Marlena Edwards: Listen to hear, not to respond
Time Out with… is the interview series for inspiring leaders throughout Dentsu Aegis Network. In this first edition we spotlight Marlena Edwards, VP of HR at MKTG, who understands what it takes to rise within the ranks, while staying true to who you are. Below is a conversation that was captured in October at The Roxy Hotel in New York City.
So let’s set the stage here. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how this all started.
I’m from Rochester, NY, upstate. I’ve been in New York City since 2002 and can’t see myself living anywhere else. I live in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. It’s one of those areas that’s just on the cusp of being gentrified, but you still get all of your services and it’s still pretty cool and edgy. I love it.
You run HR for MKTG. How did you find your way into it?
That’s an interesting story. It’s really about being prepared for opportunity more than anything else. I didn’t go to school for it. Never imagined a career in HR. From the time I was eight I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. I got a scholarship to law school, but by the time I finished my first year I was questioning what I signed up for. It became really apparent that it just wasn’t that kind of idealized Law & Order kind of lawyer vs. the real life monotony of being in a court room and arguing the same thing every day. So I took some time off law school and I got a job to support myself and after a few years I needed to figure out what I wanted my career to be. I talked to a recruiter and at the time I was working in operations, but my manager had me involved in a lot of employee relations, doing some payroll, etc.
The recruiter asked me if I’d ever thought about HR and as opportunity would have it I was working in more of an operations role at MKTG. I submitted my letter of resignation to take another position more in line with what I was going for with HR in the non-profit sector. An HR employee at MKTG told me that they knew I wanted to be in HR and recognized how hard I worked and my determination and they wanted to give me an opportunity in HR at MKTG.
Literally, just like that they gave me my first opportunity as an entry-level HR person at MKTG, going on 11 years ago. Every year has been an education in HR since, but that’s how it all began.
So that was 11 years ago. Wow. What has that journey been like for you?
So I think the journey for me has been really kind of significant and similar to a lot of our other MKTG employees. What I love is that MKTG really allows you to own your business and work autonomously and if you can step up to the plate and you’re prepared and you can show people that you’re providing a service and a benefit, there’s always opportunity. Whether it was working on small acquisitions; rebranding and thinking about our culture and what we want to change; introducing a new program in terms of employee recognition; doing surveys and listening to employees and understanding why we were having people thinking about leaving and understanding how important learning and development was… as long as I was able to build a case and present that to our leadership team, I was always given the opportunity to rise to the challenge. Year after year after year there was always some business challenge that called for HR support and I was able to provide a service to our leaders. And 11 year’s later, here I am!
Is it what you expected? What has surprised you?
Absolutely not! People ask me all the time what makes me stay because 11 years in the advertising/marketing space is unheard of. But every day is a new day. We do a lot of experiential work rooted in events and having employees in 40 different states spanning a number of different industries from sports to wine and spirits, you have a lot of factors that can lead to so many precarious situations. So if it’s someone wanting an alligator at an event, I need to know what our liability is as a company for having that happen. That’s an HR issue because I need to understand our insurance policies and what that means. Or if we’re going to open an office in London, what does that mean about hiring people, and visas, etc. So really having the opportunity to spread my wings and learn and identify mentors — like other HR leads across the Dentsu Aegis Network — have allowed me to learn about situations I hadn’t experienced yet.
How has it been to grow as a leader within the same company? Some people move jobs every couple of years to get promoted or ascend but it’s different to do that in the same company.
It is, it’s very different. It takes a lot of self awareness and hard work because when you are being promoted from within people see you in the role that you came in as and it’s a constant reminder. But if you have a manager or a support system that really believes in your contribution, like I have had, they are championing you 100%. They say, “she has a voice, it’s important and we need to make sure we’re listening to it.” It can be difficult but if you have the right team around you it can work. And if you find a place that you’re comfortable, why not stay there and grow?
Have you had any career defining moments that stick out to you?
The one thing is definitely submitting my letter of resignation and having someone come to you and say they recognize something in you. That has always pushed me to make sure that I’m always doing my best and it’s not always easy. Sometimes you want to take the easy way out but someones always looking and noticing, so that was the most defining moment for me.
The other moment may be before MKTG was acquired, there was a more senior HR person and I remember being asked if I wanted to be considered for this potential role. I was less senior than I am now of course but I remember being all “yes, sure!” You’re young, you’re ambitious and you want to get it done. Well we had a board at the time and after a week or so the team circled back and explained that one board member thought I needed more experience before they could think about me for that role. I took it really hard and I had to sit down and acknowledge that to someone who didn’t work with me day to day and from the outside looking in I had only been at the company for five or six years, without a huge amount of HR experience, so it made sense.
Once we got through that together they saw me as their person for that role. Showing that you’re there doing your best is always going to work in your favor.
It was a blow of course. It took some time, but there were some challenges that came through the business and I was able to partner with some of our senior leaders and they saw that I could rise to the occasion, stand there in the difficult times and support them. And then once we got through that together they saw me as their person for that role. Again, showing that you’re there doing your best is always going to work in your favor.
Two times that I didn’t think things would work in my favor but some how, some way, they did.
What would your advice be in that moment when you think you’re nailing it, at the top of your game, and someone says “you are, but you’re not quite where we need you to be”? How do you deal with that?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is you really do have to be self aware. You have to step outside of yourself and really listen to and hear the feedback that you’re getting. You need to be able to get that feedback and adjust and pivot as necessary.
And get visibility…
Absolutely. Visibility is really really big. The larger the organization, the harder it is but you have to make that effort to get that visibility and make sure that people understand how you’re contributing.
Do you ever talk to your teams about executive presence? How do you think about that?
I definitely think that it’s important at all levels to think about executive visibility. From an HR perspective, you never know how people are going to react to the information that you give them. You always want to make sure that you’re representing the department you come from and the company in the appropriate light. What’s good about our organization is that whether you’re talking about our COO, or our CEO, they’re very entrepreneurial people who ask all employees what the they think about different ideas. They’re really all about the think tank approach. So if our employees have ideas I always encourage them to take it to the table, but it’s really about how you take it to the table. Are you able to show the benefit to the company? It can’t just be us spending money all the time. What’s the value? Talking to employees about how they position themselves whether they’re entry or junior level, there’s still a contribution to be made. It doesn’t have to be this huge thing.
On the flip side of that, people say that HR is a people business and I’m sure you encounter individuals who are not at their best dealing with difficult situations. Do you have any tips for how you help people problem solve those sorts of issues?
When you’re talking to managers who are having a difficult time with employees, they usually are just looking at behaviors. Counseling them on the factors that really lead to those behaviors, and that those factors are what you really need to address with the employee is what’s been most helpful in my experience. I find that when you’re talking to people honestly and transparently, they’re more apt to be honest and upfront and come to a consensus with you. We often get involved in “this is what I want, and this is what you need to do,” type of thinking, and that never goes well. The questions should be more like “What’s going on with you? What can I do to help you?” and a lot of times people don’t come from that “What can I do” perspective when they feel like the other person is in the wrong.
Also, just try to be objective and take all the personal out of it. I’m really proud of counseling people out of some really disastrous situations. There have been quite a few over the years and you’d think people would never be able to stand in the same room with one another again, and after sitting down, really laying everything on the table, as long as there’s mutual respect there, I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be overcome. Respect sometimes means, I need to address really difficult things with you and this just might not be the right fit. Even though that’s a tough pill to swallow, people respect it and they understand it.
It’s the age old rule, talk to people and deal with people the way that you’d want to hear and receive that information and it goes a long way.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about HR?
Ha. That you always have to be careful about what you say! When I meet people at different agencies or in different walks of life they always say they would never imagine that I would be an HR person. Or we go out to dinner or have cocktails after work and people will be like, “oh we can’t talk about this cause HR is here.” We’re not judging you. We’re not here to judge people, we don’t do that. You should look at HR personnel as a resource. We are here to help you get the work done; to help support the business. We like to have fun doing it and we are a part of the culture and the fabric of the business. Talk to us like you’d talk to anybody else. If you’re crossing a line or getting a little fuzzy, we’ll let you know, but utilize HR. I think a lot of people are a little apprehensive when they hear HR or they always thing it’s negative, and it’s not. I encourage people to seek out their HR partners because we’re working with the leaders of the organization to implement change and cultural initiatives and we can help push that forward.
What do you think makes a good leader? How do you foster a culture of leadership at MKTG?
I think a good leader is somebody who hears their employees and listens to hear not to respond — that’s one of my favorite sayings. A good leader allows their team to drive their business and hears out their concerns . A leader’s job is to listen to that real concern and figure out how to fix it. It might not be fixed in three days or three months, but they’re going to put a plan in place to make sure that the organization is supporting everyone. No good leader wants to do the work of the people on their team; they want to empower their team to run with it.
Listen to hear not to respond — that’s one of my favorite sayings.
You’ve been with MKTG for 11 years. How do you stay engaged?
I think our industry keeps me engaged. It is ever changing and every two years, it’s a reinvention. We have to make sure we are up-skilling our employees and that we understand what tools they need. What worked two years ago is no longer relevant so it keeps HR and the business busy. There’s so much data and information that we have to stay at the forefront of, that it constantly keeps me engaged. If I was working at a bank maybe I’d say nothing has changed in the last 11 years, but in media and advertising it’s constantly changing so you have to always be at the forefront to understand how to take you business forward.
Is that stressful?
Haha. Yes, constant change is totally stressful. You have to break it down into bite size pieces and prioritize where you’re going to put your focus. It’s funny we have really focused on learning and development over the last year, and it’s super important to us. We’ve visited the MIT Media Lab, we use General Assembly, offer a Keynote course. It didn’t seem like a big deal if you weren’t a creative to know Keynote but now your client services teams are creating decks and they need to know about how to present. We’ve had to refocus on what’s important. It’s not necessarily about how to put a PowerPoint together, but about how to respond to client needs. We recognize that there needs to be a certain look and feel to everything that we present and that all of our employees need to be able to contribute at that same level. It keeps me motivated to see how engaged our people are with the learning and development opportunities we’re offering. It is stressful though, there’s no way around it. It takes a lot of time, energy and support to identify the people aligned with the company vision who will help you get the work done. That’s what keeps me motivated. I have a great team.
Is there anything outside of work that helps you destress?
I love to travel. I just tried to take a trip to Bermuda in the middle of a hurricane, which I didn’t make it to… But I love to travel. For me, the perfect vacation is a little bit of beach/rest/relaxation, a bit of culture and a little bit of adventure. So I’ve taken some great trips, would probably say Turkey was so far the best one because there was just so much to do and see. I’ve been to Costa Rica, Morocco, Spain, Paris, London… every year I try to do one big trip and next year is the big 4–0 so I’m planning a big one.
Do you unplug when you go on these trips?
Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I commit to checking in just twice a day and at most an hour each time I check in. So I give myself very limited times. I think in our world you’re never truly able to turn off. If you plug in and there’s nothing major going on it’s fine to step away again but you kind of have to check in and see what’s going on because things change so rapidly.
What does a weekend look like for you?
Generally it starts out in Manhattan. I work out, just because I have to! I joined ClassPass and some of my favorite classes are around here [Tribeca]. So the day starts with a workout and I am a firm believer in walking around local cafes and shops, so I’ll just put on my walking shoes and walk. Sometimes from Bed Stuy all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge and around Manhattan. One of my key rules is that I’ll stay at work as long as I need to (whether that be 8 or 9 o’clock at night) but when I go home, I don’t take my computer home with me on weeknights or the weekend. Everything can generally be answered by email on my phone, if needed. That is my firm rule to have some downtime. Monday through Friday, I’ll give you all the hours you need and then on the weekends and after hours I turn it off.
Have you ever had any resistance to that?
Never. The model at MKTG is that as long as the work is getting done people don’t generally care about the hours or when or how you do the work, as long as you’re being responsive to the business needs.
The clothes that I wear are really my armor. Our industry can be very casual and people always ask why I’m so dressed up, but I think that being a woman you sometimes have to put that armor on so that you get that respect.
Do you have any good luck charms or rituals that you do/wear before a big meeting or other important occasions?
Not necessarily any good luck charms but I love fashion. The clothes that I wear are really my armor. As you know our industry can be very casual and people always ask why I’m so dressed up, but I think that being a woman you sometimes have to put that armor on so that you get that respect. Coming up in the industry and being promoted from within, fashion has always been a way to project a confident exterior that leads the interior along, and pushes me forward.
Do you have any advice specific to women coming up in their career?
My first HR opportunity was because someone saw that spark in me and it was because of that person’s mentorship that I am where I am today. One of the things that I’ve learned is to always keep that door open. When I see talent or someone who is trying to take that next step I try to offer advice and pointers because it’s also about perception. People rarely tell you — especially if it’s not positive — how you’re perceived in an organization. Having a good mentor helps you get those pointers to figure out the changes that need to be made so that you can grow in your career. Even just making a connection with one person who you look up to and who can impart wisdom, who can give you real coaching and life advice, will be extremely valuable. It doesn’t have to be time consuming, but it has to be someone who understands where you want to be, your contribution and are willing to give you honest advice. If nobody tells you, you’re never going to learn.
I remember my mentor telling me that I always interpreted things as very black and white, but that in our industry there’s a lot of grey and you have to find out how you’re going to navigate in the grey. She warned me that you’re going to put a lot of people off by always saying no. You can be the best at what you do but if no one wants to work with you, there’s no point in having you here. It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten and I’ve had to learn how to live in the grey. And I still do to this day.
Feeling inspired? Drop Marlena a line at medwards [at] mktg [dot] com.