At 19 years, and counting, Emerson Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Button Bell is an anomaly. Outlasting the average Fortune 500 CMO tenure by as much as five times, it’s obvious that she holds a few secrets to survival, especially as martech has continually (and radically) reshaped B2B marketing. Notably, Bell has had the same supportive CEO, David Farr, for all those years. And she’s made a habit of cross-departmental collaboration, actively seeking out peer input and avoiding turf wars.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Bell’s endurance can also be linked to her ability to push forward new initiatives at just the right moment—and then back those up with research data her engineer cohorts will respect. In the last two years, she has led a “Values Initiative” that helped pull the company out of a difficult period. In fact, February marked the launch of a new marketing campaign that spoke to these values in action for Emerson’s clients. A big fan of reducing complexity, in our interview, Bell offers multiple insights with staying power.
As CMO, how do you approach changing company culture?
I think one of the key things you have to do is put your wet finger in the air and feel where the wind's blowing. When business is good, you have to take huge advantage of that moment to fill the organization with optimism. And if they're at a jog, try to get them to a run. You always want to accelerate positive change. And if things are tough, like they were in 2009, try your hardest to find the positive and be optimistic. We tried to be the optimistic face of global business, helping our customers innovate their way out of trouble. But most of all, keep the organization going and happy and enthusiastic about what they're doing.
How do you make that happen?
A bunch of different ways. One thing that we did, especially with our values rollout, is we went to the organization and actually, both through tough times and good ones, surveyed them for how they feel. It was a time where we went through transformation tension, as we shrunk the company before we grew again. So, we asked them, ‘What is hurting?’ And then asked, ‘What are we best at, and what do we need to do to be more successful?’ And 13,999 employees told us the three things that we were made out of, and the four things we need to do better to be successful. They wrote their own plan.
Is this survey annual?
No, we did it as soon as we came through the transformation, flattening the enterprise and splitting it into two pieces to make us much more focused instead of five pieces. And it seemed the perfect moment to unify the organization with one set of values.
What actions did you take as a result of the findings?
We did two big things: First, totally started from scratch on our website, and at the same time, we implemented our Values Initiative. Emerson.com had more than 750,000 pages—a nightmare. Now, the website looks and feels better. That wasn't the best benefit. The best benefit was them having employees work together to do it. And it drove so much unity, and it drove so much collaboration. They didn’t have a choice. Same thing with the Values Initiative—in a year the organization needed something to hang on to, these programs just knitted everyone together.
How did you get the values story out to your employees?
I think you have to always do the thing that is a little unexpected to keep people's attention and keep it interesting for people. When we launched our values, we used the children. We interviewed 72 kids about values. Who wants to hear me or even Dave Farr, our CEO, talk about values—that is incredibly boring. So, we let the children of the organization do it, which if you haven't seen the video, you have to see. It is just awesome!
When thinking about your messaging, what are your guiding principles?
First and foremost, we try to keep a lens. What lens are you're going to put this through? It should always be about something we can see in the future. It’s a promise to go forward. We try to pick topics that are very sensitive to the environment like helping a billion more people breathing free with China replacing all the coal-fired heating, and things like that which are just positive, purposeful. We'd link everything to our five “Noble Causes,” one for each of our businesses. Those are the guardrails. As for look and feel, we go for clear, clean and uncluttered. And we love people being in the center.