September 02, 2022

Healthcare Marketing Leadership: Build communities…not a customer list, walk your own path, take care of yourself (podcast episode #30)


Get ideas for learning about your customers, leading your team, and building the marketing and product strategy for your company by listening to episode #30 of the How I Made It In Marketing podcast. I had an insightful, fun conversation with Kristin Russel, Chief Marketing Officer, symplr.

Russel discussed taking chances, being prepared to fail, pivoting, and much more.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

Healthcare Marketing Leadership: Build communities…not a customer list, walk your own path, take care of yourself (podcast episode #30)

This article was published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

“There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.” Flint McGlaughlin shared that strategy maxim in Customer-First Objectives Application Session: See real webpages optimized for marketing conversion and it got me thinking about the marketer’s role in the organization while reading over the podcast guest application from our latest guest.

When reading about pivoting a startup to do the right thing earlier in her career, I wanted to know how that experience helped her focus the larger companies she worked in do the right thing as well, a challenge many marketing leaders face while filling a key role in the organization – being the advocate for the customer.

You can hear the answer to that question, along with plenty of lesson-filled stories, from Kristin Russel, Chief Marketing Officer, symplr.

The enterprise healthcare operations software and services company is backed by Clearlake Capital, which currently has $60 billion of assets under management, and Charlesbank Capital Partners, a private investment firm that has raised $15 billion.

In her role as CMO, Russel manages 16 agencies in the content and creative lines, seven in marketing. She also manages relations with 230 vendors and partners.

Listen to our conversation using the embedded player below or click through to your preferred audio streaming service.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Google Podcasts

Stories (with lessons) about what she made in marketing

Some lessons from Russel that emerged in our discussion:

Take chances, be prepared to fail, and pivot

Russel is a big fan of taking chances and seeing how it works. But with that process, you need to be prepared to fail, learn from that failure and pivot quickly, she says. Never was that lesson more apparent than when she started a fin-tech company, Anachron – a SaaS company supporting organizations with invoicing and the order-to-cash process.

Initially however, her team started the company with more of a business-to-consumer focus. Inspired by her own experience as an ex-pat at the time, Russel and her co-founders decided to launch a company that would allow consumers to see their banking invoices in the language of their choice.

Soon after launching, it became apparent that invoice management was far more lucrative and they decided to make the pivot from a business-to-consumer solution to one that was more focused on delivering value for other businesses. This was a decisive moment for the team – they went with their gut instincts, jumped in with both feet, and made the change. This pivot brought the team incredible success, helping them land additional significant clients like FedEx/TNT and the ING Group.

It was the B2B pivot that made everything come together.

Walk your own path

Your career and its trajectory are unique to you. Walking your own path means going with what feels right. Russel found success doing this on multiple levels. For starters, she is a working mom, with three amazing daughters. For Russel, she is a better mom when she is working versus staying-at-home, but that won’t be the case for everyone…whatever your path is, it’s the right one for you, she says.

On a different level, she didn’t start her career planning to be a marketing executive but has found that marketing is ultimately the perfect combination of strategy, creativity and execution – she honestly thinks she has the best seat at the table.

She earned her MBA in international finance with a focus on strategy with the intent to work on Wall Street. But as opportunities presented themselves, she leaned more into product management and ultimately landed in product marketing. She was drawn to the much faster pace you can move from a marketing point of view than from a development and product management perspective.

Following that interest led her to take a leadership marketing role at Omnicell and from there, she’s had incredible career opportunities at Humana, Quest Analytics, and now symplr.

With her background in international finance and strategy, she does not have the classic experience in marketing, but that’s given her a unique edge and fresh ideas to bring to the table.

Again, she says each path is different and its always easier to look back at the trajectory that led us to this particular point than it is to look forward.

Take care of yourself

From a health perspective, the balance of mental and physical health is so important to perform at your best, Russel says. She couldn’t do what she does without finding and maintaining that balance, which means she has to carve out time and be dedicated to taking care of herself. For example, she is committed to waking up early each morning to start the day with a workout, even if she has flown to the East Coast (she is based in California).

She is passionate enough about finding balance via exercise that she teaches a spin class a couple of days each week at her local YMCA as a side hustle. Unless she is traveling for work, you can usually find her on a bike leading a spin class even with a hectic day in front of her. Ultimately, when she makes her health a priority, it makes her team’s life easier because she is able to bring her best self to work each day.

Stories (with lessons) about the people she made it with

Russel also shared lessons she learned from the people she collaborated with:

Build communities, not a customer list

via Jennifer Bazante, Chief Marketing Officer, Humana

Bazante runs a large organization of marketers, has an interesting background, and is well respected in the industry – while working at VISA, she won Best Brand awards. While working together at Humana, Bazante and Russel were in the process of setting up a new space for the company, delving more deeply into technology and B2B opportunities.

Bazante was an incredible person to go to for everything from big picture ideas, where they discussed strategy/three-year planning, to more tactical details and suggestions like which vendor can deliver the best video or content.

The greatest lesson Russel learned under Bazante’s leadership was to “build communities, not a customer list.” In a post-covid world, building strong relationships that transcend just the transactional element is essential. It helps foster the credibility and trust that fuels prosperous long-term partnerships.

At Humana, one way they did this was by focusing the company’s social media content on health and wellness tips and user-generated content rather than aggressive sales pitches. Customers and prospective customers enjoyed following the Humana accounts and participating in that community.

The groundwork for this strategy came when Bazante took the helm, along with Jody Bilney (former Chief Consumer Officer, Humana), and did a lot of voice-of-the-customer and “follow me home” research to better understand the customer.

While she doesn’t have the same types of customers at symplr, she put this same community-building strategy into practice by helping to establish an executive customer council where they develop personal relationships with key customers and make sure they are heard and understood, and ultimately, that their perspectives are amplified across the company and the industry at large.

Transparent leadership with a first-team mindset

Via BJ Schaknowski, CEO symplr

Schaknowski is unlike any leader Russel has ever worked with – super energetic but also incredibly open. She’ll never forget her first executive offsite. She is brand new on the team, it’s day one, and the meeting opens talking about everyone’s biggest insecurities. Schaknowski goes first and, by the way, Russel is sitting next to him, so she’s next.

He talks about growing up poor, lessons in being scrappy, his experience with the military – it was incredible and super personal. Russel is in tears, and then the group says, “Okay Kristin – you go.”

She has NEVER talked about her insecurities with a leadership team – and certainly not in her first few weeks on the job. But this was all part of building a cohesive leadership team steeped in trust, accountability, and commitment, and ultimately driving results.

They call one another their “first team” – a reference to business management author Patrick Lencioni’s idea that leaders should prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over their direct reports. They spend a lot of time working on their team health. This lets them run fast and ultimately deliver stronger results.

Unvarnished truth leads to powerful solutions and better collaboration

via Kristen Guillaume, Vice President and Chief Information Officer, North Kansas City Hospital

Before joining North Kansas City Hospital, Guillaume and Russel came up through Cerner together, working hand in hand on the same types of projects. It’s interesting to Russel to see how they’ve continued to work together even though they went in very different directions: Guillaume to healthcare management and Russel to strategy, product, and marketing.

Most recently, Guillaume joined symplr’s executive customer council giving voice to the interests and concerns of customers to drive more impactful solutions and collaborations.

A few months ago, Russel was having a discussion with Guillaume and Guillaume’s boss, the CEO of North Kansas City Hospital, and it became a real heart-to-heart about how challenging the healthcare landscape is for hospitals right now.

Guillaume shared how she’s seeing vendors making more products and charging more fees to use them, but at the end of the day, healthcare margins are tight. They don’t have the extra funds to be throwing flashy tech at a problem, especially when their workforce is leaving in droves.

They have to be sparing in their adoption of new solutions and the ROI has to be rock solid for them to bite. That was a lightbulb moment for Russel on several points. More tactically, it inspired several changes to how symplr leverages and markets its solutions. More broadly, the conversation was a good reminder to Russel of how important candor is to reaching the heart of a problem and coming up with the best solutions to solve it.

Related content mentioned in this episode

How I Made It In Marketing podcast

Marketing 101: What is funnel creation?

Brand Marketing: Look in people’s closets (podcast episode #18)

How to authentically build communities, from the co-founder of Reddit

About this podcast

This podcast is not about marketing – it is about the marketer. It draws its inspiration from the Flint McGlaughlin quote, “The key to transformative marketing is a transformed marketer” from the Become a Marketer-Philosopher: Create and optimize high-converting webpages free digital marketing course.


Not ready for a listen yet? Interested in searching the conversation? No problem. Below is a rough transcript of our discussion.

Daniel Burstein: Yes, I'm sure you have data, oodles and oodles of data, metrics, analytics, yadda, yadda, yadda. But when is the last time you had a conversation with someone who is in your company's ideal customer set? I don't mean just pitching them in a booth. I mean sitting down and having a real honest conversation, a give and take. When I received the podcast guest application from our next guest, this lesson jumped out at me and hit me right between the eyes.

Unvarnished truth leads to powerful solutions and better collaboration. She'll share the story about the conversation that taught her that lesson. And we'll also hear many other lesson filled stories from Kristin Russel, the Chief Marketing Officer at symplr. Thanks for joining us, Kristin.

Kristin Russel: Thank you for having me, Daniel. It's great to be here.

Daniel Burstein: Let's take a quick look at your background so people know I'm talking about just really cherry picked off your LinkedIn. I started very early in your career as an engagement partner and senior consultant at tech company Novell. You are Vice President of Marketing, Transcend Insights for Humana. And you were the CMO of Crest Analytics, many other roles in there.

But for the past year you've been the Chief Marketing officer at symplr. And for those that don't know, symplr is an enterprise health care operations software and services company. It's backed by Clearlake Capital, which currently has $60 billion of assets under management. And Charles Bank Capital Partners, a private investment firm that has raised $15 billion. Russel herself manages 16 agencies and the content and creative line, seven marketing. She also manages relations with 230 vendors and partners and whoa when I was mentioning that to you in the pre-call, you're like, Wow, I do all that.

Kristin Russel: It feels like a lot. Yeah.

Daniel Burstein: It sounds like a lot. So what is your day like as a Chief Marketing Officer?

Kristin Russel: Yeah. You know, Daniel, you asked me that in the pre call and I was thinking, holy cow, like no day is the same. But there's certainly some themes, and so for example, at symplr, we've grown really quickly through acquisition. We've acquired a lot of different companies over the last nine years. I mean, I'm talking like 17 acquisitions, five in the last year alone. And so what that means is there's a lot of cross-selling. So from a marketing perspective, we're thinking about how do I sell into each of those different customers and companies? So I spend a lot of time thinking about that. I also spend a lot of time, as you can imagine, building a process, building a structure with all of those different acquisitions. We've got to kind of align around best practices. How are we going to count, measure, think about our SQL’s, our SAL’s and our ROI on our events? So I would say the majority of my time goes right in there.

But the other thing that we're doing at symplr, I'm going to talk about this a little bit later on if I get the chance. But we spend a lot of time as well as an executive team building up our first team. And we sort of have this first team mentality of building trust, being okay with conflict, thinking about accountability. And I'm doing that both with my own team as well as my peers across the executive table.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, that's interesting. We got some good stories in here. I think it would be interesting to when we get to those to mention how we talk about building up trust and with the first team, you're also probably bringing in a lot of other leaders with those acquisitions so kind of how you how you work on that as well.

Kristin Russel: 100%. In fact, that's a really big part of our strategy, right, is bringing in leaders from all of these different companies with diverse backgrounds and then coming together as one company, one symplr, which is so critical for us. We are in health care. We're all about building better operations for better outcomes. And so we want to do that, though, in a way that makes sense for our employees as well as for our customers.

Daniel Burstein: Well, that's great. Well, that's where we are today. You have a long and storied career, I'll call it. So let's look through your career and see what we can learn from it as marketers. So the first half of the podcast, we talk about lessons from some of the things you made. So we as marketers, you know, I've never really been in another profession you know, but I feel like we are unique as marketers. We build things, you know, we make things, we make brands, we make ads, we get to walk away and say, I made that. Let's look at some of the things you made. So your first lesson is take chances, be prepared to fail and pivot from when you made a startup company. So tell us about this story.

Kristin Russel: Yeah. So this story is all about a company called Anachron. And I'm living in the Netherlands at the time, which is a whole other story in and of itself. I'm an expat working for a consulting company in Amsterdam and the markets right. It's a really cool opportunity. There's a lot of opportunities, a lot of gross happenings is super late nineties and you know, companies are getting funded, technologies were applying it everywhere. I've got this background in consulting with financial consulting, so I've seen a lot about what's happening in the financial industry and think, wouldn't it be great if we could start a company that sort of something around financial invoicing and oh by the way, Daniel, I'm getting like all these bills at home in different languages and it wasn't really clear that they were bills. So I sort of was tossing them thinking it was like to sign up for a magazine and that kind of stuff. And I started to think about, hey, if I could see all of these bills digitally and in English, wouldn't that be interesting? And of course, the technology of the time allowed for that to happen. So myself, two other co-founders, so there's three of us together, we all came from this consulting company.

I'm like the least technical in the group, so I'm taking the sales and marketing kind of role and ultimately became the CEO of the whole company. But these two other guys, super technical, amazing founders, and we built a piece of technology that did just that and allowed people to see whatever bill, whatever invoice they had in the language of their choice. You could understand what it was. You could annotate it. Pretty cool piece of technology, kind of a little bit like your Wells Fargo app today or you're ING Financial Apps work today.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, then you realized you had to pivot so what taught you how to pivot?

Kristin Russel: I did. Yeah. So it's all about us as consumers, right? Because that's who you know best. And so the idea is we're going to have like hundreds and thousands of people using this technology who are consumers? Well, turns out that's a little trickier than you might imagine. And we're working with some of the biggest Dutch banks at the time to kind of get to their consumers. Well, the Dutch banks said to us, you know what, we know how to reach our consumers. We've got way bigger marketing departments than this little tiny startup house. How about we'd like to put our front end on this, but really what we'd love to do is create this bigger invoicing business to business solution. And we'll use this with companies like FedEx, TNT, with companies like Visa in terms of how we move and send invoices back and forth, it felt like, hey, you were like late twenties, why not, cool idea. That seems like it's going to work. And so kind of with both feet we jumped in and we went for it and the business did really take off it. It was a whole in the market at the time. There wasn't a solution, a technology like this. A lot of stuff was happening in paper.

And you know, from there the company grew really quickly. We moved into about 60 different countries at a very rapid clip. And I'll tell you that I think is when I had my first bite of rapid, crazy growth, which I love, I'm a huge fan of like throw some crazy, throw me some growth. I'm all over it. But things really took off. And I think the lesson, though, is you do have to be okay with failing. I mean, it wasn't just one clear cut right like we tried a few different ways to show these invoices. We had a few different approaches in terms of how we would, you know, selling and going to customers. And not every customer was like, yes, this is perfect.

There was a lot of customers who said, no way, this isn't going to work. We've got our own spreadsheets are going to be able to integrate with our financial systems, you know, kind of all of the usual things that you would get challenges you'd get pushed back at you when you're trying to sell a product. But we were okay with that because as we heard that we were building it right back into our product. So you're taking those chances. You're being okay with fail, we didn't have anything to lose. We're like we've got no big assets at the time anyway. And then everything that worked, we just leaned into it a little bit harder.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, I like to use the term customer intimacy being close and understand your customers. It sounds like you did a very good job there with the big banks But I was kind of curious, so, you know, as a co-founder, it can be, you know, it's great to pivot. As a co-founder, you've got a lot of authority, can be a little easier to pivot, even if it can be scary. But I wonder how you've taken that lesson you learned from that experience and then used it in one of the larger enterprises you worked in to keep those big organizations focused on their customer, helping them pivot. Because in big organizations there's a lot of decision makers. And I got to thinking, we have a free digital marketing course and in fact, class number six Flint McGlaughlin references the famous strategy maxim “There's a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing”. “There's a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing”. And I think this is an even bigger challenge in large organizations where change is so hard, right. You know, we as marketers, ultimately, we must be looking out for the customer and making sure all the doing things right in the organization ultimately are doing the right thing for the customer.

So do you have any examples of that or any advice for the workers listening? Like, yeah, they'll say, Oh, well, you know, Kristin was running that company. It's easy for her to make that pivot. How do you even convince a large organization, even make a small pivot to better serve that customer?

Kristin Russel: Yeah, it's a great question. And I think, you know, the call out is listen to your customers, which is, of course, so cliche. I mean, there's I don't know, 8700 books around listening to your customers. And it's far easier said than done. You know, I think ultimately, if you ask the right questions, which is also kind of a bit of the trick here, you're going to find out what you need to know.

But I can certainly can think of a time, we were working at Humana, so Humana is I think a lot of your customers will know that their a Fortune 50 company all over health care, big insurance company. And Humana was thinking about how can we consider integrated care delivery. So we want to as an insurance company, we want to be able to think about all of our different members.

But we recognized about 80% of older adults are living with at least one chronic condition. 77% have, you know, two or more chronic conditions. And a lot of these these issues and chronic conditions, fancy word but you know, think diabetes, cardiac issues. A lot of research has shown that these folks are likely to fail at managing their health on their own.

So Humana saying, obviously their interests are completely aligned with their patients. The healthier the patient, you know, that helps kind of all boats rise. But research you know it was giving us a lot of this feedback and we were asking the question, well, what would that look like? Like, how can I get the right information to Daniel Burstein, for example, to manage his care at a point in time that's going to matter for him? Or How can I work with Daniel's physician to do the same thing? And so we asked our customers, we went out, we did a multi-city kind of roadshow to literally connect with a variety of different people from a variety of different walks of life. We filmed them, we sat down, we asked some questions a lot like you're doing today and shared the feedback that we heard with not just with the small team, but with the broader organization as well.

And it gave us a chance to kind of hear from our customers things about, we want whole person health. Hey, Humana, like actually you freak us out sometimes as an insurance company. We're not sure about that so much, but we do like the idea of having information about our health. We'd like for you to partner with groups like Apple. We'd like for you to think about all the information that's in my health record, like, how can you connect that stuff? And so all of that information is ultimately what led to a strategy around integrated care delivery. And to be honest, it's still going on today. But it was I don't know if it's a pivot exactly, but it's certainly a change for an insurance company from the ways of just thinking about, I'm going to be the insurance in case you get sick. And if you get sick, you know, we're going to go have a discussion about your benefits and your invoicing, for example.

So I think that, again, though, it's listening to the customers it’s seeking the customers out a little bit, too. They're not going to come to you. We had to kind of get out there and figure out, you know, we spent a lot of time as well figuring out who our customer is, exactly who do we want to be working with, who is our physician customer? What are those folks look like? Who are the organizations that we need to partner with? And then, like I said before, kind of sitting down with them and asking them, tell us about your experiences. What's it like?

Daniel Burstein: Well, take me into that meeting room or their boardroom, though. Were you able to use that customer intelligence and that customer wisdom to actually change things and pull things forward? Because, you know, in my experience, not just, you know, pick on Humana, any big company that's been around for any amount of time. There's some calcification there, right? Change is difficult. Change does not want to happen. You have to push that change to happen. There's to be people in departments who have done things a certain way for a certain amount of years and it's in their benefit to keep doing those. So can you maybe take me to was there a discussion or some specific time where, you know, you were up against trying to push this change and then you're like, hey, I actually have this direct customer intelligence that shows us why we should do this.

Kristin Russel: Yeah, a 1000%, you hit the nail on the head. So, I think there is a reluctance to change in a lot of organizations, and rightfully so. You know, it means figuring out new processes, figuring out new ways of thinking about things. It's expensive in many cases, it means new technology, hiring different people. I think the only way that we could approach a situation like that and again, this is a little bit of kind of coming from my own background of I like to go back to the data and I like to look at what is the data telling us and if the data is customer verbatims or if the data is studies, whatever the case may be, you're going to find trends in that data.

And in this case, we share those customer verbatims. We took pictures of the people, we shared their stories, we highlighted the nuggets. We did a lot of work around the communication of what we were learning as well along the pass. We were keeping the executives kind of along with us. We didn't go in a dark hole and come back one year later with, Hey, here's everything we've learned. We had regular report outs, regular ways of connecting as well our executives with this team. Video was another really useful way that we were able to take the stories, shrink them down into sort of bite size, maybe two minute, three minute nuggets that we would share with the executive team that really spoke to some of the bigger trends that we were getting from the field.

Daniel Burstein: And that's a great example, too, of bringing as a marketer, bringing your colleagues along and whatever other different department on their journey. Because, you know, sometimes we'll hear from people in our audience are so frustrated, like they want to do this thing and why don’t these morons just not understand this thing I want to do, right? But the problem is, you probably went on a journey to get to where that was. You know, I think of anything in my personal life even that I came to understand, I didn't instantly understand it. Usually I went on that journey.

So, I love if you're not doing this in a silo or in a vacuum, if you're kind of taking the organization and others in the organization along with you as you discover it, by the time you get to the end of that journey, they're probably more likely to kind of at least have an understanding of what you're talking about.

Kristin Russel: You're right. And to be honest, it's hard. It takes time, right? And I think, in fact, it's interesting. I recently had a conversation with somebody on our marketing team talking about how much time we're spending reporting out to the rest of the organization, sharing with the rest of the organization. And particularly in a time of change or when you are doing new things, I think it's more important than ever because you cannot, you do not want to sort of have this great charge, head off into kind of the forest and then look behind you and there's no one there. That's kind of the worst case scenario. So you definitely want to make sure that you got the team with you.

Daniel Burstein: That's a very visual metaphor. I could see you're running along, you get there “we made it” and you turn around and no one's there.

Kristin Russel: Yeah, oops!.

Daniel Burstein: That's great. Let's talk about something more personal. More in, like, your career itself. Not about a company. So one of the lessons you mention is, walk your own path. So like I was saying in the in the pre-interview, we were talking, hey, it’s a good lesson. You know, we probably have heard this before, but what I really like or really kind of hit home for it is your personal story, how you've walked your own path in your career. So tell us about that.

Kristin Russel: Yeah. So there's a couple different areas. I mean, and it's probably not that unique. I am absolutely a working mom. I've got three amazing daughters and any mom is going to tell you, you know, their kids are the most amazing, smartest, brilliant, blah, blah, blah. And I'm no different than that. But like throughout my journey, I think I had to make decisions, do things maybe a little bit kind of my own way. And I think my guidance, I bring up the working mom things when I talk to my girls and they ask me like, Hey, Mom, how should I think about this? And everybody else is wearing, you know this kind of outfit and I want to do something different. It's all about like figuring out what's the right thing for you at that moment.

And for me, for example, I had this whole career planned around ultimately doing an MBA. I thought I was going to work in international finance you know, maybe I London, New York, kind of, you know, you've got this vision for yourself. This is after I decided I didn't want to be a bureaucrat, by the way, which was my first foray. And again, another story. But, you know, I'm thinking I'm going to do this international finance and go off and I do an MBA in international finance. So I don't have an MBA in marketing. It's actually more on the financial side of things and it's international. And so as well, I mean, you're working with teams of folks that kind of mirror a variety of different groups.

And I think as you're doing that type of work, there's a lot of points where people are going to challenge you on, you know, hey, come and join us. Do it like us, be like us. And it's consistently bringing things back to the center and saying, No, you know, I got to do this my way. I want to make the decision. I want to kind of make the, you know, the story, whatever. It's going to fit with my journey in a way that's going to make sense for me. So ultimately, kind of that's my lesson is, you know, walk your own path.

Daniel Burstein: Film. It’s the old Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley I Did It My Way song is that what you sing at the end of your career? I did my way.

Kristin Russel: Little bit, yeah. Yeah, a little bit. Like, you know, I think particularly for women, a lot of times people challenge you. And I know I have a lot of colleagues who'll back down from that. They'll be like, yeah, you know what, okay, you're right. We'll try it the other way. But ultimately, I think you're going to find the best results are when you take the chance, when you jumped in with both feet and you go for it.

Daniel Burstein: Well, one of the things where you did it your own way, which I think is probably little unique, is you have an MBA in International Finance, right. So I think an interesting thing about marketers in general is there are some people that have majored in marketing or are meant to have this career the whole time. But there's also a lot of people that came in from other industries and that taught them something. So I just wonder doing it your own way, having that finance background, has that helped you when you're, you know, trying to get budget approval, when you're working with a CFO? I mean, these are some of the biggest struggles we hear from CMO's and other marketers. Again, I've got this thing, I can't get the CFO on board. I can't get this type of approval. Like what did having that understanding in that background bring to the CMO job for you?

Kristin Russel: Yeah, it's funny you bring up the financial aspect. So I do feel like I've always gotten along particularly well with my CFO’s and maybe it's because, you know, our interests are completely aligned as shareholders in the business. We both want what's best for the business. But I think it's being able to help the financial team understand, yeah, I'm going to spend but I'm going to spend in a way that's aligned with ROI. I'm going to spend in a way that's going to help. And to be honest, I'm going to show you how this spending aligns with ROI. And I'm going to hold the teams accountable to do that.

And I think that, generally speaking, CFOs appreciate that. But let me get more specific, because one of the things that we're doing right now and you know, there's a lot of testing and learning that goes on in marketing. I've heard your podcast and a lot of the folks that you have on these podcasts talk a lot about that. You were tasked, we’re going to learn, we’re going to try some new things. And with my background in particular through a finance perspective, I am constantly looking at how can I speak to the value that this marketing is bringing us, that the dollars that we're spending in this marketing event, Project Collateral, I mean, kind of insert X that they're translating to what and I try pretty hard with my teams to think about that, to think about the outcomes. And I think ultimately, obviously finance appreciates that. But it's not just finance. I mean, your CEO, your I.T team, ultimately if you're asking for more budget, it's coming from somewhere. It's coming from a product team or an engineering team. So they've all kind of got to be on board to understand, yeah, if I fund this project, this extra event that marketing wants to do, what's, you know, what are we going to get out of it?

And so we’ve started looking at the ROI across the board. But for example, with events we've started to say, hey, can we estimate how much what we call revenue in the room? We're going to need to make this event successful. It's not necessarily revenue. It might be bookings, for example. But look, if I'm going to have an event, I need this revenue in the room concept. I need a certain amount of people to show up, by… and this, of course, as well Daniel is all B2B, but I need a certain amount of people that are going to show up with an intent to purchase and generally we think it's got to be about 10X whatever our cost is. Now ultimately that will kind of trickle down to maybe 3X ROI in terms of who actually buys and closes deals. But it's certainly something that we're starting to hold our sales teams and our marketing teams accountable towards.

Daniel Burstein: That's good. And I kind of want to ask a little bit more about that because when you talk about this walk your own path, the kind of thing I get thinking about is, well, how do you apply that to your customer? So you say like, look, I'm going to do things my way in my career, right? That's a great attitude, but then you got to realize that we put on the marketer hat on. We're like, Hey, we expect our marketers, you know, our customers to like take a certain path. We call them funnels, right? I've written definitely marketing 101 posts before about, you know, what is a funnel, how does a funnel work, right?

But, customers really like some of them may take that happy path. But there's so many ways now that our customers can get to us, right? They can walk their own path. So how do you kind of knowing that, you know, you as a human being have done that in your career? How do you look at your customers and what do you do to help understand the path that they're taking to get to your products and services?

Kristin Russel: So I'm really glad you brought this up because I think that probably one of the biggest pitfalls from a marketing perspective is to just assume that our customers are these beautiful personas that we write up in, you know, PowerPoint slides or whatever and sort of post on pictures around in the old days, around the office, we are so far from two dimensional beings.

And, you know, I think of myself and a lot of the marketers who are listening on this podcast. We get marketed to every day, and I got to believe I'm on someone's, you know, poster board as like your ideal. Like this is what your CMO is going to look like. She's seems bossy and she wants to walk her own way and ah la la la la. But ultimately, we're so much more than that, I think to recognize that quickly is incredibly important. And then again, this is where a lot of that testing and learning is going to come from. We have over the years and in a variety of different examples that I can point to, started to think about how do we market to heads of, you know, whatever they are. In my case, it's a lot of Heads of Nursing or Chief Information Officers from health care organizations and just talking to them about what they're doing between 9 to 5 or thinking you're just going to reach them kind of in the typical trade magazines where they seem to sit doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense anymore. And people are doing all kinds of stuff on their computers.

But I'm sure people, while they're listening to this, are out searching and looking at their New York Times articles or looking at their Instagram. And so recognizing that three dimensional aspect to our customers and thinking about all of the different places they might be, one, I think it helps us find our customers more effectively. I also think it helps us tailor the messaging work, the storytelling, the ways that we're basically sharing the value of our products with them in a much more defined way. That's ultimately going to resonate more strongly with their personality and who they are as an individual.

Daniel Burstein: I mean, I love what you say because we've got to realize they're human. They're not just lying in a database or in an automation platform, right? They're actually other human beings on the other side of all of what we're doing, let's talk about you as a human being, because I think this is interesting how you try to power yourself in your career. You say take care of yourself, which I think is a lesson all of our moms taught us, right. But how do you live this lesson? Take care of yourself.

Kristin Russel: You know, I think about the balance of mental and physical health is so important. And for me, that means finding that balance. So I actually have to carve out time in my day to just exercise. And I'm a much nicer person if I exercise. So that also helps because it definitely encourages my family. There's like a double edged sword here where my family is like, Hey, Mom, go exercise.

I will tell you I'm pretty passionate about finding time to do those workouts and it just helps on so many levels. Gives me time to think, think about my strategy, clear my head for the day, be ready to take on whatever kind of whatever is going to get thrown my way, to be honest, I'll fly from the from you know like a lot of my trips go west coast to East Coast. So I'll arrive pretty late at night, getting up pretty early in the morning. And I still want to carve out time in the day to hit the gym early in the morning. It's just kind of who I am. But I also think that ultimately for so many of us, it just gives you a little bit of a balance, a little bit of perspective.

Daniel Burstein: Well, I noticed the line on your LinkedIn too, so, I mean, I exercise a lot of people exercise. You are actually also a spin instructor. You have like a night job or a morning job as a spin instructor, right?

Kristin Russel: Yeah. I call it my side hustle.

Daniel Burstein: Side hustle, there you go.

Kristin Russel: I do. I teach a spin class a couple of days a week at the local YMCA. Now I travel and so my poor spin class I’m forever getting subs and different folks coming in. But yeah, I get to throw on a mic set and hop on a spin bike and kind of get a lot of people excited about exercise. It's to be honest, it's terrific. It's a killer workout for me, but it's also kind of a good reminder of what it takes to motivate folks. And so I love it. I will tell you, though, I started it when I did this. And the whole reason I started it was a couple of years ago and we were out on New Year's Eve hanging out with the kids, kind of, what are you what's your resolution for the year? And I just threw this out kind of randomly. I'd had a bad spin class couple of weeks ago and thought I could probably do this better. So I'm going to be a spin instructor.

Daniel Burstein: I could do that, I could do that.

Kristin Russel: Right! How hard is it? Yeah, and leave it to kids to hold you accountable. And they did. You know, a few months later, my daughter's like, Mom, I thought you were going to be a spin instructor. I couldn't. First of all, I couldn't believe it. She remembered and thought, You know what? Maybe I will do that. So I did. I took a class and it's a little bit of that lifelong learning and putting yourself out there, taking a class, taking exam, trying out for a job in an area that's totally different than anything else we do. All of those things, though, are great reminders. I think they keep us fresh and keep us learning, to be honest, because we can get a little comfortable.

Daniel Burstein: Has that ever given you any idea for what, because it's very close. I mean, what you're doing in general in health care marketing is close. But from marketing in general because when I think of exercise, I think of, you know, you're trying to convince someone to take this action. So kind of as we talked about Humana or any big organization getting them to change from one state to another.That's a difficult thing, right? As an organization. But as an individual, that's what conversion is, right?

We're saying from not being an email subscriber of us to being an email subscriber or not downloading this white paper to downloading this white paper. And from knowing, everyone darn well knows they should exercise. But to actually going to that class and being motivated to do it. So I just wonder has anything like popped into your head while you're doing this? I'm like, Wow, this would work for like a white paper or a webinar or an event we're doing or something.

Kristin Russel: Oh, my gosh. 1,000%. I mean, this the same tenets of like, you just kind of have to repeat things over and over and over. You've got to tell people they're good at it, even if they're no,  positive reinforcement goes so much farther. Throwing in a couple jokes while you're climbing a hill, have a little fun with something. It's just like it's a lot easier to take your medicine with a little sugar in it, right? So all of those sort of tenets I definitely think apply.

We haven't talked about this, but years ago, not that long ago, but I worked for a company called Carat and they made a device for that helps you quit smoking. And it literally, if you think about it, it's kind of like the Super Bowl of marketing because you're basically going to people who smoke and say, okay, I know you smoke, but take this little thing and it's kind of like a Fitbit that's going to help you quit smoking. Well, a lot of people who smoke don't want to quit and they know it's not good for you. And so there are absolutely a lot of those lessons that, you know, I just talked about that you sort of do apply from a personal point of view. Now, we had to do a few other things as well. We sort of did have to pivot and change a little bit from going direct to consumer to thinking about how we work with organizations, self-insured employers, and how you change behavior. But absolutely, I think that some of those early tenets around getting passionate with individuals and just helping people see what's on the other side can go a long way towards any type of motivational exercise.

Daniel Burstein: Well, if you need that little extra bit of sugar while you're working out those listening and, you don’t have someone great like Kristin running your class, you know, feel free. Download the How I Made It Marketing podcast,  listen to marketing leaders, learn from them while you're working out. It could be a great way to kind of keep you going. We hear a lot of people that listen to these podcasts while they're working out.

You know so one thing I like about this lesson, you know, we do mental work. But your brain is part of your body, right? So even though we're doing mental work, boy, that that exercise we get is so important to what we do. So I wonder as a marketing leader, as a leader in your organization, what do you do for your team to make sure they take care of themselves? Because I was interviewing on the podcast earlier, Lindsey Lindemulder, she’s a Brand Marketing Director for Merrell. And one lesson she learned was that mindfulness at work is essential. And she told the story of Merrell's new headquarters. And now, for example, it has outdoor working spaces, employees can utilize during warmer weather. Merrell’s an outdoor gear company, you know. But sometimes they'll have outdoor meetings. They'll be out in the rain, in their Merrell rain jackets, or they have meetings in the snow around fire pits. So they really, you know, kind of have thought through like, hey, how can we bring this to our team?

So I wonder, I assume you don't have, you know, meetings outside in rain jackets, but is there anything you do with your team as a leader to kind of have them live this lesson as well to take care of themselves?

Kristin Russel: You know, we recently at symplr have moved to a completely virtual office. So we have all of our employees, our 2000 employees are all working from home. And I call that out because, one, it provides a great deal of flexibility. It provides a lot of opportunity for people to sort of think about, you know, being close to home, close to their families, all that kind of stuff. But it has come with, you know, there is some downside. There's some challenges around boundary setting, particularly for employees that we recognized, and we recognized that it was a little harder for folks to maybe foster a work life balance. Not everybody, but for some people to foster work life balance in a way that really would help them be ultimately more productive.

So actually, at symplr we've just launched a program, it's called Get Out and Learn, and we're encouraging our employees to carve time, carve out time for themselves to really get away from their computers for an hour or so, learn a new skill, push themselves to grow. We’ve got raffles, activities to kind of act as incentives for the employees who are doing this. We are just launch launching it now. But that's all with that mindset of again, like we’re rounded individuals, we're not just all about work. And I  I'm excited to see how it performs, but I think is going to be really important for our employees. I mean, personally, I'm sitting here at I've got a standing desk, I do all the usual stuff, like I try to look outside, so give yourself a break from the screen. I will actually knit sometimes during certain meetings, things like that. I think that's kind of a fun way to just play around a little bit while I'm sitting here. I'm sure now my CEO is going to be asking me, So are you knitting in this meeting, Kristin?

Daniel Burstein: So when you were clicking earlier, I thought it was the mouse, is it actually the knitting needles? Where they hitting each other?

Kristin Russel: Yeah, that was my knitting needles. I'm over here making you scarf, Daniel.

Daniel Burstein: Thank you. Knitting and podcasting. There we go. All right. So we talked about some of the lessons you learned from the things you made in marketing. Now, in this podcast, we talk about some of the lessons you learned from the people you collaborated with. Because in marketing, we make things. We get to make them with people. That's a key part of what we do.

So the first lesson you mentioned is build communities, not a customer list. And you learned this from Jennifer Bazante, the Chief Marketing Officer at Humana. How did you learn this from Jennifer?

Kristin Russel: Yeah, so while I was at Humana, Jennifer had come over from Visa. She worked there, won a number of awards for Best Brand and really had a very deep understanding of marketing. To be honest, it was for me a little bit like a marketing MBA, the marketing MBA I never got, you know, so I just was learning constantly from her. And while working together, we were in the process of setting up a new space for the company. We were kind of delving into technology, into B2B opportunities, and she was my go to person for a lot of the big picture thinking. And we discussed strategy three year planning, tactical details and even suggestions like around who would you go to for this type of video content.

And I think one of the things that Jennifer really infused, probably the greatest lesson I learned under her leadership was about building communities and not a customer list. And by that, it's all I mean, you know, building up the individuals and creating spaces for them to come together and  connect, because that's going to be so much more powerful for your customers than if they're just sort of one on one out in the wild.

It also helps from a community perspective, it helps us think about who and kind of what are all of the different types of communities we need to be thinking about and serving. And so in a post-COVID world, really these strong relationships that can transcend just the transactional element is essential and for us, it helped foster credibility. It helped us build trust, fuel long term partnerships with our customers.  At Humana, we focused on social media, content on health and wellness tips that we were sort of putting out into the ecosystem. But I'll tell you, I have taken those lessons around building communities, not a customer list into every company that I've been with since and that takes the form of having a really strong voice of customer. Hear at sympler w call it our voice of industry program. We think about building a program. So it goes beyond just saying, Oh, let's get close to our customers and see what happens. But actually being very intentional about how we work with our customers.

Today, sympler, we've got kind of a three tiered approach to connecting with our customers through that voice of customer program. We have an executive customer council where we're bringing customers together, hearing from the executives we think about, and we have customer advisory boards that work at our product level and then individually in more detailed work that we do with UI focus groups around kind of how the products themselves are performing with individuals.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah. So I got to call you out on this one, in your podcast guest application, you said customers and prospective customers enjoyed following the Humana accounts and participating in that community. And that just kind of blew up my brain because I was thinking, I don't know many people who enjoy interacting with a health insurance company either from a B2C or a B2B perspective.

And it reminded me we had someone on earlier in the podcast who's now at NYU who's got a key role running digital marketing. But he worked at Time Warner Cable before, and one of his campaigns, when they improve customer service at Time Warner Cable, was making fun of interactions with the cable company because that again, that's kind of another one of those industries where like ugh the cable company. So I’ve just got to challenge you on that, Kristin. Like did perspective companies really enjoy interacting with Humana? Like, how did you build this community?

Kristin Russel: It is probably a lot like your Time Warner fellow 100%. People are like insurance companies, ugh eye roll. I mean we have some serious brand work to do, particularly, you know, when Jennifer took the helm, along with Jody Bilney and it was not straightforward. We did a lot of voice of customer. We did a lot of Follow Me homes. And we learned from our customers that, yeah, they actually they didn't like us. They didn't even like the word health care. There was all kinds of negative connotation associated with insurance companies and who they were. And in fact, we leaned into that, we leaned into it hard. And you can still see that in advertisements today. Humana’s taken I think it's a really funny approach to sort of just laughing about it and recognizing, okay, so they don't like the traditional old insurance company. So let's be different. Let’s think about how we can partner and provide information and provide content. Think about a fresh approach. Programs like Silversneakers, for example, for our over 65 year olds who could come together and think about, you know, getting out and exercising, all kind of took shape over that period. And we really backed away from the hard core kind of health care insurance marketing piece.

Daniel Burstein: Okay. That's impressive because I got to say, Silversneakers, that's something my mom does and she always talks to me about and it kind of made me laugh. I'm like, what is it? I mean, that's great. Do you want to just briefly explain what Silversneakers is to anyone who has never heard of it?

Kristin Russel: Yeah, absolutely. It's an opportunity in a lot of communities for people to come together and create little walking groups, all sponsored by Humana. Yeah, actually we started this program in the 2000s around healthy communities as well and building these healthy communities. And one of the ways with doing that was recognizing people can be alone, they can feel isolated, they need ways to come together. That's number one. And a lot of times we come together eating or maybe drinking, but  why not come together by walking. And so the Silversneaker program, which is like you said, it is for the older folks in our community, it's been a great way for them to meet other people, go for a long walks, chit chat, hang out, have a good time.

Daniel Burstein: That's great. That's great. Well that’s a positive interaction with the insurance companies. So like there's also like I think the nice thing about that too is you're interacting with the insurance company not in a time of crisis, right? Like so, you know, I've heard this with police officers, too, that community policing, they try to be in the community. And so you're interacting with the police, not just on your worst day, right. And so with an insurance company, and there’s probably other companies in different industries like this, you’re usually interacting with an insurance company on probably some of your worst days, right? You've found know you have cancer or some horrible, horrible diagnosis like that. So having those interactions with customers in a positive way and around other times I think is very smart.

I also wanted to ask you about creating authentic conversation. Do you have any examples of creating authentic conversations with customers? I know you mentioned your Executive Council at symplr or any other company, because when I was interviewing Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, and asked him his advice for building community, he said that authentic conversations was just a major component of Reddit's success. He’s said creating authentic discussions with consumers?

And when I look at Reddit, you know, there's a lot of different social networks. But when I look at it, I think that is such a community that B2B can learn from. Because it's essentially the same thing we're trying to do. They've got a lot of niche topics and niche conversations like all the many different B2B industries out there who serve all these different niches within other different industries, right. And they have like passionate people trying to solve problems in there, which is what tend to do in B2B, your content marketing, B2B, community building. So, I'm wondering, Kristen, do you have any good examples of like how did you foster an authentic conversation with customers to build that community?

Kristin Russel: Yeah. So  I'm glad you brought this up because I think having authentic conversations is ultimately, you know we talked about a little bit before like kind of recognizing that people are not two dimensional, that they're not just the Chief Nursing Officer of Sutter Health. But, you know, this is somebody who maybe runs or cycles or has kids or is a grandmother. And so being able to appreciate all of the different kind of components of their personality and reaching out in in a variety of different ways would be really, really helpful.

But when you talk about authentic conversations, there's certainly an example, a story that comes up. And this is a little more recent. So one of our customers who actually I had worked with in the past, Kristen Guillaume she’s the CIO of one of our hospitals in North Kanas City, had shared with me some frustration about symplr and kind of, you know, like, hey, listen, you guys are coming out with all this great technology stuff. You expect us to be purchasing new technology over and over and over again. But heads up like our margins are really tight in this business and we kind of don't have a lot of a lot of dollars to spend. So how do you think like what's your approach for this? And that conversation, it was an authentic conversation. It was a great conversation. In fact, we were at a trade show when we had this, and so I brought her and she was with her boss, the CEO of the health system, brought them over into our booth where we could talk with our CFO as well. Now, you're not always lucky enough to be able to do that and to sort of share that feedback.

But it was it was outstanding because I think, though, talking to your customers is where you learn so much. Now, we were doing an ROI project, so we have a really large kind of effort that we've launched. We've been interviewing 19 different customers to build what is the ROI for every one of our solutions? That conversation just sort of put the exclamation point on the need for really strong ROI for our customers to be able to understand what's the value, what the solutions going to do.

If we say it's going to save money, exactly how much in what areas and what does that mean from a cost savings perspective? But yeah, that was boy, oh, boy, authentic conversations, man. Those are those are critical and they're not always easy, but they're really important.

Daniel Burstein: Yes. That was the lesson that kind of opened this podcast with I liked it so much. You mentioned unvarnished truth leads to powerful solutions and better collaboration. And that conversation you mentioned Kristen Guillaume, she’s the Vice President and Chief Information Officer at North Kansas City Hospital.  So I really like something you said there. And I don't want to overlook it because you said as part of your marketing, you're telling customers there's an ROI for your product that’s what it sounds like right? I see so many solutions, I mean, B2B, but even B2C where they make those general claims, right? It's scalable, it'll make you more efficient, it’ll make you more productive or whatever.

But I think the challenge as a customer on the other side of that is who the heck believes that like, well, you know what, software isn't scalable? Where do we not hear that? It's not reliable, you know, so really kind of bringing home for customers, why should they believe it? And getting to that specificity helps. So tell us a little about this. What are you doing to kind of benchmark that ROI and communicate it more effectively in your marketing?

Kristin Russel: Yeah. So we launched a project last year just at the end of the year to build out an ROI for every one of our solutions. Now we had to sort of narrow it down a little bit. We've got 27 different solutions, we’ve got a really broad portfolio, and so we're doing it across each one of what we call our solution pillars. So we have a workforce management, a provider, data management, governments risk and compliance. And I know all the marketers in this group are like, Oh my God, I don't understand what she just said. But basically it's recognizing that the ROI does change a little bit for the different solutions that we were working on, but we wanted to have themes as well, and so I just call that out.

So we said we're going to do and ROI for every one of these, every one of our solutions. We're going to interview 19 different customers. We're going to take the feedback and we're going to categorize it into things that people can think about that really align with their needs. And then we're going to sort of tell the story in that way.

So in our case, our customers and our products sort of lean towards the ability to say, hey, these products are going to help you streamline health care operations. They're going to help you grow and protect revenue, or it's going to help you mitigate risk. And everything that we learned, so for example, we interview a customer and they would say, Yeah, you know, when I use your workforce management tool it helped me manage my labor and expense and my pay better. And we said, okay, great, can you tell us about that? Can you give us an example? Sure. So, you know, here was our pay at this point in time and we implemented your solution. We saw a 1% reduction in labor expense and premium pay.

And so through those different conversations, what we've been able to do is actually get the hard numbers and it's the hard numbers, otherwise it doesn't mean anything. You've got to have those hard numbers that basically help you then calculate the ROI. I'll tell you on the back end, and this is where probably you’re like when you say, oh, she's a little bit of a finance dork. But so yeah, so we built this huge big calculator, but what we don't want it to be is kind of the gongculator where you just put in one number and outcomes like so you've got, you know, 20,000 staff and you're spending this much dollars you're going to save, you know, $1,000,000, something ridiculous. Nobody wants that. No one's going to believe it.

And so rather than actually having kind of the gongculator, we actually will expose our numbers to our clients and we'll work on our ROI’s with them. So it's really a conversation that we'll have ultimately where we'll sit down with the customers and talk about what they're trying to do, what are they trying to avoid, what are the risks they're concerned about? What of the different savings that we've seen from our other customers makes the most sense for them? Our sales team is going to be armed with all of this information in kind of a meaningful way where it's going to be easy for them to understand what the inputs are and then what the output would look like.

Daniel Burstein: Have you learned anything from these conversations to improve the actual product or service delivery? Because, you know, one thing you mention unvarnished truth leads to powerful solutions and better collaboration. And so, you know, when you're saying it's a first, I'm thinking it from a marketer's perspective. But the marketers are like, Oh, good, we've got some good ROI numbers for our marketing. We've got some good, authentic conversations that we could share through our social media, or other content marketing. But it also sounds like there are some really good customer intelligence there. So did you learn if you could actually improve the end customer experience for the rest of your customers?

Kristin Russel: Oh, my gosh. Yes. I mean, from the beginning, you start these conversations and not everybody's necessarily happy as well, right. So like we're starting with a big old customer list. As we start to drive into this customer list, we definitely heard some stuff where customers were saying, Hey, you know what? We thought we were going to see a reduction in costs, for example, and we didn't. And we thought we were going to see maybe a reduction in length of stay in our world. Like how long are the people going to be staying at the hospital? And we didn't see that and we're not very happy about that. So talk to us a little bit about that. And so in a couple of cases, we did bring in, in fact in 100% of the cases, we worked with our customer service team. They helped us get the list of customers to talk to. But in those cases where we sort of tripped on a couple of areas where the customers were sort of saying, yeah, you know, the experience wasn't what you all said it was going to be. Absolutely, we dove right back in there.

And similarly on the product side, we heard some interesting nuggets around, you know what, you guys are saving us this much. But actually, if you put these two solutions together, we could probably 3X our savings boom right over to the product team with that information. It has been a really great project for I would say kind of across the board.

Daniel Burstein: That's fantastic. What a great role for marketing to play in the organization because our role is often on the value perception side. So, you know, the product or I’ts delivering value, the service delivering value, how can we make sure the customers perceive that? But to actually close that loop and find out what value we're delivering well, what value we're delivering poorly and to feed that back into the product and the services deliver to better serve the customer. I mean that right there is brand building, sometimes we talk about brand building, we're like, oh, we got this nice logo, we got our name on the stadium. But like that right there, in my opinion, is the best possible brand building you can do. So hats off to you.

I want to talk about one final lesson here. And you know, when I go through these stories and lessons sometimes I think what would I do in that situation? And in this one, I'm like, wow, I do not know what I would do in this situation. So it's very interesting to hear what you did. And the lesson is transparent leadership with a first team mindset. And you learn this via BJ Schaknowski, and he is the CEO of symplr. So take us to this story take us to this I guess was it an off site? Was that where this happened?

Kristin Russel: Yeah. So let's go back a year. I had been with symplr about a month and we have my first what's going to be my first executive leadership offsite. And so I'm just getting to meet my peers. I don't really know them very well. It's day one, B.J., who is a super transparent, really down to earth leader, very energetic, incredibly open, great to be honest, all the characteristics you'd want in a CEO.

But I'll never forget, so it’s day one and I'm brand new and we opened the meeting talking about our biggest insecurities, which was sort of a bit of a step back for me where I'm like, Holy cow! Okay, wow. And we went around the room and B.J. went first and starts about this this incredibly, you know, sensitive story about his childhood. And, you know he grew up poor, he had to be really scrappy gets into the military. We're kind of this rags to riches. It was an incredible story, and the lessons it taught him and how he has like insecurities. And I'm literally in tears and I'm like just praying, like, make them go clockwise around the circle. And, of course they don't. He turns to me and he says, Okay, Kristin, you go.

Now at that point anyway. I never really talk about my insecurities with a leadership team, like certainly not in the first few weeks. And it was daunting, to say the least, but this team was I mean, we were all about getting connected. And B.J. had kind of said, look, we're going to invest in this this cohesive leadership team, and we want you to take on this first team mentality, and it's going to start with trust, which is why we were doing this exercise, kind of opening ourselves up and talking about things that were that we were incredibly insecure about. And we want to share it with each other. And not only is it about trust, it's going to be about kind of org health. It's going to help us build accountability, commitment, ultimately driving results. And we're going to call one another this first team, which is a Lencioni kind of thing, I don't know if some of your readers might have heard of him from the table group. He talks a lot about this concept of first team.

But ultimately the concept is we spend a lot of time working on this team health. But with that trust, with that commitment, being okay with conflict means that I am willing to invite others in. I'm willing to listen to them and we’ll deliver stronger results in the end. Now I did skip over my own insecurity in that little story. Daniel, you're probably wondering like, what the heck was Kristen's insecurity?

Daniel Burstein: I let it slide. Where are you going to share it. Please tell me it's not doing podcast interviews, I’d  feel bad. Yeah.

Kristin Russel: No, I just. I was going to tell you, it was because I thought you're going to bring it up. But who knows? But anyway, I'll tell you. Yes, I lived in this place called Newfoundland growing up, Newfoundland and Labrador, which is way off the east coast of Canada. We lived there for five years when I was relatively young and then moved from Newfoundland when I was in about grade five to London, Ontario. And not I don't know if everybody knows this, but Newfoundlanders in Canada are frequently made fun of. They're kind of like the butt of every joke ever.

Daniel Burstein: Are they called Newfies, is that what they are.

Kristin Russel: Exactly? Yes. As a Newfoundland, I don't really like that joke or that name, but. Yes, exactly. That's right. So they're called Newfies. And so I'm like day one in school in London, Ontario, and I've got my new outfit on that my mom helped make for me. And I show up and I was immediately labeled as like, I think I showed up and I probably had too many answers to too many questions too quickly with the teacher, which is never a good move. There's a ton of lessons in that as well, but I was quickly referred to as a four eyed newf and that was just a dorky title. Tough, tough to get rid of. Anyway, that's my story.

Daniel Burstein: You know what you’re brave, I noticed you wearing glasses right now, so you're brave, you powred through, and you're like, You know what? I'm going to own this. I love that.

Kristin Russel: That's right. Bright red glasses. It's the way to go.

Daniel Burstein: Yeah, call it out. Well, let me ask you. So you mentioned a lot of acquisitions. So how do you bring in new leaders into this organization? Because it sounds like. So you're going off and like doing these burning mans with the leadership group and getting very deep into like some of your biggest insecurities. I could see it quickly becoming a very tight knit group. And when we're, you know, engaged in mergers and acquisitions, I mean, sometimes it's to get the customer base, sometimes it's to get the technology. But a lot of times, especially in this difficult hiring environment, it's to get that key intelligence those key people.

So have you learned anything about, you know, kind of bringing them into that first team, bring them on board and making them feel comfortable, hopefully not calling on them like they did to you the new girl in the first day and asking your biggest insecurity.

Kristin Russel: Yeah, exactly. No, no. It is really important to us. And I think, you know, in some cases we've done it well, in some cases not so well, to be honest. So we're still learning the fact of the matter is when we do these acquisitions we think a lot about how can we take the leaders from these companies and put them in roles that fit them, fit their backgrounds and then support them in their own learning journey.

In my case, actually, I've brought on a couple of different leaders through different acquisitions, and I think we're probably doing better in more recent acquisitions. But there's a lot there,  it's not as easy as you would think. And it is absolutely about culture, making sure that the cultures mesh as well. Sometimes the culture of the company that you're acquiring is rapidly different from the culture we have. In some cases, that's still okay. In other cases it's a challenge, you know.

So we, for example, we've acquired a company recently, Midas, which has, you know, sort of I think they felt a little left alone, a little abandoned. And so they're thrilled to be a part of siymplr. We're investing in their technology. We invest about one out of every five of our revenue dollars back into technology, which is kind of unheard of in this health care operations space. So that team and their customers that were really about that. That's not always the case, there are certainly some teams that liked being small, you know, or, hey, I was part of a small startup and I'm not sure I want to be part of a larger organization. So in those cases, you know, we will work with the team member to make the decision that's right for them and for the organization.

Daniel Burstein: Okay. Well, there's been a great conversation. We've gone all over the world and what it takes to be a great marketer from having authentic conversations to being able to pivot, to being able to run a spin class. So if you had to break it down, if you had to talk directly to our audience, Kristin, what in your opinion, what are the key qualities of an effective marketer?

Kristin Russel: That is a great question I have to say, Daniel. I think it's going to differ for every individual as well. I mean, for me, it's meant having a curious mindset. So kind of really wanting to push on the what, the what, the why, the how, diving into working with the customers. I think there's a little bit, to be honest, about having a creative streak as well.

Like from the beginning we talked about, you know, I did not grow up in marketing and my mom was a kindergarten teacher and ultimately a French professor. There was always construction paper and scissors around the house. Not that we're running with the scissors, but, you know, we could just about make anything we wanted to, especially, you know, paper dolls out of all of those materials.

So now, as a marketer, I think you're trying to find ways to be creative in the ways you reach your audience. And it does mean, you know, it's not necessarily construction paper and scissors, but you're using your knowledge of human buying behavior and approaching the market in a creative way through that lens. So curious mindset, creative streak, and then a strategic, thoughtful approach. You know, you've got to plan, you've got to be organized, you got to be aligned with your team, and then you've got to execute like hell.

Daniel Burstein: Execute like hell, I like that. Well, thanks so much for this conversation, Kristin. I learned so much. You helped fulfill some of my curiosity.

Kristin Russel: It was great and it was wonderful to be able to be a guest on your show. But thank you so much for hosting and for sharing a little bit as well about your background. It's a terrific what you guys are doing here. I'm really impressed with the entire How I Made it in Marketing series.

Daniel Burstein: Awesome! Thanks so much for the feedback and I hope our listeners feel the same way. So thanks to you all for listening.

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions