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Nichole Kelly: “Slow down to the speed of wisdom”

I would love to inspire a movement towards greater emotional intelligence and accountability to impact within the marketing community. Given the tools, the understanding, and the proper motivation, I believe we can create messaging that empowers humanity to unlock its full potential. And in working together, we can do it in record time. As a part […]

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I would love to inspire a movement towards greater emotional intelligence and accountability to impact within the marketing community. Given the tools, the understanding, and the proper motivation, I believe we can create messaging that empowers humanity to unlock its full potential. And in working together, we can do it in record time.


As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field about their five ways to identify and retain fantastic talent. Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nichole Kelly.

Nichole is one of the world’s leading digital performance marketers and has been helping unlock advertising ROI for over 17 years. From running corporate marketing teams to leading a successful marketing agency, she has experienced all “sides” of the marketing equation. As a Strategy Director at WebMechanix, she helps brands discover what will make the web actually work for their business. After flexing her rapid prototyping and data geek muscles, she created one of the first true ROI case studies in social media and authored the book How to Measure Social Media. Nichole is also a personal development aficionado and offers a level of self-awareness and feminine leadership that is refreshing and inspiring for every leader.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I wish I could tell you I had this perfect career plan that I flawlessly executed. Instead, I started as a 20-year-old, first-time mother whose husband deployed overseas to put together marketing materials for a rape crisis center. From there, every position I had seemed to gravitate towards marketing skills. And at 24, I finally began pursuing my bachelor’s degree and eventually my MBA in Marketing.

So I’d have to say that marketing really found me and not the other way around. And once I discovered I have a passion for it, I followed the flow of the opportunities that were most exciting to me. That took me into the challenging industries of financial services, health care, sports marketing, and social good. Ultimately, what led to success in my career was the ability to focus efforts on what actually delivers results and relentless curiosity for how to do things better.

When social media came into the industry, I was leading a large marketing team. I could see that there was untapped potential in the power of online community, delivering increased profits, and customer satisfaction. Instead of continuing to climb the corporate ladder, I side-stepped it and specialized in social media, something most would’ve considered risky. I leveraged my senior level of experience to publish one of the first true ROI case studies that supported business investment in social media and eventually, a how-to book for marketers.

Now, I’m conducting an industry benchmark study on emotional intelligence (EQ) among marketing leaders to explore the implications of EQ on ROI performance.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, I was working as a graphic designer for a quasi-government organization. I had received a project that required me to print on cardstock paper. I ordered the paper, designed the flier, and thought it would take an hour tops to print. It turns out the card stock was too thick for the printer. The printer was crap. And I’d underestimated the time it would take me to finish the project.

After hours of printing and having at least a dozen or more copies get jammed up or misaligned in the printer, I went home frustrated — yet satisfied to have completed the project. The next morning, I was informed that one of my colleagues had counted the number of wasted sheets of paper in my trash can and had taken them to my boss.

I got called into the boss’s office to discuss my seemingly wasteful practices. I looked at my boss in the eyes and said, “If I had the 350 dollars printer designed to do this job instead of a 99 dollars inkjet that the person who complained to you should’ve ordered, I wouldn’t have wasted the 12 sheets of paper that are valued at under 50 cents apiece. However, it is worth noting that I spent 6 hours hand-feeding paper through the printer, which cost us 180 dollars this week — and will cost another 180 dollars next week.”

Fortunately, I am a long-time slayer of drama at home and in the office. I’ve always known that numbers are the language of business. Throughout my career, I’ve learned that the formula to successfully argue your case is rather simple: Speak the language and learn how to optimize the variables.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

I am working on the most exciting project of my career. I’m conducting the first marketing executive benchmark study on emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Review states that “emotional intelligence — the ability to, for instance, understand your effect on others and manage yourself accordingly — accounts for nearly 90 percent of what moves people up the ladder when IQ and technical skills are roughly similar” (see “What Makes a Leader” in the Harvard Business Review, January 2004).

Emotional intelligence is especially compelling in the marketing industry because we are the creators of media. Every news story, TV show, movie, commercial, online ad, and website is created by someone in the advertising and media industry. My hypothesis is that higher levels of emotional intelligence will lead to higher levels of revenue performance. And I also know that a marketer’s understanding of the connection between emotional intelligence, mental wellness, empowerment, self-image, and overall life satisfaction will be essential to their personal and career evolution.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share five techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.

Hiring in marketing requires having solid investigative skills, as good marketers are also good storytellers. They know how to spin their experience and background better than most. Which means hiring managers need to be able to sort out the storytellers from the true performers. This situation means that you can miss key personality traits and/or skills that matter. I focus on conducting a thorough analysis into five areas with each candidate I interview. I ask strategic questions and value thoughtful replies.

  1. I ask them to quantify their prior performance. Ask them to tell me about your most successful project or campaign. For this question, I’m looking for hard metrics, and I give bonus points when they demonstrate an understanding of revenue and overall business performance. Marketers can get lost in creativity and forget their responsibility to the business’s success. Understanding how businesses win in the marketplace is a critical and unique skill set worth developing for anyone.
  2. I ask them to demonstrate their experience. Ask, what experience do you have that most directly relates to the role you applied for? I am really looking for concise and well-thought-out answers. I consider this a demonstration of direct alignment and a candidate’s ability to do their research. A well-prepared candidate will have prepared clear answers for how their experience directly aligns with the duties stated in the job description. In practice, this process is a simple exercise of taking the job description and highlighting any previous roles in which you exercised those responsibilities, yet so many candidates don’t take the time to personalize their resume or interview for that particular company and interviewer.
  3. I ask them to prove that they have the right skills for the job. You either have the skills I’m looking for or you don’t. I have a strong policy of not settling for talent. If someone offers more than I’m looking for, then I’m very interested. But if they’re not fully qualified, then a lower level position is likely more suitable. I can’t tell you how many college graduates I’ve seen apply for director- and vice-president-level positions with absolutely no relevant skills or experience. I definitely value candidates that don’t waste my time (or their own).
  4. I test their coachability on the spot. At the end of the interview, I give them direct feedback on their interview in the format of what really worked for me and what would’ve made it even better. This is where emotional intelligence starts to really come in. Those with high levels of emotional intelligence are able to accept and apply feedback without resistance. They are graceful, say thank you and take action on recommendations. This enables the organization to grow more rapidly and require less formalized training. As Tom Chi says, “Doing is the best kind of thinking.” If you can learn how to apply feedback and generate a successful outcome, I’m willing to invest the time to mentor you.

It’s also a gift to the interviewee who receives feedback on how they can improve for future interviews.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are the top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in the industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

The best way is to be the best, genuinely. If you want great talent, you need to have an environment where the talent you are looking for will thrive. This environment is actually less about perks and benefits and more about satisfaction and fulfillment.

The millennial generation wants to understand how working for you will have an impact on the world and how it will enable them to have the experiences they want to have.

The GenX generation wants to understand how working for you will provide a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose in their lives.

The Boomer generation wants to understand that they will be valued and not forgotten as they prepare for the next phase of their life.

At WebMechanix, talent attraction and retention are core pieces of our strategic plan, and we’ve been exceptionally successful at delivering on it with one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry — so much so that we obtained the honor of recently receiving Inc. Magazine’s Best Places to Work award.

What are the three most effective strategies used to retain employees?

Management is evolving to gain a deeper understanding of the whole person. The lines between personal life and career are beyond blurred. And this understanding can become a superpower for retention.

Honor the whole person

Logic says that the more we understand about a person, the more we can serve them. Rather than focusing on what your company can get out of the employee, focus on what your company can unlock within the employee. Consider what a person’s full, unfiltered expression would look like. I’ve found that it could be unlocking a passion for marketing as easily as it could be for a sport like running or something else unrelated.

Engage the whole person

There are many articles and studies suggesting that employee engagement is the key to attracting, hiring, and retaining talent. To engage the whole person, we can provide avenues for self-discovery that help employees gain higher levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Teaching employees tools like meditation, journaling, and self-reflection exercises can help engage the whole person without bringing conflicting personal baggage into the office.

Inspire the whole person

I believe our only job as managers of talent is to clear the runway for a successful flight. Rather than trying to fit the person to the position, consider how you can fit the person within the organization. Once you’ve identified that a candidate meets the minimum conditions of satisfaction, you can begin whittling down based on cultural alignment and opportunity. Companies whose employees work together, play together, and win together create magnetic cultures that attract and retain top talent.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?

In my industry, the challenge of HR is to keep up with the constantly evolving technical landscape of marketers and screening candidates for success. Most would likely tell HR professionals to keep up with business trends of some kind. I recommend keeping up with trends in healthcare and human optimization. These are the two biggest levers we can pull when optimizing for human performance.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

Take the time to ask your employees about their money dials, a concept coined by the great personal finance expert Ramit Sethi. You will likely find that things like time are far more important than money. One of my favorites is to offer a prepaid subscription to YouTube. It means commercial-free music, entertainment, and learning all in one. It costs under 15 dollars a month and is something that creates a tremendous value exchange with the employee. The company gets the benefit of their team member’s increased focus. The employee gets no commercials. (Yes, as a marketing executive I recognize the irony and beauty of me saying that. I am a big proponent of permission-based advertising.)

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement towards greater emotional intelligence and accountability to impact within the marketing community. Given the tools, the understanding, and the proper motivation, I believe we can create messaging that empowers humanity to unlock its full potential. And in working together, we can do it in record time.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Slow down to the speed of wisdom ~ Aubrey Marcus Podcast

In the Human Design System, I’m what’s called a Manifesting Generator. While that means I have a superpower for creating my reality, it also means I can find myself on an energetic hamster wheel of all output and not enough rumination. When I focus on slowing down to the speed of wisdom, my brain stops calculating and starts listening.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

Oprah, hands down. During some of the most challenging times of my life, which included recovering from three minor strokes, suicidal depression and homelessness, I’d ask myself, “Is this going to matter on Oprah’s couch?” whenever times got tough. I would imagine myself being interviewed by Oprah on a white couch. If what was happening to me wouldn’t even make it onto the highlight reel, I knew I could focus my attention onto something more impactful. If it was something that would make it onto the highlight reel, I knew it was worth paying deeper attention to and especially worth slowing down to appreciate even more. That one question kept me alive during some of the most difficult times in my life.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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