Merrell’s Janice Tennant: “Getting to Bright”

Getting to Bright. Early on in your career there is a belief that there is a perfect answer, or perfect plan. However, what you realize is there are so many moving variables that the quest for perfection can be paralyzing. So how do you celebrate progress versus perfection, and the small steps you make to […]

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Getting to Bright. Early on in your career there is a belief that there is a perfect answer, or perfect plan. However, what you realize is there are so many moving variables that the quest for perfection can be paralyzing. So how do you celebrate progress versus perfection, and the small steps you make to bring your vision into focus and a little bit brighter.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Janice Tennant, Chief Marketing Officer at Merrell, is recognized for her passion for building brands that connect deeply with consumers. For over 15 years, she has grown globally acknowledged brands at PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark, and Wolverine Worldwide. Committed to building marketing teams with a culture based on curiosity, she continues to find new ways to lead the next generation of marketers through the labyrinth of the digital world. On weekends, you will find her hiking with her boys, hoping to inspire the next generation of outdoor change agents.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you for having me! My backstory is that I have always been passionate about marketing, even before I knew what it meant. As a child, not only was I fanatical about TV commercials how they captured your imagination, but I was equally passionate about starting businesses selling cakes, decorations, or custom shirts. I knew early on that I wanted to get my MBA, but I could not have imagined the interesting path that I have been on since then.

This journey has been fueled by two key questions that remain constant no matter the level and role: does this allow me to grow and work on something new, and does it allow me to drive change?

These questions have remained the same with every role I’ve had, whether it was working in brand management and new product innovation at PepsiCo, or integrated marketing and marketing training development at Kimberly Clark and of course, in my new role as CMO of Merrell.

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

Absolutely. A series of unfortunate incidents happened just as I started on the job at Merrell. I will always remember that on the first day, Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher, was harassed in Central Park because of the color of his skin. The next day, George Floyd’s story broke. So, from day one at Merrell, I’ve learned a lot about how the action we take at a corporate level intersects with the communities and the societies we touch. As a Black leader, and more importantly a mom of two Black sons, I watched this unfold in real time as I was reading my onboarding documents about the outdoor industry being 74% white. This brought a sense of cognitive dissonance that I knew I would need to change.

Now, more than ever, brand and marketing leaders have a real responsibly to internalize, understand, and drive societal change and have real purpose in what they do. This first-day experience brought a sense of urgency to what I hope to accomplish at Merrell, and to the legacy I hope to leave for my Black sons.

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 often think about one of my early business ventures in high school trying to sell t-shirts. My goal was to sell high-quality, custom-designed shirts at a big summer street festival in Toronto to earn enough money to pay for my upcoming college tuition. But I got everything wrong. First, the location of my booth was at a dead end of the festival path and although hundreds of thousands of people attended, only a few hundred even got close to the booth. Second, the shirts I made were great quality and priced accordingly, but consumers just wanted inexpensive mementos. Third, where my custom-designed shirts had messages of hope, these were out of place for the whimsical and light-hearted festivities of the day. Finally, I was too shy to tell my story. I got the worst case of stage fright, while other vendors were shouting and hawking their wares. I sold a total of 5 shirts that day. My parents and I still laugh about the experience. What it all boiled down to is that I didn’t know the consumer I was targeting at the festival. It’s the reason that I am so consumer-obsessed today and try to inhabit the lives of our consumers, no matter what brand or category I work on. It’s a lesson that is burned into me and I keep a few of those shirts as a reminder.

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 really don’t know where I would be without mentorship; it is my recharging station when I need inspiration, clarity, and tough love. But it’s not just about any one person. I have a network of people to lean on who provide different levels of guidance based on their expertise, life experience, and leadership style. For example, Phil Gardham, who is an SVP at Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance, has known me since I was in high school and knows my weaknesses and blind spots. Colleen Fahey at Sixème Son, who I met through Menttium’s formal mentoring program, coaches me to nurture my whole self as a working mom. Clive Sirkin has been a creative marketing inspiration to me and a reminder about the power of big ideas that motivate consumers. Then I have my “Council of Cousins”, who are leaders at Microsoft, Universal Music, various non-profits, in the medical professions, and in city operations. All these people work in different businesses and industries, but they bring an outsider view and perspective that helps me move forward.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Running also continues to be another outlet for stress release. Whenever I’m struggling with a difficult problem or business challenge, I’ll go for a 20-minute run. Even though it’s short, I find that running expands my thinking. I return inspired and more creative. This is why I am passionate about Merrell’s brand purpose: to share the simple power of being outside. I have been living this for over 30 years, and my role at Merrell gives me the chance to bring this to others.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Without true diversity, organizations are operating with blinders. Without taking steps to hire, and especially to foster, a diverse team that is empowered, management sees only what lies directly ahead, and will miss other opportunities for growth and connection with consumers. This is even more important today with a new generation of consumers who expect brands and business to respond more quickly and be more values driven.

The only way to work through that is to bring out and encourage different perspectives to the table as your organization and brand is building the strategies and plans that drive the direction of the business.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

One thing we can do as business leaders is to be conscious about “experiential gatekeeping” of diverse talent. One way this occurs is by putting qualifications guardrails on job requirements. For example, when companies have a job requirement for “outdoor experience” in my industry, they overtly signal to and limit the size of a diverse candidate pool, even if that is not critical to the function or role. We need to carefully question the assumptions that “only someone with this specific experience can succeed”, and how meaningful it is to do the job.

The second way this gatekeeping occurs is by relegating undesirable assignments, lower-impact activities or even not business-relevant projects to these new team leaders. As a result, they are not in contention when new growth opportunities open up. It’s a Catch-22. As leaders, we need to make sure that all individuals on our teams are getting assigned relevant projects and experiences that enable their professional growth. This means looking carefully at their performance objectives and projects and ensuring they include “experiential accelerators”: challenging projects that contribute significantly to the business and give them increased exposure to more senior leadership. That is the best way to ensure they are ready to step into future leadership roles and be empowered to use their diversity of experience to drive change.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CMO or 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 a CMO, I spend a lot of my time thinking strategically about how to drive growth on the brand through building our core business and by finding new spaces to innovate in. The rest of my time is focused on helping to support my team as they bring these plans to life. This involves really understanding the operations of the business from end-to-end and how the impacts our consumer experience.

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

On several occasions, I have had mentees say it must be great to be the CMO, where you get to call all the shots. What I think people don’t realize is that there are always stakeholders. And even if you could call all the shots, you don’t want to call all the shots. As an executive you want to hear other perspectives, because you may be blind to the realities of the consumer or the operations across the globe.

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

One of the biggest challenges goes back to the idea around experience gatekeeping, but the issues I mentioned before come up in a different way. I see women limiting themselves and putting self-imposed barriers on their career development. I cannot count how many times I have had female mentees tell me about jobs they were not going to apply for because they did not check 100% of the qualifications listed. As women, we need to throw our names into the hat more often, and for roles that are “stretch roles”, as uncomfortable as it might be. Secondly, we then need to advocate for ourselves to get these roles by better articulating how our experiences are in fact transferable to the new opportunities.

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? Can you explain what you mean?

One key trait is having a deep sense of curiosity and a growth mindset. A curiosity about your consumers, your teams, category, or whatever. If you’re stuck in the way things are and have been, as your industry and competitive landscape changes, you can and will be left behind. Being able to set a vision for the future is critical.

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

First, really make sure that you understand your team’s strengths and passions and how you can align them to the business objectives. So many people on our teams have hidden talents that often go untapped.

Second, find a way make sure your team is encouraged to explore their curiosity in the context of real business challenges. I have seen incredible growth in short spans of time, just by doing these two simple things.

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

1. Getting to Bright. Early on in your career there is a belief that there is a perfect answer, or perfect plan. However, what you realize is there are so many moving variables that the quest for perfection can be paralyzing. So how do you celebrate progress versus perfection, and the small steps you make to bring your vision into focus and a little bit brighter.

2. Move beyond the idea. Having the idea isn’t enough. Your success as a leader is making the idea a reality and bringing it to life. That’s where the hard work comes in. Watching a spark of an idea come to life is really the true joy of marketing.

3. Walk in your partner’s shoes. Your success is dependent on the partnerships across functions, regions, and organizations. Taking the time to understand the challenges and opportunities that your partners are facing and bridging the gap for win-win solutions is key. It can sometimes be difficult because of time and distance, but going in with a positive intent to win together is how we drive change.

4. You need to love what you do. I love the art and science of marketing; for me, it’s energizing.Your brain is always on, you’re constantly immersed in the space; you need to love marketing. If you’re checking the box in the CMO role and going through the motions, you will just burn out.

5. Have an understanding of global business dynamics. This is critical. In a leadership role, you must understand global consumers, competition, and category dynamics. Even if you’re leading what looks like a domestic business, today more than ever, supply chain infrastructure operates on a global level. For many, COVID-19 has shed a glaring light on this.

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

Richard Branson. As a kid I remember lying in front of the TV watching a segment on him on 60 Minutes. I too struggled with reading and was always working on different start-up businesses, so there was something in his life journey that gave me hope for myself and I would thank him for that.

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