The art of listening: what the pandemic taught me about inclusive leadership

Pinterest's Visha Naul shares her experience of starting a marketing job during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s a question marketers constantly ask: how do you stay in touch with what is relevant or what matters right now? 

I’ve been thinking about this over the past year as I’ve been building and leading the EMEA business marketing team at Pinterest. Taking on a big role at the early stages of the pandemic was challenging, with no chance to meet people in real life or get a sense of the culture.

I was new to a team that was trying to figure out what I stood for and at same time I was trying to do the same with them. Unsurprisingly, that is not so easy to do via video calls – even when the people at Pinterest were generous with their time and were keen to meet, share ideas and point me in the right direction. 

Starting a new team in Europe has enabled me roll up my sleeves and do some cool stuff, but it has also meant that understanding my team’s challenges, diverse backgrounds, needs and differences has required a lot more listening than talking. On top of that, I needed to figure out how to bring those differences to the forefront. 

As the workplace undergoes lasting change in the wake of Covid-19, the need for inclusive leadership is front of mind and more relevant for marketers than ever. But what does that word, “inclusivity”, really mean in practice, and how do you keep the people in your business in your business and motivated to deliver great work? 

It starts by listening and being vocal about it, but it should also be a regular reminder to the people you work with of your own personal values as well as the business goals you are working towards together.  

In the absence of real-life office culture, we can often find ourselves not being inclusive across the board and simply running at speed to get the next thing out the door. Small oversights – such as forgetting to include someone on a document, not involving them in a meeting or forgetting to ask an opinion – can easily be made.

It can be challenging to foster an inclusive culture when we don’t see each other in person as we used to. But you can hold your colleagues accountable when they forget such things – I do, all the time – while approaching oversights with a spirit of empathy. 

Even so, saying those reminders again and again can be exhausting – which is why listening becomes even more important. 

When you really listen, you carry the weight of more than one opinion. It carries meaning, it’s not just noise. There is far too much noise out there already with multiple email and Slack threads. And I don’t buy into the attitude of “we’ve always done it this way”. Instead, I try to open up conversations.

In marketing there are several areas where we need to be listening but, as we emerge from the pandemic, there are two that are even more important for me: listen to the people you work with and listen to the people you want to reach.

Build trust

We are human. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and listen to the people you work with and your peers. Remove the bravado – it’s OK to not know everything, that’s why you have a team. Listen to what they have to say and bring them along. 

Keep it real

Bring listening into your core working practices and into your values. It shouldn’t be on the odd occasion or when you really want people to buy into what you are doing for a one-off project. That’s not authentic and you’ll be quickly found out. 

Stay relevant

Listening also means listening to your audiences. No business can stand strong post-pandemic without listening to the people they want to reach. That comes from focusing on the lessons, reading and understanding audience data, listening to people in your business and ones outside of it so you stay connected to real life.

This sentiment of staying relevant is something I hear all the time from fellow marketers and agency friends. We also need to remember that the people we want to reach want to be listened to. We’ve all gone through various waves of emotion during the pandemic. It’s affected how we think, feel and behave. Are you the same person you you were two years ago? I know I’m not. The marketers I know are also presented with the challenge of how to build better and more relevant advertising for the audiences they want to reach.

I’m pretty sure none of us has it perfect. Our challenges are often universal and we need to put inclusivity at the heart of them. It’s more than “think global, act local” – it’s a changed mindset that puts inclusivity first, stays open to diversity of thought, and stops considering it as yet another thing to think about beyond the day job. 

This all starts with listening and ends with being vocal and doing something to help inspire people around you. It's not a “nice thing to do” – it makes perfect business sense.

Visha Naul is director of business marketing for EMEA at Pinterest

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