As Global CMO & SVP for Shell Global Mobility, Carol Chen leads Global Shell Mobility Marketing for the world’s biggest retailer, with a footprint that includes 46,000+ retail sites in over 80 countries serving 30+ million customers daily and building a strong network of EV charging globally. The CMO Club caught up with her at the London HQ. Her journey to executive leadership has involved calling China, Canada, Singapore, the US, and now the UK home. She was at Procter & Gamble for twenty years, driving growth for major billion dollar consumer brands in markets including Greater China, North America Asia Pacific, and Global. When she joined Shell, she took the challenge to move from FMCG to Energy, a completely new industry. As she settles into her new responsibilities, The CMO Club asked her to share her journey by first reflecting on three themes that have been present throughout.
Three Defining Themes
There are three keywords that come to mind as I think about my career. One is global, one is resilience, and the third is reinvention.
From the earliest stages of my career, I felt a yearning to see the world in a very different manner. I wanted to fully experience the different shapes and textures of the human experience across cultures. I longed to live the different rhythms that life takes for people across our globe. It went beyond youthful wanderlust. I did not want to sample cultures, I wanted to be embedded in them so that they could leave their imprint on me. My roles took me to live and work in five different countries in two big companies. I worked from local to regional to global for different brands in different cultures. Throughout these changes I experienced massive transitions, on both a professional and a personal level.
That leads to my second theme, which is resilience. Throughout my career I have been constantly taking on challenges: challenging consumer brands, challenging market circumstances, challenging business transformations, challenging organizational upheavals. I remember my first move from China to Canada was really difficult. People would tell me they couldn’t understand my accent. They kept referencing “Canadian Way” and I had no idea what they were talking about. I still remember how challenging that transition was. No matter what my circumstances or what gets thrown at me, I try to take on the challenge constructively, and look for ways to learn and grow from it. Each change shapes you even without your consciously realizing it.
My third theme is reinvention. As I think about the role of CMO today, it’s massively different from what it was 20 years ago, and from what it will be 20 years from now. In a world where the only constant is change, reinvention is the basic prerequisite for maintaining competitive advantage. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. Significant growth, significant acceleration, and significant competitive advantage all require reinvention and transformation that truly
delights the customers and delivers an amazing customer experience. At a personal level, I took on the big and challenging reinvention of myself from a B2C marketer to a B2B marketer when I moved from P&G to Shell. Now, with my new responsibilities, I need to lead the global marketing organization to accelerate change to meet customers’ fast-changing needs and expectations and help decarbonize Mobility. Change is constant, and change is what keeps our profession exciting. I’m constantly reinventing myself by learning, adapting, and evolving how we approach challenges and opportunities. This is what keeps our lives – professionally and personally – fresh and engaging.
Global, Resilience, Reinvention
Things That Are Spoken, and Things That Are Unspoken
In China if you want to get a waiter’s attention in a restaurant, it’s perfectly acceptable to call out to them. That is not the case in Canada. Every culture has expectations that are both spoken and unspoken. My life experiences living in so many different cultures helped me become a keen observer of these. By nature, I’m a very curious and outgoing person. I like to talk to people. I like engaging in dialogue. I see parallels between these two dynamics and my professional journey.
I’ve worked in marketing my entire career. A big part of that is what customers tell you. When you enter a conversation with genuine curiosity, most of the time people will let you in, and share insights into what you’re curious about. Another big part of marketing is what the customer is not explicitly telling you, but that you must intuit. It’s about understanding consumer intent and desires by observing behaviors. My journey has helped me hone the skills to understand the expectations that are spoken, and those equally important expectations that go unspoken.
Every culture has spoken and unspoken expectations. So does every customer. My life’s experiences have helped me become a keen observer of these, and that’s helped me both personally, and professionally.
Deeply Rooted Conviction
From my very earliest experiences, I was immersed in a profoundly rigorous world. My upbringing was extremely competitive academically. My early career at P&G in China was incredibly intense. These experiences seeded in me what is now a deeply rooted belief – call it a conviction – that I can crack it. I will crack it. It’s something I know at the core of my being, and it’s helped me a lot in my journey. There have been many difficult moments. There were difficult bosses, assignments, and reorgs. There were challenges with my health. There were challenges with a significant business crisis. There were challenges with my introvert son as we navigated the changes involved in moving from place to place. Throughout these there was always a conviction, deep in the center of me, that I’m going to crack it. I will crack it.
My early experiences seeded in me what is now a deeply rooted belief: I can crack it. I will crack it.
Building the Future by Seeing Its Reflection in the Rear-view Mirror
As I embark on leading an organization through a big transformation, I begin by visualizing the three things that I will leave behind once I’m done. I imagine what things will look like once I’ve helped the organization achieve the transformation and I’m ready to leave the role. To build that, I start with questions. The first question is how do I reinvent myself? How do I need to change in order to lead the transformation? How do I inspire the organization and my team to transform? What are the conversations I need to have with my leadership team to inspire them to mobilize commitment? It takes an army to make the magic happen. I think about how I need to inspire the company’s leadership above me so they can clearly see the future we are all building together. That’s the excitement of being a CMO. You’re not here to do things as they’ve always been done. The world is changing. We don’t have a lot of runway to get lift. Our challenge and our opportunity is to lead the businesses in a very transformative manner in a very short period of time.
Every time I take on a new role I always read: The First 90 Days. The president of the United States famously has 100 days to establish him or herself as the senior executive of a nation. As a business leader you get 90 days. After that you really need to be generating value. That’s how I approach any big challenge I’m charged with leading.
The excitement of being a CMO is to lead the business in a very transformative manner in a very short period of time.
Delivery and Relationship are Equally Important
As most people can tell when they meet me, I’m a very achievement-focused, momentum-driven, very fast pace type of person. What I’ve learned in many of my assignments is that if you don’t build relationships first, then you won’t have the strong foundations you need to deliver the results. If you go into a turn-around situation and just start pushing and challenging, then all you’re doing is rocking the boat. A boat rocked hard enough will turn upside down. I remember when I was the marketing director for Pampers, the task given to me was to turn around the business which was in steep decline. I came to the role and started to challenge everything and really wanted to change everything. The team in place felt flattened by that approach. I have learned the hard way that as a leader you have to listen, learn and build trust first. You can’t just show up and change everything. Ultimately, if you want to go faster, you have to go together, not alone.
A turn-around is a very difficult leadership challenge because you need to bring the edge that accelerates the delivery while also bringing your people along as part of the journey. That’s a lot easier said than done, but the answer lives in this: delivery and relationships are equally important. I’ve learned over and over that every ounce of energy and every minute of time spent building relationships pays enormous dividends. It builds the trust with the team that makes it possible to go bolder and faster and more aggressively to drive results.
As a leader you don’t have all the answers. You have to select the right team and build the trust with build the trust with the team that is capable of driving the turn-around.
The Power of Vulnerability
A big part of my culture and my upbringing is that you’re tough, you’re strong, you’re capable, you’re confident. You don’t show vulnerability. You don’t expose weaknesses.
Last year was not easy with COVID-19, long period of lockdown and reorg. I too felt the anxiety and stress. In a big internal webcast I started to share my vulnerability. I talked about the challenges that myself and my family faced, and how I was coping with that, and how I was managing anxiety and uncertainty as a leader. I really opened up and shared my challenges and feelings. It was not in my nature, and it was very difficult for me but I decided to give it a go
To my surprise, people really connected and related to me. They saw me as a stronger leader after I opened up about my vulnerabilities. I’ve recognized that as I am entrusted with greater and greater leadership responsibilities, that people see me as a human being who has challenges and struggles. They don’t just want to see me as a strong business leader who always has all the answers and game plan. They want to see me as a person. Sharing these things does not come naturally to me. I’m a very private person by nature. But I have learned that opening up and sharing, it goes a long, long way.
I shared my challenges. To my surprise, people saw me as a stronger leader after I opened up about my vulnerabilities.
Love What You Do and Value Experience First
One of the philosophies that governs how I have approached my career journey has been to always do what I love to do. There were so many times where headhunters reached out to me seeking to discuss exploring new opportunities. I always asked myself these questions: Do I love what I’m doing? Do I like the people I’m working with? Do I feel challenged? If the answers are yes, yes, yes, then I don’t take the conversation further. When all these things are true for you, you’re already precisely where you need to be. This approach has served me well.
Another deeply-held principle is that I value experience more than speed of promotion. If I reflect on my early years at P&G, had I stayed in China my career probably would have progressed even faster. But I’ve always held the strong belief that life is a collection of experiences. If you have the opportunity to get experiences, that’s so much more valuable than many other things, including how quickly you will get promoted. I always go after opportunities that would give me new perspectives and new experiences. I sought assignments that would enrich me or could make me a better, more grounded person.
Follow what you love and do the best you can, do not just chase the promotions or titles.
Health, Family, and Career in Balance
Early in my journey, I looked at career as the most important bubble in my life that I needed to manage. My thinking has since shifted. I’ve experienced challenges with my health at the early stage of my career, challenges with balancing the needs of my family. I now look at career, family, and health as three equally important bubbles, and I always need to have them in balance.
When I was very young at P&G I was working crazy hours in an incredibly intense dynamic. The stress, the demands, the pressures began eroding my health in a very dramatic way. Luckily, my uncle was a doctor and he spotted and diagnosed the issue early. To have your health compromised in the spring of youth brings you a defining perspective on how vital health really is. It took me three years to rebuild it. Since then, I’ve looked at my career and health quite differently. I do a lot of international travel. No matter where I go, I always pack my running shoes. I always pack my swim gear. No matter where I am or how busy I am, I exercise every day. I meditate every day – once in the morning and a second time in the evening. Exercising is a vital priority for me, it gives me energy and makes me more productive.
At another stage in my life, my son had really struggled with constantly moving schools and countries. As a naturally introverted boy, he really needs stability. So I have learned that I need to make decisions not just professionally, but also for what makes sense for my son.
When you do not have your family life and career life aligned, it’s not going to work. You need all three bubbles – career, health, family. They all need to be strong.
I now look at career, family, and health as three equally important bubbles, and I always need to have them in balance.
As One of the Few, I Have an Obligation to Help Make it One of the Many
I’m enormously honored when headhunters and business leaders tell me I’m one of the few Chinese marketers who have been successful across sectors globally. I’m humbled and yet somewhat crestfallen to know that I’m one of the even fewer women.
Helping to develop the next generation of female leaders is so important to me. There’s a group of people I actively nurture, challenge, and promote. I want to do everything I can to serve as an ambassador for gender equality. I strive for a more balanced future, where women have the same opportunities and influence as their male colleagues.