CMO Impact
Leading a Culture of Innovation as a Growth CMO

On Being a Great Leader: An Interview With Elisabeth Charles, CMO of Athleta

January 08, 2016

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As this is my first blog post of the year, I’d like to focus your attention on the power of positivity.  Don’t gag! Seriously, the first step to getting something big (or little) accomplished is believing that you can.  Conversely, if you harbor negative thoughts about a particular challenge, chances are you will outright fail – and then fall back on the easy out: “I knew that wasn’t going to work.”

So, let’s be positive people.  Positive about setting a few really big goals, and positively committed to achieving them.

Which is a perfect segue into my conversation with Elisabeth Charles, the CMO of Athleta.  I’ve known Elisabeth for at least 4 years, having met her at a CMO Club Summit. At that time, she was CMO at Petco. Not to mention a part of cabal of indomitable San Diego-based women CMOs that rivaled any group in the country for smarts and talent – but were distinguished more by their gregarious positivity.

Amazingly, within a few months of each other, each of these ladies found themselves looking for their next opportunity, not with a “woe is me, how could this happen?” attitude but instead excited about facing new challenges and stretching their wings.

Since then, all have gotten one step closer to their dream jobs, especially Elisabeth. As CMO of Athleta, which is based in Northern California, she can rarely be seen not wearing her new brand.  This is not just an affectation.  Elisabeth has always been athletic and committed.  Wearing Athleta serves multiple purposes. It shows she’s proud of her employer.  It helps her experience the brand and be better prepared to talk with the designers, especially since she gets a lot of feedback from other women about her attire.  And perhaps most importantly, it sets an example for her team–don’t just market the brand, be the brand.

That’s the kind of positive message that made Elisabeth an easy choice for The CMO Club’s Leadership Award.  (And of course, I’m quite positive you’ll enjoy our interview below.)

Drew: How would you describe/how have others described your leadership style?

Elisabeth: I am a leader who supports and drives change. It’s important to not be afraid to ask tough questions and be willing to challenge the status quo in order to move companies forward.  In order to do this, I try to be extremely diplomatic, collaborative and respectful of the past as I look towards the future.  I have very high standards and am extremely results driven, but also seen as compassionate and fair.

Drew: Do you have any role models that you’ve admired over the years and if so, what did you pick up from him/her?  

Elisabeth: I admire visionaries who are purpose driven and able to build a vibrant business with strong company culture – while also doing good in the world.  Some of my role models in this regard are Howard Schultz, John Mackey, Kip Tindell and, most recently, Jessica Alba.

Drew: Can you talk about some of the actions you took as a leader in the last couple of years that were particularly challenging?  

Elisabeth: Leading change at brands is always challenging.  You are asking employees to take a hard look at their business and acknowledge that they have to change what they’ve been doing to redefine where they are going.  It’s especially hard to do this with successful companies who may not fully accept the need to change.  But as they say, “change or die.”

Drew: How important is your peer to peer network to your on-going success?  What are the biggest benefits of having a peer network?

Elisabeth: My peer to peer network is invaluable.  I rely on my peers, especially at The CMO Club, to help share best practices as well as challenges they are facing and how they are addressing them.  It’s great to tap into approaches that you would not have thought of on your own, as well as gain confidence that you can solve difficult issues with peer advice.

Drew: What’s the best advice you’ve been given to guide personal and/or career success?

Elisabeth: Do what you love and work where you are rewarded for your natural strengths. Many of us chase the ultimate job or that next promotion or higher salary without really exploring how strong a fit the company’s culture is with our own values.  Don’t stay in a role where you are undervalued or unhappy – life is too short!

Drew: Looking ahead to 2016, what is the single biggest challenge that you¹d like to overcome?

Elisabeth: The biggest challenge I’d like to overcome is driving greater brand differentiation for Athleta in the very crowded and competitive ‘athleisure’ space.  But I love challenges, so I am looking forward to an exciting year of change and taking some risks.

This interview was published on The Drew Blog by Drew Neisser, Founder and CEO of Renegade. See the original article here.

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