As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Klodnicki, currently the Chief Marketing Officer of lifestyle audio brand, Skullcandy where she is leading the brand’s mission driven and sustainability efforts. Klodnicki previously served as a General Manager leading a portfolio of outdoor brands including Bell Helmets, CamelBak and Camp Chef. For the first half of her career, she led product and marketing for a number of consumer goods from baby toys to hair products.
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 always had a passion for storytelling and had originally wanted to pursue journalism. However, one of my university advisors suggested I take an advertising class over the summer and I was hooked. While I spent the first half of my career in more traditional consumer products, I always had a passion for sports and the outdoors. So, I was constantly looking for ways to connect the dots between my passions and my profession. I was able to make the leap when I went to work for Mizuno USA leading marketing across the brand’s sports portfolio, which included running, golf, baseball, softball and volleyball. As a marathoner, triathlete and golfer at the time, it was a dream come true. From there, I went to work for Bell Helmets where I continued to live my passions at work and became a mountain biker and passionate advocate for cycling.
The other side of my backstory is that I grew up as a military brat and had to move every few years. I lived everywhere from Maryland to the island of Guam to Florida, California and Spain. I got to experience very different cultures and had to be very flexible and adaptable from a very young age. That flexibility and willingness to embrace change has led me to an incredibly fulfilling career across diverse industries and later led to a willingness to move and relocate for work. So, I’ve since worked in Atlanta, GA; Paris, France, Santa Cruz, CA; Sonoma, CA and now with Skullcandy, Park City, UT.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
At Skullcandy, we plan our 12-month marketing campaigns almost a year in advance. We started formulating our 2020 marketing campaign in the summer of 2019. We had identified the alarming rate of depression and mental health challenges, especially amongst young people. We also saw an increasingly negative social media landscape. As a result, Skullcandy decided we wanted to bring positivity to our consumers’ social media feeds and shine a spotlight on mental health. So, Skullcandy partnered with To Write Love on Her Arms, an organization dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide We had a plan to create and share positive, uplifting content every single month for a year. The campaign was slated to launch April 1, 2020 — just two weeks after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Across the Skullcandy marketing team, we questioned if our program was still going to be appropriate for what the world was experiencing. In the end, we determined that our content was not only appropriate, but necessary as people were increasingly facing loneliness, isolation, fear and depression. In the end, we were so happy to deliver a bright light during a difficult time for our young consumers. The program ended in March 2021 and we saw record levels of engagement for the year, demonstrating that Skullcandy was delivering content that our consumers wanted and needed during this difficult time.
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?
My first job out of college was as a Product Manager designing and developing stylish shoes for babies. I came up with the idea of a matching set of sunglasses and sandals that had cute characters on them. There were no real guidelines for testing this type of product. So, we shipped them to our warehouse in Atlanta where it gets very hot in the summer. Well, the glue that held the products together didn’t stand up to the Atlanta heat and we had thousands of units of dis-assembled baby shoes with sea creatures falling off of them that were unsellable.
You can say I learned a lot about proactive product testing and quality control. Every job after that where I managed product development I was maniacal about checking and rechecking prior to the shipment of any products.
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?
I have had a long list of wonderful bosses and leaders, but the one who had the most impact and championed my career the most early on was David Klatt. He was the President of Goody Hair Products while I was leading product and marketing. He trusted and empowered me a great deal at a young age, he was very direct, and he gave clear and honest feedback. He taught me to believe in people and stretch them. Billie Beane, the subject of Michael Lewis’s 2003 book on baseball economics, Moneyball, was on the board of directors of the last company I worked for and he spoke to us about leadership. This quote I wrote down from him captures a lot of what I learned from David, “Pay attention to the bottom of your roster… your most junior player on the roster can have as big an impact as your best player.” David empowered me early in my career and I’ve tried to apply that and pay it forward where I can ever since.
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?
Any time I have a big decision to make or a problem I’m trying to solve, I go for a mountain bike ride. I am lucky to live in the mountain town of Park City, Utah. When I am trying to think creatively or solve a problem, I like to get out alone on the trails where my mind can wander.
Every year, we start our marketing strategic planning for the coming year around June. To kick start planning, I like to think about what worked the prior year, what needs to change and more, but it’s hard for me to clear the calendar and find “thinking time.” I like to go for a big climb up a trail called Armstrong. The steady cadence of pedaling uphill for several miles allows me to clear my head and brainstorm. I’ve solved some of my toughest problems and come up with some of my best ideas while riding my bike.
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?
Our leaders and our employees should ideally reflect the consumers we are serving, and Skullcandy serves a very diverse audience. Our marketing and our messaging should reflect back to consumers the diversity that they see in themselves. And, our consumers should be able to “see” themselves in the images and content that we put out into the world. That’s why I’m so proud of Skullcandy’s Sound Without Boundaries 2021 campaign, which illuminates important cultural issues through a roster of 20 multi-dimensional athletes, musicians and visual artists called Boundary Breakers who use their platforms to inspire others and advocate for change. By shining a spotlight on important issues and the people that are doing great work, we hope to reflect back the great diversity of our young consumers.
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.
To truly create an inclusive, representative and equitable society, I think we must:
- Create opportunities for exposure — For people to feel comfortable, they must “see themselves” represented.
- Cast the net wider & invite people in — Actively invite people from under-represented groups into workplaces, spaces, groups and activities; reach out to unexpected people and places.
- Truly welcome people when they get there — It’s not enough to just invite people in if they don’t feel welcome when they get there. Whatever the situation, we must also truly embrace and include people once they arrive so that they can thrive in that space.
I know this is a very small example relative to what is going on in the world today, but I think it is an interesting parallel from back when I was in the bike industry. There was a big need and desire to get more women riding bikes and leading in the industry itself. When you looked at the employees in the industry, the advertising from the brands and the participants… it seemed pretty homogenous. So, as a woman who was interested in mountain biking, for example — it did not appear to be a welcoming space. You didn’t see many others doing it and you didn’t see yourself reflected in brands’ advertising. There felt like many barriers to entry if you were a newcomer.
So, when I was leading Bell Helmets, we launched a program called Bell Joy Ride in nine cities across North America to inspire and enable female cyclists with fun and social rides for all levels of riders. This allowed them to enjoy challenge and camaraderie in a non-intimidating environment. We created opportunities for exposure and showed big groups of women riding together. Then, we cast the net wider to women of all levels to invite them in to try mountain biking. We encouraged women of all ages, shapes and abilities to come and give it a try. Then, we worked hard to provide a fun and non-intimidating environment that would ensure they felt welcome when they got there and wanted to continue to participate.
If you take this small example and spread it to much larger groups, spaces and opportunities, I think our world would be a better place.
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?
I would compare being a C-level executive with being a ship’s captain. While there is a specific route planned in advance to get from point A to B, there are many external factors that can push the ship off course. In the CMO role or any C-level role, you have to constantly be sensing the environment, including both internal and external factors that impact the business, and then provide constant motivation, calibration and prioritization. Even with a strong plan, there is the constant need to assess and adapt along the way, while ensuring that you get to the final destination.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think many CMOs are characterized as creative, but not analytical. And perhaps that has been true in the past. However, today’s modern CMO must balance creativity with performance. I think most CMOs have developed that skill set, particularly as the growth of eCommerce has driven the need for a higher level of data and analytics. For me, I served as a General Manager running several business units at the last company I worked for. In this role, I had to lead across all functions and was responsible for the full P & L. So, I believe I bring a balanced approach to decision making in regards to marketing. Every decision the Skullcandy marketing team makes is in service to engaging our consumers and bringing them along the journey to be a part of the Skullcandy family. We talk a lot about social media engagement, but the highest level of engagement is when a consumer invests their hard-earned money in purchasing our product.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I believe networking is different for men vs. women by the sheer fact that there are still more men in higher level positions amongst brands and financial organizations. I hate to make broad generalizations, but I believe it’s more natural for men to network with other men… just like it’s more comfortable for women to network with other women. So, I think women are a bit constrained by their ability or comfort in networking with the larger group of men, potentially limiting their access to growth.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It’s exactly as I had hoped and I love it! The only difference as I’ve been at Skullcandy is that I keep digging deeper into new areas of the business, adding to my scope on things like sustainability in our products, packaging and supply chain and areas like business development with important tech partners and potential brand collaborators where I am working way beyond traditional CMO responsibilities.
Certainly, not 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?
The higher you rise in an organization, the further you get from your “craft,” so to speak. Advancement requires you to move from a specialist to a generalist. Just because you were a good marketer, doesn’t mean you are naturally going to be a great marketing leader. In order to accomplish work, you move from “doing” to “leading.” For some people, it can be hard to find a sense of accomplishment if you aren’t directly engaged in the work. If you are a person who feels like you must be hands on and can’t release control, it would be difficult to be a successful executive. You must move from a player to a coach mentality and derive your energy and motivation from seeing the team win vs. achieving personal wins.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Start with a strong foundation of trust amongst the team so that you have the ability to provide honest feedback and have healthy debate and discussion. I’m a big believer in the idea of Radical Candor by author Kim Scott. Straight from her book, “At its core, Radical Candor is guidance and feedback that’s both kind and clear, specific and sincere.” My team subscribes to this and it has helped us be very successful together. We have a strong foundation of trust and the team can comfortably discuss and debate — even uncomfortable topics — to problem solve together and find the best outcome. I think this also applies to general communication within an organization. I’ve always believed in clear, open, transparent communication — almost over-communication — to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Again, I hate to generalize, but sometimes I think women can be less comfortable with being direct or they’ve been told along the way that being direct equates to being too “aggressive.” This then inhibits their ability to have direct and honest dialogue with their team or their colleagues. I would encourage all leaders to build a foundation of trust that sets the stage to have respectful, but honest conversations in the workplace.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In the latter half of my career, I have had the opportunity to engage in extra-curricular opportunities to give back to the industry that I’m in or the consumers that I’m serving. When I was in the bike industry, I was on the board of directors for People for Bikes whose mission is to get more people riding bikes more often and to make bike riding better for everyone. I was also on the board of Camber Outdoors, which equips outdoor industry organizations with best practices in Workplace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I did a lot of work in support of the International Mountain Biking Association, whose focus is to create, enhance and protect great places to ride mountain bikes. Now, I’m currently on the board of directors of Protect Our Winters, an organization that helps passionate outdoor people protect the places and lifestyles they love from climate change. As you can see, there is a theme of creating and protecting places for all people to recreate.
These endeavors have led to initiating a series of sustainability efforts at Skullcandy, including a circular commerce program, revamp to 100% recyclable packaging and more which will be announced in July.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t outsource the most important work — While I believe there is a place for external consultants and agencies, often the most important and exciting work gets outsourced. This happens most often with strategic planning and creative work. When a brand outsources, two things happen. One, your internal team inherits something they didn’t build and often the work stemming from those projects struggles to get traction. Two, your internal team is closest to the business and understands the dynamics better than anyone could. When you do important strategic work together, even though it can be daunting or time consuming, make the time and put your best internal people on the task.
- Don’t avoid math — I joke about this, but I ended up getting a degree in Communications/Advertising in an effort to avoid accounting classes. However, very quickly in almost any business role, you realize you need to have savvy financial skills. I think marketers early in their career don’t realize that they will need financial and analytical skills to be successful.
- Great ideas can come from anywhere — When you are early in your career, I think you tend to naturally stick to your silo. Once you start to work cross functionally, you realize that some of the best, most innovative ideas can come from the most unexpected places. Don’t discount ideas from other functions or departments, in fact… seek them out. I once got my best packaging idea from someone on the finance team.
- Eat what you cook — Another misconception by early career employees is that mistakes or failures are something to hide. The more EVERYONE in an organization knows how things are going, good or bad, success and failures, the more people can contribute to furthering success or fixing problems together. Don’t hide the failures and don’t forget to celebrate the wins. Both are learning opportunities for everyone in the organization. I think this was a phrase that Walmart used to use with its suppliers… they’d ask us to come set up the planograms we created so that we had to experience what we were giving to thousands of their associates to set up. So, you’d have to experience firsthand if it was good or bad. Either way, you learned something.
- Bring your whole self to work — I think when you are a young manager, you have a perception of what a “leader” is supposed to behave like — things like being serious and not sharing your personal life. I believe humor and openness about your hobbies, personal life and what you are passionate about makes you human and more accessible. I love starting meetings with hearing about what people did over the weekend!
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.
Over the past year, we’ve seen more people get outside to enjoy the outdoors. I’d like to see everyone who has enjoyed that privilege to step up in support of protecting our great outdoor playgrounds from climate change. While individual efforts like recycling and making smart choices on behalf of our environment are wonderful, the real path to change is through advocating for policy change. We need many voices collectively to speak up and speak out at a local and national level. Organizations like Protect Our Winters provide wonderful inspiration and education on how to get involved, especially for anyone passionate about the outdoors.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Of all the paths in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” — John Muir
I am a mountain biker and riding on the dirt is a lot different, and often a lot harder, than riding on the pavement — the “easy way” so to speak. This has a double meaning for me relating to my personal passion for the outdoors, but also how it impacts decision making in the workplace.
The best outcomes for me personally and professionally were when I was willing to take a different, more adventurous path. It has led me to work on a variety of exciting brands and live in some amazing places — everything from Bell Helmets in Santa Cruz, CA and CamelBak in Sonoma County, CA, to fine writing pens in Paris, France. If I wasn’t willing to divert on an interesting path, I never would have had those experiences.
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.
Snoop Dogg. Seriously. While I’m not a “consumer” of some of his products… I loved his music growing up and I’m so intrigued by how he has developed his business and brand over the years. He has had an incredible influence on popular culture and has continued to reinvent himself over a long and successful career. I love his relationship with Martha Stewart and the collaborations they’ve done together. And, I’m always impressed by the unexpected things that he has done over the years from hosting a game show to authoring a cookbook. His public persona is so entertaining, but I’d really love to get to know his business persona behind the scenes.