T2's Nicole Sparshott: Lessons in making the leap from CMO to CEO

T2 CEO Nicole Sparshott shared her lessons learnt making the move from CMO to CEO of the luxury tea retailer

Selling tea to the English. Invoking ancient tea-making rituals in Asia. Giving tea a fresh face in the US. Re-invigorating retail tea stores in Australia.

These were just a few of the challenges T2 Tea set itself in re-invigorating the brand and bringing it to a global audience, CEO, Nicole Sparshott, explained to the audience at the recent CMO Momentum conference in Sydney. And it's proven an equally interesting journey in leadership for the former marketing chief as she mastered her first CEO position.

“When you take up the role of CEO of T2 and you’re given the growth mandate of taking it global, it will be hard. We were building the plane and flying the plane at the same time and trying to serve tea,” Sparshott said as she shared insights into making the transition from CMO to CEO.

“My passion and my experience has been born out of a real love for the customer and a love of building enduring brands.”

A spirit of innovation

Underpinning Sparshott's role at T2 is a spirit of innovation. “The mindset you bring as marketers, almost intuitively, we sometimes take for granted that other people have it, but that’s not always the case," she said.

"So share generously that spirit of innovation and try to infuse that in more than just the customer-facing and brand-side of the business, because it will serve you well.”

T2 opened its doors in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 1996 and soon gained a following of devoted tea drinkers. This gave rise to more stores in Melbourne and onward around the country. The brand was originally founded by Maryanne Shearer and Jan O’Connor, who wanted to create a new kind of retail experience with unique store design telling a story about the experience of enjoying tea. 

It was a bold move at a time when coffee culture was on the rise but that - along with the emphasis on beautiful cups and teawares and stylish product design and packaging - proved a masterstroke. It caught the eye of global consumer goods company, Unilever, which bought the brand in 2013 for a reported figure of more than $60 million.

Sparshott took the reins as CEO of T2 three years later, after having worked on the acquisition. Her career trajectory has led her into global marketing and commercial roles in Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Unilever before the opportunity arose at T2.

The key was shifting T2 from a founder of one leading the business, to creating a mindset of many founders leading a business. Doing this required empowering people.

“When you delegate tasks, you will create followers. But when you delegate authority, you create leaders," Sparshott said. "That become really important in our business. We needed to help elevate the capability of everyone in our business so we could deliver what needed to be delivered.”

For Sparshott and T2, this meant giving up trying to control the narrative and creating instead a conversation that meant understanding its customer segments and talking to them in a way that is relevant.

“The inconvenient truth is that our customer is not homogenous and we need to talk to them as individuals. So we're shifting our dialogue to conversations,” she said.

It’s also crucial to have a complete understanding of the value chain, and Sparshott advised that in shifting from leading marketing to leading the business, you’ve got to go high and go deep. 

“To be a good CEO, to be a good leader, you need to be able to operate at 30,000 feet in the air. To set the vision and inspire people to come on that journey. But you also need to get deep into the weeds to understand if what you’re asking people to do can be operationally done,”  she continued. “Spend time getting into the nitty gritty of your organisation. All of the answers you struggle find around a board table, you will find in your spending time in the business.”

Yet while CEOs need experience, it can also be a hindrance to really learning and seeing things differently, according to Sparshott. 

“When I came into this role, the 20 years experience I brought with me was my biggest strength but also my biggest disabler," she said. "Because you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes it’s your frame of reference - that experience you bring can also be your blindspot.”

Find the passion, find your people

Another golden rule for any new CEO is to get their team right first and foremost, and to inspire passion for the project, not just the bottom-line. According to Sparshott, a lack of passion and energy within your organisation makes it very difficult to find that outside.

“Bring people in. Be transparent. Be authentic. Share with them when things are going to be hard and let them know you’ve got their back," she said. "Because sometimes you’ll fail." 

In taking T2 from an Australian brand with some interest in going international, to a global brand with proud Australian roots, it was clear Sparshott needed to create a culture of fail fast, learn quickly and move on. This helped build that sense of advocacy from within.

To achieve that, she's worked to combine people power with purpose.."Having really clear, defined values that are well understood is an important part of harnessing people power around a shared vision," Sparshott said.

“You want to unleash people’s individuality, but having these core values that everybody works by is really important.”

The final piece of the puzzle in making a successful transition from CMO to CEO is the personal, Sparshott told the CMO Momentum audience. Her advice is to simply be the leader that you want to be.

“Define what your leadership style is and whether in a CMO role or in a CEO role bring your best self to work,”  she advised. “Because when you are able to do that, you enable everyone else in the organisation to do the same thing. And that’s when you get an amazing richness in insight and foresight and when you’re asking your teams to be all in, you need to be all in.”

Sparshott added it’s the right time for CMOs going into CEO role. “At your core, you’re customer-centric, you love brands and you love people. And the combination of those things is what’s needed to lead businesses today.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia. 


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