A successful CMO has many roles, including leading an organization's marketing department, establishing marketing strategies, and tracking successes and failures. How can a CMO create a highly successful career? What tools, strategies, and approaches can a CMO use to be successful? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mona Charif.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! To start, can you share a bit of your personal backstory and how you got started?
I was born in the Middle East, and my family moved to the U.S. when I was in 5th grade. I am a proud and patriotic Texan and American, and I remain profoundly grateful for the opportunities that have been available to me. Of course, the immigrant experience and the American Dream are both contingent on hard work. In that spirit, I’ve worked hard to succeed in my career while giving back to my community of origin and working to support communities here in the U.S.
What do you think was a pivotal moment that led you on your path to becoming a CMO?
Life is filled with pivotal moments, and my path to becoming CMO has had several. The particular moment that shifted my career trajectory was a conversation with Ross Perot Sr., who created the IT services industry. In a serendipitous experience during high school, I had a private conversation with Mr. Perot, and he made me commit to working for him at some point in my future career.
At the time, I had never considered a career in marketing, much less within IT services. In fact, I was excited about studying journalism at the University of Texas and becoming the next Barbara Walters.
After college, I was simultaneously interning in the newsroom of the Dallas ABC affiliate and at Tracy-Locke/Pharr, a major national advertising and PR agency. I decided that—before seeking my first real news job—I should fulfill my commitment to Mr. Perot and join the communications team at Electronic Data Systems, which is best known by its acronym EDS.
I took the passion that I felt about news and applied it to becoming the best professional communicator I could be. The company was growing and kept expanding my duties. Six years later, after completing my MBA, I was recruited from EDS to lead marketing communications for a division of Lucent Technologies. My love for marketing and communications for technology eclipsed my dream of journalism, and I’ve never looked back.
Can you share an interesting story that happened to you since you began leading in your company?
In 2016, I was head of marketing and communications for Dell Services, a quintessential American company. That year, Dell sold its services business to NTT DATA, a quintessential Japanese company that had been expanding globally for about 15 years. I remember the first time I heard NTT DATA’s company song, called “Shine Like the Sun.” I had no idea that companies even HAD songs, but they do in Japan. I came to appreciate how the song explains NTT DATA’s reason for existing. The first line of the chorus goes, “Shine like the Sun, let’s make the world a better place for everyone.” Initially, it can seem hokey, but they mean it. We mean it. The company’s whole model for success is built around working with clients to create a stronger and better society.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
One person who stands out in this regard is John Maguire, who became my leader when I was acting head of marketing at HP Enterprise Services. He convinced me that I was the most qualified person for the job and advocated for me to earn my first vice president’s role. I’m grateful that he encouraged me to take that step.
Can you please share your favorite 'Life Lesson Quote' and how it has been relevant to you in your life?
I have several favorites, including “Chance favors the prepared,” and “Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.” But ultimately, my favorite is: “A candle doesn’t lose its light by lighting another candle.” To me, it’s a reminder that my career is not a zero-sum pursuit. In fact, the more I help people pursue their passions, the more opportunities I find opening for me.
Can you share with us three strengths, skills, or characteristics that helped you to reach this place in your career? How can others actively build these areas within themselves?
Being an effective CMO means being an effective leader for the marketing team members, individually and collectively. To do that, I subscribe to the ABCs of Leadership:
- I ADVOCATE on behalf of my team.
- I do everything in my power to remove BARRIERS that complicate their work.
- Finally, I strive to COMMUNICATE with CLARITY so team members know what’s expected and how they contribute to our mutual success.
Which skills are you still trying to grow now?
I have been studying the Japanese language in recent years. Our parent company is based in Tokyo, and while most colleagues at headquarters speak English proficiently, I want to be able to understand them when they speak their native language.
I’m also focused on cultivating patience. As career responsibilities grow and your perspective expands, you see just how complex things can be. A knee-jerk reaction rarely leads to complete solutions, so I try to exhibit the patience required to sort out all the spaghetti strings so I can understand the dynamics in a situation and then act accordingly. That also applies to people. I don’t know everyone’s situation, so I’m trying to be patient and understand their personal dynamics before I react.
On a more personal level, I’m learning to play pickleball, which is a lot easier than learning Japanese. I’m patiently working to get better every time I play!
Having reached this space, what do you believe are the five things you need to be a highly successful CMO?
Everyone’s heard of the 4 Ps of Marketing. I have the 5 Rs of Marketing:
1 . Reputation
Reputation is a consequence of behavior. In a sense, reputation is like karma because it’s something you earn, whether good or bad. If you want to build a good reputation, then make commitments consciously, under-promise on the commitments you make, and then over-deliver with your actions and results. You can enhance your reputation by maintaining an excellent say/do ratio. People learn to trust you, not only for your expertise but also for your reliability and personal accountability. Ultimately, your reputation follows you and often precedes you! It will either expand or limit your career opportunities. You have to be careful and conscious with your reputation because it can take years to build and just seconds to destroy.
As part of your reputation, be known for telling the truth. There’s an old joke that you should tell the truth because it’s easier to remember. But in all seriousness, truth-telling becomes ever more critical the higher you rise in an organization. And if a leader or organization does not value truth-telling, that’s a red flag. Hand-in-hand with truth telling, it’s important to be known for empathy, especially empathy for individuals on your team. Empathy makes life more personally fulfilling, and it builds organizational loyalty. As one of my team members says: “Seek to be kindly honest and honestly kind.” That’s a great way to build your reputation.
2 . Reach
By “reach,” I mean the scope of your actions and point of view. I want my team members to act like they own the place – not just the marketing functions, but the company as a whole. Act like the company has your name on it and you’re going to pass it down to your grandchildren. Obviously, don’t act like an arrogant owner, but in a conscientious way that realizes how your role impacts the whole.
It’s a fact that the higher up the ladder you climb, the more you have to optimize for the full company, meaning you need to be great at your function and demand excellence from your team, but you also have to work across all departments and empower others to be great at their roles. The way to do that without being a nuisance is to take a collaborative approach with departments and people across the company. We’re all in this together, after all.
Staying strong through turmoil and uncertain times has always been important, and it’s become even more critical the past few years. For me, the key is taking work seriously but never taking myself so seriously that I couldn’t recover quickly from a setback or major change.
For example, I was at EDS when GM spun off the company. After supporting that transition, I was recruited to lead Marketing Communications for a division of Lucent Technologies, which was then sold to Tyco. I returned to EDS, which years later was sold to HP. After rebranding the business to HP Enterprise Services, I moved to Dell to run their Services marketing. Then Dell sold their IT services business to NTT DATA. That was 6 years ago, and I’ve been supporting NTT DATA’s global expansion ever since.
The world is a tumultuous place, and leaders (and organizations) need to be resilient to stay on mission and evolve with the times. It’s a lot of pressure, but there’s an old saying that applies: The only difference between a lump of coal and a diamond is that the diamond stuck in there despite all the pressure. Of course, that’s not entirely accurate, but it’s absolutely true that diamonds form in the presence of extreme pressure and a high temperature. So, keep that in mind the next time the pressure is on, and the heat is turned up. Don’t crumble like coal. Instead, become a diamond and sparkle in the midst of tough times!
4 . Respect
Personally, if I’m going to devote the time required to be CMO, I need to respect the company’s values and mission. Fortunately, I genuinely respect NTT DATA’s values (Clients First, Foresight, Teamwork) and wholeheartedly agree with the company’s mission (“NTT DATA uses information technology to create new paradigms and values, which help contribute to a more affluent and harmonious society”). The company backs up its values and mission with innovative solutions that help clients transform operations and stay ahead in a dynamically changing world.
On a broader level, showing respect to others is an essential element of effective leadership. We work hard to hire the best people, so I want to respect their capabilities as professionals while also showing respect for their humanity. Bottom line: I don’t want people working based on fear of the boss. I want people working from empowered personal passion, which, incidentally, typically leads to the most outstanding professional results.
Relationships are the lifeblood of marketing – developing, nurturing and sustaining relationships with clients and partners as well as employees and diverse community leaders. That’s just inherent in the job. I also make my personal relationships a high priority. I’m grateful for relationships built in the past with influencers during my education, such as my high school journalism teacher, Janie Loveless, and professor Ron Anderson at UT. Then there are professional influencers, such as John Maguire mentioned earlier, and I’ve truly enjoyed reconnecting recently with Cynthia Pharr, who ran part of the agency where I interned at the very start of my professional career. The relationships developed long ago continue to enrich my life. And in business, even with massive infusions of digital technology in marketing operations, my goal is still building substantive relationships with clients on a personal level.
Are there any underrated skills or qualities that you encourage others not to overlook?
Modern marketing is as much science as it is art, so CMOs need to learn about Martech. Marketing technologies are constantly advancing, so it’s important to keep up to date with your skills and the technologies your team uses.
I also encourage leaders to listen to everyone on their team. I want to eliminate every blind spot possible, and I rely on my team to make sure I know what I need to know to help them do their jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible. In particular, I would urge aspiring CMOs to identify the introverts on their team and draw them out. I’m an extrovert by nature, and I’ve learned to appreciate introverts because many times, their perspective has proven to be exactly what I needed in a particular situation.
What are some of the main issues that other CMOs commonly struggle with? What can be done to address those challenges?
Probably the biggest single issue for marketers is developing and quantifying metrics that clearly demonstrate the impact you’re making on the company’s results. For my team at NTT DATA, we anchor our marketing strategy in the company’s business strategy. We then develop marketing priorities and measure results that clearly map to the company’s priorities.
For example, we have key performance indicators around sales pipeline, elevating market recognition and brand, attracting and engaging talent (my portfolio includes internal communications), and optimizing our return on the company’s investment in marketing. To really understand your impact, you need to go beyond basic quantities and measure quality. For example, for sales pipeline, we measure the number of leads that Marketing generates as well as leads and wins we influenced through hospitality, advertising or other techniques. Beyond those basic numbers, we measure the rate of sales follow up on leads as well as the average time for follow up and the impact we’re making through other channels including public relations and social media.
What do you believe is the most effective way to stand out and make an impact as a CMO?
Job number one for any CMO is to thoroughly understand the business strategy, and then to apply professional marketing principles that support the company strategy. People tend to be either “work horses” or “show horses” – but a CMO needs to be both. On any given day, you must be in the trenches with your team and be part of the frontline work. But in that same day you might need to go on stage and articulate the company’s vision or represent the company publicly in some high-profile situation. And all day every day, you must find ways to motivate and inspire your team.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the most people, what would that be?
My recommendation is that people engage in actions or with organizations that mean something to them. My personal philanthropy is centered around education and food insecurity. My husband and I co-founded Safe Spaces Lebanon in 2017 to honor our family roots and help fill some of the tremendous needs of a country that is famous for its hospitality despite more recent history.
Lebanon is the size of Connecticut, yet it hosts more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. Despite the enormous needs, the huge non-profits tend to ignore Lebanon. So, we give back by focusing on education for refugee children. Education is transformative, and nobody can take it away once you have it. It’s a life-long resource that keeps on giving. I truly believe that education is fundamental for making the world a better place.
Lastly, is there a person with whom you would love to have a breakfast or lunch with, and why? They might just see this!
That’s a tough choice! I waver between Melissa Gates because I’d love to know more about how she thinks and analyzes issues to support. But even more, I’d like to have lunch with Warren Buffet to learn more about his approach to analyzing needs and opportunities, and how a given company merits investment based on that analysis.
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