‘I was often the only woman on the C-suite team’

12 Jun 2019

Paige O’Neill. Image: Sitecore

Sitecore’s Paige O’Neill discusses her role as CMO and why she chose to forgo her future in academia for a career in the tech industry.

Paige O’Neill is the chief marketing officer (CMO) at Sitecore.

O’Neill has more than 20 years of experience in senior marketing roles crossing many areas of enterprise software, customer experience and cloud computing.

Prior to joining Sitecore, she was CMO at digital workplace platform provider Prysm, where she rebranded the company and helped it transition to a combined SaaS and hardware business.

‘The marketing function has undergone a fundamental shift over the last 10 years’

Describe your role and what you do.

I lead Sitecore’s global marketing organisation, including the company’s marketing strategy, product marketing, communications, demand generation, field marketing, partner marketing and branding.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I tend to always have a list in my head of what my top three to five current priorities are and the things that need to happen to make meaningful progress on each one. It can be very easy to get bogged down in the little day-to-day emergencies, but I find that by keeping this big-picture list always in my mind I can quickly home in on the most important activities that will move the needle for the business.

I make a habit of communicating those priorities, and the progress we are making towards them, quite regularly to everyone so the end goals are clear. It becomes easy to help the team prioritise with these most important things always top of mind. I’m always rotating projects on and off of this list as we complete projects or new business priorities arise.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The marketing function has undergone a fundamental shift over the last 10 years as we’ve gained the technology to measure the impact of our function, which we didn’t really have prior to the early 2000s. This shift has also coupled with the business imperative to transform to digital and deliver a meaningful customer experience, which is increasingly being driven by the CMO. The result of these changes is that more CMOs are driving customer and business strategies, and making important tech stack decisions to deliver on those strategies. However, it is incredibly complicated from a technology perspective, and most organisations are still early in their digital transformation efforts and are struggling to either implement or gain full ROI from the technology they’ve invested in to meet these new customer demands, such as personalisation.

A great part of my job is that I’m a CMO and a marketer, and my company is selling to CMOs and marketers. So, I’m on the frontlines of both helping customers solve these challenges as well as trying to solve them for my own marketing organisation. Whether it’s for my own team or for our customers, in order to tackle these challenges it’s critical to start with the business strategy and then make sure your technology roadmap and digital transformation initiatives can be mapped directly back to that strategy. Often marketers try to implement technology in a departmental silo so they can solve an immediate challenge, but without buy-in from the rest of the organisation, initiatives are much less likely to succeed.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

Sitecore’s big opportunity in the market is to help marketers transform how they are engaging with their customers. In particular, customers are sharing more data about themselves, but in return they expect a rich, personalised experience that responds to their individual needs.

Our most strategic opportunity is to show companies how their investment in Sitecore will help them to realise the potential of marketing to customers as individuals, and then guide them on how to reach that promised land of loyalty. The final point to make is that loyalty is built for a lifetime, with vital customer information stored and updated, personalised based on past and current behaviour.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I was a PhD student at New York University and I thought I was on the road to become a college professor, but one day I had an interview at a high-tech PR firm for a part-time job and the excitement at that agency changed the course of my life. I was so excited at what I heard about PR – and at the time I didn’t even know what it actually was – that I dropped out of the PhD programme and started a career working for IBM’s PR agency. It was an exciting time to come into tech and I never looked back!

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I once had the opportunity to move to London for an international assignment and I hesitated, thinking this chance would come along again. I was young and unencumbered, and in hindsight it would have been the perfect time to make such a move. It was uncharacteristic of me to hesitate and I learned that you have to always embrace exciting opportunities even if they seem a bit scary. I think you should always be a bit afraid of new jobs you are taking, new challenges that come your way. Leaning into that fear is where the growth happens.

How do you get the best out of your team?

First and foremost, I think it is important to get the team excited about where we are heading as a company – whether it’s building new messaging or branding, developing campaigns, figuring out new market segments, building new websites, all the way through to driving significant cultural change. I spend a lot of time making sure everyone understands why what we are doing is important, what their role is on the team, and what my vision and priorities are for how we will get there together. I feel like if everyone understands the importance and buys in, we can achieve great things together.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

It is very hard not to notice. Prior to Sitecore, I was often the only woman in the C-suite or on my leadership team, and when I looked around I could not always find a female leader to serve as a role model. Being surrounded by male leaders can sometimes make it difficult to find your own authentic leadership style versus simply emulating male role models. I’ve talked to many women who have found themselves adopting a more aggressive style to fit into a male-centric workplace, or who feel like they are not truly heard when they speak up to share ideas because they are not speaking the same leadership language as male peers.

‘I’ve talked to many women who have found themselves adopting a more aggressive style to fit into a male-centric workplace’

I think that in order to effect change, we first have to take stock of where we are, set clear goals and hold management accountable. At Sitecore, for example, our CEO put out a specific directive to our recruiters that he wanted to see an equal number of female and male résumés. for open positions. As a result, he has just hired the fourth C-level female on to Sitecore’s leadership team in a one-year period.

Who is your role model and why?

I’ve been fortunate to have so many great role models and mentors on my career journey. I feel like wherever you happen to be in your career, a mentor for that stage always seems to appear if you keep your eyes open. You may have to seek them out or ask for guidance, or observe closely, but people generally want to help other people. The ones that stand out the most encouraged me to take a risk or put myself forward at points where I felt stuck or uncertain. We all need that extra push sometimes.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Continuing on with the diversity topic, I recently enjoyed A Good Time to be a Girl by Helena Morrissey, a novel that encourages women to do more than just ‘lean in’ but to also recognise our inherent power as women to influence and make a difference by bringing a more empathetic and female leadership style into often toxic cultural environments.

I also have seen that many projects start out with high aspirations but then fall flat in execution. A book I’ve read and reread is Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.

From a more literary perspective, I’m also a Virginia Woolf fan so my final pick, just for fun, is To the Lighthouse.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My favourite is probably LinkedIn – I find that it has evolved to be a fantastic tool for employee, partner and customer engagement. It’s a primary communications vehicle for me.

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