May 31 2024
Katie McAdams

The Secret to Building a Successful Marketing Team


In today’s era of rapid technological innovation, it can be easy for marketing leaders to focus solely on building a top-notch adtech and martech stack as the ultimate way to empower their team. After all, tech is undeniably a critical and transformational piece of any marketing team’s effectiveness.

But a successful marketing team takes more than tech alone. To build and retain a team that reaches its full potential, marketing leaders must also prioritize the “soft skills” that empower effective collaboration and champion the kind of creative risk-taking that sets teams apart.

These human elements are especially relevant in the context of declining employee engagement, which after rising steadily throughout the 2010s has remained fairly stagnant since the early days of the pandemic. As of 2023, only 33% of US employees were engaged in their work and workplace, with unengaged workers representing $1.9 trillion in lost productivity on a national scale.

In this environment, finding and retaining talent is a top concern for C-suite executives. This is particularly true for marketing organizations, which lost 14% of their workforce between 2019 and 2022 and continue to grapple with an ongoing talent crunch. In fact, global marketers ranked talent management as one of their top five challenges in 2023.

As the CMO of an organization whose core ideology includes a dedication to the personal and professional growth of each employee, I’ve found that the way my team works together is one of the biggest predictors of our success. If our culture isn’t healthy, productive, and collaborative, the quality of what we produce suffers.

Similarly, as marketing leaders contend with major paradigm shifts in the industry, nurturing their team members’ social and emotional skills in service of the collaborative, innovative culture they foster will be a major differentiator for brands and agencies looking to retain top talent, advance innovation, and drive revenue.

The Benefits of a Conscious Leadership Approach

Adopting a conscious leadership approach, which aims to build teams that work together as efficiently and as effectively as possible, is one of the most impactful things I’ve done in my tenure as a CMO (and I don’t just mean embodying conscious leadership principals myself, but making sure my team members are trained in embodying those principles as well). It can be easy to discount the so-called “soft skills” this kind of leadership focuses on—things like self-awareness, empathy, accountability, emotional intelligence, and curiosity—but these are the skills that give teams the cohesion and adaptability necessary to meet all the changes taking place in the advertising landscape. At the same time, building a team with these skills means creating a team culture that is positive, supportive, and fun: In other words, a culture that engages team members and makes them want to stay for the long haul.

Research highlights the benefits of both leaders and team members having these skills: Leaders with strong emotional self-awareness are more likely to be perceived by their teams as creating environments that foster high performance, and the World Economic Forum has noted that “decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack.” In kind, businesses are increasingly seeking leaders with social skills like empathy, self-awareness, effective listening and communication, and the ability to work with many different kinds of people. Similarly, the demand for social and emotional skills in the US workforce is forecast to increase by 26% between 2016 and 2030.

These skills are even more relevant in the context of marketing, where the ability to empathize with a target audience in service of understanding what messages might resonate most with them can make or break a campaign. As such, these social and emotional skills drive innovation and creativity on marketing teams, and boost revenue in kind.

To embody conscious leadership, leaders must develop skills like the ability to give feedback without blame or judgment and to receive feedback with openness and curiosity, and foster those skills in their team members as well. Those things don’t just happen naturally—we all tend to judge others harshly, to get defensive, and to take things personally when our ideas or performance are criticized. It takes a significant amount of personal development work to gain a tolerance for giving and receiving feedback in constructive ways. When an entire team gains that tolerance, it leads to a level of cohesion and trust that can be transformative for the team’s output.

Another conscious leadership skill is the ability to remain open to the opposite of your own perspective being true. As with giving and receiving feedback, this skill requires a lot of self-reflection. You have to ask yourself, “Am I holding onto this idea because I know it’s the best way forward, or because I’m attached to not being wrong?” This is an especially important skill for marketers, because the work we create is very visible, and thus very open to feedback and criticism.

The self-reflection necessary for conscious leadership is uncomfortable, difficult work, and it takes real time and effort to implement across a team. Leaders must lead by example, of course, but also offer their team professional development opportunities to grow these social and emotional skills, as well as make a practice of digging into situations where team members aren’t working well together. At Basis Technologies, our leadership team spends a significant amount of time meeting together to practice these skills in real-time. We know that if we’re not working those muscles, it’s easy to revert to our bad habits, like gossip and blame—and in doing so, we create a culture of gossip and blame that will be felt and adopted by our teams.

Psychological Safety Fosters Creativity and Innovation

One of the goals of a conscious leadership approach is to create a culture of psychological safety in service of boosting creativity and innovation—one in which individuals feel secure enough to share ideas, take risks, and be vulnerable with their team members.

A psychologically safe environment has a host of benefits for businesses. Research indicates that psychological safety drives improved performance and employee retention, and is one of the most reliable indicators of team performance, productivity, quality, safety, creativity, and innovation. Psychological safety has also been called the “key to realizing the promise of diversity in teams”. All of these benefits are even more apparent in teams whose work is creative and collaborative, like marketing.

Alas, psychological safety is all too often underprioritized, with one survey of workers across industries finding that “only a handful” of business leaders create climates of psychological safety among their teams. As such, adopting conscious leadership in service of creating psychological safety and fostering engagement can give marketing leaders a significant competitive edge.

Even more, psychological safety creates environments in which team members can take risks. Risk-taking is critical for us as marketers, because it creates stand-out ideas—and Don Draper had a point when he said, “Success is related to standing out, not fitting in.” Marketers can’t come up with the kind of risky, stand-out ideas that really make a splash if they don’t feel safe sharing those ideas with their peers. At the same time, in my experience, when we take more risks, we have more fun. Risk-tasking creates a more exciting environment to work in, and those are the environments where marketers stay engaged and want to stay for the long-term.

I don’t have everything figured out, and I am still learning about the best ways to foster psychological safety amongst my team. But I’ve made it a priority because of the significant benefits it offers in terms of talent retention, innovation, and creativity.

The Foundation of a High Performing Marketing Team

All in all, the term “soft skills” drastically underrepresents the power social and emotional skills offer marketing leaders and their teams. In truth, things like empathy, emotional intelligence, and conscious communication form the foundation of a high performing team.

As advertisers grapple with a huge amount of industry turbulence, conscious leadership offers a reliable avenue for leaders to retain talent, harness innovation, and drive revenue. Even more, leaders who embody these skills—and who help their team members to develop them in kind—create cultures of psychological safety that lead to the kind of creative risk-taking that sets brands apart.