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Myths about managing a marketing team

Change Makers

Myths about managing a marketing team


A manager’s position is a coveted one. But it carries a lot of responsibilities and room for mistakes. Chloe O’Toole sheds light on five myths about being a manager and leading a team of people.

A marketing leader’s most important job is not marketing. It’s not building a brand, growing market share, or attracting and retaining customers. It is especially not dealing with merchandise, undoubtedly the bane of every marketer. Sure, those are all critical parts of the package, but the single most important responsibility we have is to support and lead our teams. After all, they are the ones who will be building the brand.

I’ve been managing marketing teams for the better part of ten years and have made a few mistakes along the way. So, I thought I would share some myths about managing a team that I used to believe.

Myth 1: Your team’s culture is a product of the people in your team.

Reality: Nope. It’s 100 percent up to you, the leader.

Many years ago, I was in a marketing team with 14 people. Those people were fun, loud, and extroverted with very strong personalities. Unfortunately, there was quite a toxic culture in that team – a lot of talking behind people’s backs, negativity, and internal competition. I assumed this was because of the specific people that were in the team, and I left.

I then moved to another marketing team with, coincidentally, 14 people in it. Those people were also fun, loud, and extroverted, with very strong personalities. But the culture was completely different. In that team, it was everyone versus the world, not everyone versus each other. We supported one another and worked as a group. Unsurprisingly, it was also a higher performing team.

The contrast between the cultures was drastic, yet the people were basically the same. I couldn’t figure it out! Then I realised, it was 100 percent because of the leaders.

Both team leaders were great, genuinely kind people who worked really hard, but the second leader had a conscious and deliberate approach to setting the culture of the team. They inspired a strong code of ethics, created a highly supportive environment and stamped out any negative behaviour if and when it arose.

The lesson? You can’t lead a team passively and hope people will do the right thing. These experiences taught me that you need to articulate the values and behaviours you want as a team, model them yourself, create an environment where people feel safe and supported and act swiftly if you see anything that threatens your culture. 

Myth 2: Marketing leaders need to have all the answers.

Reality: Coach, don’t tell – unless you enjoy being a bottleneck.

Most people find themselves in a management role because they have become a subject matter expert in their field and have achieved certain goals as an individual contributor. Whether this is the right way to choose leaders is a topic for another day, but as it stands, that’s the case most of the time.

Before I managed a team, I took great pride in being the go-to person for my colleagues. If anyone had a marketing question, I had the answer. If I didn’t, I would diligently find it and bring it back to them. I remember a period where I would walk from desk to desk helping my teammates with whatever they were stuck with. What a nerd.

Anyway, when I became a manager, I applied the same level of helpfulness to my direct reports. Any question they had, I answered it straight away. I got a huge sense of satisfaction from being the one to solve their problems. Question after question, I had the answer.

Of course, I have since learned that this is completely wrong.

Answering my team’s questions rather than coaching them to find the answer themselves prevents their growth and progression. We all learn things better when we find them out ourselves.

But this isn’t the worst part. In taking this approach, I made my team cautious and hesitant because they felt like they need to do things exactly as I would do them. If I wasn’t there to answer the question, they sat paralysed without the confidence to progress. I had created a bottleneck which meant they were less likely to experiment, try new things and come up with ideas that I couldn’t even imagine!

It has taken years of conscious work for me to try not to do this and I am still not there yet. However, every day I challenge myself to respond to their questions with my own, coaching them to a solution that 95 percent of the time they already have within them and an outcome that is often way better than what I would have suggested.

Of course, there is one important exception to this: What are we thinking of having for lunch? Such a question always requires an immediate and well-researched response.

Myth 3: Manage people the way you want to be managed.

Reality: Yes, for the most part, but don’t forget to ask and adapt.

Here’s a little bit about me: I’m a Scorpio and love to cook. Oh, and I like managers who trust me to get on with it but are there to help if I get stuck.

When I became a manager, I knew that the right approach was to be the leader for others I wanted to have myself. Of course, this is mostly true. At our core, we all want to be trusted, supported, empowered and recognised when it comes to work. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Oh I just love being micromanaged. It really brings out the best in me.’

So off I went, following this approach. Desperate not to be a micromanager, I gave my team lots of room to take care of their respective roles, gave pretty loose briefs and followed up every now and then, figuring they would let me know when they got stuck. Once completed, I gave them plenty of recognition and celebratory emojis. That was how I liked it, so surely everyone’s the same?

What I came to realise is that while we fundamentally want the same things in a leader, our preferences around communication styles, meeting frequency, structure and formality are completely different. We’re also motivated by different things. One person might need a lot of clarity, help prioritising, regular check-ins, structure and process, and be motivated by the ability to learn, rather than a shout out on Slack. Another might simply be motivated by the opportunity to own something and be happy to get stuck into a project with a bit more ambiguity.

I was pretty oblivious to this in my early days. I now ask my team what motivates them, what they need from me and how they want to work. I’m often surprised by their answers.

Myth 4: Frequent conversations with your team are the sign of a great manager.  

Reality: The quality of your conversations matters far more than the quantity.

I am extremely fortunate to work with a People & Culture guru, April Marcot, who hits me with pearls of wisdom most days. April has led our business on a major people journey, resulting in three Gallup Global Best Workplace awards and a best-in-industry retention rate. She also makes a mean wood-fired pizza.

For a long time, I thought I was a kick-arse manager because I was in constant contact with my team. I chatted to them throughout the day, I asked how their weekend was and of course, answered many, many tactical questions. Our communication was frequent, so I thought I was nailing it.

April created a custom framework for one-to-one conversations at Talent about a year and a half ago, based on her knowledge that meaningful conversations with managers are critical to people’s happiness at work. I was like, “That’s great April, but I chat to my team all day – this must be for all those other managers who don’t!”

How foolish I was.

Quite simply, setting time aside every month to have an individual, face-to-face conversation that is not just about the day-to-day marketing stuff is the most important thing we can do as a team.

These conversations have helped me to identify concerns that I was otherwise oblivious to, track progress against objectives, create pathways for career progression, give meaningful and constructive feedback, receive meaningful and constructive feedback and most importantly, make sure people feel seen and heard.

The best part is that our P&C team gives us the questions that will lead to these meaningful discussions. Pizza and spoon-fed leadership tools – I am spoilt.

Myth 5: Vulnerability is great, but don’t tell them when you really mess up.

Reality: Tell them when you’ve made a mistake.

Like most marketers and Brené Brown devotees over the past decade, I have been very passionate about the topic of authentic and vulnerable leadership. Vulnerability is essential. We must show our authentic selves.

I embraced this concept with gusto, bringing my whole self to work, asking my team for help when I needed it and oversharing about my embarrassing moments, like when I called someone Nick for six months, and later found out his name was Alex.

Yet there was one thing I was very careful not to do, and that was to tell my team when I made an important mistake related to my work. Not a minor typo, not an awkward encounter, a real problem. I felt that if I did this, I would plant doubt in their mind about my competence as a leader.

Each week, we share a key learning in our team meeting and up until recently, mine would always be something interesting I had read, a ripper of a quote from Mark Ritson, or some wisdom from April. Recently, my learning was a moment that had come from a mistake I had made where I didn’t ask the right questions and approved something I shouldn’t have, which impacted a customer. I shared the story with my team and said, “You know what, I really messed that up.”

Leaders everywhere have become more vulnerable by opening up about personal struggles that would never have been made public a decade or so ago, which is awesome. But very rarely do we hear a CEO say, “I didn’t get that one right.”

I certainly don’t think my weekly learning was anything courageous, but I was pleasantly encouraged to see that it didn’t make my team think I was an idiot. We seem to have nailed vulnerability when it comes to opening up about major life struggles but how about the simple: “I don’t know this, can someone help me?” or “gee, I didn’t think that one through.”

If we want our teams to do it, we have to as well.

Ok let’s wrap this up.

I suppose the biggest lesson here is that we are constantly learning and as a result, we will change our perspective on things over time, even things we feel pretty damn sure about. Years ago, I thought cultures were determined by the specific personalities of team members, a great manager had all the answers, people wanted the exact same style of leadership I did, and that I was an awesome manager because I had regular surface level chats and was vulnerable about everything, except my own mistakes. Who knows? In another decade I might decide pizza is a terrible idea and everything I currently know about managing a team is wrong.

Ok now, that’s just ridiculous. Pizza will never be a terrible idea.


Chloe O’Toole is the head of marketing at Talent.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay


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