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April 12, 2022
Clay Jones
Stephanie Eaddy

Why CMOs Must Commit to Building Better Teams

Quick—name a fundamental business driver that CMOs have yet to leverage in order to grow sales and improve marketing performance.

Agencies? Media? Martech? Been there, done that.

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is people.

Other than supply chain pressures and inflation, perhaps the single biggest drag on growth and innovation is the Great Resignation. The entire U.S. workforce is being massively reshaped thanks to a public that continues to reevaluate its priorities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A staggering 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in February, with the largest turnover coming in retail, manufacturing and state and local government education.

Marketing is by no means immune to this problem. As the CMO of a global communications brand recently told me, “We’ve seen incredible attrition at the mid and junior levels of the organization, and we’ve had a terrible time re-hiring folks into those roles. Candidates are getting offers 50-100% higher than what we’re able to provide. Something has to give.”

That something cannot simply be more zeros on a paycheck. A recent MIT study revealed that toxic corporate culture is 10 times more predictive of an employee resignation than salary. There are a host of complex reasons why people leave an organization, but clearly compensation is not the main issue. People are just plain unhappy.

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If companies take this opportunity to dig deeper into the root causes of employee dissatisfaction, they will begin to realize that organizational structures are holding people back both personally and professionally. Marketing may have a solution. It starts with building better teams.

Is your team a Real Team?

While CMOs have been attentive to the challenge of hiring top talent in recent years, they’ve been less focused on how to organize existing talent into optimal teams. Effective teams often translate into employees who deliver the best output in unison for the organization and, in the process, remain content in their roles and productive enough to want to stay.

Unfortunately, marketing has become stuck in a traditional matrix management structure in which teams are not intentionally designed or deployed. Groups come together under the guise of a team label and everyone does their best to devote time to the various projects landing in their laps, but conflicts inevitably arise between overlapping managers and priorities. People are stretched too thin, missions are not clearly defined, and communication and cooperation break down. Meetings become a substitute for actual work getting done. Nobody is happy.

On the flip side, when you ask people to name their most rewarding working experiences—the ones where they got the most done, with the least effort, while having a good time even though the work was hard—they’ll often describe what is known in academic circles as a Real Team.

Extensive research from Harvard University has identified Real Teams as having certain conditions in common. (See: Wageman, R., Nunes, D.A., Burruss, J., & Hackman J.R. (2008). Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes To Make Them Great. Harvard Business Review Press.) A battery of diagnostic tests may be used to determine the existence of these criteria and identify whether or not the organization is operating with Real Teams. Here is an informal checklist based on three of the most important characteristics, which the research has classified as Real Team, Compelling Purpose and Right People.

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1) Is the team clearly defined? Real Teams have strong boundaries, are stable and interdependent. If the team members are always changing or its members do not all depend on each other to get their work done, then it’s not a Real Team.

2) Can each member identify the purpose of the team? Real Teams have a consequential purpose. Individuals on the team should be able to identify that purpose and know how to measure success. The mission should be challenging enough to be commensurate with the skills of the people on the team.

3) Is there a diversity of skills, mindsets and backgrounds represented on the team? Homogenous teams are not Real Teams. Each individual member should have a unique and complementary skill set that contributes to reaching the goals and mission of the team.

Real teamwork, real results

The above is not simply academic theory or a reflection of Ivory Tower thinking. Real Teams actually work. Several of my clients that have implemented this novel approach to teamwork have reported major progress in a number of areas, including shortening approval processes and project timelines, as well as reducing escalations, by very significant margins.

One brand marketing team discovered that they were spending 70% of their weekly working time—for this team of 6, that totaled more than 170 hours each week—in alignment meetings with other marketing functions like Insights, Media, Innovation, Design and Analytics. That left only 70 hours for work like developing brand strategies, connecting with and selling to distributors, digging into consumer behavior and trends, and chartering big marketing “bets.”

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Nobody would dispute that functional alignment is important. But deep, strong siloes have essentially turned a team of six into a team of two. When we created a real team, the alignment work dropped from 70% to around 10%, and nobody wanted to go back to the old way.

Still a lot of work to do

In no way am I suggesting that any of this is easy. Telling people they are not working in an efficient or effective way can be a bitter pill to swallow. All change is hard, but this specific type of change is particularly uncomfortable. It feels personal, and pointing out mistakes can make people defensive and disagreeable.

But it has to be done. If marketing is going to reach its full potential in an era of social unrest (in which brands have to provide moral clarity, not just functional value) and rampant disruption (where all companies have to respond to changing conditions as if they were digital startups), the industry must move from the existing operating model where bona fide teams are few and far between, to an operating model where teams are the abundant, default way of working. That’s the only way for marketers to keep up and keep employees happy.

So what types of Real Teams make sense for the marketing organization? That is the subject of a future post by one of my colleagues. For now, I urge everyone to start thinking about a roadmap for leaders to move from their current reality to a better future.