Hire an outsider – it’s the best risk you’ll ever take

Yvette Costi

  • Experienced marketing leader
Yvette is an expert in aligning marketing technology, systems, processes, and multidisciplinary teams to deliver the one vision and execute powerful strategies in complex consumer landscapes. Most recently she was chief marketing officer for Unispace, a global professional services firm specialising in the future of workplace. She joined the business to transform the brand and position the business for sale. Over the last 15 years, Yvette has worked for some of the world’s most respected property developers delivering award-winning marketing strategies across Asia, Australia, the US, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. Collaborating with key brands – Issey Miyake, Hermes, Vivienne Westwood, Moet Hennessy, Tesla, Jeff Koons and The Victoria & Albert Museum - Yvette leveraged powerful brand equity to enter new markets. Yvette is extremely proud of her leadership journey. The talented people she has had the pleasure of working with and watch grow, are her greatest achievements. She strives to cultivate a team culture that multiplies her peoples’ potential and see them challenge themselves beyond their initial expectations.

I’ve built my career by harnessing three native skills: Problem solving, direct communication and the ability to get people to trust me. They are universal skills that apply to any industry, category and company. I’ve used these three skills, coupled with a 22-year career, to become a ‘fixer’ CMO.  

I thrive in an ambiguous, problematic environment and use my native and learnt skills to cut through the problematic thick undergrowth, get to the core of business issues and find a way back out. I’ve built large global teams, taken businesses through complex digital transformations and developed strategies to prepare for IPO and private sale. I’ve launched brands in Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil and the US and navigated cultural nuance and antiquated attitudes all in the name of commercial success.  

I’ve trademarked a single brand in 27 countries simultaneously, a process that took more than three years in some jurisdictions and taught me an enormous amount about IP law in the process. Most of what I’ve achieved, I’d never done before. As a ‘fixer’, finding myself in the unknown and the ambiguous made sure my employer got the best out of me.  

These are skills everyone puts in their job descriptions these days; can navigate ambiguity, comfortable in the grey, can self-structure, think out of the box, problem solve and influence. So when I found myself looking for a job at the end of last year, I thought my opportunities would be broad considering the current climate we find ourselves in.  

I reached out to key recruiters to set up initial meetings and was shocked to hear the phrase ‘oh they are unlikely to consider someone outside of their category’ as a response to my interest in certain roles. At first, I thought perhaps it was just a result of poor, lazy recruitment. Don’t misunderstand me here; there are some unbelievable recruiters who didn’t blink an eye at the thought of working with me to find the role I wanted. But while some of the recruiters working on high-profile briefs clearly just wanted the commission and to move onto the next role, it felt like it was more than that.  

At the end of the day, recruiters give employers what they ask for, and employers have a preconceived notion of what they want. It felt a bit chicken and egg, but ultimately after a lot of research, talking to people within the marketing discipline and leadership from a broad spectrum of industries, what transpired was that the Australian corporate sphere is still very conservative.  

So many categories are populated with brands that are happy to stick within the pack. Perhaps it’s a safety in numbers approach?  

Whatever the impetus, surely this is the death nell for distinctiveness and even more importantly in a highly competitive market, for innovation.  

Fresh ammunition to bring to the battle  

As competition across all categories grows, brands have to work harder to get cut through. Distinctiveness and innovation are the most lethal ammunition you can take into battle. How can you convince your customer to choose you over another brand if there is no discernible difference?  

By its very nature, innovation requires disruption and difference of perspective. These are two things that can only be achieved by looking at the everyday and ins and outs of your category from a different angle. You can only achieve the broadest perspective by having a diverse c-suite and an equally diverse workforce.  

True diversity – that is, multidimensional diversity – means you have people from different industries, of different backgrounds, genders, personal circumstances and with a range of life experiences. That feeds innovation. Your customers aren’t one note, so why are the people making the decisions on their behalf?  

Ideas are borne out of challenge, perspective and a willingness to look at the same thing in a different way. If our big brands consistently hire from within their industries, then those perspectives just keep getting smaller and smaller and innovation will continue to allude us all.  

Whenever I think about examples of why hiring outside of your category is a good idea, I always think of Robert Polet. Polet was a senior executive at Unilever in its frozen foods division when Gucci Group let go of both star designer, Tom Ford, and 1990s ‘saviour’ and CEO, Domenico De Sole. On paper, he wasn’t the right guy to hire. He was an FMCG guy, he was Dutch and he had never worked in the luxury sector.  

But what the powers that be over at PPR (now Kering) saw in Polet was an innate ability to take brands, understand them, love them and offer them up to consumers as uniquely distinctive options. While Ford and De Sole focused on Gucci and played all the other brands in the stable as second fiddle, Polet saw them for what they were – contrasting flavours, textures and options for different tastes and moods. His experience in FMCG was his superpower. Polet’s legacy was a net income increase of 56 per cent by his final year, with sales up 39.9 per cent at Bottega Veneta, 23.3 per cent at Gucci and 24 per cent at Yves Saint Laurent.  

At the other end of the spectrum is Ron Johnson, Apple’s retail dynamo responsible for the creation of the now ubiquitous Apple store. Johnson’s success at Apple was admired across the entire retail sector and he was snapped up by American retailer, JCPenny, to turn its sinking ship around in 2011.  

On paper, Johnson was the safest bet. He had spent most of his career in retail and developed one of the most successful and distinctive retail concepts in history, delivering consistent year-on-year growth for Apple. JCPenny thought it had nothing to lose.  

Why, however, 18 months into the CEO role did Johnson find himself without a job?  

Neuroscientist, Jared Cooney Horvath, would tell you it is because there’s a fundamental problem with 21st century skills. We expect a new hire to provide all their knowledge and ability like a computer download to our organisations without considering the hard work that goes into the ‘knowledge transfer’.  

Yet Johnson was successful at Apple because he spent over 11 years at Steve Jobs’ side, understanding the brand intimately. His success wasn’t overnight, it was the result of a long relationship where his skills were bolstered by facts related to Apple. In this context, he was able to understand how the knowledge he’d gained applied to and changed how his skills worked.  

The assumption Johnson could ‘hit the ground running’ – which is usually the reason organisations want industry experience – was actually the reason he failed.  

So here’s why hiring accomplished people outside of your category is the smartest thing you can do:

  • Gain an objective view of your industry, from its operations to its processes
  • Uncover new revenue streams you may not have considered
  • Exposure to new innovations, technology and approaches
  • Gain a diversity of ideas and perspectives
  • Multiply your talent pool: You are then liberated to hire based on a candidate’s ability to deliver growth – not their knowledge of your industry buzzwords
  • Freedom to hire based on your strategic objectives – if you want to prepare for IPO, overhaul your employer brand or expand into new markets find someone who has done THAT, rather than someone in your industry that knows what you already know
  • Spend the essential and inevitable ‘knowledge transfer’ process on something far more valuable than industry information that you already have! Your shareholders, customers and people deserve more than that.

I’ve filled my teams with people much smarter than I from a diverse set of backgrounds and I’ve never been disappointed. Driven, capable and intelligent people can figure out your buzzwords and jargon. Pay them for something more impressive than that.  

Tags: Leadership strategies, marketing careers, CMO role, marketing leadership, diversity and inclusion

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