For those of us growing up in the US school system, our foundational years hinged on the cycle of the academic calendar, where Fall meant a beginning for new learning and growth ahead. Even as an adult today, back-to-school time still triggers in me distinct anticipation and energy, and I find myself buying a few new pens and notebooks out of habit.
As I was recently processing these phantom pangs, I began to wonder why in our business life, we are able to set aside this ingrained cycle and our intuitive hunger for professional learning and growth. In thinking about my own scope of work—marketing strategy and capability building—I began to question the value of Marketing Excellence programs.
Our human nature has us see learning and self-development as good, needed, and useful. Practically, though, the pull of other demands in our daily business life—those endless meetings, emails, special projects, fire drills—seems to crowd out any best intention of investing in our professional development. A day out of the office in training, for example, translates to regular work spilling over to evenings or weekends.
I often see that for marketers in B2B and life sciences, these daily realities are compounded by an organizational bias around the marketing function. While commercial leaders wouldn’t think about putting a sales employee in front of a customer without rigorous and extensive training, they don’t hold the same sense of urgency when it comes to their marketers. Company culture doesn’t treat marketing as a profession, and most marketers in their ranks have stumbled into marketing, often following an illustrious career in research, science, engineering, or sales. Leaders thrust these accidental marketers into their new marketing job, surrounded by other accidental marketers. Sink-or-swim.
Ironically, when these companies face profit downturns—which they eventually do—they turn to market as a source of growth. It hits them that their marketers don’t have the necessary skills, and as an elixir, proclaim the need for a grand Marketing Excellence program. Exploratory work begins, courses are designed, dates of training are planned…only to have pushback from leaders and marketers themselves that “with the pressure on the business, there simply isn’t time for training right now”. In some cases, a shift in management teams and accompanying budget cuts deliver the fatal blow. The Marketing Excellence program is killed before it even launches.
One of the failures seems to be in the premise of Marketing Excellence. Marketing Excellence programs generally seem to be built around a traditional, academic model found in higher education. These programs are large. They span many months or years. They often use the term “academy”, focusing on a comprehensive range of knowledge areas. They use lectures, theory, and case studies as the basis for conveying learning concepts. They focus on individual outputs, often ignoring the important role environmental and social context play in a real-world application. They treat all students the same, with equal requirements, ignoring their previous experience or current skill level. They measure success by attendance and completion of training. And, they’re darned expensive.
My practice across scores of businesses and thousands of executives leads me to conclude that we’re going about Marketing Excellence all wrong. That’s because marketers’ challenges, issues, goals, and daily realities are very different from academic pursuits. While, ideally, companies would view marketing as a profession, leaders would insist on the same level of training for marketing that their salespeople receive, and no one would balk at a time out of the office for their own development, realistically, this isn’t the world most marketers live in. Sure, marketers want to excel, to be the best. Unfortunately, in most cases, a Marketing Excellence program just isn’t going to get them there.
Marketers deserve something better. Marketers need real-time, active learning interventions that help them anchor themselves in their customers so that they can grow their businesses. Active learning calls for corporate marketing training to be done differently:
- Impact.These interventions need content that focuses on the few, essential things that will make the biggest difference in marketers’ business in the near term. The content needs to be curated, favoring a small number of useful tools or steps that can be readily remembered and applied.
- Relevance.These interventions need to fit into marketers’ daily work and be served in bite-sized “snacks” that can be accessed when and where marketers want, and with topics timed to the current work task at hand.
- Segmented.These interventions need to show up differently for different types of marketer needs. They need to be able to assess marketers’ current abilities and desired outcomes and to vary offerings based on where the marketer is in terms of her/his proficiency and current role requirements. Marketers should be recognized for what they already know, and for the most talented, even leveraged to apprentice others along the way.
- Action.These interventions need to use learning techniques that allow marketers to wrestle with their own business issues. As much as possible, marketers need to walk away from a learning intervention having moved their business forward at the same time.
- Messy-ness.These interventions need to be formatted in a way that allows for peer, manager, and senior leader collaboration and acknowledges the relational and subjective nature of how so much business work is done today.
- ROI.These interventions need to be linked to specific business and marketer outcomes, with a smart investment level. We need to know if a marketer is becoming better at their day job because of the intervention. Measurement and accountability must be constant accompaniments.
I believe that once we integrate professional learning and development with marketers’ daily work, we can relight the innate desire for self-actualization. As adults, perhaps this spark is where growth—both as a professional and in terms of company and social profit—truly lies.
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” —John Dewey