As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Davis.
Jennifer Davis, the chief marketing and communications officer at LEARFIELD, is a leader in media and technology in college sports and live events. She has held previous leadership roles at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Leyard, Planar, Honeywell, and Intel. She is the author of Well Made Decisions (New Degree Press) and proud wife and mother of two teenagers.
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 parlayed a college internship into a role at a software startup in marketing and product strategy, which set me on a path for a career in technology. I entered college thinking I wanted to research and write biographies about companies and leaders. Still, I had a mentor who suggested that I go out and make some history before writing about it. I am pleased now that I have been able to do both, having spent a career driving innovation across multiple industries and having just published my first book, Well Made Decisions, last month.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I joined the company in March, and by July, I had rebranded the company and launched a whole new web presence with a different emphasis. This transformation required a great deal of focus, investment from so many in my onboarding, and input from our college athletics and brand partners. It has been exciting to see the new brand, LEARFIELD, received so positively. It is the foundation on which this nearly-fifty-year-old company can continue to build and innovate.
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?
We work with colleges and universities across the country, and each has its nuances, traditions, school colors, and mascots to which they are fiercely loyal. Early in my tenure, I was on a call with a fan of Cal (University of California, Berkeley) and referred to their mascot as the Bruins. Of course, that is the mascot of another well-known and well-loved school in southern California, UCLA. This was a rookie mistake! I grew up in California, so I certainly knew better, but I couldn’t think of the correct type of bear under pressure! Cal fans root for the Golden Bears, as I was reminded.
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?
There are too many to mention. I am particularly thankful for Balaji Krishnamurthy, who was the CEO of Planar and who was the first to give me an executive role on his staff, leading a business P&L. He is now the chairman of ThinkShift and has gone on to be a mentor to so many others. His belief in me proved to be a pivot point in 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 huge fan of writing out strategies.
Whether it takes the form of a one-page summary or a future-dated press release, if you can articulate the customer need, the solution, and the alternatives considered clearly and concisely, it builds alignment and confidence. It is critical for decision-making. Just this week, I find myself facing a key brand strategy question as we continue the roll-out of the corporate brand that we introduced in July.
I found it extremely helpful to write down the situation, the strategic alternatives, and the evaluation of each.
It was coalescing and allowed me to share thoughts and get ideas from others efficiently and effectively.
Shane Parrish has said that “writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about.” If you want to lead a high-stakes decision, it is critical that you identify your gaps and seek out the correct opinions, not only to choose but to implement them well.
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?
Tomes have been written about the business benefits of the board and leadership diversity. I invite people to familiarize themselves with the research and reflect on their own experiences. In my career, diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and lived experiences have helped the teams I have led to advocate for customers better and generate more profitable solutions to more meaningful problems. It has made me a better business leader and, hopefully, a better and more empathetic human. It’s a journey, and we are all on it!
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.
For me, it starts with accepting nothing less. I understand, as a woman in male-dominated industries and businesses, that change takes time. But you want to be both on the right side of history and the catalyst that speeds up when the future arrives. For me, this has practical, day-to-day implications: making sure every interview panel is diverse, that my leadership team represents different perspectives, that everyone is invited to share, and that we are asking the tough questions when we see a lack of inclusion or representation.
Being a sponsor of an employee resource group or otherwise advocating for the change you want to see. It is something that requires everyone’s continued effort and encouragement.
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?
It might sound dry, but an executive allocates scarce resources to optimize shareholder/stakeholder value and builds a company culture at the end of the day. Of course, you can only do this well if you are a relentless advocate for customers, clients, and partners. Leaders at all levels, even individual contributors, have the same job description, just a smaller scope and fewer resources to allocate.
Early in your career, you allocate your own time and perhaps modest budgets. As you progress, you begin to be responsible for the work of others by either leading projects or teams. Over time with good stewardship, you are leading leaders and finding ways to create a productive, effective, and inclusive culture throughout the organization.
Although I have held many roles in marketing and strategy or leading particular business units or initiatives, I consider myself a business leader first. This mindset helps me in my functional leadership, and as everyone on an executive team uses this approach, the overall business benefits! The CEO or others in the c-suite are tasked with functional excellence, seeing the big picture, and allocating the organization’s resources to the most significant long-term impact.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth I’d like to dispel is the sole decision-maker whose strategies alone make the company successful. Leaders are often credited (or blamed) personally with the make-or-break decisions of their organizations, and they certainly are responsible and are held accountable. But in truth, it is not the decision itself that created or destroyed value — it is the implementation. Culture and process play an outsized role in the success of companies who have led in their industries or disrupted categories. You don’t invent your strategy, and you certainly don’t do it alone.
In most cases, you discover the winning strategy by obsessing about customer success and with informed experiments along the way.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge faced by any minority is a lack of representative role models. I have been blessed with many male mentors in my career, and I am thankful for their guidance and leadership, yet they couldn’t model or help me navigate every challenge I have faced. The more women we have in leadership, the more we create space for others to follow and innovate.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
One might imagine that the role of CMO for a sports marketing company would be glamourous, and sometimes, it is. I get to work with amazing people doing some very cool things!
There is nothing like attending a college game with over 90,000 screaming fans cheering on their teams and seeing the meaningful brand activations that we brought to life for our sponsors on game day and every day! That said, most days, my work in college sports feels similar to work I did in cloud computing or medical devices. It is about learning the industry well enough to be a credible advocate for customers and build an organization and culture that can make good decisions every day. It’s not just the high-stakes, high-visibility choices, but all of the little ones that add up to success.
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?
Not everyone aspires to be an executive.
Organization charts taper at the top, and those who rise generally share some characteristics. They have smarts and ambition, and a desire to see their business and employees succeed. They must also have a supportive home environment that allows them to make the required sacrifices of time and energy to truly lead a business successfully. That is table-stakes.
They must be humble and fight to be told the truth — about their business, but perhaps more importantly about themselves. This is harder than it looks, as it takes a lot of courage and, frankly, a deep level of caring, to speak unpopular truth to those in authority. Leaders have to find ways to overcome the naturally occurring tendency to trade in sunshine and rainbows before they find themselves standing in water and wishing for an umbrella.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
INSEAD’s Herminia Ibarra did a podcast for Harvard Business Review about how women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. As someone who has benefitted from mentoring and seeks to give back the same way, I found this headline provocative but true. Women should put themselves on the path for new opportunities by advocating for themselves and their teams. Leaders around them should look for opportunities to bring in their unique voices and visibility to their expertise and ideas. Women leaders are more successful when they are given a seat at the table and welcomed with the advocacy of insiders.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have always worked for businesses that I believed were doing something great in the world. Whether I was helping middle school students learn science, saving lives through early cancer detection, transforming the pace of business change with cloud services, or creating meaningful fan experiences, I have always been able to tap into solutions that change or enrich people’s lives. In addition, I have used my perspective and position to help others through mentoring programs like Pathbuilders or Built by Girls or serving in the community in various capacities with my family. It is everyone’s responsibility.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Know-How the Score is Kept. Long before I worked in sports, I would tell early career professionals a fable. What if you were an excellent baseball player, I would ask. You could hit, you could run, you could throw. But you didn’t know how to read the scoreboard. Well, then you wouldn’t be a great teammate, and you wouldn’t win a lot of games! The same is true in business. You can be sharp and have technical skills, but you might not apply the necessary skills if you don’t know how to keep score. You must know how to read financial statements and how your CFO, CEO, and board of directors or shareholders measure the business’s success (which often includes a mix of financial and non-financial measures). Only then can you know how decisions are made and how your role fits into the big picture.
Midway through my career, based on the advice of a mentor, I made a shift: from being the person who could tell a great narrative story to the person who could put that story in business terms and explain how an investment would lead to a confident return. Your c-suite leaders are thinking about shareholder return, even if it is among various other metrics they are prioritizing, and speaking in that language will give them the appetite to hear the whole story. I learned to put the financial metrics and key data early in a presentation to hold the attention of those who will be distracted listeners until they hear what is proposed in dollars and cents.
Don’t Wait for Permission to Get the Experience You Want. It has never been easier and cheaper to develop your own experience. You don’t need to wait for a specific job opening or opportunity to have something handed to you. If you want to learn something new and build your capabilities, you can volunteer, start a blog or a business, program and publish an app, take a class, and put yourself on the path.
I personally enjoy writing and have given myself a lot of opportunities to develop that skill, from writing a blog (which I have now done for decades), to contributing articles to publications, to studying business writing, to creating content for my company, and most recently writing a book.
It’s Not What You Know. It’s Not Who You Know. It is Who Knows You. You have heard that it’s not what you know but who you know. Well, that isn’t entirely true. David Arvin wrote a book I love called “It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows You!” He describes the art and benefit of attracting attention. In my experience, you don’t just want to know people; you want them to be familiar enough with your work that they can recommend you when they are in rooms that you aren’t. You might find that your next big opportunity comes from the person with whom you worked on a group project in graduate school, someone in another division who saw your recent work, or even your customer or client who came to rely on your talents.
In my career, I have only gotten two jobs with strangers. Every other opportunity was a direct line from someone knowing my work first-hand.
I got the opportunity to write for Forbes when a contributor read some of my work and recommended me to their editor.
I have gotten opportunities to speak at Emory University Goizueta Business School or the University of Oregon because of people who knew what I had done and felt comfortable making the ask. I have been promoted and elevated because I was remembered fondly in a conversation I was not present for. That is what you want.
Careers Have Chapters. I have observed prospective college students experiencing anxiety about picking a major. I see new hires wanting to get the perfect job. I have seen leaders stuck in analysis paralysis wishing to do their best but causing harm due to their delays and indecision. Your career, like your business, should be made of many thoughtful experiments. Few things are forever. Taking a job doesn’t lock you into a fixed path. If you are committed to learning, nothing can stop you!
In my career, I have worked in diverse industries, from cloud computing to medical devices to college sports. I have worked in roles that varied from program management to product strategy and from operations to marketing. Your career is big enough to contain virtually anything you want to do (although if you intend to be a neurosurgeon, you might need to be thoughtful before committing to 15 years of secondary and post-secondary education).
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.
If there were a way to create more empathy in the world, that would be important. The adage “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” is still a powerful way to build understanding, community, and even to find the next business breakthrough. I would hope that this would be easier with technology, but sometimes I fear it is becoming harder because we are only shown the shoes of people walking in our direction. I work hard to make sure my social feeds, news sources, and even the books I read and movies I watch represent diverse perspectives that challenge me. This is why the best cure for most things that ail us is of service to others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from Goethe, who wrote, “What you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.” One of my Gallup CliftonStrengths is Activator, and I feel a great sense of urgency to get things rolling and find that it can speed up the heart rate of a whole organization if I focus it on the most important.
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 am a big fan of the work of Patrick Lencioni. I’d be interested to see how he advises clients to think about decision-making and implementation and its implications to leaders.
Researching for my book, I read extensively among the behavioral economist heavy hitters and enjoyed the work of Dr. Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago. I imagine we could have an amusing and enlightening conversation!
I have been a long-time admirer of what Jeff Bezos built at Amazon, and working there for years, I became a bigger fan of the mechanisms that make Amazon the innovation machine that it is. I appreciate what Sara Blakely has built at Spanx here in the Atlanta area. I admire John Foley at Peloton and Eric Yuan at Zoom — whose businesses were suited well for recent times. I am a huge fan of the talents of Sara Bareilles.