In our interview series What’s Your Wish, we bring you kick-ass career and life insights from inspiring business leaders. Find out how they landed where they are today. What makes them tick. How they have overcome obstacles. Advice they would offer to recent graduates. And always, what is their wish for young professionals.
Meet Suzanne Ginestro, Chief Marketing Officer at Quest Nutrition.
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
I wasn’t planning to have a successful career like this. It wasn’t in my master plan to become a Chief Marketing Officer. To be honest, I always thought that I would feel satisfied once I reached a Brand Manager level. Then, I would just work a little and be home a lot. So, for me, the highlight of my career came when I had the realization that I wanted…and could have…it all…a successful and fulfilling career AND motherhood. After giving birth to my first child, I thought I wanted to pull back and stay at home.
After six months of maternity leave, though, I realized that I missed working. I missed having something that was just for me. I missed the intellectual challenges. I missed the strategic thinking and problem solving. I missed getting feedback, guidance and praise. I missed earning money on my own. I missed my friends and realized that work (and work colleagues) were a huge part of my life and of my identity. I was not the same person without it.
So, I went back to work, got a big piece of myself back, and then began to thrive. My career has far exceeded my expectations because I always followed my heart and my belly. When I was unhappy, I made a change. When I was happy, accomplishment and success seemed to follow me.
Is there anything you wish people knew about your company or your role?
Being a leader can be lonely at times, and there’s immense pressure because everyone’s looking at you to have all of the answers. More often than not, you aren’t 100% sure that what you decide is the right path. But, you have to lead with confidence and trust that your instincts and experience will help you make good choices. Sometimes it will work for you, and sometimes it will work against you, and as a leader you have to be willing to take those risks and learn from your mistakes.
What surprised you most about your current role?
Before I came to Quest, I didn’t fully realize the strength of this brand. I thought it was well-liked, but I under-estimated the level of passion and loyalty that Quest fans have for these products. Quest has a big following of people who like to talk about the impact that Quest has had on their life – from small lifestyle changes to huge body transformations. The stories are unbelievably real and authentic.
I’ve been in brand marketing for over 20 years, and I’ve worked across a lot of brands…but I have never seen brand love at this depth before. You can’t build this type of brand passion from an ad campaign or a clever tagline. It’s a deeply-rooted part of the brand DNA and my job is to protect and honor that authentic brand love.
How do you increase motivation when you are just not feeling it?
As an extrovert and a “feeler,” I am typically the executive leader in the room who does a lot of the talking. On any given day, you’ll find me presenting new ideas, reporting on our business results, or simply pumping up the team to make them feel supported and heard. But, there are certainly moments when I don’t feel inspired or up to the task of inspiring others. For me, it’s obvious when I’m not feeling it, and it’s hard to fake it. But, I’m a very transparent leader and I believe it’s OK to show your vulnerabilities at times.
That means that I’m not afraid to tell my team that I’m just not feeling it or that we need a time out. In general, they seem to appreciate the candor and it helps them realize that I am human. In times like this, I’ve been known to host a “town hall” or “fireside chat” with the team (sort of like a therapy session) to get all of the dirty laundry or baggage out in the air. I find that when we talk things out, and collectively acknowledge what’s wrong, we solve half the battle.
What have you found helps you in terms of organization or productivity?
I do my best work when I’m organized and prepared. To keep myself organized at work (and at home), I make hand-written checklists and I always love the feeling of crossing things off of the list. It makes me feel productive. I have tried to use digital notes, but that format just doesn’t work for me. There’s something about the act of writing it down on paper that makes it more tangible and real, and it’s much easier for me to keep track of my to-dos if they are visibly in front of me.
I keep my list in a notebook so that I can always go back to it when I need to remember a fact or what happened on a certain day. Also, I am a stickler about keeping my email inbox up-to-date. I open my emails daily and always try to respond immediately so that they don’t fall down and get lost in my inbox later. I am the type of person who likes to stay on top of things, so I do whatever I can to prepare for things in advance so that I’m not caught in a pinch later.
What obstacles or stumbles have you faced in your career and what have you learned?
The biggest obstacle I faced in my career was when I was working for a CEO who didn’t have any real operating experience or understanding of how to build a brand. He was very difficult to work for because he criticized every idea I brought to the table and would frequently change his mind on what he wanted. It was extremely frustrating because I was unable to complete any programs and he always pulled the plug halfway through a project.
As a result, I was not performing at my best. At one point, he told me that I didn’t deserve to have “brand” in my title, which was extremely demoralizing. I hated going to work every day and it made me question whether or not I wanted to work at all. So, I quit. It was the first and only time I quit a job without having another job waiting for me. It was frightening, and I was unsure what was next for me.
Four weeks later, I was recruited by a visionary leader to come build a new marketing organization. I hesitated before saying yes because I had lost confidence in myself. But the offer and the opportunity was so compelling that I decided to give myself a chance. That next role was the role that defined my career and ultimately led me to become a CMO. I opened a new office and was responsible for everything from hiring the people to picking out the furniture and décor. Every time I thought we were set, something happened, and we had to expand more.
Before I knew it, I had a team of 40 people and managed an office expansion and remodel—all while simultaneously running a business that was growing double-digits. I went from my lowest low to my highest high in the matter of one year…and it was all driven by the person who I worked for. When I worked for someone who I didn’t respect, I lost my confidence and I forgot what I was capable of. But, when I worked with someone inspiring, who believed in me, and who let me do my thing, I soared.
So, the lesson here is that I need to always trust my belly. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. For me, success comes when I am happy. And, happiness comes when I feel valued, respected and supported.
How do you turn off when you leave the office?
I don’t turn off. Ever. Toggling between work and home is a constant for me. Some people call it work/life “balance,” but I call it work/life “integration.” That means that the lines blur between when I’m working and when I’m “mom-ing.” It’s important to me to be at my kids’ school, tennis matches and baseball games, but it’s also important to be accessible for my team. I don’t want to let anyone down…on either end.
That means that sometimes I come in late, sometimes I leave early, sometimes my kids come to work with me, and sometimes I work from home. Essentially, it means that I am always on. Work is not a 9-5 thing for me. It’s continuous. Just like being a mom is continuous. There’s no start and stop. It’s fluid and integrated. My work is part of my life and my life is part of my work. My family knows my colleagues and my colleagues know my family.
For me, it works best when the two puzzle pieces come together as one. I do find a little peace and quiet when I am by myself, in the car, commuting to/from the office. I actually enjoy the drive time because it’s the only time that I am not multitasking and sometimes I just blast the music and sing at the top of my lungs (I’m not a very good singer, but thankfully no one else can hear me!).
Do you have any recs for free time?
When you’re juggling a career and a family, it’s important to always find time to refuel your body and soul. For me, that’s what boxing is for. It has become not only the best workout I’ve ever had, but it’s also therapy for me. Punching mitts is cathartic and it helps release tension, emotion and baggage. I highly recommend it and you might be surprised by your own strength and force. I was, and now I can’t live without it.
Best advice you have received?
I like to get to know the people I work with and I often consider them friends. But sometimes, becoming close friends with the people who work for you can get tricky. It stuck with me when one boss explained that as you grow in your career, you have to be careful with getting too close to the people who work for you because it’s hard to be a real leader if people think you are their peer. At times you’ll need to have tough conversations and being too buddy-buddy with the people who work for you could ultimately impact your judgment and ability to make tough decisions.
What should a recent grad be looking for in a new career opportunity?
At the beginning of your working career, I believe it’s most important to look for options that provide breadth of experience and exposure to as much as possible so that you can figure out where your sweet spot is. It’s hard to know specifically what you want to be from the get-go, so don’t pigeon hole yourself into one specific area right out of the gate. Look for opportunities that provide exposure to various types of industries, functions, and people.
Building basic business skills is a must for anyone who wants to be in a senior leadership role someday. Look for stable, profitable, and growing businesses that you know are going to be around in five years. Taking risks on start-ups and new ventures early on in your career is, well, risky. It can be really great, or really horrible. At the start you want reliability, stability, and a place that has people with experience who are willing to help you grow and learn. A big title gets you nowhere if you haven’t spent the time building the skills and experience required to make sound business decisions.
What’s your wish for young professionals?
My wish for young professionals is that they understand that they will need to work hard to realize their full potential and sometimes their full potential is much greater than what they think it is. I’ve never promoted someone who is lazy, sloppy or entitled. Success is earned. The best employees are the ones who take assignments seriously and who always go above and beyond what is asked for. A can-do attitude, willingness to learn and grow, and a little humility goes a long way.
Don’t miss our first What’s Your Wish interview, Money, Meaning, and the MBA, with UCLA Anderson Marketing Professor Dr Cassie Mogilner Holmes.