Mary Fox, CEO and co-founder of Marlow Group Inc., a career navigation platform based in San Francisco, harnesses the power of data in Marlow’s technology, which enables career coaching via chat for people who are ready to take the lead on their career trajectory.
Read on to learn more about the high-impact career coaching service in this Q+A with Marlow’s own Mary Fox herself.
Grit Daily: You had your own interesting entrepreneurial background before Marlow. Share that.
Mary Fox: At a young age, entrepreneurship stood out to me as a fascinating, but risky, lifestyle. I grew up watching my father struggle with his stonemasonry business and decided I’d choose a more stable career. A few years after college, I was living in Washington, DC working at the Brookings Institution when a high school friend who had moved to San Francisco told me they would be in New York for the weekend. I decided to join.
I remember sitting at a restaurant with him and his two friends, listening to them talk about the innovations that were happening out of San Francisco and how they were planning to grow their own businesses. This was 2011 and a lot of the tech companies we know today were barely just getting started.
At the time, my world was all foreign policy all the time (the Middle East uprisings were in full force). On one level, I felt out of my depth at this dinner. At the same time, I was incredibly intrigued.
I was familiar with the entrepreneurial success stories of people like Steve Case, Peter Thiel, Larry Page and of course Mark Zuckerberg, but something about the fact that these guys at dinner weren’t tech celebrities (yet) inspired me to think about entrepreneurship as more accessible and within reach.
Not really knowing how to transition from foreign policy to tech, I took the route that many do and went to graduate school at the London School of Economics. From there, I moved to San Francisco to work in operations at an early stage commerce startup called Massdrop.
The common thread throughout my career is that I’ve always been in a unique position to empower employees to seize opportunities and overcome obstacles. Marlow was born out of the general idea that, with so many best practices and great resources available, people shouldn’t have to guess their way through their careers.
GD: What’s behind the Marlow name?
MF: My co-founder, Chelsea, likes to say that ‘Mary went to France for a few weeks and came back with the name Marlow.’ While that’s a very true statement, the reality is more nuanced. Our focus was on finding a neutral name so we could create the meaning as our brand grew. Today, Marlow means personalized development – empowering others to take the lead on their own career growth.
GD: Gallup says 70% of employees are not engaged at work. What is meaningful here?
MF: When Gallup measures engagement, they’re essentially taking a pulse on how committed and involved people are in their roles. Do they feel like they’re good at their job and that the company values their contribution? Do they feel like their opinions are heard? Do they feel like they have opportunities to grow? And so on.
When people start to answer ‘no’ to these questions, negative consequences flood in. They’re less motivated, less focused, less productive, and more likely to look for a new job. Estimates show that companies in the U.S. are collectively losing more than $500 Billion a year. Naturally, company leaders are paying attention.
That’s not why the statistic is meaningful to us.
We built Marlow because it frustrated us to see so many smart people become unengaged in their jobs. We looked at the root causes of unhappiness and unengagement at work and saw that many of these causes (i.e. misaligned expectations, unclear goals, poor internal communication, etc.) can be mitigated by the individual if they simply have access to the right tools and support.
Put differently, every individual has the power to influence their surroundings and make choices that lead to a more fulfilling career. I fundamentally believe that.
GD: Coaching used to be reserved for executives. Why was that and what’s changing?
MF: Executive coaching is a great way to enable corporate leaders to be more effective as they shaped the direction of their organizations. Coaches work with executives to help them identify their blind spots, communicate more effectively with multiple audiences, make more strategic decisions for the organization, develop a stronger leadership presence, and much more. We saw that a lot of the topics that executive coaches worked on with their clients would greatly benefit people at all levels in their careers.
Today’s companies are expecting their team members at all levels to be strong professionals. They need to know how to communicate in many different settings, manage their time, think critically, juggle competing priorities, and make strategic decisions daily. It used to be that employees were told exactly how to do their jobs – that’s just not the case today. More than that, companies have no freaking clue what to do with “millennials”. Some say this generation is too pushy. Others say it’s too lazy. And still others point to entitlement.
The reality is that millennials are different from each other in most ways, but they all want to feel valued at work and believe that they’re contributing their best work. They want opportunities for growth and they expect their employers to provide those opportunities.
Unfortunately, most professionals have never been given the guidance or training to ask for what they need, set clear goals, and take the lead on their own growth. As a society, we never stopped to train people on the new rules of work.
How do you build relationships at work? How do you communicate clear expectations? How do you set boundaries so you can create an environment that keeps you motivated and productive? Companies have known for a long time that one-size-fits-all training doesn’t work.
The problem is that, until now, personalized development programs were too time-consuming and expensive to implement. Technology and innovations in this space over the past two years have made it possible to provide 1-on-1 coaching and support to every team member in the way that works best for them.
With coaching, each person focuses on their own specific obstacles and opportunities. While one person might be focusing on delivering feedback to a coworker because that’s what’s slowing them down right now, another person can focus on managing their time more effectively by prioritizing their work load.
GD: You don’t require your coaches to have a coaching certificate. Isn’t that a mistake?
MF: Coaching certifications are not specific to any type of coaching. For example, a life coach, wellness coach, finance coach, and professional development coach would all have the same certificate.
A coaching certificate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a great coach. There are excellent coaches without certificates and unskilled coaches with certificates. Due to this variance in quality, we found coaching certification to be a poor way to determine who would be a stellar Marlow coach.
At Marlow, we hire experts in the topics we focus on with our members and train them in our coaching philosophy, which is rooted in a combination of design thinking and Socratic questioning. Our training program is robust and effective. From there, our coaches are continuously trained and audited, plus they use our curriculum to guide them in their coaching process.
In this way, we’re not only able to ensure quality, but we’re also able to enhance the quality of coaching overall. We’re raising the bar for what it means to receive professional development coaching.
GD: What does your platform actually do?
MF: The Marlow platform serves as HQ for each of our member’s coaching experience. This is where members gain unlimited access to their coach through our message portal. They can also view their coaching plan, access personalized resources, set goals and track their progress.
Our members focus on topics around communication, time management, self-awareness, career direction, goals setting, people management, leadership, and more. Our coaches then tailor the experience to ensure that each member gets the right support, at the right time, and in the right format.
GD: It looks like Marlow is both B2B and B2C. Which is it?
MF: Our mission is to remove the guesswork from every professional’s day-to-day. One way to do this is to enable companies to pay for Marlow and provide access to their employees.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of professionals who work in companies who aren’t willing to pay for them to get access to such a great resource.
As a result, we are dedicated to ensuring that anyone can sign up for Marlow’s resources directly on our website.
GD: Organizations are increasingly willing to invest in the development of their employees — but there are a lot of companies popping up in this space. Why enter such a crowded space?
MF: It’s definitely true that more companies are choosing to provide personalized development to their team members. We’re thrilled by this and love that there are other people like us who care a lot about ensuring that people don’t hate their jobs.
Marlow’s different from other companies in the market in two core ways (plus a few top-secret ways). First, we’re not a coaching company. It might look like that on the surface, but we’re actually a professional development platform offering coaching. There are many ways to provide personalized development to a team member and we’re simply starting with coaching.
Second, we’re in this to ensure that every single member gets what they need out of their experience. So rather than becoming a marketplace of coaches (the “uber-for-coaching” model that seems to be pretty common these days), we’re focused on improving the experience.
We’re using data to figure out which practices work best and then continuously refining those practices based on a number of data points.