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Tips From The Top: One On One With Lara Balazs, CMO of Intuit

I spoke to Lara Balazs, Chief Marketing Officer of Intuit, about her journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Lara: I can quote lines verbatim from the 90’s movie, So I married an Axe Murderer. I’ve completed the Boston Marathon. During college football season, you might find me talking loudly about my favorite team with colleagues in the office… #GoDawgs

Adam: How did you get here? ​What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?  

Lara: I get asked this question a lot! I can tell you that no amount of smarts is going to get you that next job or propel you to the top alone if you don’t come with a certain tenacity and resilience.  You have to be passionate, creative and just go for it. I was forced to learn how to be scrappy early on in my career. I earned my undergraduate degree, graduating with honors, and went on to business school at Kellogg at Northwestern. In both instances, I graduated into recessions. It’s a very humbling experience when you have worked so hard and have invested so much into your education and you can’t seem to get that dream job, or even a break. And a lot of us face this. These setbacks fueled my fire to learn grow and get better. 

Adam: What is your best advice for those working at big organizations on how best to climb the corporate ladder?

Lara: 

  • Always have a desire to continually evolve and expand your skill set. Not every situation in life is a line on a chart that’s up and to the right. Make lateral moves – and don’t be discouraged to pursue areas where you are lacking experience. 
  • Raise your hand for high-risk assignments. If you’re brave enough to take on a role or project that others have passed on, it could result in the opportunity to make an immediate and lasting impact. You’ll gain confidence and visibility in the meantime.
  • Realize that failures breed resilience. I have made plenty of mistakes along my journey. The truth is I learned from every one of the failures, so I wouldn’t do any differently. If anything, I would have been less hard on myself.

Adam: What is your best advice for entrepreneurs and those working at small businesses on how to cultivate relationships and sell to large companies? 

Lara: Identify your superpower. Focus in on the unique assets that you bring to the table, your value proposition and the things which will set you apart from your competition. Be proud and unapologetic about the skills and offerings that make you unique. Be authentic when you communicate these as a unique selling point to those companies that you want to do business with.

Adam: What are three things everyone should understand about marketing?

Lara: 

  • First off, more than ever before, marketing and communication efforts need to be a reflection of a true value-based company mission. If that mission is not authentic and not based on customer needs, your marketing will not drive growth and will not have the power it should among your customers, employees and all major stakeholders.
  • Second, as marketers and communicators, we must be customer-driven. Our role is centered on truly understanding our customers with a deep level of empathy. 
  • Third, marketing drives growth. We should shift our perception of marketing from being just an enabler function to thinking of it as a true growth engine.

Adam: What are three things people who work in marketing should understand?

Lara: 

  • Creating customer relationships is key. As marketers, we need to connect with them emotionally while showcasing our differentiated product offerings. Only connecting with customers on a functional basis is not enough. We are more than a product or function to them, we are a part of their everyday lives: through their ups and downs, and their successes and failures. We’re with them on their first sale, their first employee and their first big deal when they make it to a next level business. That’s when we unleash the power of our brand and see results.
  • Marketers today need to move with agility and speed. Things like approvals can slow down the creative process. This is where I like to suggest using a one-way and two-way door decision making process. If something is a two-way door, where you can make a decision and then reverse the decision, you probably need less people on the approval. If something is a one-way door, meaning once you walk through, you can’t go back on the decision, that may be something that requires more eyes and more of an approval process. Keeping this in mind will shorten your process time.
  • Adopt a test-and-learn mentality. Testing, learning and failing is a part of the role of being a marketer or communicator. You must take risks and try things to achieve success. Don’t get discouraged by mis-steps. Consider it a test. Learn and pivot quickly.

Adam: What is the most important attribute of an effective CMO?

Lara: The CMO role is more complex and dynamic than ever before. In my experience, it’s been about figuring out the table stakes – knowing the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ that really makes you effective. There are the basics to give you the ‘what’: knowing your business inside and out; knowing the levers the drive the business; understanding your customers inside and out; knowing the customer journeys taken with and throughout your products. On top of that, you need to move with speed and agility – and that’s where the ‘how’ comes in. Marketing is a growth function, along with being a brand building function. A CMO needs to think about the full purchase funnel all the way to consideration, engagement, retention and referral. To do that with speed, you have to leverage the power of Martech. Your customers move faster than your marketing. This requires you to know the latest in technology to keep ahead of the customer. Bottom line, a CMO must know what drives company growth and how to motivate your customer behavior to drive that growth. 

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?

Lara: Being customer-driven is the key to being effective as a leader – in whatever role. At Intuit, we view customer obsession as the most critical component to deliver financial products that not only function well but are well trusted and provide real benefits to our customers. We teach and coach every employee how to identify, understand and solve customer problems through a practice we call “Follow Me Homes” – which is where we shadow customers and observe their day-to-day behaviors to get a first-hand look into how they run their business. This practice drives us to focus on our customers’ problems and the benefits we can deliver through our financial products. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Lara: As marketers, we study our customers and learn about their nuances through a variety of different exercises. We map out customer journeys and over analyze the customer lifecycle. 

As a business or civic leader you can translate these activities into your own practice:

  • Create personas to understand larger groups of customers or regions of constituents. 
  • Start team meetings or briefings by sharing a new customer story or regional insight. 
  • Get out there and meet people face-to-face. The best way to get to know customers or partners, their problems or concerns, and how you can best provide benefit is to go out and meet them in-person. 

You will only be as successful as the audience, the customers, the constituents you serve, so understand them inside and out and unapologetically support them.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Lara: Recently, I was asked this same question and was reminded of my aunt, Patricia Schroeder, who was in the U.S. House of Representatives for over 20 years at a time when very few women served in Congress. From her, I learned if you truly follow your passion, work hard, take risks and have fun along the way, rewards and success will follow.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Lara: If you’re fortunate enough to be in a place where you can help a person find out about an opportunity, an experience, or find a job, I really see that as a responsibility. I have a firm belief that everyone on this planet has unique gifts – their own superpower to share with the world. And when we collectively get to combine these individual superpowers the end result is something pretty incredible. We all as humans have a responsibility to acknowledge that within each other, and where the opportunity arises, take advantage of it and help your fellow person out.
 
As an example, I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to help women in pursuit of similar career goals, or who want to be a marketing leader. We’re a collective tribe supporting and helping each other, and then helping each other to pay it forward. I think it is really important.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Lara: I am incredibly passionate about getting outdoors, whether that is snow skiing, hiking, backpacking or travel. There is something so incredibly freeing and inspirational about being in nature. I’m also a runner and used to run marathons. I love the idea that the challenge in personal fitness is you against yourself. In fact, it’s even more of a strain and conditioning of your mental self than your physical self. 

When I think about having trained as a distance runner and then think about some of the career setbacks that I mentioned earlier, it’s that same type of conditioning what builds resilience and builds that tenacity to endure and grow stronger.  You prove to yourself that you can get through these more strenuous periods and you end up better for it. So again, as I’ve said before, failure and those hard moments in life, breed grit and resilience.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share? 

Lara: Find a group of people that inspire you. Communities that are in service to a common goal, and to each other, is a powerful, wonderful thing to be a part of in any professional or personal environment.

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