Creating performance-driven marketing teams

The central question that haunts many Heads is how to fairly judge the performance of their school communication and marketing teams — and their members — when they themselves do not have any domain expertise in marketing.

Schools love data. They thrive on data. Student academic performance is regularly measured. Sporting competitions have their own very immediate performance measurement system built into the game — it’s the score line when the final whistle blows.

But for school marketing teams, the whistle seldom blows. While their academic colleagues are measuring their year in weeks, terms and major calendar milestones, your marketing team feels as if it is forever behind. As a year comes to an end for academic staff, your marketing team has already been focusing on the next year for months.

In the midst of all this activity (which usually occurs out of sync with the rest of the school), accountability for important but not urgent items slips. Other than in exceptional circumstances, the noticeable, public deadlines are always met. Newsletters go out to parents on schedule, programs for the drama production are ready on the night and artwork for press advertisements is lodged with minutes to spare. But the important, discretionary items usually slip away. Strategy development is a luxury, professional development is confined to learning enough of the new marketing technology to survive and reporting becomes haphazard.

This is why there is a general belief among school Heads that their marketers are not performing well. This trend is not confined to schools. In a major 2016 study, Barta and Barwise found that, across the board, organisational leaders and peers rated other functional leaders better than marketers at managing performance standards.

How can school Heads lead their school marketers to a path of accountability for the important, as well as the urgent, tasks?

Let the outcomes speak

When guidance about the important is scarce, and guidance about the urgent is built into the system like the final whistle on a Saturday afternoon, it is little wonder which gets the most attention. School communication and marketing teams are inadvertently trained to focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Meeting the next deadline comes with its own hit of dopamine: little hits for run-of-the-mill deadlines and mega hits for big deadlines with big potential downsides (think graduation ceremonies). But dopamine comes with a health warning: it is highly addictive. Ticking off the next urgent item from a to-do list can bring a feeling of accomplishment that is absent when it comes time to turn attention to something important but more open-ended.

The solution is to let the outcomes speak. Making the ‘big picture’ outcomes measurable — and with a hint of the urgent thrown in for flavour — can dramatically change the equation, but it requires the school Head to lead the way. Letting the ‘outcomes speak’ sometimes involves tough decisions.

As a leader of marketing, you are responsible for the school marketing team’s performance. Most people thrive when targets and expectations are set that are realistic and when someone shows that they care about their performance. Performance management isn’t rocket science, but it does take focus, effort and — most importantly — facts.

Almost anything can (and is) measured in today’s world of tech-driven marketing. Much of this measurement is pointless, seldom interrogated for insights and often measures only simple outputs. Measuring outcomes instead is hard but it is possible to change your school’s marketing outcomes by focusing on facts, numbers and rigorous follow-up.

First an overarching observation. Effectively measuring outcomes means that the facts, numbers and follow-up must also be shared transparently with your team. Transparency is key. If you don’t feel you can trust your team with the data, why do you feel you can trust them with your brand? Judging fairly can be uncomfortable at times but it is key to your school marketing team’s performance, and creating a performance culture is a significant driver of your team’s impact.

Given that many school Heads find performance management tricky, here are some practical things you can do to be a better performance leader and to let the outcomes speak. Some may seem like common knowledge, but the truth is that they are not common practice in most school marketing teams.

Build a performance culture

Here is one method that works. Always set a clear goal and a deadline for every task or project, even the small ones. Realistic deadlines that include an element of stretch help marketing teams focus on what matters. They also energise people and create a sense of momentum and pace.

It will feel excessive at first, but when deadlines are commonplace, they are a constant reminder of the importance of performance. Once performance has improved, it is possible to step back a little and apply the goals and deadlines methodology to critical tasks only.

Follow-up on deadlines

Many school Heads set deadlines but don’t follow through on them. The consequence of forgotten deadlines on your marketing team’s performance can be disastrous. You send the signal that the task or project was not really important. As the regular and urgent deadlines creep closer, they will always be prioritised. The only way to combat this trend is by regular follow-up of deadlines.

If following-up is not your strong suit, try asking your assistant to keep a simple log of all agreed deadlines. Depending on your management cadence, review the deadlines once a day or once a week and follow-up with the person who is responsible for that deadline. Again, once deadline performance has improved, you can go back to tracking only the most important projects or tasks.

If you want to create a performance culture in your marketing team it is essential that you follow-up missed deadlines. When you do this, the confidence of your team members will lift. You are demonstrating that their work matters and there are no excuses. Everyone knows what is expected of them.

Agree on time allocation

Formal job descriptions are important for your marketing team, but because of the nature of the job (to do whatever needs to be done to complete the tasks), most of what is described in the carefully crafted documents is forgotten when the real world of marketing takes over. Seldom do job descriptions offer any help in setting daily priorities. And that is a problem.

Here is one suggestion to overcome the inherent deficiencies in the formal job descriptions of your communication and marketing team. Every term, have a meeting to discuss two simple questions with each of your team members:

  1. What is the most important thing you’ll achieve over the next three to six months to help the team increase its performance in the value zone? (See SMJ blog, Work in the value zone.)
  2. How (in broad percentages) will you allocate your time to achieve this goal?

Asking these two questions gets your team to focus on what matters most. Importantly, it also helps your team push back on the myriad requests they receive from across your school to work on something that is off point.

Celebrate success often

When one of your sporting teams wins a game — or even better, a championship — you make sure they receive recognition. When one of your student musicians performs at an assembly or event, you and the audience applaud. The rewards occur in public. Do the same for your communication and marketing team.

A performance culture must celebrate success. Aim for at least one thing each week that you can celebrate, even if it is nothing more than sending an encouraging email.

By actively seeking out opportunities to recognise and celebrate success, each team member gets to feel uplifted on a regular basis. In turn, this pushes your marketing team to meet more deadlines and create more success as they align towards that feeling. 

Insight applied

  • Bias your team to focus on outcomes rather than outputs.
  • Support your team with transparent access to outcome related facts.
  • Judging fairly is sometimes uncomfortable, but it is critical.
  • Set goals and deadlines and follow-up regularly.

Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness. 

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