A major truism that I learned is that in high-growth environments, the biggest thing you are fighting is time. Yes, there will be competitors around you because without that, there isn’t a market. But the most important thing is time. You need to learn how to be efficient and productive because you can’t buy time.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Styres, Chief Marketing Officer at FM:Systems.
As Chief Marketing Officer for FM:Systems, a workplace management technology company that helps more than 1400 organizations manage over 3 billion square feet across 80 countries, Karen oversees all aspects of the global marketing and business development. She has been leading innovative marketing teams for over 25 years, with a focus on driving growth for emerging technology companies. Karen earned her MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and her BBA from University of Kentucky.
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 am one of seven children so I learned pretty quickly to make sure your voice is heard in a reasonable, pragmatic and harmonious way or “else you will get beat up by your brothers.” I also learned to be productive — a highly crucial skill for small companies.
Fast forward to while I was in graduate school, I interned at Clorox where I focused on consumer product background and grew more interested in strategic execution. After school, I was reeled into a tech startup working in the Bay Area that was eventually bought out by IBM. I discovered that for its size, the company was remarkably efficiently runand the processes were super integrated. Every single product launched had to be approved by 89 people around the world. That sounds like a crazy waste of time — but with such a big company, it’s key to make sure there are zero conflicts with sister divisions and that people around the world were aware of new products hitting the market. I learned so much about every element needed to scale an organization. IBM is also great at developing management skills that carry well at small companies where the main attribute is your people. By the time I left IBM, I was running marketing for the telecom applications division.
From there, I found myself in the first of numerous private high-growth startups companies, driving them to go public with a smart marketing strategy. With a running history of four IPOs and two acquisitions behind me, FM:Systems is the eighth company I am propelling forward. What I like about startups is that you can see the difference your team makes. A broad market perspective combined with cross-functional and cross-industry experience enables me to visualize prime go-to-market opportunities and strategies that accelerate repeatable and scalable growth. My leadership style has also been recognized for building highly effective, motivated teams upwards of more than 75 people across six different functional groups that produced extraordinary results. Most notably, my teams and I led four early-stage software companies that IPO’d as well as one company that was acquired by Dunn & Bradstreet and another acquired by Vignette (now OpenText). Recently, I led Global Field and Customer Marketing for OutSystems, a Lisbon-based application development platform vendor.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
For me, this would be the entire COVID-19 situation. I was new to facilities management when I joined FM:Systems and was still getting up to speed as the coronavirus hit. The impact of working from home and safe return to the office has given me a greater appreciation for FM:Systems overall, as well as the importance facilities managers play in keeping the workforce healthy, safe and productive. Technology and best practices make a difference!
As a Marketing department leader, I needed to be able to go with the flow. Being a small high growth company, you never know what’s around the corner and need to be prepared for anything. I discovered throughout the course of my career, your biggest competitor is not another business but time.
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?
The story that stands out is about my first CMO Board of Directors presentation early on in my career. I dressed professionally and carefully glanced at my notes while looking each person in the eye to make sure I correctly connected with them all individually. In the process, I tripped on a cord and almost fell into a senior Board member’s lap. After collecting myself and apologizing, I said something like: “I normally don’t go out of my way to make such a dramatic entrance, but now you really know who I am and you’re ready to hear what I’m presenting.” I learned the valuable lesson of being real and brushing things off with humor. Many months later, one of the Board members told me that he was impressed with how I handled the situation and it was a situation I used to further connect with them. So, while it wasn’t funny in the moment, it ended up working out for the best. And taught me to just be me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I like being in the CMO position because of the connection and impact on other C positions. I feel that this role has the broadest touch in the company. When I look around at my peers, I connect with more people and work with teams in sales, product and finance. Marketing is the bridge across the organization and allows me to understand what’s happening throughout the company. It has the most visibility and therefore the opportunity to have the most impact.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO 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?
A CMO has to be a visionary. They must see what’s going on in the market and project where the market is going. You have to see where your buying audience is taking their business and be on top of it. It’s also vital to be comfortable in doing things that are new and first for the company. The ability to put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and translate that into words that product, sales, and partners understand. This is essentially translating the various value propositions of different personas effectively. You must perceive the needs of clients and project them in a meaningful way.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
The one thing I enjoy most about my role is the people. When I look across the company, not just my team, I have the opportunity to interact with various individuals all with a two-way street of feedback. Marketing is relatable to everyone in the company and every team offers an open door conversation that allows me to learn something new. For example, engineers may speak to me regarding the technical insight of the product. With my marketing background, I help rewrite their jargon in a meaningful way for the end-users.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The downside to being an executive is that everybody thinks they know how to do marketing. This becomes a double-edged sword.
I’ve heard everything from “I buy stuff” to “I know what people are buying” to “let’s just change the website to look like this”. I hear things like this a lot but marketing is an art and a science combined. To be successful, it’s very data-driven and that’s a side to the field that a lot of folks don’t understand.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the biggest myths is that people think that marketing is simply about creating pretty digital ads, cool-looking emails, and having nice trade show booths. Truly, successful marketing today is a data-driven combination of science and art. The consumer side has always been good about embracing this mix but it’s a newer concept for B2B. My undergrad degrees were a combination of marketing and statistics so I know the importance of data and how valuable it is to an effective marketing campaign.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I had three brothers and an early career in the Bay Area so I would say I was pretty lucky dealing with male counterparts. I didn’t see males as “different” or maybe I knew how to bulldoze my way in. After having my first child, I had a manager who kept saying “someone else can travel for you” which is a big part of a marketing professional’s job. Was he trying to be nice and support a new parent? Maybe. Sure. But it felt as if he thought that with a child at home, I couldn’t do my job. At that time, I wasn’t seeing my male colleagues with children and having to face this same level of questioning. What I have learned over time is the importance of developing friendships as well as respect with your peers — personally and professionally — and getting to know your male colleagues as people to build a balanced relationship. It’s also important to remain factual and pragmatic with collaborative approachability. Fortunately, the world is evolving to be more accepting of women leaders.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When joining FM:Systems, I thought facility management technology would be intriguing and value add, but with COVID things have really escalated. The industry is much busier now and I’m giving more attention to people who are looking for answers about facility management solutions in our new world. These answers are less about the job and more about what’s happened in the marketplace to help ensure safe reentry to the workplace with technology and best practices. I’ve learned how to weave the workplace solutions importance into our plethora of marketing programs as I attempt to drive big leaps and move the industry forward.
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?
To be a successful executive, It all comes down to interpersonal leadership. That’s true of all C-suite, not just CMO. If you are good at motivating people and identifying and developing talent, you will be a winner.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I keep coming back to this, it’s all about the people. Help them thrive by building and maintaining an open environment that’s fully transparent. Respectful communication is key. Many want to move a company forward to meet business goals and be growth-driven, but you can’t do this without the right people. If people are successful, the company is successful. I have to be able to trust my people and make sure they have the tools to be successful. Fostering an environment where they can come to me with ideas and issues is key. But beware, it’s not micro-management — that can tremendously hinder company growth.
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?
My mom, a mother of seven kids, was very driven intellectually and professionally. She went to college, raised my siblings and I while managing to cover part-time door-to-door sales. When my dad passed away in her early 50s, she went after and landed a job in noise analytics for the Air Force, identifying and analyzing flight and landing patterns. At a point in time when many of her peers were thinking about retirement, she learned a brand new skill, made a difference in her job and was proud of telling people that she got her last paycheck at 83. She passed on to me the mindset of “I can do it.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In my first job as part of an executive development program at a high tech company, I found out that the men in the program were getting paid 35 percent more than the females. At our year one review, I was ranked as the program’s top performer and naturally, this didn’t set well with me. Though I felt that I shouldn’t have had to say anything, I did and fortunately, the women’s pay was put on par with the men’s. This may not seem like a “world” problem, but it’s definitely an issue in the workplace world.
I also offer pro-bono work and volunteer with different university entrepreneur programs and local incubator programs, where I review business plans and provide business advice to help others grow their organizations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The importance of a work/life balance. It’s very easy in small companies to not have a stop time which can impact you personally. At one point in my career, I was traveling 75 percent of the time internationally and stopped working out. Shockingly, I had a heart attack. I learned the hard way that not having a work-life balance can be hard on you physically as well as your relationships. There are no “give backs” to past moments in your life but you can draw a line and find your balance. You’ll find that balance allows you to be more successful to your company and your team.
- It’s really easy to blame it on the company and company environment but boundaries are up to you. I worked long hours at small companies as well as at IBM. But, it wasn’t IBM telling me to put in this time or driving me to work on weekends, it was coming from ME — which means you have more control than you may think.
- It’s easy to find yourself in a place where you know that it’s not where you want it to be. You keep trying to change it when you know in your heart it’s not the right fit. When this happens, it’s time to leave and find a better fit somewhere else. I was at a SMB company when they changed investors and brought in a new CEO. The culture changed dramatically and I could not seem to find my fit. I tried to stay to be a positive voice for my team but it was too hard trying to force something. Stay true to yourself. It’s better for you and your company.
- A major truism that I learned is that in high-growth environments, the biggest thing you are fighting is time. Yes, there will be competitors around you because without that, there isn’t a market. But the most important thing is time. You need to learn how to be efficient and productive because you can’t buy time.
- Enjoy the people you work with. This is a two-way street. Be a respectful, caring person. It’s easy to blame others for a poor work experience but did you try? Make sure to have fun with your colleagues because you spend a lot of time at work, even with good work/life balance!
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.
In the days of COVID, can I say world peace? Hah. I am a big, firm believer in hiring the right people for the job and providing equal opportunities to have wonderful professional experiences. It would make the world a better place by empowering people to build and support successful companies — bringing in whoever is the best from wherever — overall creating a better world for everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As the sixth of seven children, I was taught early in my life to work hard, be part of the team and pull my share or more. However, leadership is more than just being excellent at your job or having deep experience. Leadership is all about your team and helping those individuals be the best they can be so that the organization, in turn, can be the best it can be.
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets people to do the greatest things.” — Ronald Regan
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” — Peter Drucker
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
Elon Musk. His ideas and the way he executes fearlessly are game-changing. I can’t imagine how he comes up with some of the ideas he comes up with.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.