Athleta’s Chief Marketing Officer, Andréa Mallard, has used creativity to build what can only be described as a BRILLIANT career.
After graduating first in her class from Queens University, and then again from the prestigious London School of Economics, Andréa went on to enjoy a highly successful career at the celebrated global design and innovation company, IDEO; followed by a chief marketing role at Omada Health, a digital health company with a breakthrough approach to reversing chronic disease.
Her current organization, Athleta, is an ethical apparel brand designed to inspire women and girls to reach their full potential.
If you’ve EVER wished you were a more creative person, Andréa is here to tell you: you are capable of brilliant creativity, too.
On today’s episode of Fierce Feminine Leadership, Andréa and I discuss:
- The power of incorporating creativity into your business.
- The critical nature of maintaining a “beginner’s mindset” despite your level of success.
- The three magic words you can say to change your career, work more effectively with your team, and gain deeper insights into your organization.
- Critical strategies you can use to reach your next level of success.
- How she maintains resilience through challenging situations or experiences.
- Her “lost year” experience and why she considers it as one of the best and most important years of her life.
- How to let go of the fear of other people criticizing you.
- And much, MUCH more.
Listen here: http://bit.ly/2snsacn
Full Podcast Transcript:
Eleanor Beaton: Hello there Fierce One. I have a question for you. Do you want to build a bold career boosting personal brand, but perhaps you’re paralyzed by the thought of being labeled an attention hog? Or maybe you’re tired of working hard and accomplishing big things, only to be passed over for the promotions and opportunities that you crave and, quite frankly, that you deserve.
You are ready to boost your visibility, claim your space and enjoy the advantages that follow. If this is you then I wanted to make sure you knew about a brand new white paper that we have produced. It’s called 7 Unconventional Strategies to Build your Personal Brand.
Here’s the thing: when you think about the women that we highlight on this show, so many of them have built incredible careers, incredible accomplishments, and yes, incredible personal brands. But so much of what I see out there in the market, in terms of education and training and webinars that teach people about personal brands, actually feel to be very far off the mark and really don’t line up with the experience and the knowledge that we have of these incredible powerhouse leaders, many of whom that feature here on the show.
So that’s why we put together this white paper. It’s completely free. And you can get access to it by going to www.eleanorbeaton.com/brand. Here’s the thing that I know to be true in the world of work. Success is not just about what you know is it about who you know your success is about who knows what you know. So that is your powerful personal brand. So my team and I have compiled a list of 100 iconic women leaders studied what made them unique memorable and preeminent in their industries and curated a list of seven unconventional strategies that you can use to build a compelling brand. So you can get your hands on this free white paper. www.eleanorbeaton.com/brand. www.eleanorbeaton.com/brand. So if you’re ready to get the recognition that’s going to catapult you to the next level of success and beyond. Really learn deeply practical strategies that are going to help you to market yourself effectively without coming off as inauthentic or braggy. And also get recommended for exciting opportunities even when you’re not in the room, then you definitely want to download this document.
www.eleanorbeaton.com/friend and that’s going to give you access to our brand new FREE White Paper, called 7 Unconventional Strategies to Build Your Personal Brand.
You are listening to Fierce Feminine Leadership. Episode number 271 with Athleta Chief Marketing Officer, Andrea Mallard, on creativity in business.
Voice Over: Welcome to Fierce Feminine Leadership, the Success Podcast for Ambitious Women in Business. Each week we feature interviews and advice to help you step into your power and lead your way. Now here’s your host women’s leadership expert Eleanor Beaton.
Eleanor Beaton: Hello there Fierce Ones. Welcome back to another episode of Fierce Feminine Leadership: The Success Podcast for Ambitious Women in Business.
This is Eleanor Beaton and I am delighted to welcome you to episode number 271. We’re going to be speaking with Athleta Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Mallard on creativity in business.
This is a great interview. I had a ton of fun, as you will gather once you start listening to it. But before we get there, how are you doing? Listen, if you are new to Fierce Feminine Leadership, welcome to the show. We’re so delighted to have you with us. And by we, I mean me and my production team who worked so hard, day after day, to really bring you what we consider to be some of the best content on women’s leadership in the internet — we say humbly, but not modestly.
And if you are a fan of Fierce Feminine Leadership, thank you so much for being here with us. We truly appreciate the gift of your attention and that’s why we work so hard to really bring you incredible women leaders and great content to help you be more successful and truly lean in to leadership.
How are you all doing, by the way? So as I’m recording this, it’s late May. It’s a beautiful time of year here on the east coast of North America. I am feeling great. I have been traveling a ton throughout the spring and previous winter and I’ve been home-bound, actually. I’ve been around for a few weeks at least, which feels really great. Feeling very connected. I switched up my workouts with my trainer Shauna, and I’m doing much more strength-based power-lifting type of workouts, and I have always, always done well with those workouts. I feel great. I’m in and out of the gym in 35 minutes. I feel fantastic. Getting lots of walks in, some runs. My soccer season is starting. So I’m just feeling really, really good and I so appreciate when I’m having these experiences of great health. So, wherever you are, I hope you’re able to get out there and get some activity and do what you need to do to move your body.
I know for me, I love to really be able to focus on strength training because when my body feels that power, typically that translates into my presence, my energy levels.
Now speaking of power, wanted to be sure that you knew that we had just opened super early bird registration for our women’s Leadership workshop that I’m going to be hosting in Toronto, Canada, November 2nd 3rd and 4th. It’s called Power. Presence. Position. So really looking forward to this women’s leadership workshop. We’re really going to be unraveling what I call the three Ps of the UPleveled woman leader. We’re going to really examine your relationship to power, because power is a key part of leadership and very often I find that as women we can have an ambivalent relationship, a complicated relationship with power. So we’re going to really examine your relationship to your own power, to power structures, and really give you, equip you with the relationships, tools and inspiration to help you lean into your own power.
We are also going to be looking at how you express your authentic leadership presence in your industry, inside your company, and in your community. And then we’ll also talk about how to navigate a strategic industry position. When I look at the outstanding women leaders that we get talked to here on this show, that these themes of power, presence and position, so authentic power, compelling presence and strategic position come up again and again and again.
So this is going to be a fabulous three-day workshop. Our tickets are already moving. What’s unique about our programs is that they’re intimate. We have incredible women in attendance. So these are award-winning entrepreneurs and executives. Women who have occupied C-suite chairs in some of the country’s biggest companies. Scrappy entrepreneurs who have really white knuckled their way to build multi seven figure businesses. Super exciting. So we would love to have you there. You can get more information at www.eleanorbeaton.com/power. So that’s www.eleanorbeaton.com/power. Go check it out. If it’s a good fit we’d love to have you. Seating will be limited and we will absolutely sell out on this event, as we have in so many of our others. So I encourage you to take advantage of that super early bird pricing while it is still in effect. And you can head on over to www.eleanorbeaton.com/power and maybe we can have the opportunity to meet face to face.
All right let’s talk about creativity. One of my favorite words, one of my favorite mindsets to be in, when I’m in my creative mindset. And my question for you is have you ever wished that you were a more creative person? Maybe you found yourself sitting in a meeting, listening to the “ideas people” share brainwave after brainwave. And in that moment you might have felt that, quite frankly, you were a little jealous over their seemingly effortless ability to come up with the big ideas.
Now our guest today is of the firm belief that we are all capable of creativity. And it really comes down to a set of behaviors that she has practiced over the course of what can only be described as a brilliant career. Andrea Mallard is the chief marketing officer at Athleta. It’s an ethical apparent apparel brand. You probably know it primarily for its yoga wear. And this is a company that inspires women and girls to reach their limitless potential, which of course we love.
Andrea is a citizen of the world, so she holds Canadian U.S. and European citizenship. And she’s going to explain, she grew up in a family that reinforced the importance of having a truly global worldview. As a child she traveled extensively.
That’s a pattern that has continued throughout her adult life. And in so doing she has cultivated an outsider persona in the best way possible. She credits this sense of not truly having a home in the traditional sense as one of her greatest assets, both in business and as a creative.
Andrea graduated number one in her class from Queens University in Canada, and then again from the prestigious London School of Economics. And you are going to hear that brainpower at play throughout the course of our conversation. She then went on to enjoy a highly successful career at IDEO, which is a celebrated global design and innovation company where she led the global brand strategy practice. Now, you definitely want to check out the to this episode because we’re going to link to a fantastic 15 minute talk that she gave to a group of tech entrepreneurs while she was at IDEO. And this is where she literally teaches them brand strategy in 15 minutes.
It’s great talk. When I brought it up with her in the green room of this interview, she laughed. She didn’t actually really remember having done it, but their SEO was so good that when you google Andrea Mallard it’s one of the first things that comes up. It’s an excellent primer and I really think that video is in fact essential watching for anybody who’s interested in marketing, so you definitely want to check it out. From IDEO she then became chief marketing officer at Omada Health, and that’s a digital health company that pioneered a breakthrough approach to reversing chronic disease. And that’s what she was doing just before she took the role of chief marketing officer at Athleta.
She’s also on the board of Unu Motors, which is an electric scooter company in Europe. And in this conversation Andrea and I talk about the power of failure, the critical nature of maintaining what the Buddhists call ‘a beginner’s mind no matter how successful you are.’ And Andrea shares her thoughts, which incidentally are contrary to mine, but a little disagreement is never a bad thing, on why she thinks you actually shouldn’t focus on building a personal brand. Okay. Without further ado, here is Andrea Mallard.
Andrea Mallard welcome to fierce leadership.
Andrea Mallard: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Eleanor Beaton: So, I know that you’re a globe traveler. Where are you in the world at this moment?
Andrea Mallard: So I am in San Francisco California right now.
Eleanor Beaton: Awesome. And is that we are typically based?
Andrea Mallard: Yeah.
Eleanor Beaton: I know that’s where Athleta is, but you travel a lot still?
Andrea Mallard: Exactly. Yes. So was born in Sonoma in Petaluma right near San Francisco and we’ve been here for 20 years and we just recently moved our offices to downtown San Francisco a few years ago, so that’s where I now work.
Eleanor Beaton: Awesome. So I’m really looking forward to jumping into this conversation with you. We’re going to be talking about career growth. We’re going to be about creativity. And we’re going to be talking about brand strategy. But before we get to your extraordinary career, I wanted to go back to the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up and how did your childhood shape your character as a leader?
Andrea Mallard: Wow, that’s a big question. So, it’s interesting. Because my parent’s biggest ambition for me and for my siblings growing up was was definitely world citizenship. My father in particular was pretty allergic to any form of nationalism. And so, though I was born in Montreal and lived in Canada, he was Danish by background, grew up in Germany, my mother was French and French Canadian. But they very much wanted us to think of ourselves as citizens of the world, truly, as opposed to Canadians.
So growing up that was always a big theme in my household. And what’s interesting is I clearly internalized that because when I finished undergrad, I lived in Canada until I was about 20, and after finishing undergrad I moved to Paris for a year, then London for five years, to New York and Boston for five years, to Munich for six, and now I’ve been in San Francisco for almost four. And believe me, as a Canadian there are still elements of the U.S. that make it very much a foreign country to me, although it is definitely closer to home, figuratively and literally. But still, having lived 12 years in Europe I do have this magnified sense of otherness.
And when people ask me where I’m from, I genuinely don’t know. I don’t have a sense of home in the traditional sense. But the way I think that’s shaped me as a leader is I really like that part. I like feeling that I could slide in anywhere and be OK. And I think on some level I feel confidence that I could lead any team or any company or work in any industry because I’ve been developing the tools to build cultural literacy, quickly, or the last 20 years. That’s kind of what has happened as a consequence of living in ten different cities, of working in three different languages, of living in five different countries. And then as a design consultant, across any industry, you just build naturally those tools that I think have served me really well. So that is hiding my child has actually shaped my character as a leader, is just the agility and the focus on building cultural literacy.
Eleanor Beaton: And I think you know there’s also something about this idea of marketing, in order to be an effective marketer, in order to be an effective designer, it’s really all about that connection between the company and the consumer. It feels as though being a citizen of the world, if you will, allows you to sort of approach things with a bit more curiosity, potentially a bit more openness. Even what the Buddhists might call “beginner mindset” in a way.
Andrea Mallard: Yes. I love what you just said. And it’s interesting, because I haven’t always been great at that. It’s interesting, when I remember when I first moved to Germany, one of the very first projects I lead was designing the toys of the future for German parents for their children. And I was a new mother at the time. I had two of my three children at that point. And I thought I understood: ‘Oh, I know what this mother wants.’
And it was amazing how quickly I failed to not catch the nuances and the differences between a German mother who grew up in Bavaria, and an American mother who grew up in New Jersey. And it might seem so obvious, but it was only stumbling through that a few times where I realized, you need to take the time to have a beginner’s mind. You need to start back at question zero. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how much you think you have empathy, or how much you think you have an intuition, I’ve never gone wrong by taking the time to ask some of those fundamentals again. To check to check my gut. So, absolutely. I think that’s a hugely valuable tool for anybody to keep that beginner’s mind.
Eleanor Beaton: Now in your early 20s you mentioned earlier that you left Canada. You went to Paris, and you actually got a gig as a foreign correspondent in Paris. But when you arrived, I understand that the branch was actually shut down due to budget cuts, and it turned into what you have since referred to as your “lost year.” Could you tell us about that experience?
Andrea Mallard: So, way back in the day, I had ambitions to be for a journalist, a foreign correspondent. And thought I’d landed this internship of a lifetime at a foreign bureau in Paris, but but as it turns out I did not. So I had to scramble, and scramble quickly to find another job. And at the time know that job ended up being a bartender, which was a pretty big difference from what I thought I was going there to do. But to be honest, it turned into probably one of the most important years of my life, certainly one of the best years of my life.
And what’s interesting now looking back on it, is I just had to quickly learn how to turn an unexpected situation into a great one. And frankly that’s how I feel I spend 99 percent of my time in the business world. Something unexpected has happened, let’s make this incredible. Let’s make this unexpected, weird, odd thing that’s happened into the best possible thing that could have happened. What do we need to do to make that so? And I think that’s kind of my attitude during that year, which was: I needed to quickly make some money to pay my rent. I didn’t have obviously any contacts in Paris, I had no idea. I couldn’t even figure out how to walk through the city. I didn’t know anything. And so the first thing I did was get a job as a bartender, just what I thought was just to give myself a month or two to find another internship. But a month turned into three months, turned into six months, turned into a year, and I ended up really just deciding that I was going to make the most out of the situation I had, while I figured out the next step.
What’s interesting is I still feel like I was a journalist that year. I still interviewed people. I still make connections. I still drew conclusions, but I did it all like over a pint of beer with people who came into the bar. But it’s amazing how many people ask me about that year now, because I tell more stories about that year than I probably would have had I literally been a foreign correspondent.
So, the other thing that’s interesting though is, I ended up spending way more time in that bar than I should have. And I really realized how quickly you can actually get trapped on the wrong path. There is there is an extreme and underappreciated danger of inertia in people’s lives and in people’s careers. And I suddenly was getting opportunities within that bar, so I was a good bartender and they’re like, ‘hey, you seem to be good at writing maybe you can do the marketing for our bar? Why don’t you do this job?’.
And it was almost dangerous because I didn’t have enough perspective to realize that, like, yikes. You don’t want to become a professional pub marketer, which I was in danger of becoming because I didn’t know what else I could do.
So the other lesson I learned there is, you also need to know when to jump off the ship and not to let inertia guide your choices, because it’s easy or because the opportunities in front of you. But, but really be deliberate. So it was a great year but I’m glad it didn’t last last any longer than that because it would have quickly become really the wrong thing for my life. But but when you’re 20 it doesn’t feel obvious.
Eleanor Beaton: Well, in many ways it was a very un-obvious place for you to be. I mean, it’s not just like you know you stumbled through university and found a job as a bartender. You graduated at the top of your class from Queens University, one of Canada’s foremost learning institutions, and find your way to do a job in a bar in Paris’s red light district, I believe if I have that correct.
Andrea Mallard: Yea, I’m sorry to say, yes that’s totally correct.
Eleanor Beaton: But, you mentioned it a number of things, here but I wanted to zone in on this idea of making the best, or navigating your way through, or finding the advantage in an unexpected situation. That’s what you spend a lot of your time doing. I think, which is going to serve as a great relief for many people, many women who are listening to this show, who have finally found themselves in that circumstance and think it’s a bad thing. Can you give us an example of a time when you have had to handle something that’s come up unexpectedly, but it’s actually led to a positive business outcome?
Andrea Mallard: Wow, that’s a really good question. I mean, I feel like it’s happened countless times. You know if I think back to my career when I was working in design and innovation at IDEO, which is an amazing design consultancy that tackles some of the thorniest problems in the world for a really interesting series of clients. One good example of that was actually when I first moved to Munich, when I was transferred to Munich to help lead the European arm of the company, and work on brand projects globally, when I was working in the U.S. I’d always done very well with the clients, I was always very well liked, I was respected leader. And I kind of took it for granted that that would be the case in Munich, too. I was like, ‘Get a load of me, I’m going to just really shine here.’
And one of the very first clients I had, I felt like I had over-delivered, I’d really worked hard, I’d come in strong into that initial presentation. And afterwards he pulled my boss aside and said: ‘I don’t want her on the team anymore. She’s not the right person for this team.’ And I was devastated. Because I thought I’d actually done a great job and had worked really hard and was trying to prove myself and make an impact in this new office that didn’t know me well. I wanted to make a good impression. And so that night, and my boss delivered this news to me with as much kindness as he could, but he also had to say: ‘look we’re going to pull you off this project. This doesn’t seem like the right fit between you and this man, this leader.’.
And at first, I was very angry and very upset about it. But the truth is, what I had failed to do was actually that part about empathy. Which is, I didn’t understand the different business cultural conventions in Germany at the time. I didn’t understand how my approach might have been been viewed as overbearing or too aggressive or too fast. You know that there were some some cultural mores that I needed to appreciate first. It didn’t mean I needed to acquiesce completely to them. There are things I didn’t agree about the hierarchy, about the approach, but certainly there were things I needed to be aware of. I needed to know what I didn’t know. And so, what I said to myself was: ‘Right now this feels like a big black mark on my CV. The CV in my mind of course. But I am going to decide I’m going to have to build the tools to learn empathy in a vacuum, to learn empathy when I don’t have cultural literacy. When I don’t have the instinct to understand how to deal with a 65 year old, male German CEO.’
Which is not that there are a scary creature, but they’ve grown up in a different cultural context. And so that’s just one silly example very personally, where I said: I can either let this be something bad that happened to me, and it only feels bad right now, or I can make some decisions to change my approach and to learn so that this becomes a secret weapon for me. And I think that’s what I managed to do. And so I very much changed my approach. Then it wasn’t just about a German man. I had to work with Danish companies, Italian, Spanish, British. There was a bunch of clients that came my way. And I decided I am going to show up and admit that there are things I don’t know about this culture, about this company, about this language, about this country, and build credibility that way by having the self-awareness to say that out loud and that has served me very well.
Eleanor Beaton: One of the things that this story brings to light is this idea of the necessity of having resilience and kind of that bounce-back factor. This is something that people can struggle with men and women. You get into a situation like you were in. Things do not go the way that you wanted. Perhaps it’s acknowledged in a relatively public fashion.
Andrea Mallard: Yes, to say the least.
Eleanor Beaton: To say the least. Tell us a little bit about how you have maintained your resilience through experiences like that. Because it’s easy to think, when that type of situation happens, that you’re the only person in the world that’s ever happened to me. How have you maintained your resilience through those trials?
Andrea Mallard: Well, the way I did it was first realizing that no one is thinking about you nearly as much as you think they are. And that’s a huge relief. So, I know that no one is ever going to be more critical of me that I will be myself. And as soon as I realized that I could kind of let go of the fear that everyone was having conversations about me, that everyone had seen my performance and we’re evaluating me at all times. The truth is, no one really is doing. Deep down, no one cares about you or your career or what you do as much as you think they do. And so, once I realized that, I also realized, the best thing I can do is acknowledge where I think I’ve made a mistake and take clear action to correct it.
In fact, I feel like, when you fail in a big way at work or if it feels like a failure, you can quickly turn that situation to your advantage and gain a lot of admiration just by the way you handle yourself afterwards. It wasn’t the crime, it was the cover up. It’s sort of that same feeling in business, which is, people fail all the time and I love that. Because to me that suggests taking risks, they’re working, they’re pushing. And so failure in that context is inevitable. What is great is when you say, wow. here’s what happened. This is something here’s my insight from that. Here’s what I really learned. This was what was incredible. And here’s what I’m going to do differently next time.
When people in my team come to me with that I have nothing but respect for them. I am nothing but impressed. I am not at all looking down on them because of the mistake, I am more intrigued by the learning that came from it. And better still if they are able to really own that mistake and share their learning with others. I mean, I’ve given a lot of talks in my day, and the ones that I’ve gotten the best feedback on were the ones that had titles like: ‘My five biggest mistakes’ or ‘the times I face planted the worst.’
I gave a talk at Twitter recently about that. This wasn’t me sharing failure in the way that people often do, which was like ‘my biggest weakness is that I’m too awesome. I’m too much of a hard worker.’ It wasn’t that. It was, this is something I did that was a serious catastrophe at the time, but this is how I grew from it. And after the talk, there were a dozen women who wanted to talk afterwards about that because leaders are told never to admit vulnerability, never to share mistakes. And I see it totally the opposite way. The more you lean into your mistakes and the more you own them, A) the less of a big deal they seem to you and to others. And the more of an opportunity they become because, you are actually sending the message that you’re not defined by this, this was something that you are going to be better because of. And when you set that tone, that’s the tone everyone else accepts around you. As well, as opposed to feeling like you need to apologize for a year because of something. So that’s how I built the resilience, was just leaning into it and owning it and making clear what I was doing differently as a result and sharing my learning with others, helping others making sure they could benefit from from that experience somehow.
Eleanor Beaton: What impact has that had you know on on team performance that you’ve seen?
Andrea Mallard: Well, I think the best you can do for team performance is remove fear from the equation. What I think it has done for us certainly is the idea of, don’t worry about being perfect. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know. Like let’s come together and work on this with each other. Let’s help each other. And I think, when you do that you disabuse people of the notion that they’re supposed to have all the answers. I always say this: ‘guys, I don’t have all the answers, but I have a lot of the questions.’ That’s what you get as a leader, is you start to know which questions to ask, not necessarily what the answers are. And so, when people come with that mindset to a brainstorm or to a collaboration or to anything we’re working on, the work is better. I mean, it just improves the work.
Often when we start a brainstorm too, we always talk about the importance of deferring judgment. About not being worried to say something silly or have a bad idea. I have a saying which is: a good idea is doomed to be a good idea for ever, but a bad idea has the chance to be great. And it’s true. The problem is when you come up with a good idea everyone goes: ‘yeah, it’s good. Ok, let’s do that thing.’ When you come with a bad idea, people typically will reject it, but they’ll usually be a kernel to that idea that is really, really intriguing, that’s really breakthrough. And if you can build on that and pull it apart and put it back together, then you have a chance at doing something great. So I never want people to fear a bad idea. And often what I’ll do, it’s a little bit of theater but, when I’m in a meeting or brainstorm, I’ll throw out some clearly bad ideas, just to show the team that I’m not afraid to look silly. I’m not afraid to have a bad idea and to throw it out and let people bounce it around and think it through. Because I want more of that from everyone else too. I don’t want them to feel like they need to be perfectly buttoned up and everything to be perfectly resolved before they would say it out loud.
Eleanor Beaton: That’s fascinating. And in fact, it’s an idea that’s only come up once before on this show. But the idea of the leader throwing out a bad idea as a way to kind of open the door to communication, to better brainstorming, but I’ve never actually thought about or heard this notion that a bad idea actually has the potential to be a great idea – but it’s so true. When you hear a crazy bad idea, often it has the power of ripping you out of incremental thinking into exponential thinking. Right?
Andrea Mallard: Yeah, you’ve just articulated that so much better than I did.
Eleanor Beaton: It was a team effort.
Andrea Mallard: Yea, collaboration.
Eleanor Beaton: That’s right.
Andrea Mallard: That’s exactly the point. That is exactly the point. It rips you out of incrementally and that is the whole point of what innovation is trying to do.
Eleanor Beaton: Now speaking about innovation, this is obviously an area where you have really spent your entire career. And one of the themes that’s come up you know in what you’ve published and what you’ve talked about is the fundamental problem that we have, when we see analytical brains and creative brains as different. And I hear this sometimes, people will say ‘oh, I’m not creative.’.
Andrea Mallard: It’s crazy.
Eleanor Beaton: Yeah. Why does this make you crazy and why is this distinction a problem in business?
Andrea Mallard: Well for so many reasons. I mean, first if you want to get really precise about it, the whole idea of the left and the right brain is fundamentally false. So that’s based on bogus science from the 50s and 60s that was very quickly dis-proven. The brain doesn’t operate in that way. So number one it’s based on science that is somehow unfortunately taken root in the culture.
But beyond that, it also puts people in a box that does not serve them nor does it serve the business. So, as I was growing up or through my early 20s, I was often told by bosses I had to kind of pick a lane. It was like, you’re either on the church side or on the stage you know you’re either on the creative side or you the strategy, the analytics. And they really kind of didn’t come together in any way. You either sold ads for a magazine or you wrote the articles, but you wouldn’t never do both. And what I found so unsatisfying about that is that I never felt like one or the other. I really kind of felt like I was pretty able to do both. And in fact my creativity was informed by great strategy and great strategy as obviously can be informed by a creative idea, obviously.
So, what I’m always telling the team here, and certainly we’ve organized it that way, is to stop thinking of it as a one or the other problem – it isn’t. And in fact, a great analytical mind is literally by definition making it a series of creative leaps at all times and vice versa. So if you can get past that and you can say… when we are trying to come up with a great campaign, a great idea can come from anywhere and in fact, sometimes the best thing you can do is invite a really motley crew into a room to help you think differently.
So we will invite the CFO into a brainstorm, who spends all his day thinking about numbers, but we will invite him to help us think about a campaign. And very often, some of the most interesting and unexpected ideas come from people who are not “creative.” And some of the most interesting strategic breakthroughs come from people who are told they are not analytical people. So, fundamentally I don’t ask people to choose and I certainly don’t want a team full of people who feel like they are not allowed to have an opinion because they didn’t grow up in a certain discipline. I think that’s death to innovation right away. And besides it’s boring, it’s so boring if you ask anyone who gets stuck on one side of the aisle the other how much they wish they had a little bit of the other to inspire their work.
Eleanor Beaton: Well, and it’s also dangerous for a leader to surround herself with people who think just like her. I mean very often myopia is the biggest risk to a leader, either through you know surrounding yourself with people who come from the same discipline, or surrounding yourself with people who you know who might not have the courage to tell you what you need to hear. But this idea of not being surrounded with others who are willing to shake up the status quo either by virtue of the fact that they think differently or they have a different level of seniority. I mean that is part of what allows you to function as a leader.
Andrea Mallard: Completely. Absolutely right.
Eleanor Beaton: Now, speaking of innovation. It’s one of the sort of core elements of what you do, of what you what you’re known for. You talked about inviting people from other functions into marketing brainstorming meetings as an example. What other types of disciplines or practices, both from a professional perspective or even from a personal perspective, have you integrated into your sort of daily, weekly or quarterly lifestyle business or personal that allow you to maintain a high level of innovation.
Andrea Mallard: Well, I think it’s a lot about looking outside of your own industry. Right? So, when I’m trying to figure out how we can help Athleta grow even more or breakthrough even more. I don’t look to other retailers for inspiration. I really don’t. I look to analogous industries or people who have had to reinvent themselves or who’ve done something exciting to get inspiration from there. Often when I’m looking to hire people, I don’t look for people who’ve had 10 or 20 years in retail. In fact, we have plenty of that expertise in-house.
What we don’t have as much, or what we’re building is some of the people who’ve worked in very different places, who can bring to bear an interesting perspective or insight from outside of it. So for me it’s also about saying, be careful how you define expertise. Expertise doesn’t mean that you’ve worked in one industry for a long time, because those people, to your point about myopia, tend to also unfortunately, their worldview gets very narrow and they’re very aware of what hasn’t worked in the past. And what was a failure before it.
When you can invite people into the room who have very different perspectives and very different experiences, they might be able to take another crack at it in a new way. So it’s not for me just about cross-functional collaboration, but it’s about looking outside ourselves and saying: “what can we learn from an industry that seems to have nothing in common with us whatsoever that we can be inspired by and that we can potentially build upon and adapt for ourselves?”
Eleanor Beaton: Interesting looking outside your industry. So many innovations come from a technology or an innovation. There was something that was once innovative in one industry being applied to a totally new industry. So it makes total sense what you’re saying.
Andrea Mallard: Exactly.
Eleanor Beaton: I wanted to switch gears to this idea of of being assertive. You’ve talked about the power of asserting yourself, of not waiting to be invited. We’ve heard about how maybe that wasn’t as successful for you when you first moved out to Munich, but it’s obviously been something that has been important over the course of your career. How did you come to this understanding, of the importance of asserting yourself, not waiting to be invited and really kind of taking your seat at the table. How did you come to it? How has it helped you?
Andrea Mallard: So, I think what I realized relatively early on in my career was that some of the most successful people in the world weren’t successful because they were smarter. They were successful simply because they gave it a shot. They dared in a moment when I did not dare, so to speak.
And once you realize that, I think when you go up through school, the kids who got the best grades were always the ones who are the smartest, and you were told they were the smartest. And as you get older you realize, it’s not about that anymore, it’s really about who is willing to work harder, who’s willing to think differently, and actually, most importantly, I’d say it’s 98% of it is – who’s willing to take that first initial step toward something new?
Once I realized that, I realized that I had literally nothing to lose by asking to be included in something. So for example, I’ve been at lots of companies where the role I was in wasn’t the one I really wanted necessarily, or it wasn’t the right path for me long term. But what I did was just look around the company and say; ‘whose job do I want? Which leaders do I admire? And the truth is, as I’ve also found that when you ask to join and when you offer to help, people always say yes. I think the real issue is that people don’t ask. For example, at the time I was at women’s health magazine. I was on the founding team to launch that years ago in New York City. And I wasn’t supposed to go on the photo shoots and the film shoots to film a commercial. But I was really interested in that. So I simply asked: “Do you mind if I go just to learn and to observe your process and to see what I can get out of it?” And of course they said: “Sure, join.”.
I realized how simple the act of just asking to go can be, and how scary that seemed for reasons I don’t understand anymore. But I didn’t want to ask. I felt like I haven’t been invited. I shouldn’t be there. And the truth is, it’s not really like that. Usually people are too busy to think that deeply about who’s been invited and who isn’t. And so, when you show that you are curious, that you want to learn, that you want to be helpful, I think that’s one of the most successful things you can do as a young woman in any business, that, when you set the tone that you do belong, people believe you. You set the tone for how you get treated by people, very often, not always, but often. So I just decided I was going to behave. I was going to fake it if I needed to. And it’s really scary the first few times, and it gets less and less scary the more you do it and then it becomes second nature and you don’t even think about it. And then you just get included because you’re seen as a go-getter.
And I’ve actually offered that even at Athleta. Again, we’ve a lot of different really amazing leaders and women and men. But I often say, if you’re interested in what we’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you’re in merchandising or in finance, come and join us. Spend an afternoon with us. Come join this thing. That cross-functional operation only serves the company. We even had a silly thing a few months ago where we have an underwater fashion show coming up, in fact next week in New York City. And we had a contest to say who from the company wants to come and be part of that underwater fashion show? We made a silly cultural event. You had to do your best underwater fashion show moves, which was really funny. But it was someone on the merchandising team and I paid for out of my budget that I will fly you to New York, you will be my right hand, you’ll talk to the press with me, you’ll help with making this amazing event happen. And it’s great learning for us. It’s great learning for you. You might have a great perspective. But it was really a pleasure for me to see how many women raised their hand and said: “I want to be included. Please let me in.” So I decided I would even offer that more and more to help encourage that behavior.
Eleanor Beaton: Now, speaking of Athleta, you joined the company in March, 2017 after spending the four years previous as chief marketing officer for Omada Health. What was it that drew you to Athleta?
Andrea Mallard: You know it’s funny. I’m such an unusual choice and they took such a risk on me to bring me into this role because I hadn’t worked in retail. I mean, I’d certainly worked with retail clients when I was in design innovation as a consultant. So I knew enough to be dangerous but, to be honest, the CEO Nancy Green who is a formidable leader herself, and then some, she said to the headhunters she said, ‘I want someone different and outside of the industry. I think we need to think differently about how this company is going to grow.’.
And so someone just gave me a call and said: ‘We’ve heard about you and we think you might be interested in this.’ And I remember saying: ‘Meh, retail. Meh, I’m not interested.’.
But what I was interested in is Athleta as a brand and what they were trying to do for women and the kind of integrity that I saw in that brand. And so I said, but I sure would like to meet the CEO of that company. So I’ll just go and say hello and we’ll have a great conversation. And you know I love that first conversation thinking that retail is not for me but she was pretty amazing and she said why don’t you come back and meet some more people. And it sort of just grew from there. As everyone I met was was so honest and excited about what they were trying to do. So passionate committed to it that in the end I just thought I would be crazy to miss the chance to be part of this revolution. And it very much starting to feel like one, for real. And obviously the culture is shifting dramatically in the last year and a half.
So that’s how I ended up here. And what I said was like Look I am not going to be the retail expert but again the good news is you guys have that in spades. What you need is someone who’s going to think differently and that’s definitely what I can bring. And so it was a big learning curve of course it probably took me a good 12 months to really understand all the mechanics of the retail machine which is surprisingly complex. But now I feel fluent I feel culturally fluent and now we’re really starting to wrap things up in an exciting way.
Eleanor Beaton: Now, what have you learned that have been sort of some of the most important fundamental business lessons you’ve learned from from being inside a brand new industry? Lessons that you maybe didn’t didn’t have quite that same grasp on before?
Andrea Mallard: Well, I think that I’ve learned this lesson previously, but I applied it here I think to great effect, which was just the three magic words of “Tell Me More.” There were a lot of things that worked in a way that surprised me as an outsider that did not surprise people who worked here for a long time. There were some inefficiencies. There were some slight belabored design processes there were just things that weren’t intuitive to me from the outside and were a little bit a function of just some legacy. And so say, “tell me more.” I always tell people three magic words you know tell me more was a really powerful thing to start and understand why things worked the way the way they were working. Some things that seemed nonsensical to me actually had a very powerful internal logic and needed to stay as they were. But then other things were were begging for someone to come re-imagine them. And I think that’s kind of the role I played. Was to say you know what, I think there are ways that I can bring from the outside of doing this more efficiently, having this be more fun, having this be more collaborative, reorganizing the team slightly to unleash more of that potential in people and the behaviors that we needed. So that has been really helpful is to say hey it’s really important to have humility when you come into an industry you don’t know, as opposed to assuming you know better and that it’s also backwards and terrible. But also to not get into the bathwater too quickly.
You know it’s hard. I knew that I had probably a six month window until I might be too immersed in the culture to see it for what it was very clearly. And so those first six months are really really critical for any leader to really say, think of this as an outsider. Think of this as a customer. Not somebody who’s on the inside and has read every line of copy and knows every nuance about every product, but someone who is much closer to your typical customer. Keep that mindset as long as you possibly can.
Eleanor Beaton: Yeah that beginner mindset again it’s so powerful. Now, you’re known as a brand strategy expert. Many of the people listening right now are are looking to build their brands. Do you have any practical strategies you can share with them about that?
So, you know, look. Great brands don’t say, look at me. Great brands say, look at you, right? They say how can I serve you? And so my honest advice to young women who were thinking about building their brands is don’t – don’t build your brand. Share your knowledge, share your experience, give to others. I’ve said it many times that great brands aren’t myth-makers they are truth-tellers. So tell your truth. Don’t try to appear more knowledgeable than you are. What’s interesting to me is, I notice there tends to be an inverse relationship between, if I look on LinkedIn for instance, the folks who are peddling themselves as experts. I’ve often reached out to some of those people, and young people who seem very impressive to me, and I’ll invite them in for a conversation realizing it’s a lot of hand waving and it’s a lot of tap dancing who are overly self promotional. I think the ones who are reaching out to others to help, tend to really know what they’re talking about and that builds their brand by default almost. So I would say, my best advice is serve others. Serve other entrepreneurs, serve other companies. Share your good, bad, neutral experiences and your brand will build itself. Rather than worrying so much about how do I come across in this moment. I feel like I can kind of smell that from a mile away and it never never feels good to me. So that’s my best advice is, don’t build your brand but share your knowledge as much as you can. Share your point of view, share your tools, share what you’ve learned, share your failures, all those things that I think add up to are really, really powerful authentic human brand.
Eleanor Beaton: I wanted to wrap up by asking you your your top 3 success strategies that you would share. We’ve talked about branding, we’ve talked about the strategy of “Tell Me More”. What 3 additional strategies would you share with women who are listening?
Andrea Mallard: So number one I would say, we’ve spoken about this in the past, but radical candor is really important. I think it’s the most kind thing I can offer my team and I need to show an openness to receiving it as well. So I spent many years fearing feedback. The perfectionist in me never wanted to know anything I was doing wrong and you just need to get over that and ask for and give feedback in context, in real time, and in person. So the number one strategy I would offer people is seek and get feedback and build trust with the people you’re working with. Nothing is more disorienting to anyone on a team than the annual anonymous survey that recaps how they’ve done. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks that that’s a really wonderful productive thing. What I have met though are plenty of women who said you know someone pulled me aside after a meeting and pointed something out to me in a loving nurturing way, that I could have done better and I really appreciated that. So number one is show openness to receiving feedback of that kind. Say, you know what to, it’s your boss, it’s your peers, say you know what, I really want to be great, I want to be great at my job. And if you see me do something, or if you have feedback for me, the best way you can serve me, is to give it to me in this way. That’s how I’m going to get the most richness out of it so I can really understand the context in which it’s being delivered. So radical candor for sure.
This is going to sound a little off perhaps but I think there is some appreciation for people who are funny at work.
Eleanor Beaton: Oh thank you. So true. So true.
Andrea Mallard: And I’ve kind of slowly but surely realized the power of humor to make things easier. Sometimes you just want to back up. We all need to stop taking this also seriously. And business is too important to be taken seriously or my career is to important.
And so I’ve tried to be funny more often. I send a weekly e-mail updates how we’re doing business and there’s charts and there’s performers and it’s important that everyone understands it and it’s literally called ‘So how are you doing anyway?’ But at the bottom of that e-mail I always send a funny gif that sums up how business was like. It’s like a man doing a massive belly flop into the water. Sometimes it’s always something funny to get a laugh and to kind of say, A) I want people to read the e-mails so that usually helps that happen. So there is method to the madness but also to kind of lighten the mood a little bit.
Eleanor Beaton: Listen, gifs are really one of the great advancements of human society.
Andrea Mallard: They do so much. So I always try to keep the mood light and make sure people are having fun and nothing makes me happier than when I’m walking down the hall or past a room and I see six of my colleagues laughing together about something. That is a healthy vibrant culture when that is true, when there is that emotional shorthand, when there is all this laughter and light in the business. That means that when things get tough, and they will get tough, you’ve got that. That’s an investment in each other and you have that sense of levity to be able to get through it together. So number two would be the role of humor.
And then number three I think, it’s just always that willingness to go that extra mile. I’m always so inspired when I have someone come into my office and say you know what. I had this thorny problem, but then I got really excited, and then I, it’s not about staying late but, I took some extra time and I mocked this prototype and what do you think about this? That sort of idea that you can built a thing and you’re not willing to do something the long way you’re just taking a shot at it and you’re just getting your idea out on paper, or on the web, or in a storyboard, whatever it might be. The best advice I always tell people is just built to think, don’t stay too long and strategy. Roll up your sleeves and start to create something, just to help you think it through and to have something for people to react to and talk about that somehow tangible, rather than a theory about what we should do as a business. So yeah. Radical candor, be funny, and build the thing would be my top three pieces of advice or a leader or an up and comer.
Eleanor Beaton: Andrea Mallard thank you so much for joining us on Fierce Feminine Leadership.
Andrea Mallard: Thank you for inviting me.
Fierce Feminine Leadership is executive produced and hosted by Eleanor Beaton. Technical producer is Kate Astrakhan. Content producers are Adrianne Alexander and Marie Hanifen. Special thanks to Kelly Fillman and Amy Bleser. Find Eleanor on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram @ Eleanor Beaton. Thank you for listening. Stay fierce.
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