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Growth at the top of your game: retaining & engaging marketing leaders of all levels

By Liz Corcoran / January 16, 2019

Marketing professionals are on the move, and companies must find better ways to engage and retain their top talent—especially leaders. But with the highest turnover rate of any job function (17%), and executive leadership that clocks the shortest tenure in the C-suite, they have their work cut out for them.

I get a lot of questions about the differences between retaining and engaging leaders versus individual contributors. But the truth is, leaders and executives share many of the same general needs as the rest of the organization: growth, development, opportunity and so on. The only differences lie in specific individual goals and how they achieve them.

Keeping in mind the volatility of today’s marketing landscape, and the speed in which the industry continues to evolve, how can employers optimize their employee development programs to successfully attract and retain marketing leaders of all levels for the long run?

Cater to their unique motivators

The biggest mistake companies can make in their efforts to engage marketing leaders is to assume that all employees share the same specific goals when it comes to professional growth and development. Because in reality, every person has their own unique motivations.

Some leaders love growing a team or developing expertise in a particular subject. Others prefer more measurable objectives, such as monthly marketing, sales and retention progress. Or maybe it’s rising to the challenge of managing the delicate balance between those key performance indicators and the satisfaction of their client.

Don’t assume their motivations are the same as your own or others’. And don’t fall prey to assumptions about specific roles or disciplines either. Many marketing leaders become frustrated by the oversimplification of their job as brand management and campaign execution. Many of today’s CMOs are driven by an enterprise-wide business mindset with a holistic interest in company growth initiatives, budgeting and strategic planning.

You’ll never discover these unique motivators if you don’t ask. Great leadership development starts by understanding what inspires someone and gets them out of bed in the morning—in short, what makes them tick.

Try asking employees questions like these: “What do you look forward to most when you come to work each day?” “What are your personal goals inside and outside of work?” “What do you want to be known for professionally?”

You don’t have to use these exact questions. You’ll probably want to tailor them to a specific role or even a specific person. The point is to have the conversation, and have it early and as often as necessary, especially because motivations can change over time.

Offer multiple avenues for support

No matter what level or position, every employee needs a person or group to act as a sounding board for ideas, wise counsel for difficult decisions and a support system for affirmation and encouragement.

Peer support

This can include something as straightforward as relying on your peers. For example, Sprout Social has its own internal Marketing Leadership Team that consists of directors and VPs across the Marketing department. These individuals meet for daily standups and regular strategy meetings to break down silos, open up communication and provide peer perspective.

We also have a peer group for manager-level employees that meets biweekly for lunch. Propose practices like these while your leaders are more junior so they can carry a peer support mindset into senior leadership.

Cross-functional support

For a more cross-functional approach, over the past year we’ve hosted Leadership Roundtables. At these meetings, leaders from across Sprout come together to talk through topics like feedback styles, team recognition and leadership philosophies.

Mentorship & coaching

Support can also come in the form of a more structured mentorship or coaching relationship. Rather than follow the traditional approach of matching a more experienced mentor with a less experienced mentee, structure your mentoring program in a way that matches mentees with mentors based on skill-sets. Choose mentors who can provide their expertise in a specific area that your marketing leader is looking to improve upon, whether that’s a technical skill or an area of management like giving effective feedback.

Mentorship offers benefits for both the giver and receiver. Depending on your marketing leaders’ goals, it may help to find them a mentee: someone they can invest in a more personal, rewarding capacity. We’ve found this to be the case with our Emerging Leaders Mentorship Program, where leaders find meaning and learn about themselves through the active mentorship of employees interested in developing their leadership skills.

When you have these formalized support programs, it shows that your organization cares about its employees and desires to create a culture where people take the time to invest in others.

Grow & develop their skills

No matter what level a leader, there’s always room for improvement of their skills. For many marketers, the two major areas of concern are industry knowledge and management aptitude.

Becoming an industry expert

These days it seems like marketing leaders must keep pace with a new digital application or technological advancement every day. It can be difficult to remain knowledgeable while also attending to the everyday demands of the job. For marketing leaders to stay effective, they need to stay educated.

Online courses, advanced schooling and conferences all provide great ways to keep up with a rapidly evolving industry. Companies can also provide internal opportunities for cross-functional education like Sprout’s “Marketing Teachbacks” and “Design Fridays.” These sessions give employees the opportunity to learn about topics specific and important to the success of different departments across the organization. Other companies offer similar experiences through guest speakers and regular lunch and learns.

Consider all the ways you can provide your leaders with opportunities to address their specific motivators through these sessions. For instance, some leaders may grow more by leading sessions than by attending them. Leaders who are motivated by teaching others will appreciate the opportunity to pass on their skills. It can also serve as a growth opportunity to work on presentation skills and public speaking.

Making a manager

We tend to forget that management itself is also a skill that needs developing. People management doesn’t always come easily. In fact, a staggering 93% of managers feel they need training on how to coach their employees.

Investing in an external coach or developing an internal manager onboarding and training program will ensure that leaders are properly equipped for every aspect of their job roles and responsibilities.

At Sprout, we ensure every new manager goes through leadership training. The sessions focus on the ins and outs of management at Sprout and cover a variety of topics including looking at our company values through a leadership lens, building trust across your team, delegation, motivation, coaching and feedback.

But Sprout’s New Leader Training doesn’t stop with these formal sessions. We also ask new managers to seek out established Sprout leaders and schedule more informal peer mentor meet-ups.

During that time, new managers can ask questions like: “What skills and/or experiences do you think most contributed to your success as a leader?” “What advice do you have for me as a new leader?” “What is one mistake you as a leader have made, or have seen other leaders make?”

Keep in mind that investing in management training not only benefits managers, but direct reports, too.

Opening up to feedback

You also want to make sure you account for your leaders’ blind spots. They may think they know the areas they need to grow in, but their peers and the people they work with on a daily basis can offer an additional objective perspective.

That’s why I’m passionate about ensuring that there are always ample opportunities for teams to provide multi-directional (ie: 360) feedback. If organizations want to perform at the highest levels and ensure growth, it’s important to establish ways for all employees to give and receive feedback.

Mediums such as consistent one-on-ones, ongoing performance conversations and tools that enable you to provide feedback in real time will help to establish the framework for a feedback culture. I should acknowledge that this takes time and can be challenging. It’s an area where even Sprout has room to improve.

What leaders want

The greatest thing you can do to help retain and engage marketing leaders is to remember they’re really no different than any other employee. They all want to feel inspired and invested in their personal success and the success of the company, properly equipped for the job they’ve been given and cared for by the organization and the people in it. See to it that there’s always room for growth—even at the top—and marketing leaders will stay put.

Liz Corcoran

Liz Corcoran

Liz Corcoran is the Director of Organizational Development at Sprout Social. In her role, Liz is focused on the development of both the organization and its employees through culture initiatives, education and coaching. Outside of work you can find Liz traveling with her husband, or attempting to renovate her new, old house.
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