Remember when you first learned to ride a bike? Perhaps you had someone who stood behind you, in case you fell—someone who gave you the confidence to try again until you could ride on your own.

To succeed, people need the confidence to take risks. But most people have an inherent fear of failure, and they need leaders to help them believe in themselves.

As a marketing leader, don't fall into the trap of overestimating your team members' confidence. Instead, assume there's lots of space to build more confidence in your team.

As a leader, building the confidence of your marketing tribe is among the most rewarding things you can do—both for yourself and for your company. Based on our experience over many years working with senior marketing teams, we'd like to suggest five confidence-building techniques you might apply.

1. Set a new rule: 'Ask for forgiveness, not permission'

You need your team to act and take risks without always asking you for permission first. Sometimes they'll fail in a task or do things you don't like; you need to accept that.

"Forgiveness, not permission" is a powerful rule, and it's essential for creativity and innovation. The alternative is a team that lacks initiative, a team that's only half engaged, and a team in which the best team members soon start looking for another job.

How can you put the "forgiveness, not permission" rule into practice? Tell your team you expect them to push ahead with projects and initiatives without always checking with you first although you'll always be there for advice if they need it. Make clear that although you love updates, you're OK if people make their own decisions and take measured risks to drive the work forward.

If someone makes a mistake or steps on your (or someone else's) toes, accept their apology and explanation, and, if at all possible, praise them for having taken initiative. Find out what they've learned from the experience and make sure that those lessons are shared with the team so that everyone can benefit from the experience.

One or two people may get too gung-ho, rushing ahead and taking unwarranted risks. You probably know who they are. Talk to them to make sure they don't do anything silly. But most of the team won't be like that: Most are more likely too cautious because of a fear of failure; they'll need your encouragement to be more "pacey" and entrepreneurial.

Whenever someone takes a risk and succeeds—especially one of the more cautious team members—celebrate publicly!

2. Give a word of confidence in every marketing meeting

How about starting meetings by telling your team how great they are and how you believe in their ability to deliver the company's mission? Or, when you close meetings, sharing your pride in the team members' abilities? Those are simple things to do, but they can be big confidence builders.

Try doing this for two weeks—and see what happens.

3. Make everybody's voice heard

There are many reasons marketing team members don't speak up even in a high-trust environment: Some may be introverts, some may be new, some junior, some not working in their first language.

You can't afford to miss the quieter team members' ideas. In marketing, you are in the ideas business; you need the best ideas—whoever they come from.

Try insisting that each person in the room give an opinion before you reach a decision. It's a great way to make speaking up routine, even for those who would otherwise hesitate.

4. Coach more, tell less

As a leader under relentless time pressure, you might be tempted to give people answers rather than asking for suggestions. That's especially true when you have more experience than most or all of the team. Even if you're right, that won't help your people grow, and it may demotivate them so much that they look for a job with a more encouraging boss.

To get started, try the 70/30/0 rule in meetings:

  • 70% coaching ("you"). Turn 70% of your interactions with your team into coaching interventions. Help them develop their ideas by asking questions and encouraging further thinking. Supportive, open-ended "you questions" will encourage them to expand their ideas. Examples: "Building on your idea, how would you...?"; "Tell me more about what you mean by that"; "How could you make that happen?"
  • 30% ideas ("I"). Only 30% of your interaction should be your own ideas and proposals, expressed (ideally) only after someone else has spoken.
  • 0% of your interaction cuts people off ("I"). Don't worry about not making your point; the group will be aware that you have something to add, and they will usually give you the floor next. If you find yourself cutting someone off... pause, apologize, and encourage the person to continue.

Switch from "I" to "you" more often. You'll be surprised at how many ideas exist in your team if you coach people—rather than tell them what they should be doing.

5. Be the chief mood officer

Conducting an orchestra is an emotional, as well as a technical and artistic, process. If the conductor is nervous, the orchestra will be, too. A confident conductor instead brings out the best from even the most difficult performers.

You're the conductor of your marketing team, and all eyes will be on you. Part of your role as marketing leader is to be the chief mood officer.

Before each team interaction, ask yourself, "How do I want the team to feel?" Almost certainly, you'll want them to feel confident, appreciated, and optimistic. Lead from the front with the same confidence and optimism, and give plenty of praise and encouragement.

Be generous whenever it's justified, and when things are difficult, help the team manage negative emotions.

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image of Thomas Barta

Thomas Barta is a former McKinsey partner and a senior marketer who speaks, writes, and consults on marketing leadership. He's a co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader: How to Succeed by Building Customer and Company Value (McGraw-Hill; September 2016).

LinkedIn: Thomas Barta

Twitter: @ThomasBarta


image of Patrick Barwise

Patrick Barwise is emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School and a prize-winning author, speaker, and consultant. He's a co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader: How to Succeed by Building Customer and Company Value (McGraw-Hill; September 2016).