Cadillac CMO Melissa Grady: “I want to save the world; I want us to take better care of ourselves; & I want us to be better humans”

I want us to be better humans. I want to inspire the world to be better overall. I want us all to treat each other as human beings, to respect how hard it is to be human, and to respect each other for where we are on this path. It is funny that each of us is struggling through our own life, and we don’t realize that is what everyone else around us is doing.

I want us to take better care of ourselves. I would also love to inspire the world to take better care of ourselves. Mentally and physically, which are so interconnected. We somehow feel guilty or let this go too easily, and it is the epicenter of everything.

I want to save the world. This sounds bold, but it is why EV is so important to me. There are things that happened during the pandemic that I think gave us a taste of what the world was/could be again.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Grady.

Since appointed CMO of Cadillac in September 2019, Melissa Grady has led global marketing for the luxury automotive brand. During her tenure, Grady has overseen the launch of Cadillac’s “Make Your Way” campaign, the debut of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, the launch of two new sedans and pivoted the brand to address the COVID-19 pandemic launching the new “We Have Your Back” campaign to assure customers Cadillac in fact, “had their back.” Melissa continues to bring extensive experience leading teams across multiple industries and organizations from entrepreneurial ventures to Fortune 500 companies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Melissa! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As a child, I knew I wanted to be in advertising — or a teacher. I would put on plays for my family and they would be complete with commercial breaks. I had early inspiration from Angela on “Who’s the Boss”. I wanted to be as glamorous and successful as she was.

When I arrived at DePaul, I remember speaking with my advertising professor, Catherine Schulte, and sharing my ambition. She took me under her wing and directed me toward a graduate program at Northwestern.

As I was entering graduate school, I had a student “mentor” who was supposed to help me with things like where the classroom, computer labs and soda machines were. He asked me a simple question that really changed the course of my life: “Do you like math.” He explained that there’s this whole new world opening: data driven marketing. I changed my track and fell in love with the marriage of data driven insights and creativity. There is beauty when data and creativity meet, and I love it.

Coming out of grad school, I took a job at Jaguar and had the opportunity to build out their retention and acquisition programs from the ground up. I learned that I really like creating things and following my passion. That has really guided me throughout my career, from starting my own companies to Motorola, MetLife, and now Cadillac.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well the funniest mistake I probably made was when I was an assistant Account Executive at an ad agency trying to collate copies coming out of the printer (in the days when the printer didn’t do that for you!) and I didn’t pay enough attention and had to redo all of the presentations I had just assembled. It was a VERY late night, but luckily, we had a TV in our conference room, so I watched sitcoms while reassembling.

But I think a better mistake — where I really learned a lesson — was at the same agency. I was very unsure of the direction that someone had given me and wasted way too much time trying different solutions and trying to “figure out” what was being asked. When I finally went and asked — and I was mortified that I had to, by the way — the executive at the time stopped, laughed at herself, and said of course I couldn’t have figured that out. She walked me through what she meant, in the process teaching me a few other things about how a print ad is built. I learned that sometimes, if you don’t figure something out quickly, or it isn’t making sense, just ask. I sat there beating myself up for something that in the end, I wasn’t even supposed to know. The flip side of that is — always try to figure something out yourself first — you learn more!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It is really hard to narrow this down, but I think the shift in our working dynamics as a result of the pandemic and how well we’ve all adapted has been very interesting. The world was turned upside down and we are all miles apart physically, but we’ve come together to deliver on projects, timelines and budgets in a way we would have previously thought impossible. Our team has also found new ways to stay connected. We host our team meetings on Zoom, are taking virtual improv lessons with the Second City and even doing desk Yoga classes together. It’s truly been remarkable how well we’ve been able to come together to preserve our workplace community.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have helped along the way that it is really hard to choose! Two things that really impacted me:

  1. The co-worker who taught me to meditate in a conference room. I couldn’t stop laughing at the time, but now it’s a fundamental part of my life!
  2. The person who told me that everyone already knew I was smart and that I didn’t have to prove it. It really gave me a moment of pause and reflection. It was the moment when I learned how to listen much better.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

There are several things. Regular workouts, yoga and meditation are key. It is often too easy to let [it or our health] fall by the wayside when things get busy, but that’s when they really need to be a focus. It’s amazing how well concentrating on your breath refocuses and re-centers you. In for four counts, out for six.

Here’s a funny story. I had been trying to teach my nieces about these tools and their value. One day I was having a particularly bad day during shelter-in-place, and my four-year-old niece sat with me and started doing the breathing exercises. I had been trying to teach her, but she ended up teaching me. It was so relaxing! Stepping away for those few minutes and breathing with her completely changed my mindset.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

This one makes me emotional to talk about. Thinking about the inequality that exists — and how race, gender, sexual orientation has affected not only opportunities in the world, but everyday experiences. It is honestly heartbreaking, and almost too much to comprehend.

We’re currently living, experiencing and supporting a call to action that a lot of people see as a movement. However, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a movement for a lot of people. This is the life that they currently live: one of fear. On both a personal and professional level, it’s extremely important to educate yourself. Read, listen and learn. Listen some more. I think we are starting to understand the importance of listening to each other. We have to have those tough conversations and be vulnerable. We can’t be afraid to make mistakes because that is how we learn — but we must learn from those mistakes.

In my professional setting — being a female CMO in a male dominated industry — doesn’t come without its challenges, but GM ensures all people — no matter their race, religion, gender identity or who they chose to love — will always be welcomed and celebrated. We have a lot of work to be at the place we should be as a society. Everyone must always feel valued, important and most importantly, respected and equal. I long for the day when we look back and can’t believe where we were — or how far we have come.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Trust, equality and transparency are just a few ways we can create an inclusive, representative and equitable society.

  1. As a business leader, my mission is to create a safe space. Once you establish trust with all your advisors and team, people know they can be their “true” selves without fear of stigma or punishment for making a mistake.
  2. During these trying times, it is important to remember that we are all the same. I think that the pandemic has really brought this to life. We are no longer striving for work life balance, but rather we are working towards work life integration. While using different ways to communicate with each other as a team, there is a greater acceptance of being human — it is normal to have a dog bark or hear children talking in the background, and we’ve all become much more accepting of each other, and really ourselves, in this time. It’s one of the beautiful side effects of this whole time.
  3. I like to ensure that my team knows what is expected and that they know they can ask me anything, and I will give them a transparent answer. Likewise, I ask that they provide me their honest feedback and opinion. As a leader, it’s important to have a vision but it’s equally important to hear other point of views and to allow yourself to be influenced.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

There are the typical daily responsibilities — drive growth, sales, media relations, deliver brand vision, manage customer experience and marketing. As CMO, I also need to advance data-driven strategies, keep up with the latest human insights and help my team spark inspiration and creativity. It is important to lead but also to follow — there is not one without the other. Being a leader also means being a mentor. As you become a senior leader at a company, you need to understand the impact of your words and actions beyond how you interact with others — which is also extremely important. You must also understand that you are providing direction and you must do so with extreme clarity. Otherwise, you can have a lot of people spinning their wheels or succumbing to frustration or a lack of motivation. As leaders, we need to constantly inspire those around us to be their best selves. We can be and probably are the difference between people loving their jobs, or potentially hating them. It’s one of the things that I really admire in our CEO, Mary Barra. She is very clear, compassionate, and definitive — both in what she wants us to do, and how she wants us to treat each other. As a leader, you have the gift of being able to set that tone.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I believe most people see the CMO role as the person who does all the flashy ads and it is always exciting. This is definitely part of it! But there is so much more than that. In reality, the role of CMOs is to study the new consumer landscape, understand human insight, and use data to understand where the brand currently is and where it can go. It’s the marriage of all of these things that will bring the brand to life in the right way.

The other thing is — I still feel like myself! I always thought that it would feel “different” to be an executive or that I would feel different, but I’m still me. I like that.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One of the challenges that is unique to women is work flexibility. It would be very difficult to take time off when planning to have children. It is hard to leave a position like CMO for an extended period of time. This is something that is really concerning me right now. There have been articles talking about how the pandemic is forcing more women than men to decide between work or homeschooling the children. This falls more heavily on us as women, and we, as a society, need to figure out how to not take a giant step backwards.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

This is interesting — I am “performing” more than I thought I would be! Townhalls, webinars, podcasts, videos, events, etc. It’s fun and extremely engaging, but I did not expect it.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I don’t think anyone should avoid pursuing their dreams. The dream makes you work to achieve it and once you’re there, sometimes people learn that it’s not what they thought or they don’t want to do it. For example, I love data — like really love data — and I love being creative. In my role, I participate in creating campaigns and unique ways to retain and acquire customers but I’m no longer at those beginning stages of ideation. I love being in my role but I understand that I’m not always in the nitty gritty details anymore. I’m ok with that but sometimes, people get to the exec role and realize they don’t want it — and that’s more than ok! You should always do what makes you happy.

The other thing is that as an executive, your schedule often isn’t your own — so you must really learn how to balance time management and your own priorities with the pull of the organization around you.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be easy on yourself. We are so hard on ourselves, more critical than anyone else. Give yourself a break and recognize your accomplishments.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Not as much as I want. I donate to causes I care about, and I have done work with foster children. I try to use my voice to call out injustices and help people recognize or rethink their actions. I also try to remind people to take care of themselves and be grateful. It is really hard for us to give ourselves permission to do so.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Limiting this to five will be hard, there are so many things!

  1. Ask people for help or what they think. You aren’t bothering them. This one I learned retrospectively when someone came to me for help. I was thrilled to help and really glad they had asked — and it sparked a memory of a time when I had been too shy to ask for help myself, and I wish I had just picked up the telephone at the time.
  2. Take care of yourself and your relationships. No one else will do this for you, jobs come and go, and these are the things that are really important in life. There are a lot of negative examples of this one — of times when I have wished that I was present for something I wasn’t. But one very positive experience for me is that I temporarily moved home when my father was in the last stages of cancer. At the time, I didn’t know what the implications would be for my work, but I was able to work remotely for that period of time. Looking back, I am so glad that I could be there with my family, which gave me support I needed, and for my father, which was a very healing time for us.
  3. Your mistakes are probably putting you more on the right path than your “wins.” We all have so many mistakes I think this one could be a good game! For me, one that really stands out is a job that I didn’t get. I was SO upset at the time, and felt like a big door had been closed for me. Looking back, that job would have limited me, and I wouldn’t be where I was today. When things are tough, we are just moving to the path we are supposed to be on, and it’s really hard to embrace that while you are in the midst of it.
  4. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Stop comparing yourself. Stop beating yourself up. No story here — just believe it.
  5. Your path will be different than your plan. Well my plan was to have 8 children and a nice advertising manager job — that’s not where I am. I’ve followed my passion and been open to opportunities, and my path feels better than my plan. This goes back to number 3 — your mistakes and missed goals are just resetting your journey. And also 4 — you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

There are three areas that are very important to me:

  1. I want us to be better humans. I want to inspire the world to be better overall. I want us all to treat each other as human beings, to respect how hard it is to be human, and to respect each other for where we are on this path. It is funny that each of us is struggling through our own life, and we don’t realize that is what everyone else around us is doing.
  2. I want us to take better care of ourselves. I would also love to inspire the world to take better care of ourselves. Mentally and physically, which are so interconnected. We somehow feel guilty or let this go too easily, and it is the epicenter of everything.
  3. I want to save the world. This sounds bold, but it is why EV is so important to me. There are things that happened during the pandemic that I think gave us a taste of what the world was/could be again. Things like the earth having less vibrations, and pictures of cities like LA and Beijing with before and after smog, or animals roaming the streets or city squares — there is a better, more integrated way, and I want to be part of the driving force for that.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are really two:

  1. “You cannot change your circumstances, only how you react to them.” This one was a game changer for me. It shifted me from victim mentality to taking control of my life. It was a crucial lesson for me to learn early on. I don’t often talk about it, but when I was younger, my husband committed suicide. It was horrific, and I started to feel like I was on a tilt a whirl — being pulled through my life at dizzying speeds with little control of the direction of things. I felt guilty, so incredibly sad, and unable to process the emotions. One day, this quote was on a picture in front of me. It was exactly what I needed to hear — it was time for me to take control. Just yesterday I heard the quote from LeBron James, “If we don’t control our moments, our moments control us.” It’s very true. We are in control of how we react to our surroundings — it is the one thing we really have. At that moment, I needed to hear it — and I needed to take my control back. I’m not saying from that moment on things were different, because everything is a process and a journey, but it was a new perspective that reshaped how I looked at things.
  2. “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.” This is another one that has really become my personal mantra. I have had so many times when I am questioning all of my decisions, beating myself up for either choices made or not made, and wondering if I’ve done things the “right” way. I was meditating in Arizona when this mantra first came to me — I was spinning on the decision of staying in Chicago or moving back to NY. When I finally let my mind quiet, I realized that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, everything has been exactly how it needed to be in those moments, and — at that time — that I was moving back to New York!

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to have breakfast with Oprah Winfrey. I love her perspective on life, how she talks about her journey, and the wisdom that she brings to everyday emotions and experiences.

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