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How High-Performance Marketing Teams Work Together

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: September 14, 2016

These days, it can seem like the term “marketing teams” is somewhat of a misnomer. After all, most advice about marketing strategy tends to come from just a handful of marketing rockstars.

And get this: Most of those marketing rockstars aren’t actually part of teams. They are their own brand, and they’ve mastered the art of marketing themselves as marketers.

It’s a beautiful craft, really.

One that leads us to subscribe to their email list, buy their books, and wouldn’t you know it… guess who will be top-of-mind if ever we even entertain the idea of hiring a marketing consultant?

So here many of us are, then, often trying to improve our humble little marketing teams through learning from someone who doesn’t work as part of a marketing team (and actually may never have… or much has changed since they did).

Sure, some of their advice may have immense application for our marketing teams, but I find this advice is nearly always missing an important perspective: The realities of daily work as part of a modern marketing team.

They’ll teach us all about how to use the greatest new digital marketing tools (that they may or may not be getting paid to endorse) and they’ll show us, you know, 5 Crazy Fast Ways to Fill Your Marketing Funnel.

But what about all the crucial factors of communication, commitment, and collaboration it takes to be a high-performance team? What about this truth?:

A group of individuals who all know the crazy fast ways do not make a tight-knit marketing team.

I won’t mention any names—as their headshots are already buried in our brains and their newsletter is likely awaiting us in our inbox—but it’s an important distinction I want to make:

Why are the same handful of people our go-to source regardless of if we want to learn how to market ourselves as individuals or become a high-performance marketing team?

The former makes total sense, the latter not so much.

A brief history of high-performance teams

The concept of high-performance teams is widely thought to have originated in 1949, when Eric Trist of the Tavistock Institute visited a coal mine in north central England.

What he saw, according to Mark Hanlan, author of High Performance Teams: How To Make Them Work, was:

…self-regulating teams working throughout the mine—the result of cooperation with the workers, managers, and union leaders.”

Trist noted incredible levels of worker satisfaction and productivity, a combination at the time that went against the grain of traditional wisdom. It was thought that productivity and high-output could only be achieved at the expense of employee satisfaction.

From this point forward, new fields of research began to emerge (much of it led by Tavistock) that questioned the prevailing paradigm. In addition to studying what high-performance teams were doing, researchers now looked at how they were doing it.

This helped bend the conversation about workplace productivity from certain mechanics (like shaving seconds off the completion of a given task or even how to use financial incentives to drive more output) to humanistics (like how to create a team culture that embraces participative leadership and has the capacity to manage its own conflicts).

In the 1980’s, when companies like Boeing and General Electric began to take an interest in it, the concept of high-performance teams took off.

Today, the term “high-performance team” is often defined as a team that made a quantum leap in key performance indicators in less than a year.

Vague, I know, but it’s a definition worth holding close. That “in less than a year” timeframe is one many of us think about, especially those of us on a marketing team for a startup.

One year is a timeframe that feels within our grasp; it at once encourages us to believe that our action right now matters, while being far enough away that we can work toward results in quarters rather than days or weeks.

So what are the fundamentals your marketing department should have if it wants to go from good to great? I’m glad you asked!

Here are the threads of commonality that run through high-performance marketing teams. Dive in, and then check out our SlideShare at the end of this article to see what the marketing leaders at HubSpot, Bitly, and Grado Labs had to say.

They place a premium on empathy

High-performance marketing teams place a premium on empathy. They know empathy’s importance as it relates to each other, to their current customers, and to their potential customers. Let me briefly break each of those down:

A high-performance team must care about each other, and I don’t just mean about each other’s performance. A talented group of individuals can grow into a good team, but a great marketing team can’t be built unless the individuals care about each other.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they must all be best friends, but it does mean they occasionally share insights into their lives outside of work. Creating this level of connection can make it far easier to address conflicts as they arise (they will) because teammates, in having built the capacity to care, will be more likely to see their teammate as a complex person rather than as the results they produce.

Additionally, empathy also means each teammate, to the greatest extent possible, will be able to understand the nature of one another’s work. This can ensure that they defer to their teammates when necessary (and regardless of the hierarchy of job titles within the marketing department), and that each individual has a level of respect for the work of each of their teammates, which in turn can play a pivotal role in conflict prevention.

In regards to empathy for current customers, for starters, high-performance marketing teams know a relationship doesn’t end simply because a “lead” becomes a customer. In having empathy for their existing customers, marketing teams can take more pride in the work they create, develop better solutions to their customer’s questions, and feel the larger picture—which can be difficult in this digital age where connections are often many but shallow—of how the work they’re doing has impact on real people.

Lastly, empathy for potential customers, I believe, is the only way to truly provide any content of value. This is especially important if, as has been echoed by many of the marketing rockstars, content marketing is the only marketing left. With hundreds of thousands of articles being posted each day, it’s only in developing a deep understanding of your potential customer’s needs and struggles that you can create anything worth their precious time.

They measure what matters

If you’re reading this, you’ve felt the tug to measure (or at least look at) vanity metrics. The specifics of vanity metrics, of course, depend on what the marketing department’s goals are, but their allure to make the team feel false progress is universal.

High-performance marketing teams cut through this, and before they measure anything they first create a plan for what actually needs to be measured.

This sounds obvious, but many marketing teams, upon establishing the larger goal, move immediately to lining up all the steps they’ll need to take to reach that goal.

It makes sense, but what so often gets lost in that process is this: What, in the steps we’ve all agreed will lead us to our goal, must be measured?

“Must be” can come from a variety of reasons (such as the company’s CEO specifically requested it), but, in general, when high-performance marketing teams measure something it’s because they will take immediate action based on what those measurements show.

This is easier said than done, and is often a continuous process of trial and error, but it’s what the best marketing teams strive for.

They are at once self-directed and committed to the company mission

Much of what the Tavistock research found had to do with the effectiveness of self-directed teams. That is, teams that had a level of autonomy to make decisions without being micromanaged.

For this to work, all members of the marketing team must be fully committed to the larger company mission. If they aren’t aligned—whether it’s because the mission statement isn’t carved out, the company isn’t doing work that aligns with the employee’s values, or the employee simply doesn’t feel their work matters—productivity will drop.

Also key to success of the self-directed team is that they have some basic knowledge of project management methodologies. This doesn’t mean they are project management experts, or even that they strictly use a particular methodology, but it does mean they have a simple project management system worked out for how they complete tasks and projects.

As Robin Kwong, Special Projects Manager at the Financial Timestold us, the key for his team is project clarity right from the beginning: 

I find that if I had clearly set out from the beginning why we are doing this project, how we are doing it and what we are doing (and have the team’s agreement on it), then not a lot more has to be done during the course of the project to make sure we stay on track.”

A high-performance team will have this and more, including frequent progress updates and a schedule of the anticipated times each part of a project should be completed.

Lastly, the best marketing teams are able to work as a tight-knit group without overly siphoning themselves off from the larger team they are part of. Again, it’s a matter of balancing team vision alongside overall company mission.

They maintain efficient lines of communication

As any marketing team will tell you, their work is often tightly integrated with various departments and even freelancers. A content creator may hand off the work to the design team, only to find out that the design team received and has been working on a previous draft.

Or, as the marketing team grows, confusion arises over who now makes the final decision regarding certain projects. As Cyrus Molavi wrote in his piece, What’s the Optimal Team Size for Workplace Productivity?, the most productive teams have between 5 and 7 members.

High-performance teams are cognizant of how growth can impact decision making, and when they realize their team’s size is beginning to impact performance, they find a way to split it up.

Efficiency of communication also means marketing teams communicate their efforts (including wins and challenges) with the larger company. When marketing teams have minor wins—like the making of a strategic connection or how an influencer shared their work—they often don’t communicate it with the company.

These are key moments worth sharing, as they not only can boost company morale but they also provide a glimpse under the hood of the often immeasurable but still important aspects of marketing.

They have at least one teammate tasked with seeing the future

I get it. Small and scrappy marketing teams rarely have the time to pull their head out of the weeds to see the larger picture. But here’s the deal, they have to. Or at least one member of the team does.

As Patti Sanchez, Chief Strategy Officer at Duarte Inc., told us:

If you’re feeding the fire, you’re not seeing the future. The easiest way to feel productive is to feed the fire—to address all of the stuff you see piling up right in front of your face—but that comes with a cost. And it’s a kind of cost that money can’t take care of.”

In other words, if your marketing team hasn’t designated someone (and this also means granting them the time) to see the future, it’s going to be awfully difficult to make the “quantum leap” it takes to become a high-performance team.

By “seeing the future” I mean not just positing what the marketing team’s goals are, but actually having the distance away from the daily work towards them to see how best they are reached and what may lie beyond them.

Whoever on the marketing team is tasked with seeing the future can, occasionally, embrace this concept from Andrew Wilkinson’s Lazy Leadership:

…it’s about taking a step back, leaning on your team, and becoming an observer instead of an active participant…”

They respect each other’s focus habits

If this is the first article you’ve read here at Flow, welcome. If not, you likely know by this point that we believe focus—in this age of increasing distractions—is the future.

As such, we believe focus isn’t just what happens in the “flow state,” it’s actually something you need to create team processes for.

If your goal is to become a high-performance marketing team, creating pockets of time to get focused and stay focused is crucial.

As is respecting every teammate’s need to do this.

We recommend creating focus schedules. This can be something as simple as the marketing leader telling his/her team:

Don’t message Jan on Wednesdays. That’s her day to focus on outreach and nurture relationships with those who respond.”

Or it could be developing shared calendars based on which segments of time each teammate will be in focus mode (and therefore should not be asked to do this or that).

The foundational components, of course, are that each member of your marketing team a) knows their focus needs, b) feels in a safe enough space to share those needs, and c) is part of a team that grants those requests when possible.

They foster each other’s learning and growth

This is something all high-performance teams have in common: They all help each other rise as individuals.

Each teammate has a strength, and in not just exhibiting but sharing that strength each teammate can better the other (and often grow their team relationships as a result).

This may mean the marketing team leader tasked with seeing the future can develop the copywriting skills that could lead to them crafting the perfect company mission statement as a result.

It means the teammate who writes content for the blog can learn how to set URL parameters from the teammate with more experience in digital marketing strategy.

This can happen through one teammate simply saying “Hey, can you jump on a call and share your screen so I can see how you did that?”, or it can even happen through a company culture where teammates are always sharing with each other interesting articles they’ve been reading.

Regardless of how it happens, when every teammate helps each other rise, and when they genuinely enjoy the process of doing so, the overall team will rise.

They know this: What fires together, wires together

Now we’re taking a page from neuroscience, where this phrase is often used to describe synaptic transmission—how neurons that repeatedly fire together, through our practices or habits, eventually learn to do so more efficiently.

As much as a high-performance team is one that, within a year, makes a quantum leap, the best teams need time to fire together so they can wire together.

Over time, great marketing teams streamline their communication processes, whatever project management strategies they’re using, their individual and team focus habits, and so many other factors. As they do this, their work begins to sing better together.

They intuitively know what the other wants, and where the other will be. It’s how the sushi chef no longer has to look when his assistant of 40 years hands him a piece of fish, or how a basketball player throws a no-look pass and her teammate is the only one who knows where the ball went.

This kind of mastery isn’t just reserved for individuals; good teams can build a level of team mastery over time. The more a marketing team effectively fires together, the more their efforts will efficiently wire together.

Take these threads of commonality with you, along with the realization that not all marketing teams are created equal, and not all rise to an elite level in similar ways.

In embracing these, in whole or in part, you’re setting your marketing team (and not just the individual rockstars within) on a path to be better. For ease of sharing, here they are:

High-performance marketing teams:

  • Place a premium on empathy
  • Measure what matters
  • Are at once self-directed and committed to the company mission
  • Maintain efficient lines of communication
  • Have at least one teammate tasked with seeing the future
  • Respect each other’s focus habits
  • Foster each other’s learning and growth
  • Know what fires together, wires together

And here’s our SlideShare packed with insights from Meghan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at HubSpot; Andrew Dumont, VP of Marketing at Bitly; and Jonathan Grado, VP of Marketing at Grado Labs:


Illustrations: Bully

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