Lisa Ronson is CMO at Coles Group, one of Australia’s largest and iconic retailers with 120,000 employees. She has spent more than 20 years leading commercially-focused brands as a senior executive for companies like Tourism Australia, VISA, David Jones, and Westpac. She’s been the recipient of numerous awards including the number one spot on CMO50 for CMO Australia 2018, No. 1 Most Innovative Marketer 2018 by CMO magazine, and listed as one of Asia Pacific’s 50 most influential and purposeful marketers by Campaign Asia-Pacific for 2019, 2020, and 2021. The CMO Club caught up with Lisa to talk about her life’s journey and share lessons, values, and moments that have guided her personal and professional success.

Reflections from the farm

No matter how busy we get, I’ve always found it important to find a place in your life where you can take time for yourself and dwell without worry. I split my time between Melbourne and our place we recently bought in the countryside of Victoria. We call it a farm, which is hilarious to locals because it’s only 10 acres and most landowners here have thousands. But after a year of looking up YouTube gardening tutorials for our fruit trees and caring for our four wonderful alpacas, Dancing Queen, Filigree, Aiden, and Alfie, we’ve learned so much and fell in love with the way of life here.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out the water trough for our alpacas and my husband said to me, “Did you ever think on a Sunday afternoon you’d be doing all this for farm animals?” I never thought I would, but I was enjoying myself all the same. It’s the sense of doing something completely for the things you look after that I find so rewarding. At the end of a day’s work you’re rewarded with the most spectacular sunsets behind paddocks filled with thousands of sheep. It’s breathtaking scenery between our fruit trees, the sheep, the alpacas gathered around the trough, and how the sunlight touches it all. You can just lose yourself in those little reflective moments, which is really lovely.

It’s the sense of doing something completely for the things you look after that I find so rewarding.

Learning the art of listening

Listening to others and the stories people tell has been one of the most important parts of my growth. I first understood this from my Dad. He passed away when I was ten, but he still imparted all these life lessons before then. I remember being six or seven with Dad sitting next to me sharing his experiences and I’m wondering, why is he telling me all this stuff? It was a lot to take in at the time, but I think that was his way of showing he cared. I loved listening to him and enjoyed all these fantastic conversations we had together. 

People want to feel listened to, and listening to different people gives you new perspectives. If you only ever look at things through one lens, you’ll never make the right decisions.

My first job at a nursing home, where I worked for seven years, is where I truly learned the art of listening. I was one of the “kids in the kitchen,” so my first task when I’d clock in was to go around and take all the resident’s dinner orders. For the first few months, I took so long getting orders because I couldn’t stop chatting with the residents. I was like a sponge listening to all their great stories. They came from so many different ages, backgrounds, and cultures. It was so refreshing because they eagerly wanted to take the time and share their stories with me.

That experience taught me that everyone has an interesting point of view, and you shouldn’t write anyone off just because of their age. You’ll be surprised by how much an older person can teach you about life and simultaneously change the trajectory of your day. There were times I’d come into work after a bad day at school and within 30 minutes around my residents, I’d be completely different. I’d be sitting there chatting with Mr. And Mrs. Land about their kids and grandkids and you can’t help but be happy around them. I really loved that aspect of my time there and learning from others that having empathy is the most important thing in life and in business.

Having empathy is the most important thing in life and in business.

Finding fulfillment in the day to day

I’ve carried those lessons from the nursing home throughout my career and especially my time here at Coles. When I work out of stores with our team members, seeing the way they interact with their communities brings me such joy. Often when I’m working in a store I’ll get quite choked up because you’ll see an interaction between the baker and a customer – we’ll call Mable – that comes in and gets bread every other day. The baker knows how to slice it for her, asks how the grandkids are and just engages in these small, meaningful interactions that brightens her day. 

That sense of community and interacting with others definitely applies to the broader team at Coles, the marketing team at Coles, and really all of the marketing teams that I’ve worked with. I’m super proud because they’ve all shown up in different ways and are terrific people. I’m proud of those I’ve had an impact on, whether it be through support or inspiring them to do something different. Sometimes people will come up to me and say, I remember when you said this or you had this point of view on something and that made them think differently. It’s really all of those interactions and helping people to learn and do better that makes many aspects of my work so fulfilling. 

I’m really proud of those that I’ve had an impact on, whether it be through support or inspiring them to do something different.

Finding a flexible work/life balance

I’ve never had nor ever wanted the jobs where you leave your work behind when you clock out. I appreciate the blend of life and work and getting to know people at work more personally. A lot of my best friends are people I’ve worked with over many years. I believe COVID allowed people to be more vulnerable and opened the door to being your full self at work. 

Of course, sometimes it works seamlessly and sometimes it doesn’t. Having my son, Ben, strengthened that trait in me. If I wanted to pick him up from school, I would just turn my computer back on later at night. That’s how I’ve always managed the work in my life and becoming a parent reinforced that. You become a lot more efficient with your time when you’ve got someone waiting for you at home that you want to spend time with, see what they’ve done that day and oversee their development. With little kids, they just change day in, day out and create moments you don’t want to miss. 

I’m a believer in flexible working and of course recognizing boundaries. I’ve got some team members that work four days a week with a Friday off and if someone goes to call them, I will say stop. Would you ring that person on a Saturday for this reason? No? Well then don’t ring them on a Friday because if you do, they should be paid for working that Friday. 

Defining work ethic and education ethic

My work/life philosophy was reinforced in my childhood growing up with my three older sisters and my mother. My family had it very tight economically and that came down on my mom, who worked three jobs. All my life I saw how my mom worked, how my grandmother worked and it wasn’t just a strong work ethic, but also an education ethic. They were always reading, always encouraging us to read, be curious and ask questions. That gave me the scope to want to go on and attend university, graduate and do something else and have more choices than what I had growing up. 

Standing up for what’s right

First off, be yourself because it’s really hard pretending to be other people. Be true to your values and what you know to be right. In the same vein, try not to walk past bad behaviour or behaviour that is not aligned to your values. When I think back through my life and my career, some of the biggest things you beat yourself up about are when someone’s displayed bad behaviour and you walk past it. You’re effectively signaling it’s okay even if you don’t agree.

Standing up doesn’t have to have an audience. You can pull someone aside and go: you know what, that wasn’t very cool. You don’t treat people like that. If you want to be true to yourself, and your values are to treat people as you want to be treated, then you can’t tolerate those sorts of behaviours. It’s really hard having those conversations with people because they might have grown up thinking it was all right. They might say it served them well until now. It’s worth reminding them those behaviours probably won’t serve them well in the future.

I genuinely believe that caring about your team is caring enough to tell them when they’re doing a good job and when they’re wrong. Caring enough to ask how their cat is after going to the vet, but also caring enough to give them feedback on their performance, behaviour, or any situation. 

I genuinely believe that caring about your team is caring enough to tell them when they’re doing a good job and when they’re not doing so well.

One of the people in my life that really taught me about being authentic and standing up for myself was my friend Larke Riemer. She ran Women’s Markets for Westpac and she was a force of nature. She is a big proponent of women’s rights and the fact that women retire with half as much income as men. Larke knows how to take an issue, shine a light on it, and show clearly how it impacts society financially and economically. 

The way she advocates taught me so much on how to present information and cases for change. When you have a conversation around something wrong on a societal level you only get so far. Change is more attainable when you can map out a trajectory for a specific topic. Let’s use underemployment of women as an example. If you can show by reaching fuller employment, how it could impact the economy by X billion dollars, or whatever it might be, you start to gain traction that can lead to demonstrative change within your organization. I credit her with helping me harness my passion for change by giving me great tools for dealing with issues and difficult people. She was invaluable to me during my time at Westpac and taught me how to navigate these kinds of conversations. She’s been a great mentor to me and still is.

Leadership’s role to bring positive change

One of the reasons I love working for Coles and being part of the leadership team is the company’s knack for doing the right thing when no one’s watching. Through COVID, bushfires, and floods, we take our role seriously as a part of the Australian community. Recently, we launched a joint initiative with the government and other corporations around increasing the participation of people living with disability in the workforce. When you look at the broader Australian population, we have a 4% unemployment rate. Whereas people living with disability, it’s 10%. We want to do our part in reflecting society and increase that representation of people living with disability. I’m the chief of accessibility at Coles, so making sure we’re looking for ways to make it easier for people to come work for Coles is something I’m incredibly passionate about. 

Part of driving these initiatives is understanding the role of leadership. It’s important to know that what made you successful before may not be the thing that makes you successful in the future. You can move through the ranks because you’re great at getting stuff done. People can trust you to do what you say and execute. But as you take on different leadership roles with bigger teams and bigger responsibilities, it’s the ability to then influence others and not do all the doing yourself. I learned that the hard way by taking on too much in roles earlier in my career. But learning to influence and delegate responsibilities is critical to accomplishing the goals and initiatives you set out to achieve.

As you take on different leadership roles with bigger teams and bigger responsibilities, it’s the ability to then influence others and not do all the doing yourself.

Power of the dog and appreciating small moments

There’s no question stress is part of our lives and it’s important to remind ourselves that our mood can change in an instant. Part of your wellness could be surrounding yourself with people that make you feel better in a positive way. In my case, being with my dogs or my cat keeps me sane. It’s the complete contrast when I’m having a full board meeting kind of day and I take a moment to go hang out with my dogs. They’ll look up at me like they’re saying “I don’t care what you do or what you did today, just feed me.” And it tends to have an immediate calming effect on me. It’s those little moments where you’re doing something one minute, and then doing something completely different the next minute that changes your outlook that I find interesting and funny and fascinating about life.