What I Learned from Moderating a Panel of Powerhouse Chief Marketing Officers

I had the pleasure of moderating the Triangle Chapter of the American Marketing Association’s inaugural CMO She-Suite Panel a few weeks ago at the Brier Creek Country Club in Durham, North Carolina. The panelists were: Susan Amey, CMO of the Durham Visitors and Convention’s Bureau, Maria Winans; CMO of IBM (North America and Canada), Sallyann Hulick; CMO of BSA Lifestructures and Linh Calhoun; CMO of Replacements, Ltd.

We’d met in person only once, to record a promotional video for the event, and had a 30-minute video conference a few weeks before to talk logistics and rules of engagement. I shared my vision for more of a storytelling approach to the panel as opposed to 45-minutes of asking each of them the same question. I wanted them to understand that it was not my intention to “put them on the spot” in any way, nor was I going to attempt to make it about me.

I must say it was an honor to spend time and communicate with these remarkable women beforehand in the midst of all of our busy schedules. My goal was to build enough trust among them so they’d allow me to take them on a journey as their moderator, that would lead to open, honest discussions for the people in the audience, who I knew wanted desperately to hear their stories and extract every bit of advice they were willing to offer up. I believe I met and perhaps even exceeded that goal because these ladies were all A game. They came to play, and won.

Three days before the event, I emailed three questions and asked each CMO to come prepared with a real story from their past that would demonstrate their infallibility. I wanted to drive home the fact that they too (with all of their fabulousness) have made mistakes along the way and that though we make mistakes, they don’t have to define us and should never be the end of our story.

Susan Amey shared a pretty profound story about how her introversion nearly cost her a job early on in her career where extroversion felt like a required competency for success. Her supervisor told her over lunch that things didn’t seem to be working out, and she was stunned! But guess what Susan did? She created a project plan to help her overcome the issue, and turned things around. This response, along with the way she delivered it, prompted a great deal of chuckles from the audience and I couldn’t help but laugh myself.

Okay, I did more than laugh. I literally cracked up, right there on stage – and there are at least two pictures to prove it. I ultimately asked Susan if she still had a copy of this plan because I would just love to see what was probably a color-coded document with directives such as: “8:45 a.m. – Meet John at the water cooler and talk about weather.” Susan admitted that it wasn’t that detailed, but the plan did include reminders to invite colleagues to lunch. And it worked in her favor. The lesson here is this: Susan controlled her own destiny and changed the narrative. She used her strengths to do it. How impressive is that?

Her supervisor said it wasn’t working out. But she didn’t accept that and decided to do something about it. That ‘something’ was completely out of her comfort zone, but Susan did it anyway. Here’s my question for you: What are you accepting in the workplace that you have the absolute power to change? Whose story are you choosing to believe about yourself because you don’t want to put in the work to change the narrative?

Sallyann Hulick shared a tale about a grave mistake on a printed direct mail piece with a huge discrepancy in price, that fell squarely on her shoulders. This too was early on in her career. She went on to talk about a mentor who helped her move beyond being completely mortified about this error which she believed was the end of the world. Hulick also drew a few laughs from all of us when she recounted a high degree of certainty that she’d be on the hook personally cover the difference in the real price versus the one she was responsible for having printed on the piece.

But what struck me most about this story was how after sharing it with the audience, she admitted that she wasn’t very detail-oriented at the time. Yep. Sallyann called herself out in front of an audience and esteemed group of peers. She then simply stated: “That never happened again.” The lesson here is: A weakness can be overruled. We have the ability to stop doing anything that is not contributing to our personal or professional success. That event changed Sallyann. And look at her today.

If you’re struggling with a habit or falling short in an area that you may not think is affecting you because it hasn’t caused you any major heartburn just yet, don’t wait for it to lead to a catastrophic outcome. If you’re always 10 minutes late to meetings, stop making a joke about it and start showing up on time! If you sometimes find small typos in your emails after-the-fact but dismiss it, stop it! Today.

Don’t wait for an irreversible embarrassing situation to occur. Do what I do and activate the spell-check feature to run on all of your emails before they go out into the wild. Trust me, it makes all the difference.

Maria Winans talked about wanting desperately to blend in when she was a young girl. She shared that she didn’t want her mom speaking Spanish to her in public. She was conscious of the darker hue of her skin compared to many of her friends in North Carolina where her family lived but clearly, was not from. She stood out based on her ethnicity, and often wished that were not the case. Maria even carried some of that thinking with her to corporate America, wearing suits in a male-dominated environment to again, blend in with the men. But Maria learned that it was embracing her uniqueness that really gave her her wings. It amplified her voice and created opportunities that were uniquely hers for all of the reasons she had been rejecting. It was a lesson in self-love, self-acceptance and bringing your true self to the table every day.  The return on that investment remains high for Maria, and she is the ultimate role model for women everywhere.

It was clear to me that Linh Calhoun knows the impact of her work experience on her effectiveness as a CMO is much greater than the sum of its parts. She acknowledged that we all have had bad experiences and made mistakes, and mentioned that she had one very similar to Sallyann’s direct mail pricing debacle. But what’s been a constant throughout Linh’s journey to the “She-Suite” is her commitment to seeking out mentors. She could not say enough about how these relationships have served her, molded her and given her something that is not available in text books or college courses. Linh offered a lesson in constantly learning from the people around you at all stages of your career. And even if those people aren’t around you or otherwise readily available, it’s up to you to find them.

The stories of tenacity and perseverance were woven throughout the evening. But there was also a theme of accountability. I reminded everyone that as marketers, we have an obligation to continue to educate ourselves in an industry where change is constant and yesterday’s skillset won’t cut it for the roles and opportunities of tomorrow. Or even today, for that matter.

So stay current, change the narrative if you need to, show your weaknesses who’s boss, embrace your uniqueness and learn from the people around you.

Let me know what happens.


(Note: This is a cross-post from an article I shared on LinkedIn.)

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