Inspired Marketing: Interview with Kirsten Allegri Williams, CMO at SAP SuccessFactors

Interview Kirsten Allegri Williams CMO SAP SuccessFactors

One of the great things about my job is connecting with inspiring marketers. While attending SAP’s annual SAPPHIRE conference last year, I had the good fortune to meet Kirsten Allegri Williams @kirstenallegriw thanks to Amisha Gandhi @AmishaGandhi. At the time, Kirsten was VP, Corporate Marketing at SAP Ariba.

In our short time meeting, we covered a lot of ground, from the need to elevate trust in marketing within the c-suite and on the street with customers to the role of purpose in marketing. She was highly focused, present and very smart. She made enough of an impression, that I included her in our annual list of Women Who Inspire in Digital Marketing.

Since then Kirsten has moved from VP at SAP Ariba to CMO at SAP SuccessFactors. To continue our conversation, Kirsten agreed to do an interview on several topics we both find important ranging from employee engagement to the role of purpose in marketing.

PLUS she shares her incredible personal story of overcoming cancer, being an opera singer and running a kick ass marketing organization. Kirsten inspires me and I think she’ll inspire you too. Enjoy!

Kirsten Allegri WilliamsA CMO has big responsibilities and work life balance has a special meaning for you. Can you share a bit about your journey and the impact on your career?

For starters, I like to use the term, “work-life blend” vs. balance. Good work is an essential part of life, and a satisfying life outside of work is what sustains us on the job. It’s all part of one continuum. I’ve held many roles in marketing & business development but it wasn’t until I returned to work after surviving cancer that I realized this. It was then that I made conscious decisions to take on roles where my work can have meaning and make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Good work is an essential part of life, and a satisfying life outside of work is what sustains us on the job. @kirstenallegriw

To say my recovery from cancer was a major life event is an understatement. It was a pivot for me to ensure my career path would lead me to opportunities where I could bring my whole self to work. And it was a pivot for me to realize that some of the things I’d been leaving at the door to the office were huge potential assets for me and my company.

I’m an opera singer, a mother, and a digital marketer, so by nature, I blend art and science in everything I do. That’s true whether I’m trying to master an aria or a campaign slogan. Connecting my personal passions – I love sustainable fashion and consumer goods, music, and technology — to serve the greater good – has served my career journey as well.

Finding your own “WHY” is incredibly important to create clarity of focus and purpose in our work and the impact we can create. @kirstenallegriw

The more I connect personally to a brand or solution, the easier it is to develop a clear message and experience for our customers. On the Start with Why blog there’s a great post that asks, “What’s the difference between happiness and fulfillment?”, which is especially important in today’s workforce.

Finding your own “WHY” is incredibly important to create clarity of focus and purpose in our work and the impact we can create. But the key is that the WHY has to cross the artificial boundaries that we set for ourselves in work and life for it to really matter. We can’t stop believing something just because we’re at work or at home.

There’s an adage that happy employees mean happy customers. What are some strategies you use to engage your marketing teams?

My management style is in some ways very simple. I surround myself with the best people I can find, and I give them two things: the space to do their job and clear direction about whether what they’re doing serves the vision that I have for the marketing function and that the leadership has for the company.

I also try to do everything I can to “clear the path” for my teams. If there are roadblocks, engaging cross-functional stakeholders and extended teams so they feel part of our success.

We are limited only by the constraints we inflect on our vision. @kirstenallegriw

Finally, celebrating success and championing internal entrepreneurship is key: Great ideas can come from anywhere. We are limited only by the constraints we inflect on our vision. So I try to make sure everybody with an idea they think has potential feels they can bring it to my doorstep. That doesn’t mean every idea gets the green light, but it does mean that every idea is heard.

We approach marketing by helping enterprise B2B brands become “the best answer” wherever customers may be influenced. It sounds like you implemented a holistic and multichannel approach yourself when relaunching the SAP Ariba brand. How did you approach such a huge marketing and branding project?

You’ve got to be everywhere, but you’ve also got to start somewhere.

For any marketer embarking on a brand transformation, that means focusing on the highest impact areas first and ensuring you get the execution right, from global to local. Then that will ripple out to the rest of the organization.

Any business transformation starts with a people transformation. @kirstenallegriw

It also means making sure that you’ve got a core group of people who understand the vision of what it means to be the best answer. Any business transformation starts with a people transformation. That’s true in marketing just as it’s true for any other function.

One of the first things we did was to engage employees to be a part of the brand journey for SAP Ariba. We asked our people how they felt about the 18-year old Ariba brand and gave them opportunities to provide feedback on our visual identity transformation and celebrated our brand launch internally with employee parties around the globe.

A brand refresh is not just about visual renewal, it’s also about fresh storytelling. @kirstenallegriw

But we didn’t stop there. A brand refresh is not just about visual renewal, it’s also about fresh storytelling. Our business had evolved from where it was before, with over 2.5 million suppliers and $1.6T in spend over the Ariba Network at the time (these numbers have grown to $2.6T in spend and 3.8 million suppliers since 2016).

So our corporate story had to evolve as well. We overhauled our corporate messaging and positioning, delivered a comprehensive all-employees launch of new content and customer assets to equip the field.

We also focused on our storytelling and brand experience at our events, seamlessly integrating our purpose in helping companies foster supply chain transparency to drive out child and forced labor through the voices of our customers as well as interactive digital.

With a simplified messaging strategy, we embarked on a massive digital transformation, improving our online experience with a complete overhaul of best-in-class design and architecture, localized in 8 languages within 9 months. We could move quickly because we knew what we were doing. We took the time to get our new story right.

Brand purpose has evolved in a big way for organizations of all sizes with implications for virtually every department including marketing. What are some of the biggest opportunities for marketing when it comes to brand purpose?

Companies have a huge influence in the lives of their customers and employees. In the age of work-life blend, that is not something you can deny. Those companies that embrace this and make it a force for good are able to accomplish some truly incredible things, because they are able to tap into the full energies of their workforce. So much so that they are impacting not just their customers’ lives but the world as well.

In an age when we have made it safe and even expect people to bring their whole selves to work, we have to make sure we are also caring for that whole self. When we do that, employees will pass on the resulting sense of happiness and fulfillment to their customers. When we don’t do that, they’ll pass on the opposite, which can be devastating for a brand, especially one built on customer service.

Your employees are going to be your brand ambassadors whether you want them to be or not. @kirstenallegriw

Your employees are going to be your brand ambassadors whether you want them to be or not. So it’s on us to make sure they are good brand ambassadors. And that starts with making sure they have a good experience at work. The vast majority of messages that people trust come to them from people in their social networks. In the age of transparency and social media, the best way to build brand trust is to give people good reasons to be brand advocates in their personal and professional networks.

Marketing is the guardian of your brand, and that Human Resources is the guardian of your people. @kirstenallegriw

For those at the top of an organization, it’s important to know that marketing is the guardian of your brand, and that Human Resources is the guardian of your people. You’ve got to think of both as intrinsically linked. If you’re not marketing to your internal audience, getting the best of your brand to them with the same urgency that you’re getting it to the outside world, you’re missing a big opportunity. So, I encourage all marketers to consider partnering with your Human Resources leaders to keep your people at the center of your brand story.

Is there a role for marketing when it comes to corporate social responsibility?

Absolutely. Take SAP’s unique vision of social responsibility, which is making a better run world by making our companies better run. If we’re going to make that a reality, then we have to envision and communicate that reality—and that’s where marketing comes in.

Marketing isn’t just about selling products and services—it’s about communicating vision and purpose. @kirstenallegriw

Marketing isn’t just about selling products and services—it’s about communicating vision and purpose. If I can help take SAP’s vision and make customers aware of it, then I’ve used marketing to make positive social impact. And if I can take the same aspiration and communicate it to SuccessFactors’s employees, then I’ve used marketing to help keep SAP on mission.

Your social profiles mention that not only are you the CMO of SAP SuccessFactors, but an Opera Singer as well! Are there any marketing lessons you’ve learned from performing as a mezzo soprano?

As a leader in my organization, I’m on stage every day. I can’t do it all myself, so I’ve got to communicate my vision to my teams in a way that is not only clear, but that inspires action. That’s not at all different from what it’s like to get up on stage and sing.

If you think of the music as a kind of strategic vision or creative brief, then the performance becomes about executing that brief perfectly, and always in collaboration with other performers. That’s very much like any day spent in an office. And in the same way that performers are rightly audience-centric, I try to be customer-centric as a marketer. I think not just about the needs and wants but also the emotions and happiness of our potential customers, and work towards those. Customers or audience members, it’s not all that different.

What advice do you have for career climbing marketers who aspire to becoming a CMO someday?

I’m going to steal this advice from, believe it or not, Abraham Lincoln who said: “whatever you are, be a good one.” In the course of my journey to the job I have now, I have done so many different jobs, and not all of them were what I envisioned when I started my career. But by finding a way to do them in the best way I could, I unlocked possibilities in the company and in myself that led to bigger opportunities. So wherever you are, make it work. “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Thank you Kirsten!

Kirsten Allegri Williams is Chief Marketing Officer for SAP SuccessFactors, the world’s leading provider of technology solutions for Human Resources. In her career as a corporate storyteller, she has rebranded and relaunched the digital presence of Ariba, another of SAP’s global software businesses, and lead partnerships with the United Nations to help businesses everywhere forge sustainable supply chains.

She is also an advocate for women’s equality and empowerment in the workplace. Kirsten has been honored by many organizations including The Internationalist as a “Next 50” top marketer. She is a graduate of Santa Clara University with a B.S. in Political Science and B.A. in Music. She received her Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music in classical voice and sustains a career as a critically acclaimed mezzo soprano. She works in the SAP New York City office and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children.

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