As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Wender.
Jeff Wender is Chief Revenue Officer for Rakuten Advertising, responsible for Rakuten’s Performance Marketing, Media and Market Intelligence services. Prior to joining Rakuten, Wender served as Managing Director for the Nielsen Company’s Local Television Practice.
With over 20 years of experience at The Nielsen Company and Texas Instruments, Wender has contributed across all aspects of media and content consumption across Digital, TV, smartphone, tablet and consumer electronic industry including roles in business development, product management, client service and strategy.
Before joining the media & technology industry, Wender served as Vice President of Marketing for American’s Promise — the Alliance for Youth, founded by the honorable Secretary of State Colin Powell to improve the lives of at-risk youth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
My career path has been anything but a straight line. When I started out, I had a passion for communications and politics. That’s led me to start my career in Washington DC working on The Hill. After spending 5 years in politics, I made a lateral jump down to Texas and started working in one of my next areas of interest, technology.
Thanks to having two executive leaders that cared about my career progression, they recommended I moved from communications into sales. This proved to be the right decision, as I found that sales was a natural extension of my work in communications. Instead of selling a story and a vision, I began selling products.
After I made the jump into sales, I realized that I had a lot of potential to build a career there — not only because of growth opportunities, but because I was good at it.
Looking back on it now, the common thread between the different industries that I’ve worked in is that passion. I gravitated toward industries that I personally enjoyed — whether it be politics, digital media, TV, smartphones, etc. The things that I love in life are what I have always gotten to do to make a living. How great is that?
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many that it’s hard to pick but dressing up in a full sized ‘Cat in the Hat’ costume with Miss America is towards the top of the list. I was managing a major event in Philadelphia when an intern, who was too embarrassed to wear the costume, refused to go on stage with Miss America for an event to promote children literacy. At the last minute I jumped in the costume and joined her on stage while holding ‘Horton Hears a Who’ in front of a throng of reporters. To complicate matters even more, I couldn’t wear my glasses in the costume which left me blind and defenseless as I ran myself into the top of a door.
There are learnings that you can pull from any experience, no matter how large or small, interesting or seemingly ordinary. During this event, I learned that no job is ever too big or too small when needed to ensure success. I also learned I should get contact lenses, which I did the following week.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes our company stand out is right in its name. Rakuten is Japanese for Optimism, which is instilled in the culture of everything we do. This was no more apparent than over the past year-and-a-half during the COVID pandemic. Despite a wide range of challenges thrown our way — whether they be clients who face bankruptcy, personnel challenges, navigating work/life for yourself and your teams, etc. — Rakuten maintained a strong culture of optimism aimed at ensuring we persevered through the worst of it. These are the types of companies that build team loyalty, which is evidenced by the tenure many at Rakuten maintain today.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Don’t be afraid to take a lateral move if it provides you an opportunity to expand your skillset. I was fortunate to have thoughtful leaders and mentors who recognized that a particular role, while not a move upward, presented a new challenge that would prepare me for bigger roles in the future. Moving from communications to sales, as well as accepting a similar role but with significantly more international exposure, allowed me to see my career through an entirely different lens and build qualities that gave my leaders confidence in offering me much larger roles.
Also, take advantage of any and all opportunities you have. Running for coffee during meetings or even dressing up as the ‘Cat in a Hat’ might seem like small responsibilities in the moment, but any project can bring its own learnings that you will have with you for the rest of your career. Not only that, but small tasks don’t go unnoticed, and a willingness to jump in and do whatever it takes to help the team succeed is going to set someone in the eyes of leadership.
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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
My job is setting the tone for our team, no different than a symphony conductor or coach of a sports team. Tough decisions come fast and furious every day, but how you manage them and keep focus sets the mark for what success will come from it.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A symphony conductor that tries to play all the instruments. It simply doesn’t work. If you have invested the time to recruit world-class talent, which is the most important thing you can do to start leading a new team, let them do their thing. Provide them with the necessary direction but let them ultimately make the music.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
We already covered contact lenses earlier, right? OK, my top 5.
- Spend triple the amount of time focusing on hiring the right team. It’s absolutely crucial to have strong diversity in critical thinking and expertise in order to build a successful team.
- Allow space for creative friction. Individuals can often be reluctant to share their emotions or challenge leadership. It’s important to give your team the ability to debate, furiously but respectfully, as this friction can produce some of the best ideas and strategies. The best ideas are often a culmination of multiple different ideas as well — so giving them the space to work things out and bounce ideas off of each other will make that possible.
- Spend more time providing your team feedback and listening. Everyone wants to know how they’re doing. Waiting until mid-year or end of year to share it can be jarring to your team member and is counterproductive to maximizing your team’s success.
- Enjoy reading. If you don’t, learn to love it because you’re going to struggle as a leader without it. We live in a data driven world and staying current and diversifying your thought is essential to knowing when to change course, step on the gas or press the brakes.
- Make taking time off a priority for your team. I tend to catch up on work over the weekends when I have time to spare, but that doesn’t mean my team should parrot my schedule. Give your team members a break, with simple steps like avoiding weekend emails unless they’re necessary. What works for me is storing all weekend emails I work on in my ‘drafts’ folder until Monday morning. They can look at it on Monday, and it won’t have to fester in their mind and ruin a personal event or special occasion. Promoting your team members to take vacation time is a must.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Listen to your team. Pure and simple. They will provide you with the best insight into how to set the tone and see where things need to evolve going forward. The key to a successful culture is getting this feedback in a variety of ways — one on one meetings with your leadership, skip step discussions, happy hours, pulse surveys, HR & executive coaching sources, and more. Just as data helps drive business decisions externally, data is key to understanding how to foster an environment where people feel empowered and ultimately happy.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can find me on Twitter @jbwender, but don’t be surprised if my posts are either unfunny or sporadic. The best way to see what I’m up to is checking out the folks I follow (don’t mind the voluminous amount of sports teams and personalities). I strive to get information through a wide range of sources. Some I agree with, many I don’t. The key is to avoid group think and hear what others have to say.