Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Barbara: Growing up I went by “Barbi.” No “e.” My mother claimed she did not know about the Barbie doll. I grew up doing competitive swimming. When I was six my coach told my parents I would go to the Olympics. Oh well. I won States in tennis two years in a row in high school playing doubles with two different partners.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Barbara: I was recruited by John Hancock and was excited because I greatly admired the brand. I saw it both as a huge opportunity and a big challenge. I came from a digital advertising background and I knew the company had a ways to go. It has been an amazing journey so far. We are transforming and disrupting and seeing early wins – with new direct to consumer products like Twine and COIN being accepted in the market. Challenges still exist to move the existing business quickly into a customer led business. It is a regulated environment and there are legacy systems, so we are picking our spots and showing how design-led thinking can move profitability. The pace of change will continue to pick up and customers have big expectations. We are working to make our customers lives better by helping to make their financial decisions easier.
Adam: What is your best advice for those working at big organizations on how to best climb the corporate ladder?
Barbara: My first piece of advice: don’t act like a climber. See how you can make a difference and be relevant to the business. Spend time investing in getting to know the business and be willing to ask for help. Know that people have a lot going on. When you have done your homework and have relevant ideas find the right time share. Don’t assume all emails will be read. Think about how you can make an impact in person; make someone else’s job better; make other people look good.
Adam: What is your best advice for entrepreneurs and those working at small business on how to cultivate relationships and sell to large companies?
Barbara: Blind emails are tough. There are so many that come in on a regular basis and they all look the same. Instead, do your homework on a business. Look to network and get introductions made based on people you know. Bring cases studies to show what you have can be relevant and drive business results. If you are lucky to get that first meeting, don’t assume to be the business expert. Offer to do things for free or discounted to demonstrate early value.
Adam: What are three things everyone should understand about marketing?
1.) There is no typical day in marketing.
2.) Marketing covers a lot of ground, encompassing brand and creative (in many more places than it used to), analytics, social and digital, external and internal communications, sponsorship and customer experience. It’s exciting to work in this space. We get a mix of different things every day and decisions are made quickly.
3.) Marketing is basically the “chief customer officer.” We need to be able to step back, understand the customer we are reaching, what they want, what they need, how and where they absorb information and products.
Adam: What are three things people who work in marketing should understand?
1.) Channel choice is key. Always think about the best way to reach your key audience, whether TV or digital or CX. You want to meet the right customers where they already are or in ways that resonate and then deliver the best experience.
2.) HOW you talk to customers matters. It’s important to tell stories that are memorable to break though.
3.) The customer experience is more important than ever. Customers used to be surprised if your marketing is relevant, but now they’re expecting to see tailored content.
Adam: What is the most important attribute of an effective CMO?
Barbara: Keeping in mind that the CMO is really the “chief customer officer” is important. At the end of the day, did we accomplish our mission? For us at John Hancock, it is: did we make our customer’s decisions easier and lives better? If the answer is yes, we know we’ve done our jobs.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Barbara: It’s important to hire people with great attitudes that are willing to take risks, open to hybrid roles/assignments, want to jump in and solve problems, make things better for the customer. When I interview prospective team members, that is a big factor in bringing someone on; there are very few people who do one narrow slice of the world. I need people who can adapt quickly.
Offer work/life balance. Employees want to feel valued and that they can excel both at work and at home. We have 200+ people so I try to stay as connected as I can. It is all about the whole person. We sit in an agile environment now and I have many more one-to-one conversations than I used to when I had an office. I make sure to have daily informal time where I’m accessible to everyone on the team. A lot of informal sharing has paid off.
I’ve also made recognition a key facet of our team directly aligned to our company’s values. We reward people who step out of their comfort zone, who work with different people to solve problems, create solutions. This might be a generational thing, but people really want to know when they are doing a good job. I also like to make sure people are having fun. We celebrate milestones like births and weddings. We went on a group ski trip. Finding opportunities to get out of the office makes a big difference in leading a team, especially one as large as mine.
It’s critical to create a great environment. Take a look at your organizational chart. Can you reinvent it? Hand out a seating chart instead? There are ways to make everyone feel they are on a level playing field. The open seating environment helps. Ultimately, if people are happy at work they will do the best work – I really view my job as trying to enable that every single day.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
1.) Know the leadership styles of your colleagues and bosses.
2.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
3.) If you’re a people leader or starting a new business, cultivate a culture that allows everyone to be their authentic selves.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Barbara: Build relationships. Have a reason to talk to everyone on the leadership team above you. Get to know people on a personal level.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Barbara: Support your team – at work and out of work. Engage with their lives, support their charitable efforts. A team that knows each other, likes each other will perform better. Also, take risks with people. Give people stretch assignments. Let them learn. Give people direct visibility to leadership. Their success is everyone’s success.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?
Barbara: In general, now my hobbies are my kids and my family. Time not at work is precious. We ski together every weekend in the winter. I treasure the family time skiing, but the rides are also great. We talk about our lives, school, work and a lot about current events. Six hours a weekend in the car is a lot of time together It is also important to me to give back. I am involved in Cradles to Crayons (have been on the board for nine years). I recently involved in cancer related causes – specifically the Jimmy Fund at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute post my son’s illness. I am joining a hospital advisory board in the fall. I like to stay current – I am on the board of an AI venture fund. Networking and connecting with others who share my values in and out of work is what keeps me going.