Becoming a Better (and Happier) Leader with Bozoma Saint John
I’m a better executive because my parents are Ghanian and immigrated here when I was twelve. Like, I’m just better because of those things. And so, I see people who have their own unique experiences who have been trying to fit into this weird box that somebody created along the way and doesn’t fit any of us.Bozoma Saint John, Hall of Fame Inducted Marketer, Entrepreneur & Author
Bozoma Saint John is no stranger to loss. In college, she lost her boyfriend; later in life she dealt with the loss of a premature baby and most recently, she lost her husband to cancer. Through these experiences, Bozoma has learned the importance of actively looking for joy, whether that be in the workplace or in life.
She is a Hall of Fame-inducted marketer, entrepreneur, and author of The Urgent Life and has held leadership roles at some of the most defining companies of our generation, such as Netflix, Uber and Apple.
In this episode, host Gautam Mukunda speaks with Bozoma about how she builds teams that embrace peoples’ differences, her approach to marketing household names, and how she actively finds joy even in the darkest of times.
[1:00] “I just want to destroy the box.”
[5:30] “Marketing is not static. It’s evolving all the time.”
[11:45] “The joy that I have is because I went to actively get it.”
[16:00] “I had to find the excitement that would help me through my days.”
If you want to build a team that works with honesty, integrity, and joy, first you have to build those qualities in yourself.
The action of finding the joy was, for me, a lifesaver.
Speaker 3 (00:15):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from Nasdaq.
When I show up with all of the things that I have, like I've said it on many occasions, I'm a better executive because I'm a widow. I'm a better executive because I'm a single mom. I'm a better executive because I know how to twerk. I'm a better executive because I like baseball and football and basketball and tennis. I'm a better executive because my parents were Ghanaian and immigrated here when I was 12. I'm just better because of those things. And so I see people who have their own unique experiences who've been trying to fit into this weird box that somebody created along the way and doesn't fit any of us. And by the way, the ideas in there are stale and boring, and so I just want to destroy the box.
Few leaders have as much experience bringing in outside points of view as Bozoma Saint John. She's a Hall of Fame Inducted Marketer, entrepreneur, and author of The Urgent Life. She's worked at iconic companies like Netflix, Uber, and Apple, and she knows what it's like to build an identity for a company and for yourself.
I have been an outlier so many times out here on the fringe where it's like, "Look, I had an idea and somebody talked over me or just was discarded, because they're like, 'Ah, well, she definitely couldn't identify with this problem, so how's she going to come up with solution?'" I have found that when I am in the role, it perhaps is easier for me to see the people who don't always get their idea called on and to give them a shot, and you would be shocked, or maybe not. None of us should really be shocked that those people, they have something interesting to say. Their ideas, most of the time, and again, I would bet my entire career on this, that their ideas have been baking so long because no one has given them the shot that they are almost perfect because they've been sitting and stewing on these things, these ideas, these concepts that they've had bottled up that all you just need to do is give them a shot, and they're like, "I've been thinking about this for five years."
When I got to Netflix, that was one of the first things that was so surprising to me. How many people said, "I wanted to do this thing for so long, I just didn't have the opportunity to do it." I was like, "Well, then you might as well go ahead. Go do it." They're like, "Oh, well, but what if it doesn't work?" "Well, but then it doesn't work. But at least you tried, so go ahead. No, you won't be punished for that. They don't punish you for trying it." It's like you get dinged for executing poorly, not for an idea that goes badly that was executed well.
So then how do you think about it? Because to me, what you're just describing is that by bringing sort of your whole self to work, you're able to access talents and ideas and people who either don't do that or have different whole selves just might not have access to. But of course, I mean, that's opened you up to criticism too.
Oh, yes. Oh my gosh. Huge criticism.
How do you handle that?
Well, that's a really tough question. I won't say that I don't care about the criticism because that's not true. I do care about it.
I mean, we all say that, but we're all lying.
Yeah, no, exactly. I care about it. It hurts my feelings. Sometimes it makes me sleepless because I'm like, "But why don't you understand? It's so obvious." And it frustrates me, because I'm just like, "But you're falling into the same traps that we've written so many think pieces about. How do you criticize me for my otherness when we keep writing think pieces about how we should not be othered?" What? That doesn't make any sense. But part of it is that, and this is where I get both the praise and the criticism for this, is that I really love myself a lot. I think I'm so cool. I really do. I think my experiences that have brought me to this place are incredible, and I think it's unfair for me not to bring that to the job, and so therefore I recognize that in other people. I recognize the fact that your journey is so unique, so special, so incredible, that it's special to you, that I want to experience that.
The value of leaders who bring new ideas to the table is hardly a new idea, but it takes on an interesting bet when we consider iconic companies like Uber and Netflix, whose names have become synonymous with rideshares and streaming video. What Bozoma discovered is that innovation is the key to marketing something everyone's already familiar with.
I think about finding joy. It makes me think of these products and services as finding newness in established products or services, established ideas. Marketing is not static. It's evolving all the time. And so while it's like, "Oh, Apple is an established, iconic company," you expect it to deliver something to you. Every time you open a box or every time you log on to your phone or your Mac or whatever, there is newness in an experience that has shifted something about culture. And that is my job to continuously make you feel like this is not just a thing you used yesterday, right? It is something that has changed a bit and that you want to reengage again, because we don't like change as human beings. That's very scary.
And so I don't want to make you feel like, "Oh my God, I have to learn this whole new thing again. How am I going to do that? I don't have time for it. I'm too busy." No, I want to make you feel familiar, but fresh enough that it's like, "Ah, huh, I want to actually reengage because I haven't done that part of the thing yet even though I'm very familiar with it." It's kind of like when we were launching Apple Music, actually created Apple Music, and then had to tell the world about it. Now, it wasn't like listening to music digitally was new, but streaming music was a little bit of a new idea. It wasn't that prolific yet.
And I made the commercial for Apple Music at the very beginning when we were trying to describe what playlists were because it was a new concept, and like I said, human beings generally don't like a lot of change, and so we weren't going to climb this big mountain and say, "Hey, here's a new way to listen to music and it's playlist and it's every song you've ever heard, and now we're going to condense it to 16 and you just need to push play." It was too difficult.
And so the idea then was like, no, you are familiar with iTunes. It has every song that you ever wanted to hear in your life. It's on there. But instead of downloading it for 9.99 per album and 99 cents per song, it's like getting a mixtape from your boo when you were in high school. You remember that? It was like, you just need to take that tape, pop it in there and push play and listen to the goodness. Somebody else curated it for you. You don't have to do anything, but it's going to be all the music that you love. You know why? Because we love you and we know what the thing is that you like. And so very much like your boyfriend or your girlfriend in high school or your best friend or whoever who made you that mixtape, by the way, we were talking to women between the ages of 35 and 55, and so they understood what I was talking about when I said mixtapes.
They'd all received them.
They all had them at some point. It was like the push play and record at the same time, you know what I mean? In any case, that was the language to use because, yes, Apple was trusted, big company. You understood, "I get my iPhone, and it's fantastic and it's so cool and all of that, and I can make my phone calls and I can check my text messages, but now I got to listen to music on it that's just coming at me all day long? I just need to push a button and here it is?" Yeah, I'm going to describe it to you in a way that sounds familiar.
So I had never thought of it this way before, but to me what you're describing is marketing is the Ship of Theseus.
I mean, okay. Tell me a little bit more about why you think that?
There's an ancient Greek thought experiment about this. Legend goes that the hero Theseus had a ship which was preserved in Athens Harbor. In time, as parts of the ship got old and began to rot, they were replaced. It got new oars, new masts, new planks. Eventually, every single piece of the ship had been replaced, and at this point, when no parts are still original, is it still the same ship? Is it still the ship of Theseus? There's no right answer. It's a paradox. It's meant to make us question whether identity is about the parts which have all changed or about the whole, which has some overriding identity that transcends the pieces. And eventually I have an entirely new ship, but it's still Apple.
It's still Apple, correct, yes. And I think to that degree it's like, look, the ship is the ship because of the purpose of the ship. That's the way I argued it, was that the purpose of the ship was to get to a particular destination. It was going somewhere. And so regardless of the way it showed up, at the very end, it was still the ship that was meant to go to that place and to land there. And so if the purpose of the company is to deliver these transformational experiences that are easy to engage with, then we replace the record, we replace the CD, we replace iTunes with streaming, and it is still a music experience delivered to you by Apple, a company you trust.
But whether it is or is not the same ship, that amount of change, rebuilding the entire vessel that's keeping you afloat right beneath your feet, is daunting for just about everyone. So what are leaders to do when tectonic changes happen, not just in business but in their lives?
I discovered that joy is an action. It's a proactive movement. It's not passive. I found that in most of my conversations that I would have, or even just growing up, what you hear in society is that it's almost like joy supposed to find you. It's like, let's see what happens today. And then at the end of the day, am I joyful? Am I happy? Do I feel good? As if the power to be joyful was outside of yourself. And through a number of challenges, griefs, traumas, all kinds of things, even triumphs to some degree that happened in my life, I found that that is actually not true. I can't put the power somewhere else, and that the joy that I have is because I went to actively get it. And so that, of course, means that it's also in my professional life. It's not just in my personal life because, by the way, I also say, look, those two things are not separate from each other actually. They're just all the same thing. It's just life.
And so if I'm actively finding joy in my personal life, then the same must be true for my professional life. So then as a leader in marketing, regardless of the company, regardless of the era of that company and of the challenges of the business, I've got to find joy in order to just be a satisfied human, somebody who is interested in being in the environment. And so I can't wait for the market to correct itself, or for my boss to say sweet and loving things to me, or for the campaign I concepted to become viral before I'm joyful. I have to find the joy when I'm frustrated. Look, why am I even doing this thing? I have to find the joy when somebody says something off color to me and I want to smack them in the face.
I would say in some ways, although stoics would not normally talk of joy, in some ways this is a very stoic view of life, right? We're saying that I can't control what happens in life, but I can control how I react to it.
So are there specific things that you felt that you did that allowed you to reframe your view of life that
Let's say it like this. Maybe even in one of the most difficult moments. My husband was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma in May of 2013, and by October his oncologist said that it was going to be terminal. There was nothing to do, the treatments weren't working, and that he had maybe a couple of weeks left, which it was like somebody's horror film. You've seen that in movies, but you never think this is going to be in your life.
Especially not when you're young. It's just out of nowhere.
Oh, absolutely not. It's like we had too many plans, too many goals, things to do. It's like, who is thinking about death? And especially like that, right? I not going to sit here and pretend as if in that moment I was like, "Find my joy. Let me find the joy." That was not what was happening and going through my mind. But Peter had a really incredible way of living and he started to make a list of things he wanted to do. Of course, I think you could call it a bucket list, but it wasn't as fancy as like climb Machu Picchu, or go sailing. It wasn't that. It was things like, go eat gelato and take Lael camping, who's our daughter. Things like that. But it was long. There were a lot of things. It was like we lived in New York at the time, and it's like drive over the George Washington Bridge and go to Edgewater and look at Manhattan from that side, things like that.
And so the point I'm making about that story is that through that practice, we were able to find joy in those moments where otherwise we would've been counting towards this terrible end, knowing that the end was coming, knowing that this sickness and heartache was just going to eat us alive and one of us was not going to be living afterwards. And the danger was that both of us actually would be gone. Because you can imagine that even for a surviving partner or child or mother or whomever, that a part of you dies with the person. But the idea of having this list where we were doing things that brought us joy became not just a practical exercise, but a philosophical one and one that I've never forgotten. It was such a gift. It was such a gift of his death to have that.
And so now it's like, yes, if I'm in a difficult position in a job, let me pick one because there have been many. When I got to Uber, for instance, it was a tough position to be in. I had to find the excitement that would help me through my days of trying to find the solution that seemed unattainable, the solution to this big brand problem that we had, as a Chief Brand Officer. So the reputation of the business was under my assignment.
That's a problem.
It was a big problem. And you can imagine going to work every day with colleagues who don't want to wear their Uber shirts because they're embarrassed to work at the company. They don't want to go to the grocery store. They don't want to go to cocktail parties, tell anybody they work at the business. Gosh, I had to turn off notifications on all my social media because people would be tagging me in all kind of things. You could very easily be like, "Oh no, I'm now in a miserable state." But instead I was like, "You know what? No, I got to find what is going to bring me joy here." Trying to discover, okay, well, let's see in the drivers, what is interesting about that group of people? Who are they? What do they do?
And I found that one of my most fun cohorts of drivers were people we called mommy drivers. The ones who had young children, let's say preschool or daycare age. They would drop off their kids at daycare or preschool, drive for a few hours and then go pick them up. It was like a secondary source of income for their home, but they found purpose and action in it. And I was like, I'm working for these people. These are the people I'm working for. So of course, it's like there can be lots of things that you can look at your life or your work and say, "This is awful. This is terrible. What's the excitement or the joy in this? It's just all bad." But the action of finding the joy was, for me, a lifesaver.
It's an interesting intellectual exercise to look at this ship and wonder if it's still the same one Theseus sailed. But hidden within that brain-teaser, there's a question of survival. Those boards and oars and planks, they weren't replaced on a whim. They were replaced because it was either repair the broken parts of the ship, or let it sink. You and I, we are all Ships of Theseus. In our bodies, our cells grow old and are replaced with new ones. We get new skin every two to three weeks, new blood every four months, and even a completely new skeleton every 10 years. And as we move through life from student to professional, from protégé to mentor, the components of our identity change.
We'll encounter things that challenge us and push us and knock us off balance. So we're constantly rebuilding, replacing parts and ideas and worldviews that aren't working with ones that do. Growth, by definition, requires change. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. But the only constant in our lives is, must be, change. As leaders, we have to adapt to that change while still keeping the through line of our authentic selves intact. We have to find ways to be both the old ship and the new ship because that's how we keep our teams and ourselves afloat.
Speaker 3 (19:22):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from Nasdaq.