(Forbes) – As part of the CMO Insights Series, I (Kimberley Whitler) interviewed Michele Kessler, the President and CEO of thinkThin, a privately held nutritional food company.
What makes Kessler’s perspective interesting is that she began her career, after graduating from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, in brand management at Procter and Gamble. With her formative training in marketing and general management, she discusses how she was able to leverage this expertise to ascend to CMO and ultimately, CEO.
Kimberly Whitler: Can you briefly walk through your career path?
Michele Kessler: After I got my MBA from Darden, I joined P&G, spending over seven years in a variety of brand management roles. After P&G I joined Nabisco / Kraft in NJ and worked in confections and new business development, ultimately serving as VP of Crackers. I was then recruited by Mars to become CMO and VP of US Confections. In this role, I had P & L responsibility and managed brand development and created a marketing services department, which included: promotion, package design, PR, advertising, media, etc. I was at Mars for five years and then spent some time on the media side before joining thinkThin.
Whitler: How did this career path prepare you to be a CEO?
Kessler: Marketing is a great training ground as you develop key skills that are needed in a CEO role. In many marketing roles, you have to demonstrate results and to accomplish results requires leadership across the enterprise. Many functions work primarily within-function; marketing can’t. This experience working across all of the different functions is great preparation for executive level positions. As a result, in Brand Management, you develop the strategy to drive profitable growth, lead the organization to achieve your vision, oversee enterprise-wide implementation, and then measure your results. This is a large part of what a CEO has to do—just on a smaller scale.
Additionally, I had some unique experiences, such as creating an organization from scratch. The HR-type aspects of that experience (i.e., staffing a new department; developing the organization structure; creating the organization design) have helped me prepare to be a CEO. Thinking about the work that needed to be done and then having to structure the organization around the needs is an important part of being a CEO.
I also think that starting at bigger companies and investing in my own training by working with and for the best-of-the-best was critical to accelerating my growth. It’s always easier to go from a big company to a small company—but not vice versa.
Whitler: What advice would you give to today’s aspiring CMO and CEO to help them get to the top floor?
1. Lay the right foundation: Begin your career at blue chip, branded, larger training companies. These companies aren’t going away and as your career progresses, the brands that you worked at early in your career will matter. When you talk to recruiters, HR experts, and potential bosses, they will know P&G, Kraft, Mars, etc. If you have a list of failed or unknown brands on your resume, it becomes more difficult to have control over your career progression. So, not only will these companies provide better training but they open doors not available to individuals who choose a non-branded career path. And, importantly, these large, blue chip brands will enable you to more easily transition across industries. In all, it just provides better flexibility down the road. Of note, a lot of VC and PE backed companies are looking for well-trained people. They want to hire people who have already demonstrated they can do the job in a rigorous, competitive, selective, and challenging environment.
2. Spread your wings at the right time and in the right place: Don’t get me wrong, at some point, almost all of us who start at large companies want to migrate to smaller companies. Because we have hired a lot of employees who have blue chip experience, we believe that at thinkThin we have the best of both worlds; we have the discipline and rigor of a big company (for example we use BASES concept testing and blind product testing) but we are also able to be closer to the consumer. For example, I read all consumer comments; I visit all of our top 10+ customers; I meet our buyers at trade shows. There is an intimacy and a greater degree of engagement you can have at a smaller company.
3. Don’t just be a problem solver … try to anticipate issues and problems. Those people who become very good at not just overcoming obstacles but anticipating what could go wrong and put plans in place to mitigate it stand out. One thing I realized when I left Procter is that some company cultures inhibit employees from speaking up. A common situation is for people to head nod in a meeting and then aggregate afterwards and talk about how something would never work. I try very hard to tear that down culture. In big meetings, I ask “If something were to go wrong, what would it be?” My goal is to create an environment where people always feel comfortable discussing what could go wrong. You need everybody to be candid and you have to invite the bad news to the meeting.
4. Relatedly, learn to develop contingency plans: Nothing ever goes the way you plan, and so you must learn to quickly overcome things that go wrong.
5. Be learning agile: Learning agility is the ability to work for different people and in different product categories and in different cultures. It creates knowledge and skill and an ability to adapt more quickly. When things aren’t going quite right, don’t be so quick to move. There is value in learning from your mistakes and from digging through difficult situations. As long as you are still learning, think about staying, but if you are no longer growing, learning, or developing (or need to move for personal reasons), then it might make sense to leave.
Whitler: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had transitioning into the CEO role?
Kessler: The biggest challenge is staying focused on the key priorities. At thinkThin, we have clear strategies and it has been important to articulate what we aren’t going to do. In reality, many business leaders struggle with not getting excited by every shiny new object. For example, we are a U.S. company, and we made a strategic decision to not pursue international sales for right now. Yet, I regularly have people saying, “I have this deal in X and it’s worth a few hundred thousand dollars.” If you aren’t ruthless about sticking to the strategic plan, you will go off chasing these “opportunities” only to end up draining resources and negatively impacting productivity and the financial performance of the firm. When you are a brand assistant and decided to take advantage of an opportunity, it might not be a big deal. But when the CEO does, it has a cascading impact that negatively impacts all of the levels below you.
As part of the strategic planning process, I make sure that I know in advance where I would put one extra dollar if I got it. That way I have plans in place to deploy resources in service to the strategic plan. I’ve used the Procter strategic planning tool since I left because I think it’s the best alignment tool available. We use the tool to go over progress against the strategic plan in each board meeting and review the measures. I share progress with the entire company in every newsletter we publish.
By Kimberly A. Whitler
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