Marketing leader Carla Johnson dishes on driving productivity for marketing and design teams
All around the world, improving productivity is an essential focus. You won’t find a professional setting anywhere on the planet where business leaders aren’t thinking about ways to get more out of their teams while developing a culture of collaborative success.
But that isn’t to say everyone approaches team productivity the same way. Across different geographies and industries, there are plenty of different viewpoints on this key topic. Veteran marketing leader Carla Johnson has had opportunities to witness these varying philosophies up-close, through her unique lens as a globetrotting speaker, consultant, and avid traveling enthusiast.
Tapping her expertise as a proven leader of productive marketing teams, we asked Carla about many key factors: common traits she’s noticed in groups that consistently perform well, the international and cultural distinctions in managing collaboration, work operating frameworks that she finds helpful, the value of empathy in leadership, and much more.
Individual Differences Don’t Inhibit Collaboration, They Enhance It
Your management experience spans many different places and contexts. What are a few shared characteristics among the most collaborative and effective teams you’ve seen?
One is that these cultures, these organizations, they make [collaboration and effective teams] a priority. And they look at not only what’s the performance of an individual employee, but how do they contribute to a team? And looking at what their role is in making that team successful, because if you’re looking at how any company is successful, you have to reverse-engineer it back to individuals. But then, you have to bubble it back up from individuals to teams, because the teams and their productivity are what make a company successful.
When a team member is struggling with productivity, it’s not always apparent what the underlying issues are. As a leader, how do you go about getting in tune with team members and trying to get a deeper sense of what’s holding them back?
I see a lot of team leaders who are great at managing or directing the work, but they don’t take time to take a step back to get to know the people on their team. When you start to learn about the people on the team, you start to understand that they have these amazing talents, and natural skills.
That’s why you say things like, you know, Nick, he’s a natural people person, or Jenny, she’s really great at organizing all of these things. You have an opportunity to bring those innate skills and personality traits to the work that you do. By doing that, you create empathy. Oftentimes there’s a person or two that can really make or break the success of a team, and how people feel about coming together. When you have empathy for the people on a team, and you get to know them, you will always bring out the best in them.
When you have empathy for the people on a team, and you get to know them, you will always bring out the best in them.
People Approach their Work in Varied Ways
We’re curious about some of your travels around the globe, which have given you the chance to see the way people work in various businesses and cultures. Have you noticed any distinct differences in the way collaboration and team productivity are approached across borders?
You know, it’s been really fascinating. So my husband and I, and our three kids, we just came back from a year abroad in Spain. And one of the things I did while I was abroad is teach at a university where the students came from all over the world. While the classes were in English, it was very interesting based on the cultures how students were participating and interacting with one another in the classes.
I would see some amazingly brilliant students who would sit in the corner and never say a word. And I’d pull them aside after a couple of days, and I would say, “I know you have an amazing perspective on this, why don’t you say anything?” And they would say, “Well, that’s just not how we do things where I’m from.” You might be smarter, you might know a lot, but you don’t speak up because you just wait for the leader or whomever the person of authority is to tell you what to do, and then you go and do it.
Then there were other students from different cultures where part of the fun of working on a team was to throw things out for discussion and debate. It would sometimes look like they were having these knock-down drag-out arguments, but that’s just how they rehashed the topic or what it is they were trying to do. So it was really interesting to watch all of these different cultures come together. The ways they work together as teams and how they found that common ground, it was a fascinating learning experience for me.
Structural Changes Can Help, But Think Them Through
From a global productivity perspective, many organizations are looking at the four-day workweek, which is really getting results in some other parts of the world. What is your view on that type of approach — to restructure the workweek in order to rethink how we do our best work?
When companies are starting to look at why and how they restructure workweeks, I think one of the main things they have to keep front-and-center is: what is it that they are wanting to accomplish by this? And what is the impact that they want to have on teams? Is it everybody who will have the same schedule? Or is it an overlapping and layering kind of schedule?
I’ve worked in companies where they would have, maybe during the summer, a four-day workweek, or a half-day on Fridays. And it’s interesting what I see happen to people who understand that taking time off to rest and relax your mind, and actually think about something other than work, how it has an incredible impact on your productivity as an individual and as a team. Because when you have that time away from work, you really are refreshed. You have a different point of view, you’ve had different experiences. And it really makes you more valuable as a team member.
One important caveat is that when you have that extra day off, you don’t spend it tied to your laptop or tied your email or your phone or something like that — that you actually are disconnecting, because there’s a lot of times where I see teams who are really beaten down and overworked, and they just need that mental time to step back. When they truly use the opportunity to refresh and rejuvenate, then they all come back together much more productive.
One thing you’ve mentioned in the past is your interest in the Kanban method as a system for managing work in a marketing setting. What do you like about that approach, and why do you see it being so effective in this particular kind of environment?
One of the things that I love about the Kanban board, and what’s made it so productive and effective for me, is that I can see what kinds of things are in the pipeline. What’s in progress? And then what do we actually have done?
I think as marketers, because we have so many things thrown at us all day long, it’s important to have a system that shows you that you’re making progress. The Kanban board does that and I know for me personally, it really helped with visualizing all the things we need to have done. There’s your first column, to-do, and then the middle column is in-progress. And the third column is what’s done.
I think as marketers, because we have so many things thrown at us all day long, it’s important to have a system that shows you that you’re making progress.
I prioritize the things that I need to get done for a week, and break it down by the day. And even if some of the items that I have to do are bigger, I might break those up into two or three different tasks. So then I pick the one that’s most important, I work on it until it’s either done, or it gets blocked, because I’m waiting for something from a client or a vendor or something like that. Then I pick the next thing. So I can see the progress that I’m making, and I prioritize the work that I get done.
It also helps because if something else pops up — and you know, as marketers, we always have something pop up — we can look at it in the perspective of the bigger things that we’re trying to get done. And we can say really, how does this fit in as a true priority? I think if marketers looked at their work more in that way, it would really help them be more effective and feel better about what they get done, at the end of the day, week, and month.
Break Down Barriers with Unity and Leadership
As you look ahead here, what do you envision as the most promising frontiers for marketing productivity?
I think the biggest fixture of trying to drive productivity is making sure everybody is on the same page, and has the same focus. We see this all the time across marketing teams, especially within siloed organizations: people and teams have their own priorities, but they can be very different from one silo to another, and it’s not just limited to the marketing team. There can be disconnects from, say, demand gen to content development to the brand team. Understanding what that bigger focus is that everybody needs to pay attention to will be the biggest driver of efficiency and productivity as we look down the road here a few years.
From your experience and the teams that you’ve worked with, if you could change one major thing about the way that marketing and design departments manage their people and processes, what would it be?
As I look at how marketing departments and their processes are managed, I would like to see more people think about the processes that they’re doing, and ask themselves if this is the best way to do it, instead of just turning to that old ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ That is a habit — we have to do it this way, because it’s just faster, cheaper … whatever that outside limitation is. We need to really start to rethink the work that they’re doing and how we’re going about it. Because once we start to do that as marketers, we can really have a much bigger impact than we’re giving ourselves credit for.
Do you think there’s a collaborative barrier that maybe is not talked about enough, or that might be hidden from view, but really should be treated more as something that if we tackled this, it would break down the friction and the silos that are holding us back?
Absolutely. I think one of the biggest things that creates friction and keeps silos in place is that we focus so much on the job title and the role that we have as marketers. One of the things I talk about that really works for marketers and effective teams — it doesn’t matter if it’s across just your own content team or demand gen team, or marketing in general or across the organization — is to look at how people naturally show up in the world. I call these archetypes. There’s a difference between playing a role and an archetype.
A role is your job description. That’s what you’re hired for. And it’s how people expect you to behave in a certain situation. But if we start to look more at the archetypes of the people who we bring on our team, then we start to look at, how do people naturally behave? So that’s where we go back to, we’ll have some people who we say, ‘Hey, you know what, let’s get Kevin because Kevin is really great at collaborating across, teams and people. And you know, maybe Karen, she’s a super people person and a natural storyteller.’ Well, those are characteristics of how people naturally behave, that we need to bring into the work, and when we focus too much on roles, the work just doesn’t get done. And we feel like we’re bumping our heads against each other and against the wall.
A lot of times that’s because we’re focused too much on the roles and behaviors we want people to practice, rather than having empathy for how people naturally show up in the world.
Sometimes marketing leaders can be too focused on roles and behaviors, rather than having empathy for how people naturally show up in the world.
Greater Marketing Team Productivity, Naturally
Carla’s closing point is a poignant one. Business leaders everywhere should be aiming to fit the work to their people, rather than the other way around. This feels especially critical with creatives, who often have very specific preferences when it comes to finding their grooves and producing their best work.
We appreciate Carla sharing her thoughtful insights. For more in-depth guidance from here and other productivity pros, take a look at our new guide to empowering better creative teamwork.