Episode 28: "Yes, And" Leadership with Carey Straetz of Mode Analytics

I'm your host, Maia Wells, and I'm so grateful you've chosen to listen to this episode. It's a powerful conversation about team-building, inclusion and what it takes to become an agent of change in the marketing world. Today we welcome Carey Straetz, Head of Demand Generation at the analytics platform Mode. Carey is a highly skilled digital and content marketing leader with experience in B2C and B2B banking, insurance, software and marketing verticals. She specializes in building high-performance teams and developing exceptional marketing talent. Today, she shares with us some of her best insights on how to coach, build and grow. Carey Straetz, welcome to the show.

Carey Straetz:
Thanks for having me.

Maia Wells:
Let me start with a question we like to ask all of our guests here on the Marketing Hero. What is your favorite part of your career, and how did you figure that out?

Carey Straetz:
Oh, great question. I'm fortunate that I figured this out really early. My favorite part of my career and what I do is results, and it's a really funny story how I figured this out. Early on in my career, when I was still a marketing specialist, I had taken a job at a subsidiary of a global corporation, and because I was the new marketing person, I got all those the small housekeeping tasks and things no one else wanted to do. And so part of my job was taking this monthly batch upload from our financial system and putting it into this other tool and formatting it so that all the numbers came through right. We were putting it into our marketing customer information file, or MCIF, system. And if you're in FinTech, this is early 2000. This is really old tech.

I had no idea why I had to do this task every month. I had no idea what it meant only that I had to do this monthly upload. After having done it for about six months, our VP of marketing came to me and said, "Well, you have to pull reports on this campaign that you did around this new financial product." And I was like, "Huh? How do I do that?" And she actually, she was very generous with her time, sat down with me and said, "You don't even know what this is? No one's told you how to use this?" I said, "No, I do the monthly upload. That's all I do. I didn't know I could use it, touch it."

And she showed me how to go through and put in campaign metrics to show results for both a campaign group as well as a control group, which blew my mind because I could literally say, "Oh my God, this campaign that I designed, I developed, I wrote the copy for, generated 2 million in auto-loans. That's really cool. Holy cow." And that was the moment my life changed, and I realized I'm not a brand marketer. I'm not a product marketing manager. I love demand-gen because I like being able to do something and see what comes out on the other end. It's like, "I did that. My team did that. We drove those results." So that's the story of how I learned that you don't have to be an expert with the numbers, but it is incredibly life-changing when you understand how your activities tie down to the revenue at the end of the day.

Maia Wells:
Yes, and one of the things that is so interesting with that is many companies, and many people that I've talked to, don't have a great window into that with the multitouch attribution reporting that some companies have and some don't, right? Some of the time it's really easy to see those results and what contributed, and other times it's not so clear-cut. Can you tell us about an example of when you had to create that clarity in a position? I know it's been a long time since you've been that marketing specialist in that story that you just told, so I'm sure that you've had these experiences of going, "Well, we generated some leads. A lot of them MQL'd. Then what happened? Because then they went into sales and it's a black box, or we only have first-touch attribution so we really don't know." Can you talk a little bit about the importance of reporting when you're thinking about your passion, which is seeing those results?

Carey Straetz:
Yeah. I can give a great example of this in my career. Not so long ago, a couple years ago, my team and I had stood up this top-funnel strategy. The whole idea was to obviously increase brand awareness at the top of the funnel. What we didn't do... I mean, we identified our messaging, our creative channels, spend, target CPMs... What we did not do was figure out at the beginning how we were going to track to results. So we knew CPM was an important lever to look at for efficiency, but it didn't really tell us anything about the leads that we had generated. So while we had 34% of our top-funnel targets actually click through and come to our website, we were, and I was unable to stand up to my leadership team and say, "Yes, 34% activation at the top of the funnel..." because we couldn't follow them through the rest of the funnel.

So had we thought earlier in the campaign about, "Hold on, now we got to cover reporting and get reporting in place and QA the reporting so it's going to work correctly, so that I can actually prove out to management that the strategy is good for the business," had we done that work at the beginning, I would have been able to give a full funnel report rather than, "Well, we saw this conversion and we suspect, and we think, and it's likely that... And it influenced this." Those are all great, but some companies really need to get down to brass tacks and the numbers.

So that was a fail on my part. Not a great fail, but I did learn from it. So I think that's also important to note in my leadership philosophy. Failure's fine. If you're not failing, you're not trying enough things. And creating a culture where it's okay to fall down and it's okay to be a director of a team and say, "I fell down on this. We're going to collectively get back up and we're going to learn from this. Moving forward, here's how we're going to handle these things."

Maia Wells:
And I love that approach, because it takes your learning as an individual and applies that to what can we do as a team, and what a great leadership quality. You are one of the best leaders that we've run across in this space, and we're just honored to talk with you on the Marketing Hero today because those of us working in the trenches, we all work for someone like you, right, in most cases? We work for somebody who is leading demand gen, or somebody's leading product marketing.

One of the things I found really interesting in researching you is that one of your famous quotes, right, is, "It's not the smartest or the loudest kid in the sandbox that wins. It's the one who gets everyone moving in the same direction." And so that really reminds me of that quote because you're saying, "I learned something, then I got everybody on board moving in the same direction after that." So let's talk about that a little bit. Why is that so important, and why isn't it just the loudest or the smartest kid that wins, but somebody who really can inspire the team to get moving in the same direction?

Carey Straetz:
Yeah. I love this. This keeps me grounded. This was something that I learned early in my career when I'd just been promoted to a manager. I'm walking in and my knees are knobbly and wobbly. I'm like, "Oh my God, are these people going to respect me? We were peers and now I have to manage them, and I must be really hard and I have all the answers." And my VP, who I actually referenced earlier, was incredibly generous and saw me just this ball of anxiety because I was a manager and that was really important. And I had to do everything right. And she's like, "You don't have to be the smartest person. You have to hire the smart people and you have to get them all together. And you also have to watch out because whoever is the loudest this voice in the room, it doesn't mean they're the right voice in the room."

So make sure that you give voice and time and intentional efforts towards the folks who are a little bit more quiet, maybe calling them a little bit more. The idea is to gather together the band of smartest, brightest people give them a common goal, give them structure and direction and let them do the work, because that's what they're there for. I am simply there to coordinate, laud, motivate, but it's the smart people on my team that do the work. And I don't always have to be the smartest and I don't have to be the loudest. I have other people that can do that.

Maia Wells:
Well, how did you develop these skills, Carey? How did you get to be that kid who gets everybody else moving? Is that somebody who you've always been? Is that something that you had to develop as you went from thinking, "I'm going to have to be the smartest person. I'm the manager. I'm the leader. I need to know what to say," to "Maybe I don't. I'm just going to go ahead and get everyone kicked off in the right direction"? How did you develop your own skills in that area?

Carey Straetz:
Yeah, that's a great question. It was definitely a developmental effort. I think I had an eye-opening moment in my career where there was this really, really intelligent young man that my perception was he was coming for me on a particular part of my project, and I was getting a little frustrated with him, like, "Back off, this is my project." And I was working with a wonderful career coach and she said, "Carey, he's obviously really intelligent, and he can contribute in a really positive way to your project if you actually listen to his feedback instead of reacting and going, 'That's my project. I get the say.' Listen to him and use him as a tool to make your project better."

And I was instantly less afraid, less standoffish, less defensive, when I looked at this person who was very, very intelligent and how they could actually become a tool in my toolkit to make my project bullet-proof and better. So it's a constant switch in your thinking, or in my thinking, anyways, from, "Get off my lawn" to, "No, no, no, come on. Come on my lawn with your picnic table. You're going to make my party so much better by being here."

Maia Wells:
I love that. It's like, the more the merrier. What I'm hearing in that is a little bit of shedding the ego. So talk to me a little bit about that. As a leader, how much ego do you have to let go of in order to be a leader like that?

Carey Straetz:
A lot. A lot. But I realized, when I look around at leaders that I really, really, really admire, I see that from them. One of our former CMOs at Mode never referred to herself as CMO. She was like, "I am a marketing spokesperson." She had no ego. She gave all of her ego and spotlight to her teams. And I model it. I want to model that and emulate that because it's rare, but it feels so good to work for a leader like that.

Maia Wells:
Who are some of the people that you're having in mind when you're saying that? Because you're saying some of your most important mentors, some of the people that you like to follow, leaders in the space that you think are really good at that. Give us some names because I think we need to do a little Googling and a little buying of books on Amazon here to see if we can get some of that light shone on us too. Who are some of those people that we should be looking into?

Carey Straetz:
Obviously the queen Brené Brown, absolute queen. In terms of female leadership, I really love Jacinda Ardern, the PM of New Zealand. I have watched her and looked at her leadership style for a few years now, and she confronts every situation or she brings to every situation this deep amount of empathy and active listening. That is something I watch her do, and I think "There's 4 million people who trust this woman. There's got to be something right about approaching situations with active listening, with empathy." One of the things she said, it was following the Christchurch mass shootings in New Zealand. She went on site to talk to some of the survivors, and she said to them, literally, "My time is yours. What do you want me to know?" And I approach my one-on-ones with my people like that. "My time is yours. This is your time with me to do ideation or brainstorming or coaching, but tell me what you need from me." So that's another leader that I watch quite closely.

Maia Wells:
And those who have worked under you have said that your yes-and attitude is really inspiring to them and it's contagious, right? And so has that always been your approach, in life, in work? Is that something you had to cultivate, really, truly going, "Okay, I'm actively listening. I'm going to say yes to what you're saying and ask more"? It sounds like you did have a little shift when you first went into management from being so scared about maintaining that egoic approach a little bit to getting into this yes-and mode. What are some of the things that helped you to get there? How did you cultivate that?

Carey Straetz:
Yeah. If my team is listening to me, they'll know exactly what I'm talking about. I had read a book recommended by someone on my team called A Beautiful Constraint, and the idea behind the book is we've all got constraints in life, money, time, intellectual, property, knowledge, smarts, whatever, but you can't let that stop you, and it's all about how do you use the constraints in your life or at work to innovate and keep marching forward, but maybe marching forward in a different way because you're getting around, over, under this constraint.

And I love the concept so much that I brought in the author of the book to speak to my team on this concept, and this was right when COVID had shut everything down and we were all like, "Ah, how do we do this virtual work thing? Ahh..." And so I started having monthly like speakers to do some team-building. And so he came in and talked about: there's nine different methods to get around these constraints. And so he started talking about those and using those as tools, and then the next month I built on that using yes-and. So I had, he was an innovation engineer, I think, a really creative person, come in and talk to my team about how do we use yes-and to build on great ideas and get rid of negativity.

And so the whole theme of this practice with my team was: we've got constraints. How do we get around them using these tools and then use yes-and to continue building on those great ideas? And we had branded logos around yes-and. And it was really, really funny, but great, because when my team started to use yes-and, it would show up in an email. It would be like, "Yes, and?" and they would bold it. Or if we were talking in a meeting and someone would say, "Yes, and?" They would start to call out, "I'm using this tool." I built a really common language and verbal flag to say, "I [inaudible 00:15:29] you. I'm going to help you. Yes, and we're going to make this better."

Maia Wells:
That's a really good approach. And taking it to the other side of this, so we've been talking a little bit about how you've cultivated yourself as a leader and created this very open way of leading. What about on the other side of that: people who work for you? How are they best able to achieve these mindset shifts or these different accomplishments that you're asking them to achieve? What kind of mindset does that take? What kind of steps does that take? It seems like just being engaged is a really great first step, or actually reading the books for the book club or attending the guest speaker session, right? Those are the obvious things, but does it take a certain type of person to really get it? Does it take a certain type of person to come up under you?

I'm thinking from the perspective of someone that may be a marketing manager working on the demand gen team for someone like yourself, who's a great mentor. What helps that person to succeed and potentially be able to move up and be a director of marketing someday, or a CMO someday, head of demand generation like you are? Tell us a little bit more. Maybe you can give us a little mini motivational speech here for those marketing managers who are thinking, "What can I do to move my career in the same direction, maybe, as Carey Straetz's?"

Carey Straetz:
I think starting with a curious mindset. If you're working for me, that's number one. I love it. Come with the questions, come with the wacky crazy ideas, come with it all. Interestingly enough, I just talked to a peer recently who had been promoted from a senior manager to a director position, and she's like, "I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how to do my job. I really knew how to do my job before, but now I'm waiting for my CMO to tell me what to do." And I was like, "Oh, girl, it's your job to tell your CMO what you're going to do. That is your job now. You're a director. That's your job."

Maia Wells:
You're going to direct. Right.

Carey Straetz:
And where it comes from is it comes from within you. Nobody's sitting around telling you what to do. You are at the top now. You have to figure out what you're going to do, vet it with your team, vet it with your peers, present it to your manager. That's your job now. And she was like, "Okay."

Maia Wells:
So did that seem like a good "okay", or like a terrified "okay", the way that you're saying it?

Carey Straetz:
I think a clarifying "okay." Like, "That's why my..." Actually, I think she reports to a VP. "That's why my VP's not like telling me what to do."

Maia Wells:
Right. It seems like it's a certain amount of self-direction, a certain amount of being able to plan and pay attention to metrics and goals and collaborate with team members to vet the ideas and effectively present them. So it's definitely a little bit of a shift from, "Let me take orders and accomplish them really well," to, "Let me figure out what the orders have to be."

Carey Straetz:
Right. Yeah. Yeah. And I think there's a specific level of coaching that has to occur when you make that jump from senior manager to director. Because if you don't know that, and it's fair to say you don't know that, and if no, one's going to tell you, then someone's going to be like my friend and flounder for a minute or a couple of weeks before someone is actually like, "Your job." And it very well could be her VP that would have that conversation with her. But we were just two girls chatting over a virtual glass of wine, and I gave her my perspective.

Maia Wells:
Yeah. Being able to lead one's self is definitely a good skill. I want to shift the conversation into a little bit about diversity, inclusion... We're recording this episode during Women's History Month. We just came out of Black History Month, and in the United States right now, there are many conversations going on around inclusion, equality, marginalization, all of the things that are very important for us to think about if we want to be an inclusive society and work in inclusive businesses. Why do you think inclusion is such an important part of team-building, and what does it actually look like in a practical sense?

Carey Straetz:
Inclusion and team building, and I don't have all the answers, I'm still learning a lot about this myself, I think looks like meeting the people on your team where they're at and accepting that's where they're at. So I think COVID taught us a lot about meeting people where they're at. With daycares shutdown and George Floyd riots, we just had to be a lot more understanding of how people showed up during those very stressful situations, and how can we accommodate them as leaders, because their home life comes first and work comes second. That's my approach.

How does it show up? It shows up as checking in with the people and making sure that they know that there's support at work, that you recognize they may be going through something difficult. And I think this is particularly relevant with what's going on in Ukraine now. There's large swaths in Chicago of the Ukrainian community. I think we'd be hard-pressed for anybody here to say they don't know somebody affected by what's going on there. And so making sure that my colleagues or team people who have fallout from that understand that their number one priority is ensuring their mental health is okay and that they're safe where they are, and work comes second to those factors first. Yeah.

Maia Wells:
So one of the things I find really interesting in the way that you're responding to that question is you didn't say anything about different types of identities or groups of people, or trying to hire specific types of people and that type of stuff. I think it's really interesting because your perspective was including the person as a human being: what they may be going through, whether it's a single parent that's facing a daycare shutdown, an illness in the family, anything like that, existential crises because of things going on in politics, a lot of different things That we've been all going through as a collective society in the last couple of years.

Why does your mind go there? Because I think when we talk about diversity and inclusion initiatives, a lot of times it's, "Well, we want to make sure that our hiring practices are inclusive, that we are giving anyone that has the right qualifications a fair chance at the job," those types of issues. So how do those two things relate? Because I think it's really interesting that you went there on the humanistic level. Are we past thinking in those categories? Do we need to pay special attention to those categories in the HR world? What are your thoughts on creating a diverse team intentionally? Is that something that you think about? Tell us a little bit more about that.

Carey Straetz:
Yeah. I went there because I think I've had some mental training to look at situations like that. My hiring experience at Mode, bar none, it has been amazing, and I credit that to our people team who created a really rigorous process to take a look at candidates and they coach us: "Don't look for the person you want to have a beer with, because that's going to introduce similar-to-me bias. Don't look at somebody who perhaps didn't have a chance to finish college or has gaps in their work that is not relevant to their ability to do their job today." And we got a lot of coaching around that.

And the way that we interview is a structured interview process, and we ask every candidate the same question and we simply write down the facts of their answer. So if they stuttered or didn't present well, that is irrelevant. If they can speak and talk about an example that answers your question, that is what's relevant to this candidate. And that helps us remove biases that we may have towards someone who's just like me, who's got a kid and is, "Oooh", as opposed to somebody who's not like me but who may be a better fit. So we really look at the candidates' skills and not necessarily other factors, or we try to not look at other factors.

I will say it's pretty incredible when you actually just look at how somebody answered and the facts, and you can pretty clearly start to see clear winners in your hiring strategy. We also have requirements around ensuring that we talk to enough underrepresented voices, so there are minimums that we have to meet, and I like that's included, because if we didn't, we might miss out on the next great candidate simply because we already found one that works. So I like that we're being pushed to talk to a more diverse group of candidates from the start.

Maia Wells:
Yeah. And that same-as-me bias is just really rampant. I mean, we can see that teams end up looking the same, sounding the same. It's the people that we'd have a beer with, right? And it's a sociological concept that's been studied for so many years because it is true. We tend to gravitate towards those who are like us, and it does take a concerted effort to change that mindset, whether you're in charge of hiring or not, to really open up the avenues to meeting different types of people, whether it's professionally, personally or whatnot. So I think it's really respectable that companies like Mode are putting in effort towards that and even changing hiring practices and procedures to make sure that underrepresented voices are there.

So one of the other things that I ran across my research about you, Carey, was that you think white employees might need a better understanding of allyship. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Why do you think white employees need a better understanding of what allyship means, and what actions are most impactful for people who want to be good allies? What can people be doing on a daily basis to really make sure that we are trying to be inclusive in all of our actions, business and personal? What can people do to be better allies, Carey?

Carey Straetz:
I would say talk to the group for whom you're trying to ally yourself. So for me, as a straight white woman, I look for allyship from my male counterparts in meetings. And so I can speak to allyship from a white female perspective. And the men in the room, if you're talking over a woman, don't do that. Be cognizant of that. Other men in the room, if a woman's idea is getting stomped on, hold time and space for her to talk, and call it out. That's what myself, as a white woman, needs in terms of allyship. I don't think we fully know until we do talk to people who are on the other side and say, "How do I support you?" I don't have the answers. I have a racially diverse group of friends, and I ask them.

Maia Wells:
It's not really up to us, right?

Carey Straetz:
No.

Maia Wells:
It's up to the people that we'd like to align with, and that's really powerful.

Carey Straetz:
I can't tell them what they need. I just need to ask, listen and do.

Maia Wells:
Yeah. I mean, I think one of the themes here is just openness: openness on both sides. If we can be open to understanding each other, I think that just goes a long way. And I'm really proud of us as a society because we've become a lot more open, even in my lifetime, in the business world, talking about things like, "Hey, I've got to pick up my child at school," or things like that. I think even 10 years ago, it was like, "Don't even mention the fact that you have a child at work. You're going to look like you're not dedicated," and these things. And so maybe that's one of the interesting things that has come out of the COVID era is people are allowed to be human beings.

I mean, just yesterday I went up to the preschool for a little cupcake thing for my daughter's birthday and it was fine. And everybody was like, "Great. Send us a picture when you get back." It wasn't like I felt like I had to just say, "I'm at lunch." And I think 10 years ago it may have been like that. Have you seen that type of shift as well, for leadership to be able to see everyone as a whole human being that's allowed to have a life? What do you think?

Carey Straetz:
I have, and there's a part of me, a really small petty part that's like, "Dang it. I wanted this earlier in my career." But I'm amazed and beyond proud to be part of an organization like Mode that really truly does let your whole self show up at work. I remember at our first All-Hands after I joined, I was flipping through the zoom pictures to see my coworkers, and all walks of life, all home situations, and it is all okay. That's amazing. And to anybody listening to this, if you're in a company where you feel like you can't bring your whole self or you can't say, "Got my kids' soccer game, got to go to this Corrs concert, I'm going to be offline from three to four, I'll be right back on," if your organization is not agreeable to that approach, go find another one. There's hundreds of thousands of very supportive organizations out there, and you don't have to live like that any more.

Maia Wells:
Yeah, I guess that's true. It does feel like there's been a shift in general, at least in the United States, from what we've seen over the last couple of years. People's children come onto the Zoom meeting and nobody even bats an eye. I think 10 years ago it would have been a big deal. Well, we didn't have Zoom 10 years ago, but you get what I mean. A child in the background of a conference call, for example, or something like that, it would be a big deal. So I guess that's one positive that's come out of COVID, and having to stay at home and be a human, is we are being recognized as such a lot more in the business life.

Well, one question I have for you, Carey, that I'll wrap up with is just around your own life and organization, because it seems like leading demand-gen for a company like Mode is a very busy job. I mean, it's a busy, challenging job. You have a lot on your plate, I'm assuming. How do you accomplish everything you need to do in a practical sense for your actual job while also paying attention to coaching and mentoring your team? What's the balance of those two things? Is it really important to you to make sure that you have time and space to mentor? How are you balancing those two competing priorities in your own career?

Carey Straetz:
A component of my job is coaching. So while I have to execute on some things, my team is really why I'm here. And so each one needs something different. They're all unique individuals, both here and every team I've led. And I try to prioritize my day by things that have to get done that day, things that the team needs for me, whether it's coaching or time or just a brain to bounce ideas off of. [inaudible 00:30:10] will keep me going sometimes.

I was talking to somebody actually just yesterday and she was being very real with me. She's like, "I'm struggling. I am not motivated. These couple of things knock me down. I'm having trouble getting back up. I'd really like to get into this project, but I don't know where to start." And I was like, "What motivates me is you. What motivates me is what you just asked me, what you just said about this project. Let's talk a little bit more about that. Let's explore it. Let's see if we can give you some kindlings to start the fire for this project idea and maybe get you moving in that way." It's just something I really enjoy doing, and I haven't always enjoyed doing it, but I think as I get older, it's really a very nice part of my leadership style that I've developed, I think.

Maia Wells:
Well, it sounds like you are just such an open and approachable leader, which we need more of. Carey Straetz, thank you so much for joining us on the Marketing Hero podcast.

Carey Straetz:
Thank you, Maia.

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