How To Maximize The Partnership With Your CMO And Accelerate Revenue with Karen Steele
Sean Lane: Hey everyone, Sean here. Before we get to this week's episode, I have a quick announcement to make. I'm super excited to announce that the operations team at Drift is growing. That's right. We're hiring. We are looking to add someone to our customer success operations team. So if you are interested in that role or you know someone who is, head to drift. com/careers, check out the job posting or feel free to reach out to me directly on LinkedIn, and we can have a conversation about our CS ops role that is now open on our website. Thanks so much. Enjoy the show.( singing) Hey, everyone. Welcome to Operations, the show where we look under the hood of companies in hypergrowth. My name is Sean Lane. One of the most important but sometimes overlooked skills of an operator is how they communicate and interact with senior leadership. The data you present, the way you frame your position and the empathy that you bring to your interactions are all foundational to building a strong partnership with any senior leader. Today, we're going to go deep on the relationship between operations and one of the most important C- level leaders inside of hypergrowth, the CMO. Just as importantly, I want to learn more about how CMOs view operations and how we can best communicate with them. Lucky for us, we have former LeanData CMO Karen Steele to give us the view from the other side. Karen is a 30 year marketing veteran who got her professional start at Apple and has since led marketing at B2B organizations like Informatica, Xactly, VMware, Marketo and most recently at LeanData. In our conversation, Karen is going to take us through the evolution that she's seen from her perspective in the role of operations. We're going to talk about the best way to communicate with a CMO like her and what it took to build highly engaged communities of operators like Marketing Nation at Marketo and OpsStars at LeanData. But let's start with the role of operations through a CMO's eyes. For Karen, she's seen a clear shift towards more responsibility and a more strategic role for ops.
Karen Steele: I've been in the B2B tech marketing space for 25 years. So I was here and witnessed some of the same things I'm going to talk about in revenue operations pre some of this technology that is enabling it today. The fact is that we've always had really great operations personnel inside of our companies. We just haven't always had the tools and technology for them to embrace and take more of a leadership role. So I think what you've seen happen as part of digital transformation that really came about through the advent of CRM and marketing automation, is you have these really smart operations people that are really the backbone of driving the infrastructure to make all of the revenue processes happen, and they tend to be sprinkled across your company. And so what I've seen over the years is that companies, whether they consolidate them or they don't recognize that they have these pockets of really smart people that are tuned into the data, that understand the technology, they're building the processes that are really driving a lot of the go- to- market backbone, if you will, and as automation has really taken over and companies are doing everything digitally now, these individuals have become more and more strategic in the organization. I think really smart companies have embraced these people. They've given them more responsibility. Some of them have built out teams. But by and large, there's usually some rockstar inside your company that is really doing a revenue ops role, whether you call it that or you don't. From big companies, to small companies, to startups, there's somebody inside your company that is so important in this process. You may not know who they are today, if you're running a function, but you better figure out who they are because they're incredibly valuable.
Sean Lane: Was there a moment that you remember from Marketo, or LeanData, or any of your other organizations that you've been at where you were like," Oh, I have now recognized that there is a unique value here or a unique person here that I need to leverage more in my work"?
Karen Steele: Yeah. No. I'm going to go all the way back to when I was running a big chunk of corporate marketing at Informatica. I had the entire demand gen team and field marketing and customer marketing, et cetera, on my team. And I had one individual who was running MOPS, so marketing operations. This is pre- Salesforce and pre- Marketo. We actually had a kluged version of Siebel, believe it or not, that we were using as a marketing automation platform. And she was the lieutenant. This is a gal, she's still out there and I respect her immensely. Her name is Jen Melwani. She's a consultant now, and she still does strategic revenue operations for a lot of companies. But she was the backbone of figuring out all of the elements of what our database looks like, what our processes are, what we should be doing in terms of strategizing around pipeline contribution and getting people aligned to different metrics. This was back in 2003. So she did some amazing stuff for the team back then. I sort of carried that with me as I went into other roles, regardless of the size of my team. Obviously, you go into a tech company like a Marketo or even a LeanData and you have way more resources, and companies are more tapped in because by and large that's what we do for a living. But I came to the appreciation of that role and that function early on. Obviously, as time progressed and the technology evolved, I went into situations where there were smarter and smarter people that were inside the company doing great things around data and technology and process that related to go- to- market execution and revenue strategies.
Sean Lane: Karen talks about the way that operations roles have changed over the course of her career, and she's seen teams structured in a bunch of different ways. But, at the end of the day, I want to be able to speak her language. I want to be able to communicate in the way that's the most effective to her and provides her with value. After all, she's my customer. So my question for her is, what's her advice to us operators on how to do just that?
Karen Steele: First of all, it starts with," Show me the data." I think that every CMO today wants to see the real data behind the story. Sometimes it's not ideal for a CMO or a head of marketing or demand gen to always be asking for the data, or trying to tweak reports, or I don't have the right dashboard. Come to me proactively and show me the data. Give me your hypothesis of different things you believe may be happening that we're not paying attention to. At LeanData, we had an awesome gal who was running revenue ops, who would, of course, present all the things that we were asking her to present in our weekly go- to- market meetings, and they were around pipeline contribution and conversions and ASP and net retention, all of the things I mentioned. But she would also come to us individually and say," Hey, I've noticed these three other things that are happening, and do you want to take a look at this?" Some of them are very discreet things that you could drill down on them, and some of them were just larger trends or leading indicators of something else that might be interesting that you should pay attention to in the business. So come forward with the data, don't be shy about that. Challenge the normal, I guess, because I think so many of us have operated with traditional spreadsheets and dashboards for so long, but there's so much more you can do now with AI and a lot of the other technologies and ways people are slicing and dicing the information too to really look at forward- looking trends and things we could maybe be testing, et cetera. So don't be shy about that stuff.
Sean Lane: I feel like every leader is a little bit different when it comes to this answer, but how deep do you like to go? Right? So if I come to you, right, I'm being proactive, I'm trying to bring you data, how far into the weeds does that go? Right? Because I want to present something that's going to be impactful and digestible, but I also recognize that there is probably reasons why a conversion rate is up or down, or there's a reason why pipeline is up or down, and there's stuff that's happening below the surface there. So I'm just curious, how deep in the weeds do you find is helpful for you as opposed to," Okay, now we've gone too far down this rabbit hole. This is no longer a value add for me, at least as a CMO"?
Karen Steele: I mean, I assume that the individual on a RevOps team that we've entrusted with some of these goals and metrics once we're aligned to do so has done their job and they've gone pretty deep. I'm not going to go super far below the line. But what I will say for a revenue ops professional is be aligned with your head of finance, your CFO. Because, at the end of the day, we're talking about bookings and revenue projections and measuring net retention and a lot of things that the CFO has to report to the board, and if you're a public company, report outwardly. Make sure that the RevOps person has a relationship with your financial analyst, your head of finance, and that they've vetted the numbers too, and that they're part of the process.
Sean Lane: Karen keeps coming back to alignment and not just between sales and marketing and customer success. Karen points out that ops can serve as a bridge to other parts of the organization as well, like finance. For example, our ops team at Drift is a centralized resource for all of our go- to- market teams. And we actually roll up into our CFO, so I can identify with Karen's advice. While I spend the majority of my time with go- to- market leaders, some of my most important partners internally are on the finance team. Anyways, back to Karen. She makes things pretty clear, right? Bring CMOs the data, and be prepared to back up your findings. She told me that no team was a better example of that than the marketing ops team at Marketo. Not surprising. But this team, they weren't centralized. They weren't RevOps, but that marketing ops team, they ran the show.
Karen Steele: At Marketo, we were very distributed. We had a traditional sales ops function. We had a MOPS, marketing ops function. We had a smattering of people that lived in the partner organization that were doing channel ops. We had customer ops folks on the customer success side. It was completely the sort of non- RevOps scenario. But it was very clear that even though we had dozens of ops people and very smart ops people across the company, that the charter and the people that were driving the go- to- market part of the strategy were the MOPS team. Marketing ops was the clear leader, and because they were closer to the data, they were closer to the tech. They were closer to all the processes. They were closer to the pipeline. I mean, as you can imagine, Marketo being a marketing automation product, all their processes around demand gen account- based marketing, et cetera, were very sophisticated. And so consequently, their ops team, led by an incredible guy, was just spot on. And so he became the voice of reason for the rest of the operations teams across the company. So while Marketo never implemented, while I was there, a revenue ops structure, they had a leading force that actually sat on the marketing side that really led all the go- to- market conversations, pipeline conversations, et cetera.
Sean Lane: That's really interesting. It's interesting for me to hear you draw some of these distinctions and similarities between LeanData and Marketo, particularly because when I think of both of those companies, I think of the go- to- market plumbing that's happening behind the scenes. Realistically, you're working at companies that specialize in that plumbing, but also using the tools themselves to help drive your company forward. And so I'm curious, do you think that working at companies like that has impacted the way that you think about implementation of tools like that, or use of tools like that, or just how, really, even separate of the tools themselves, you run a marketing organization?
Karen Steele: I do, but I think, actually, the voice of the customer is more probably what informs me. I think it's really easy to get caught up in your own technology stack. You're right, we're talking about a couple of tools at both Marketo and LeanData that are integral parts of your go- to- market execution. But I think it's dealing with the buyers and your customers all day long that makes you realize that complexity that they live in. Both at Marketo and LeanData and even going back to my time at Xactly, which is a sales compensation vendor, which is a different part of the sales tech stack, but all of these buyers are dealing with the chaos of," I've got 30, 40 tools in my arsenal. How do I architect the things that I need to architect, all with the goal of looking at the buyer's journey and creating a more uniform way of messaging out to the buyer without overwhelming them and creating good upsell and cross- sell opportunities, and then obviously creating pipeline, both net new and existing, renewal and cross- sell business?" So I think for me, the biggest influence over the years is probably, as much as I feel like my teams have always been steeped in the understanding of tech and we kind of eat our own dog food because we live in this world, it's really the conversations that you have with the leaders out there that are doing amazing stuff, and whether you do that through user groups, or advisory boards, or champion programs. I'm a huge, huge fan of making sure that those programs have the right funding and visibility inside an organization because that's what helps you build out your product roadmap and be innovative in the market. So I think it's probably more the customers and the people out there that are carrying the flag for this whole thing. By the way, there's a lot of great Marketo Champions and LeanData OpsStars, and I'm sure Adobe and others have all kinds of other programs that are doing great stuff.
Sean Lane: This is a really interesting area for us to dig into a bit more, and it's one that Karen is uniquely positioned to help us with. Not only did Karen experience the evolution of the ops role internally at different organizations, but she has also worked at companies like Marketo and LeanData where the ops persona was part of her target audience and the power user of the product that she was marketing. So she got to know operators and view them from multiple angles, all while she was also building a community around them.
Karen Steele: The cool thing about Marketo and LeanData for me, in addition to working with great people, and there's some awesome revenue ops people that I got to work with during my time at those companies, actually, you're selling and marketing to those individuals as part of your solution. So Marketo, as much as we marketed to demand gen professionals, the people that really embraced Marketo early on and to a large extent still do today, are marketing ops people, because they are the backbone of putting these things together. Same thing with LeanData, marketing ops, sales ops. And so it became more fun over the years for me to work with the customers that are really shaping new ground with respect to changing the game in revenue operations. So, first of all, big shout out to Marketing Nation, which Marketo runs, and also OpsStars, which LeanData runs. By the way, some people probably don't know that LeanData runs that. That's a different story, but I'll come back to that. But when I joined Marketo, one of the things that struck me is, so they had a 60, 000 person community called Marketing Nation. The interesting thing about the online community was you had to be a customer. So you had to have an instance of Marketo to actually get into the community. The first thing I remember saying to the CMO who I worked with at the time was," Why the heck would we close this? If we want to be the leader in marketing and marketing technology, why wouldn't we open this community to everybody? Why wouldn't we want every marketer in the world to be able to engage with us on topics, et cetera? I realize there are things that are customer specific, that are people that are using the tool that want tips and tricks and best practices. I also realize there might be sensitive information that should be gated from a customer perspective. But why wouldn't we want to create a brand that opens up Marketing Nation to everybody?" We eventually did that. That was something that I think I played a role in, in helping the company figure out that," You know what? The community is a gift, and we need to make sure it's open to everybody." We obviously had great programs around the community like the champion program and the advocates and user groups and, obviously, the conferences and road shows and all the great things that Marketo did over the years. But I think the online community was really, really important because it was sort of a foundation for all these people to come together and have a voice online. So investing in that and having somebody lead the community is critical. We did a similar thing. So at LeanData, when I joined there, they had this concept of OpsStars. The interesting thing about OpsStars is these were really not all LeanData people. These were anybody in operations that felt like they were doing some really interesting things and leveraging technology. They may or may not have been using LeanData at the time, but they wanted to participate in an educational forum in a community where they could learn and listen from the best and the brightest. And so LeanData, early on, created this community of OpsStars. They built an independent website and a brand around OpsStars, created a small conference that coincided with Dreamforce, and we took that to the next level and then beyond that. Eventually, this past fall, they had 2, 500 people at that conference. Because what was clear is that this group of individuals, these operations people... By the way, any operations people that are listening to this, you are the unsung heroes. You're doing amazing things and driving revenue for your businesses forward in an amazing way. There's not always places for you to go and network with the right people and learn from individuals that are doing phenomenal things. You don't get this content necessarily at a Marketo Adobe conference. You don't get it at Dreamforce. And so the idea was to create a place to learn and to network and share with the ops pros out there, and that's what OpsStars was all about. So catering to that community, building a brand around it and making the OpsStars understood and known and making the Marketo Champions known. I think Adobe now continues to do a great job with the champion program because they realize what a gift it is.
Sean Lane: It's so cool to hear the origin stories of these communities that have grown to be so meaningful and such great resources to operators. One of the reasons that we started this podcast was because we too felt there was this void in the content that was available for operators inside of hypergrowth companies. It didn't take us long to realize that we were on to something after our first few episodes came out. So for Karen, I was curious how she knew that the communities she was building were taking ahold. And spoiler alert, our friends in marketing ops were a big part of the answer.
Karen Steele: Some of this is just coming out of the Marketo world because these things cross paths, right? Like the community at large, like these marketing ops. I don't want to say anything negative about sales ops, but I think the marketing ops teams are leading the charge. It's not because sales ops doesn't want to participate. Sales ops just has a lot of other things on their plate. They have to worry about enablement and training and compensation and all these other things. I think marketing ops is just more deeply rooted in some of the strategies and issues of go- to- market. And so I think what I tend to see is more marketing ops leading some of these things. Coming from Marketo, obviously I was close to the community. These people move around a lot. Marketo will tell you the same thing that LeanData tells you, which is a lot of their repeat customers happen to be people moving to other companies that were a prior customer because they loved the product and they're going to go into their next job and deploy the product again. And so I think that this community is just widespread. But what I would tell you is that when I went to LeanData and I realized that they had more of a focus on the deeper operations people than maybe the Marketo community did, I realized that these individuals didn't have... When you do look at the content out there, and there's more now, now that SiriusDecisions and now Forrester is doing a lot more research around this topic, and we're starting to see some vendors, whether it be InsightSquared, or Clari, or anybody else talking about operations or revenue ops, you're starting to see more content out there. But there just wasn't a lot of places for these people to go. I think LeanData did capitalize on that. It's no surprise that a lot of LeanData customers are Marketo customers. So they're people that already were part of communities in the past, be it Marketing Nation or other places. So I saw an opportunity to really capitalize on that when I joined the company. I think it was one of the best marketing gifts I could have been given, which is," Here's this thing we've started to build. We've sort of done it in a scrappy startup way. How can we take it to the next level?" I think what we did was, we didn't do a full- scale champion program, but having known a lot of the Marketo people that were part of this community, and I hired a great gal who's still there at LeanData who was part of the customer marketing world at Marketo, we looked at how we could double down and take it to the next level, understanding that Salesforce and Dreamforce has gotten so big. There's so many good things about it, but it's gotten so big and crazy that there's no way anybody's going to pay attention to this audience. So," Let's just figure out how to do that in a very special way, and we'll do it separately." We blew the whole concept out of the water and rented out a big venue and created three days of content and got the best speakers in the world and just really doubled down on the audience, which I think has been hugely successful.
Sean Lane: Before we go, at the end of each show we're going to ask each guest the same lightning round of questions. Ready? Here we go. Best book you've read in the last six months?
Karen Steele: Oh, goodness. So I'm a big fan of an author. This is not a business book, so sorry if you're expecting a business book answer. I-
Sean Lane: Totally fine.
Karen Steele: Okay.
Sean Lane: Totally fine.
Karen Steele: I'm a huge fan of an author whose name is Harlan Coben. He's a mystery thriller type. I don't know if it's his absolute latest, but it's one of his newer ones. I picked it up in an airport, and it's called Run Away. It's very good.
Sean Lane: That's awesome. I literally can't walk by an airport bookstore without buying a book. Whether I end up reading it or not is a different story, but I have a problem. Favorite part about working with ops?
Karen Steele: I'm kind of a data junkie. They make me feel smarter. The thing about ops people is they're just not frivolous at all. They're grounded in the process. They're grounded in the data. They use technology wisely. Your ops people are going to be the first people that don't want to buy new technology because they believe they have too much. So it's not like they're the shiny new toy peoples. They're incredibly pragmatic, incredibly smart. I have a huge amount of respect for the ops teams.
Sean Lane: Least favorite part about working with ops?
Karen Steele: Ugh, they challenge everything in a good way, right? So you'll be down a path, ready to execute something, and they'll come in with the big red flag. But you've got to pay attention, and that's why it's a team, right? Sometimes it can be frustrating because you go," We went through all the due diligence, and we're ready to put the green light on the program," and these guys have now come in and said," Maybe we should go back three steps and test, or augment our database in this way, or just pause and give it two more weeks because we want to see how something else plays out." So they're very pragmatic in that way, and sometimes they slow things down, but they do it for all the right reasons, and it usually pays off.
Sean Lane: That's such a good answer. I frustrate myself with that quality, so I totally get it. Somebody who impacted you getting to where you are today?
Karen Steele: A lot of where I come from... So I started my career at Apple in the early, early days, not the Apple that we all know and love today. And so in the decades ago now I worked with some of the best and the brightest at Apple that was building a high- tech kind of marketing philosophy for the first time. This was the first time we were marketing computers and software and technology to individuals. And so my whole backbone is sort of based in that. There were too many people to name, but I would say the foundation of early high- tech marketing that was largely led by both Apple and IBM, I never worked for IBM, but those were the two companies that you don't think about them in the same way today, but they did put high- tech marketing on the map.
Sean Lane: That's awesome. I'm glad we fit that in. I'm embarrassed. I didn't ask you about Apple one time. Last one, one piece of advice for people who want to have your job someday?
Karen Steele: My advice, Sean, would be a CMO is a very all- encompassing role that has a lot of disciplines reporting to it, and all of those disciplines have a lot of speciality, whether it's communications, or product marketing, or brand, or art direction, or demand gen, or events, the list goes on and on and on. You're not going to ever walk in all of those shoes, but walk in as many of those shoes as possible because you have to understand all the pieces to know how to pull it together. The job of a CMO is to lead an integrated team that delivers value around your brand and delivers revenue for your company and enhances your customer experience. You've got to know all of those touchpoints along the way. And so for me, I was fortunate through my career. I grew up in the brand communication ranks, if you will, but it allowed me to touch a lot of different disciplines. Touch as many as you can, and get smart, and learn from others, and get as broad based as you can.
Sean Lane: Thanks so much to Karen for being our guest on this week's episode of Operations, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. If you want to hear more from Karen, I met Karen through the RevOps Intervention, which was put on by our friends over at Chargebee and the team at Go Nimbly. Karen did an amazing session on the expanding role of marketing in a RevOps world. I did a session as well about customer centricity. We'll put a link in the show notes. Go check that out. Karen's talk was amazing on that as well. Thank you so much for listening. If you're enjoying the show, make sure you're subscribed on wherever you find your podcasts. And please, if you're really enjoying the show, leave us a six star review on Apple Podcasts, six star reviews only. That's going to do it for me. Thanks so much for listening. We'll see you next time.( singing)