Sydney Sloan: In her own words
Living Farm to Table… Before it was Cool
I grew up in Washington state with two older brothers on a 700-acre working farm. My dad, at age 31, decided that he wanted to retire from big city life and move his family to a farm to live off the land. We lived the farm-to-table lifestyle when it was 70’s cool, not hipster cool!
Our town was small, just a few hundred people, a general store, gas station, and post office. The town ranchers laughed at this new family, trying to set up a farm with no farming experience.
But we made it work. We planted fields where fields weren't supposed to grow. We picked crops and made our own clothes. I recall my mom and I planting 400 tomato plants, thinking we would get 400 tomatoes. Instead, we canned 10 years worth of every variation of tomatoes we would ever need -- whole, crushed, tomato sauce, ketchup, and anything else we could imagine.
Lessons from the Farm
It was hard work waking up every day at 4:30 AM, performing my farm duties, going to school and then some kind of sports practice into the evening.
There were no days off on the farm. Everybody has to pitch in. Having a lot of responsibility and working hard taught me the value of grit. I can still hear my dad say “If you want it, work hard for it”. The ability to harness that grit, work hard, and power through has been part of the foundation of my success. The other came from participating in sports and developing a competitive drive to work alongside others to win.
My first paying job was selling sweet corn. I would fill up the back of our pick up truck and drive a mile-and-a-half to the highway. I’d pull out a big sign I made that read “Sweet Corn - 13 ears for $1.” When I was 12, I made $400 dollars selling corn over the summer. I was pretty proud of myself. I not only felt the satisfaction of independence but could buy a whole new back-to-school wardrobe!
I worked all throughout high school. Selling frozen yogurt out of a pushcart at the local bus stop and as a hostess at a fancy restaurant in town. When I went to college at the University of Southern California, I worked for the USC Associates. I would call, ask people for donations, and coordinate donor activities.
During the summers I interned at Nestle, coordinating events across North America, planning executive business meetings and incentive trips. When I was a college senior, I was accepted into the entrepreneurship academy. I wrote a business plan to start an event planning company. I used my business plan as an opportunity to meet people and begin growing my network in Los Angeles. I was offered another internship as a telesales specialist selling sponsorships and registrations for a conference for event professionals. In those days we used touch-tone phones, green lined paper, and a highlighter pen to track progress connecting with 5,000 contacts. Telesales has come a long way since then.
I started working full time at Special Events magazine selling sponsorships to our advertisers and coordinating their activities at our trade show. Back then there was no internet, no way to search LinkedIn for contacts. I leveraged that grit I learned as a child and powered through, calling 800 numbers and asking the corporate operator for the information I needed to get to whoever could talk to me about sponsorships.
The Big Apple Brings Big Lessons
It was time to leave sunny southern California and head for the Big Apple. My college best friend told me there was an events position open at the technology company she worked for, which sold process automation and electronic forms software to governments. This became my first high growth start-up position. I was employee #75 and the junior marketer on the team. You could find me traveling around the world attending trade shows, giving demos and collecting business cards. I’d have to type all of the contact information into a spreadsheet to share with the sales team to follow up. CRMs were still a few years away, and we had just started planning to build our website.
In 2001 Adobe acquired the company. That was one of the first big challenges of my professional life. I was thrust into a situation where people didn’t understand what we did or how we fit into Adobe’s way of doing business.
The first few years were really hard. I remember struggling in an important meeting with the CMO; I expected her to understand what we were doing, how we sold, and what our customers needed. I couldn’t figure out how to help her see my point of view. I now know the challenge was that I wasn’t seeing her point of view.
That was a good lesson. I was too young and too inexperienced at the time to grasp that she had earned her right to be where she was at the top of the company and that it was my job to educate her in a different way so she would see where I was coming from, not the other way around.
Paying it Forward
Over the course of my career, I’ve had the chance to serve many customer types: developers, large and small businesses, governments, financial institutions and buyers and users across many industries. I love the business world. I’ve worked alongside product managers, sales leaders, sales enablement and my favorite, salespeople.
I love figuring out what kind of customers to pursue, understanding their problems, and crafting the message that will resonate best.
As I’ve gained more experiences, I’ve come to really enjoy managing, mentoring, and helping people grow their careers. I’m often asked “how do I get promoted? How do I go from being a rockstar individual contributor to a manager or leader?”
Well, first you have to put in the time because you can’t get experience without it. A common mistake I see, one which I made myself, is thinking that working hard, and taking on more and more tasks, will lead to a promotion. The fault in this thinking is that at some point, there’s just no more bandwidth to keep doing more. You have to approach your job differently in order to grow.
A great boss once told me, “As long as you’re the person who gets things done, people are going to give you things to do, and you’re never going to get out of your role.” That’s why I tell people to slow down, learn to say no, put your head up, and look around for new ways to lead.
Building Influence and Driving Alignment
So, how does someone go from heads down execution to leading across an organization?
Look for opportunities to take on projects. Speak up and say, “I want to lead this cross-functional initiative.” Take on a different set of problems and recognize that what you’re doing is not completing a task; it’s building influence and motivating people to align around a common goal.
That leads to a change in your own behavior. Leading projects requires you to manage others’ priorities, delegate, and motivate, and people then have an opportunity to see you demonstrate new skills that show you’re ready for the next step.
In my career path, I’ve changed positions almost every three years. In year one I learn, build the team, figure out the lay of the land, and generate and test ideas. Year two is scaling the ideas that work and getting the flywheel turning. By year three, I’m ready to take on something new and solve different problems.
That framework served me well through my career and allowed me to build a personal brand and network. I’ve been promoted more than 12 times in my career and after 25 years I reached my goal of being a leader and a CMO.
People tend to want a fast track but that's not how the world works. You need opportunities and mentors; I certainly had a few people take bets on me and I’m forever grateful to them. Stay secure in yourself and be ready for those opportunities. Know that you deserve a seat at the table. Once you're there, you’ll know what to do next.