The CMO Club talks with Board Member Trish Mueller, on personal responsibility, self-advocacy, leadership, and what it takes to be a successful CMO today.

Trish Mueller is the Co-Founder of Mueller Consulting; a firm whose mission is to assist retailers with navigating & succeeding at retail in the digital age. She is the former CMO of The Home Depot, and SVP of Marketing at The Sports Authority. Trish currently serves on multiple boards, including Dave and Buster’s, and our own CMO Club. She also mentors marketing students, and sits on the Advisory Board for the Masters in Science and Marketing program at the University of Texas. Trish lives in Austin, with her husband of twenty-one years. She considers herself semi-retired these days, but we’d have a hard time believing her.

CMO Club — Where did you grow up?

Trish Mueller —“Upstate New York. In the Adirondack Mountains, the oldest of four siblings. I was always considered the ringleader and the super-organized overachiever of the family. My mother was a “Household Engineer” and was a great influence on me. She was very smart and focused on education. We had a very structured life. She was the mom that was always at home when you got home, so we took off our school clothes and started homework before we ever got to watch television or go outside and play. I learned how to read way before I spent my first day in Kindergarten. My sister and I always joke that our mom genetically passed on her OCD to us. My sister is a nurse, so Marketing and Nursing. You get the picture. (laughter) My dad worked at a paper mill, and later in his life became an electrician. He was a huge influence as well. Sadly, he passed away this July way too early.”

CMO Club —Can you remember something dad taught you that still sticks with you?

Trish Mueller —“One of the things he taught us was the notion of doing it right or doing it over. He taught me how to have a high work ethic, to work harder, and to reach deeper. I did his eulogy at the service. In it, I listed the “Ten Things My Dad Said,” the words that dramatically impacted me in my life. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. One of the stories I remember from when I was younger was on a Saturday during summer, our phone rings, and I hear my dad say, “uh-huh, yes, uh-huh. I’ll bring her right over.” I asked him who it was and he said it was my work and that they needed me there. I usually didn’t work Saturdays and told him so. He says, “That doesn’t matter to them. They need you, and when work calls, you go.”

He also taught me never to let anyone intimidate you. That’s something that made a big difference to me in my career and in my life. When I pause to think about all the things my dad taught me, it makes me very grateful.”

CMO Club — What did you dream of becoming at nine years old?

Trish Mueller —My family was always in retail. I have memories of sitting in my grandfather’s chair as a little girl in his office at Sears. He was the store manager, and that environment, selling, it was always on my radar. In high school, I went with other family members and sold t-shirts at parades. I was always interacting with people, marketing, and working with people. It wasn’t a big stretch to go into retail and then marketing.

CMO Club —Was it a natural fit for you?

Trish Mueller — “It was. I fell in love with the math of it very early on and felt like I truly belonged. Even in college, I could tell you what the margins on a product were if I knew what the cost was. I did it in my head. It was a natural fit.

CMO Club — Fast forward to today, after the leadership marketing positions at marquee brands like Home Depot and Sports Authority, you are now a Board Member at Dave and Buster’s, and consulting for a company that you founded, Mueller Retail Consulting. What’s your typical day like these days, now that you’re semi-retired?

Trish Mueller — “It’s never the same day twice. I used to get up at 4:30 AM when I was working. Now, in my new life, I get up at six. I start my day with coffee outside, no matter what the weather is, talk with my husband of 21 years, go to the gym and or to yoga class. Some days like today I’ll go over to the University of Texas. I’m on the Advisory Board for the Masters in Science and Marketing program where I mentor students. I also mentor others as well, men and women in marketing that need some help. Other days I might be spending time reading business journals, studying risk and governance issues for the various boards, or simply reading a trashy novel.” (laughter)

CMO Club —You were quoted as saying, “Be the leader who people would kill for, not want to kill.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Trish Mueller — “It was in the context of, “If you could go back and tell your twenty-five-year-old-self something that you now understand fully, what would that be?” When I was a younger manager, I was very immature and insecure in my role. I think back on some of the things I said and did, and truthfully, I wouldn’t have wanted to work for me. I tried, later on to think about what’s in it for me from the perspective of the people who worked for me. Why would they work for me, and what would they get out of it? I found that investing my time in teaching and building them up, empowering them, giving them authority, and holding them accountable, made much happier people who rose to the challenge. I went from someone who went away on vacation, checking email and sending notes every day, to letting them know I was leaving and trusting in them being ok without me, making the decisions and standing by them when I returned. I came back almost every time with everything in order because they didn’t want to let me down. I’d finally learned to build up, not tear down.”

CMO Club —Your parents raised strong, competent women. How do you feel about the issue of gender bias in regard to wages in the industry? 

Trish Mueller — “I’m not going to give you the perceived happy answer. In most cases, I don’t think it’s the company’s responsibility. That lies with the individual. There were several times in my career where I learned I was not compensated as I should have been, like others, particularly men, were. I went directly to the person involved and called them on it. I once was offered a district manager job at a substantial discount. I knew what others in a similar capacity were making, and I asked if the man hiring me expected me to do lesser of a job than the other store managers. He said no. I then asked him, “why are you paying me less?” His answered that I lacked the experience level of those others. I told him that was fair, but that I was going to do a better job than anyone you have, and, in the next ninety days, I’m going to drive a fifteen per cent improvement in sales. Then I’m going to call you and ask for a raise. On the 89th day, I was driving a 20% sales increase. He called me and gave me a raise, which paid me what I deserved, and endeared me to my boss, who had the integrity to remember and honour his promise.”

“I get frustrated about this with regard to people’s headset on their own compensation. It’s very unlikely that your leader wakes up in the morning, worrying about what you make and right-sizing their salaries. It just doesn’t happen. YOU have to worry about it. YOU have to talk to recruiters and understand what the positions are worth. If you’re not happy with your pay, you either handle it head-on, which I think a lot of women struggle with, or you leave, go somewhere else that will pay you what you are worth. I don’t lay the blame at the feet of the company. Women have to advocate for themselves, and they need to learn how to do that. There are good people and bad people in all walks of life. I like to think that in business, the majority of people are genuinely honest, hard-working, and caring people. What goes around comes around. Those same people are also busy and don’t lose sleep over compensation issues. Business has a bottom line to uphold, and sometimes people make the wrong decision for the right reason, trying to save the company money. Unfortunately, they also wind up costing the company money because sometimes people won’t ask for more and they wind up leaving because they’re frustrated.”

CMO Club — What about the notion of companies having a greater social responsibility?

Trish Mueller — “As a Board Member, I say companies absolutely do have a social responsibility.  As a leader, I don’t enjoy the broader casting of “social responsibility.” As an example, I don’t think non-global companies should be responsible for, say the state of the oceans across the globe. It would be more beneficial if businesses, stockholders, and Wall Street would be more specific about what corporate social responsibility is. I do think companies should be responsible for things such as creating a good work environment, a safe work environment for their employees, minimizing their carbon footprint, and being conscious of waste disposal. You can go on for days about the types of social responsibility companies should have. I tend to focus more on the people. I truly believe in the Bernie Markus quote, that I believe inside my core, that “we take care of our people, they’ll take care of the customer, and everything else takes care of itself.”

CMO Club — Switching gears, what’s the number one challenge facing CMOs today?

Trish Mueller — The number one challenge facing CMOs is complexity. When I started as a Head of Marketing, we had three channels, TV, radio, and print, and direct mail. The complexity now, especially on the data side, is having so much information about your customer, the massive amount of channels and communication, then, having to prove the ethics of the spend to people who work at your organization but do not have any comprehension of what you do any longer, that is the biggest challenge today. 

CMO Club — So then how does a CMO function today?

Trish Mueller — “Myself, I’ve learned that you have to divide your time into thirds. Whereas CMOs used to spend most of their time doing the job, now they need one-third of their time to actually do the job, one-third to teach and develop their team, and one-third explaining what they do and how they’ll accomplish that within the company. By the way, the teaching third is not that the team doesn’t know what they’re doing. They do. Its more about developing and future-proofing them so they can do those parts of the job that the CMO no longer has the time for.” 

CMO Club — With everything coming at CMOs at breakneck speed right now, especially data, how does a CMO know what to pay attention to?

Trish Mueller — “That’s also a big part of that middle third. CMOs need to give their team the responsibility for vetting all the incoming calls and emails, letting the team members decide what is worth the CMOs time and not worth their time. Marketers are besieged from within and without. Hundreds of companies have popped up to help you optimize everything you do. You can spend your entire life just answering emails and listening to pitches from outsiders who want to sell you something. You’d never get the job done if you tried to do it all by yourself.”

CMO Club —What are you most proud of accomplishing in your career?

Trish Mueller — “I’m proud of all the people I’ve helped along the way, people who have gone on to have their own successful careers. That’s what I’m most proud of. I’m proud that I was able to retire at 53 by maximizing my financial opportunities by advocating for myself. I joke around with the CMOs at the summits when I say to them, “I am leading the life that you deserve so that I might motivate you to behave accordingly.” You all should want this. It starts with having a team that delivers. Building your team should be the biggest priority, even though it sometimes seems to be the last thing on many CMOs lists.”

CMO Club —When all is said and done, what would you like to be remembered for?

Trish Mueller — “That people would say, “I always knew where I stood with her.” I am proud of that because I have been very vocal throughout the years. I think the annual appraisal and review process is ridiculous. It’s punitive, and it’s CYA for companies because some managers are not good at communicating performance to their team. Because I’ve been so transparent, I’ve never given a “gotcha” review. I’ve never shocked someone because they didn’t know how they were doing. Throughout the year, I looked them in the eye and told them where they stood, and I’m proud to say I wrote very few poor reviews as a result.”

CMO Club — What gets you angry?

Trish Mueller — “People who are not accountable for themselves gets me angry. When something goes wrong in the workplace, the best people I’ve had were those who’d say, “You don’t know this yet, but (fill in the blank) broke. This is why it happened, and this is what I’m doing about it. This is how we can solve it.” That’s the ideal person. They take responsibility, and they find solutions, not just present problems. Also, people who sit in a role, expect everything to be spoon-fed to them and then complain when they don’t advance. This seems endemic in today’s society. There’s this lack of accountability. Everyone is looking for their problems to be solved for them.”

CMO Club — What then gives you the most joy?

Trish Mueller — “Spending time with my young nephew. Getting to see the world through a ten-year-old’s eyes is absolutely hilarious. I taught him to play ma-jong. We love playing together. He requested straws for his soda as we play. One day he’s sitting there, not using his straw, slurping his Sprite. After a few moments cringing, I say to him, “Do you think it’s very adult to sit here slurping your Sprite like that? He turns to me without missing a beat and says, “Well actually, no, I don’t think it’s very adult, but I am only nine, so I figure I still have nine more years of slurping left.” (laughter)

CMO Club — What has The CMO Club meant to you?

Trish Mueller — “In a business sense, It’s saved me millions of dollars. The peer-to-peer engagement, learning from other CMOs what they’re doing, and then applying that to my own business has saved me a lot of money, time, and frustration. On a personal level, I’ve developed what I consider to be some lifelong friendships. Many people, both here in Austin and on a national level that I’ve connected with, who I deeply respect, people who I can call for help, get their thoughts on issues, and who have become my friends, a network of peers that is truly valuable.” 

CMO Club — Anything you would like to share with the club that not many people know about you?

Trish Mueller — By the age of 21, I saved two lives – one a drowning, using CPR I had just learned, and the other was a drunk college kid I noticed late one night on my way home. He was under a large mound of falling snow, passed out beside the sidewalk after midnight, and I woke him and helped get him home to his dorm. He’d likely have frozen to death in the cold that night.

CMO Club — Wow. Any personal advice for up-in-coming CMOs out there?

Trish Mueller — “During one of the most stressful times in my professional life, I coped by taking off my watch and writing “MMC” in the palm of my hand every day for a year. I stopped stressing over every minute of the day, and when I did feel stressed I’d look at my palm and evaluate whether the issue was minor, major or a catastrophe. It really helped me slow down and realize there were no catastrophes, and very few issues were major.  It was a great way to get issues in my life back into perspective, and it only cost me some blue ink & soap to remove it every night.”

CMO Club — Last Question. Can a CMO have a positive impact on society, maybe even change the world in some way?

Trish Mueller — “The way that you have an impact on human lives is through the people that you work with and how you help them grow. It’s an overreach to say marketers can have an impact on human life overall. Maybe in the case of Google, who can develop drones that bring the internet to impoverished countries, it’s possible. That’s a pretty grand agenda for a CMO to have. I was always careful to stay connected to reality and have an on-the-ground impact. Marketers are better served in their careers to stay grounded in their goals. Maybe you change the world one team at a time and one person at a time. That can change the world, too.”