In our work as executive recruiters, we have the privilege of speaking with exceptional female executive leaders (both established and rising) on a daily basis. As someone who assesses executive talent for a living, I found myself reflecting upon the career journeys of many of the women in my network and believe we have an opportunity to offer insights to other women aspiring to become a senior executive.
In the first interview as part of our new Women Rising Series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Zena Srivatsa Arnold, the newly named Chief Marketing Officer of Sephora U.S. Prior to entering the role, Zena served as the SVP of Carbonated Soft Drinks at PepsiCo and the Global Chief Digital & Marketing Officer at Kimberly-Clark. She also advanced her career for seven years at Google, where she was critical to the growth of Google Play, Chromebooks, and ChromeOS.
I was fortunate enough to meet Zena ~10 years ago, and her career since then is nothing short of super-charged and accomplished. Just last month upon recently being named as the new CMO for Sephora U.S., I had the opportunity to speak to Zena about the successes and experiences that propelled her career forward, as well as the trials women in business continue to face. Her resilience and agility in large-scale corporations offers a strong example for leaders in any industry. Here are some of the insights and advice she shared during our conversation.
Considering your career to date, what would you point to as key moments that helped you achieve your current position?
There are a few that come to mind. The first was probably my very first career moment coming out of college. I majored in computer science and was a very type-A go-getter. I had internships every summer and positioned myself well to get a full-time job and in the tech space back then.
Then, the dot-com bubble burst just a couple of months before I graduated. This job that I had been working toward throughout college disappeared. All of a sudden, for the first time, I was left in this situation of not having a job, not knowing what I was going to do. Being type A and self-reliant, it was humbling to be put into that situation. It was just this realization that things aren’t always going to go according to plan and the resilience I can find in that moment would get me to what I want to do ultimately.
The other pivotal moment in my career, I’d say, is making the choice to go to Google. It taught me how to be really adaptable to very different types of corporate cultures. There were many people from Procter & Gamble, where I spent the formative years of my career, who came into Google and couldn’t adapt. That was because they learned a very regimented way of doing things. That’s why companies like P&G are these incredible machines that they are.
But the culture, the growth of big tech, and the dynamics of the software business versus physical-goods business are really different. It taught me to think, “How do I bring what I’ve learned into a different environment? How do I pick out the things that will have an impact and bring those to the table? How do I recognize what won’t have an impact in this new culture?”
As you think about who you worked with throughout your career, what do you think gets in the way for many of them?
I’d say the biggest thing is ensuring that we have the right system around us. I feel like a lot of women—and I put myself in this camp earlier in my career—especially think, “OK, if I just put my head down and do awesome work, it’s going to result in advancement and recognition.”
What I realized is it’s that and having a system of supporters and sponsors to ensure your work gets the visibility it needs. I think this is a lot more common with men. They have had a lot more time as senior leaders in the workplace to develop that kind of system with each other. I’m glad it’s changing now.
Having someone who’s really willing to go to bat for you, who’s talking about you when you’re not in the room and bringing forth your work, is so critical to advancement.
What characteristics do you think enabled the success of the people you’ve worked with? What characteristics do you want to emulate as you continue to grow?
There are some characteristics that have been consistent and some that have changed over the years.
For what’s consistent, I think knowing the business—as in knowing your numbers, getting into the details, and understanding at a deep level what it is you are selling—and taking ownership is just so critical. I’ve rarely seen a leader who stays at the 50,000-foot level and is super successful. Without knowing the details, it’s hard to drive the business forward from a broad strategic vision.
I’ve also seen successful leaders have a lot of passion and energy to move things forward. There’s just so much inertia when it comes to making change, driving growth. Making stuff happen is hard, but successful leaders do so and bring the organization along.
As far as what’s changed, I think when I first started my career over 20 years ago, a lot of senior leaders were admired because they were super hardnosed, aggressive. That was seen as well, “Yeah, of course they’re a senior leader. That’s what I need to portray so people know I’m in charge.”
Empathy is becoming more and more important. It’s critical to understand your customers, but empathy is also so helpful to energize and engage your workforce. People are looking for that more and more. I think the directive style of leadership is a little out of fashion now. It’s much more about energizing and enabling.
How do you approach mentoring or development with your team? How do you help everybody raise their own bars?
For me, it’s important to have really transparent conversations with people about what their goals are and how they approach their career. There are folks who are very intentional about what they want to do and plan how they want to build their career. Others are more opportunistic, falling into what they enjoy doing and are good at.
So, I like to work with folks to understand the answers to key questions: What are the things they do to build their career and what’s the philosophy behind it? Then, as a leader, it’s my job to make sure their passions and their skills match their role in the organization and ensure everyone is in a great spot to contribute in the way they want to and have passion for.
Are there any life experiences or work experiences you’re most grateful for and why?
On the work side, one of the most fun and educational experiences was working on the team at Google that built the Chromebooks marketing and business. It was such a special time because I worked with this great group of cross-functional people. We built a business case to convince senior management and the company to invest in us. Then, we truly used full-funnel marketing—everything from generating awareness at that top of the funnel all the way down to closing the sale and building products that met consumer needs.
We had the power of Google behind us, which was amazing, but it was also very entrepreneurial. The team was small and scrappy. There was just so much energy and smart yet humble and hardworking people. There was such high trust within the team and that’s why we could move so quickly and get so much done. That was by far the most transformative and fun experience in my career so far.
On the personal side, I’d say it was having my son. My husband and I didn’t necessarily think we would have kids. It’s not that we didn’t want to. There never seemed to be a good time for it. But we were super fortunate to have our son, and because we were both a little older, we’ve just been so much more intentional. We’ve been enjoying him so much. During the pandemic, there were so many changes in life and one of the things I’m actually grateful for is the time I could spend with my son. I started a new role as the global CMO at Kimberly-Clark. That role would have normally involved a ton of international travel, visiting all the markets, but because the world was shut down, I could be around my son at such an important time in his life.
What’s one piece of advice you can offer to rising women leaders who are driving toward a path to the C-Suite?
A career really is a marathon and not a sprint – plan for the long game. Also build and nurture strong relationships along the way as that is what truly differentiates people after you master the job skills.
A very special thank you to Zena Srivatsa Arnold for her insights and contributions!