View the illustration of Mark’s Journey

The CMO Club caught up with Mark Smalls, SVP, Chief Marketing Officer at JAMS. From his hometown in New York, his journey has taken him to ivy-covered corridors at Duke and Columbia to global companies like Citi, Pepsi, and Unilever. He worked at an innovative global microfinance initiative targeting poverty around the world before landing in the legal field in his current role. His accomplished wife is his life’s most enduring partner; his two sons are his greatest pride. He’s happiest when he has his family all together. We asked Mark to share reflections from his journey.

Our first question: what are three themes that have been present throughout your career. 

Variety, Amazing Experiences, Continuously Learning

The first theme is variety. I have worked in consumer products, financial services, the nonprofit sector, and now in mediation and arbitration. I’ve called New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Southern California home – some cities more than once. At various times in my career, I’ve woken up thinking about consumers, about shareholders, about entrepreneurs in Africa, and about businesses negotiating a dispute here at home. 

In each of these periods I’ve had too many amazing experiences to count – that’s my second theme. There were experiences that humbled and honored me, such as sitting in on a microfinance “trust circle” in Rwanda. There were experiences that sparked reflection and inspiration, such as climbing the Acropolis in Athens with a coworker. There were experiences that made the pulse quicken, such as being on the infield for Richard Petty’s last NASCAR race or entering the ring at the end of a heavyweight boxing championship fight. The experiences that left the most enduring marks are those where my work intersected with making a positive imprint on the communities I’m invested in. 

In these experiences, and even in those that don’t spark fond memories, I was continuously learning. Pivot is a popular buzzword these days, but I feel I have been pivoting my entire career. Many times I have needed to come in and quickly learn a new industry whether that was credit card marketing, vision care, publishing, and more recently the legal industry. What keeps me energized is continuing to learn about new products and services and then figuring out how to best market them and connect them to communities in meaningful, authentic ways.

The experiences that left the most enduring marks are those where my work intersected with making a positive imprint on the communities I’m invested in.

Best of Both Worlds

I grew up in Westchester County, New York. My mother is Harlem born and raised. As a child I spent weekdays in the suburbs and every weekend at my grandparents’ home in Harlem. I got to experience the best and worst of both suburban living and the city. As a New Yorker going to North Carolina for college, I had many positive experiences that challenged the expectations that I had of the South. My time in Chicago exposed me to the midwestern ethic and how people in the country’s heartland interact. The variety of communities I’ve lived in has shaped who I am – as a person and as a manager. 

You have to first live in both worlds to be able to recognize and claim for yourself the best of either of them. I’m privileged that I have been able to live in and experienced many worlds. I also recognize there are still more worlds out there for me to live in and explore. 

Doing Exactly What You’re Meant to Do

My mom was an educator in the South Bronx working with kids who had been told they needed to set their sights a little lower because of their learning challenges. My mother believed in their potential and as a child, I would see adults coming back to find and thank her for helping them see what they could achieve. My younger brother is another hero to me. He’s an educator working with young people in after-school programs. Going around town with my brother is like being with the mayor. Everyone knows and engages with him. He is so in sync with his calling and making a huge impact on his community. Given their examples it’s easy to see how giving back has always been part of my ethos.

My career path took me to the private sector where I started out thinking the workday was about earning a living. After hours I satisfied my desire to make societal impact by volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters or through philanthropic giving. I previously saw my professional work and the work of giving back as somewhat separate. 

Early in my career I didn’t realize that those two things could intersect. My work with the nonprofit Opportunity International helped me see how you could bring your private sector skill set to a meaningful cause, earn a living, and also feel like you were having an impact in the world. When those things all co-exist, they give you wholeness. While achieving private sector professional success feels good, those aren’t necessarily the most important reasons for making a job move. My approach now is to first listen to my heart. I’m at my best when I’m working for an enterprise where I can personally connect with their mission.

I’m at my best when I can connect with the mission of an organization. This gives you a wholeness.

Learning Starts with What You Already Know

In each of my transitions, I was recruited to the next role because of what I was bringing from the last. But each time I landed there were a whole new set of things for me to learn before I could fully contribute the expertise the new employer wanted. There are never any shortcuts to that learning piece. Each business and every sector operates very differently, as I saw when I went from brand-heavy Pepsi to Citi, which is all about analytics. You can’t be afraid to ask questions and you have to get good at identifying who to ask. Your objective isn’t to learn all the details. It’s about learning enough to think strategically and lead effectively. Learning something new starts with relying on the core muscles you already have. Learn enough to be effective so you can add the value you were hired for. 

Staying curious is vital to keeping yourself open to new opportunities. What I learned at Pepsi helped me be effective at Citi. The financial sector insights helped me jumpstart fundraising and expand constituencies at the microlending nonprofit. And that experience opened the door to my tenure here at JAMS.  Early in my career I never would have seen myself in the legal field where I am now. After 12 years  I’m still learning and that continual learning is what has made my career so fulfilling. 

Learning a new industry starts with relying on the core muscles you already have. You need to understand enough to be effective in the new context so you can add the value you were hired for.

Calibrating When it’s Time to Stay or Walk Away

I left a VP-level position with a global company based on a disconnect between the company’s values and my own. That experience showed me I always needed to be true to my moral compass in order to feel good about my career choices. 

I was working for an organization where far and away the top goal was maximizing stock price. The company was making plenty of money, but that profitability wasn’t meeting analyst forecasts and the stock price was not moving in the ways some stakeholders wanted it to. There was frequent pressure in the system to cut costs. As anyone who’s worked in Marketing for any period of time knows, figuring out how to spend less on advertising and other expenses can be part of the job. But this went well beyond just that to making the short-term trade-off of eliminating the jobs of many high-performing people to produce a short-term impact on a stock ticker symbol. Many sleepless nights followed that directive to cut headcount and it left a very enduring imprint. It helped me recognize if the very culture of an organization is counter to your values, it’s time to walk away. There are lots of things we all can and should do to improve our workplaces. But when it’s a culture problem that goes to a disconnect between the company’s core values and your own, it’s time to move on. 

When there’s a disconnect between the company’s values and your own, you always need to be true to your moral compass.

Finding Clarity in Times of Crisis

I was working as part of a crisis management team to steer the organization through an incident that had the potential to cause a breakdown of trust with both clients and internal constituencies. In that case, the takeaway was it’s possible to balance your personal feelings about a situation with figuring out how to add value by leveraging your skillset and perspective. 

Inclusion is something of a catchphrase right now. In a crisis – and more importantly, before it – having a diversity of viewpoints and experiences already at the table equips you to find clarity and to be able to quickly and appropriately respond. All too often the corporate reflex is to keep things to a very tight circle and try to quietly manage things away. That’s a mistake. The first question after something has occurred should always be “do we have all the right people, all the right viewpoints at this table? Do we have an inclusive decision-making team?”

The first question after a crisis moment should always be “Do we have all the right people, all the right viewpoints at this table? Do we have an inclusive decision-making team?

Be the Mentor You Wish You Had

It’s important to me that I share my experience and knowledge to help those coming up behind me. This philosophy was shaped by joining companies and repeatedly seeking mentorship, but not receiving very much of it. There’s something to be said about the toughness that comes from the school of hard knocks, but I would have benefited greatly from having more meaningful mentorship connections. My experiences left me with a commitment that I would do a better job of mentoring when I was in a position to do so. That’s part of my deliberate intention now.

I’m fortunate to have a talented team that has advanced the breadth and sophistication of the marketing we do. We’ve taken it to an entirely different level and it’s been acknowledged as best in class within our industry. I take so much pride in my teams’ work. In every large organization, there are unwritten rules you really need to know to be successful. It’s difficult to navigate without someone to help you get the lay of the land. Now I’m proactive about sharing insights with rising leaders on what they need to know to be successful in an organization. I tell them about the aspects of their careers no one may have spoken to them about directly but will be important for their success. 

It can be hard to navigate and organization without someone helping you get the lay of the land. That’s my deliberate intention these days.

Reshaping the Landscape

For every executive of color, thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion come with the territory. At most of my employers there has been a DEI element to my role, even if not always “officially.” I’ve usually been one of the few people of color at the senior leadership table, and as a function of that, I’ve been someone who people come to with both challenges and for suggestions. Executives of color oftentimes find themselves as the leader that’s most often asked about these issues.

While it’s always been a priority for me, from 2020 onward I’ve spent a growing percentage of my time on issues and opportunities related to DEI. I have had to navigate a lot of new ground in the last year to help organizations through the much-needed change necessary to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces – workplaces that reflect the communities we operate in and the constituencies we serve. This is work I expect to continue investing in increasingly impactful ways. It’s vital that we reshape the landscape to create a more equitable business arena.

I have had to navigate a lot of new ground in the last year to help organizations through the much-needed change of creating more inclusive, equitable workplaces.