Work Smart During COVID: Choose How You Fill Your Work Box

We all have the same size metaphorical box in which to fit all of our life and work: its dimensions are 24/7/365 for every single one of us. When we first got sent home in March, many of us tried to replicate how we did work in the office at the kitchen table. It didn’t work. We failed to acknowledge that the portion of our box devoted to work had shrunk — because we had to fit new things into it, like every household chore imaginable and home-schooling little ones, but also because it was harder to focus on selling widgets during a global pandemic.

A smaller work box doesn’t necessarily mean less impact. For me, making an impact is a function of what I put in the box, rather than how much. I deliberately choose how to fill my box. This is what I like to call working smart (rather than working hard).

Six things you might want to consider as you actively choose how to fill your work box during COVID:

  1. Size your work box.  Pause before you attempt to do work the same way you did it yesterday. Observe that it takes more time to do things; that you need to accommodate your partner’s schedule; that you need breaks from constant zooming. Put all those things in the box (including the breaks). Then, acknowledge that the size of your work box is now smaller and that your definition of “how many things I get done in a day” must change as a result. Shift how you assess productivity from quantity to impact.
  2. Put the big rocks in first.  Drop your to-do list. Instead, make a big rocks list. Every week, think about the three or four big rocks (those things that make the most difference to your business, whether they are easy or hard to do) and list the next right action that you will take to accomplish them. Write your big rocks/next right actions on a post-it and put it on the side of your computer. It will keep you focused on working big.
  3. Limit the shoulds.  My very first boss once called me into his office and asked to see my calendar. He proceeded to pull out his blue felt-tip pen and cross out 50% of the meetings. “Your job is not to make people happy; it is to make American Express money,” he said. That was my first lesson in limiting the shoulds. I was filling half my box with low-impact activities because someone else asked or because I was trying to get noticed. Try playing the calendar game. Look at your calendar and ask yourself: “If I were quitting in six months (so there’s no one to impress) and wanted to leave the very best legacy, is this something I would be spending time on?” If the answer is no, then it’s a should. Take some of them out. You will make tons of room in your box.
  4. Leave some of your box empty.  I firmly believe that insight is always knocking on our noggin. The problem is that our brains are too full of the mundane to hear the knock. We admire people who make a big difference in the world – think Franklin, Jobs, DaVinci. Every single one of them was disciplined about making space in their minds for creativity and innovation. Schedule your thinking time and hold it sacrosanct. You are too busy not to.
  5. Don’t put things in your box that belong in someone else’s. There is a big difference between empowering and enabling. If a colleague or direct report is not performing (in your opinion) don’t step in and do their job for them. It’s a time drain for you, and lowers the collective productivity of the team. Trust others to do their jobs.
  6. Structure your work day. Work seems boundary-less right now. All the days and all the hours run into each other. It’s a recipe for burnout. Even if you’re working on only the highest impact things, structure your day. Set a start time and an end time. Build breaks into your day (I end all meetings I lead 10 minutes before the top of the hour to walk around my apartment). TAKE A VACATION even if you can’t go anywhere. In short, put your own oxygen mask on first.

At a time when everything seems out of control, control how you choose to fill your box (even when you feel you can’t). Take the reins. Commit to working to make a difference rather than to get the very most stuff done. And, when we emerge from all of this, don’t forget to take what you’ve learned back to the office.

If you want to continue the conversation, connect with me on LinkedIn or email


Martellus is a specialized consulting network of senior women executives ready to partner with you/your company to deliver results in areas where we have deep functional expertise. Our network includes expertise across almost every core marketing and customer experience functions. Whether you have a specific project assignment or need help filling an interim role, we can help.

Planning is the Past; Co-Creation is the Future

Over the last two years, I’ve facilitated about 20 planning meetings across a range of industries and disciplines and have completely changed my perspective on what makes for transformative planning. Ask me five years ago, when I was responsible for a large organization, and I would have said the three keys to an effective planning session are a tight agenda, detailed prep documents, and ample team bonding time.

I’ve now witnessed first-hand that the most productive planning meetings – those that lead to the most creative thinking and ultimately the most significant market impact – are the ones characterized by more listening, more thinking, less prep and less paper.

My new critical success factors for transformative planning:

Take the time to make the time.
Truly transformative thinking takes time – the team needs to warm up if you will. I’m currently reading a book by Jenny Odell called How to Do Nothing. She cites a 1991 lecture where John Cleese (of Monty Python) listed the five factors required for creativity:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence
  5. Humor

Note that time is listed twice. If your business is currently in “8% YOY growth” mode, a one-day planning meeting may be most appropriate. If you’re intent on transforming your space, or standing up a new organization, or tackling a different customer segment, a multi-day thought-provoking session may be more in order. If you think your team is too busy to take three days off from day-to-day work to think (as someone recently suggested to me), I offer you this: do you have time not to?

Don’t sweat the prep (of documents).
Instead of writing decks, spend your prep time collaborating with your team on crafting a thoughtful agenda. Note each section with “questions to ponder” before the meeting. If you must have paper, limit it to a couple of pages of thought-starters before each section. I’ve also found that if a third-party asks each participant ahead of time what he/she views as a successful meeting, you’ll be prepared to navigate any perspectives that may differ from your own.

Although it may seem efficient, individual work before the meeting, attractively packaged in a long presentation, typically restricts the group to “at the margins” thinking and discourages break-through creativity. If you want out-of-the-box thinking, don’t create a box.

Co-creation is the name of the game.
Co-creation – asking questions and deeply listening for solutions rather than coming in with a strong point of view – can be scary for many leaders. I acknowledge the fear (of potentially wasting two days with a ticket to nowhere) but point you to the massive upside: co-creation leads to more transformative solutions, a deeper understanding of the “why” across the team, commitment to work as one, and more real team bonding than any dinner or Broadway show. Decide at the outset whether a “tell” or a “co-create” session is more appropriate for where you are in your business. Never try to hide “tell” meetings in “co-create” clothing. If you’re ready to co-create, consider having a third-party facilitator, so you can be an active participant with your team (rather than running the show).

Just a few weeks ago, I worked with a marketing organization to co-create a mission statement — one that meant something. We were faced with a significant challenge. For a good chunk of time, we meandered. Then the leader of the group, who had been standing at the back of the room profoundly listening, perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the team’s discussion into one statement. It became the meeting’s “A-HA” moment and the yardstick against which to evaluate priorities the following day.

It’s best to sleep on it.
A proven best practice to support creative thinking is to break up your meeting into chunks and incorporate overnight “homework.” Front-load the hard stuff, encourage the team to sleep on meeting discoveries (maybe inspired by a one-page summary of the day’s discussion and some thought-provoking questions), and come back to re-work the next morning. Even if you only have one day set aside for the session, I recommend two half-day chunks, so your team members’ brains can work while they sleep.

Commit to the next right actions, immediately.
If creative thinking doesn’t drive behavior, it’s a waste. Rather than waiting until you have time to package everything perfectly and develop the 12-month roadmap, commit to the next right actions in the room. Then, send out a meeting summary within 24 hours of the session. The 24-hour turnaround will keep the momentum going, and prevent you from generating too much paper.

You are much more likely to arrive at creative, transformative plans if you ditch the planning session. Give yourself permission not to have to know everything and co-create instead. (But, feel free to keep the dinner and the Broadway show.)

If you want to continue to the conversation, connect with me on LinkedIn or email


Martellus is a specialized consulting network of senior women executives ready to partner with you/your company to deliver results in areas where we have deep functional expertise. Our network includes expertise across almost every core marketing and customer experience functions. Whether you have a specific project assignment or need help filling an interim role, we can help

Breakthrough Best Customer Strategies Start With “The Who”

100% of Martellus clients cite driving top line growth in an uncertain economic environment as a top priority for 2020.   And most of our clients acknowledge that extracting more value from best customers is a proven growth lever. We agree, for three reasons:

  • The 80/20 rule applies: Time and again we see that 20% of a company’s customers account for 80% of value creation; in some cases, the concentration is even greater. Protecting – and getting more — power users enables companies to focus their investment dollars and jumpstart growth.
  • Keeping a valuable customer is much cheaper than acquiring a new one: The cost of retaining an engaged customer is much lower than cost of acquiring a new one, yet most companies we work with have serious, and often undetected, leaky buckets.
  • The best customer opportunity remains largely untapped (still): Most companies design programs and processes around the average customer. An unintended consequence of average customer design is under-investment in best.

If the case for best is clear, why are so few companies harnessing the full opportunity? Because they work “best customer” as a project rather than as a way of doing business enterprise-wide. And to get the entire organization working in concert on behalf of best customers, the single most important thing companies can do is get “The Who” right – who are these best customers around whom we are all going to rally?

An effective definition of “Who:”

    1. Aligns with top priorities – there may be more than one best: Define as best those customers within your base that you want to protect and/or grow. Most companies define highest revenue customers as best, but there may be other segments, for example, customers with multiple relationships (or assets under management, or influencers). Limit best to at most 2-3 discrete segments, however. More than that is confusing and counter-productive.

    2. Is Radically Simple:Don’t black box your definition of best customer. Effective definitions are 1) easy for the organization – from marketing executive to service representative – to understand; and, 2) easy to report on a timely basis. Ideally, choose a definition of best that the organization already tracks, reports on, and understands.
    3. Empowers the customer: Your best customer definition will have the most impact if you can use it in marketing. Implement a definition of best that customers can action. You want your customers to be able to say: “I want that pay-off, and I know what I need to do to get it.”

Mobilize the entire company to work on behalf of best customers by getting “The Who” right.   Reinforce the radically simple, empowering “Who” with best customer specific customer listening and measurement. Then watch the “What” (specific programs and services) organically emerge enterprise-wide.

If you want to continue to the conversation, connect with me on LinkedIn or email

Martellus is a specialized consulting network of senior women executives ready to partner with you/your company to deliver results in areas where we have deep functional expertise. Our network includes expertise across most core marketing and customer experience functions. Whether you have a specific project assignment or need help filling an interim role, we can help.


From “Freelancer” to “Expert:” Getting the most out of Gig Workers

If you or your company are not already working with gig workers, chances are you will be soon. According to the findings of the ‘Freelancing in America’ report commissioned by Upwork and Freelancers Union, some 57.3 million Americans — or 36% of the workforce — are freelancers. And, the majority of freelancers say they would not leave freelance work behind for a full-time job. Not surprising given the attraction of flexible working hours and being your own boss.

Question is: are employers getting the most out of this growing, and in many cases immensely talented, workforce? Are they leveraging freelancers fully to power not only their business performance but also to accelerate the growth and development of their employees? Our experience at Martellus suggests that the answer is “not always.”

In most cases, employers tap into freelancers as substitutes for full-time staff. Makes a ton of sense given that one of the major drivers of the freelance economy is the need for public companies to trim HR-related costs. And this works. If you need to get out a product and don’t have the resources, a “quasi” freelancer – an individual who essentially becomes a full-time member of your team, sometimes for years at a time – fills the need. And at Martellus – an Expert network committed to helping women find work that fits with their lives — we’re all for companies affording their employees rich parental leaves, with Martellus Experts stepping in to provide coverage.

That said, 1:1 substitutes for full-time staff are not the situations where non-traditional workers truly shine as performance accelerators. In addition to leveraging freelancers to back-fill open roles, think about where “Experts” with deep functional expertise (and experience driving results across large organizations) can power the performance of your business. In other words, to truly jump-start performance, consider uplifting “freelancer” resources to “Expert” resources. Especially consider supplementing a team with Experts when:

  1. Leaders/teams are new to roles or have new responsibilities:In my career, I spent fifteen years in marketing before taking on leadership responsibilities in operations. I would have LOVED to have a behind-the-scenes Expert helping me understand my new function, uncover opportunities, set priorities…and give me the handwritten list of things that could get me fired if I didn’t keep my eye on them. I got there on my own eventually, with the support of my boss. I would have gotten there months quicker with an Expert at my side who had my back. With a shorter learning curve, I would have been more productive, faster – and so would the 150 people who worked for me.
  2. You need to jumpstart a time-sensitive deliverable:You have signed on a new partner. Perfect. You need to develop a marketing plan that fully leverages all their channels in 12 weeks. Perfect opportunity to bring in an Expert to work side-by-side with your team to get it done. If you look in the right place, you will find someone with deep experience in exactly the area where you need support and counsel. In one recent case at Martellus, we paired a client looking for expertise in partner marketing with an Expert with experience in partner marketing with that specific partner. Our client was thrilled we found her the unicorn Expert to take the partnership to the next level.
  3. You have funding for one person, but actually need two:“I need someone with superb strategic thinking skills, who also thrives on execution. Unfortunately, those two skills don’t tend to come in the same package,” bemoaned a friend recently.  Experts are the answer. A half-time excellent strategist and half-time excellent driver are almost always more productive than a full-time super strategist who is a so-so driver (or the other way around).
  4. You need out-of-the-”building” thinking (or saying): Organizations get stuck. Often an external resource is needed to extract the wisdom that is already resident in the organization. Or to say things that internal folks may not be comfortable saying – “this service is no good” comes to mind as a real and frequent example. Consider bringing on an Expert if your organization is going around and around an issue without making a decision. An Expert with extensive experience and credibility in the function may be just what you need to facilitate cross-functional conversations that drive to decisions.

Once you decide to go with an Expert or an Expert team (for all the right reasons), it’s critical that you set them up properly. Make sure you provide tightly defined deliverables, a proper introduction to the team (“they are here as a resource to you, not because you can’t do your job”), the tools and access they need to do the work, and a clear definition of what constitutes a job finished and well done. Then watch as the folks on your new, blended team, encourage and support each other to work bigger and better.

If you want to continue to the conversation, connect with me on LinkedIn or email


Martellus is a certified women-owned strategic consulting group that pairs practical, experienced Experts with companies in need of their specific skills. We take on engagements only in areas where we have extensive expertise. Action-oriented, our Experts come in and work side-by-side with clients to quickly make a difference.

Agile is Changing How We Work

As businesses continue to try to keep up with the pace of change in consumer behavior and the constant pressure for new and better products, an increasing number are turning to an agile model. Four of our Experts with deep experience in agile discuss why this matters and what you need to know for successful implementation.

Why Agile Matters

The agile model of creating a unique team of people with various skill sets can enable you to build products faster, gain a competitive edge, decrease the time to market, boost internal morale and ultimately improve your bottom line. “For high volume, fast turnaround projects an agile model is beneficial because you lock in a team that becomes familiar with the project and can produce more for less money,” says Martellus Expert Leslie Hurst. Agile is more than just a cosmetic fix, though. “It requires a mindset shift away from thinking about projects to thinking about products instead, specifically what kind of product would be the best solution for the customer,” Martellus Expert Sarah Mitchell. “Instead of focusing purely on the end solution 12 months from now, you break the project up into smaller iterations and incorporate feedback as you go.”

Get the Right Team in Place

Successful implementation of agile begins with building the right team. Depending on the project, this could include engineers, designers, marketers and business developments representatives. “They will all share in the objective to deliver against project outcome, whether that is a website or a product,” Hurst says. Martellus Expert Felicia Lipson adds, “In my experience, once people are in agile, it is more team-based and it increases morale.” It is important that roles are clarified from the outset. “There always needs be a product owner and scrum master to drive meetings and lift road blocks, whether that is talking to compliance, getting clarity around a goal, or clearly articulating the value of what the team is building for internal stakeholders,” points out Martellus Expert Damaris De Los Santos.

Making Agile Work: What You Need to Now

For the agile model to succeed, executives must embrace the vision and a clear strategy should be in place first. “No organization is going to be textbook,” Mitchell (right) explains.

Going from non-agile to agile is not always easy and it helps to bring in outside experts. At Martellus, we look at people across the organization and assist in setting up the process, whether you are looking for a complete overhaul or need help taking a step back, redefining your vision and getting the right team in place.

Martellus in Action: Meet Our Experts

Leslie Hurst, a senior marketing executive, has implemented agile marketing at major financial institutions.

Sarah Mitchell, an expert in the digital customer journey, has deep experience in agile transformation as a facilitator and member of a products team.

Felicia Lipson, who specializes marketing strategy and product development has implemented agile models at financial institutions.

Damaris De Los Santos is a specialist in digital strategy and has served as a product manager for agile teams.

AI is Coming

Welcome to the April issue of Martellus Matters. One of the questions we hear being asked in boardrooms across companies concerns what impact AI will have and how best to prepare for it. We tapped a leading professor and author in the field as well as our own Martellus Expert for their practical advice on what steps businesses should take now

AI is Coming… 
Are You Ready?

Build the Right Strategy

AI is coming. Whether that is exciting, anxiety-provoking, challenging or all three, virtually every company is investing to get ready for the onslaught of artificial intelligence. Without having the right strategy in place first, though, businesses risk losing millions of dollars and umpteen hours of time. A smarter approach is to take a step back to ensure that you are foundationally prepared for machine learning before taking action. Consider what investing in AI will mean to your organization, identify when AI can help to achieve specific business outcomes and set clear, measurable goals. Ask yourself: Are you fundamentally structured for the coming digital experience, and if not, what people and processes do you need to get into position?

The Three-Step Plan 

Begin by cleaning up all your data sources so that you have a single view of your consumer. To accomplish that you must be sure that your terminology is tagged online and off to provide an accurate report on every action that takes place from forms to downloads. This process will enable you to constantly gather information that can be used as predictive analytics. When you identify behavior across touchpoints, you will be better able to create an analytics-based strategy. Once you have the right tagging and analytics, think about the best experience to pilot with personalization: Will it help your bottom line? Will you learn more about your interactions with consumers?  Be sure that you have clarity around use cases, including quantifiable measures. AI isn’t just coming, it’s here. And it can be transformative – if you do it right.

The Role of Data: What You Need to Do Now

We asked Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, NYU Stern School of Business professor, and best-selling author of The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream. for her advice on pitfalls to avoid.

“AI isn’t a magic wand. I once heard an executive brag about the number of machine learning patents his company had. ‘Great,’ I told him, ‘but what are you planning to do with them?’ Patents alone won’t create new business verticals or profit centers. To take advantage of this next era of computing, look for narrowly-focused business applications using data your company already has access to. Make sure that your data is clean, free of bias, and that you have consent to share it. It’s vitally important that every organization review its data retention and use policies now.  Finally, make sure you’re developing your stable of quality data scientists and engineers who represent the rich diversity of your customer base. It will still take a few years for AI applications to propagate, but that doesn’t mean you can wait a few years to start recruiting and training your workforce.”

Martellus in Action: How Management Can Lead

Martellus Expert Damaris de los Santos specializes in digital product management, web usability and user experience. Here, she gives her tips on how management can lead the way to successful usage of AI.

1. Leaders must foster a culture of experimentation. Trying out pilot programs – and being willing to learn from them – can help you avoid larger and more costly disasters.

2. Implement a uniform set of best practices that grows out of your pilot programs and is informed by outside experts who create clear guidelines.

3. Start by automating an internal process that will free up employees to spend more time on other things that can improve the customer experience.