You will fail and it won’t feel good, but what is most important is that you learn quickly from it. For example, I had a difficult on-boarding with one of my corporate relocations. It was a new job, new home and new city. I was the mother of two young children ages 13 months and 3 ½. I thought my husband would relocate with us, but unexpected events occurred, and I found myself living alone with the two girls in a temporary apartment trying to ramp up at work while looking for a house to buy. I was only able to work 8–5 due to childcare. I couldn’t invest the time needed to make a great impression in those crucial first interactions and my career suffered a setback that took me almost a year to recover. However — it helped me understand how to prioritize and balance what was important to me, and showed me that I was much stronger than I gave myself credit for!
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Huet. Melanie Huet is the Chief Marketing Officer of Serta Simmons Bedding, a market-leading bedding company. Melanie leads SSB’s evolution to becoming a more consumer-centric company and directs the Marketing, Innovation and Customer Experience divisions focused on delivering breakthrough innovation, strengthening the house of brands and growing portfolio revenue. In just six months, Melanie restructured the organization and innovation process delivering the iComfort by Serta launch that shocked the industry with its speed to market, extensive consumer research and top scoring advertising campaign.
Thank you so much for joining us Melanie. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up, I always had a fascination with advertising. I looked very hard for a degree in advertising, but it didn’t really exist when I was applying to college. I decided journalism was a close enough fit and I pursued that instead. After spending a few years working in the advertising industry, I realized that I wanted to be able to influence all elements of a business, not just one slice of the pie. I pursued and received a master’s in business from the University of Rochester and for the past two decades have held various roles in marketing. Earlier this year, I joined Serta Simmons Bedding as the Chief Marketing Officer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was at the Furniture Today Bedding Conference. I was still relatively new at Serta Simmons Bedding, and I did not know many people yet. I sat down for breakfast and a really nice man sat next to me. He said, “You don’t know me, but I work for one of your largest suppliers.” He then said, “I hear you are a person I can trust.” After that, he began to tell me many things Serta Simmons Bedding could do to improve its performance.
I listened carefully and took in his thoughtful ideas. One in particular stuck out to me — our company was slow to create and launch new, innovative products. After that conversation, I was inspired. In a taxi ride to the airport with our Chief Sales Officer, Derek Miller, and the Serta brand’s VP of Marketing, Onney Crawley, we decided to move up the launch date of our new iComfort line from February 2020 to October 2019.
Now the launch is in full swing and it has been a tremendous morale boost for our employees. This was the first line that capitalized on the data captured from our newly implemented consumer insights team — our research showed that 59% of people have difficulty sleeping because of a hot mattress, which is why we decided to develop a self-cooling mattress line to specifically meet those needs. We proved to ourselves and the industry that we could be quick to market while delivering on a quality product that consumers actually want.
That conversation at the conference was pivotal in driving change within our company. Today, we have the right team in place to be creative, strategic, nimble — ultimately giving us the capability to continue to innovate and launch new products outside of the industry’s traditional two-year cycle.
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 will never forget this mistake I made a few years ago. I was leading a meeting as the most junior person in the room (as a Director) while the other attendees were Vice Presidents, Presidents and Group Presidents. I came prepared with an established objective and key points. I started walking the group through some of the details so that we could align on an outcome, but two of the leaders got off on a tangent. I did not interrupt them because I thought that would be rude.
After the meeting, I was told that it didn’t go well, and it was my responsibility to lead the meeting and keep the discussion on track. At first, I was shocked and in disbelief. But after a few days I realized that regardless of title, when it is your meeting, you must lead that meeting. There were several ways I could have politely interjected to stay on course. It was a good lesson for me regarding accountability.
What is it about the position of CMO that most attracted you to it?
I thrive on the ability to drive a turnaround and the CMO role can be at the center of a company’s new vision and strategy. When I came to Serta Simmons Bedding, I had a clear vision and a lot of energy. I knew the bedding industry had been disrupted, and we needed to quickly evolve with a long-term innovation strategy to better meet consumer needs. Today, Serta Simmons Bedding is an omni-channel, consumer-centric company that is dynamically positioned to continue delivering a sleep experience that no one else can, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.
Can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As an executive, you are always on display and there is less forgiveness for your mistakes. It’s important to understand the power of your title and not to misuse it.
Often times when people approach me, they are so nervous that it shows across their face and in their body language. I try to put them at ease. It is a good reminder of how I felt when I was at the bottom rung and interacted with a top executive. The stakes are high for that individual, and they want it to be a perfect engagement. That said, it also puts tremendous pressure on the executive to find the right words and be considerate in how comments are delivered to ensure the team grows and stays motivated.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I get the most happiness and satisfaction when I can do things that make the team or an individual happy, such as having the privilege of handing out bonuses, promoting top talent, hiring new talent or having a party to celebrate and recognize the team’s achievements.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
For me, the downsides are few, but the main one would be having to be constantly switched on and ready to go. The company needs you at your best and team members expect and deserve your full engagement when you are with them. It’s important to provide that in every interaction.
That said, in order to bring your best self to work every day, you need to make taking care of your health a priority — including sleeping the proper amount, maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that executive travel is luxurious. I often hear this from friends and family that don’t have exposure working with executives at this level — when in fact, it can be super exhausting! The schedules are brutal with very little down time to sleep, long days followed by longer dinners, emails to return and calls piling up.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge faced by women executives is that they need to hold back on emotion or they are quickly labeled. It’s important to be very balanced and be aware that men can display anger and it’s positive, a sign of tough leadership. If a woman exhibited the same behavior it might be considered a negative — so it’s important, as an executive in general, to be able to read the room, articulate your opinion concisely and maintain a level of professionalism in all interactions.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I spend more time focusing on people and HR than I ever expected! But that’s a good thing — getting the right team in place and coaching the team you have is critical for the success of everyone.
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?
Successful executives are built with an inner drive. They will push themselves and never require anyone to push them. It can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. Other traits that increase your chance of success are being a good listener, perseverance and being coachable.
People that should avoid aspiring to be an executive would be those that have low self-awareness, see feedback as criticism and are unable to build relationships with team members.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Set your team up for success. Help prepare them before a big event or do the soft pre-sell before a meeting to help ensure they get the alignment they are seeking.
Women should make an extra effort to help diverse talent lower in the organization rise. Many of them are without mentorship. Helping talent find a mentor and showing support for their growth is critical.
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?
There are many and I would like to thank all of them. One person in particular who is very special to me is Jane Goldfine. Jane and I met each other at the Women’s Unlimited leadership practice. I was there for leadership development training and she was my sponsor. We got along very well, and I asked her to become my executive coach.
As my coach, Jane delivered some difficult feedback to me but she did it in a way that I could receive it and grow from it. I am eternally grateful to Jane, as that was a turning point in my career. We are still friends to this day.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I try to pay it forward whenever the opportunity presents itself. I had the opportunity recently to help a dear friend who was laid off from her job. As a single mother of two children, the layoff was very worrisome because she didn’t have much in savings and the severance was a short time period. I leveraged my own experience to help her with her resume and interviewing. She not only needed a friend, but someone that believed in her, which I did.
Many things happened and the story has a happy ending. She landed a new job in the right amount of time that paid significantly more than she was previously earning. Not only were things fine, they were much better. She gave me a Thank You note I will treasure forever.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- One of the main keys to success is perseverance. You must be tough enough to stick it out.
- You will fail and it won’t feel good, but what is most important is that you learn quickly from it. For example, I had a difficult on-boarding with one of my corporate relocations. It was a new job, new home and new city. I was the mother of two young children ages 13 months and 3 ½. I thought my husband would relocate with us, but unexpected events occurred, and I found myself living alone with the two girls in a temporary apartment trying to ramp up at work while looking for a house to buy. I was only able to work 8–5 due to childcare. I couldn’t invest the time needed to make a great impression in those crucial first interactions and my career suffered a setback that took me almost a year to recover. However — it helped me understand how to prioritize and balance what was important to me, and showed me that I was much stronger than I gave myself credit for!
- Learn your boss’s management style — everyone leads differently, and this will help you learn how to deliver your best work while meeting different expectations.
- If you aren’t getting along with someone, it may be your own fault. Take a step back and understand how you might change your approach to fix the relationship. I was very frustrated with a co-worker that never planned and made her fire drills our fire drills. She and I had a particularly rough time of it one day and I decided to talk to her and address the areas of frustration. It was a great talk and what I learned in that conversation was that there were things I could be doing to help her more. The fire drills ended, and we became great partners at work.
- Make sure you understand how you are perceived by others.
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 would want to ensure that every child has a safe, happy home that fosters a learning environment and sets the child up to become his/her very best self. Too many children suffer and are stuck in an environment they can’t escape. It makes me very sad to see this. Everyone deserves love, happiness and an education.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. I believe happiness in many ways is a choice. I make a point every day to make it a good day.
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.
Mary Barra at GM. She is one impressive lady to rise all the way to the top of an automobile company. I could spend all day listening to how she did and what she learned.