At The CMO Club Summit in New York last month, I had the pleasure of moderating a powerhouse panel with Sheryl Adkins Green (Mary Kay), John Costello (Dunkin’ Brands), Babs Rangaiah (Unilever) and Elisa Romm (Mastercard) on the challenging topic of leading a culture of change. The conversation included a vibrant debate on the importance of culture versus strategy as well as a number of interesting insights recapped below.

Big Brands Do Big Things

John Costello, President of Global Marketing and Innovation for Dunkin’ Brands started the conversation by noting that he felt doing “big things” was not limited to “big brands” offering up the example of bagged lettuce, a category that has grown without the benefit of any advertising. That success, he noted, was based on the idea of differentiation, offering consumers a more convenient way to get an everyday staple. To the end, Costello pointed to Dunkin’s efforts in the mobile world, not just for advertising but also via applications that improve the customer experience.

Sheryl Adkins-Green, CMO at Mary Kay, shared the challenge of building up an ecommerce channel in a highly personalized selling organization. She referenced the need to “make sure the emotional connections weren’t lost” between the brand, the consumer and their 3.5 million independent beauty consultants. By “bridging from what mattered in the past to what matters now,” Mary Kay now enjoys one of best e-commerce sites according to Adkins-Green.

Change Needs to Be Enabled

Babs Rangaiah, Vice President Global Media Innovation at Unilever talked about his personal mission to increase the use of digital media around the world by Unilever brands. Rangaiah talked about the need for a vision and for explaining clearly the current situation along with a projection of where you want to go. With the “why” in hand, he then prescribed creating an army of “enablers.” By way of example, he noted that 5,000 out of 7,000 marketers within Unilever went through a digital training program he helped to set up.

Elisa Romm, EVP B2B Marketing for MasterCard, discussed the importance of “making sure Marketing isn’t working on its own” when attempting a major change. Romm offered examples of working with banks as partners since they don’t sell directly to consumers. In this case, it was incumbent upon her team to “bring something of value to the banks” and encouraged not just marketing but also sales to do the same.

Fear is the Enemy of Change

Costello offered the maxim that every leader must cultivate a safe environment in which “failure can be celebrated.” Not accepting this at face value, I challenged Costello to provide a real world example of celebrating a failure. Undaunted, Costello told the story of an underperforming new beverage that had to be pulled from the stores shortly after a hasty launch. Rather than get defensive, they learned from it and tightened up the process with the findings highlighted at a national sales meeting. It doesn’t hurt that 90% of the new products Dunkin’ introduces do succeed according to Costello!

Recognizing that change is neither easy nor natural to most people, Unilever’s Rangaiah suggested reinforcing the desired behavior rather than the ultimate outcome. For example, he suggested, “celebrating the pioneer spirit before the product launch” rather than after the results are in. This approach helped Rangaiah sell the idea of digital experimentation in countries that were not initially receptive to a shift in spending.

Culture Change Can and Should Be Measured

MasterCard’s Romm noted that not only is it possible to measure changes in culture but also it is essential to do so. As Romm put it, “in order to change on the outside you have to change on the inside”.   She noted that MasterCard surveys employee engagement every year and that the results feed “action plans designed to address the culture shift we want.”

Romm also noted that external surveys were essential to measure the impact of the desired internal culture shift. In MasterCard’s case, they run customer satisfaction surveys to determine if they’ve progressed on ratings such as “easier to do business with.” Importantly, everyone in the company “owns these ratings” since improvement in these areas are a sure sign of brand health and that the cultural vaccine has taken.

Don’t Tackle Culture in Your First 100 Days

While the panelists didn’t all agree that “culture trumps strategy” there was uniform agreement that culture change was not something a new CMO should try to tackle in his/her first 100 days even if it was a huge barrier to success. Adkins-Green referenced Stephen Covey’s advice in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

Costello recommended starting with the issue of strategy and the need for brand differentiation; making sure that you have the right team in place and then creating the right culture for those folks to succeed. Romm suggested that if there is a need for change, to start with your direct reports. Once these folks are showing (versus telling) what change looks like, there is the opportunity for this change to permeate the rest of the organization.

Where to Start & Final Words of Wisdom

Costello prescribed three essential elements to driving a culture of change:

  1. Understand the goal of your change. Do you have clear objectives of what you want to accomplish?
  2. Build a case for that change.
  3. Walk the talk. Nothing can derail culture change more than when your actions don’t support the change you want.

Adkins-Green added these three suggestions for her fellow CMOs:

  1. Focus on the customer and not your career;
  2. Make friends with someone else in the C-Suite;
  3. Avoid anything not on your CEO’s priority list.

And finally, Romm wrapped up with the simple yet profound reminder to “show, don’t tell.” She pointed to how the MasterCard sales force became true believers in the idea behind “Priceless Surprises” when they experienced a surprise for themselves.