The CMO Club caught up with Lisa Armstrong, Head of Marketing at Resideo. Her journey of leadership started at Canadian Pacific Railway, where working to digitize the railway gave her unique perspective on leading change. She now heads marketing for a company driving innovation for smart homes. She imagines a world where homes are safe, healthy havens for people, and where technology works to simplify everyday life. We asked her to share her journey with us.
Our first question: what are three themes that have been present throughout your career?
Intellectual Curiosity, Global Perspective, Bias for Action
Intellectual Curiosity is the first theme because it’s present throughout my personal and professional journey. As a little black girl growing up, doing well in school and going to university was a non-negotiable expectation of my Jamaican immigrant parents who believed that education was the key to a better life. Luckily, I was very curious and excelled at school. My father died of cancer months before I went to university and I approached my studies with a heavy heart, perseverance, and an unwavering drive to live out the dreams he had for me. It wasn’t until I saw my academic work unlock doors to a solid, stable profession that I started to understand the power of education. This fueled my curiosity further and pursuing academic work became a touchstone for many of my life’s transitions. Just after I got married to my American husband and migrated to the U.S., I enrolled in post-grad studies at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. This enabled me to pivot from technology to marketing. At Honeywell, I was sponsored to go to Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management to complete my Executive MBA. And in 2020, when life during the pandemic became all about online, I came full circle and completed a digital transformation program at MIT. I have a thirst for knowledge and aim to learn something new every day.
My second theme can be traced back to the cul-de-sac where I grew up in Toronto, Canada. My neighbors were families from Korea, India, Portugal, Italy, Poland, and Greece – they are the global village that seeded my global mindset. I spent time in my neighbors’ homes, and we were infused in each other’s cultures. It felt completely ordinary. As an adult, I recognize it for the extraordinary experience it was and how profoundly it shaped my broad global perspective. I became an avid traveler and explorer of the world. I went backpacking through Europe after university. I later visited each continent and traveled to far-off places such as Vietnam, India, Thailand, Panama, Portugal, Romania, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. It was fortuitous that I got to work on Honeywell’s high-growth region strategy for Brazil and South Africa. My old passports are stored among my most favorite keepsakes. My childhood experiences and the world travels that followed have given me a strong sensitivity to cultural diversity. I now manage global teams. I encourage different voices and leverage a global perspective to elevate our business strategies.
My third theme is captured by the words of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” I have a strong bias for action. I’m known for getting things done and managing complexity. I take audacious goals down to their constituent pieces, develop an operating system, and break activities into key actions. My project management muscles have served me well through many stages of my career. But now I manage more like an orchestra conductor – inspiring, coordinating and synchronizing the work of many in harmony to meet outcomes. I’m not afraid to make decisions in the face of uncertainty which has come in handy in these unprecedented times. My bias for action is present with me in every aspect of my life – from how I manage a home renovation project to how I drive a global brand refresh.
One of my early career projects at Canadian Pacific Railway involved implementing a program that would eliminate the need for a caboose on trains. There was an airtight business case for doing this, and cool technology that would enable it. But I quickly came to realize it was going to take more than a project plan to drive this transformation. Mobilizing commitment for this change involved helping the union, the engineers, and everyone who saw the caboose as an iconic component of rail travel get onboard. It involved a true understanding of every constituency impacted by the change and an authentic, empathetic connection to their perspectives. I’ve applied this same thinking to successfully integrate acquisitions, rationalize hundreds of brands, and drive international expansion. Transformation is about how we address the need for change anchored in empathy to overcome resistance. The caboose project taught me that to effectively drive transformation, you have to be willing to transform too.
Taking Care of the People in Your Charge
Early in my career I was a subject matter expert and got my hands dirty untangling complicated technical problems. I loved this work. I became a managing director at a fairly young age because of my ability in managing projects, but I lacked the wherewithal to manage large teams of people. The transition from SME to manager to leader was a bumpy transition for me. The book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was insightful, and of course, I took many classes on leadership that helped. As I matured as a leader, I had the awakening that leadership was not about being in charge. To quote Simon Sinek “being in charge is about taking care of the people in your charge.” This perspective came to life with incredible clarity for me on 9/11. Typically, members of my team would be flying all over the country on consulting assignments. But on that day, I had gathered them for a team reset date. We sat in shock, together, as the horrors unfolded. I felt the intensity of the meaning of taking care of my team, and it evolved me as a leader.
Now, as the head of a large global team, I ask my team what they need help with, without making assumptions. I find the right level of engagement and the balance between driving for results and recognizing when it’s time to provide guidance or coaching. Leadership is not about being the subject matter expert and knowing all the answers. It’s about asking the right questions and supporting your team to achieve the best outcomes. A big part of my role is making the time and taking deliberate actions to take care of my team, our customers, and our channel partners.
Leadership is about taking care of the people in your charge.
Design Thinking and Growth
One of my most rewarding transitions was when I took a sabbatical mid-career and went to design school. I had pursued rigorous academic training that developed me as a technical, structured thinker. Although I always considered myself equally left-brained and right-brained, I had never previously cultivated my creative thinking in the same ways. Design school did that for me. I was taught by a renowned faculty and in a cohort with such talented young artists and designers. This challenged me to lean into the right brain creativity and originality that design school demands. It helped me see the enormous value that comes from reframing problems in human-centric ways. I developed a design thinking mindset. These experiences launched my career into marketing and sparked my obsession for branding. Marketing sits at the intersection of strategy, design, and technology. Combining logic and creativity to develop growth strategies, drive innovation, simplify complexity, and connect the dots positions our company to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Enjoying My Work
Like many first-generation children, I navigated the tightrope between what was expected of me and the passions that called to me. My father died too early, working at a job where he was not able to fully utilize his talents and his smarts. My mother worked 40 years, around the clock, as a registered nurse. It was not until after retirement that she pursued her passions for crafts, which she previously couldn’t afford to do while caring for our family. Today she is devoting herself to serving her community through her passion, which gives her purpose. In the reflections of my parents’ experience, I recognized some vital insights about what I wanted for my future and my work.
I wanted to enjoy my work, fully utilize my smarts, and work at the level of my increasing potential. Achieving a role that encompasses what I’m passionate about and what fully intellectually engages me became my goal. I feel blessed to have a career where I truly enjoy so many aspects of what I do.
I’m a parent myself now. Just as my parents had dreams for me, I dream that my children will be intellectually curious and grow up in a world that will fully cultivate their talents. My husband and I encourage and orient our children towards their passions – and to find a career that they are most excited about so that they can achieve their fullest potential.
Purpose-led Brand Strategy
Living in Minneapolis, the death of George Floyd was very close to home for me, literally. The physical and emotional proximity helped me see what authentic leadership looks like – especially authentic business leadership. After the death of George Floyd, and the social unrest that followed, the world looked at Minneapolis in mourning and in outrage. But as we were looking out towards the world, we could see the business leaders who were giving authentic voice to the imperatives of social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. We saw the companies taking strong stands and contributing meaningfully to discussions. We saw the leaders and companies who were great role models of stewardship. And we saw the opposite of all those things as well.
I also became acutely aware of the power of an authentic corporate brand and the importance of understanding what a company stood for. There is immense pride and inner peace that comes from working for a brand where your personal values are aligned with the company’s brand and where the company’s purpose is to make an impact in the world. I’ve always believed in the idea of a triple bottom line: it’s possible to do well as a company, while doing well for humanity and the planet. I now have an increased focus on how I can help build purpose-led brands. I believe that companies who strive to be social stewards and lead with purpose will succeed in attracting the best talent and achieving the best results.
Paying it Forward
I spend a lot of time advising and sharing knowledge to nurture the seeds of potential in the next generation of leaders and start-up companies. In many ways, this work is reverse mentorship for me as well. These interactions help me to see things differently and challenge my thinking about the gig economy, systemic racism, environmental responsibility, and so much more.
One of the most treasured values my parents instilled in me is this: to whom much is given much is required. I am blessed with the talents, knowledge, and resources I have. Investing my time and resources in volunteer initiatives is a deliberate and important priority for me. My non-profit board service gravitates towards economic empowerment and education. I support community programs where I can see the direct impact of my contributions. In this work I hope to open doors, particularly for those from underrepresented groups who are equally capable and deserving of opportunities.