Avanade’s Stella Goulet: “Here are 5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CMO”

You’re only as good as your team; make sure to address difficult HR challenges quickly. If you don’t deal with difficult personnel challenges, they get worse over time, not better. They can impact your team and damage your credibility. A good team reflects well on you, but issues can also reflect on you negatively. Success […]

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You’re only as good as your team; make sure to address difficult HR challenges quickly. If you don’t deal with difficult personnel challenges, they get worse over time, not better. They can impact your team and damage your credibility. A good team reflects well on you, but issues can also reflect on you negatively. Success today is about the people I work with more than it’s about me and what I do. So make sure that your team is a good one and be sure to catch potential problems early, before they have a chance to fester and become bigger issues.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stella Goulet CMO, of Avanade, where she leads Avanade’s marketing strategy and award-winning global marketing team. She is responsible for guiding the company’s image and market development through a period of high growth and significant change in the IT industry as businesses become increasingly digital. She is Avanade’s first CMO and a member of its executive leadership team. In her career, Stella has covered every marketing aspect of a business-to-business services firm: packaging and promoting solutions, field marketing, content and thought leadership development, branding, advertising, digital marketing, media and analyst relations, and marketing for major acquisitions. A strong proponent of diversity in the IT industry, she is executive sponsor of Avanade’s Prism Employee Resource Group (LGBT + inclusion), and is involved in activities designed to encourage girls and young women to consider careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Stella holds an MBA in Finance and International Business from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University and a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a Morehead-Cain Scholar.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I didn’t start out to be a marketer. Initially, I wanted to be a vet. As an undergrad, I majored in dramatic arts, and for a while, I thought I was going to be an investment banker. I took on my first marketing role when I was doing an MBA in Finance and International Business while working and taking my first course in Marketing at night. A business leader said to me, “We’re creating a new solution to fix the Year 2000 problem (aka the Y2K bug). I have $250,000. Come and do marketing for me.” And that’s how my global marketing career began.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your team?

At Avanade, my eyes were really opened to the importance of inclusion and diversity. The degree of complexity and the layers that come with inclusion and diversity were a key focus of our leadership on-boarding program. I was struck by that. That training was the first time I heard about inclusion, diversity, unconscious bias and other issues being discussed in such a structured and thoughtful way as well as in terms of their business impact. Diversity and inclusion are important to how we all succeed.

As I started to learn more over time, especially about the challenges for women in the workplace, I saw some of my own experiences during my career in a broader context. I realized that some incidents that I thought were specific to me were symptoms of a broader set of issues affecting women in the workplace. For example, women have a harder time being heard and recognized for their ideas. I think almost every woman has a story of a male co-worker repeating her ideas five minutes after she said them as though they were his own — and everyone agreeing that it’s a great idea! It can be a very frustrating experience. In those situations, it’s important for women to feel confident enough to chime in and claim their rightful credit. Everyone needs to feel heard and recognized in the workplace, because we all bring some unique perspectives that can help everyone around us succeed — not just as women, but as individuals.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For a big industry event in Barcelona, we decided to hire a mime to perform in our booth. The theme was the changing consumer. We envisioned the mime moving from being a child to an adult to an older person — reflecting that theme. But to our horror, rather than perform a mime, he started to change costumes on the public pedestal so that he looked more like a male stripper, which was definitely not what we had in mind. So we ended up sending him home.

It was an eye-opening experience about thinking outside the box (even the invisible box) and getting creative with guerrilla marketing ideas.

Lesson learned: Be creative but be careful, especially when using performers, and be sure to check out their act before hiring them!

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of C-Suite executive that most attracted you to it?

I love being able to have more impact on the business overall and bring a marketing perspective and advice to the business.

The culture of success at Avanade was also attractive. Compared with the challenges I’ve heard that other senior leaders have had when they join new companies, Avanade is unique. From the start, I was embraced and helped to succeed. Regardless of role and level of seniority, everyone’s been willing to share their knowledge and exchange ideas about how we can improve global marketing and the business at large.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As an executive, you have a view across the entire company, not just your own area of responsibility. And you’re involved in the company’s overall longer-term strategy. Executives also play an important role in developing leadership talent and helping people and teams thrive in change.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I really enjoy providing the space and inspiration for others to come up with innovative ideas and helping them find ways to achieve them. I’m always thrilled to see new thinking and ideas coming from our younger team members who are early in their careers. I appreciate being in a position to encourage them and help them put their ideas into action.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

There’s never enough time. There are always more things to be done, more opportunities to focus on, more challenges to address, and more things to celebrate than there’s time for.

In addition, there are so many good ideas out there, but we know we can’t do everything. So one of the downsides is having to say no to good ideas.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Being an executive doesn’t automatically mean you get perks like a fancy office.

And it doesn’t mean that you should be put on a pedestal. Sometimes people, especially at more junior levels, feel intimidated and think executives aren’t approachable. But people who are newer to the workforce often bring the freshest ideas. So, in fact, we want to hear from everyone, we want to hear their good ideas. It’s that diversity of ideas that helps breed success. At Avanade, we believe everyone counts — we embrace collaboration from all levels and realize everyone has something to offer. Fostering a culture of inclusion is really important to us. We want our employees to feel inspired, confident and cared for. I love it when people help me see things from a different perspective, particularly when that helps our team to succeed.

Those successes are often the thing that people want to highlight to an executive. And I absolutely want to hear about my team’s successes! But I also want to hear about their challenges and what they want or need for the future. It’s important to learn and share lessons about things that haven’t worked, as well as what has worked. If I’m not aware of the challenges my team is facing, I can’t help give them the right tools or information to overcome those challenges.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women still struggle to have their ideas heard and considered, particularly in a group setting.

And there are still occasions where, as a woman, you need to demonstrate your credibility. As I mentioned earlier, I think almost all women have had that experience of having a male co-worker repeat her ideas minutes later as though they were his own. I’m no exception. The first time it happened to me, I was actually already fairly senior. I realized that I could sit there and say nothing, or I could speak up, which would be incredibly uncomfortable. But I knew if I didn’t say anything, it would foster a dynamic where my ideas weren’t recognized and allow that dynamic to continue indefinitely. So I said something, and everyone was surprised because they didn’t realize it was happening.

Of course, not everyone will feel comfortable being so direct. But I would remind every woman in that situation that it only takes 20 seconds of bravery to speak up and start to make a change happen. But if you truly don’t feel you’d be able to do that, find some allies in the room. Can someone on the team say, “I’m not sure everyone heard what Amy said,” or “I think that builds really well on Paige’s idea from earlier”? If you’re in the room when it happens, even if it doesn’t happen to you directly, you can be the person to say something on someone else’s behalf. Find opportunities to be an ally to others. This helps reinforce inclusive team behavior, builds confidence and increases share of voice for women — or anyone else who struggles to be heard.

Second, I find that many women aren’t good about claiming and talking about their successes. Remember, if we claim our successes, others can’t claim them instead. We hold ourselves back and tend to focus on our failures. A man will raise his hand for something, even if he’s only got 50 to 60% of the requested skills. A woman is much less likely to raise her hand if she doesn’t have 100% of the skills mentioned. Put your hand up! Find ways to build your own job and bring the ideas that are unique to you to that job.

And finally, there still aren’t as many female role models in business as I’d like to see. I hope that’s changing and I, and Avanade, certainly aim to be a part of that.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

My expectations for the CMO role were on target. However, I didn’t anticipate all the additional opportunities that I could take advantage of — like being executive sponsor of our Prism LGBT+ Employee Resource Group and being involved in our corporate citizenship initiatives. I believe very strongly that inclusion and diversity are critical to success and innovation — both for individuals and enterprises. My role with Prism has been a wonderful opportunity for me to be a part of the effort to foster inclusion and diversity.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

In my experience, the top three traits that I think are crucial to success are:

  • Managing complexity and making something simple, practical and impactful from it
  • Managing change and helping others manage change
  • The ability to inspire and develop people and teams

I spend a lot of time on managing priorities and connecting the dots to help people understand the complex ideas we deal with every day and can get behind them. A strategy may be the right strategy, but if you don’t put a plan in place to enable an effective execution, your strategy won’t be very effective.

People who are happiest being individual contributors, who need things to be black and white, and who don’t do well with change may not be successful executives.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

My advice is the same as I would give to any leader. Inclusion is key — making sure you have people with differing points of view, that you’re supportive and that everyone is heard.

It’s about being able to effectively delegate and adapt your management style to different types of people on the team. Delegation is about more than getting things off your plate. It’s about asking the right people to do the right thing at the right time. It’s also a way to help them develop. Everyone has different skill sets, strengths and weaknesses and you have to find ways to manage to those different needs.

A few years ago, I was speaking about this at our leadership training and it made me think about the dog walking I was doing at our local shelter. Some dogs were really good walkers and would trot along happily beside me, constantly moving forward. Other dogs were more reactive — I had to help keep them going in the right direction, providing lots of course corrections, ensuring that they didn’t become overly excited and going all over the place. And there was one dog who could suddenly become catatonic and wouldn’t move for love nor money. I had to watch her closely and become a cheerleader in a split second if she looked like she might be thinking about lying down.

Just as different dogs’ personalities come out in their different walking styles, different people’s personalities respond best to different management styles. Some just need someone to point them in the right direction, while others need a lot of guidance and help to focus. Still others need a cheerleader to build their confidence and motivate them to help themselves. It’s important to adapt your management style to the needs of your team members so that you’re giving them the best chance of success.

At the same time, consistency is essential. Consistency in the way you treat people and teams, how you behave, how you operate, the way you make decisions. I can’t ask my teams to trust me and approach me with their challenges if they don’t know whether they’re going to get someone who will help them or shout at them. Your team needs to know what to expect; it’s hard to follow a leader who’s constantly changing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ll always be grateful to the executive who gave me my first marketing opportunity. He saw potential in me, even though I didn’t have experience. He had a growth mindset and recognized the importance of building strong teams and getting the best out of them.

When I took on that first marketing role, I was about 10 years younger than everyone else, I was the only woman on the team and I was brand new to marketing. But he allowed me to have the same voice as everyone else. His support as I went into new opportunities lent me the credibility and power I needed to succeed. He gave my ideas their due consideration and helped me to achieve my goals. That early support was essential to my success.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’m particularly proud to be the executive sponsor of Avanade’s Prism LGBT+ Employee Resource Group. I’ve always had close friends who identified as LGBT+ and I’ve been an LGBT+ ally for many years, so it was a natural fit.

LGBT+ inclusion is critical; it drives innovation by harnessing the power of diverse thinking. That’s good for our people, our clients and our business. Prism is an important part of Avanade’s overall commitment to inclusion and diversity. It’s dedicated to the principle that everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed. Prism supports inclusion and LGBT+ equality to help create change, foster community and drive results. The group offers a means to network and engage LGBT+ people and their allies and provides training, support and education.

I’ve also taken on a bigger role in our corporate citizenship efforts — I put my hand up to be the interim council chair. Many of our corporate citizenship initiatives are focused on tech-related programs, such as helping young people prepare for the future workforce, supporting women in STEM and providing technology support for nonprofits. These initiatives are connected to what we do as a business, but they’re also about doing the right thing and engaging our people.

In addition, I’ve gotten more involved with our Tech for Social Good program. Our goal is to become a trusted partner to nonprofit organizations and the social sector, helping them digitally transform and bringing about systemic change through the delivery of Microsoft technologies on a global scale.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. How important it is to be in a company with positive leadership. Working with positive leadership that supports you makes a huge difference in your success at any stage of your career. It has allowed me to be bolder than I otherwise would have been. For example, we recently did a brand refresh at Avanade. My colleagues and I discussed whether we should do a full refresh of our brand and identity or just tweak it a bit. While it was riskier, we decided to take the bolder option of a complete refresh, which has been the right choice for us.
  2. Ask for what you want. I was too patient at times in my career. If I had asked for what I wanted, I would have progressed quicker. But also know when to say no. There have been instances where people have wanted to give me more responsibilities. Had I said yes, it might have progressed things faster. But I didn’t feel I had the bandwidth to do both jobs well. Saying no to those additional responsibilities was absolutely right for my career, but it definitely felt like a risky move at the time!
  3. About the experiences of women in business and women leaders. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t understand that some of my experiences as a woman in business weren’t unique to me. It would have been helpful to understand that earlier. But on the flip side of that, would it have made me more timid to know that this experience was commonplace? I also wish I’d had a set of tools and ideas to help me deal with those problems faster instead of devising my own solutions one at a time.
  4. You don’t have to be good at everything; you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” and to ask for help. It can be hard to do this, especially if you want to seem confident and credible. It’s hard to say, “I don’t know but let me find out and come back to you,” but when people hear an executive do that, it’s good for the team as well. It reminds us that everyone is human and nobody has all the answers.
  5. You’re only as good as your team; make sure to address difficult HR challenges quickly. If you don’t deal with difficult personnel challenges, they get worse over time, not better. They can impact your team and damage your credibility. A good team reflects well on you, but issues can also reflect on you negatively. Success today is about the people I work with more than it’s about me and what I do. So make sure that your team is a good one and be sure to catch potential problems early, before they have a chance to fester and become bigger issues.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like to see us use artificial intelligence for good. For example, I’d love to have a digital double who can take care of the repetitive tasks like scheduling and answering emails, enabling me to focus on the things I really like and need to do.

I think we could all benefit from having a database that could attach to our brain, giving us easy access to all the information we need. That way, we could use our brains more effectively — for developing solutions, driving innovation, etc. Of course, that could also mean I’d never have to say “I don’t know” ever again.

But with the movement toward greater use of AI and data to improve lives, it’s crucial that they be used ethically. Avanade is actually a leader in the digital ethics field. We have a digital ethics task force, our executives regularly share their ideas on the topic at public forums and we recently ran a summit in conjunction with Northeastern University in Seattle. In that summit, we discussed the ethical use of data with a host of companies, including our competitors. It’s important we have a set of rules and laws to make sure we’re using that data ethically; that we’re using data for good and respecting people’s privacy at the same time.

Finally, I’d encourage everyone to bring their pets to work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There isn’t one quote that I live by, but I saw one recently that really resonated with me. It’s from Albert Einstein: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

We all need to be willing to try new things without worrying about failing. That becomes harder to do as you move higher in your career. You may already be successful, so you don’t want to jeopardize that success. And with greater responsibility and impact, a failure can have wider-reaching repercussions. But at the same time, the more successful you are in your career, the more credibility you’re likely to have, so failure may not be as damaging as you think.

For people just starting out in their career, failing can feel devastating. Avoiding failure can make people less inclined to take risks. But that’s how we learn. I think we have a tendency to dwell on our failures, particularly in our own heads. Instead, I encourage my teams to be open and share what didn’t work well, as well as what they’re proud of. Think about what worked and what didn’t, learn a lesson from that and move on to the next thing. I want to be sure that we’re reflecting on our success as much as our failure, both in our own heads and in business.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Michelle Obama. I had the good fortune to hear her speak at a Microsoft event, and I found her truly inspiring. She’s articulate, intelligent, and she doesn’t shy away from saying tough things, but she isn’t defensive or attacking her audience.

Jane Goodall. As an animal lover, I appreciate her efforts to protect animals and conserve the environment. I’d love to hear firsthand about her experiences working with primates in the jungle. I’ve always admired her. Maybe that’s not surprising since I originally wanted to be a vet.

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