As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Toma Sabaliauskienė.
Toma Sabaliauskiene is a technologist with a background in computer science and an award-winning marketing executive. She is the Chief Marketing Officer at the world-renowned VPN brand NordVPN and its parent company Nord Security. That means leading a team of more than 200 professionals across the world — from Japan to Brazil.
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?
Thanks for having me! My path to a marketing career started before I even knew that you could have a career in this field. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by advertising. When we would watch a movie with our family, everyone would leave the room as soon as the commercial breaks started. Not me, though. I’d stay glued to the TV, spellbound by the limitless creativity ads seemed to have.
I didn’t go straight to marketing, though. I discovered my love of math and computer in school, so I got a degree in computer science. I focused on it for a while; I could say I was a proper geek! But eventually, I found the perfect career path for me — digital advertising. It’s a great blend of creativity and numbers. Since then, I’ve had a clear vision of what I wanted to do and how to get there. I’ve tried many different roles — from a PPC Manager to a Project Manager — and all these experiences have led me to where I am now.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s hard to choose one. Leading a global company, you face a new challenge every day in diverse parts of the globe, so what seems like a fascinating story today can be forgotten tomorrow. It’s probably easier to think about this in milestone terms.
For example, I have a lot of memories about making our first TV ads. Nobody in our industry had ever done it, so we were the pioneers of showing the VPN technology on the screen. From the creative side and scriptwriting to the filming the actual thing — the whole experience was really exciting. Fast forward to this day, and you can see our TV ads in more than ten countries in the world.
Another interesting early milestone was the Australian case. When the Australian government passed a law limiting digital privacy, we were quick to react with our stance. Australians appreciated that, and in a few weeks, our local brand awareness rose a few hundred times. It showed the power of fast response and adaptability in our industry.
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?
At Nord Security, we encourage the culture of failure, only we call it testing. We test millions of things every quarter and use ideas from all our team members. If testing shows that the idea does not stand, we make conclusions and then move on to the next one without much grievance. This rapid pace allowed us to find new promising marketing angles as well.
But the best part of it — you free yourself and your co-workers from the fear of failure. You don’t ever feel like you are making mistakes — instead, you try different roads to success. In the marketing field especially, this liberation means limitless potential.
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?
In my opinion, the most important thing is trying to strike a balance. Trying is a keyword there — even though you don’t always achieve it. But in my experience, I see a pattern of success when work and personal life are in balance. Not only that — your body and mind have to be in harmony too.
For me, exercising, eating healthy food in a stable cycle, and sleeping well are the critical ways to ensure the mind will not break. There is a dangerous myth that often takes root in our younger days — that sleep is for the weak. However, if you ask top athletes about their secrets for maintaining success, you often hear that long and high-quality sleep is necessary.
Last but not least, spending time with your family. And not in a way where you work at home and family members talk about their day somewhere in the background. I am blessed to have a tightly bound family, which brings me calmness and certainty in the business world. They are the first to let me know when work matters start to take hold too much of my time.
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?
It’s pretty simple — the more diverse the team, the better ideas it comes up with. When you have different people in a group, they bring varied perspectives, opinions, and experiences to the table. It means more creative and calculated decisions for your company. You can’t have a true global business without diversity.
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.
Inclusivity and diversity in the workplace is a good start. And inclusivity isn’t just making sure you’re hiring from a diverse pool of candidates. It’s also about listening to what your employees need to thrive in the workplace.
Getting to know different business and cultural perspectives can be challenging, but that’s the point. It’s so exciting and eye-opening. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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?
My job as a CMO has a lot of focus on the big picture — where we are going, our goals and how to reach them, how we manage things, and what positions we need. But at the end of the day, my primary mission as a CMO is to gain great yearly results with a happy team. You can’t reach ambitious achievements without your team.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You don’t have to be a lone wolf going at it alone to be a great executive. In fact, delegating tasks and responsibilities without micromanaging is key.
My favorite definition of a great leader is ‘a person who achieves business goals together with happy and motivated members of their team.’ If you want to do great and achieve incredible results, setting the targets, strategy, and direction is not enough. You have to have a team of motivated people who have that spark in their eyes and are willing to go that extra mile. After all, if all of us understand and care about the goal, we can do anything.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There are many obstacles that women leaders have to face that their male counterparts do not experience. Like subjection to higher standards, old-fashioned stereotypes, appropriation of accomplishments, lack of mentors, and many more. It is refreshing to see these topics emerge in all sorts of industries. However, I see that there is still a lot to be done in the IT sector.
One aspect that I think is unfairly less discussed is the role of the executive or leader itself. It seems that there are stereotypical unwritten rules on what the image of the executive should be. If we imagine that a leader’s role is to be aggressive, strong-voiced, and non-compromising, male executives fit into this shape more easily. Yet, we see successful alternatives to this view in business. For example, a calm and frank authority that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, brings with her decision-making.
For this stereotypical view of the leader to change, we have to see more examples of the alternative not only in the media but in pop culture too.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When we started out, there were several other people in our marketing team and me. We were a small startup that didn’t have a lot to spend. We couldn’t have grandiose marketing campaigns, hire celebrities, or even rent an office. So from the very beginning, we were focused on performance marketing — we had to make every penny work for us. And it’s still true to this day, even with hundreds of people and definitely a lot more bucks to spend.
I suppose that’s a bit different from what I imagined as a kid — more numbers, testing, and experimenting, less whimsical commercials. Not that it’s entirely out of the question! There’s still plenty of creativity in this field, but it’s slightly different from what I thought.
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?
I think this goes back to the lone wolf thing. Solo fliers aren’t really great leaders. Especially when you’re in charge of a marketing team with hundreds of people and dozens of different departments. There’s no time to micromanage every aspect of a marketing campaign. You have to trust your team leads and work the problems as a team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Anyone who wants to be a good leader can make use of these tips I try to follow myself:
- People. I care about people on my team on a personal level. There has to be an equilibrium between good results and the happiness of my team. This may sound like a cliche, but you can’t achieve greatness without good teamwork. And for that, as I like to say, you have to truly enjoy at least 55% of your daily tasks.
- Sharing know-how. Don’t ever keep your know-how to yourself. You have to pass it down — knowledge sharing is the thing that will push your team forward.
- There are challenges, not problems. Each time I come up against a problem, I put in extra effort to frame it as a challenge in my head instead. Challenges motivate you way more than problems.
- Accept challenges. Don’t fear facing new challenges both in personal and professional life. You never know what new thing you may learn.
- Don’t be scared to take risks. Yes, you might fail, but it’s part of the fun. Be ready to try, fail, and try again.
- Prioritization. I don’t think there’s such a thing as no time to do something. It usually comes down to poor prioritization.
- Think five steps ahead. Honestly, thinking three steps ahead is not enough.
- Listen. Less talking, more listening. It’s not just about what your team tells you. You have to be able to ‘read the room.’ Maybe someone who’s lagging behind in your team could nail it at a different department?
- Take responsibility. You have to take responsibility for your team and the decisions you make. You’re going to fail. That’s unavoidable. But own it when you do.
- Be creative. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes making an unorthodox decision can be just the thing that your business needs.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
NordVPN was born out of the idea that the internet should be free from surveillance and censorship and that it should be accessible to all. All of our products are working towards this goal in one way or another.
We work with nonprofits that fight for online freedom, human rights, and education across the globe. Some of our key partners are AccessNow, Amnesty International, Internet Freedom Festival, Open Rights Group, Linux Professional Institute.
We also focus on supporting cybercrime victims together with the Cybercrime Support Network.
Of course, the pandemic changed our focus as well. We started the Stay Safe campaign that informs our followers about current cyber threats and how to avoid them. We also supported those directly affected by the pandemic — educational institutions, nonprofits, and others in need.
We care about our local community too. We’re also working with local nonprofits that help those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These are mental support networks, volunteer organizations, and organizations working with care homes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Do not be afraid of mistakes. We are wired in such a way that for every idea or initiative, our minds can generate a lot of ways it can go wrong. But nowadays, when we all have social media at our disposal, it is easier than ever to see that no path to success was without some mistakes. Great products and services that we all use were built with lessons from those mistakes. Be prepared that you will make them and be eager to learn from them.
You can’t do it all: learn to focus and prioritize. At Nord Security, we saw early that 20% of our actions bring 80% of the results. It is impossible, especially from the start, to do all the things you want to do. So you have to be prepared to do a rational evaluation and estimate what you can do that will bring the most value to your company.
Learning should follow your every step. Improving oneself is probably one of the most popular items on everyone’s New Year’s resolution list. Yet, also one of the least followed through. In the IT world especially, it is a must-have quality. Fast innovations require knowing the context of what is happening around the world — constantly. Luckily, those same innovations allow us to bring learning on the go with us. Reading 20 pages per day seems insignificant yet manageable. But those 20 pages become 30 books at the end of the year.
Find time for only yourself. If you are tired, your mind will slip to easier challenges — like imagining the warm hug of your bedsheets. Being well-rested is a crucial part of staying motivated throughout the entire business day.
If you are the smartest one in the room, change the room. At Nord Security, teamwork is the key principle of our success. And the key to a successful team is diverse knowledge and experience. Do not be afraid to surround yourself with incredibly talented people. Only then can you learn the ways of reaching your ultimate goals.
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.
I am lucky to be working with products that help with issues that are close to my heart. I believe that information and education should be accessible to all, independently of where you are in the world. Information, after all, is the new dominant global currency. When people have sufficient access to it, they can educate themselves. That gives them the freedom to create and lead their own independent lives. Likewise, free information flow offers more opportunities for work and better pay.
That is why one of the key priorities of Nord Security’s social responsibility is free and open access to the internet for everyone. The internet can be a wonderful and unique resource for education and self-improvement.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Choose to be happy and optimistic. We do often forget that life is all about our choices. Choices not only about what route to take to work or how to plan out the week but also decisions on how we feel or how we react. Sometimes it is scary to fully embrace the meaning of free will. It takes away the ability to blame our failures on fate or chance. But it also releases you from many anxieties. If something unfavorable happens that I can’t change, there is still the option to react and feel about it in a certain way.
I use this quote often as a mental muscle. Its frequent training allows me to look at life and work more positively. It certainly helps in communication with other people and overcoming challenges.
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 would love to have a long lunch and pick the brains behind Susan Wojcicki — the YouTube CEO. She has been in the tech industry for over 20 years and is an inspiration for many of us. Our careers started in a similar way, and I have no doubt she could enlighten me with her perspective on many difficult decisions I had to take.
I would also love to chat with Sheryl Sandberg — philanthropist, COO of Facebook, and the founder of LeanIn.Org. I believe we both share concerns about the internet’s future, and I would happily go into a lengthy discussion on how we can keep it unfragmented.