In The Boss, women share how they became successful and the lessons they learned along the way.
I never set out to become a marketer. In fact, very early in my career, I started out doing something that, at first glance, seems about as far away from marketing as you can get — I was a program manager on a global disease initiative sponsored by the World Health Organization.
In that role, I was part of a diverse team of researchers, epidemiologists, surgeons, community health educators and anthropologists trying to address a disease found only in the most remote areas of West Africa. Our goal was to work with local communities to better diagnose and treat a rare and terribly disfiguring illness.
Those barriers were much more complex than just access to care. We had to work through local cultural beliefs that the disease was a curse, and thus, something that people felt they had to hide for fear of being shunned. To solve this, my team needed to understand the motivations, social codes and religious beliefs of the community in order to reach people who were suffering. I went in thinking my job was deeply scientific, but it was also very much an art — one where I had to learn how to connect and understand people from a culture that was very foreign to my own.
I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, but in that job I got a crash course in marketing. I learned that awareness is created as a hive and that people collectively build and influence perceptions. And most importantly, that the beliefs we were butting up against in West Africa were completely different from what we, as an outside group, had been focusing on.
That lesson has really been the foundation for my career as a marketer. It’s led me from West Africa to understanding the gaming community in a way that has helped me forge new territory building the Xbox brand. From there, it led me to launch a social media marketing agency that used new technology to build audiences, which was ultimately acquired by Deloitte. Understanding communities and knowing how to look for their unique connection points has helped me approach and apply new technology in a way that goes beyond the surface.
That brief history of my career seems smooth in hindsight, but each milestone required big leaps. Each of them also involved doing something I didn’t know how to do, or sometimes doing something that had never even been done by anyone else. Taking that non-traditional path served me well, forcing me to find comfort in situations where I didn’t always know the answer. I had to learn to embrace that gray space between the known and the unknown, between where I was comfortable, and where I wanted to grow.
The ability to embrace the gray space has allowed me to take interesting and challenging opportunities that, in turn, have helped me excel in my career faster than if I’d planned a more traditional career path. I didn’t always know where each step would lead me, but looking back, I’ve been able to use critical lessons along the way as preparation for my next challenges. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is ultimately how I ended up in my role at Deloitte Digital as the company’s chief marketing officer. The best thing about working in consulting is the sheer variety of problem sets I get to wrap my head around, and being surrounded by every type of genius in a dynamic environment that combines creatives types with technologists and business strategists. I manage a large organization of diverse skillsets, and when they come to me with challenges, I often suggest they explore the unknown territory — it keeps them growing in ways they never expected.
Emotional resilience and a tolerance for learning by experimentation helps me manage and balance the rest of my life, as well. I have four young boys, so perfection is not in the cards. I’m figuring it out as I go, and expect that every day will be full of learning experiences and moments to learn from and adjust. I play both a long game, and a very, very short game. To make everything work, I’ve had to open my mind to find new ways of doing things. I’ve had to be creative about the architecture of my life. This means I have dialed into meetings remotely from mountaintops, from my car outside of Target and at the doctor’s office. This means I sometimes paint my nails in the airport. Technology is continuously expanding our potential personally and professionally. Allowing myself to rethink basic assumptions about how my life should look has pushed me to constantly redefine what’s possible.
So now, when asked for career advice, I’m not going to be the one to tell you to make five or 10 year plans. I will tell you that I have no idea what the future is going to look like, but if you keep your eyes out for interesting problems to solve, you will find yourself with opportunities you never imagined. And if you become comfortable with that gray area — the space where you know you don’t know the answer — you only have tremendous opportunity in front of you. And you’ll have a hand in shaping our world in ways you could never plan.
That advice is something I continue to follow. Everywhere I look, new ground is being broken, and I see technology doing things that seemed like science fiction less than a generation ago. But my goals remain simple: to continue looking for problems that interest me, push on assumptions and find a new approach wherever I am. And that’s true now with what I am doing at Deloitte – I am in a continuous state of learning, growth, and discovery as I empower the world’s biggest companies to push boundaries, embrace possibility and thrive in today’s digital world.