In truth, there are lots of good reasons to ditch your job. Your boss could be insane. The work your employer does bores you to tears. You find a better paying opportunity that allows you to finally move out of your parent’s house. I’m sure there many others but there’s also a counterpoint to be made for sticking around, especially if you’re lucky enough to find a job you like at a company that’s growing quickly. This was certainly the case for Elissa Fink, who just completed her first decade at Tableau Software, the last half as CMO. In my extensive interview with Elissa, you’ll learn how she’s kept her brand marketing approach fresh, offering lessons for any generation.
Drew: You started your career in ad sales at the Wall Street Journal. How important was that experience to your future roles in marketing?
Elissa: I would say the value to me as a marketer was extraordinary. I wasn’t really cut out for sales, but what got me excited about my job in sales was understanding the Wall Street Journal audience, how it compared to our big competitors, and our strategy in talking to our subscribers and to our advertisers. That’s when I realized what really turns me on is marketing and marketing information. I often tell people starting out in their marketing careers that experience of being a sales person is extremely valuable because you really understand what’s on the mind of a buyer, how to persuade, how to sell, and how to close. And that not only helps you as a marketer, but also helps you in your relationship with sales people as you market.
And I bet you are so much more empathetic with your sales teams than your average marketer.
Elissa: I feel like I have a lot of empathy because I have been there. And I think it’s extraordinarily valuable as a marketer to understand the sales journey from the top of the funnel all the way to the end.
You’ve been at Tableau for 10 years and nearly half of that as CMO. Can we talk about the advantages of staying in one place?
Elissa: The advantages are definitely that you get to be deep, to understand things richly, to build relationships with your colleagues and your customers. And you get to see this evolution in what you are trying to accomplish and to see how things that you seeded months or even years ago are blossoming. You also get to see evolutionary cycles and determine when you don’t need to do certain things anymore. For me, it’s been a really interesting journey. When I joined ten years ago we were about 40 people. Now we are like over 3,200 people. It’s really been like several different companies!
Wow, that’s such huge growth. It must be tricky to stay fresh and continue to drive change. What’s your secret?
Elissa: Well, two ways. Number one, I look at change as a fact of life. That we always need fresh ideas and don’t ever get comfortable with the way we’ve always done things. If we’re not changing then something’s not quite right. I have an open mind about change and tell my team to roll with it too, to try new things and be at peace with whatever happens.
And the other way?
Elissa: The other important thing is to recognize that as a person who’s been there long time, you may not be the freshest source of ideas. So as a leader, long-term employee and agent of change, there are times that I just need to listen, keep my mouth shut and be open to the idea that something that sounded crazy three years ago might be exactly what we need now.
Listening is really an art form in itself.
Elissa: It is. It’s important to listen rather than judge and offer up all the reasons you think something won’t work. I’m a big believer in a question-oriented approach. Rather than shutting down the conversation with negative comments, I’ll ask: have you thought about how we could solve that, have you thought about this, have we considered this? This lets them know that I’m interested in their ideas and that we can find ideas that solve problems we couldn’t solve before.
Do you have a superpower?
Elissa: There is one thing that I just used to resist about myself but now I embrace fully — I’m an enthusiastic and optimistic person. I’ve realized over the years that enthusiasm goes a long way towards getting things done because it produces energy. I bring energy to meetings. I tend to be enthusiastic and positive – saying let’s do it and feeling like we can do it. And though it’s not necessarily a superpower, my enthusiasm does seem to help propel teams and initiatives forward.
I share your enthusiasm for enthusiasm!
Elissa: I think people want to get stuff done. That’s what business is about. We all are trying to achieve results for our companies and for our customers. Of course, you need smart analytics, good business judgment, thoughtful strategy about why and who and when, but once you are ready to go, go at it with energy and enthusiasm. Use your resources to a hundred percent of their effectiveness.
What’s your mission at Tableau, and has it evolved over the years?
Elissa: Our mission is to help people see and understand data. So certainly we are all about easy and friendly data analytics. I think the thing that has evolved is that we’ve become a company that can serve that up at scale. We help large organizations and massive groups of people use data to the level and extent that they want to, whether that’s a deep data scientist all the way to a frontline person who needs to find out how things are going on the factory floor and make an adjustment to speed up some machine. We can help people work with data safely, securely and at scale.
Tell me about your role as CMO at Tableau?
Elissa: It’s the best job in the world. At Tableau, marketing is all about working closely with Sales, Development and our Operations to grow the community of Tableau users in their journey of using data. So that stretches from working hand in glove with our product strategy team on our development side to define our overall messaging to working with sales to find the best prospects and growth customers. Demand generation is a huge part of our business because we started out as a tool that individuals often bought. It was almost like a consumer product. That’s how we disrupted the market. Now we’re showing large enterprises that scalable, nimble analytics that people love is achievable at scale. As a marketing team, we cover everything from above the funnel all the way through the funnel – from communications to solutions marketing.
You’re covering a lot of ground as CMO, aren’t you?
Elissa: We have a pretty wide coverage, but we have a lot of great partnerships across Tableau including our product development team, our sales team, our operations team, HR, finance, our channel team, and so on. Tableau is a very collaborative organization. So there are plenty of things that I don’t cover that another CMO might. But because we’re collaborative, we get involved in discussions.
Are there areas involving communications you won’t touch?
Elissa: Yes. We really do focus on outward facing activities. It’s a small example, but early on people used to want us to plan holiday parties, and we said, ‘No, that’s an internal thing. We can give you advice, but that’s really better for HR department because that’s not our audience.’ Our audience is mostly external. We do love our employees and especially how they help our customers and help us promote to customers and prospects. But we are very much focused on the people in our markets – it’s the people in analyst, executive, IT and business operation positions.
You’ve had quite a ride at Tableau.
Elissa: Well, I am so lucky, Drew. I have had almost 10 years of just an amazing journey. Every year has been fun and interesting and we’ve accomplished so much and we’ve been challenged by so much. I would say taking a company from sub $5 million in revenue to a run rate of nearly $1 billion is awesome to me. I feel excited by what we accomplished. We went public. I got to be on the balcony at the opening bell at the New York Exchange – I mean, that’s such a memorable moment! My old boss, our founding CEO, was so supportive despite my bouts of lack of confidence. He would say, ‘you were the right person that came along at the right time for the right job.’ And now I’m enjoying working with and learning from our new CEO.