Kamie Eckert of Royal Canin USA: “I have much more energy to give to my team, my work, and my family when I am not trying to shape myself into a mold that doesn’t fit”

Be yourself. Everyone says this and it sounds easy, but the truth is we come into roles with ideas about how we are supposed to do things. What I have found is that I have much more energy to give to my team, my work, and my family when I am not trying to shape […]

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Be yourself. Everyone says this and it sounds easy, but the truth is we come into roles with ideas about how we are supposed to do things. What I have found is that I have much more energy to give to my team, my work, and my family when I am not trying to shape myself into a mold that doesn’t fit. I have also found that by doing so it gives others permission to be their authentic selves too. This creates a great team dynamic because each person saves their energy for the really important things.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kamie Eckert. Kamie is the President and General Manager of Royal Canin USA — one of Mars Incorporated’s billion dollar global brands, and a global leader in pet health nutrition headquartered in St. Charles, Missouri. As President and General Manager, Eckert oversees more than 1,000 Associates across multiple locations in the United States. Eckert’s work ethic and passion for pets has made for a tremendous career at Royal Canin. She began in 2013 when she was hired as Director of eBusiness and eCommerce, helping take the company into the world of online sales for the first time with the launch of B2B eCommerce, a B2C website platform and establishing a company-wide CRM system. In 2015, Eckert was promoted to Vice President of Omni Channel Sales, overseeing the integration of strategy across multiple customer groups and in 2016, her role was expanded to Chief Customer Officer rounding out her leadership experience across the areas of the business with the brand’s veterinary business and largest corporate customer base. Under Eckert’s leadership the business experienced tremendous sales growth. Eckert was instrumental in the development of a partnership between Royal Canin and the American Kennel Club, which allowed the brand to become the primary partner of the nation’s most prestigious dog show, the AKC National Championship. Through this partnership, Eckert was able to bring the competition back to national television for the first time in years. But it’s not just dogs in the heart and on her mind, in 2016, she helped to bring awareness of the cat health crisis in America by launching Take Your Cat to the Vet Day — a partnership between industry leaders and veterinarians to encourage consumers to seek routine veterinary care for their cats. Prior to joining Royal Canin, she held roles at Calphalon (a division of Newell Rubbermaid) and Macy’s (formerly May Department Stores). Eckert, her husband Kent, and two sons, Grant and Kordell reside in Chesterfield, Missouri, along with two Golden Retrievers, Baxter and Bogey.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Kamie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My desire to join the pet industry was truly luck that the right opportunity arose at the right time. I was watching our Golden Retriever suffer from cancer, which was heart wrenching on our family. Additionally, another family member had just passed away, and her connection to her dog had been so strong that it really reinforced that pets bring an amazing gift, and their ability to bring out emotions in people is incredible. My heart was in a tender spot, so when the offer for a role at Royal Canin came, it just seemed like it was meant to be. Royal Canin has allowed me to lend my e-commerce expertise in an industry that was underutilizing online platforms to connect with key customers. I feel so lucky that all of the stars aligned and I was able to find an industry and company that is so clear in its purpose and passion.

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

Just a few months after taking over this role, our entire company globally was affected by a cyberattack that had a tremendous impact on all of our systems, including our manufacturing capabilities. After the initial shock wore off, we immediately jumped into action to determine how to best meet the needs of our Associates and the cats and dogs we serve. I was so proud to see our entire organization’s commitment to the business and dedication to doing the right thing even in the face of adversity. One of the critical challenges we faced was what products to manufacture first. Most businesses would look at sales data and produce the diets that are the biggest sellers. Instead, we evaluated the pets’ needs and prioritized SKUs that were critical to pet health, including feline Renal diets, before our largest sellers.

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?

I am sure my team can tell you plenty of funny stories! Probably one of the more entertaining ones was the day our team wanted to do a photo shoot of me with my Golden Retrievers. I am much more comfortable behind a spreadsheet than in front of a camera, so trying to get two 70 pound dogs to sit pretty in a room full of people with toys and treats got plenty of laughs I am not sure if we actually got any really good pictures, but dogs make our days fun every day!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Royal Canin is proud of our entire innovation process: from putting cats and dogs at the center of all innovation to adhering to science and research rather than trends. We know that cats and dogs have unique nutritional needs based on age, breed, lifestage, and size, so we aim to develop tailored nutrition for each individual pet. For over 50 years, this has been our approach, and it will not change. One of our most recent products that was developed through this process is the ICU range, a complete liquid diet range specifically formulated for tube feeding to help veterinarians manage cats and dogs in critical conditions. I love that even though this will never be considered a commercial success, we develop diets that hold value far beyond sales.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are constantly innovating, developing precise nutrition for the cats and dogs that we all love. The ability to provide premium options for both healthy pets and those that can benefit from a veterinary-exclusive diet is what makes me so proud to lead this business. Our innovation benefits the pets but also the people who care so much about them, and we are proud to consistently bring new products to market, grounded in science and research. We are also on a mission to help pet owners understand the unique needs of their specific pet and how the right nutrition brings out the best in their pet through great health.

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

One of the topics I have a chance to talk to other leaders about is having it all. Early in my career another woman told me that you can have it all, you just cannot have it all at once. That message really resonated with me throughout my career and I think it is just as impactful to men as it is to women. We all have to juggle life and that feels like permission to pause where you are sometimes to make sure all parts of your life stay in balance.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Be yourself. Everyone says this and it sounds easy, but the truth is we come into roles with ideas about how we are supposed to do things. What I have found is that I have much more energy to give to my team, my work, and my family when I am not trying to shape myself into a mold that doesn’t fit, I have also found that by doing so it gives others permission to be their authentic selves too. This creates a great team dynamic because each person saves their energy for the really important things.

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 consider myself very lucky that I don’t have a “most” influential role model — I have many. This has allowed me to learn and leverage different styles through their mentoring and coaching. One of the greatest gifts I have been given through their influence is the development of my leadership style in a manner that allows me to lead with authenticity. This started with mentors at May Company and most recently while reporting into Keith Levy, former President of Royal Canin USA. He was a key person in my development and guided me to believe that you can be more than what you see for yourself. He showed me where I could go even when I wasn’t looking for this path forward.

While I embrace the journey of continuous learning and development, I do believe it starts at home. I had very supportive parents who encouraged me to take chances and do my best. It was a great balance of a dad telling me that I can do anything and my mom interjecting to ask if I knew what I was doing! My roots and encouragement from early on allowed me to seek the people who would take the time to teach me, to push me, and ultimately to better me in my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have a unique opportunity to influence and encourage other women in their careers. It would be easy to only give guidance on the importance of mentors and taking chances, but the message I am most proud of sharing is far different. I call it “letting the messy show.” Early in my career, all of the women I saw in senior leadership roles, and there were very few, came across extremely polished and detached from their personal lives. It always seemed like that was an impossible standard. When we show up in our professional lives and don’t try to make all the other parts of our world look perfect, we let others know that they too can juggle the messy stuff and the work demands. We all have messy lives, with sick kids or aging parents, and as a mom of two boys and two dogs I know something about this!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You have to learn to take feedback before you can give feedback. We sometimes joke that feedback is like socks, everybody needs them, but it’s not necessarily the gift you want for Christmas. It is really later in my career that I realized that you have to give someone permission to give you guidance that really helps you grow. Up until that point people will dance around things that would make you better, but telling you the important stuff is really tough, and it takes lot of care and trust to invest in that type of partnership with someone.
  2. Figure out what drives you personally and always look for that in your next role. For me that is learning. I have taken many roles in my career that were lateral moves to learn something new. It certainly isn’t the quickest way to a senior role, but the time you spend on your professional life should fulfill you in as many ways as possible.
  3. Multi-functional experiences make you a better team member and leader. The knowledge of how others’ functions work allows you to have an empathy and offer real support and help. More importantly, having an enterprise perspective expands your leadership and strategic thinking. My experience working for Mars, a company that values cross-functional learning, has truly allowed me to expand my breadth of knowledge as I continue to progress in my career.
  4. Lead the men on your team the same as the women. It is funny because we get a lot of advice on what women need to be successful, but what I have found is that empowering men to be their more authentic selves makes them better leaders. I am fortunate to work for a company like Mars that offers paternity leave as well as maternity leave. I regularly make the men on my team take the time. First, I have been the wife after having a baby, and those men need to be around! Additionally, it sends a strong message to the women and men on their teams and empowers them to take the time they deserve with their families. Subtle things like this make a difference in creating an inclusive culture.
  5. Take on the toughest job you can to learn and grow. I have always found that taking on roles that are not defined or broken have given me the dual benefit of a great growth opportunity and have built my reputation at the same time. I always looked at it from a lens of “If no one has done it before, why not me?”, and “If it is broken, then someone else hasn’t figured it out yet either, so why not me?” This has let me learn and grow in ways that I couldn’t have scripted had I been plotting my career along a known path.

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

I would start a movement in college to let women know that their careers can accelerate after 40. We often feel like we are racing against the clock to do everything we can: find a partner, buy a house, have a child, and the list goes on. The reality for me has been that leaning in to my career after my youngest son was in elementary school has given me tremendous opportunities. Each person has to carve his or her own path, but maturity gives you a sense of confidence and patience that may not be as developed as when they were younger. These last 10 years have been the best of my career.

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

“You can have it all, you just cannot have it all at once.” It really helps me maintain perspective that everything is a season that will evolve. This perspective gives me permission to focus on one area that needs more attention, and reminds me that it isn’t a failure or shortcoming. It also gives me the space to work through the tough or special times in my personal life with the knowledge that I will be able to re-engage in the career that I love in the next season.

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Wow. I just had five names run through my head. If I were picking just one it would be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I think her intellect, poise and accomplishments are inspiring and would cherish her insights on balancing it all. I love that she has embraced a lifetime of learning and leaning into a professional career, and I am sure there is wisdom she could share along with some fascinating stories!

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