Content Strategy

How Marketing Leaders Stay Motivated and Inspired through Challenging Times

By Angela Tague on April 12, 2021

The only constant in life is change. We have Greek philosopher Heraclitus to thank for this little reminder that the ebbs and flows of life are inevitable and often come disguised as challenges. The past year and a half has brought change and challenge to almost everything—work, school, socializing, and even shopping for groceries. Pandemic life pushed us, and we pushed back, finding ways to stay motivated and view even simple, everyday tasks with fresh vision.

The Science of Staying Motivated

Like other CMOs, marketing directors, and senior leaders, you've likely adopted a structured, checklist-ready, solutions-based approach to managing major challenges. After all, that's what a crisis communications plan embodies: work through the steps, manage the situation, and bask in the resolve.

But some challenges linger, resurface, and eventually deplete us until we're running on empty. And as a leader, you don't always have the luxury of having an off day. Colleagues, clients, and your own team will look to you to be a decision-maker and role model; your abilities as a motivator have to extend beyond yourself.

Besides keeping your mental and emotional motor running, motivation also comes with its own inherent benefits. When you're motivated, your ability to learn and retain information improves, according to the American Psychological Association. Learning is key: as challenges arise, the ability to take an agile approach to the task at hand is what keeps challenges from becoming an avalanche of unmanageable problems.

To stay motivated, rewards—even small ones, like acknowledging benchmarks or taking short breaks—and an element of competition can also help facilitate learning. Bottom line: motivation shapes behavior, and consequently everything around you.

Here, senior members of the Skyword team reflect on how they motivate themselves and others in the face of challenges.

Embrace a Learning and Growth Mindset

Although routine offers consistency and ease, it's the forks in the road that force us to traverse new paths and embrace alternative approaches. Ahh, learning.

' . . . I am thankful for the experience . . . '

"Throughout my career in advertising, marketing, and journalism, the biggest challenges I've faced have also been the best learning opportunities. While difficult clients or new, difficult projects can be very painful to experience, I've almost always found that I am thankful for the experience and proud of myself for navigating it.

During the pandemic, I have tried to consistently remind myself that there are silver linings to our challenges. We are experiencing a lot of deep pain now, but that pain is already forcing me to evolve and change in ways I never could have imagined. When the pandemic is over, I believe I will be a stronger, more resilient person both professionally and personally, and that keeps me motivated." — Mandi Tompkins, vice president of professional services

Friends hiking

Image attribution: Silvia Grešová on Unsplash

Realize You Aren't Navigating This Alone

Although you may be the leader, you're not operating in a silo. Lean on your team—they want to find a solution just as much as you do. Stay connected and collect input from all directions, then filter and finesse the ideas into a workable solution.

'I spend time with the team . . . '

"I think the biggest way that I have stayed motivated and tried to keep those around me motivated is by being persistent in ensuring that the lines of communication remained open, particularly as we've all adjusted to working remotely over the past year. I spend time with the team to stay connected and bring the team together to maintain that connection with each other, ensuring that when we connect it's not always about work and that we celebrate the small things as well as the big things. These non-agenda meetings are part of the "Team PIDGE" breakfast, which we maintained from when we were working in the office. These are always optional, but the majority attend if they aren't out of office. I also made sure that I said thank you almost every time that we connected.

Ensuring that I maintained that connection helped keep me energized, because the team is a major reason I love the job I do. Being an extrovert, I needed it. It also helped me stay connected with them about more than just work to attempt to understand where they were at.

With my direct reports, I took a similar approach, although I think my favorite motivator is still our running chat via Slack. We're in contact constantly—maybe more than when we were in the office. We chat about work items, share random laughs, and share the triumphs and struggles happening in our worlds, both work and life. We pull together for support, a 'you got this,' sharing of a potential solution, virtual high fives, and ultimately forge the connection and quite simply our bond—that we are in this together no matter what each other needed." — Heather Pidgeon, vice president of professional services

Dog walk

Image attribution: Concha Mayo on Unsplash

Take Breaks to Refresh Your Perspective

Challenges can wear down even the sharpest minds. Sometimes the best thing to do is walk away from the screen and reconnect with ourselves, colleagues, and loved ones. It's a reminder that the challenge is manageable and the crisis is temporary.

' . . . clear my mind and recommit . . . '

"Taking a walk for at least 15-20 in the middle of my day really helps calm me and refocus. Pulling away from work for a short burst allows me to clear my mind and recommit in the afternoon. And my only way to cling to sanity was in-person interactions even if it was masked, distanced, and infrequent." — Laura Gray, senior professional services manager

' . . . focus and give energy to lifting people up . . . "

"There's some self-talk I've been employing a bunch lately, particularly over the last few months as COVID has dragged on and I've been feeling a prolonged disconnect from the team.

It's not all about you; focus and give energy to lifting up people around you, especially during tough times. As a sales rep, I get to interact with a lot of people, both prospective partners, and Skywordians. Lifting up others can mean so many things: eagerly and genuinely wanting to solve marketers' problems, making my coworkers' lives easier by being a good communicator, acknowledging and appreciating hard work, or simply saying thank you. You get what you give!" — Dave Steggert, senior director of brand partnerships

' . . . give your mind a break from work . . . '

"One aspect I miss about being in the office is the camaraderie that happens between meetings or when you walk around to get lunch or a coffee. As a true extrovert, I tried my best to continue this feeling with my team. I scheduled a bi-weekly meeting so we can come together with no agenda. We all show up and start chatting about what's going on in our lives—I had no idea how much I missed small talk. I believe that when you give your mind a break from work for a minute (or 30) to catch up with those you work closely, it makes you more productive the other hours of the day." — Rachel Logan, director of professional services

' . . . it's okay to make time off . . . '

"One tactic I've used to stay motivated and to keep my team motivated is to lead by example, particularly when it comes to work-life balance. It's not enough to say that time off is important—showing them it's okay to take time off by doing it myself is key. I make time for mid-day dog walks, leaving early to go to the library, or taking a three-day weekend just because. It shows my team that I mean it when I say taking time for themselves is important. Avoiding burnout is so difficult, and if people see their manager working wild hours and never taking a day off, they internalize that as what's expected of them. I try to normalize setting a clear Slack status to show that I've stepped away for lunch, a walk, or just a break from the screen. As leaders, we have to model the behavior we expect from our teams, including the flexibility and time away that's necessary to stay motivated and productive." — Christine Kayser, director of professional services

Team handshake

Image attribution: Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Practice Empathy for the Customer

Whether it's your client or their consumers, putting yourself in someone else's shoes can help you see the challenge from their perspective. What concerns are they having? How does this situation affect their comfort or satisfaction? Senior marketing professionals often get married to the back end of strategies—content plans, sales funnels, buyer personas—but real people are managing this challenge on the other end. Pause, and consider their point of view for a moment. This practice will refresh your perspective and motivation to manage the situation.

' . . . what needs to be done . . . '

"The metaphor I've adopted to encapsulate my aspirational mindset is that of a restaurant expediter. The calling of a restaurant expediter is to keep the customer happy through timely and quality service delivery. Sometimes they are delivering plates, sometimes they are confirming orders, sometimes they are plating food and handing it off to servers. Always, though, they are stepping up in the interest of timely and quality service delivery—sometimes taking the lead, and sometimes taking the supporting role. I try and center this as my attitude at all times: what needs to be done for the plate to make it onto the table?" — Len Lee, professional services manager

' . . . I borrowed from their strength . . . '

"I have had my fair share of doubts over the last 12 months.

In the beginning, the pandemic hit our work lives. As revenue slowed and budgets shrank, we told ourselves and our teams that we'd lose a fiscal quarter and be back to normal. But with every passing month, the pandemic spread further into our lives. It affected our relationships, our finances, our fitness, our emotions.

It wasn't until I took the time to sit and really imagine (to the point of sensing) the future that the doubts started to subside. I imagined the positive future in work and in life, documented what I saw, and reestablished the goals that would deliver it all.

At the same time, I turned up the volume on sources of good news and stories of resilience. If you haven't donated to and followed World Central Kitchen on Instagram, then do it now. So inspiring. It's not a cure-all, but the stories start to seep into your psyche. When I followed the stories of entrepreneurs fighting to keep their businesses and nonprofits fighting to help families, I borrowed from their strength and then lent it to others around me—to my family and my team—so that we could all pick up the fight to make our visions of the future a reality.

So for me, I had to become comfortable with doubt and get very introspective about quieting it, keeping my vision of the future close and remembering that if you're lucky enough to be doing relatively well, then it's your responsibility to fight on and to lead with both gratitude and empathy." — Ruben Sanchez, senior director of growth marketing

Work from home

Image attribution: Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Review Your Tasks and Routines

It pays to regularly shake off autopilot and refocus on exactly what needs to get done. Whether it's list-making, reviewing the 'why' on what you want to achieve, or simply organizing your calendar more often, being intentional about what needs to get wrapped up can help you realize it is manageable, one day at a time, and motivate you to take action.

'Having everything laid out in front of me . . . "

"It's been a year of extreme uncertainty and change. It's been a challenge working, living, exercising, and (virtually) socializing all within the confines of my apartment and trying to emulate the work and lifestyle I was living before last March.

I had to find new ways to keep myself motivated and focused on my tasks and routines. What has helped me the most is writing down to-do lists every evening for the next day. These include work tasks, personal tasks, things to do around the house, etc. Having everything laid out in front of me allows me to use my time effectively and have a sense of accomplishment checking things off. I also start each day with a few positive affirmations for myself, (try to) stay off social media in the mornings, and aim to get in some amount of physical activity each day. These help to keep me focused, motivated, and clear-headed to be a better coworker and friend to those around me. " — Cara Chatt, associate community manager

' . . . create space to think about a topic . . . '

"First, when I'm feeling troubled (either by something large scale like the pandemic or by just generally being overwhelmed), I like to find ways and pockets of time and space to learn. When things are or feel like a crisis, a lot of our collective attention turns toward getting things done, surviving, and checking boxes, which tends to burn me out or make me feel like I'm only executing. When I can create space to think about a topic beyond its deliverable, learn how others approach that topic, or deepen my understanding of that topic, it feels like I'm breathing deeply when I'd previously been pushed to short, shallow breaths. It takes my mind away from just making it through challenging times and reminds me of why we're working so hard to make it through.

Some of the most motivating, energizing, and inspiring moments I've had during the pandemic, for example, were casual conversations turned deep discussions with my teammates about things like what content marketing is today, how we can best reach niche audiences, and how we can do things even better next time. I think this extends to my team, too, through workshopping, continuous education, and always finding the lesson in the task. I think it's a leader's job to protect their team's time and space for learning and thinking, especially during difficult moments. When I can create that time for my team, my hope is that it shows them that I'm invested in them holistically, that I value their ideas, and that they have the tools right there in their head to make it through challenging times. They inspire me, so I hope this approach inspires them, too!

Second, and much different than the above, is hiking with my family. Getting outside daily with my wife and dog has been an absolute necessity this past year! When times are challenging, going on a daily hike provides a clean break from work and stress and helps connect us to each other and to the world outside our laptops." — Ash Holland, associate director of editorial

' . . . reflect on my day, my week . . . '

"Taking time to reflect on my day, my week, or even my month has been a game-changer in terms of keeping me motivated. I tend to ask myself a couple key questions: What brings me joy and satisfaction, and how can I lean in more in these areas? What are my least favorite parts of my job and how can I offset those with things I do enjoy? For example, I've realized that one of my personal motivators is creative thinking and problem-solving, so if I have to accomplish something that feels mundane, I tend to focus on the bigger picture, strategic goal the simple task ladders up to. Most of us have parts of our job that are less rewarding than others, and this mindset helps me feel fulfilled as I check those tasks off my to-do list." — Suki Saunders, associate director of editorial

' . . . ask myself a few questions . . . '

"For me, self-reflection has been the biggest tool I've come back to during difficult circumstances like these. With so much stress and uncertainty about the future, it is all too easy—and all so human—to feel stuck. Feeling stuck does not do wonders for anyone's performance, let alone mental health. When I'm feeling stuck, I try to ask myself a few questions. When have I experienced (and overcome) something like this before? How is it similar, and how is it different, from what I'm experiencing now? What was going on in my life one year ago? Five years ago? How have I grown? Reflection like this helps to pull me out of the stuck place, and reminds me that things will change, and more than likely, there is some learning and growing going on too." — Kara Burney, senior vice president of marketing

' . . . shifting my focus . . . '

One thing that has helped me spark motivation on days when I'd rather embrace my inner hibernating hedgehog has been shifting my focus from what I have to do to why I'm doing it. Who or what will my actions impact? If I don't show up to this meeting prepared and with my whole self, is that really fair to my team member? If I don't meet my deadline, how will that disrupt those around me? If I don't do my best work, how will that impact the business? Taking myself out of the equation and thinking about each task and each interaction as an act of service has helped me draw from wells of generosity, empathy, and energy that somehow always seem to outlast my stores of motivation.

And, when all else fails, I've found that nothing helps me refocus my mind, find a fresher, healthier perspective, and snatch a bit of comfort on a busy day like the ritual of making and drinking a piping hot cup of Yorkshire tea." — Deirdre Ilkson, senior marketing communications manager


Image attribution: Frankie Lopez on Unsplash

Picture the Successful End Result

Put the power of positive thinking to the test. Envisioning the process ahead and seeing the challenge resolved in your mind's eye can trick your brain into feeling comfort. It also gives you an internal boost of confidence via personal challenge. Picture yourself succeeding. What does it look like? What does it feel like? After all, your brain can't tell the difference between imagination and real life—it's why guided visualization works so well!

' . . . imagine how I'll feel after . . . '

"When confronted with challenging situations that cause my anxiety to spike, I try to identify the end date and then imagine how I'll feel after I've completed the task or project. Envisioning myself doing the work, meeting the deadline, and receiving recognition helps me to find potential silver linings and enables me to see the challenge not as a bugbear but something I'll someday be able to brag about. When feeling overwhelmed, I also try to think about how certain elements could be worse, as it helps me keep a positive perspective on the task at hand. Examining this "zoomed out" view allows me to feel more capable and break down a situation into a set of smaller challenges, which I can then focus on piece by piece." — Pierce Smith, senior editorial manager II

If you're feeling a little more stress and a little extra pressure, you're not alone. Marketing pros of all types and levels are feeling the weight of the pandemic and everyday business challenges can pile up. Thankfully, we can all lean on one another for inspiration and tips to manage the toughest situations.

Even on the busiest of days, with notifications pinging and tasks mounting, take two minutes to cycle through a few deep inhales and exhales. Soothe your nervous system and remind yourself that you're emerging with new skills, ideas, and experiences to fuel your personal growth and ability to adapt to change. After all, it's inevitable.

Skyword was recently named a Leader in the Gartner 2021 Magic Quadrant for Content Marketing Platforms. Learn more about this important recognition and access your complimentary copy of the full report.

Featured image attribution: Nina Rybinska on Unsplash


Angela Tague

Angela Tague writes SEO web marketing content and blogs for major brands including Purina, Walgreens and United Way. She also provides feature content to newspapers and magazines. Angela was named High Flyer of the Year by Skyword for 2012.