On a recent episode of CMO Convo, we were joined by Maya Grossman, VP of Marketing at Canvas to talk about recruitment and building an effective marketing team with an eye to the advantages diversity can bring. Maya shared her views on the value of diverse teams, her hiring best practices to get it right, how to go about getting stakeholder buy-in, and more.

Prefer to listen? Check out Maya's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Maya's background and role at Canvas

Before we get into building diverse marketing teams, could you take us through your professional background and your current role, Maya?

Yeah, of course. I am currently the VP of Marketing at Canvas. Canvas is the diversity recruiting platform, exactly what you started talking about, we help companies understand the candidates in their pipeline so they can make a better hiring decision if they want to build more diverse teams. I've been a marketer for the past 15 years.

This is my second time leading as a VP of Marketing in a growing startup. And I also worked for companies like Microsoft and Google, and basically tried everything you can think of in marketing.

I started in PR, I did digital marketing, a little bit of demand, product marketing. I think for me, the biggest passion when it comes to marketing, is really understanding customers. Everything I do, my entire philosophy is about being customer-centric, and just really listening to your customers to build your strategy around what they actually need.

So those customers are other companies, you're listening to other companies and helping them with the diversity tactics, is that who you're listening to?

Yeah, definitely for Canvas, this is what we're doing. But I think in general, when it comes to marketing, there's no better way to come up with the right strategy, and even the tactics that are going to get you the results you want, than listening to your customers.

I have a long history of getting into different breakthroughs, and really successful campaigns just by really understanding what my customers need. I think sometimes we forget the basics that, hey, we actually need to talk to people. It's great to read research somewhere but when you speak to real human beings, you get a very different perspective.

Building a great team and company culture

One thing a lot of your customers need is good teams. It's good team-building, it's good people on staff. What are the components of a great team for you? What are you telling other businesses that they need to have for a good team? And then how does that tie into how you build a team yourself?

Yeah, of course, I think there are a couple of components when it comes to having a great team. I think first and foremost, and that's going to be different for every company in different stages, maybe even different industries, you definitely want to have the right skills in-house.

For example, sometimes your strategy is going to be around content so you want great content writers. But sometimes if you're in a specific industry, where let's say SEO is going to be a massive driver, you want someone who's an expert. So I definitely think you have to start with the right skills for the stage and the strategy that you have in place.

But I don't think it's enough just to have skills, you want to have a team that works really well together. To do that, at least from my experience, you want them to have similar values, you want them to believe in the same things regarding the work that you're doing in your company.

For me, I found the best teams were the ones who really believed in the mission of the company. They weren't just coming there to do their nine to five, they actually wanted to make an impact and be part of something bigger, and in the process, learn and grow and develop their own professional skills.

So I think it's not an easy combination to find, you want someone who is excellent at what they do, but also someone who will be a great team member. I've been with teams where competition was the driver for everyone. And maybe for some people that works.

It's actually not an environment that I enjoyed and I prefer to develop an environment of collaboration, where people want to help one another, where they see collaboration as a way to grow and achieve shared goals, as opposed to just competition where you have to be the best and it doesn't matter what you do to get there.

Maybe it depends on the type of leader that would decide what type of team they want under them as well. Certainly some leaders would prefer to encourage that kind of competition, other leaders will prefer to go with the collaboration aspect.

Is it the leader that dictates the team or is it the company that dictates the team? Do you have control over that when you're heading a marketing department or is it something that's got to reflect the rest of the business? Could you have a unique team culture within a marketing department or does it have to be similar to other departments within the company?

That's a great question. I definitely think, in general culture is a reflection of what people do, not what they say. A lot of the time, you have these great values, and companies share on their website what they believe in, and then when you go and work there, you realize, "Oh, they don't actually practice what they preach".

So it starts probably from the top, from your founders, from the executive team, and what they actually do in the day-to-day. I do think it's easier to have great culture when you see it all around you when that's the norm.

It's definitely a little bit harder if you're surrounded with a bit of a different perspective, and you want to build a team that's more collaborative, that has the values that you want to reflect as a CMO.

But I have seen that happen, it is possible, it's just a little bit more difficult to get to a place where your entire team can actually believe that because they will just keep seeing all around them, people acting very differently.

Especially if the other department cultures look more preferential, the grass is greener kind of thing. It'd be hard to retain staff if they're looking around and saying "we're being treated differently than other teams, we're not getting the same kind of motivation that other teams are having".

The method that you'd take to build a team has got to be a good way to retain talent and to attract talent as well. Is there a method you can go about building a team that becomes a self-sustaining way of attracting talent?

Yeah, it definitely starts with even the hiring process, you want to make sure that it reflects how people are going to be treated moving forward. And that's with respect, and with consideration for their needs and their wants. Because I think very often we forget that our team members, while yes, they are employees, and they have a job to do, they are also people.

What most of us want is an opportunity to grow and learn and to be appreciated for the work that we do. I think if you can facilitate that, it will be much easier for you to retain talent, but it can't be an afterthought, or it can't be "Oh, once a year I'll give them access to a class so people feel like they're learning." It needs to be an ongoing process, you want to talk to them about their career development and their growth and their goals all the time, and take actionable steps to actually demonstrate how you're helping them grow.

I think it's very easy to say that and to promise that it's actually a lot harder to execute. Because you need to reinvent how you build that career ladder every single time because, look, if you work for a huge company, Microsoft, Googles of the world, they have a very clear career ladder, people know what's expected of them and you have a much easier process.

With companies a little bit smaller, like Canvas right now, or startups with 70 to 100 people, you basically have to figure out every other week or every other month, okay, how am I going to challenge my team? How am I going to give them something new to try out and do so that they feel like they're growing, and have an opportunity to move to the next level in their career within this company? So they're not encouraged to go somewhere else.

One of the benefits of having a smaller company is that it allows you to tailor that career ladder to your team members a bit more, it allows you to get a more bespoke path for them, and interact with your team more directly. Whereas having that very, very set in stone company culture and ladder can be a blessing and a curse.

You talked about doing things from scratch, that's got to be very difficult, but then it's gonna be difficult as well if you're a CMO starting at a new company that already has an established team culture and team building progression system. How do you go about making necessary changes?

It's got to be quite a daunting task if you're already new to the position, already interacting with the board, you've already got all these targets in place in terms of marketing, but then you've got new ideas for how you're going to build a team. Do you have any advice for CMOS or other high-level marketers who are going into that kind of situation?

Yeah, it's never easy stepping into a team that's already there because you really have to walk a fine line between, "Hey, I want to change everything because my perspective is different" and respecting what they already have in place. Change is hard.

You can really overwhelm people if you just storm in and say "Everything you've been doing is wrong, here's how we need to do it". So I think it needs to be a learning process where you start by listening, really listening, not just saying you're listening, and taking in a lot of feedback, asking a lot of questions, not making assumptions about how things work or used to work until you got there.

Really build almost like a map of everything that exists right now, people's expectations, how things have been done, and start prioritizing what you want to change and how you would want to change it.

Then I would say, communicate that. Don't surprise people. It is much better to let people know what you expect of them or how you would want things to run than just waiting for them to figure it out.

Then you're going to have to actually take action. So if you say that this is the type of culture I want, or I want us to have more room for feedback, then actually do that, set up a feedback meeting, create a questionnaire, make a commitment to send it out every three weeks or every three months, whatever you feel is right for your team, but actually demonstrate how you're walking the walk, so that they can follow in your footsteps.

Why should CMOs care about diversity?

Walking the walk is definitely a key thing in that respect. There was a story doing the rounds in the UK in the news recently to do with a company called Brewdog, they're a Scottish craft ale brewery.

They pride themselves in a progressive message and a progressive company culture for a long time, and there's recently been stuff come out in the press about how their staff wasn’t listened to, how they weren't walking the walk and practicing what they preach in that respect.

It's had a huge impact on the public perspective of the company. It's not just the marketing that's important in marketing teams it’s the team itself and how the team's treated can be a big reflection of the company. One of the things a lot of companies are doing in that respect at the moment is talking about the need for diversity and diversity values in companies. That's something you're very well positioned to speak about.

Firstly, let's talk about why are companies so keen to push diversity as a company value now? And then let's talk about why diversity should actually be a good thing, not just this company saying we have diversity, but why is diversity a good thing for marketing teams and just teams in general?

Yeah, that's a really good question. Look, the need for diversity is not new. We've known this for years and years and years, and for a very long time, the majority of companies and I think the tech world in general, just wanted to say, "That's not our problem". Meaning, "Oh, well, there are not enough candidates coming from different backgrounds", where they were just focusing on the top 10 schools that they want to hire from, instead of actually making an effort to find more people with different perspectives.

I think the last year and a half, everything we've been through with a pandemic, but also everything that we've seen in terms of racial justice and the growth of different movements, I think it just became really clear, we can't keep talking, we need to start doing.

There's a real need for change. Because right now, our workforce doesn't really represent the changing face of America. And it just doesn't make sense. There's great talent out there, talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not. I think where a lot of companies get it wrong, they think we're talking about affirmative action. Just give people who don't have the skills the opportunity and they'll figure it out.

We're saying something different. We're saying, this is not the case. There is great talent out there you just need to make an effort to make sure that you give more people opportunities to actually apply and get into your company. And that's actually what we're helping companies do at Canvas.

But I think just from my own experience, so I come from a very homogenous country, I was born and raised in Israel, most people in Israel are white and I wasn't exposed to different cultures, to different perspectives, and to different backgrounds. It's also a very small country, 8 million people, which is basically one city in the US.

Throughout my career, I started working for global companies, and I got exposed to more and more people and it is so exciting and interesting to work with people who haven't had the exact same experience as you, that maybe they experienced a different culture, and a different upbringing, and different experiences in their life, because you get to learn.

I love that. As a marketer, I think sometimes we have this delusion that "We know everything, we're going to put together a strategy, we understand people". But the truth is, there's no such thing, there's no right or wrong in marketing.

For different companies, for different industries, different things might work and might not work. A lot of what we do is experimentation and the more ideas you have, and the more you're exposed to different people who can challenge you and can make you think differently, the more likely you are to succeed.

I think that's where diversity comes in. It's not a checkbox that you need to fill and I think different teams might look differently, I don't think you need to have a specific set of people, I just think you need to make sure that you have different ideas, different perspectives.

And you definitely want to have a team that represents the audience you're actually marketing to. I think that's where a lot of companies get it wrong and there are a lot of horror stories about products being built for men, and then women can't actually use them, just as an example. So I definitely think diversity needs to be a core part of every company's hiring strategy.

It just makes sense from a creative perspective. You mentioned you've enjoyed collaborative environments as a marketer, that's one of the reasons many people got into marketing: to work collaboratively with people.

If you're collaborating with people who have had the same background as you, the same interests as you, you're just drawing from the same creative well constantly. It's when you get a mix of different ingredients together is where you get the really great sparks. Some of the best advertising campaigns of all time were created by very diverse groups of people.

It just makes sense from a business perspective to have diverse teams in that respect. Is that the way you approach it when you're talking to other companies? Is that one of the ways to push this forward, to say "You can make more money by being diverse"?

Yeah, of course. I mean, there's research to back this up. So we know that diverse teams perform better. I've spent a lot of my career in the startup world so I also know that startups that were led by women actually performed better, even though women only get a fraction of funding when it comes to startups. So I think it's just a shift in perception, I think we need to get used to the fact that diversity is great for business.

It's hard, you can read it, and you can see the numbers, you have to live it, you have to experience it to understand and I think once you do that, you're not going to need any more explanations, you're just gonna see how phenomenal it is when you bring a group of people, especially if you need to solve a specific problem that have very different backgrounds.

There's actually a really interesting book, it's called Range, and it talks about how people with very diverse backgrounds or very unique professional experiences, meaning usually when we think about marketing, we think, "Okay, this is someone who's been doing marketing for 10 years, and if I want to hire a product marketer, I want them to have done product marketing for 10 years so they know exactly how to do it".

But that book actually says if you bring in people that did sales and marketing and maybe they were a professional surfer, or they just had very unique experiences and perspectives, that's actually going to make them a much better partner for you.

Because they're going to be able to connect dots that you can't even see, they're not looking at your problem from inside the box, they can see it from the outside. I think eventually, that also applies when it comes to diversity, whether it's coming from historically underrepresented backgrounds, from different countries, like myself, I'm an immigrant so I bring a different experience to the table.

Someone who's a veteran, or has different disabilities, you want to have different experiences so that you can come up with the most creative ideas. At the end of the day, it is also good for business so I honestly can't understand companies who do not want to invest in diversity.

How can CMOs encourage diversity in their teams?

There are barriers that prevent people from certain diverse backgrounds, typically poorer backgrounds, from getting into these high-level marketing jobs: the cost of going to university, the cost of doing unpaid internships in big cities, that just makes it unfeasible for people from underprivileged backgrounds, whether it's because of race or because of class, to get into those positions.

Are there methods that CMOs and companies can take to break down those barriers? How can CMOs support people to get them into positions where they can start enjoying their creativity?

That goes back to creating opportunities. I think a lot of how hiring was done historically, relies on very specific signals that I actually don't believe are the right signals, like what school did you go to? Or what are some of the previous companies you've worked for?

I can tell you, from my experience, I've hired dozens of dozens of team members. I had people interview from Ivy League universities and they were not good marketers and I wouldn't hire them. The same goes for people who came from the biggest brands you can think of but were not a good fit for what we were looking for.

So I think step number one is to expand your search to make sure that you're not just looking at signals that maybe are a little bit outdated, maybe they're not relevant anymore. Look for the right signals, look for what people actually did, look for results, look for their passion and ambition, look into the mindset and find people who want to learn and grow. I understand it may not work for every level of seniority.

If I'm building my marketing team right now, I need a few experts to lead functional divisions, that's okay, so I might start with someone more senior who already has this experience. But when you hire ICs, this is exactly where you want to hire people who have the passion and the desire to learn and to soak, because they will walk out of water for you. I have a story that I like to share that earlier in my career I was looking to hire someone to do social media.

It was an IC role, fairly junior but we were hoping to find someone with a little bit of experience. I had two final candidates. One of them actually had five years of experience, they checked every single box, the interview was great.

Then I had this young person who said, "Look, I've never actually done social media anywhere else. But because I knew I wanted this role at this company, in the past six months, I created a Facebook page, I created an Instagram account, here's everything that I was able to do. I also found a coach, I've been working with them for three weeks because they actually did social media and they taught me a few different things".

And when I asked both of them to give me an example for a campaign that they would do, just to think creatively, guess who had better answers and better ideas, and ended up getting the job?

That younger person hands down was so much more creative, was so much more open to ideas, and they were so hungry to get the job done and get the opportunity that not only were they one of the best hires, they actually became one of my first managers because they were that good.

If you're getting them at that kind of stage in their progression it allows you to mold their progression towards what you need, what they're going to do well within your team.

If you've got someone who's got too many pre-existing ideas or too much pre-existing experience doing one particular thing, they come with good things and bad things, good working practices and bad working practices and it's a lot harder to get rid of bad working practices than it is to teach good working practices.

Yeah, but it wasn't just that, I mean, when you looked at that person's resume, theoretically, they shouldn't have gotten to the interview, because if you were just to follow the regular signals, "Okay, so they don't have the exact experience that I want to, they haven't worked in tech".

But I was looking for different signals, I was looking for how people describe themselves and what they're passionate about, I actually read the email that came with the application, and I tried to understand why they were so passionate about what we're doing. It's hard because it takes time, it means you actually have to look at sometimes hundreds of resumes to find those really unique people and find talent that other people may have passed on.

But I actually think it's our responsibility to do that and to find other signals to look at and maybe even ask different questions. Maybe a resume isn't the best way for me to really understand who would be a great fit for me. That's part of the reason that, from the first time I became a manager when I interview someone for a marketing role, one of the first things I would ask them to do is to create some sort of project.

This is not to take advantage of them and their time, it's because I want to see how they actually think because that would give me a much better answer than looking at their resume. Because it doesn't matter where they worked previously, I just want to see what will happen when we work together, and we need to collaborate. And that's usually the easiest way to see it.

You talk about looking at things from a different perspective and looking for different signals, how do you get buy-in internally? It's probably not something that you have a problem with at Canvas since it is about diverse hiring practices, but how does a CMO go to their CEO and say, "Listen, I want to start looking for people from a completely different candidate pool whereas previously, we've hired purely Ivy League", for example? How do you convince the CEO that that's the right way to go?

I would probably not ask for permission, I would think about it the other way around. And one of the things we talk about at Canvas is that for a really long time, companies preferred the data blind approach, meaning we're not going to look into people's names and backgrounds, I don't want to know if they come from a specific ethnicity, I just want to hire the best people.

The problem was when you're not looking for something different, you're not going to get something different. They ended up just hiring the same people over and over again, even if they hide their names or their schools to prevent bias.

And what we're advocating for is a data brave approach, meaning, you want to know where people come from, you encourage them to identify the way they feel comfortable identifying.

And then you take a look at your team and at your company and you ask yourself who's not in the room? Whose voice is actually missing? And you make a plan to hire for that gap instead of just saying "diversity in general" and hoping that you might get someone into your team, you're going to say, "You know what, I do not have enough black women represented in this company. So that's what I'm going to focus on".

Again, that doesn't mean you're going to compromise on skills, you're still going to hire the best person for the job, you're just going to make an effort to attract people from different backgrounds that are going to be a great complement to your existing team. Per your question, I would just do that, I would identify what's missing.

I will think about who I want to hire, and then I will go out and get them. Through that interview process, I will get the buy-in from the CEO because they will have to meet those candidates and they will see that they are amazing, even though maybe they're not checking every checkbox we've had before. That's probably how I would approach it.

Why now?

It's interesting what you mentioned data blind versus data brave. It's kind of reflective of general cultural attitudes in the US and the UK. For a large part of the latter section of the 20th century the whole thing was "I don't see race" or "I don't see color" in polite society.

But recently we've seen a bigger shift toward celebrating differences and celebrating the diversity that is in culture. Do you think this shift to diversity is reflective of millennials being in more hiring positions, rather than boomers and Gen X?

Do you think that's a sea change? Or is it just a general reflection of cultural change? Is it because there are more younger people or people with recognition of diversity as being a good thing? Do you think that's what's caused this change?

I think so. It definitely has an impact and it's not just millennials by the way, Gen Z's are going to be 25% of the workforce by 2025 which just reminds me of how old I am. It's probably one of the most diverse generations that we've had so it almost makes sense that they would expect to see people like them everywhere that they go.

And when that's not the case, they vote with their legs, they just leave, or they won't join your company. I think once companies realized there's an actual price to pay, they became a little bit more inclined to invest in diversity, and to make sure that their teams and their companies actually represent everyone in their country.

Without the stats on the demographics of US cities to hand, at least New York is majority non-Caucasian as a demographic so the workforce should reflect that, and particularly management should reflect that. It's likely the same in a lot of different cities in the US as well.

We've talked a bit about what CMOs in companies can do, what are good examples to follow? Who is walking the walk? Who's got really good diversity hiring programs that you know of?

I would definitely say quite a few of our customers and partners.

But I think it's a little bit harder to know what the actual hiring process looks like. But if you look at companies like Drift or Gong, they have been talking about diversity, they have been open about the demographics of people in their companies, and they continuously encourage people to show up for who they are. And it didn't start this year, they've been doing it for years, as long as the companies have existed.

I think that's a really good way to know what to expect when you join a company like that because it's one thing to do it internally behind closed doors but when you're ready to share externally, and you're not afraid to say, "You know what, we're not perfect, but we're learning and we're making efforts".

I think that's the type of company that I would want to join, because I know that, again, they're actually walking the walk, they're not just putting out press releases and supporting different movements with an investment or donation, which is also great, don't get me wrong, they should be doing that. But making a donation is not the same as actually starting to hire internally and making sure that you have diversity within your company.

I think the trailblazers, the companies who are putting their diversity numbers out there and are willing to say, "We're not perfect, but we're working towards that", those are probably the companies I would want to work for and those are the companies that will have better hiring processes to find that untapped talent.

The effectiveness of their methods is evident in how well they've grown in the last few years, Gong recently announced they're valued at $7.25 billion or something, they've been around for what six years? That's a huge amount of growth and it's because they built such an effective team based on these diverse hiring practices.

Final thoughts

Is there anything else that you want to talk about in terms of diversity and team building?

Yeah, I'm happy to share something I learned earlier this year. I've been a manager probably for more than a decade now and I love working with people, helping them develop their careers.

I was in a situation where work took precedence, meaning I spent a lot of time on the things we need to do rather than on the people. It was a period of time, just because we were under pressure, we just did a rebrand and there was a lot of work. But what I learned is, that doesn't matter, you have to prioritize your people.

Luckily, I have such a great team that they basically told me, "Hey, Maya, we need a little bit more time with you. It's great we all are working hard to achieve our goals. But, we need a little bit more team time".

And we were able to turn that around really quickly because obviously, I wanted to invest in people, it was just more of an oversight because work got to be too much. I think we have a tendency to do that whenever we're under stress.

So just a reminder that people should always come first and at the end of the day, we would probably go further together. As long as you have your team around you, there's nothing that you can't do. Our recent rebrand is evidence - four people made a full rebrand happen in less than three months. That's phenomenal.

What experiences do you have with incorporating diversity into your marketing team? Got questions on how you can do it too? Share them on the CMO Alliance Community!