As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Addy.
Courtney Addy, General Manager at WITHIN, began her career in insurance and finance, but quickly recognized her passion for marketing. She spent 20 years at GE, eventually rising to CMO of Global Marketing. Courtney was drawn to WITHIN by the ethos of a truly consolidated marketing stack combining performance, branding, retention and growth and the compelling challenge of leading a growing team of brilliant professionals. She lives on a farm in Western Massachusetts with her family and an ever-growing menagerie of animals.
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?
After 20 years climbing the executive ladder at GE, I, like many, have found myself in a wonderful phase of reinvention — intentionally pivoting from brand-side B2B marketing primarily in financial services to a focus on retail and DTC on the agency side. As a former advertising agency intern, I have, to some degree, come full circle. I now oversee the rapid growth of the diversified media channels at WITHIN which include managed service offerings for our affiliate, influencer, lifecycle, marketplace, search engine optimization and TV practices.
Along the way I married a man from the Berkshires who has filled my life with two amazing children and non-stop adventure. In 2016 we bought an old homestead and adopted the resident emu and chickens. Over the last five years we have been fortunate to find ourselves untangling orchards, restoring forgotten fields, tending gardens and learning how to talk to the animals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I can remember spending hours preparing for a meeting with our founder, Joe Yakuel. Putting together a super succinct one-pager to pitch my ideas on organizational design, I was ready to debate and defend my rationale and the investment in our hour long weekly meeting. He took one look at it and said, “This looks good, are these roles posted yet? Have you spoken with HR?” I didn’t get it at first and kept advocating for my plan. He cut me off and said, “Courtney, this is nice but not necessary. We trust you. What can we do to help you get this done?” A decision that would have taken 6 months anywhere else took less than 6 minutes. That was almost a year ago now. Looking back, it was that conversation that gave me the confidence to move fast and grow my business to what it is today.
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 assume you’ve heard of the boy scout’s motto, yes? “Always be prepared,” right? Well, bear with me here. Early on in my career, in the middle of a stretch of all-day meetings we had a very quick “bio break” and I discovered I had started my period. I ran back to my desk to find the only thing I had was a couple of quarters. I grabbed both for good measure and raced back to the ladies’ room. I dropped the first one into the machine, nothing. Second one, nothing. Pretty sure I tore half a nail off begging the machine to relent. Sheer panic. Outside the bathroom doors in the lobby the receptionist and meeting attendees watched as I tore across the marble floors in a frenzied gallop in my pencil skirt and 3 inch heels. I began to scan the floor for anyone I could ask for spare change, no questions asked. I found some kind soul and raced back to the lobby, down the stairwell and to the restroom on the next floor. I prayed for success this time (thank god yes!) and reentered the already restarted meeting out of breath and in a cool sweat. Later that day I went up to our receptionist to explain myself and inform her of the broken machine and demand that no one suffer the same peril. Next thing I knew she took matters into her own hands and, with a complete lack of anonymity, she picked up the phone and called maintenance. “Ms. Addy would like to be reimbursed for her failed tampon purchase today in the amount of 50 cents.” Two days later my manager’s administrative assistant called me down to her desk and looked at me a little funny as she handed me an envelope containing two quarters. But, as luck and a little grit would have it, from that day on there were free tampons in all the office bathrooms. You are welcome ladies.
Self deprecating story aside, preparation is really important as a leader. One of the keys to my success has been the ability to see around corners. Anticipation and preparation are skills that can be developed, and when problems arise you can be more proactive and less reactive in your response. Just ask any good experiential marketer. I am talking about you Sean Florio and David Wildman.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have always enjoyed the debate between the efficacy of “mentors” vs. “sponsors.” Sponsorship was something I naturally pursued — seeking meaningful work, getting noticed and having an advocate with a seat at the table when it was time to discuss promotional paths and career opportunities. Mike Rowan was one of those people for me. At the time, he was running our specialty lending business and his CMO had taken a leave of absence to run for public office. I was in our headquarters function at the time and begged my manager to allow me to volunteer to support Mike’s team. He said yes on the condition that I continued to do my current role. So I did my job, and the CMO role too and the rest was history. It completely accelerated my trajectory. The CMO didn’t win, but also didn’t return and my strategy paid off. I went to work for Mike full time. This is where I got the first taste of one of Ray Dalio’s “principles,” the magical combination of meaningful work and meaningful relationships. Mike was one of the best leaders I ever worked with. I am grateful to him for being such an incredibly strong male ally and sponsor, with an unflappable moral compass who saw me as an equal even when I was just an ambitious kid looking to learn and laugh along the way.
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 think it’s important to have a strong self-awareness on how your body naturally responds to stress. Much has been written about the reactive tendencies of “fight, flight or freeze.” I am definitely a fighter so sometimes it’s important for me to “defuse” before potentially tense situations. My guidance is to not make the process of “destressing” a source of stress. While I wish I could say that I have been able to develop a sustainable mediation practice or workout routine, they have remained elusive to me over the years. I found myself clamouring the kids out the door, showing up late to a class and watching the clock like a hawk to make it to my next meeting on time. There will come a time when that gets easier or I make it more of a priority. For now, I keep it very simple with techniques that work for me that I can access pretty much anywhere.
I am sure you’re familiar with the phrase “take time to smell the roses”? If you are like me, there have been days where I’ve gotten so wrapped up behind a screen that I have not physically been outdoors. If I feel myself getting twitchy, the best thing for me is to stuff a few biscuits in my pockets for the pups (we have two enormous Maremma Livestock Guardian Dogs) and head out to the field to just sit down for a moment in the tall grass and watch how everything moves about its busy little business without care in the world. I harness about 10 deep breaths and in about 5 minutes, I can find balance and the clarity I need.
When I am on the road, I will usually pack a little bottle of lavender essential oil and bring “the roses” with me.
The littlest things, applied with intention, can have a lot of impact.
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?
Diversity is a gift. Not the kind you wait for someone else to provide, but the one you must proactively seek for yourself and your community. There are many data-driven studies on how diversity drives innovation, creativity and ultimately business performance. Our clients are diverse, their customers are diverse. Without the ongoing and intentional pursuit of diversity in our organization, we will have blind spots on serving market segments and the underdevelopment of unique value propositions. With diversity must come empathy. That ability to interpret experiences not only from one’s own point of view, but from the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. We must approach things with less of a fixed mindset of scarcity and protectionism and more from one of abundance.
I am also hoping that to some extent the acceptance and normalization of remote work will help to level the playing field. “Commuting distance” can in and of itself produce a homogenous population. How and where someone chooses to live should not be an eliminating factor.
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 think what gets measured and gets visibility has a better chance of getting done. In general, the representation of leadership, those making the decisions and shaping the future whether it is in the public or private sector is not representative of the people it serves. I think as leaders, we need to do a better job of getting out of our comfort zones and using empathy to seek understanding. Sustained progress isn’t just going to magically happen by itself.
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 a CEO or 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?
Create a culture for people to thrive.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I’d like to dispel the myth that it’s “lonely at the top.” I think leaders who lead well focus on building meaningful relationships with the people around them.
There was a time in my career where I had gotten to a point where I was incredibly lonely. I was one of the only women with a seat at the table and I was a good 10 years younger than most of my peers. Many of the other women who had ascended to positions of leadership were super tight lipped about what it took to get there and stay there. The notion of “bringing your whole self to work” was non-existent. I just saw Katie Couric do an interview promoting her new book on the Today Show sharing about what it was like at that time. Big roles were few and far between; there was this notion of guarding your turf and very few were reaching down to bring others along.
I remember the night when all of that began to change. I had been invited to a dinner with our CEO and about 15 women who had been identified as contenders to climb the next rung on the corporate ladder. We showed up and battled one another in the attempt to expertly navigate what Silvia Ann Hewlett describes as the “Goldilocks Trap.” Show up as sophisticated but not too sexy. Informed and inquisitive but not too controversial. Not too loud and not too quiet. Sip our soup and chew quietly while flanked by leaders that looked on and asked us to contemplate career on and off ramps. It was exhausting. We shuffled out of dinner and down to a lounge where I am pretty sure I pulled a cork out of a bottle of wine with my teeth. We all sat down, let our hair and our guards down and magic began to happen. These amazing women began to tell their stories and for the first time in several years, I didn’t feel lonely anymore. They spoke of trailing spouses, babies born, babies lost, guilt, the imposter syndrome and unsuccessful forays into the world of golf. That was the night that I also met Cate Gutowski and when we decided to change the way women ascended in the company. Sharing our vulnerabilities so that if others could catch even a glimpse of themselves in our stories, they could see themselves in our shoes and stay on their runways. We wanted to make it not only okay to share their stories, but to teach them how to do it through training and workshops. We built a program and took Bill Baker and Dr. Bertice Berry across the globe with us. The women we met inspired the hell out of me. It is perhaps one of my most cherished accomplishments.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Right now I believe the scales are tipped a bit further in the direction of gender inequity. The toll that the pandemic has taken on working women and working mothers is no doubt disproportionate. I am grateful for the village that got me through remote kindergarten. You know who you are.
In a recent conversation with my astrologist friend Olivia Woodford, she told me the story of “The Corn Mother.” While the myth and legend can take many forms, her goal was to guide me to be more intentional about setting boundaries. To not sacrifice my own wellbeing in the care of others. From pretty much every corner of my life, everyone is always looking for “more” from me. I had to really sit down and determine where I wanted to proactively apply my energy. .
At GE, there were four cultural pillars: Energy, Edge, Execution, and Energizing. That last one was ambiguous to me early on. As I look at it now, it’s perhaps one of the more important ones (yes, I know Empathy isn’t on the list and belongs there). The whole notion of someone’s ability to physically energize the people around them. As a leader, don’t lose focus on this, get a really good read on the energy givers versus energy takers. The faster you address the ones that are weighing you down, the better off the team will be.
Lastly, know when to ask for help. I was part of the “Lean In” generation where Sherly Sanberg coached us to “make our partner our partner.” I am grateful to have a solid one to take on this life with and we put a lot of work into our relationship. As fiercely independent as I am, and as I was raised to be, asking for help is not one of my strong suits. These days the new mantra around our house is ”a family that folds together stays together.” Our kids don’t have any matching socks, but I have also learned to let some things go.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t expect that I would be given so much autonomy and trust. Especially when I knew I was coming in with a steep learning curve ahead of me. That space allows me to confidently bank on my intuition. It has allowed me to hone in on the alchemy of culture and truly welcome home a remarkably brilliant team to the next chapter of their careers.
I also didn’t realize how much I’d love helping so many different brands grow. I remember when my old boss Mike Pilot would hold up two hundred dollar bills in a room full of new hires and ask them to tell him the difference. For me, lending money was a little boring.
I find retail so much more exciting. In my last role with a luxury home textile company, I fondly remember going through my first Black Friday, and grabbing my box cutter to hit the warehouse to pick, pack and ship products when COVID had crept in. I learned an incredible amount about what people were purchasing from actually touching it as opposed to looking at it in a spreadsheet. Now, whether it’s working with Innovo, on a mission to strengthen the pelvic floors and battle incontinence to Corkcicle, which is about the only thing I have found to keep my coffee warm during morning farm chores, every day brings a new and unexpected creative challenge.
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?
Many years ago, Kate Johnson was hired as the first external female Senior Executive at GE and it was because the wonderful Stacey Hoin demanded a diverse slate. Kate was the role model we had been waiting for. She introduced us to the work of Carol S. Dweck. In her book Mindset, Dweck explains the differences between a Fixed Mindset, when you believe you are born with certain traits and a certain amount of intelligence and a Growth Mindset where you believe the abilities you are born with are just the starting point and you can get smarter and grow with hard work, persistence and the willingness to take on new challenges.
Over the years I have taken many assessments in both individual and team settings from Myers-Briggs, to Strengthsfinder, to DISC. They would all tell you that I am a natural born leader. But it wasn’t until I was exposed to the notion of these two mindsets that I really began to open up more of my personal potential.
I think this is one of the things that attracted me to my current position. Joe Yakuel has built an entire company around what Simon Sinek would call our “why.” Here at WITHIN, at our core, we exist “to grow and be challenged.” It’s that simple and it’s not for everyone. It can be really uncomfortable most of the time.
I still look back and laugh at some of my early conversations with Joe. He hired me 100% based on mindset. He actually said, “I need someone with your leadership skills, we know you don’t know all that much about what we are asking you to do, but we are pretty sure you will figure it out.” Many women won’t apply for roles they don’t feel qualified for. Their nasty little impostor syndrome creeps in and puts a stop to all that potential. Joe laid out a path for me to be completely comfortable being uncomfortable. He’s a remarkable visionary and has incredible intuition about people.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I am going to borrow another one here from Ray Dalio. Seek and create a diverse environment where you can be a crusader for radical truth and radical transparency. I’ve been practically kicked out of job interviews for having too much “Jet Fuel,” I only merely inquired whether my executive role would have a seat at the weekly executive meeting and was told there were already too many people — yes, all men — in the meeting. It’s no secret that GE lost nearly $150 billion in market capitalization for failing to embrace these principals. I work in a company today where we get the uncomfortable out on the table, particularly our mistakes. We conduct retrospectives and hold ourselves and each other accountable through a model of vulnerability based trust and conflict based resolution.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Wow, that’s a big question. I think changing the world can start in small ways at home and in communities. I grew up in a relatively conservative family and when I think of all the things my parents never told me, it’s a pretty long list. As a parent of two young children, I can only hope that by nurturing their growth mindsets and teaching them to embrace diversity in all its forms they will go out into the world and advance our humanity in a positive way.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Good leaders are good communicators and good communicators are great storytellers. The earlier you can hone your storytelling skills to influence others in a bias towards action the faster and further you will go. I have had the opportunity to learn from one of the masters, Bill Baker, aka “storyteller Bill,” who breaks down the narrative arch and all its glory into a simple and intentional practice.
- Remember to clean your filters. I encourage everyone to seek out the teachings of Dr. Bertice Berry on this topic. Our social self is a product of all the comments, the feelings, and the emotions from everything and everyone we have encountered. Sometimes, in order to let new things in and take new experiences on, we need to clear out the old ones that are holding us back. For a long time, I had a red dress stuck in mine but that’s a longer story. Give it a try, then come tell me your story.
- You can have it all, just not all at that same time. Whenever someone told me I couldn’t have it all, I got pretty defiant. It wasn’t until I was at a workshop with Juila Cameron trying to rekindle my creativity through the wisdom of her book, The Artist’s Way, that I realized I had defined “ALL” much too narrowly. She led us through an exercise that involved a version of the Happiness Wheel, more or less an evaluation of your core values. I discovered I was over indexing in a few places and had become a little lopsided. I still am, but I am more mindful about the choices I make about the places I nurture vs. neglect.
- Take the time to “go fallow.” There will be times in life when it’s just really smart to “go fallow.” It’s the age-old agricultural process of leaving a field plowed and unsown for a period of time to restore its fertility. We all can get depleted. It’s important to know when to recognize when you need to go fallow so that you can emerge rejuvenated and ready to nurture the next thing. If you don’t, the universe will pretty much kick your ass and tell you it’s time for a break. Take it.
- Don’t let someone else’s definition of success define your own. I checked all the boxes that I was “supposed” to check and still didn’t feel successful. You only get one shot at this precious life.
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.
Go find someone that has touched your life for the good in the past or present and tell them you appreciate them and why. I believe in the power of gratitude.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Have you heard of the book Life Lessons by Julia Cameron? I am not a very religious person but do consider myself to some extent spiritual. In times of uncertainty I have flipped it open, found solace and dog eared pages. Hopefully it’s okay that I share with you her Life Lesson #125: “Little one, your perceptions are accurate and alert. In times of doubt, remind yourself that your sensitivity is acute. You know — and notice — what you need to know. You register people and events accurately. Your guidance is subtle and keen. Denial does not block your perception. You are shrewd and knowledgeable. Appearances do not deceive you. You sense the truth and respond accurately to reality. You are grounded and safe.”
Pretty much, trust your intuition, choose joy, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.
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
The Ultimate Luncheon with Mindy Kaling, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tina Fey, Reese Witherspoon, Brandi Carlilie and Dolly Parton… badass female storytellers. Has this happened already and I just wasn’t invited?
The farm to table dinner with Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, and Samantha Foxx Windship. I have a million questions about farming, beekeeping, viticulture and how to advocate for micro farming everywhere and USDA facilities in Western Massachusetts.
About anything with Shari Levitin — just such a fangirl.
Behind the scenes with Condoleezza Rice and General Michael Hayden, insights on the dynamic political and social forces shaping the world we’re in and how to prepare our children to shape the next generation.