underline;”>“7 Surprising Benefits of Failure”</span>.
The key ones to me are:
Failure teaches lessons. There are some things I have failed at that I learned a great deal from, and there are other mistakes I have had to repeat a few times before I learned the lesson I was meant to learn. But there is always a learning opportunity there, and as a manager, it is my hope that people see that. I also feel it is my job to help them see it if they can’t get there themselves.
Failure helps us overcome fear. In the email marketing industry, one of the biggest fears people have is of “pushing the button” - the deployment of a campaign to a live audience. I don’t think I have ever been in another situation where I second-guessed myself so many times before taking an action. But after you make a mistake in an email campaign, large or small, you learn that the sun still comes up the next day, and there is more work to do. This actually helps you keep things in perspective.
Failure Inspires Creative Solutions. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Sometimes a solution requires out-of-the-box thinking and the only way to get there is through trial and error.
Having been in both the agency and brand-side worlds, I know that the daily expectation is total perfection. But as I previously mentioned, that is not realistic. So you need to reframe your expectations to allow for acceptable failures. The right mindset from a leadership perspective is critical. Here are my thoughts for how to deal with failures within your team:
Treat each incident as a learning opportunity. Not just for the person that made the mistake, but for yourself, the “process”, the whole organization. This is part of a mantra of continual improvement. Treat the person who made the mistake with grace and humility. At the end of the day, we are all human, with the emotions that go with that. Castigating someone harshly for a mistake doesn’t help the situation at all. Professionals will already feel bad enough and be really hard on themselves about whatever went wrong. They don’t need you piling on top of it. Don’t punish the person. This comes with a caveat outlined further down, but in general, punishing someone for making a mistake is going to be counter-productive to their well-being and that of the organization. You want people to feel safe about making minor errors, as that is part of the learning process. Be relatable. One of my most powerful tools when a team member makes a mistake is to share one of mine. I have made more than one, so I have a library to pull from. When you can relate to what they have done and be empathetic about it, they will likely be more diligent and confident in the future, seeing that you got to where you are by learning from your mistakes. Own your own mistakes. While this kind of goes with being relatable, it applies to you every day. Nothing magical has happened to make you immune to making a mistake, you will make more. Make sure you take responsibility in the same manner you would want your team to.
Now, you may be asking yourself “does he think any and all mistakes are acceptable?” Of course not. There is a line that has to be drawn. It should be pretty easy to see where that line is. Two key factors for this line are:
Has the same mistake been made multiple times? If someone doesn’t learn the first time and makes the same mistake again, then you need to work with them to understand why this happened, and deliver a warning. If it continues to happen, then other actions may be necessary. This is not acceptable failure in my mind, it is more like willful ignorance, which I have less tolerance for.
Weigh the impact. If there are legal or financial ramifications for a given mistake, then the person who made the mistake needs to be made aware of this. And in the future, identical mistakes cannot be made. Once is understandable, but twice can jeopardize the business and you need to treat it as such.
I have adopted this approach with the teams I have been leading for the last 10 years or so, and it has proven successful. With each team, I have felt connected to them, and feel that I have earned their trust simply by showing that I can relate and own up to my own mistakes. More importantly, the teams have felt empowered to experiment and build good solutions without the fear that a failure means it is the end of the world. Morale with my teams has been great, and in turn, I also feel that I am helping them to become better leaders as well. Sure, mistakes still happen, but our ability to recover from them and prevent future ones has been one of the biggest benefits from this approach.