isolated chair in the middle of nowhere
PHOTO: Andrew Shelley | unsplash

We've all been hearing a lot about “The Great Resignation” lately. For a while I was using it to describe what's happening within marketing, but it doesn’t quite fit the dynamic in marketing operations. People aren’t taking themselves out of the game, they’re just moving on — and they're doing so at an incredible rate.

Why is that? A number of reasons:

  • The opportunities — Earlier this year Gartner reported that only 49% of enterprise organizations have a marketing operations function, up from 41% last year. Given that everything that marketing does is enabled by technology, it’s becoming clear that this is a critical function for every marketing department. There’s a lot of opportunity out there and not enough marketing ops experts to fill them.
  • Lack of internal opportunity for growth due to budget limitations — For many companies, COVID-19 required a reset and along with that came budget constraints. At the end of the day, money and career growth are really important. If a company can’t deliver on that they are going to lose people.
  • Work environment and stress — If you are in marketing operations you are well aware how stressful the job can be. Requests for technology come in from all sides, vendors relentlessly call on marketing team members who in turn push them on to you, and constant worry about stack cracks (when integrations break down). Darrell Alfonso and Sara McNamara did an excellent job on LinkedIn writing about the stress and challenges marketing operations professionals deal with on a daily basis. I think there’s a natural tendency to be optimistic that a new work environment may be better than a current one. For many of us, the pandemic created an opportunity to step back and look at life and work a little more holistically. And, after over a year of working from home, I think we all have a better idea of what works for us and what we want and are looking for places that deliver that.

I’m sure this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons why marketing ops is moving on. But regardless of the reason, we have no choice but to adjust how we manage in this time of great change when many of us are continuing to work remotely or in a hybrid fashion.  

Managing Marketing Operations Through Musical Chairs

As a CMO or Director responsible for a marketing operations team you have to accept that musical chairs is a risk and work to mitigate the risk and its impact by:

  • Ensuring your tech stack is fully documented. This system of record documents the technology that is being evaluated, used or has been retired in the event you lose key personnel and hire new ones. The list includes purchased technology, freemium technology, internally developed technology, and technology that is being used on your behalf by agencies. At a very minimum you should be tracking contract information (particularly auto-renewal dates), integration details, users, function and know the technical point person for each piece of technology. It’s no longer acceptable to have this information tucked away in one person’s head or in a spreadsheet that no one can access. If you as a CMO don’t have access to this information you are very quickly going to find yourself playing Chutes and Ladders, with mostly chutes in your future.
  • Planning for departures. Make sure you have redundant capabilities in critical areas so that you are protected if a key employee departs. You may need to invest in training or allocate some time for job shadowing.
  • Having onboarding processes that set up new hires for success. In a remote working environment, you have to replace the informal learning, connections and engagement that occur naturally when everyone is physically in the same location. New team members need to know the organizational structure, the business and department priorities, the approval hierarchy and who their key stakeholders are. And, they need to know who to call for advice and support.
  • Ensuring that priorities for each person on the team are manageable and the work you are assigning is achievable in the established timeframe. No one wants to work a 12- to 16-hour day anymore. An occasional push is fine, but a relentless grind is not going to keep people onboard. You have to reset your expectations. Along these lines, if you are someone who does their best work late at night, it’s important to let people know they don’t have to respond until the next work day. Misalignment about what needs to be done and when can create a great deal of stress.

When you have key employees leave, call on your vendors to help bring your new team up to speed. We’ve been working alongside our customers who’ve found themselves in this situation. One lost and replaced a couple of key people only to have the replacement people move on as well. We’ll happily keep onboarding to make our customers successful. Any vendor that won’t provide support in these crazy times is not a vendor you want to work with in the long-term.

Related Article: Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy for Marketing Ops?

For Those Playing Musical Chairs

If you are the one who's decided to switch chairs, it’s important to realize that the marketing operations community is relatively small. You are likely to bump into former colleagues in future jobs, so exit gracefully. My colleague and friend, Justin Sharaf, wrote a great article about managing marketing turnover and I was struck by one of his recommendations: "Put others in a position to be successful." If we all adopted this as a mantra to guide how we work and not just as we’re leaving a position, I’m sure it would make a difference overall. 

Providing your successor with a complete set of documentation about the technology both in place and being evaluated and a list of critical people and external contacts to know will be incredibly helpful to someone trying to come up to speed quickly. Another friend and colleague, Steve Petersen, frequently reminds me that when I’m documenting information about technical owners, contacts, etc. to always write their full names. He’s been caught out by having someone only list contacts by their first name. This is fine until there is more than one person with that name in the company.  

If stress and your work environment are key drivers when it comes to your decision to change positions, it is important to try and get a sense of the culture and environment of the companies you are considering to prevent going from bad to worse. In my experience, asking to talk to your future peers and teammates is a good way to get a feel for the environment. You can ask what a typical work day looks like, you can get a sense of the level of engagement with others in the organization, you can ask about how priorities are managed. Peers tend to give a less guarded view of the company and the work environment.

Related Article: CMOs: Your Marketing Ops Team Is a Secret Weapon

A Final Word About Stress Management

It’s equally important to take an active role in your own stress management by communicating your personal boundaries (e.g., you don’t take calls during your children’s bedtime hour) and telling your manager what you need to be successful. I know it can be hard to advocate for yourself but not doing so will lead to misery. As a manager I have a tendency to throw multiple projects at my team members at one time but I try to make a point of being clear about priorities and expectations so that no one feels overwhelmed and, I am open to push back if my expectations are unrealistic.

Over my career I have been less successful managing my own priorities, and have many times worked myself to burnout by trying to do too much at once. In my last job I nearly destroyed my health working six days a week from 7:30am to 8:30pm with an hour+ commute on either side. And, though I was under a lot of pressure from my board, I was the one that made the decision to work those hours. When I left that job, I had the opportunity to travel to India and spend time with a Buddhist nun. She talked a lot about the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves. I came away from that time with two learnings.

  1. It’s OK to take a break and drink a cup of tea and do nothing else. I’m guilty of drinking coffee and tea while I’m working and eating lunch at my desk. A decision to take a short break will not end the world. Give yourself permission to take 10 minutes to do nothing.
  2. When my to-do list overwhelms me and I think I should just keep working regardless of how tired I am, I’ve learned to look at the list and ask myself what would happen if items on the list weren't completed until the next day. When you go through this exercise you quickly realize that again, the world will not come to an end.

This is my second time running a startup and though I still generally eat lunch at my desk, I am less stressed, more productive, and happier because I'm better at managing my work load and stress by leveraging the simple learnings above. If you are struggling with this, feel free to reach out.

Related Article: The Cure for Burnout Is Not Self-Care

A Time of Change We Should Welcome

We’re living in a new world and have to adapt as managers and employees. Though we’re in unknown territory and have to deal with a lot of change, we also have the opportunity to reshape how we work and manage. I think that’s going to turn out to be a very good thing.