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The Great Resignation: Where Does it Leave Marketers?

The Great Resignation: Where Does it Leave Marketers?

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During a Salesforce and American Marketing Association (AMA) webinar on January 12, 2022, Molly Soat, VP of Professional Development at AMA, asked a single question that sparked nearly an hour of discussion:

“Have marketing departments been affected by the Great Resignation in the same ways and in the same areas of expertise as overall trends?” 


Karen Mangia, VP of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce and Debbie Cohen, co-founder and author at Humanity Works took the topic of modern work culture and built on each other’s knowledge in interesting vignettes. Cohen and Mangia, both authors in the career and leadership sector, had practical answers as well as ample insight into what the current glut of employee turnover means for the future of work. 

Cohen, who has been working with multiple organizations and researching the Great Recession, noted that the data shows most companies are experiencing 27-30% turnover. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Cohen’s research suggested 1 in 34 people would leave work, probably for about six months, and trends have mostly followed that prediction. Mid-level career positions are leaving at higher levels than people at early stages or later states of their career, and women are leaving in higher percentages than men.

“I’m not sure how that data specifically stacks up against marketing as an industry, but if it’s similar in your organization, I’m not surprised,” she said. “Anecdotally, I know that marketing can lean female.”

Mangia agreed that she saw similar trends across the organizations she worked with and noted that marketing skills lend themselves to entrepreneurship and flexible work environments that have surged since the pandemic.  

“Marketers have some of the most coveted skills,” she said. “Skills like social media, writing, graphic design all help you work more in an Uber-like model. They’re highly portable, valued and in demand. Marketing lends itself to the flexibility, autonomy and choice that people want in their work environment.” 

Cohen noted that the agility Mangia identified in marketing positions also highlights the deeper ‘why’ she’s seeing that’s driving the Great Resignation. 

“People are leaving their jobs looking for purpose,” Cohen said. “For years it was all about engagement, but now we’re looking at how to help people find purpose and connection in their work. People who have these agile marketing skills can sit in that question of ‘What gives me purpose and meaning?’ and now stretch out and try new things. There’s so much opportunity everywhere.”

Mangia agreed whole-heartedly, stating that through the Great Resignation, employees are signaling employers that they want more of what matters.

“We tend to equate success with more: more products, more profits, more activities,” Mangia said. “We’ve bought into this belief that we have to do more, to have more, to be more and that will sum up to success. But more pay, more benefits, more perks, is not summing up success for people. People are asking what matters, and they’re discovering maybe something different than how they were spending their best energy and effort pre-pandemic.”

She pointed out that although the lean toward meaning began before the pandemic, the fact that so many people are putting action behind this value at the same time has created a movement in the workplace. 

Cohen alluded to an anecdote in “Subtract,” by Leidy Klotz, in which the author notes a difference in perspective between him and his son as they try to connect two uneven block towers. His instinct was to build up the shorter tower while his son’s was to shorten the taller tower, and the moment sparked his research into how human brains are hardwired to want more.  

“He talks about the power of subtraction and the space that gets created with it,” Cohen said. “I think that’s what happened during the pandemic. We subtracted a lot of business from our life, and it led to people thinking about whether the life they were leading was serving them in the way that really fulfills them.” 

Cohen said that the research shows many people who are leaving their jobs in search of fulfillment don’t know what it looks like, which is a major opportunity for companies. She and her business partner Kate Roeske-Zummer just published an article in the Harvard Business Review on this conundrum and how business can prevent further turnover.

“Get curious with your people and connect with the ones that are staying,” she said. “If you’re at 25% turnover, you have 75% that are still there. Don’t forget to engage those who might be questioning.” 

Mangia, who has written a book on the power of simplification, jumped in with an anecdote of her own about a female entrepreneur who used the idea to build a $25 million (and growing) business.  

“She was a classically trained pastry chef who specialized in celebration cakes. Those kinds of cakes create magical, nostalgic moments steeped in perfection. And one day, as she was spinning a cake on a wheel to get the icing on the sides perfect, she asked, “How could I make this easier?’ She stopped frosting the sides of the cake, and that was the beginning of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar.” 

Cohen agreed that the current moment really demands subtraction, and that she continually advises clients that it’s time to let go of the old workplace.

“People are saying ‘We’re through the pandemic’ or ‘We’re through with remote work.’ We’re not,” she said. “The past is not coming back. Employees have changed. You’ve changed. Work has changed. Our relationship to work has changed. Our lives have changed. It’s time to think about how we work, who we work with, and what meaning we want from work.” 

Cohen went on to state that the forecasts about the difficulties surrounding mass Boomer retirement began arriving before the pandemic. The dynamic of a lot of work without enough workers means that attracting and retaining employees has made a fundamental shift. The companies succeeding in this environment are acknowledging the rebalance in the employee/employer equation. 

“It’s about building relationships and letting people know that you genuinely care about them,” Cohen said. “Talent is short, and careers are long. You might really see the need to reengage with people over the arch of their careers. So, it’s important to be genuine and supportive.” 

“Belonging is such a powerful human emotion,” Mangia agreed, pointing out that marketers have some of the greatest skills in creating a sense of community. She also built upon Cohen’s notion that successful managers are letting go of the past. 

“We long for this simpler time because it seems familiar, but what I’m discovering is that the people who are thriving are doing three things: accepting, adapting and accelerating,” she said. 

“We didn’t choose the circumstances we’re working in now, but the power to accept it allows you to adapt and move forward.”  

Cohen noted that her research predicts that the American workplace is about two years away from what she and her partner term the Great Reset — the point at which everyone has resettled into how they work, where they work, and who they work with. They are currently training managers in how to keep their business moving forward by engaging with employees and giving everyone more flexibility. 

“Great leaders are engaging their teams right now to help tackle challenges,” Mangia agreed. She gave an example of how GM attempted to alleviate burnout by allotting employees more PTO.  When nothing changed, the HR team went back to their 10,000 employees and rolled out a ‘Gift of Choice’ program, offering them either more PTO, more pay or a donation to a non-profit of their choice. 

“Within 24 hours 85% of their employees had opted in and the number one choice was more PTO,” Mangia said. “They got to the exact option they wanted by offering people a choice. They went back and asked employees and that made the difference.”

Cohen continued the conversation by discussing the mindsets she and Roeske-Zummer discuss in their book and how they hold people back: 

  • Outcome creating as opposed to problem reacting
  • Resistance (both internal and systemic)
  • Boundaries (how often we are not clear about what matters to us and why) 
  • Meaningful connection  
  • Awareness, choice and the courage to change. 
  • Daring not to know 

The last, she said, had particular relevance in trusting your people and finding ways to continue amidst turbulent times.

“People are moving forward by stepping into their people,” she said. “They admit they don’t know where this thing is going to go, but they know the next step. You as the leader can’t figure it out on your own. Step into that community and help employees feel invested. That’s the best way to ensure they know where you’re going. It’s a new day and a new way.” 

“No one wants to build the five-year plan anymore because we know it will get interrupted,” Mangia agreed. Instead she suggested ‘The five-minute fix’ which involves asking yourself, ‘What are the five-minute solutions I can try to address an area where I’m stuck or address an area that looks uncertain?’  

“The beauty of five minutes is that it’s not a high investment,” Mangia said. “It’s not the tipping point that will put you over the edge to burnout, but you can build momentum.” 

Cohen agreed that the people need to take agency in however small  portions they can. “The center of our model is you,” she said. “If things aren’t working well in your life and your workplace, the only thing you have control over is yourself. Understand what choices you have and have the courage to not be the victim of the circumstances you’re in. That’s what your people want.” 

Both panelists pointed out that co-creation with employees was the key to creating fulfillment in the workplace and generating ideas that power a business team through crises and uncertainty. 

“One of the big myths of management is that we know exactly what to do,” she said. “We get hired to solve problems, but it’s not about knowing the answers. It’s about knowing the questions to ask and the people to bring together in order to solve the problems.” 

Cohen said a better approach is to talk to your teams about your business goals and ask for their ideas. “The people interacting with the customers and products know where the pain points are and have some of the best ideas,” she said.  

Mangia summed up the discussion, noting that the powerful questions marketers can take back to their jobs are: 

  • What matters? 
  • How can we make this easier? 
  • What else could this be? 

Soat jumped in to ask: How can marketers contribute to hiring and retaining the fill-ins for the 25% of employees that have left? 

“I’m a big fan of blowing up how we recruit,” Cohen said. “We recruit people with the expectation that they’re going to stay forever. We need to accept that lifelong employment is over, and it’s not coming back. What if we thought about it as a tour of duty instead? Ask your hires how long they want to be there, what they want to contribute, and what they want to learn.” 

Mangia thought that marketers could uniquely help foster better recruiting, citing a retention campaign at an organization she worked with that was a partnership between HR and marketing. HR discovered that one of the biggest reasons employees were departing was the significant gap between what they expected the role to be like and what it actually was. So HR worked with marketers and created ‘Day in the Life’ videos of different roles. 

“Unstated expectations will always go unmet,” Mangia said. “Share that expectation to reach out to marketing with HR or whenever you see an opportunity as a marketer for greater contribution. We all have blindspots. Be the pattern interrupt.” 

“Careers are long and talent is short,” Cohen reiterated. She noted that one of the trends she and Roeske-Zummer have been speaking about for 2022 is Boomerangers. “People who have left are your best opportunity to come back. Maybe they’ve left and didn’t find what they were looking for.”

Soat ended the discussion soliciting advice about how to get through the next few years before we arrive at the Great Reset, asking What should managers prioritize and focus on? 

Cohen pointed out two major mindsets managers should focus on: 

1) Realize productivity is all about people. Outcomes will be achieved through your people, and they should be your priority for business success. 

2) Iterate. Create a vision for that outcome and start small. Have the courage to iterate and tell your people that you’re open to it. 

“Listen deeply,” Mangia advised. “Ask what might be missing. Also create choice. Choice is what moves us from limited to limitless. It helps us tap into our full potential. Create choices that help us address this moment and create choices that help us co-create together.” 

Watch the full video webcast for free on the AMA’s website.