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How 5 Marketing Leaders Are Steering Their Teams in Turbulent Times

By Katherine Gustafson

We recently held a fascinating virtual workshop in which neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef from UC Berkeley discussed how change and uncertainty affect our brains.

The event included a group discussion among five marketing leaders about actions they’re taking to help their teams coalesce and thrive while working remotely and handling the stress of a fast-changing pandemic.

Here’s a recap of the wisdom these marketing gurus bring to their management approaches.

Samantha Wu-4

Zarnaz Arlia, CMO, Emplifi

With the pandemic throwing everything into overdrive when she started at Emplifi, Zarnaz focused heavily on ensuring the social and emotional well-being of her team. Emplifi is a global company and was growing by acquiring other established businesses, so her team needed to mesh multiple societal cultures as well as differing work cultures.

“The results were surprising because I gave up nothing in terms of productivity,” she says. “In fact, I now have a high performing team… And we have this mutual trust and respect towards one another despite the cultural differences.”

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Emma Johnson, Chief of Staff to Group GM, Planning & Analytics, Workday

With many team members having never met each other due to remote work during the pandemic, the group hadn’t had the opportunity to make a connection on a personal level, which Emma felt was a challenge.

“In my career leading up to sort of this point, I had always learned and really felt strongly that people collaborate better when they make that connection first,” she says. “So, the approach that that I've taken… is to be much more intentional about those connections because that's what helps with collaboration.”

Her team’s favorite activity is the game “two truths and a lie,” which they play for 15 minutes at the start of every weekly meeting.

“We identified shared interests and experiences, and we became the people having a laugh rather than employees fixing a problem, chasing an issue,” she says. “It connected us.”

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Kenny Lee, Senior Director, Commercial Marketing, Zendesk

During the pandemic, Kenny’s team at Zendesk benefited from Zendesk’s investment in professional tools, including workspace collaboration tools, and a company-wide “no meetings after 1pm” rule. He notes that “Zendesk is a very meeting heavy culture, so it allowed us to just get some breathing room for everybody.”

Kenny instituted a weekly team icebreaker session with his team that involved asking a question unrelated to work to get to know each other better. This familiarity has been important in encouraging open communication. With Zendesk going through an acquisition, many staff have questions and are nervous. Kenny has maintained a policy of transparency, including telling people everything he can share, indicating which decisions have been made but can’t yet be shared, and being clear about what is yet to be decided. “It seems to calm a lot of people,” he says. “‘Hey, we're all in this together.’”

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Jessica Gilmartin, Head of Revenue Marketing, Asana

Starting her role during the pandemic when her team was working remotely in time zones all over the world—unable to even be on Zoom all at the same time—presented a challenge regarding how to build a work culture that functions for everyone.

Her team needed leadership to become cohesive. She started sending a recap of her activities of the week every Friday, which helps the team understand business priorities, messages from executives, and information they should know. “It helps give them context and purpose, and it helps them connect their work to the work that I'm doing and to the work that’s important to the company,” she says.

She also focused on creating inclusive opportunities for people to connect, such as scheduling the all-hands monthly meeting in rotating time zones and having team members take turns doing a PechaKucha, which gives each person seven minutes to present seven slides about their life outside of work. “You just learned all these incredible things about each other, and that creates this feeling that you're not just boxes on a screen, but that you're human beings,” she says.

Samantha Wu

Samantha Wu, CMO, Braintrust

With the pandemic changing some typical social norms and breaking down barriers in various ways, Samantha finds that it’s important to ensure people are on the same page. “As a leader, you have to create space to have people feel comfortable,” she says. If everyone works remotely, she recommends having some meetings specifically to check in and make sure people are all on the same page and are okay with everything that’s happening.

She finds that collaboration tools like messaging apps can help create connection and a sense of shared culture, whether people are sharing pet photos, talking about their weekends, or discussing what’s on their minds. It’s not a replacement for in-person culture-building, but “messaging apps really help create connection,” she says.

Another essential element to helping teams deal with change is being a transparent and clear as possible about priorities and the reasons for them. “Give people clarity on where they fit within the team and in the company,” she says.

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About Katherine Gustafson

Katie Gustafson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, focusing on content writing for business, tech, finance, and nonprofits.

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