Carolyn Tisch Blodgett: Why it is so important to not be afraid to speak up for promotions, raises, new responsibilities, or whatever it is that you deserve
Advocate for yourself — The top advice I would give my younger self, and any young woman today is that you have to advocate for yourself and not be afraid to speak up for promotions, raises, new responsibilities, or whatever it is that you deserve. As a young woman I was always embarrassed to ask for more and didn’t want to be perceived as nagging or needy, but I’ve since realized that no one will advocate for you — you have to be your own champion.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolyn Tisch Blodgett.
As a senior marketing executive, Carolyn Tisch Blodgett drives innovation, spurs business growth, and shapes cultural narratives at major brands. Most recently she was the Head of Marketing at Peloton where she built and led the company’s brand team, driving a more than tenfold increase in sales. Under Carolyn’s leadership, Peloton also successfully launched two new products, the Peloton Tread and Peloton Digital, while expanding into the UK, Canada, and Germany.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
I’ve always been fascinated by the importance of brands in driving business results — why are people proud to carry certain credit cards and not others? Why is one drink revered but another drink shunned with seemingly the same ingredients? I started my career at Digitas where I worked on the American Express account. I quickly learned the world of advertising but craved being a part of bigger strategic conversations. After two years, I left to pursue my MBA at Harvard. Post-Harvard, I continued to hone my marketing skills at Pepsi, where I got a crash course from some of the best marketers out there. Among several roles, I managed the Mountain Dew commercial business and got the opportunity to lead the launch of two of the MTN DEW KICKSTART flavors, including one of the company’s most successful beverage product launches in the past decade. This experience taught me how to build a brand that consumers love and how to launch a new product in a best-in-class way.
As I debated my next venture, a friend of mine from business school interviewed at Peloton where they described their ideal candidate to her. My friend sat in the interview and realized that while the job was not for her, it was perfect for me. I had not imagined myself joining a startup and never imagined myself building a career in the fitness industry but I knew this was a unique opportunity. My daughter had just turned one and I knew what a fantastic product Peloton was as I personally tried to balance being a new mom, my career and my own health. In my interview with John Foley, Peloton’s CEO and co-founder who soon became my boss, I was inspired by John’s vision for not just building a great exercise bike but for revolutionizing the fitness industry globally. It was incredibly ambitious — no one had ever heard of Peloton at this point — but I knew how revolutionary the product was and knew this was now a marketing challenge. This was a chance to build a brand from the ground up and create one of the most special brands of our generation, and I was up for the challenge.
In my four years at Peloton, we did just that. We built a global brand that not only created a new category, but truly did revolutionize the fitness industry while simultaneously developing one of the most special communities in the world. My work came full-circle as I helped ring the Nasdaq bell when we went public in September of 2019, which was really the culmination of our work and Peloton successfully transforming the fitness industry.
In May of this year, I made the difficult decision to leave Peloton, which was bittersweet. Peloton was such an incredible journey and I’m so proud to have been a part of building this revolutionary brand.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When you are building a brand from scratch, something “interesting” happens almost every day. There was the time Ellen DeGeneres raved about us on her show for the first time or the time our website crashed from a perfectly-timed commercial during a Packers-Cowboys playoff game.
One of the most pivotal moments for us as a team was when we partnered with NBC during the 2018 Olympics and we live-streamed classes from PyeongChang, South Korea. Peloton members, for the first time, had the opportunity to stream classes from the Olympics, which was also the first time we streamed classes outside NYC. This felt like our coming out party as a brand and launched us into the cultural conversation for the first time.
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?
Again, where do I start! In my early days at Peloton, I launched right into my role focused on my output and assumed that the organization would be similar culturally to where I worked in the past. After several uncomfortable meetings where I went deep on brand strategy and was met with a lot of empty stares, I realized I needed to take a different approach. I realized that to be successful I had to first convince my peers why marketing mattered and how this work would contribute to all of our collective success. Building relationships and forging trust among the leadership team was almost as important (if not more important) than the marketing work itself.
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?
I am fortunate to have had so many managers who believed in me from the beginning. One of my toughest bosses who I respected the most was the head of the Mountain Dew business at Pepsi. He saw potential in me so in turn held me to very high standards. But he also constantly reminded me to take the long view and focus on myself and my family too. He helped me understand that my career would have ebbs and flows and it was okay to take some time to focus on my family as my career would always be there. This helped shape not only my individual approach to my work but also the way I lead my team.
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?
Exercise and routine.
I have always started my day exercising — it is the way I wake up and the way I clear my mind. Even if I am traveling and in a different time zone, I will make time to sweat and get focused before I start my day.
I also try to find ways to be present right before a big meeting, even if it is as simple as turning off my phone or silencing my watch. I have found that even a few minutes of calm before a meeting keeps me focused and present.
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?
It is such a critical time in our country’s history and business leaders have an opportunity to really reflect and make real change.
To best represent the voices of a diverse workforce, a company must have a diverse executive team. You can be extremely empathetic, but unless you have walked in those shoes, you don’t really understand the experience of someone else. I was one of the first female executives at Peloton and I was fortunate to be surrounded by an incredibly empathetic senior team who were committed to creating a fantastic place to work. But they were all men. There were so many issues that came up over the years that, while the senior team was trying to do the right thing for all employees, because they had never actually been in that situation, they didn’t really grasp what was needed. I was proud to be able to advocate for the women at Peloton, and not just the needs of senior women, but women throughout the organization. We now have incredibly strong parental leave and fertility benefits amongst other benefits and I fully believe this is because I was able to fight for those issues.
Leaders must also make sure that all types of people have not only a physical seat at the table but that these people are actually heard. Too often, while I technically had a seat at the table, my opinion was dismissed. As a leader, I strive to make sure all the voices on my team are listened to and make myself available to anyone looking for advice from a senior leader. I would encourage every leader to think about the different types of experiences and viewpoints members of your team have and then provide a forum for those voices to be heard.
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.
- Ensure equal pay, which starts with transparency around the pay gap. Women in the U.S. only earn 81 cents for every dollar men make in 2020. Closing this gap begins with transparency and data at every level of an organization. People need to understand where they stand to begin the conversations of where they should and want to be. But then we must take steps to close this gap.
- Recognize that people can be both employees and parents — this is true for both men and women, although responsibilities often fall more on women — so we need to make it possible for people to do their jobs AND be parents. Whether that’s more flexibility or access to childcare and health insurance, we need to provide tools to working parents to safely and successfully do their jobs.
- Commit to hiring diverse teams — diversity ensures that different experiences, opinions, and skills are included in decision making. Companies need to commit to interviewing and hiring a diverse set of candidates so that companies can continue to reflect a diverse population as they scale.
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?
Obviously a CMO is in charge of setting the marketing strategy and plan for the coming years and identifying the resources needed to meet that plan. But I would say the biggest part of any leader’s job that often goes unrecognized is talent management. Leaders must both identify rising talent and find ways to continue to groom that talent for future leadership roles while also identifying subpar talent and either working with them to get better or unfortunately letting them go. This is the part of leadership that doesn’t get focused on as much but contributes most to future success.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth is that it’s all glamorous — or even a little bit glamorous! I think people have this vision of business travel, fancy dinners, and special perks. And really, I would say my days were mostly filled rushing from meeting to meeting and trying to race to get home to see my kids in the fastest way possible. I hated traveling and would find any version of a red eye to maximize my time at home while squeezing any meeting I could into a shorter time frame so that I could be home for bedtime. And on top of that is this dreaded feeling of never doing enough either at home or at work. This is sadly the reality for most senior executives!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to have a flexible schedule for the last few years, even pre-COVID. However, this flexibility comes at a cost — it means you lose a lot of the face time that your peers have on a daily basis and you miss the casual relationship building that is so important to business success. This made me feel like the bar for my work was higher — people assumed I wasn’t working as much as I was, and my work output had to be that much better since I couldn’t rely on any informal relationships to succeed.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I had never worked at a startup so had no idea what to expect. The biggest difference is that you are all in — there are no defined roles and no one to pass a job off to. For instance, I remember one of the first few weeks into my job as I was just starting to get a handle on what I thought I needed to build a massive global brand, John, my new boss, asked me to plan the office party for when we moved offices. I was a bit taken back and hadn’t planned a party since my wedding, but I figured out how to prioritize it and get it done. Another example was when we launched Peloton’s second product, the Tread, at CES, an annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association. I was helping the engineers fix the product in the back while also being a model on it during the day (while very pregnant). Like I said, you really do everything when it is a startup.
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?
Certain people are excellent individual contributors and love being really in the weeds on the work, but don’t love the people management side of it. As you become more senior, more and more of your work is managing your team and building the right team to succeed, grooming them and teaching them how to do the work instead of doing it yourself. If you’re the type of person who wants to do it all yourself, you may not thrive in a leadership role. Conversely, if you love managing a team and enjoy cultivating future talent, a leadership role may be a great fit.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be the boss you wish you had earlier in your career. If you had a manager who held you to different standards or wanted you to act differently, be the boss you wish you had in those situations. Or if you were fortunate to have a manager who really advocated for you and embraced your natural style, try to emulate them. For example. I always tell my team to continue to advocate for themselves because I always felt like when I did that, I was shamed for it — but you have to manage your own career, so it’s okay to keep advocating for yourself. Try to find those traits from your past experience and leverage them in your life as a manager.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At work, I have tried to support other women and show them that you can not only have a great career but also a family. When I left Peloton, so many of the things I heard from my team were not about the work but about the way I got the work done while raising a family. “You were the role model I didn’t have before” and “you showed me you can be great at your job while also deeply caring about your kids” were some of my proudest achievements. My hope is that I have and will continue to serve as a role model and pave the way for other women to be able to successfully do both.
Every day, I am cognizant that for too many people, success is not possible because of roadblocks in our society. I serve on the board of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and the Leadership Council of the Robin Hood Foundation, which fights poverty across New York. Robin Hood’s work is even more critical now as we suffer the economic impact of a global pandemic that has brought New York City’s unemployment to 20.4% in June 2020.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Advocate for yourself — The top advice I would give my younger self, and any young woman today is that you have to advocate for yourself and not be afraid to speak up for promotions, raises, new responsibilities, or whatever it is that you deserve. As a young woman I was always embarrassed to ask for more and didn’t want to be perceived as nagging or needy, but I’ve since realized that no one will advocate for you — you have to be your own champion.
- Highs are not that high and lows are not that low — There are days when you will feel like you are on top of the world — your commercial winning an award, hitting your holiday sales numbers — there are other days when you feel like the entire world is against you. But remember that neither last. The next day will come and you will move on, as will everyone else. This is harder to remember in the moment but so important to sustain a successful career.
- You will have to sacrifice — The notion that you can work full time and be a mom without sacrificing either is not possible and this is something I had to accept. As a professional, I always want to be in the room when decisions are made but as a mom, there were many moments I was not prepared to miss. So, there have been countless occasions where I had to decide between family and work and had to then come to terms with the impact of that decision. I wish I had known from the beginning that sacrifice was inevitable.
- Culture Matters — When I joined Peloton in 2016, I became part of the team that built an amazing product and company from the ground up. We also had the opportunity to create a culture we wanted to work in. For instance, when I became the first woman at Peloton to take maternity leave, I was able to work with our CEO John Foley to improve our leave policy so that it better reflected what I thought was necessary. The culture of the company you work for is probably more important to your happiness than the product or service you represent.
- Be a Mentor: I would not be where I am today without the help of supportive people around me, both men and women. In tech, only 5% of leadership positions are held by women. This is why I have pushed for more representation from junior staff to the C-Suite. As I moved up in seniority, I made it my mission to mentor junior staff so that as they work their way up the ladder, they too become mentors and advocates for the next generation.
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 so many critical issues right now coming to bear in our society, it’s hard to choose. Given the struggle I felt personally trying to manage childcare and working from home indefinitely, I would focus on finding a way for working parents in all types of working environments to be able to have a career and be parents, sustainably. This has always been something I was passionate about — perhaps because I’ve struggled with it so much personally, even in the best of times — but this issue has never been more top of mind for working parents. In a world where schools and childcare have been upended, how can we finally recognize that the majority of parents work (in 2019, both parents worked in 64.2 percent of households with married couples who had children) and that many employees are also parents at home? How can we create the right systems and processes to make work possible and sustainable for parents? Our economy cannot recover without it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My husband loves inspirational quotes, so we have a long list in our household! The one he shares with me most is Churchill’s “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” While seemingly simplistic, there have been many moments in my life where the path forward didn’t seem clear — but I put my head down, kept working, and found a way through. When our daughter was born 7 weeks early and spent a month in the NICU, it truly felt like we were going through hell, but the only path was forward, and we now have an incredible, healthy, 5-year-old girl. When I continued to struggle to balance my growing family with work, I put my head down and kept going, and was still able to be there to help ring the bell when Peloton went public. Sometimes putting one foot in front of the other is the only way forward.
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
It would probably be my late grandfather, Bob Tisch. Along with his brother, Larry Tisch, he built an iconic American business from the ground up. While the business was obviously very successful, he was also revered by his employees. I am sure there are so many great management and leadership lessons to learn from him!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.