Meet Carla Piñeyro Sublett, SVP and CMO of IBM. Her 20+ year career includes sales and marketing roles with global responsibility at Dell, Rackspace, and NI. She’s a Henry Crown Fellow at The Aspen Institute and serves on the boards of numerous philanthropic initiatives focused on community, children, and women. Punctuating her journey was a year-long Finding Ubuntu sabbatical where she traveled to countries including India, Bhutan, Mexico, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, France, Japan with her husband and two children.
When The CMO Club caught up with Carla our first question was this: what are three themes that have been present throughout your career.
Fearlessness, Connections, Paying It Forward
The first theme would probably be Fearlessness. I don’t know how I got the good fortune of being blessed with this but I somehow operate from a place of lack of fear. I always joke that I’m not afraid of being fired because I can make a mean margarita and I know I can always tend bar. I came from humble beginnings and I feel so lucky to be where I am today and as a result, I’m so fearless about it.
My second theme is building meaningful connections. I always say that if we’re going to spend so much time at work away from the people we love, we need to love the people we’re working with. I get a lot of fulfillment from connections with colleagues and friends. Relationships with substance are important to me, and that’s certainly informed who I am as a marketer as well.
The final theme is a very strong desire to pay it forward. I’m an immigrant. I’m the daughter of immigrants. I feel like I won a lottery ticket getting to be where I am today. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to pay that forward and lift others up. For me that gets expressed as helping folks reach their personal and professional dreams, whether that’s in my community or in my workplace.
If we’re going to spend so much time at work away from the people we love, we need to love the people we’re working with.
Every Journey has Unexpected Guides
Throughout my journey there have been guides whose paths crossed with mine in unexpected ways and helped me see the road ahead with incredible clarity. I met my first such guide when I was waiting tables to put myself through college. My tuition and housing costs were running high as my money was running low. I dreaded the reality that I was taking on debt to make ends meet. I had just totaled my car. I was struggling. Everything in my life felt very difficult and my mind’s narrative was stuck on replay: why was life being so unfair to me.
A waiter I worked with invited me to coffee telling me he had some news to share. He sat me down and said this: “Today is the one-year anniversary of my losing 100 pounds.” My eyes got big. He was a lean person and I was stunned to even imagine him so much heavier. I asked him how he did it. Here’s what he said: “I made a decision. I decided to not be overweight any longer.” His response put me back on my heels as it didn’t seem plausible it could be so straightforward. He said that the hardest part was making the decision. Once the big decision was made he just brought his attention to the little decisions to support the big one. He never got overwhelmed that his goal was so daunting because he was focused on making little decisions. The first morning he had a choice to make: doughnut or banana for breakfast. He chose the banana. At lunch he could have a salad or a hamburger. He chose the salad. Little by little, bit by bit, he got addicted to the feeling of making good decisions. When he slipped – and he did – he didn’t like the way that made him feel.
I went home from that conversation with clarity about the agency I had over my own situation. I was not a victim of my circumstances. I started making big life moves. I took a job as a nanny and moved in with a family to save on housing costs as I finished up college. I paid off my debt in 90 days flat. My coworker Adam was my first unexpected guide. He showed me the power of decision making in regaining your sense of agency when you’re struggling. He changed my life.
I’ve met other such guides on my journey: Bruno in Croatia and Dorji in Bhutan during my sabbatical. I met guides in my workplaces. I met guides in my community. A friend of mine always says that we’re all taking steps on our own intended journey. While I’m not a religious person, I am spiritual. I have to believe that these unexpected guides come into our life because somehow they were intended to be part of our journey, and we were intended to be part of theirs.
My coworker Adam was my first unexpected guide and he showed me the power of decision making to regain your sense of agency when you’re struggling.
Life is Fluid
My life’s philosophies have evolved over time. What governed my thinking was different when I was 25 versus 35 versus 45 years old. And all those philosophies have led me to the one I have today: Life is what is happening to us right now – the connections we make in our everyday interactions is what is important. There is no work life and home life. We’re all living in this same moment. The objective needs to be to take it in; be aware of each other; make connections; enjoy it. I’m starting to realize that things don’t have to be hard to give you a sense of accomplishment. You can enjoy yourself both at work and at home. Life is completely fluid.
I have a friend who’s powerful and established in his profession. Watching him operate has really inspired me. At his birthday we were sitting with his father, son, and a bank consultant who’s working on one of my friend’s projects at work. The next day we’ll go to a museum and it’s his wife, daughters, and his financial advisor. He’s closing a deal while he’s enjoying the day. He is completely fluid and comfortable with all of the roles in his life and they all intermingle. He doesn’t apologize for any of them. There is something that is so beautiful and inspiring to me about this.
I grew up during a more formal time in the corporate world. You weren’t supposed to mix work and life. It was taboo to build relationships with the people that you worked with outside of work. I welcome the informality and authenticity that is emerging. I see it accelerating as we all work out of our bedrooms, living rooms, and offices. I think it is quite beautiful.
I think the key to fluidly mixing life and work is getting very good at recognizing what’s important, and what is just noise. It’s all just living. For me, what my friend does is very aspirational.
The key to fluidly mixing life and work is getting very good at recognizing what’s important, and what is just noise.
Emotions are Superpowers
Emotions are trained out of us from the time we are children and by the time we get to the workplace emotions are very taboo. But emotions are very powerful tools, and if you don’t let yourself experience them you risk becoming numb. That can hinder your ability to make good decisions and be a good leader.
I work with a coach who’s helped me see the power of tapping back into emotion. It’s led me to a complete sense of freedom in the workplace and a sense of vulnerability and authenticity that I had never quite experienced up to this point in my life. It’s been a complete breakthrough and my life has been changed by this next inflection point.
Joe Hudson is my coach’s name and I’m grateful for what he has done for me. He wrote a poem about how joy is the matriarch of all the feelings. She won’t enter her house until all her children are there. This means you have to let yourself experience things like grief, fear, anger if you want to actually experience joy.
I think the racial reckoning we’re going through as a country is related to this. The pent up fear, grief, and anger that engulfed us with the death of George Floyd is vital for us all to feel. It is required for us all to experience these emotions to eventually heal and get to a place of joy. If we shut ourselves off from these emotions we will go numb, and we won’t make progress.
Emotions are very powerful tools and if you don’t let yourself experience them you risk becoming numb. That can hinder your ability to make good decisions and be a good leader.
Sometimes You Have to Lose it to Find it
There came a moment when I was in a job where I felt like I was losing the people and things that mattered most to me. I was commuting 3 hours roundtrip every day. I had ghosted my young family. I was burning everything at both ends. I had lost the connection to my heart and was operating from a place of mind and gut just to survive.
Deep into yet another sleepless night I recognized my truth: I had to quit my job. The insights Adam gave me decades earlier came back to guide me. I was miserable and I wasn’t sleeping because I had a big decision to make. I did not have another job lined up. I had no idea what I was going to do. I had no idea how I was going to take care of my family.
But I knew I had to make a big decision. I couldn’t be daunted by the magnitude of it because if I failed to make the decision I risked losing my family and my connection to my heart.
I knew I had to make a big decision. I couldn’t be daunted by the magnitude of it because if I failed to make the decision I risked losing my family and my connection to my heart.
Ubuntu is the Zulu word for humanity as it’s expressed through compassion, empathy and connection to others. My life’s circumstances created the opportunity to take my husband and children on a global journey in search of this connection. My son and daughter were respectively finishing middle and elementary schools. I had just made a big decision and quit a job without another one lined up. We were all in transition. We were all making a new beginning. I recognized I had an ephemeral opportunity to reinforce the connections we had to one another, and strengthen and build the connections we had to our world. My husband, sensing my urgency, created space in his work life for Finding Ubuntu to happen.
The year-long journey began at the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan and carried us through India, Mexico, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, France, Japan with various stops back home to Austin in between. We all needed to look up from our phones. We needed to spend less time scrolling through other people’s lives and spend more time living our own, which is why we decided to do the entire trip device-free. We unenrolled our children from the 8th and 5th grades and we took them off to see the world. In this moment of transition we had the opportunity to be very deliberate about which experiences would consume our precious time. Traveling gave us the opportunity to be deliberate about the thoughts that consume our minds. The Finding Ubuntu journey was life-changing for all of us.
I had to travel the world to recognize for myself what a friend had shared with me long ago. All of these travels opened my heart in big and surprising ways, but the lessons I keep learning are available to me right here at home. I now see that the opportunities for deeper growth are right across the street, or even in the mirror.
I had to travel the world to recognize that the opportunities for deeper growth are right across the street, or even in the mirror.
Even the Bad Brings its Gifts
The pandemic has made us all experience such terrible suffering, and we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve seen the socioeconomic divide get even worse. We’ve all suffered the enormous human cost of this tragedy. But even this difficult time has brought its gifts. We’re building stronger connections to one another, some of which will probably remain forever. In what we’ve all been through with this pandemic we’ve had a globally shared human experience. We’ve seen systems that have not served us break. And we see their need to be rethought and rebuilt in ways that we had not recognized before. There have been gifts in this. Everything has its gifts if you’re willing to look at it the right way, even in the face of such suffering.
Pride and Purpose
My husband and kids are my life’s greatest pride. The fact that they’ve picked me, and they continue to pick me, is my single greatest achievement.
I’m so lucky that right now I’m living with purpose. I’m doing my dream job. I’m working with brilliant leaders who have the hearts of teachers. They generously share knowledge, honor vulnerability, and create the space for everyone to learn and get better. I’m working in an organization that shares my values.
All of these things give me pride and they all fuel my life’s purpose.