A CRO’s role is essential for a company's growth, taking on the responsibility for all aspects of driving revenue to the company. But across departments like sales, marketing and customer success, what makes someone an effective CRO, and what does it take to create a highly successful career in this position? To answer these questions, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alicia Tillman.
Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in your career?
I was always curious about the people and objects around me—I absolutely loved learning and I always enjoyed writing and dissecting complex things, which let me put my creativity to good use. When it came time to start thinking about my major in college, I knew I wanted to do something that would marry my people skills with my creativity and desire to analyze complex situations to either fix them or create opportunities.
My first role was with Rosenbluth International, which was later acquired by American Express in 2003. I knew I found my passion leading public relations, advertising and marketing for the company and creating a firm-wide strategy for growing the business and connecting and engaging with customers. I then spent over a decade with Amex in marketing, another six years with SAP as the Global CMO, and I joined Capitolis in 2021, taking on the role of Chief Revenue Officer overseeing all functions responsible for customer growth and success.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you first started?
I am not sure I would refer to this as a 'mistake' but rather a 'bold move' when I was first applying to jobs out of school. I saw a posting for a Head of Marketing and Communications role at what would later become my first company. I boldly sent in my resume, despite having zero experience (and the two internships I had didn’t necessarily count)! The head of Human Resources called me and while she quickly said that I didn’t have the necessary experience to lead a department, she appreciated my drive and later hired me for their management trainee program.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
My parents, and my mom in particular, were always my biggest inspiration and cheerleader, and I absolutely would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for her. Everything I know about hard work, I learned from my mom. Being in retail, she worked long hours—and was extremely loyal to the goals of her company. Even as she grew in the rankings and took on more senior positions, she always stayed on the front lines and understood exactly what customers needed, and that’s something I always admired. She taught me the importance of delivering a fantastic customer experience.
According to global research, the percentage of women in c-suite executive roles is woefully low. How did you climb to your position, and what was that experience like for you?
It’s true that there’s still such a small percentage of women in the c-suite, but I will say that the focus on improving these numbers makes me hopeful for the future. When I was first starting out, these numbers were abysmal. I was determined to break the glass ceiling and was inspired by my mom and many other women who pursued growth and responsibility. I always raised my hand for projects, I was the first to arrive at the office and last to leave, studied, collaborated, and always had a very positive mindset. The balance between hard work and empowering and growing my support system is what led to my success over the years.
What impact can placing women in executive roles have on a company? What might be the struggles, and what are the benefits?
It’s always been my experience that women have an exceptional balance of IQ and EQ, and while EQ hasn’t always been a priority for leadership teams, COVID-19 completely flipped that on its head. Now, EQ plays a tremendous role in how we bring our best and whole self to work every day while demonstrating empathy and respect for our colleagues. I think everyone would agree that women naturally have a strong balance—we balance and juggle a lot, and sadly many women are forced to leave the workforce when they can’t find an environment that provides a support system.
In terms of the struggles, it’s really on the company to understand and make the necessary accommodations to support its workforce. The notion that employees need to separate personal issues from work is simply a thing of the past, and it’s up to employers to create a culture that works for everyone—especially moms and dads. And as more women take on leadership positions, they are in the position to fundamentally change the culture to recognize and provide the support and flexibility many women need.
Additionally, as we see more women at the helm and in positions of influence, we see a significantly higher focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives. There have been countless studies that show diverse backgrounds, approaches and ways of thinking only make companies better and stronger, so it seems pretty obvious why companies would want to empower more female leaders.
In your personal experience, have female leaders (including yourself) done things differently from their male counterparts?
Female leaders tend to approach inclusivity a little differently than our male counterparts. Let me give you an example: when I’m building a team, or assembling a group of people to tackle a project or issue, I like to consider each person’s individual strengths, how they approach problem-solving and how they operate. Women tend to think differently about how we bring different parts of the puzzle together. Instead of focusing on what each person has done before, or what their resume says, I think about how their skills and approaches fit the roles required for the project.
Can you tell us about a project, person, or team you led where you successfully made a big impact? What secrets can you share with us?
One of the biggest parts of the customer experience is engagement. So, the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic really created a challenge for customer facing leaders, myself included, across the globe to figure out how to encourage engagement without being in-person or meeting face-to-face. For example, when I was with SAP, one of our biggest customer events was taking place in the spring. It was absolutely critical to us that we maintain that connection to our customers, especially given the global uncertainty about what was to come.
We quickly pivoted to a virtual event, and it was so incredible to see how technology powered and fueled engagement for us and helped us connect to our customers. We learned so much that year about the power of technology and analytics, but let’s not forget that we also learned how valuable and critical face-to-face interactions are! We’re seeing this trend now as people return to in-person meetings and events, and there’s still a hybrid or virtual option. This creates even more opportunity to engage with customers and create an accessible experience.
Staying visible to my employees around the globe was also critical. I didn’t let a week go by where I wasn’t writing, or sending a video, or even sharing a family Tik Tok dance with my team around the world. Their connection to me as their leader brought a level of closeness and connection that everyone needed during this period of quarantine in all parts of the world.
What advice would you give to other women climbing the corporate ladder? In what areas would you encourage them to leave their mark?
Build a network and support system that will help and guide you through your career journey—do not try to climb the corporate ladder alone! It’s so, so, so important, especially for women, to be supported by people of influence who can see your potential and help open doors and provide sound career advice.
Secondly, be clear about who you are and what you stand for. Be consistent in this—consistency is something that’s so critical, especially when you’re first starting out. If you want people to think a certain way about you, it’s absolutely imperative that you consistently demonstrate those qualities.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five things you need to be a highly effective CRO?
- Be in sync with your CEO. At the end of the day, the CEO is ultimately accountable for the success and growth of the company. If your beliefs differ—you have opposing views on what the sales target should be, for example—it's going to create big challenges for you down the road. It’s critical to be relentlessly in sync at all times.
- Be diligent with financial forecasting. So often we see wild numbers without any plan for how you will achieve it, and this is so dangerous. Create a bottoms-up plan and have clarity on how you will achieve your targets.
- Create a culture of accountability for your team. In order to do this, you must be super clear about targets and who is responsible for what and have ongoing communication about what’s expected.
- Know your value proposition inside and out. Without knowing your product, how it helps people or other businesses and the value it adds, you can’t effectively message it. This hinders sales and marketing, and ultimately stunts growth.
- And finally, execute, execute, execute! If everyone knows what they are responsible for, and everyone has a clear understanding of the plan, then put it to action and empower your team to take ownership.
Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would that be?
Honestly, I am a big, big, believer that women can work and hold leadership roles and also be wonderful, engaged and present mothers, but we need the necessary infrastructure to enable this. I know we have a far way to go towards creating an equitable work environment for working mothers (and even fathers), but if I could spark a movement that would set parents up for success—whether that’s better parental leave or better access to affordable childcare—I would in a heartbeat. We’re already seeing some companies take matters into their own hands, but until it’s a nationwide movement, it won’t be enough to support working parents, especially moms, and we’ll continue to see women place their careers on hold to raise a family.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m on Twitter at @AliciaTillman and you can follow me on LinkedIn!