all culture

Q&A with Sangeeta Prasad: Chief Marketing Officer

Slalom’s first CMO shares her insights on building a global brand, being a woman of color in leadership, and shaking things up.

 

What attracted you to this role as Slalom's first Chief Marketing Officer?

In my very first conversation with members of the search team, the questions they asked, the way they answered questions, the way they talked about the company—I felt like there was something different. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but it intrigued me.

Then as I talked to more people, I felt like this is a unique and different company, seeped in its purpose and values. Slalom is genuinely empathetic, and it's unusual to find a company that's fast-growing, so successful, and yet has such a strong connection to its values.

And I felt like these are people I connect with. They are passionate, smart, humble, kind. We spend so much time working during our waking hours, I wanted to work with people that I really connected with and liked.

Finally, looking for a transformative marketing opportunity was at the top of my list and as I looked at Slalom, I felt like this was a business that's bigger than the brand. I had not heard about Slalom and yet this is an almost $2B business. I thought, this is a marketer's dream. Here is an opportunity for me to work with a team and make the brand at least as big as the business, if not bigger—elevate marketing and help accelerate the growth.

You've been in marketing for almost three decades, first with Procter & Gamble, then American Express, Chase, and most recently Russell Reynolds & Associates as CMO. What do you love about marketing?

I love marketing because it's both creative and analytical. I love that it's dynamic, and you learn something new every day because it's changing so rapidly. I love that you can try new things. You can test, learn, iterate, and quickly drive results. I love that it's all about understanding the customer. I love that the deeper you understand your customer, the better a marketer you can be. It is an amalgam of all these things and you can bring different aspects of your brain into it, work with a group of talented people, and come together to find solutions that don't exist.

How would you describe yourself as a marketer? 

I am a naturally curious person and a creative problem solver. That, I think, makes me a marketer who wants to get to the root of a problem, take it apart and come up with elegant and unexpected solutions. I like to test and learn, quickly fix things that don’t work and get them right so we can get results. And finally, I don’t think marketing is a solo sport—I love working with a team and the sharing of ideas that comes from being part of a great team. 

You’re just getting started, but do you have any initial thoughts on what it’s going to take to make Slalom a globally recognized brand?

First I want to say that building a globally recognized brand takes time, and when I say time, I don't mean a couple of months. I mean years. It takes years of consistent effort.

But I still think we can start by doing a couple of things. One is clearly articulating who we are and why we are different. We need to articulate this in a simple, clear way so people can remember it. Slalom already has a history of storytelling—think how impactful it would be if we empowered all our 8,500 people to tell our Slalom stories!

Number two, we need to utilize all of our communications touch points—and by this I mean all of our people, all of our material, all of our social media, everything we do—to communicate consistently, so that every time someone touches Slalom in any way, they hear the same message. Over time, it'll become something that people will subconsciously start thinking of as Slalom, and that's what is going to build our brand.

I'm not afraid to take risks, to question how things have been done in the past, or to try things that haven't been done before.

You’ve lived in a lot of places: Korea, Brazil, India, Australia, and the United States. How has that experience of global citizenship shaped you?

I find this question really hard, because I am who I am, and I don't know who I would be if I wasn’t who I am!

But I will say that when you're exposed to the level of diversity that I've been exposed to throughout my growing years—a diversity of language, race, culture, religion—you don't think about accepting difference. Differences are just a part of who we are, they are to be celebrated and enjoyed, rather than accepted. That is how I grew up and that is how I try to live.

In your LinkedIn profile, you refer to yourself as a marketer and intrapreneur. Tell us about “intrapreneur.” Why did you choose that and what does it mean to you?

An intrapreneur, to me, means a person who can work in large organizations, but in divisions or groups within that large organization that are entrepreneurial, that do things that are innovative and creative. It is almost like they've burst out of that big company to do something totally different and shake things up. I am a shaker-upper, basically.

In most roles I've had, I have been plucked to shake things up, maybe because I do that well. I'm not afraid to take risks, to question how things have been done in the past, or to try things that haven't been done before.

Can you share about a time you shook things up, tried something new, and it was really successful? Maybe it’s the award-winning cartoon series you created at Russell Reynolds?

Yes, let’s use that example. Russell Reynolds is an executive search firm in a conservative, old-fashioned industry. Doing cartoons is certainly not considered the norm there. It's never been done in the entire history of the industry. So, when we came up with the idea, and I shared it at the leadership team, it was a very risky proposition. My colleagues had some trepidation.

But by that time I had been in my CMO role for four years, and I had built enough credibility and relationships with my colleagues that they trusted me enough to say, “Look, if you think this could work, go try it.” And of course, we did some research before we put it out.

It turned out to be one of the most successful social media campaigns for Russell Reynolds. Some were skeptical, “Oh my goodness, my clients will wonder what's wrong with us.” And we found that clients actually wrote to us and said how funny and wonderful they thought the cartoons were. It all turned out really well. It could have gone the other way, but we were willing to risk that.

Tell us about a mistake you made in your career and what you learned from it.

I think for me personally, and I think it probably is true for a lot of women, early in my career I listened too much to the noises outside of myself.

I remember a time, we were making a business decision, and I had data. The data could be read in a couple of different ways. My instinct told me we should go in Direction A. The people around me were saying we should go in Direction B. I listened to the people around me. I did not follow my instinct. We went in Direction B, and it turned out to be the wrong direction.

I learned that there is a reason why we have our instinct, and we need to listen to it. Whether we go with it or not, don't ignore it. If there is something inside me saying “that is a mistake,” then I need to really delve into why I'm hearing that voice. There is a reason for it. And that has served me well afterwards.

What has it been like for you to achieve senior leadership roles as a woman and a person of color? Have you faced any specific challenges? Do you have advice for others?

It's interesting because just about any leadership table I've sat around, I've been maybe one of two women and the only woman of color.

As a result, my view has always been a little bit different than the other people in the room. Often that creates a little bit of tension when you say something that's different than the other 10-15 people who all have the same view. I've found that you really have to have the courage of convictions to speak up, because it's so easy to just go with the flow. And sometimes, if you are saying something that’s inconsistent with what everyone else thinks, then people brand you a certain way, which is not always a positive thing.

I have always tried to strike that balance of saying what I believe and not compromising on that, while building enough relationships, one-on-one relationships with people in that room, so that what I say is not undermined. The fact that I have to do that is unfortunate, but it's a way that I have learned I have to navigate a room like that in order to be effective.

What does it take to build a diverse and inclusive team?

It takes desire, it takes determination, it takes tenacity, it takes perseverance, and it's non-negotiable. I think if you say it has to happen, it will happen. It's just like setting a goal. I mean, you've got to do it, you've got to do it. To me, it's a requirement.

I think there is a difference between building a diverse team and sustaining one. I think building in some ways actually is easier. To sustain a diverse and inclusive environment, you have to make every single person feel like they belong, and that's the harder part. Everyone has to feel like their voice is equally important and they are heard authentically, so they can be just who they are.

Do you have any thoughts on the reckoning with systemic racism and anti-Black violence that’s happening right now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and widespread protests?

I think it's been a long time coming. I think it's a conversation that needs to be had. I think it's a conversation that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, and I think that corporate America needs to stand up and be seen as having a point of view on this.

I was so happy to see that Slalom took a point of view and is out there stating what they believe in this case. I think it's important to stake a point of view and be on the right side of that point of view. I wholeheartedly believe in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I feel as a corporation that is innovative and forward-looking, future-ready, Slalom needs to be—and is—there too.

Slalom is genuinely empathetic, and it's unusual to find a company that's fast-growing, so successful, and yet has such a strong connection to its values.

What inspires you?

What inspires me is to open my mind to new things, and I'm just a curious person. Right now, with COVID-19, I have been reading much more about mindfulness and being present in the moment. I've been reading and listening to Brené Brown and Deepak Chopra and Susan Cain and many others about meditation and exercise and what they do to you—not just your brain, but the molecules in your body. It is fascinating. Trying to read and absorb and then use that in the practice of my life—that's what I've been doing for the last few weeks while I've had down time.

Tell us a little about your family.

We're a very close-knit family. We have two children, a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. My husband is an entrepreneur, and he works from home. Right now though, we are all working and studying from home. Our dog, Nutella, is full of energy and keeps us smiling. When we are not isolating, we have a lot of family around us quite often, and we are very connected to our extended family. We don't have a TV in our house, but we have plenty of other tech devices! We still try to spend more time talking, reading, playing, and hanging with each other, than on devices.

If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice at the beginning of your career, what would you say?

Don't take yourself so seriously. There is time for everything, and there is plenty of time in your life to be serious. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy yourself. Try things that you will not try later in life because there will be a lot of responsibilities. You don't realize the freedom you have at that age.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I like to think of myself as adaptive. If the team is inexperienced or new or needs guidance and direction, I am there to provide it. If the team is experienced and on a roll and independent, then I give them space and let them do what they do well, but I provide oversight and support.

I'm the kind of leader who likes to get to know the team deeply and then adapt to their needs. But I also am the kind of leader who provides a very clear vision. We collectively form our goals, and that is our true north. We don't stray from that true north, but on the way to there we are free to find our own paths, so that we can be creative. I am very supportive to that creativity, but our true north is our true north.

How do you keep a team motivated and inspired on the way to that true north?

That's a good question because in the work we do, it’s easy to get disheartened. We want to build our brand, and it will take years. How are we going to keep people motivated?

I like to set and celebrate the small victories along the way. So, for example, if our bigger goal is to become one of the most recognized brands globally, then maybe along the way there is a regional awareness increase that we can celebrate. Maybe our social media numbers increased, let's celebrate that. Let's celebrate the things along the way that demonstrate that we are making progress.

I have high aspirations for Slalom marketing. I believe that with passion and perseverance, we can do a lot.