What makes a successful CMO? In this series, I’m exploring the practical secrets of marketing leadership: what works and what doesn’t. This time I spoke with Mika Yamamoto, former executive of Amazon, Adobe, Marketo, Microsoft, and SAP and now F5's Chief Marketing and Customer Experience Officer.
Thomas Barta: Since we started talking, you went on an incredibly journey. From SAP’s CMO you joined the Marketo top team —weeks before the merger with Adobe. And now F5. How do you feel right now?
Mika Yamamoto: It’s beyond my wildest imagination how my life has turned out, both personally and professionally. I’m grateful for the incredible leaders who have offered me roles that I thought were outside of my reach. I feel really blessed.
Barta: Did you always plan to become a top company leader?
Yamamoto: Not at all! I grew up in Calgary, Canada. Some of my childhood career aspirations included florist and veterinarian. Junior high career testing indicated my talents would be best applied towards nut sorting or bee hive keeping. My dad’s formal education topped out at 9th grade in Japan. He immigrated to Canada as a barber in his 20’s and my mom worked in retail. My up-bringing focused on commitment to hard work, an expectation of excellence and the notion of limitless possibilities.
Nowadays I see so many parents saying to their kids, “Well, if you get this grade, we’ll give you $50. If you empty the dishwasher for the month we’ll give you a scooter.” When I was growing up, excelling was an expectation, not a condition to be met for some kind of reward.
Barta: Women in the C-suite still aren’t the norm. Did your parents prepare you?
Yamamoto: I honestly didn’t have any idea that I could be at a disadvantage as a women. I didn’t hear dinner stories about the trappings, trials and tribulations of corporate life. My blue-collar upbringing was completely devoid of conversations about such things. Throughout my career, I’ve always thought I’m treated the way I am because I’m Mika—for better or for worse.
Barta: What would you say to a young leader who aspires to your role but shy’s away from hard work?
Yamamoto: I’d say that they should pick another goal. There are infinite possibilities, but you have to be willing to do the work. Not everyone has to have the goal of making it to the c-suite. Not everyone should feel like they should aspire to be a senior leader. That’s ok.
The hard work of being a senior leader comes in many forms. It comes in the form of late hours and constantly balancing trade-offs between work and personal priorities. It also comes in the form of showing up and being present at times when that’s the last thing you want to do. There’s also the weight of the responsibility to deliver results and create an exceptional environment for the team. I love the challenge and don’t find this to be a hardship. It is what I’ve consciously signed up to do. I thrive on making it all work. It isn’t for everyone and that’s ok.
Barta: How do you juggle all your priorities?
Yamamoto: I have a simple rule: Do fewer things exceptionally well. I can’t be great at everything. The critical part for me is outlining what matters most in my life and defining what it means to excel in the areas of family, friends, community, health and work. It involves talking to my kids, my partner, my friends and colleagues frequently to determine what means the most to them.
Barta: Let’s go back to marketing. How can CMOs get a strong voice in the boardroom?
Yamamoto: I think a strong boardroom voice is an earned position. As a marketer, you are an enabler of customer connections that drive results. Marketers who can play in the boardroom have strong business acumen. They’ve built trust among their peers. They are driving meaningful value for the company. Sometimes you don’t get asked. If you have something to contribute or say, don’t wait for the invitation.
Barta: Anything else?
Yamamoto: The most successful companies today do not market in a silo. “Go to market” activities need to take place seamlessly across product, sales, IT and marketing. Link arms with your functional counterparts and strive to achieve a common set of goals. That’s when you elevate the standing of marketing, the customer experience, and the company’s results —which is really what it’s about.
Barta: As one of the most senior people in your company, what is your key for success?
Yamamoto: Bringing people together across functions and establishing an inspired common focal point to harness our collective energy. For exceptional results I need an incredibly skilled team (including people that are smarter and better than me in areas where I’m not strong or need more capacity). What’s really key is a mix of DNA based on demographics, backgrounds and experience. And an environment where everyone can contribute. The flywheel gets going to its fullest potential when accountabilities and dependencies are clear. My job then becomes help keep focus, direct resources where they’re needed the most, and clearing roadblocks.
Barta: Before you started your career, what do you wish you’d known?
Yamamoto: It’s okay to be myself. Early in my career, I’d be in meetings where I was the most junior person, and I felt I had to emulate someone more senior to be seen as credible. So I tried to act serious. For example, early in my career I went to a Nations Bank/Bank of America merger meeting when the presidents of the banks met. As we left the room, a consultant I was working with asked me, “What happened to you?” I said, “I don’t know. I was just trying to be as serious as the meeting seemed to be.” She said, “You need to act like yourself, because otherwise you’re just being weird.”
Barta: What’s the most important marketing leadership advice to others?
Yamamoto: Build and demonstrate strong business acumen. Understand how your company runs. What drives revenues. What drives costs? What are the values? How is your industry evolving and where does your company fit in that mix? Read your company’s financial statements. You need to understand the motivations and performance pressures of the other functional leaders. Then, of course, show how marketing drives shareholder value and determine ways to improve your firm’s position.
Barta: Dear Mika, thanks so much for your time.