Best Practices
Inclusion and Vulnerability: The Keys to Leading a Great Marketing Team

Inclusion and Vulnerability: The Keys to Leading a Great Marketing Team

September 7, 2023
5 min read

Ask any marketer what it takes to be a great leader, and you’ll probably get some predictable responses. Things like creative vision, decisiveness, and data-driven decision making are common leadership traits that marketers fixate on at the moment.

It’s true that these are important for successful marketing. But when you’re talking about leading marketing teams, there are two absolutely critical traits that can’t slip off of the radar: inclusion and vulnerability.

Let’s take a closer look at why it is essential for those leading marketing teams to possess and apply both of these traits.

Vulnerability in Marketing

The concept of “vulnerability” often comes up in the context of personal life. It’s encouraged to be open and honest with partners and, to a lesser (or at least different) degree, with friends and extended family members.

You shouldn’t restrict vulnerability to home life and social circles, though. Being appropriately vulnerable can increase your influence and impact as a leader, as well as contributing to a healthy workplace culture where psychological safety is allowed to flourish.

What is Vulnerability in the Workplace?

Role-modeling vulnerability in the workplace isn’t easy nor straight-forward. It requires courage: vulnerability at work starts by being willing to share shortcomings, failures, and weaknesses — and that’s the easy part.

It also requires an ability to “read the room” on what appropriate vulnerability might be. Some contexts are more or less appropriate for sharing. Different people have different levels of status or power in any given transaction, which means there can be a risk by being vulnerable.

But even with courage and a good guess at what’s appropriate, displaying vulnerability still carries with it risk. Where vulnerability can be a challenge is navigating the various human responses to perceived weakness. Professionals who display vulnerability must be open to disappointment, rejection, and at times even ridicule. Remaining committed to being vulnerable requires the conviction of knowing that the benefits outweigh the uncomfortable and unpleasant moments.

How Does Vulnerability Fit Into Marketing?

When vulnerability comes up in the context of marketing, it is usually referring to how consumers see a brand. In the book Marketing 4.0: Moving From Traditional to Digital, the “Father of Modern Marketing,” Dr. Philip Kotler, even directly states that brands need to behave like humans and be “approachable and likable but also vulnerable.” (Emphasis added.)

While this is absolutely true, the need for vulnerability goes beyond outward-facing marketing interactions. Marketing teams that inwardly embrace vulnerability as a core philosophy benefit in multiple ways.

Vulnerability, especially when exhibited by a leader of a marketing team, can encourage trust through open communication. Vulnerable acts like admitting mistakes and asking for help can also empower a team and spark greater creativity and productivity. The result is a stronger, more effective team.

How Should Marketing Leaders Implement Vulnerability?

Vulnerability should be present from the get-go. If marketing leaders want to establish a healthy, productive culture for their teams, they must not only allow but invest in a vulnerable, open, and honest status quo.

In his book How to Work With (Almost) Anyone, best-selling author and coach Michael Bungay Stanier (MBS) talks about “The Keystone Conversation” as a powerful way to set the stage for ongoing vulnerability at work. This is a deliberate, atypical verbal exchange that creates structure, opens up communication, fosters safety, and critically establishes vulnerability within a professional relationship from the start.

“The Keystone Conversation, because it’s unusual, feels radical,” MBS explains, “and because it invites vulnerability, will feel dangerous to everyone’s ‘lizard brain,’ that most primitive part of the brain that manages fight, flight, or fix.”

Later in the book, MBS stresses the importance of leaders answering and not just asking questions in the Keystone Conversation to ensure it bears fruit. He explains that cultivating the best relationship with each of your team members requires “a degree of shared openness and vulnerability, an exchange that feels equal enough on both sides. If the vulnerability is on one side only, the relationship will struggle to be as safe, vital, and repairable as it could be.”

If leaders want to experience the benefits of vulnerability with their marketing teams, they must set the tone first. Use tools like The Keystone Conversation to create a culture of vulnerability, honesty, and openness, starting with yourself.

Inclusion in Marketing

Inclusion is a hot topic throughout 21st-century culture. As current phenomena — such as technology, the information age, and globalism — bring everyone together, people are more aware of their unique cultural characteristics than ever before.

The need to embrace these differences is important, nowhere more so than in the workplace.

What Is Inclusion in the Workplace?

Inclusion, as the name implies, indicates the positive coming together of individuals. At work, this means cultivating a culture that helps everyone feel welcome, valued, comfortable, and confident.

Inclusion should go beyond establishing comfort zones, too. It should actively seek to empower and encourage professionals from all cultures, experiences, and walks of life to positively contribute to the collective success of a team.

How Does Inclusion Fit Into Marketing?

Inclusivity in a marketing context is, once again, often seen as a customer-facing element. As marketers assemble messages and create content, they must maintain an inclusive perspective of their target audience.

They need to avoid polarizing or insensitive messages and look for universal elements that appeal to consumers. Fitness cycling brand SoulCycle is a good example of this. Even though the company focuses on individual transformation, it has woven a sense of inclusivity and community into its messaging and core brand values.

While inclusive marketing messages are important, the concept should also apply to internal marketing team activity. Marketing teams that prioritize inclusivity can attract better marketers by opening themselves up to a larger talent pool.

Truly inclusive environments also give marketers the confidence to be creative, take chances, and offer unique perspectives. Together, these can create synergistic marketing campaigns that take all important cultural factors into consideration.

How Should Marketing Leaders Approach Inclusion?

Inclusion is important for a marketing team. But it isn’t always natural. On the contrary, it’s easy for biases to slip in and skew a marketing team’s members or environment in a less inclusive direction.

Leaders are responsible for creating, fostering, and maintaining inclusivity — starting with themselves. They must prioritize integrating inclusion into their leadership styles.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Leaders should invest in educating themselves on inclusivity and work on having an inclusive perspective. They can also encourage basic inclusive activities like maintaining clear communication and collaboration within their team.

Building a truly diverse and inclusive marketing team starts with who you hire, too. Celarity points out that “To ensure that you’re hiring a diverse range of people is to ensure that there is diversity in who is applying to your open positions.” The staff recruiting agency adds that leaders can accomplish this by:

  • Setting diverse hiring goals.
  • Asking existing employees from diverse backgrounds for referrals.
  • Integrating diversity and inclusivity into job descriptions.
  • Posting job adverts on diverse job boards.

When leaders embrace inclusivity in their teams, they can build groups of individuals that perform with an all-encompassing excellence that is difficult to match with a less diversified group.

Using Vulnerability and Inclusion to Optimize Marketing

Marketing leaders must take inclusion and vulnerability seriously if they want to benefit from the powerful impact that they can have on team performance.

Vulnerability creates an atmosphere of trust, openness, and honesty that leads to a more effective team. Inclusivity unleashes unique levels of creativity and confidence that can take a group’s marketing performance to the next level.

Vulnerability and inclusivity are essential to both individual and collective success. They may not be at the top of everyone’s mind, but they are the keys to leading a great marketing team all the same. Make sure you’re prioritizing them properly. If you do that, the results will speak for themselves.

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Mikel Fields

Mikel is the Managing Partner of Castello Branco Fields that consults brands strategy for small businesses and growing brands that are making an impact in their local market. Mikel's clients typically already have a proven concept and an established brand but need help with finding and executing a brand strategy that increases local and regional brand awareness to better scale their businesses model.

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