Building world-class marketing team
8.1 The Foundations of High Performance
There’s a lot of debate about how to build high performing teams. Various different approaches include creating the ‘right’ daily habits, hiring on EQ instead of IQ, building soft behavioural skills or the role of a leader in creating bonded, driven groups.

There are scores of books published on the subject. In fact, throughout my career I’ve read 100+ books on leadership, 100+ books on self-development and learnt through ups and downs in the field. I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside great leaders and world-class operators like Sir Clive Woodward (the only winning Rugby World Cup coach for England) and learn from their approach.

This is where I first learned about an analogy called a Sponge Vs Rock. In essence, it’s the same theory as growth or fixed mindset. What I learned from Sir Clive on leadership is simple: you need to build a group of individuals who have a growth mindset (sponge) and bring them together in a shared vision.

This is your foundation for building a world-class team.
Image: Medium

There is a distinct overwhelm of what tactics, playbooks and strategies you need to do to be successful — successful in the sense of creating a high performance environment with consistent results. I believe effective leadership is now more important than ever, with the changing macro-economic environment. Some of the playbooks that worked previously, now need adapting and refinement to deliver results in the present. Covid has had a further dramatic effect on management and leadership because of employees working remotely. It’s even harder than ever.

Whatever your understanding of leadership, the fact remains that when you arrive as a new CMO / CxO, you’ll likely be presented with the core challenge of building a team.

This might mean improving outcomes with an existing team, or building a new one. If your business is Series A / Series B it’s likely you’ll be starting very small. This is an exciting problem to have. You can create a culture and team dynamic entirely from scratch.

Regardless of the scenario, it remains true that one of the single biggest obstacles to sustainable growth is nurturing a high performance environment. Perhaps that’s why so much literature is published on the subject.

Perhaps, that’s why albeit there are playbooks to follow: ultimately it’s application is based on you and your individual traits.

To transform a ‘losing’ team into a ‘winning’ team, or a newly formed team into a high performance machine, what are the prerequisites? This will be covered.

This final chapter is intended to introduce you to the structure, processes and behavioural leadership qualities you’ll need to imbed this and build a great team of your own. I hope to distil ideas and concepts that have worked for me.
8.2 Clarity
In my experience, the key ingredient in every high performing team is clarity.

What do I mean by clarity?

Creating clear expectations in the minds of your team around their roles and behaviours, and regularly sharing the exact direction you wish to set.

Clarity creates the right environment for individuals to act independently and purposefully without your presence. Without clarity, expect inconsistent results.

For some, creating clarity amongst a new team might seem straightforward. As a new CMO, you can devote yourself to embedding exactly the right culture with your first hires.

But it’s easy to train one or two people because you have time to explain your purpose, the behaviours needed and inspire new hires with a clear vision.

The problems come as your team grows.

How can you properly train a team of 5? 10? 50?

Do you have enough time to spend explaining your vision to everyone? You need to. You need a process for how you scale.

As the team expands, it’s your responsibility as a leader to build processes that create clarity for the entire team. This clarity should exist with or without your presence.

Use the tools at your disposal to put clarity at the centre of your management. Think about:

  • Every email interaction and communication rituals
  • Weekly meetings and 1-2-1s
  • How Slack and other instant tools can be used
  • Informal in-person conversations
  • Cadence of performance reviews
  • Coaching methodologies
  • Recruitment and onboarding effectiveness
Every additional team member creates further strain on the clarity that existed when you made your first hire. The more people you add to the team, the more conscious you must be of clarity disintegrating.

Look out for lapses of clarity amongst your team roughly 6-10 weeks after you hire. During the initial onboarding phase most colleagues will feel clear about what they need to do. As the team grows, expect that clarity on roles and expectations to become muddied.

A new hire might begin working independently on projects after 6 weeks or so. This often creates uncertainty in their mind. They worry about whether they’re hitting the right goals. This lessens clarity amongst the group. If you’re not careful, this unclarity can spread to the entire team.

Find out when this ‘honeymoon’ phase ends for your new team members, and think carefully about how you can start measuring performance to support them from the outset.

It’s your job to make sure your team continuously has clarity about their role, their expected behaviours and the direction you set for the department.

Recommended reading:
L. David Marquet’s book is a fantastic guide to creating clarity in teams.

‘Turn the Ship Around!’ focuses on a naval commander who turned the worst performing submarine into the flagship of the fleet. The commander did this by instilling clear guiding principles on how people operate and work. He focused his leadership on the legacy the group wished to leave, creating a clear future vision of the team’s achievement.

Follow this link for more books that will help you become a better leader:

Create clarity in the mind of your team and your vision will fall into place. Although you’ll never have 100% clarity all the time, it’s a leader's job to reinforce openness and discussion week after week. Let’s look at how you can begin that process:
Homework: A check-list to deliver clarity
Creating clarity is easy when you approach it in four key stages:

1. Interview stage

Think ahead now — how will you share clear expectations during the interview?
Be frank with candidates. Share expectations, outputs you will be measuring new hires on (instead of actions, aim for specific dated targets) and discuss your vision.
Be super transparent about what it’s like to work for you.

This creates a connection between the individual, you and the team right from the interview stage. It also ensures you find the right fit. A tip I often deploy is to try and put people off the role / company as much as possible — everyone wants to work at a startup or scaleup. But do they? It’s really not as cool as you think - the work is highly pressurised and relentless, and it’s only imaginable when you’ve had first-hand experience of it. You can’t comprehend the experience otherwise.

2. Create a guiding document

Write a guiding manual for your team. This should cover:
  • Your philosophy, personality and expectations of how you work.
  • Your team structure, expected behaviours and roles.
  • How your team fits within the organisation.
  • Your vision, goals and aspirations.
I called this document ‘Hi, I’m Edwin’. It’s sent to each new team member on the first day they join. It’s shared on a regular basis.

Share this with new hires, to generate excitement about the team and why they were chosen. This also sets up an easy-to-share process for creating clear expectations from day one. New hires know what they need to do and how to act.

3. Create team guiding principles

Lots of companies already have shared values. But what about your team? Create shared values specifically for your department. These should relate to what’s important to you. What is your desired team culture? What behaviours will you need to foster to get you there?

This document should be simple and easy to understand. Don’t be tempted to copy another company. Think deeply, trust your gut and use these principles to guide you.

4. Process

Design a process first for how you will onboard and lead your team. This creates clarity. Don’t hire a team, then design a process for managing performance afterwards — this will cause confusion.

How will you continually reinforce your goals? Think about how you can embed the language of your team’s behaviour every week.

Set yourself reminders on how and when you need to interact with the team, add specific language you want to use and exact outputs you want to see.

Remember, your job as a leader is to continually reinforce your expectations amongst your team.

Poorly performing teams often result from leaders who don’t deliver clarity.
8.3 Karma and Well-being
When creating a high performing team, the second most important issue to clarity is team wellbeing. This has been heightened since the start of Covid. It has affected us all. If it is affecting you as the leader (which it will) you have to remind yourself of the service to others in support of their well-being, first and foremost.

Wellbeing means different things to different people, but for me it’s about focusing on what people do over the hours they put in. Output over input. Being confident, relish being at work because there is a feeling of purpose. Notice I don’t say have fun or enjoyment: let’s face it the job is not always fun or enjoyable. People are too obsessed with that narrative.

High performing teams will often have a good work-life balance and high wellbeing scores. Low performing teams might be unproductive because they are overwhelmed.

Your role as a leader is to protect the group from overwhelm.

Let’s ditch the ‘hustle’ mentality. It’s dated, and it doesn’t work.

For your team, set yourself the following goals:

  • Avoid digital interaction overload
  • Foster digital minimalism
  • Prioritise every team member’s work-life balance
  • Encourage learning
  • Embed self-reflection techniques

Don’t expect your team to be online 24/7. Instead, have a more realistic approach. Encourage focus not productivity, but also ensure that your team gets plenty of downtime.

Build a team where wellbeing is talked about. Care about how your team works, as well as what they deliver. Treat mental health seriously, approaching it with the same tact as you would any other wellbeing issues. If you pressure and push your team to overload, expect to see increasing mental health problems and falling productivity.

Understandably, CMOs and CEOs focus on productivity. Always making a presumption of poor productivity because nothing is ever fast enough. Wellbeing seems secondary. Luckily, we’re learning that wellbeing is in fact central to focus.

Solve wellbeing issues by being clear about output as well as being supportive towards colleagues’ lives. Build in a regular cadence of communication with your team around wellbeing, and it won’t be an issue.

The workplace has evolved beyond 9-5, and so must you. Today, we work smarter and focus on output over input.
Homework: How to prioritise well-being
To prioritise your team’s wellbeing, you must first look at your own.

Reflect on yourself for a moment.

  • Is wellbeing a principle you believe in?
  • Are you genuinely concerned for your team’s wellbeing?
  • Do you find conversations about mental health challenging, or part of a normal working relationship?

If wellbeing isn’t important to you yet, you might wish to re-evaluate.

Motivating younger generations in the workforce starts with a commitment to understanding mental health and wellbeing. If you ignore this issue, it will worsen.

Go away and invest some time — read around mental health in the workplace. Start thinking about processes and systems you can introduce to uplift wellbeing among your employees.

Create your own philosophy.

  • How would you like to communicate the importance of wellbeing to your team?
  • Is your team currently well balanced? If not, how can you encourage healthier habits?
  • How would you like your team to treat the issue of mental health?
  • What could you do to motivate the team to treat wellbeing differently?
  • What treats could you introduce that focus on wellbeing?

Set up a series of 1-2-1s.

Aim to foster open working relationships with your direct reports.

  • Enable regular, informal discussion to see how they’re feeling
  • Show that you care by asking open questions and sharing conversations around wellbeing
  • Get to know your staff, so that they feel comfortable talking to you.

Ask these questions:

  • What am I making confusing?
  • How can I be useful to you?
  • How can I support you as you take responsibility for yourself?
  • In the past month, what have you been happy about?
  • In the past month, what have you been less happy about?
  • What questions do you have for me?

And a few out of this list:

  • How do you feel about your goals for this quarter?
  • Any feedback for me?
  • How could I be a better manager for you?
  • What can I do to make your professional life better?
  • What’s the biggest problem of our organization?
  • What don’t you like about our product?
  • What would you like to improve next quarter?
  • What would you like to achieve by the end of the year?
  • What would you like to learn?
  • How is your team doing?
  • What would you like to be better at and in which areas would you like to grow?
  • After X+ month/years at [your company name], how do you feel overall?
  • If you were me, what would you do differently?
  • What are the things you’ve done since you joined that you’re the most proud about?
  • Is there anything I could do to invest more in your growth?
  • In the next month, what would you like to do differently from last month?
  • What’s the split of your time today between X/Y/Z? What would you like to spend more/less time on?
8.4 Why process & structure matter
With the foundations of clarity and wellbeing you have the foundations to building a high performing, happy and focused team.

But you can’t get great outcomes without a robust series of processes for monitoring and tracking progress.

Some leaders won’t visibly need this. Naturally ‘gifted’ leaders might create caring, high energy teams without having an obvious set of processes. These individuals are rare. The vast majority of us may aspire to work this way, but in reality we need help.

If you want to create consistent results, then you must accept that as a leader you cannot sporadically apply aspects of management. Monitoring and measuring when you ‘feel like it’ will cause disturbances in performance, output and clarity. Accept that you need a formal process.

Your process checklist

Think about:

What outputs do you need?
How will you regularly foster team wellbeing?
What structured projects are coming up?
What regular steps, milestones and reminders need to be in place?
Weekly, monthly and annual team meetings.
Informal 1-2-1s.
Email language.
Weekly rituals to foster connection.

I’ve found it a huge help to have a timeline of what needs to be done, when.

It prevents me from missing opportunities to lead effectively and creates clarity in the team.

Consistent processes lead to consistent messages. This is what makes a team successful.
Homework: How to organise process and rituals
I create project plans visible only to myself. Asana is very helpful for this.
Source: Asana

I revisit it regularly during the working week, and evaluate my performance every quarter.

A. Your quarterly project plan

  • What outcomes do you need during the next quarter?
  • What behaviours will you need from your team to drive this?
  • What are your behaviours to enable this high performance?

Keep this plan internal to yourself. Be clear on the expectations you have of how your team will perform, creating columns for each team member. Be clear about your own actions, beliefs and needs from the group.

I use Asana for project management, because it enables me to map the exact actions and outputs I expect and see how I will oversee the process from end to end.

Each week I also add ‘brain dump’ notes relating to what’s happening, how I’m measuring against my leadership goals and what I want to change. Each time I write these ‘brain dumps’ down, I share some of the insights via email with the team. This creates a powerful loop of accountability, and ensures progress doesn’t slow.

B. Be fully transparent

A powerful tool for any leader is transparency. I use several tools to ensure that feedback works both ways across the group.

  • Start with an anonymous survey — what common issues arise?
  • Make feedback part of your monthly and quarterly team meetings
  • Build feedback into 1-2-1s - ensuring your team feels comfortable sharing their experience regularly will help build trust in the team

Link any feedback you get to your original project plan.

  • Are you seeing incremental improvements in wellness?
  • Are you contributing to a positive environment?

Some leaders won’t bother with this — but I think it’s vital for employee wellness.

Feedback can be used as a metric to measure results. Although some more traditional leaders might see this as a waste of time, keeping transparent communications open across the team will impact your bottom line.
8.5 Upskilling & Relentless Learning
Upskilling your team should be an ongoing process. This is because the skills required to be effective in a modern marketing workplace are also constantly evolving.

Yet many CMOs might be expected to reinvigorate a large inherited team. This team might be made up of a mixture of roles, individuals and skill sets and that’s a daunting prospect for some.

As with many things, however, the best way to effect change is to start with your own behaviour.

As leaders, we should be constantly upskilling ourselves as well as our teams.

I see learning as a mindset — something to be enjoyed and embraced, not avoided. As such, it’s a daily event for me. Here are some ideas:

  • Daily coaching as problems arise.
  • Formal coaching meetings set in calendar.
  • Hiring external trainers.
  • Creating a structured course.
  • Creating a regular cadence for team members to track their improvement.
  • Offering incentives for colleagues to undertake training.

Encourage and foster daily learning habits.

Here are 10 Ways To Build Daily Learning Habits Into Your Life:

In marketing, there’s always a new tactic, tool, strategy or hack to be tried. Trying to keep up with everything can be dangerous and distracting. But being curious about new trends, without feeling the pressure to implement everything, can give you an exciting edge.

Smart CMOs won’t leave training to chance, instead seeing it as a group mindset.

The sheer speed of change in the modern work environment demands continuous improvement. So make your upskilling strategy a top priority, and use it as a force for positivity amongst the team. With the right approach, you’ll boost morale and reduce staff turnover in the long term, as well as improving results.
Homework: The three tiers of upskilling

  • Start upskilling yourself first. Be obsessed with learning.
  • Choose a broad range of interests, and commit to investing time every day.
  • Be curious and you’ll encourage the same from your team.

I write a daily motivational email and set up a devoted Slack channel for the purpose of sharing knowledge. My first action for the day is to send out some form of link, article or a helpful piece of content that my team would enjoy.

The idea isn’t to force people into learning, butto encourage curiosity about skills, behaviours and approaches to work.

Your team

  • Have regular upskilling conversations on a 1-2-1 basis.
  • Learn people’s specific challenges and goals.
  • Coach individuals through the process of developing their skills.

You might think you don’t have time to coach your team individually but I built elements of upskilling into the structure of my regular meetings with direct reports.

Look for opportunities to find common challenges between colleagues — could these groups work together and coach each other?

Hired help

  • Find mentors for your team
  • Many companies now hire a permanent coach in-house

Having permanent help within the team can be of huge benefit to the company.

Don’t think of this person as the leader of a formal programme, but rather as someone who is obsessed with individual coaching, mentoring and can internally champion good learning behaviours.
8.6 Team Connectedness
The final component of building high performance is connectedness.
Image: Jostle

As your team grows, how can you mesh individuals together?

Typical marketing teams consist of multiple roles and responsibilities, including:
  • Sales development reps
  • Demand Generation marketers
  • Digital marketers
  • Developers
  • Content marketers
  • Public Relations
  • Account and client facing executives
  • Social media / creative

The issues we have discussed (clarity, wellbeing, process and upskilling) get you to a certain point. Beyond that though, the key ingredient is team connectedness.

You don’t want to build a group of individuals focused on their own performance. This leads to high staff turnover as the business grows.

Instead, aim to create buzz in your team environment. A shared sense of purpose, drive and connectedness is the key to bonding people together.

Grow the team together

  • Focus less on individual achievements.
  • Share milestones as a group.
  • Ensure you incorporate outliers (SDRs, freelancers).

Under poor leaders we feel like we work for the company.

With good leaders we feel like we work for each other.

Simon Sinek
Humans crave connectedness to purpose and meaning. This is a crucial facet of building high performance in any team.

Recommended reading:

“10 ways to connect people in your team”
Homework: Ideas for bonding and trust
Traditional ways of bonding teams don’t work like they used to.

When you think more carefully about wellbeing, would team drinks really create the right culture? Going for beers every Friday seems old fashioned in 2019, when roughly a third of 16-24 year olds choose not to drink.

Do you need an offsite?

Offsite team building can be expensive and counter-productive. It implies that team bonding only matters once a year. There are many elements of these sort of days that can be incorporated into the regular cadence of work life throughout the year.

Create a structure for team connectedness

What could you do every week for 10-15 minutes with your team to create connectedness?

Think about the type of activities you’d usually do on an away day — an ice breaker, for example. Could you do these regularly?

Create roles for responsibility

As the team grows, find a social secretary who naturally loves being part of the team. This person can organise regular team bonding — for example, Thursday morning breakfasts or group fitness activities. Anything that sets the appropriate tone for your vision.

The more you can get people to relate to each other, the better connected the team will become. How can you encourage different individuals to understand others perspectives? Think about building a weekly or monthly programme of varied activities and methods.

Make connectedness an ongoing experience, rather than a one-off.

Recommended Reading

Leadership, personal development and culture is a passion I have followed for many years. To read more on the topics above here are my favourite essays on the subject:

How to become a better leader

5 Ways to Become a More Credible Marketing Leader

Culture tips: how to 10x your culture with experience stacks

3 Steps to Consistently Get The Most Out Of Your Team (HINT: Not Performance Reviews)

10 Ways To Build Daily Learning Habits Into Your Life

Three Practical Ways to Be a More Successful Leader and Manager

How Do You Avoid Being Micromanaged:

A ‘Productivity’ Strategy Anyone Can Use for Improved (and Better) Performance
END: Personal Philosophies
There are 4 levels of employees:

  • Level 1 — You do what you are asked to do.
  • Level 2 — Level 1 + You think ahead and solve problems before they happen.
  • Level 3 — Level 2 + You proactively look for areas of opportunity and growth in the business, and figure out how to tap into them
  • Level 4 — Level 3 + You help others do that either by coaching, mentoring or by taking on projects
A statement I have taken with me throughout my career is from a previous CEO, who always reminded us ‘Don't be the person moaning at the water cooler’.

What he meant in practice was moaning does not help scenarios, don’t gain the perception of someone who is negative and look at solutions. I fully agree. At the same time I believe it’s important to be positive regardless of situations — see the best in things not the worst. It serves you better. It serves the people you work with better.

It serves the business better. Plus, it’s just a better outlook on life.
Hopefully this course will serve you well, and can offer you not only a starting point, but also become something to always refer back to throughout your journey ahead. Go back and work through the activities. Set reminders in your calendar to revisit sections in this book as part of your planning for the year ahead.

Just keep telling yourself: If you’re in this role, you belong here. You’ve got this! It can feel overwhelming. Being at the top tier is hard. It’s easy to feel like there’s been some horrible mistake made by putting you in charge of the ship. Honestly, it would be strange if you didn’t have bouts of imposter syndrome in your first year in the role.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this book, it’s that this difficult stage of growth is not unique to any one company. Your difficulties are not unique to your team. The challenges are all to be expected. It’s hard, yes! But that just means that if you can navigate this transition well, you’ll stand out, and your company will be at a huge advantage for it.
You have reached the end of Lesson #8 — CONGRATS! This is the end of the course

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Who is Edwin Abl?
I love the build phase and helping companies, and people, get to the next level. I've successfully managed almost every aspect of sales and marketing hands-on. I was the CMO at two London scaleups in the Blenheim Chalcot portfolio, Hive Learning (including new business sales) and Modulr, an award winning payments platform. Previously I ran Appirio marketing, alliances and GTM in Europe, where we scaled pipeline from $30k to $133M in 4 years, sold for $500m (one of highest services acquisitions to-date).

I've run my own startup and worked in sales for many years. Writer and speaker, delivering talks on stage at events globally with audiences ranging from 1,000 to 50. Articles published on I love supporting to startup and scaleup ecosystems so feel free to get in touch through the website or LinkedIn.

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