After 18 Months — Being a Marketing Manager

Career

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jotham.lim

I lead a small team of three. Though small, this department is an important one and has an undeniable impact on the company and the industry.

We are marketers on paper but also organisers, data analysts, salesmen, IT experts, culture builders, content creators and even automation engineers.

I don’t have a marketing background, hence the word “marketing” always had a bad rep in my mind—and for good reason. It’s a word associated with deceit and manipulation.

But good initiatives need marketing efforts too. Closing The Gap, Axiata’s Young CEO Development programme … I came across these awesome initiatives precisely because of their marketing efforts.

Now, I realise that marketing exists outside the realm of morality. It is merely the craft of presenting and positioning, a craft with an endless skill ceiling.

How people outside the company view us, and how the company views itself heavily depends on the work we do. Being in this position for 18 months, maybe it’s not so bad after all.


I thought only people in their early/mid-thirties get to be heads of departments. To be in this position at this age is something I’m grateful for. I had assumed that my “leadership” glory days were behind me a decade ago—holding top positions within youth organisations and clubs.

But I also remember the extreme stress that comes along with the role. President, chairman, department head … everyone likes the title but not the work accompanying it.

It wasn’t fun getting unwilling participants to have a discussion, let alone committing to a programme. It’s not fun balancing the high expectations from above and the lack of enthusiasm below. It’s not fun working without resources, relying only on creative minds and the goodwill of people to get things done.

Being in charge of a club is prestigious, but it also feels like having dirty laundry dumped on you. “But you’re so good at cleaning! You’re better at it than I am. Thanks a lot, man!”

Hence, the past decade of being a solo worker has been liberating. I was a writer, journalist, and a solo freelancer—videographer, editor and producer all in one.

  • I don’t have to seek permission to start or change anything.
  • I can move fast and efficiently without shackles holding me down.
  • I am accountable to only my client, employers and only myself.
  • I’m the one being mentored rather than doing the mentoring.

But things have changed. I’ve had bosses who took good care of me. They fought for my salary, taught me everything I knew, and shouldered blame even though it was clearly my fault.

Some even spent a fortune out of their pockets to have drinks together, asking nothing in return. They only hoped that I would show kindness to my future subordinates, just like they did to me.

With this decree in hand, I’m again back in a leadership position after a half-decade dry spell. I’m met with very familiar challenges but unique ones as well. I’ve boiled down my key learnings to these few points.

1.0—The Pride of Building a Fearless Department

When I first joined the company, I had no idea how to build a team culture.

I just threw random words on a Miro board and forced my team to adhere to it. “A culture of documentation, continuous learning and being tech-orientated”—something along those lines. I didn’t revisit this culture statement for an entire year.

Instead, I mainly focused on avoiding bad practices rather than building good ones—no more unproductive meetings, asking stupid questions, and a dreadful lack of purpose in day-to-day work. I created initiatives with these pain points in mind instead.

It wasn’t until I read The Apple Experience by Carmine Gallo that I realised what I was trying to build all along.

I wanted to assemble, train and build fearless employees.

Fearless employees focus on fulfilling key objectives and are not concerned about the “problems surrounding the problems”. They don’t have to seek permission for everything, worry about the tools they use, or do guesswork on my expectations and opinions of them. The results and their personal growth are the only goals.

Fearless employees have self-confidence built on top of solid competence where it matters. Fearlessness is unlike arrogance which hides insecurities. It involves the courage to admit shortcomings and seek help when needed. It’s admitting that “I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know how it will turn out, but I’ll try.”

Fearless employees enjoy their work more often because they take pride in it. They don’t look over their shoulders, alt-tabbing out of YouTube or Whatsapp messages whenever I walk past. My team does it to my face, and I’m okay with it. They should only be concerned about disappointing themselves and the team which believes in them.

Fearless employees take ownership of their work—and their language reflects that. When taking on assignments, it’s never a cold “okay” or a dismissive “Can’t we…?”. My team uses cringe phrases like “aye aye, captain” or “sure thing, bossman”.

Building a fearless department is surprisingly simple, but it wasn’t easy.

  • It requires establishing clear expectations. This means giving the team explicit authority to make specific calls, where they are allowed to make mistakes, and where there can’t be compromises.
  • It requires having their backs. If other people have problems with my department’s performance or how they work, all complaints should go to me. Fault and responsibility lie on the department head, even if it’s the individual’s fault.
  • It requires demonstration. Fear is the default state, and fearlessness needs to be trained. New recruits need to see the seniors correcting my mistakes and making fun of my insecurities without getting punished. The team needs to see me go toe-to-toe with upper management and defend what I believe is right.
  • Most importantly, it requires caring about who they are and what they believe in. Fearlessness is layered on top of trust, which can only be built through deep empathy and spending consistent, quality time together.

However, managers can merely facilitate the cultivation of a fearless department. It is ultimately a process we have little control over—because it heavily depends on the personalities, convictions and capabilities of those in it. My department has had other staff members that did not jive with the philosophy and eventually left.

Hence, I’d rolled a W on the celestial dice when landing on my current team. I am extremely lucky to have them.

They are dependable and capable when necessary but also goofballs when times are lighter. They are also … real and humane, which is a strange way to put it, but it is severely lacking in many places I’ve come across. Working in soulless corporations can be surreal and inhumane sometimes.

2.0—Proper Departmental Bureaucracy Yields Compounding Returns

To reward myself for joining this new company, I retired my stinky old laptop for a shiny new Macbook. From there, I went down a deep productivity rabbit hole which I haven’t climbed out of till this day.

Task management, folder organisation, calendars—each has its own unique framework and methodology. The names may differ, but the core underlying principle remains the same. More importantly, it is scalable to a team setting with just a few minor tweaks.

My research spilt over to project management, change management and team communication. I’ve learnt how to plan and pitch, which led to new software tools in the pipeline. The systems the department use daily are the outcome of my experimentations from my personal productivity system and trial and error from how the team reacted to the new tools.

Many systems were set up, but I just want to focus on these two:

2.1—Systems Of Information

Let’s start with informational systems because it’s fundamental to many interpersonal issues within the workplace.

I noticed that a lot of unnecessary anger and frustration comes from information retrieval:

  • “Hey, can you send me this PDF by today?”
  • “Who is our partner for this project again?”
  • “How many leads have we captured within this month?”

Even worse is the way these questions are asked. Most are via instant messaging rather than email, implying urgency and interrupting people when they are “in the zone”.

The most egregious is when the question is asked in a group chat and not directed to a specific person. Should you answer it? Should I answer it? It looks urgent. We shouldn’t ignore it. Now there’s a cat-and-mouse game where someone has to volunteer to do the work. It’s either that or you have six executives scrambling to retrieve a document that can be easily found with a quick search on Google Drive.

These “non-problems” drive me insane, but what shocks me is how many people are willing to just go along with it. It seems part and parcel of the workplace culture. If I want to dislike someone, I want to do so because they’re an asshole, not because they’re inept at sourcing information.

That’s why I’ve spent significant effort establishing a single-source-of-truth (SSOT) using Notion. Every marketing material and every status on projects, campaigns and exhibition events is stored in a single place that everyone can easily access. If it’s not on Notion, it doesn’t exist. No duplicated information is stored on multiple cloud platforms or, god-forbid, someone’s local drive.

The best part? It has nothing to do with the software or technology itself. I can easily establish an SSOT on Google Drive, Miro, or even Google Keep if I’m desperate. It mainly boils down to establishing clear processes, explaining how it works and why it’s important to the team, and guiding them for the first two weeks.

With that, my (current) team has never asked me any “stupid” questions like…ever. I can’t recall the last time I received a non-important inquiry within the department. Whenever my team speaks to each other, it’s either we’re screwing around, having high-level strategic discussions, or it’s personal development in nature.

This leads to the following:

2.2—Systems Of Communication

My company adopts a hybrid work culture, and it’s a tricky arrangement to work with as a manager.

On the one hand, you want to maximise face-to-face time amongst team members for productivity’s sake and to establish a sense of “belonging” to the team. Good luck trying to build a culture through texts on a screen.

On the other hand, working from home and having personal space is essential to many people and a key reason why many joined the company in the first place. To force employees to come to the office is a dealbreaker for many.

To address this, I’ve implemented the most important departmental policy I’ve ever introduced—daily standups. There are many variations and loose implementations via SCRUM methodologies, but mine is absurdly strict.

Everyone shows up at 9.15am and explains what they have done, what they plan on doing today, and any obstacles they face in completing their tasks. The session should last 15 minutes at most, and any deeper discussions warrant a separate meeting. The event starts on time, with or without anyone present. There are a few exceptions, mainly involving the team attending exhibitions and such.

The daily standup is crucial in my department because it serves as our sole accountability system. With daily standup, I can implement a results-only-working-environment (ROWE). You can come to the office late, renew your passport in the morning, or send your car to the workshop in the afternoon—as long as you have something to show for in the daily standup the next day.

It also serves as a productivity mechanism, making our daily tasks visible to everyone. I don’t have to scold or scream at any of my teammates for being lazy. We all realise how unproductive we are when the same task persists for multiple days and will automatically take active steps to fix them.

More importantly, teammates shouldn’t be scolded for being unproductive, either. If the team is unproductive, it’s largely a work-related obstacle that needs resolving, a sign of deteriorating mental health, or private issues—all of which need to be supported rather than punished.

I’ve noticed that teams tend to perform better when they’re allowed to get their affairs in order, and sometimes that means taking a day or two to reset. Without such a mechanism, stagnant tasks may persist for weeks and months until it blows up in your face when you least expect it.

Finally, it serves as the team’s baseline commitment towards each other. Sometimes the team never see each other physically for a month due to holidays or overseas exhibitions. Showing up every workday to a 15-minute virtual call on time is the simplest task we can do for the team and is a sign of respect. It’s like falling in during a marshall drill. You don’t do it for the commander or yourself but for the team.

Anything beyond daily standups is just the cherry on top. For instance, I’ve implemented degrees of escalation to help facilitate the urgency in communication and asynchronous working.

Any matters that are time-sensitive warrant a Whatsapp or a G.Chat message. Non-urgent tasks, such as reviewing documents, only requires an email or a mention on Notion. Anything important but not-urgent warrants a quick meeting, which can be quickly scheduled via Google Calendar without a back-and-forth permission request.

I’ve also enforced the practice of having meeting agendas and meeting minutes. I have witnessed far too many 3-hour discussion roundabouts that ended nowhere, and I will have none of that in my department. Agendas and minutes make meetings purposeful, effective and efficient.

There’s also the bi-weekly retrospective session, where we have WIFLE (What I Feel Like Expressing), something I’ve learnt from a BFM interview with business coach Jeevan Sahadevan. Everyone takes turns sharing anything without judgement, and it’s a great way to measure burnout levels. This is also where we have sharing sessions, workshops or project post-mortems.

2.3—Side Tangent

I abhor the improper use of the collective “we” and the vague “should” in group meetings, which I find everywhere. “I think we should…” “Let’s find a way…” “Maybe we can….”

While great for brainstorming, it’s almost always used when someone gives a neutral statement or highlights an obstacle—not an appropriate moment to provide suggestions. Many people get excited about publicly sharing opinions on how to improve or how problems should be solved. When it comes to actually taking ownership of the project, eyes will start darting around the room.

It’s not company-specific, either. It persists everywhere, from high school event planning and college assignment groups to boardroom meetings.

  • It gives the illusion of contribution. Many people feel smug after offering suggestions. They don’t realise that opinions are just doors to possible solutions, not a replacement for strategy and work distribution.
  • It is lazy. It is easy to offer opinions without context on the subject matter. Problem-solvers know that available options get increasingly narrower the more they understand the scope of the problem. Offering unfounded opinions just makes you look dumb at best and invalidates the actual hard work problem-solvers have committed to at worse.
  • It is manipulative. It is a risk-free, win-win scenario for the person offering their opinions. If their opinion doesn’t work out, it is “our” problem or the execution sucks. But if it does work out, their ideas are validated, and they can take the credit. In their minds, offering suggestions is always a good look.

The worst part? Offering unsolicited suggestions mid-way stalls an entire discussion, forcing conversations into a tangent that will most likely go nowhere. The conclusion is either “we will revisit this next time”, or topics move on entirely without a conclusion.

Fortunately, solving this only requires a proper meeting agenda where there’s time and space to solicit these suggestions. The meeting must end with an action plan, which is dead simple: Who does what by when? Have it written down, and have it reviewed by the next meeting. It’s just that easy. Rant over.

3.0—Accepting Issues Outside My Control

A decade of freelancing has changed my work philosophy.

The challenge of being a jack of all trades is that I don’t have fixed services to bring to the table. Each unique situation calls for a different skillset, be it filmmaking, writing or PR consulting. Charging for these services is even worse because companies rarely want to pay for consulting services by the hour. So what am I ultimately getting paid for?

I’ve settled on project-based payments, with the philosophy that people pay me to care about their company as if it’s my own.

This works well for me. Without this philosophy, I can’t bring myself to commit my heart & effort to a project without caring about the current & future state of the company. It also enables me to turn down clients I dislike or projects I can’t get behind, like MLM companies or shady gurus. (There’s a huge demand for ghostwriters for their autobiographies and non-fiction books.)

Working this way means consulting is baked into the project costs. The scope is highly process-&-outcome-orientated rather than materials-orientated. I assess the situation, make plans to fix them, and get the green light from stakeholders. Clients didn’t need to micromanage my work because they knew I had their best interests at heart.

While this philosophy has worked well for me as a solo worker, moving into a permanent managerial position has changed my perspective. In this context, I don’t think going above and beyond is a display of enthusiasm and active participation. In some scenarios, it means stepping over grey boundaries that were not clearly laid out.

Being a manager opened my eyes to the theoretical side of politics in the workplace —and not in a bad way. More specifically, it’s the interesting interplay between management and politics:

  • Politics WILL exist when multiple parties need to make a collective decision—be it discussing where to have dinner with your spouse or a team discussion on the date of an exhibition event. There is never an “absence” of politics. Like rules, it is always there. Companies can only decide if they want to make it transparent and manageable. With uncontrolled politics, the boundaries are never clear, nobody wants to make a decision, and initiatives are left to fate.
  • Proper management NEEDS politics to function because politics is the ever-changing ebb and flow of power—power that is needed to push initiatives forward. That’s because projects and solutions need an endorsement to turn from a plan into a reality. A variation of “I’ll support your initiative if you support mine” always exists implicitly or explicitly. Such is a fundamental pillar of management.
  • Conversely, politics NEED proper management to be facilitated. Bureaucracy may sound horrible, but the lack of it is even worse. That’s because bureaucracy is the vaults that control the ebb and flow of power. Meeting minutes and agendas are an example of that. Bureaucracy also separates the people problem from the systems problem. With bureaucracy, getting items approved is no longer about currying favours from individuals, but a side quest involving obtaining the necessary signatures from well-defined parties.

Frankly, during my early months, I have been focusing too much on management that I neglected the importance of gathering political power. This sound like Little Finger from Game of Thrones, but hear me out.

How does one “gain” political power? The keyword: capital…or leverage. They mean the same thing.

  • You can have financial capital. People have no choice but to listen to you because you outright own a part of the company.
  • You could also have knowledge capital, gaining authority because you know things that others do not—be it internal affairs, partner relations and so on.
  • Your powerbase can come from social capital, where you’ve spent years building friendships and garnering favours with others.

For me, I’ve primarily relied on career capital: the ability to get things done. Although most people want meritocracy, being capable alone does not give someone the necessary strength to make an impact. That’s why useless politicians still get elected, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Understanding this concept fundamentally helps me accept that certain things are outside my control, because I don’t have the necessary capital to do so. In certain cases, garnering more capital requires me to make sacrifices I’m unwilling to make, and I’m okay with that. “If you don’t like something, do something about it!” Well, that line is drawn here, and admitting that line exists is a critical step in stoicism.

It is pragmatic, but by no means it’s pessimistic. There’s plenty of room on this side of the line! I’ve also learnt that capital can be shared.

I can share social capital by endorsing my teammates for a promotion and salary raise that they clearly deserve. I can share knowledge capital via water-cooler conversations or over a few drinks with colleagues. I can distribute my career capital by coaching my team and having private team workshop sessions.

Sharing capital with others provides a strange sense of fulfilment, and it’s never a zero-sum game.

Capital is only effective when it is spent. I’ve exhausted a lot of goodwill with upper management acquiring new tools and implementing policies that look controversial to others. It’s a price that needs to be paid to help my team work happier and more meaningfully.

So do think about it. If you have a limited amount of capital, how would you spend it or share it? Personally, I never recommend hoarding it, but this seems to be the status quo in large MNCs and tiny startups alike. “Why should I go above and beyond and risk anything?”

To me, that’s called not putting your skin into the game; Skin needed to implement changes that you know are important. Making lives better—be it your own, your colleagues or the overall well-being of the company—requires initiatives that need to be spent and leveraged through said capital.

To not use them is choosing to live under undesirable circumstances rather than doing undesirable work to fix them. One requires payment out of one’s own pocket—risking effort, goodwill and reputation. The other only requires collective tolerance, a tax collected from others.


This pretty much summarises my key learnings as a manager. If I am capable, perhaps I should reflect on my time as a journalist and write a similar piece as well.

This reminds me: For every client, story interviewee and boss that I’ve ever interacted with, I’ve always asked two questions. “What is the core essential skill that every employee should have?” half the time, they say continuous learning. (Critical thinking and creativity are top contenders) This essay is my attempt at capturing my personal growth over the snapshot of 18 months.

The other question is, “What kind of company/department are you trying to build here?” Almost every time, they give me a vague or half-arsed answer. But it is also understandable. Answering this requires deep introspection and emotional processing, elements that are hard to find in this highly distracting, hustle-filled world.

I’m just grateful that I have managed to find my own answer to this question this early in life.

Stay fearless, my team and future me.

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