As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Cory Munchbach.
Cory Munchbach is the Chief Operating Officer at Customer Data Platform BlueConic, where she supports customers like HEINEKEN USA and VF Corporation with their digital transformation strategies. She is passionate about serving her customers and works tirelessly to help them better understand how they can unlock the power of first-party customer data to transform customer relationships and drive business growth. Cory has been at the forefront of the marketing technology landscape throughout her career, having worked as an analyst at Forrester Research where she covered business and consumer technology trends and the fast-moving marketing tech landscape.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I would never have imagined my career path looking like this, to be candid! I was a political science major in college and had grand ambitions of returning to graduate school to get a PhD in public policy and perhaps teaching. What’s interesting is that, even though I clearly have not taken that path, the common thread of most of my career has been adjacent to teaching — I spend the majority of my time, whether externally with customers or internally with my colleagues, finding different ways to introduce new ideas and get them to stick. I love getting other people energized about something and working toward making it happen. During my time at Forrester, that was often in the form of project consulting, speeches, and workshops about my coverage areas, which had been marketing strategy and technology. But after learning so much as an analyst, I wanted to get my hands dirty building a company instead of just writing about and consulting for them, and knew getting this fledgling technology off the ground was a huge opportunity, which compelled me to seek employment with then early-stage start-up BlueConic. When I accepted a role with the company in 2015, I received a text message from CEO Bart Heilbron that said, “Hurry up and get here, we’ve got a dream to build.” And I’ve never looked back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
BlueConic has Dutch founders, so when I started, I was not only the first female in the organization, but also one of the first US hires. I had to learn fast about the differences in work styles, which can have a massive impact on culture and feedback. For example, Americans tend to look for the positives and regularly give praise, whereas the Dutch generally have a more laid back approach. If something is good, they don’t dwell on it and instead focus on what isn’t working to try and fix it. In fact, I remember my first management offsite, where there were three Dutch and two Americans in the meeting. I asked everyone to write down what we were doing badly, what we were doing well, and what we wanted to change. When it came to what we were doing well, our Dutch CEO wrote “nothing.” I was fuming because I was literally thinking if what we’re doing is so bad, why are we all still here? On the other hand, he couldn’t believe that was how I had interpreted his feedback or had that reaction to what he wrote. From that point onwards, I realized our different cultures had to find a way to meet each other in the middle. We’ve had a lot of visceral, emotional, and often difficult conversations in figuring it all out so we could get to a place where our different cultures can become the best integrated version of itself.
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?
I am oddly embarrassed that I cannot think of a single “funny” mistake! Maybe I remain traumatized from them :)
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?
My success is really a product of a village of invested, empowering mentors. I owe my start in this industry to David Cooperstein, who hired me as a research associate at Forrester. He was both a tireless advocate for me to have new opportunities throughout the company and a generous investor of his own time in my development. To this day, he remains a trusted advisor, helpful coach, and adored friend.
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?
My husband refers to me as a hurricane — I have a lot of energy. For me, release and relieving stress is about how I direct my energy and balance it all out. Exercise is a huge outlet for me, but so too is carving out time to read, which is about the only thing that I can sit still for hours on end doing. We recently introduced programming at BlueConic called IEP — Intentional Energetic Presence — which is work led by Anese Cavanaugh and it’s an excellent set of tools to bring your best self to whatever you’re doing, whether that’s a tough meeting or just a difficult stretch in your life. One of the key takeaways from that work is about taking the time to be clear for yourself what a good outcome is and what specific things you’ll do to try and secure that outcome. I am much more effective when I feel prepared and structured, so ensuring I give myself the time to do that preparation is crucial to how I show up. Another thing I love is what Barack Obama wrote in A Promised Land, which is that “enthusiasm makes up for a lot of deficiencies” — and that is SO true for me! Sometimes I can’t be as prepared or have as much control over the situation as I would like, but I can always bring enthusiasm and that goes a long way.
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?
There have been countless studies that show a direct correlation between diverse teams and those businesses that consistently outperform financially. But even though there’s a clear financial benefit to making your teams more diverse, it’s also a broader obligation for employers to work harder at improving that imbalance. I am a big fan of the book Unleashed by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. They have a terrific framework for how to think about building inclusion into organizations and teams whereby you don’t just have new perspectives for the sake of it but rather that you expand the capacity and knowledge of the entire entity.
Our own leadership has a ratio of five men to four women but there’s room for improvement for other types of representation. If your own team doesn’t represent the population, how can you ever hope to ensure your business is making the right decisions for your customers and seeing things from a diverse range of perspectives? Part of why there remains so much work to be done here is that it’s perceived as a nice-to-have rather than a core business driver. That’s changing, but not fast or widely enough.
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.
I am increasingly convinced that there is a role for business to play in combating some of the core issues of our society — macro topics like climate change, poverty and extreme inequity, and diversity and access — are, if left unaddressed, fundamentally bad for the economy long-term. Rebecca Henderson’s work on Reimagining Capitalism influenced my thinking considerably on this topic, as did David Edwards’ book Creating Things That Matter. What does that look like tangibly? There are a few variables that impact my answer to that question which includes: your role, your seniority, your company stage, and your company industry. That is to say, a CEO founder of a seed-stage company that is just getting started has a completely different set of tools at their disposal than a marketing director at a Fortune 500 has at theirs. It’s not to say we don’t have all the ability and means — it’s just that sometimes I think it can be really overwhelming to get started because the tactics and levers aren’t right-sized to your situation. That said, courage and clarity of mission matter for everyone looking to take on this work.
Inclusivity means actively seeking out perspectives from individuals who have identity-based experiences that are different from yours. That can be in a meeting or it can be while working on a project with external partners. But it requires widening the aperture and actively inviting in those different perspectives. Representation is the next level of that where those perspectives are found within the organization or community as part of the system. To be equitable is to design a system in which parity of access, power, and privilege cuts across all different groups of people.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I’m always cautious to create too much separation between executives and non-executives because it’s all relative and emphasizing what everyone shares creates a collective ownership. But it’s true that there are things that are different. Executives have to take a wider view than other leaders, both across the organization but also over different periods of time. We also have to be able to operate at the highest level strategically while translating down into the org and making tradeoffs. And, the higher up the ladder you go, the more alone you are — more information that cannot be shared, more scrutiny on your words and actions, and high-value responsibilities that are singularly yours. This last one is what I think is hardest to understand until you’ve been in that role — the isolation that can accompany knowing you’re the last station, so to speak.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
So much ink has been spilled on this topic and I’ve experienced them personally in addition to knowing so many peers who have too, and more. One in particular that I’ll call out is also one that was recently highlighted in the 2021 Lean In/McKinsey “Women in the Workplace” study which is the emotional labor that women are expected to do as part of their jobs that is not only unrecognized and uncompensated, it’s also not being done by men at nearly the same levels. This excerpt stands out:
“Women leaders are meeting this moment and taking on the work that comes with it. They are doing more than men in similar positions in supporting the people on their teams — for example, by helping team members navigate work–life challenges, ensuring that their workloads are manageable, and checking in on their overall well-being. Women leaders also spend more time than men on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities, such as supporting employee resource groups and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. Senior-level women are twice as likely as senior-level men to dedicate time to these tasks at least weekly. And finally, women leaders are showing up as more active allies to women of color. They are more likely than men to educate themselves about the challenges that women of color face at work, to speak out against discrimination, and to mentor or sponsor women of color. When managers support employee well-being and companies prioritize DEI, employees are happier, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving their jobs. In spite of all this, relatively few companies formally recognize employees who go above and beyond in these areas — and this needs to change.”
So in addition to the challenges related to the way most systems are embedded with sexism and structural barriers to advancement, women are simply doing more work and expected to do it with more competence, more grace, and more success than the standard men are held to.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t know what to expect!
Do you think everyone is 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?
I don’t — and I think it’s a fallacy that successful careers are only ones that result in becoming an executive. In my opinion, being an executive (and enjoying it — not just doing it!) requires a lot of stamina, willingness to adapt, ability to self-regulate your energies, and the skills to work across a lot of lanes of the business. An excellent product executive also understands the company’s go-to-market; a stellar customer success executive has a tight grasp on the financial plan for the business. I think the best executives are extremely curious and know that finding ways to collaborate will create even, shared success.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Trust your gut and use your voice. Don’t be afraid to ask the question or voice the concern. You’re going to be right so much more than you’re wrong. Make sure you’re actively inviting participation from your whole team — in ways that fit their styles. And as you rise through the ranks, don’t pull the ladder up behind you. Your success and achievements will be so much more rewarding because you brought a lot of people along than they would be celebrated solo. The opinions of people who work for you matter so much more — generally and over the long-term — than those above.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am not ready to say that I’ve made the world a better place — at least not yet. But I do take seriously the enormous privileges I have and the power that those equate to and afford me and I try every day to do at least one thing to positively impact the people and/or circumstances around me. I also started Carnot in 2020 to more actively plant seeds of change. But much, much to be done.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- “You may be right and it may not matter here.” A very wise man said this to me and honestly, I’m not sure I would have agreed with it or realized the power in it when I was younger. I’ve gotten such a greater appreciation for nuance and grey as I’ve gotten older and this lesson is one I admittedly struggle with sometimes in both my personal and professional life. But I’m trying!
- “All we can do is everything we can do,” which is attributed to David Axelrod in Dan Harris’ book Ten Percent Happier. I am easily overwhelmed by how much I am not doing, how much impact I have not had, how much work I have not accomplished. This quote grounds me in what I can actually control while still setting a high bar for what I should hold myself to.
- “By whom, on what day, under what conditions?” George Saunders asked this rhetorical question on Ezra Klein’s podcast and it sort of stopped me in my tracks. It was such a beautifully succinct framing for how we need to approach every situation to really understand it. And while our experiences generate helpful pattern recognition, it’s also important to take fresh eyes and be open to new context.
- “Plotting is one of the stages of grief.” This is from Stacey Abrams when she was a Chief guest and I just loved it. The permission to feel, the necessary nature of emotion, is both so liberating and energizing. Instead of keeping it all cool and even, we need the agency that comes from an emotional response.
- “If you personally want to grow as fast as your company, you have to give away your job every couple months.” This comes from Molly Graham’s piece “Give Away Your Legos” which is hands-down the best piece on scaling startups that I’ve read and her wisdom is a guiding light for me. She offers some hard truths that I personally needed to learn, but now also can use to help others when they arrive at the same place.
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.
Access to good, quality education. Without a doubt. Knowledge is power and access to it should not be a privilege nor a luxury good.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Maya Angelou’s “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is relevant in my life every single day — I am constantly, relentlessly learning and trying to be better as a result. The work is never done.
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
This is a VERY hard question because so many people inspire and educate me. But I’d go with Megan Rapinoe. I’m a diehard fan of the US Women’s National Soccer Team and her courage as an activist and a player blows me away. I have a t-shirt that says “I want to be like Megan Rapinoe when I grow up” and her goal-scoring celebration from the World Cup is my Slack avatar. Her autobiography, One Life, is an excellent read.