Amy Barzdukas, CMO of Polycom, started her career in publishing before taking a chance with a company that wanted to be a leader in publishing computing books, a budding category at the time. Amy Barzdukas left New York to help Microsoft become better positioned to create and sell technical books, and says she talked her way into a product management position in the Windows organization.
She describes it as, “the best 16-year MBA anybody could ask for.” Amy had the opportunity to work in partner marketing, product marketing, marketing communications, and product management.
She had a great run at Microsoft and was consistently presented with new challenges and new opportunities to learn the discipline of marketing. Moving on to HP, Amy Barzdukas served as VP of Worldwide Marketing, in charge of commercial PC marketing across the globe.
Polycom called Amy about their VP of product marketing role, which was the bench for the CMO role. She took the VP role with an eye for the CMO role, getting the rest of the education needed to be CMO in the process. Amy describes the C-suite as requiring critical attention to how you build relationships with C-suite peers, the CEO, and the board.
In our interview we cover building and leveraging relationships across the executive team, succeeding at the senior level, and more. The following is in Amy’s own words.
What did you learn through your product background, and how do you bring that to the CMO role?
The number one attribute to have in marketing and in product is a very, very strong intellectual curiosity. This makes a good product person, being curious about the customer, their needs, and their product needs. The problems and pain points you discover drive your roadmap and where you’re going. But having that understanding as a marketer gives you the ability to poke and prod, and find things that product people don’t realize is the real “hero feature.”
Your individual curiosity leads you to ask slightly different questions, all of which come from a different point of view than a pure product person. You can then get very powerful synergies here.
How do you manage relationships across the different functional areas of the business?
As marketers we spend a lot of time focusing on our functional skills and capabilities. But soft skills are often underrated, despite how important they are.
A long time ago a mentor, who’s a wonderful marketer and product leader at Microsoft, used a good analogy: If you are a pushing a large rock up a hill, and you need help, how likely are your peers and coworkers, and the people above you, going to help you push that rock?
There are things you can do to build support. You can think of it as favors, being a nice person, or simply saying please and thank you.
There are behaviors that you exhibit that make people either want to help you, make people feel neutral, or make people say, “let’s just see if you fail.”
Early in your career, making sure you are somebody who is good to work with is enormously valuable. At the same time, it’s important to have a point of view, one that is based on data or observations.
If you try to exert your marketing flex, asking to be listened to because you are in marketing, you’ll get dueling opinions because everyone thinks they can do marketing. Understand that you need to be a person that people want to work with, and a person who has a point of view based on data, not just opinion, and one that brings value to the table.
You are there to ultimately make their job easier. For example, make it more likely that product leaders will have a successful product launch because you are helping them, and adding value from the marketing front.
Marketing sits in between product and sales, and in between product and channels. You have an opportunity to be a great translator and a great enabler for the people driving the revenue for your company. You can make sales teams successful by presenting materials that make it easier for them to accomplish their goals. When you make it easier to hit revenue goals, they love you and that’s a key to success.
What are your communication tips for fostering these relationships?
I have two suggestions. The first is what I call Most Respectful Interpretation, or MRI. When you get an email or phone call, you can choose to read it with the most respectful interpretation, as opposed to a hostile or rude interpretation. When you do this, it makes life a lot easier because you will respond respectfully, you won’t fly off the handle, and you can focus on the business rather than emotion. It makes life easier for the people you’re working with. I practice this, I preach it to my team, and it really makes a difference.
The second suggestion is taking an extra minute to communicate more clearly. For example, when you send an email that has a subject line that says, “Hey, check out this link,” and in the body is just a link, it’s very likely not going to be read and is more annoying than anything else.
Instead, you can invest 20 more seconds and send them an email that says “Here’s a great article on demand generation that you should read, I’d love your thoughts.” This way, you’ve given people the notion they should invest time in reading, you’ve indicated why you’re reaching out to them (building a relationship bridge) and it’s not a transactional email.
It takes almost no time and you are easier to work with, more thoughtful and people respond to that. I always ask the teams, “How easy are you to work with?” When you share information on what you’re seeing—and I encourage team members to share information—make it easier for people to consume.
As marketers we are held to a higher bar than other teams for clear communication. Think of internal stakeholders as customers. It’s our job as markers to connect people and customers, so we need to think about everything we do as an extension of our brand.
For managing up, how do you get the CEO focused on marketing, perceive the value of marketing, and get them motivated to weave marketing with what the organization is doing?
A lot of marketing is about message and brand. We love our creatives and visuals. But only after you start with numbers do you get permission to talk about creative. You have to speak the language of the C-suite, and that is about being accountable for your deliverables.
The currency in the C-suite are the metrics. To be a CMO today, you have to understand revenue. You need to understand how the company is doing, you need to be able to be conversant in financial metrics. And you need to be able to show how marketing is doing in a language that the CFO can understand, and able to tie everything back to numbers.
How does the value of marketing get measured at your organization?
We look at marketing sourced pipeline, marketing influenced pipeline, marketing sourced revenue and marketing influenced revenue.
We focus on ROI as both return on investment and return on “intent.” Intent has to be something that is measurable, so we can understand whether or not we’re successful. We start by defining what we are trying to accomplish.
It’s easy to get lulled into this idea that we’re doing good work. For example, it’s easy to think we are succeeding because we always do this show, we always do this outreach or we always launch products this way. It’s easy to forget the intent associated with these activities.
We have to come back to the question, is this the best tactic? Are we being maniacal about going back to measure, learn, and apply learnings in our current planning sessions? We are focused on the intent of all our marketing spend.
How do you prioritize your marketing investments?
We start with my goals for revenue. Cash is king, EBITDA is the metric that matters. Did we hit our goals and did we grow? And down from there, with new product launches, the question is, did we hit revenue for the new product launches? Further below we look at channels and campaigns.
When deciding which marketing activities to do, I ask the teams to demonstrate alignment to advancing our brand, our revenue, and building relationships with the customers who will be core to the story we tell this year.
When your North Star is poorly defined, you struggle. In other words, if you can’t prioritize marketing activities then it’s time to go back to figuring out—for the Star Trek fans out there—what your prime directive is.
If you can easily reference your prime directive then decisions become easier to make. I talk about our core beliefs and the core assumptions we’re making. So if you have a core belief that customers need X to be successful, and the entire team shares the same belief and assumption, then when a concern comes up deep into a presentation you can go back to those core beliefs to justify the decision or proposal.
For example, if you’re deciding between a tradeshow and a seeding program, it’s easier to make that decision if you’ve all agreed on the core beliefs and core assumptions. If your core belief is that people need a proctored experience, then seeding a product does not create the right experience needed to be aligned with your core belief, that users need the full experience at a tradeshow to see the full value of the product.
What processes are in place at Polycom to make sure the C-suite is aligned?
We started using a process that a management consultant, named Stephen Bungay, created around briefing and back-briefing processes.
We start with knowing what the top-level goals are for Mary T. McDowell, CEO at Polycom. I map my top-level goals with her objectives and the board’s top-level objectives. I can see a direct connection between my goals and hers. We use this process and cascade it through the organization.
And we cascade this through the organization so people not only understand what they do, but how it aligns with the corporate priorities. It’s a powerful process.
It’s important to understand not only the goals but the why. For example, if the goal is to bring on X number of new service providers, everyone understands that it makes money, but people get excited by a bigger purpose, such as improving people’s ability to communicate, or the ability for medical professionals to reach patients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get quality medical care.
Understanding the why of key initiatives can usually be communicated more effectively. When this happens it drives employee loyalty. This is an area business leaders should think about.
Do you have communication tips for explaining the why?
As a leadership team we spent a lot of time talking about why we do what we do. We encourage team members to share their why. Why is this project exciting to you?
For instance, making money is not super inspiring in and of itself. What’s more inspiring is growing faster than market forecasts, using that opportunity for growth and expansion to bring money back to R&D. That’s a great why, that makes sense. Communicating this needs to be an explicit action that is given to the executive team. We hold each other accountable to make sure we are communicating that.
How do you manage the customer experience in your role as CMO?
It’s easy to forget that customers aren’t logos and companies, they’re humans. And a lot of times your buyer is not your user. Understanding this interplay helps marketers create the correct experiences.
At Polycom we think about the buyer, the IT administrator, and the user. We think about every touchpoint with our website, sellers, digital ads, and the influences that happens when they look at a review or see someone speaking.
We have a clear red thread that goes from the top-level messaging down all the way through. And we have agreement on what we stand for as a company. If you read about what we do in corporate social responsibility you’ll see it aligns with our overall mission of changing the rules to facilitate human connections.
Face-to-face interaction is the gold standard for human connection and our goal is be the next best thing. That should come through in all of our messaging—which I have to admit is still a work in progress!
All companies struggle with keeping messaging and personalization all connected. You have to be religious about checking what’s going out, and circling back when it’s not working.
You need to make sure the customer experience with your brand is consistent and communicates what you are trying to communicate. As a CMO you should be constantly thinking about how you can do it better: what have I learned, how can we improve, what would we do differently? This should be the thing you wake up worrying about if you are a CMO.