As a part of our interview series called “Women of the C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Christena Garduno.
Christina Lowris Panos is the steward of the Corcoran brand, she is generous, vibrant and fiery. She owns a big role that encompasses the company’s marketing and advertising initiatives across the globe. As a marketing leader, Christina honed her skills with the venerable J. Walter Thompson Company, serving such diverse brands as Clairol, Trident and DeBeers. And as MasterCard International’s Director of Global Brand Building, she was instrumental in adapting the credit-card giant’s brand messaging to global sensibilities and bringing its feel-good “Priceless” campaign to consumers across Europe, Asia and Australia.
Christina joined The Corcoran Group in 2004 and promptly initiated a top-to-bottom redesign of the brand and a modernization of its digital expressions. She led a foray into original video, jump-started Corcoran’s now-thriving social media presence and launched the acclaimed “Live Who You Are” campaign, engaging a trove of renowned photographers — including Annie Leibovitz, Tina Barney and Paul Castello — to capture the essence of the brand.
The daughter of an Emmy Award-winning news writer and documentary filmmaker, Christina spent her childhood roaming the CBS television newsroom. (She would later do Mom proud as a News Assistant for New York City’s own NY1, covering breaking news across the five boroughs). She heeded the call of Wellesley College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, graduating magna cum laude with dual degrees in Political Science and African American Studies. Today, she is a devoted mother of two, a wannabe wedding singer, a bakery fanatic and an insatiable reader.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the more interesting experiences of my career at Corcoran was working with Annie Leibovitz in 2014 on our “Live Who You Are” brand campaign. Having Annie Leibovitz agree to associate herself with a brand I was instrumental in creating was truly a high point of my career. Annie is a legend, and I had always greatly admired her work. My admiration for her only grew as I worked with her and saw, firsthand, her work ethic and commitment to getting the perfect shot. The way she brings people to life in her photos enabled us to deepen our message about the personal nature of “home.” Her imprint on our brand was truly unique.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started at Corcoran I was not yet thirty years old and I had been hired to do a very weighty task — rebrand a company that had been associated with Barbara Corcoran for over thirty years. Barbara was still physically at the company at that point, just a day or two a week, and one day she came over to say hello to me. The minute she saw me she said, “How old ARE you??” I panicked and became very self-conscious about how young I was to be doing such an important job and I lied to her and said I was thirty. Now, I was turning thirty in about two months, but to me, it sounded a lot better than twenty-nine!
I look back now and laugh but the truth is that I should not have been ashamed about my age. I had the experience and ability to take on the job — even if I might have been younger than she expected. So much in the business world has changed since that moment and CEOs in their twenties is almost commonplace. The experience made me more open minded as I hired people over the years and made me pay less attention to age and more attention to talent and ability.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was at MasterCard, I worked on the Global Brand Building team and I had a wonderful and supportive boss, Courtney Gibbons. We were a team that traveled overseas often, partnering with local MasterCard offices to build brand awareness. Courtney accompanied me on my first big international trips but very quickly put her confidence in me to travel on my own, representing our team at large and liaising with the local MasterCard offices and agency partners. My first trip to Tokyo was filled with a lot of mishaps and miscommunications but having to stand up alone, with authority, in front of a room of Japanese businessmen and provide direction, prepared me for almost anything. I am so grateful that Courtney pushed me beyond my comfort zone and didn’t give me an option of backing out — it gave me the confidence, wherewithal and thick skin that I would call upon so many times in the next stage of my career.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am a big believer in visualization and practice in both my personal and work life. Before a big meeting or event, I spend the previous few days visualizing how I want the day to go. I usually do this before I go to bed or when I wake up. I walk my mind through the day and see myself having the exact experience that I am hoping to have — from beginning to end. I don’t entertain an alternate outcome.
I can remember as if it was yesterday, the day in 2005 that I had to get up in front of the entire company and debut the rebrand of Corcoran (after the departure of Barbara Corcoran). It was such a momentous occasion, and the agents were so curious and hopeful. I personally had a tremendous amount at stake and I knew how important it was to have a positive reception from the agents and staff. I spent weeks visualizing myself going up the stairs to the podium, having a seamless presentation and seeing the audience stand on their feet and give a rousing applause. And I am happy to say that is exactly how it turned out.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I have been part of an executive team for almost 18 years that has been run, and primarily staffed, with women. This is a rarity in the business world, and in particular, the real estate world. I am grateful to have been relatively protected from the challenges of gender equality in the workplace and to have benefitted from female leadership. However, gender equality is obviously just one form of diversity.
There are so many reasons why a diverse executive team is important in business. The first is perspective. I don’t see how a team can make decisions that are relevant to a diverse consumer or customer base if all the ideas are coming from people who all have one shared experience or point of view. The second is representation. I think it’s very important for the executive team to model what the possibilities are for the staff who are looking at their career trajectories. I know that when I was starting out my career in advertising, the fact that there were women in leadership positions gave me the confidence to imagine a career in the business. I ended up moving industries, but I started my career knowing that there were people like me who could achieve success and leadership.
In my role as CMO, I am committed to building a brand that is inclusive and approachable. We have an opportunity, in our advertising, to express that commitment, and I have worked very hard to reflect diversity across gender, race, age and sexual orientation in all of our brand campaigns.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a business leader, it’s our responsibility to prioritize inclusion and representation in our company and to be a positive reflection for society at large. From a recruiting perspective, while we are always looking for the best person for the job, we are committed to broadening our approach to ensure we’re attracting a diverse slate of candidates to consider for open roles. We also work to ensure that our commitment to equal employment opportunity is evident in all internal practices, from promotion decisions to talent reviews.
Celebrating diversity internally is another step. For example, at Corcoran, we have been committed to supporting the LBGTQIA community for over 40 years and we have made PRIDE Month one of the most important events on our marketing calendar, year after year. We always make sure to involve our agents and staff in the month-long celebration. For example, this year’s campaign was focused around user-generated content and explored the idea of “Where I celebrate Pride” and the message was “No matter where you are, Corcoran encourages you to be proud. Let your colors shine and #livewhoyouare every day.” This PRIDE content was featured across all our social channels and hopefully shows our acceptance and support of the LBGTQIA community.
Lastly, along with Realogy, we strive to cultivate and maintain a diverse and inclusive culture that represents the shared experiences of our clients, affiliate owners, agents and staff. Our commitment to DE&I includes mandatory Unconscious Bias training throughout the year and Corcoran’s Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Council actively focuses on making our company a place where diversity is celebrated. In the past year, the Advisory Council has hosted an Asian American Heritage Month panel, a historic virtual walking tour in honor of Black History Month and a Women’s History Month wealth building panel, just to name a few. We not only encourage all of our agents and staff to attend but we provide content on these important holidays and occasions for the agents to disseminate on their social networks. I hope that these efforts show our honest appreciation for and support of a more diverse and inclusive workplace and society.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CMO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think that a myth of being an executive is that you have all the answers and always know best. In fact, I think the most important trait for an executive is to be honest about what you do know and what you don’t know. I like to staff my team with smart people who are experts in their area of study — whether it’s social media or data analytics. I know that they know more than me on many topics and I am proud of that fact. It’s my job to take that knowledge and find a way for it to work the hardest for our brand and the particular message we are trying to communicate to the consumer.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I always knew that I would be a working mother, probably because I was raised by one. But I never questioned the fact that my number one priority in life would be my children. Finding a way to balance work and family life is the biggest challenge that I, and all my working mom friends, face. I think that typically, this is disproportionately an issue for women in business versus men. Finding a working environment that is amenable to the challenges of a working mom is not always easy. I think a silver lining of COVID has been the opportunity for many women to work at home on a more frequent basis and to be more available to family. I hope that this is a trend that continues, as women show that they continue to be as productive in the workplace, with a more flexible schedule.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I first started my job, I was consumed with the big picture and how I was going to reimagine this brand. Brand building and developing our advertising campaigns was all I could think about for the first five years of my job. Once we hit a comfortable stride, I had a little more breathing room but by then, we had grown, the business and the media landscape had changed, and I needed to expand my team. I now have a team of over 50 people, spread across the country. I am still consumed with the brand, but a large part of my job is managing people and making sure that I am creating a team where people feel challenged, supported and are having fun. In my mind, work is not just a place where you clock in and out every day. We have always been more of a family at Corcoran — many people on my team have been with me for over 10 years — but it’s harder to keep that collegial feeling when you get bigger and are physically separated because of a pandemic! I really enjoy being part of such a large and dynamic team and know that spending time fostering connections between the team members will only make us a stronger team.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Without question, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. I have worked with many brilliant and creative people who will never be able to survive on an executive team. They wouldn’t be happy, and their teammates wouldn’t be happy either. There are three traits that I think are very important to have to be a successful executive. The first is the ability to give up control. It might sound funny, but if you have the need to control every situation and get upset when decisions are made by the executive team that you are not in favor of, being an executive is not for you. That is not to say that you shouldn’t speak up for what you think is right, but you must pick your battles. And pick the ones that will have the most impact on you and your team, or that you feel extremely strongly about, and let the other ones go. Over the years, I have worked with people who constantly want to upend the organization or fight the rest of the team’s decisions — on almost every topic — big or small. Even if you might have some valid points, you must weigh the benefit of always being the argumentative one in the room if you want to be a valued member of the executive team.
The second is honesty and the ability to give constructive feedback, even if it might be painful for the other person to hear. Within my first month on the job, I had to fire someone who was a good fifteen years older than me, and I was not prepared for it. I felt horrible and anxious and didn’t know how I was going to get through it. The best advice I got was to be as honest as possible because shrouding the real issues will not be of service to the person at their next job. I made it through the conversation the best I could and considering that I still see this person from time to time and exchange pleasantries, I have to assume I didn’t bomb it. But it was a good lesson that stayed with me throughout the rest of my career. While it hasn’t gotten that much easier, I try to be straightforward with everyone I work with. I have learned that people really want the feedback and the clearer you are with them, the more you are helping them out in the long run. I don’t think it’s hard to succeed as a manager and executive unless you develop the ability to give honest feedback.
The third trait is the ability to speak in public and in front of a large group of people. I am a big believer in the power of public speaking, and I think it’s a class that should be offered in schools starting at a young age. I have met so many people in business that struggle with public speaking, and I do think it can be something that sets a good executive apart from a great executive. As an executive, when you can deliver your message and relate your passion for your business in person and in a way that can touch people, there is no substitute for that. Presenting in a way that doesn’t show confidence or doesn’t communicate how compelling something is, can make the difference between acceptance or resistance to an idea or plan. And as an executive and manager, having the faith of your colleagues and team is crucial.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice to other leaders to help their teams thrive would be to focus on creating a sense of community among the team members. Nothing makes me happier than when I get a text from one of my team members on a Saturday night with a photo of a few of them going out to dinner. Or, as happened the other day, photos from Halloween when a few of them dressed up together for a team member’s birthday party. Seeing that makes me feel like I have done something right — hired a group of people that work well together, have things in common and like each other enough to spend time together outside of work.
Developing a sense of community among my team members has always been a big priority for me — we have a tradition of all dressing up to go to the office on Halloween and parading around the Corcoran headquarters — regardless of how silly we look. We have a contest for best costume and spend the afternoon having a pizza party. One year we decorated pumpkins and had a winner for most creative. We regularly celebrate birthdays, engagements and new babies and make a point out of celebrating important milestones amongst the team.
COVID has without a doubt interrupted a lot of our community building, but we are slowly coming back to our regularly scheduled programming. I believe a happy team is a productive team and it is always worth the time and financial investment to create opportunities for your team to get to know each other better. Plus, I genuinely like spending time with my team and am always learning something from them — whether it’s a project they are working on, or just a new Tik Tok dance…
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In answering this question, all I can think of is the lyric from Hamilton: “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.” There are so many ways in which I dream of giving back to the world, over the next few years. It is a big priority of mine and something I have been focused on, particularly in the aftermath of COVID. One way in which I think I could be of service is as a mentor to young women — in terms of career development and navigating a work/life balance in corporate America.
So far, I have been able to achieve this in a very small way through our corporate internship program. I have been lucky enough to have wonderful interns throughout the years that I have kept in touch with and been able to advise on their career choices and answer questions along the way. I also have a very large “alumni society” of team members who have since gone on to pursue careers inside and outside of real estate. I am often a sounding board for them as they make both life and career decisions and feel so fortunate that we are still connected and that I have an opportunity to pass on any of my hard-won advice. I truly enjoy this benefit of my success and hope to be able to grow this passion in the future.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. How important it is in business to know a second language. Now that the Corcoran brand is being franchised across the country and the world, I am in the position of telling our brand story to a very diverse group of people. I think knowing another language, particularly Spanish, would be a great asset in connecting on a more authentic level, with other executives.
2. How hard it is to get uninterrupted time to think, during the day. My workdays are often filled up with back-to-back meetings (and now Zooms!) from 9am to 6pm. It is very difficult to find the opportunity to work on larger projects that require both quiet and time or to attend workshops and conferences that can be helpful to the business. I have now started the practice of blocking off one-to-two-hour slots during the week and forcing myself to work at the local library so that I am forced to focus and stay off of my phone and email. It is an incredibly fruitful practice and I wish they had the confidence to start doing it years ago.
3. How important it is to understand the financial side of the business. I happened to have a very good training ground in managing a P&L from MasterCard days and this knowledge was called on very quickly as I had to take over a department that processed hundreds of invoices a month from vendors and independent contractors. However, once Corcoran became a public company, I had another learning curve in terms of understanding the ins and outs of stock pricing, revenue, earnings, etc. I think there is a misperception that overseeing marketing means that you will be involved in a narrow part of the business, but I would say that I spend almost 30% of my time talking about budgeting. I think it would behoove anyone who is in a marketing function and wants to grow, to actively seek out knowledge in the financial workings of the business.
4. This answer is for those who are looking to have children at some point in their career. I have always been so driven and committed to my job that I wish I understood how important it was to really unplug during my maternity leave. I took an extended leave — four months — but I was still so connected to the goings-on at the office because I felt responsible for my team. Of course, the work wasn’t going anywhere and was right there waiting for me when I got back. But you can never get back those early months with a new baby.
5. How much fun I was going to have and how important it is to have a sense of humor in everything you do. Pam Liebman (our CEO) always tells the story that when I interviewed for the job, she thought I was qualified but I was so serious that she didn’t think I would be much fun. Ha! I was so focused and determined to be successful at the job that it wasn’t easy for me to relax and let down my hair. I was very fortunate that Pam created a very laid-back environment and slowly I got to be more comfortable with being myself around everyone, without sacrificing my focus or goals. And the more comfortable I became, the more I connected to my teammates. That, in turn, made me more willing to take risks with my work and gave me more confidence in suggesting innovative ideas. We laugh today at Pam’s first impression of me because we have been having fun at work together now for 18 years.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I feel very strongly that as far as women have come in the workplace, there are still many women (at all levels of power) who have difficulties taking agency over their financial compensation at work. We all grow up learning that it’s not polite to talk about money. But unfortunately, that sentiment has spilled over to the workplace, where it really doesn’t belong. Most of my female contemporaries share the feeling that they never had proper training or guidance in how to ensure that they are properly compensated for their work or to have a constructive conversation if they feel underpaid or undervalued in an organization. I would love to be involved in a movement to help educate women as they graduate college, on how to navigate these conversations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have so many favorite “Life Lesson” quotes that it is hard to pick just one. But I will offer one that I find myself relying on all the time. When I was an Account Executive at JWT, I had a great boss who told me that when she was agonizing over a tough decision, her grandmother used to say: “If you have to ask, the answer is no.” I cannot tell you how many times I think about this saying. Whether it is evaluating a new hire, assessing an offer, or reviewing creative, I know that if I am questioning it too much in my mind, it is not something I should do. It can often feel like a very “cold” test but I pride myself on making quick decisions, and having faith in this adage has enabled me to do just that.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love the opportunity to meet Tory Burch. I have admired her career since the start and respect her commitment to building a brand that is consistent, innovative and most of all, joyful. She has never lost the sprit in which she originally launched her brand. But what is so admirable about her is her commitment to paying forward her success. What she has done for women’s empowerment with her Embrace Ambition Summit is truly honorable. She had used her voice and her resources to help women all over the world and to empower them with knowledge that they would otherwise never have access to.
As the daughter of a single mother and the graduate of a woman’s college, I have always gravitated toward causes that empower women and give them opportunities to advance their position in life. The fact that Tory has chosen to make this her cause, while building a world class business is truly inspiring. I hope that I will have to opportunity to pay back my own success and help other women succeed in business.