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Reconciling Your Career with Your Passion: Can You Bring Them Together?

2016 West Coast CMO Summit Highlights

In an ideal world, your passion and your career dovetail and there’s a strong connection between your day job and what gets your heart racing. Many people find, though, that there’s a gap between what they love do to and what they get paid to do. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so black-and-white: As we learned at our third annual West Coast CMO summit, it is possible to incorporate your personal interests into your career. Three speakers — Christine Heckart, chief marketing officer of Brocade; Mike Linton, chief marketing officer of Farmers Insurance; and Arra G. Yerganian, chief marketing & brand officer at Sutter Health — talked about how they brought their own interests into their work and how that’s helped them in their careers. Here are some of the takeaways from the discussion.

Visit our CMO Summit page for highlights from previous discussions.

Emphasize the personal, as well as the professional

For this summit, we asked the three speakers to tell us how their personal passions affected their careers, and vice-versa. But beyond their actual avocations, they also emphasized the need to look beyond the professional realm and find importance in more intangible areas, as well. “One of the things that I focus a huge amount of my energy on now is how to pay it forward. When you're an executive of a company, you have a huge, magnificent platform to do that,” Heckart said. To accomplish that, she and her husband have committed to pay the college tuition for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it, and they also help other young adults find jobs within the tech industry. “This is the thing that gets me out of bed every morning. It's the reason that I work,” she said. It’s affected her career in that she’s had to maximize her earnings potential now, “because it's not really about how much you make. It's about how much you make a difference. And the more I make, the bigger difference I can make.”

Similarly, lessons learned in the boardroom can help others in the real world. Focusing on the bigger picture can ensure a board is filled with like-minded directors who are aligned behind a common purpose and realize the importance of their work. Yerganian said he explicitly asks candidates during job interviews to describe what they’ve done to improve society. He also detailed how his company ensures its directors are involved in community efforts: “Our leaders are working with one another to ensure they sit on the right boards within the communities in which we reside,” he said. “This is an amazing opportunity to ensure our leaders are purposefully engaged in community efforts.”

Values are where you find them

When the topic of values comes up, the assumption is typically that it refers to altruistically oriented work, likely in the nonprofit sector. But our speakers stated that you can find meaning in many areas and in your work, regardless of the actual position.

You can get passionate about many things — pick your industry and make it a growing industry,” Heckart said. “If you think you have to be in some cool job or cool industry before you can have joy in the work, you're probably going to be miserable a lot of the time. I've been in the entertainment industry, and I've been in lots and lots of different parts of the tech industry. The work is really pretty much all the same. The question is, where and how do you get meaning?”

Linton echoed this sentiment, he typically hires the candidate who has the most passion for the company and the position. “I want the person passionate about fixing a heritage brand or building something cool,” he said. “And I want them passionate about knowing they’ll be the only one doing this in the company. Because if you're running user interface or you're running digital at Farmers, you're the only one doing it in a $20 billion company, and everyone knows it's you. If that doesn't light you up, I don't want you on the team.”

Don’t feel constrained by your title

The speakers emphasized the importance of feeling free to work without being hindered by the expectations that come with their job title. Rather than defining themselves solely as marketers, they described the best opportunities arose when they were simply part of the company. “The best CMO jobs have been where they treated me as an operating unit,” Linton said. “They didn’t think of us as ‘marketing guys,’ they thought of us as ‘consumer guys’ with a bunch of things we had to deliver. I don’t feel isolated at all from profit and loss (P&L).”

Recognize that change comes slowly

Companies have their own unique cultures, and efforts to unilaterally change them are likely to fail. Linton relayed an anecdote of trying to overhaul the Farmers’ logo because it was out-of-date and took a long time to load on mobile phones. After meeting initial resistance to the change, Linton tested new logos with consumers to get their feedback. “Slowly, people within the company looked at the math and said, ‘Wow, our old logo is getting crushed by these test logos.’ It took us a year to get this through the culture, because if we had strong-armed the logo change, it would’ve been dead.”

Be your own evangelist

Finally, when it comes to creating a passion for your company, the speakers said it was important to imbue your enthusiasm to the organization. “I feel like I'm the chief evangelist,” Yerganian said. “I stopped all television advertising 16 months ago, the day I arrived. I said, ‘I'm not putting an ad on television until I get people inside the organization recognizing what makes us unique.’ I've become sort of the Pied Piper inside the organization to bring 55,000 people together. That's, for me, job number one, because when things don’t go the way I want them to I want them to lean back and say, ‘We're doing the right thing. We're on the right path. It’s okay. It’s just a small step back.’”

Heckart noted that it’s crucial that everyone feel driven to propel the company forward, because efforts to change likely won’t work if that push comes solely from above. “If you're trying to drive change and you're the one that owns it and leads it, it’ll probably fail,” she said. “You might be bringing the vision, but you've got to get everybody else to own it. Whether it’s your own culture inside your marketing department, or the business strategy, everyone to own it and they have to create it and they have to embody it.”

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