How Do You Run Fast At Scale? (Part 2 with VMware's Carol Carpenter)
Molly: Hey, everyone. Molly here from Drift's podcast team. We're back with another episode of CMO Conversations, bringing you part two of Tricia's interview with VMware CMO Carol Carpenter. If you haven't listened to part one yet, I highly recommend going back to that first so you're all caught up. Because today, Carol is walking us through how being a CEO and GM helped her become an even better marketer. Let's get into it.
Tricia: What do you think of like being the CEO, being the GM, how has that helped you be more of a marketer? Do you take the same approach of the team and put that into sort of your direct reports in marketing, is it totally different when you just look at the CEO role?
Carol Carpenter: Well, there are two things I'd say that are different and maybe one thing that's definitely the same. When I became CEO, my kitchen cabinet, one of the pieces of advice they gave me is they said," You should always start with no, because everybody's going to be asking you for stuff, whether it's budget, resources. Always start with no, and then force them to explain and justify." So that was really interesting for me, and I'll tell you how that changed. And then the other part is as CEO, you are the, especially in a company like ElasticBox, which was 50 people at its height, you are the culture. People look to you to set the culture, and that is an incredible weight and an incredible opportunity. It's a real honor to be able to do that. So whatever you say has like 10 times more of the weight than any other senior exec role I've had. Like if I say," Oh, why is the garbage can there," the next thing you know, everybody's skirting around to move the garbage can. It's like the whole people want to please you is just ridiculously over the top. Now, these things happen even as well in the CMO role. What's interesting is then I sold ElasticBox to CenturyLink and then I went to Google Cloud and Google is a yes and culture.
Tricia: Oh, wow.
Carol Carpenter: Yes. And so about three months in, they have these exact coaches who come and check in and make sure you're onboarding well, all that. And he said to me, he goes," Yeah. I've gotten really good feedback. The only thing I want to coach you on is you say no a lot." What works when you are the chief does not work when you are one of many. It was a good reminder of that, and then the weight of what one says, it still matters obviously when you're an executive at a company. It's not quite the extreme of when you're the CEO and everyone's trying to please you, but you still... I mean, I think I've learned two things myself, which is one, you have to ensure that you have naysayers and people with diverse thinking around you. Because when you have positional power, it's hard to get the feedback. You know what I'm talking about. It's hard to get the direct and honest feedback in the work environment. Making sure that you're listening, that you're asking questions, that you're asking people to disagree with you, that you actually assign people in a meeting setting to be the naysayer, not just the builder, but the critic. I have to just make a really conscious effort to do that. And then the second thing is I knew this before, but I would say my relationship with sales is something I think is usually pretty strong after being a CEO and GM.
Tricia: Yeah. That's like a good takeaway because you saw the importance of revenue and then you take that to be the CMO. I mean, you can't walk away from it.
Carol Carpenter: You can't walk away from it, and it really helps to kind of put everything in perspective in terms of there's lots of activities, but where's the impact? Let's cut through some of the chaff to get to the weight.
Tricia: The other thing I think I've experienced with other marketers is that people think of the marketing and they don't really think I call it the operations of the marketing. When you do these marketing activities, then what has to happen for it to turn into revenue? You can have the best messaging, but if it doesn't make sense with the way that your team goes to market, it doesn't matter because it's not going to really reach and resonate. If you have the best product, but you have the wrong comp plan, it's never going to go anywhere either. I think marketers need to spend a lot of time understanding the comp plan of their sales team, the motivations, the audiences that they really have the aptitude to speak with, et cetera.
Carol Carpenter: That's a great example.
Tricia: You have to bring these two things together.
Carol Carpenter: Those are great examples. And that's why I think, I hope that having been in some of these other executive roles that I'm a stronger integrated marketer. How are these things connected? How does this translate to what we're doing in the customer experience team? How does that translate? How are we getting this feedback back to the product team? How do we drive that conductivity and priorities?
Tricia: I love that. Do you think that you would... You mentioned that if you had the right opportunity, which is now is not the right time to talk about this because you're three months into your new role, but do you think in the future, let's say, because we all have a long career still ahead of us, that you would entertain the role of a CEO again or are you happy now kind of resettling back your career into the CMO role?
Carol Carpenter: I am super happy with the challenges we have right now, and I'm really enjoying the CMO role here at VMware. I think for now I'm good. I meant it more like, I don't know, five, 10 years from now. If somebody can run this company, maybe I would. But I really like working at scale. I think that's something I didn't appreciate when I was in my I want to do all these startup mode type of activities. I think I did not appreciate it, but now I really enjoy it. I enjoy the idea that we can touch and impact lots of people, lots of businesses. And it's gratifying. It's really gratifying. I mean, a great example is I'm starting to MD Anderson, their hospital, during COVID and when they were trying to set up these kind of surge centers and the fact that VMware could help them do that, or Feeding America and a lot of people going hungry and they run everything on our digital foundation and the fact that we could help them. That kind of scale and impact feels pretty good that we could help all these businesses.
Tricia: Yeah. It's impressive and also fulfilling, especially when you can connect to the outcome, right?
Carol Carpenter: Yeah, absolutely. And then we also help banks run better and all that. I think it's really fun. The key is, I'm still tweaking a few things, is like, how do you run fast at scale?
Tricia: I mean, that's the biggest challenge especially at scale, right? And the transformation. How do you transform, run, and not break things at scale?
Carol Carpenter: You have to break a few things is what I realized. Change is hard, and so you got to break a few things. And it comes back to helping people understand the why. Why are we doing this? Why? So that it doesn't just seem like we're making changes to make changes.
Tricia: Well, this has been a great chat. It's so interesting with your career. I considered myself kind of putting myself out there and saying," I want to be a CEO." I'm still not sure after talking to you if that's something I want to do, but I'm curious with your career in different roles, if you have one lesson that you've learned along the way that you would want to share with our audience of marketers.
Carol Carpenter: My first boss at Apple was a woman named Barbara Cardello. Phenomenal. She was the vice president of product marketing and product management. She had a really simple rule. She says," Show up on time. And if no one else is in your meeting at the appointed time, start your meeting." And that simple advice, show up, be on time, start your meeting on time, I live by that. It's something that I thank her for that. The second piece... I'm going to actually give you two.
Tricia: Love it.
Carol Carpenter: I stole from Meg Whitman. So I was probably like three months into my job as CEO of ElasticBox. She was two years into her HP transformation. And I don't know if you remember, she did a lot to transform HP. And a friend of mine called me up. She said," Hey, I'm going to this YPO breakfast with Meg Whitman. Do you want to come?" And I said," I'm busy. I just took over this." She's like," No. She's in the middle of a transformation." Obviously my transformation was a small ship. She was on an aircraft carrier. I said okay. I said," Okay, I'll go." Anyway, long story short, it's typical Silicon Valley. I think like 80 people were supposed to show up and only 15 people showed up. Two hours of breakfast with Meg Whitman and I'm like," Oh, this is fascinating. I am going to pay attention." So somebody asked her," Hey, Meg." It was a very open, direct breakfast." You spend over a hundred million dollars running for governor against Jerry Brown. What did you learn from that?" And she said," Well, I learned I'm not a career politician. I'm really good at business, but I'm not a career politician." And she said," He also taught me a really important lesson in symbolism and every cycle tell us more." She said," Well, you know." He would say something that she thought was just silly like," If I'm elected governor, the government will stop paying for worker cell phone bills." And then he would get some headline that would say," Jerry Brown, making government work for the people." She's a very left brain analytical person. She would say," Are you kidding me? That's like 0. 0002% of the overall budget." Anyway, and she said she realized she needed to learn how to communicate and do things that have symbolism. So of course, we said," Well, what did you do then?" So anyway, she came to HP and they used to have executive parking with big tall barbed wire gates and a guard at a little shack.
Tricia: Like going to prison.
Carol Carpenter: Yeah. And so she said to her assistant, she said," I want you to call and get the largest tractor demolition crew in here as soon as possible." Because one of her big mantras when she first got there was like, spend HP's money and like it's your own. And she was trying to flatten and remove all this hierarchy and corporateness. Anyway, her assistant comes back and says," Okay. They can come this weekend." She goes," No, no, no. I want them to come at 12 noon. I want the big tractor to rumble by the cafeteria." Make it a symbolic event. And then her second story, somebody said," Okay, what else have you done?" And she said," Well, we have this annual meeting of all of our top execs and we get them all together." And she said," We were at this mid hotel. It was a Western Atlanta." And she sat down with her EA the night before, and there's supposed to be all the VPs, 250, 300 people from around the world. And it came to her attention, 10 people have not checked in. So the next morning, she stands up, opens up the meeting, welcomes everybody." Great to see everybody." Blah, blah, blah. And she says," It's come to my attention that 10 of you have ignored my request to spend HP's money like it's your own, and that 10 of you have checked into the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead. At the next break, you need to go over, check out, and don't come back." And the crowd stood up and gave her a standing ovation. And she said to this small group of us, she said," That story went around the world," and was far more impactful than her sending memos saying spend HP's money like it's your own. So anyway, it really made a big impression on me. And this is not just for marketing. This is for anyone in a leadership role, which is take the time. She took the time, and I do this now. I take a half day a month to think about what are my top level priorities that I want to communicate to the team and how can I do that in a symbolic, meaningful, memorable way so that people remember. People don't remember what you said. They remember how you made them feel, right?
Tricia: Yeah. I love that. That's a great takeaway. Thank you for sharing those stories. That's amazing.
Carol Carpenter: They're not mine. What I did do is when I went...
Tricia: You've taken them and you've applied them now yourself in whatever way that you have.
Carol Carpenter: Yeah. So when I got to ElasticBox and we were in the middle of this turnaround, there are paperwork. There had been a prior CEO, things had not gone so well, and there was so much angst. And the other thing, you know this, when you go into a transformation situation, a third of the people will get on the bandwagon right away, a third of the people are going to say," I'm out," and then you've got that third who are in between and sitting on the fence waiting. You need to win that third really fast. There was all this angst and people were complaining and people weren't happy. So I said," Okay. This is what we're going to do." And I had my kids help me make a box. They took a cardboard box and we put ElasticBox 1.0 on it. I gave everybody Post- it notes and I said," Okay. I want you to write down all the problems, all the issues from the past few years, all the pain. Put it on all these Post- it notes. We're going to throw them in this box. We're going to go out to the fire escape, and we're going to burn the box in effigy. And then we are going to start ElasticBox 2.0, and we are going to let go of the angst and issues that we can do nothing about, and we are going to look forward." That's what we did. We had our own mini Burning Man.
Tricia: I think it's important mentally. What you're describing has the symbolism, but there's also a mental component to it. I had a very similar experience at Drift when I got here. The team was amazing at creating content, at driving inbound, and really being committed to the quality of the things that they were producing, but they weren't aligned. And my fear was that the market wasn't understanding what we actually did, because we had so many different messages, so many different pieces of content. I wanted everybody to integrate around fewer topics. And so everyone said," Oh, we love that. We're doing way too much. We're too busy or exhausted. This sounds great. This sounds great." And I'm like, that was simple. I want everybody over. Let's move forward two months later, no one's moving forward. And I said," Okay. Let's brainstorm on these simple topics. We're going to brainstorm on the topics." And then all of a sudden, the same thing. And then I said," You know what? In three months, we're going to be at the next quarter. So in a month, we're going to start planning two months out for the next quarter. And I want you to visualize that we're on a plane and I've been asking you to change the plane while you're on the plane. And it's very hard, because you're already seated in your seat and you're comfy and everything else, but we're going to get to a destination. We're going to get off our plane and we're going to get on a new plane. 100% new plane, but we're going to define it for the two months before we get there." And it worked. Everybody was able to plan into the new place and get settled into the new place. And here we are.
Carol Carpenter: Good for you.
Tricia: Very similar.
Carol Carpenter: Good for you. It's great you took it... You have to kind of take it head on and talk about it openly. Good for you.
Tricia: Yeah, but I love that. I love the idea of just that visual I think. You have that visual of putting the old things that you don't like in the box, lighting them on fire. Excellent.
Carol Carpenter: Not a good thing to do right now in California with all these fires.
Tricia: Yeah., probably not, but maybe if you have an incinerator if you're in a big building, you can just go to the basement.
Carol Carpenter: Thank you so much for having me.
Tricia: Thank you for joining us. It's been great. Tons of wisdom that you've shared. I love your life lessons, the things you've learned from others. I think that's a key thing is to learn from others and to just take and adapt for your own. Just so grateful for you to share. One thing is that sometimes people have questions. Do you have someone that monitors your Twitter or something else if people had questions for you?
Carol Carpenter: Oh, I look at it every day or every other day. I'm happy to take them straight directly.
Tricia: Okay, perfect.
Carol Carpenter: Yeah.
Tricia: That's great. Well, thank you everyone for listening. It's been great to have Carol Carpenter here, the CMO of VMware. We wish you the best of luck in your transformation as you push forward with this growth into the SaaS business and the continued success that VMware has had for years. I'm sure it's going to be amazing with you in your leadership position. Thank you so much for joining us.
Carol Carpenter: Thank you so much.