Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 30, 2017

CMO Summit: Bringing Your Passion to Your Career

Bringing your passion into your day job is an admirable concept, but, too often, reality intrudes. As responsibilities grow and calendars get fuller, the notion of combining something you love with your professional career becomes increasingly difficult. But bringing your passion into the workplace can be done — and your career can thrive as a result, according to three accomplished guests who spoke at our recent CMO Summit in New York. Appearing before a packed house at the Chelsea WeWork facility, three speakers — Andy Donkin, global CMO of Under Armour; Alison Lewis, global CMO of Johnson & Johnson; and Will Smith, CMO of Abercrombie & Fitch — told us how they use their outside passions to add dimension to their career, boost their productivity and adapt to the marketplace. Here are some of the lessons they’ve learned as they’ve brought their “real-world” passions to their workplace.

2017 CMO Summit

Find the story

One common theme that arose was the concept of looking for the story in your work. Marketing, our speakers said, is essentially telling a story of a brand, and a CMO’s job is both creating that narrative and determining who will help make this a story people want to hear. An avid moviegoer, Smith described how his love of film has carried over into how he views his career. “There's this big thing that we're putting together, and a big part of it is storytelling, like creating a movie,” Smith said. “And we marketers are much like the director on the movie set. We're trying to move people to make change, to help dramatize the situation, and get the brand or the business in a better place. There's an awesome responsibility for me to really understand and assess who's in front of me, who the players are, who the lead characters are, who the rest of the cast is, and really bring it all together.”

Will Smith - 2017 CMO Summit

Welcome new challenges

Helping your company navigate treacherous waters resonated with Lewis of Johnson & Johnson, who described a particularly harrowing sailing adventure on Lake Superior that left her with “bruises on my body like I’ve never seen before.” Lewis told a gripping story about racing in a wind that reached up to 50 knots, in water (and air) that was 45 degrees. “The gales of November were definitely there,” she said.

But Lewis wasn’t just spinning a nautical yarn — she drew a strong comparison between the lessons she’s learned on the water and the challenges she faces at her job. “Maybe my toughest act wasn't Lake Superior and that race, but being the first CMO at Johnson & Johnson,” she said. “This is a company that historically has been very decentralized, and I’m pretty sure the general managers of the countries didn't want me coming in, telling them what to do. So I recognized that I had a massive target on my back, particularly because I was an outsider at a company where most people had been there 20 to 30 years. But I navigated the waters at J&J.”

Alison Lewis - 2017 CMO Summit

Along those lines, Smith described the challenge of demanding top-quality work from his team — especially when not everyone sees the same film as the end result. “At Abercrombie, I've got a tough task: I've got to respect the past, I've got to understand what's going on in the present and I've got to navigate the future,” he said. “I've got to evaluate everybody who's on the set and really decide whether I need to bring in new artists, or if there are folks around that I can elevate to bring out their very best and to become key tellers of the story. And I’ve got to see who else can be that true supporting cast that makes that story really resonate.”

A means of reinvention

Donkin described the importance of physical fitness and ways that staying fit has helped his career. For starters, he said, it’s a way to present yourself with difficulties that force you to adapt and grow. As an example, Donkin told a story of first moving to California and deciding to take up surfing. His first lesson was an eye-opener: “It was me and my buddy who's 30, like me… and about 9 nine-year-olds,” he recalled. “And so I was there with my board and I’m ready to go, and little Charlie and little Susie are looking up at me like, "You're weird." And I was like, ‘Ok, so I'm going to do this.’ So I went out and got soaked.”

Trying something new not only helped Donkin get over a fear of failure, but showed him the importance of pushing his own boundaries. “As you think about the idea of fitness and how it relates to what you do, consider the idea that it can help you reinvent who you are,” Donkin said. “Why? Because you challenge yourself through health and fitness every day that you do it. You learn something new, because we all also get into routines and this is a way to try something that’s completely different, which makes you adapt.”

Working with a younger generation

The panelists agreed that bringing your passion to your career is a good way to engage with millennials, who tend to value meaningfulness at a higher rate than older employees. “Think about the folks who work for you, especially the younger folks, and why it's important to allow them to have their passions and balance in what they do,” Donkin said. “Because if you read all the research, you'll see that for millennials, the ability to pursue passions actually makes them better at work. It makes them sharper. It makes them participate more, and they feel like they're a better part of the team. So it's really an important lesson, as you begin to think about that idea of overcoming your fears and trying something new to make you sharper.”

Andy Donkin - 2017 CMO Summit

Also, Donkin noted, being more physically active simply helps older workers keep pace with the younger generation. “This is the way you can continue to be strong, continue to do the things that you love to do,” he said. “Because, as we get older, we're going to be doing things into our 50s, our 60s, our 70s. And the only way to do that, the only way to manage a team underneath us, is to be as sharp as they are.”

Bring the real world inside

The panelists agreed that, at times, their outside interests taught them lessons that transferred directly to their jobs — they just needed to make the connection. Lewis described the challenges she’s faced as a mother of three boys, and how some of these logistical difficulties helped her conceive new products.

“As I raised my children, I learned it was very difficult to get good food into them, which was especially challenging in the morning when the bus is coming in five minutes and you've got to leave for work in five minutes,” Lewis said. “I was a general manager of Odwalla at the time, and I had a chance to create some products that would help families like me. So we came up with a fresh juice smoothie to-go in a drinking box with a straw, which I could shove into my children's hands before they got on the bus, and a protein drink that I could bring with me in the car that would allow me to get something into me before I went for a full morning of meetings.”

This lesson, she said, is that lessons happen everywhere. “It was really all about human behavior, and how to build products that deliver against human behavior,” she said. “What I learned through having children were things I would’ve never learned in any marketing class or at any job.”