How to Develop Marketing Talent: Best Practices from Our Advisory Board

Blog Post
March 17, 2018

One of the goals of the Harte Hanks Marketing Advisory Board is to provide value to our professional members and others like them. Developing talent is a common challenge that most marketing leaders face. How do we grow the next generation of marketers? And how can we continue to develop as leaders ourselves? 

At our latest Marketing Advisory Board meeting, Ken Bernhardt, Regents Professor of Marketing Emeritus, Georgia State University, shared a collection of best practices for marketing talent development that he collected from a group of senior marketing executives convened on the topic at Georgia State's Robinson College of Business.

He explains the best practices in this video:

Ken also outlined these best practices in an article for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and has given us permission to republish here:

Develop a spirit of continuous improvement.

The company's leadership must role model what they want everyone else to do. This may include such activities as going back to school periodically, reading important business books, being active in professional associations, being willing to try new things, serving on non-profit boards, mentoring others, and working on improving their own weaknesses. It is important to note that senior people have just as much need for professional development as junior people, perhaps even more need.

Support employees' development activities financially.

This means paying for executive education courses; attendance at professional association meetings, workshops and seminars; and graduate degree programs. Each of the Atlanta-area universities offers a portfolio of short, non-degree courses in everything from project management to Six Sigma to finance for the non-finance manager, etc. In marketing alone there are numerous professional associations with local Atlanta chapters, including the American Marketing Association, Business Marketing Association, Atlanta Ad Club, Atlanta Interactive Marketing Association, Direct Marketing Association, Sales and Marketing Executives International, and Public Relations Society of America. There are equivalent organizations in most other disciplines [and locations]. 

Encourage and support peer-to-peer learning.

This can include company book clubs, lunch-and-learn sessions taught by employees, and podcasts created by employees and placed in a company podcast library. The key here is to encourage people to share best practices, to grow beyond their own functional area, and to help them understand the fundamentals of the total business. Vendors can often be helpful in supporting this learning.

Job swaps.

How about putting people into temporary assignments outside their comfort zone? For example, have a sales person and a marketing person swap jobs for a period of time. At one Atlanta learning organization, a vice president of marketing and a vice president of operations have swapped jobs for two years. Not only have these two individuals grown personally, their peers in their new departments have benefited from new perspectives, as well. 

Provide opportunities for personal growth.

When the company sponsors non-profit or professional organizations or events, ask for committee and board representation and assign these positions to high potential people in your organization. These positions enhance the leadership skills of your people, help them build their networks, and develop their talent for getting things done through other people. Assign high potential junior people to lead the organization's United Way campaign, upcoming retirement dinner, employee outing or planning retreat. Encourage your team to accept speaking engagements at universities or professional associations and offer them public speaker training to support this effort.

Assign important projects to cross-functional teams. 

As an example, push strategic planning down into the organization by forming a planning team consisting of high potential people from throughout the organization. This will force these people to take a broader view of the company and its environment, will enable them to learn from peers in other parts of the organization, and will help develop the next generation of leaders in the company. A couple of senior people from different functional areas can coach the group through the process.

Demand personal development plans from every employee.

In many companies, there is a lack of accountability with annual development plans. It is important that these be made a part of the annual performance evaluation process with employees being held accountable and reward for their professional development initiatives. If large companies like GE can review every employee annually, certainly smaller companies can do this. Instead of the infamous forced rankings used by GE, the goal can be to identify people with gaps in their development and help them fill these gaps. This is especially important to do for the highest potential future leaders, to ensure that their professional development activities prepare them for the increased responsibilities they are capable of taking on. There needs to be connectivity among the company's talent reviews, development plans and execution of the plans.

More talent development ideas from the Marketing Advisory Board

After Ken explained his best practices, some of our other Marketing Advisory Board members weighed in with their policies and ideas. 

Kay Lemon, Accenture Professor of Marketing, Carroll School of Management, Boston College, posed the question: When you have older talent or a more traditional company, how do enable digital development and transformation? She had some suggestions. Kay explained, "I think that there's a real opportunity to create leadership opportunities for young talent in your organization by creating formal reverse mentorship programs."

"I think that there's a real opportunity to create leadership opportunities for young talent in your organization by creating formal reverse mentorship programs." —Kay Lemon, Professor of Marketing

Kay was also intrigued by the idea of promoting younger people into leadership roles faster: "I thought this was a really interesting one because we know that, particularly the Millennial generation, wants to change jobs and have variety."

This prompted both Harte Hanks CEO Karen Puckett and Kim Whitler, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia, Darden School of Business, to pose some questions. Should employees be promoted solely because they're young? Has the criteria for promotion changed? After all, employees needs to have some knowledge and experience before taking over key business functions. Kay responded: "My point is that you have to find some way to advance and keep good talent."

While it's important for marketing leaders to formally develop their teams, Kim added another perspective to the conversation, suggesting that more employees should appreciate the on-the-job training and development many companies offer every day. She explained her experience at one company:

"As part of their sales pitch, they'd say, 'we're the best training and development organization.' What would happen is people would come in and they're waiting for the formal classes. People would start complaining—young people—saying 'where is my training and development?' 

"When you get asked a thoughtful question, you need to realize that is a training moment. If you don't think that's training, then you may miss it." —Kim Whitler, Professor of Marketing

"There's a reframing that I think needs to happen. When your boss asks you a question that you didn't think of, that is a training moment. You don't then ever want to be asked that question again because that means you're not learning. We need to think about training going beyond the formal programs to the development and investment that the boss provides, that the cross-functional peers provide—that's the bulk of the training. It's the language that miscommunicates or sets young people up to not understand how they're being trained and developed. When you get asked a thoughtful question, you need to realize that is a training moment. If you don't think that's training, then you may miss it."