“Listen. It’s the simplest advice, but you’d be amazed at how frequently it gets forgotten. Too often, leaders spend time and energy paying lip service to the idea that they are responsive to employees’ needs and ideas without actually doing the work or making it real. One of the most valuable exercises I like to engage in is regular coffee klatches with small groups of CR employees representing a cross-section of levels, tenures, and responsibilities. It generates terrific ideas that might otherwise take far longer to bubble up to me, gives me a chance to listen and better get to know members of our team, and offers opportunities for everybody to be heard. When employees are certain that their voices are having an impact and can create positive change within the organization, they are more invested in their own success and the success of the entire team.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Marta Tellado, who for nearly four years has served as the President and CEO of Consumer Reports — the independent, nonprofit consumer organization that works side by side with its members to advance truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. Since joining CR, Tellado has transformed the organization to meet consumers’ evolving needs for the digital age; among a host of changes to boost the capabilities and relevance of the 82-year-old institution, she has recently overseen the creation of new testing to measure the privacy and data security of ‘smart’ products, services, and apps. Born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey, her leadership career has spanned a wide range of public service and philanthropic institutions, from the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute to top advisory roles in the U.S. Senate.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
My story is a familiar one — filled with the promise of America. When I was two years old, my parents, my three brothers, and I came to the U.S. with nothing more than a couple of suitcases, but those bags were full of dreams. There was a revolution in the country I was born in, making daily life unpredictable. For my parents, the values they cared about — the freedom to speak, make choices for their family, and participate in a representative and open democracy — were dissipating, and they weren’t coming back. And so they packed us up and we landed in Newark, New Jersey.
They probably didn’t know at the time that we were headed from one revolution to another. But from our little walkup in Newark, where I shared bunk beds with my brothers in the dining room, we had a front-row seat to was happening outside.
It was the 60s, and communities were out in the street, coming together for change, wanting to be heard. We were the first Latino family in what was an incredibly dynamic neighborhood, and getting that exposure and building friendships across so many families who were different from my own — be it their traditions or even their food — was an incredibly formative experience. Growing up against that backdrop helped make me the person I later became, and informed the values to which I’ve devoted myself. A democracy is a work in progress — you can’t sit on the sidelines; you have to engage and serve the greater good. I have tried to make the most of that opportunity every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to a number of extraordinary people and places throughout my career in public service, philanthropy, and nonprofit entrepreneurship — including leaders who have devoted their lives to strengthening democratic values, equity, and human rights. Some of the most powerful memories I carry are standing in the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and meeting young women in the mountains of Peru, where we created lending circles to establish livelihoods for indigenous families. For a kid from Newark, it’s been quite a journey to visit these places that represent the importance of the struggle for social justice. It’s also been meaningful to me to have come full circle from my first job after college — where I worked on consumer issues for Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen — to an institution that is iconic for making the marketplace fairer, safer, and healthier for all.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my first job, I spelled my boss’s name wrong pretty consistently. I was fresh out of college, in way over my head, and my boss had a more-than-intimidating presence — so the fear factor was real. And because this person was a well-established author, there was no excuse on my part for the mental block around the name. It taught me a valuable lesson, though, and today I get ribbed for having an ‘eagle eye’ when I review things: though I always stay focused on the big picture, I don’t lose track of the details. I ran into that same boss several years ago, and was so proud of myself during that greeting for remembering all of the necessary names — spouse, kids, etc. At least I thought I had… it turns out that I got the spouse’s name wrong after all.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
It starts with having a ‘north star,’ a common mission and shared values throughout the organization — so that whether you’re writing code, testing cars, doing outreach to donors, or testifying to a congressional committee about laws and safety standards, you’re connected to the work of all your colleagues and united around a higher purpose. When everybody knows and shares that mission, and understands that everything we do is ultimately intended to help create fairer, safer, healthier markets — and when they can draw a direct line from whatever work they’re doing to that end result — it breeds better collaboration and unity.
Having a strategic plan with clear goals and priorities in place is also vital, particularly at an organization like CR that is home to testers, scientists, policy experts, journalists, community advocates, digital entrepreneurs, statisticians, and technologists. It’s a remarkable set of skills and passions coming together to make a difference for people everyday. We are constantly having to ward off the feeling of being ‘siloed’ because our work covers such a wide variety of talents and terrain.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
When I was an executive at the Ford Foundation we had offices across the globe. While CR’s teams aren’t “global,” we do have staff in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and at our state-of-the-art Auto Test Track in Connecticut. But I’ve found that the challenges of multiple locations are similar. Technology goes a long way toward connecting to one another in real time, but human interaction remains something we all crave. Most of our staff is located at our New York headquarters, so making sure we get creative about how we engage our colleagues wherever they may be is critical to building and contributing to a shared culture. We continue to experiment on that front. Technology allows us to have full-group gatherings — even if it means beaming our remote teams in and showing them up on the big screen. But there is no substitute for making time to visit our offices and encouraging our leaders to do so as well. I always come back energized and inspired from those trips. Our teams are doing amazing things.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Listen. It’s the simplest advice, but you’d be amazed at how frequently it gets forgotten. Too often, leaders spend time and energy paying lip service to the idea that they are responsive to employees’ needs and ideas without actually doing the work or making it real. One of the most valuable exercises I like to engage in is regular coffee klatches with small groups of CR employees representing a cross-section of levels, tenures, and responsibilities. It generates terrific ideas that might otherwise take far longer to bubble up to me, gives me a chance to listen and better get to know members of our team, and offers opportunities for everybody to be heard. When employees are certain that their voices are having an impact and can create positive change within the organization, they are more invested in their own success and the success of the entire team.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
There are no greater influences on an employee’s day-to-day experience than the culture of their department and their relationship with their immediate manager. If an employee doesn’t feel supported by their manager, if the manager’s leadership style doesn’t work for them, or if the department’s environment isn’t supporting their success, it doesn’t really matter how strong the organization’s culture is more broadly.
There’s a major difference between ‘managing’ — which I take to mean ensuring that the work gets done — and ‘leading’ — which goes beyond managing to inspire and drive high-performing teams. Because leading doesn’t always come naturally even to otherwise-strong managers, it’s critical to invest in developing leadership skills in our managers, who in turn develop the people on their teams. One of the most effective ways to do that is through on-the-job coaching and mentorship, both of which we emphasize at CR. The feedback that our managers get through these processes is vital, and the stronger they become at leading teams, the better the experience of the employees they oversee.
Another important thing we do at CR to retain talent is ensure that every team is allowed to create their own unique culture — and give them the resources to stoke it. Trying to force disparate teams of lab technicians, investigative journalists, policy analysts, auto experts, et al., into a uniform culture is a recipe for turnover. Each team is united around common values and a common mission, to be sure — that north star — but we always want to give every department the breathing room it needs to create a work environment that unleashes their creativity.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”.
1) Communicate, communicate, communicate. And be genuine, transparent, honest, and accessible when you do. Don’t forget to set some ground rules for mutual respect so you can grow that trust throughout the organization.
2) Ensure that every employee clearly understands their role and how it fits into the larger strategy and mission of the organization. Having a sense of place allows their day-to-day work to be infinitely more meaningful if they can see how it connects to the team’s higher, shared purpose. Connect to the individual aspirations of your team members.
3) Breathe inspiration and purpose into your mission, vision, and strategy. Plans that live on a page or a website do not inspire; real people and passions do. Martin Luther King never said, “I have a strategic plan” — he had a dream!
4) Recognize your staff regularly and publicly. Calling out significant achievements and celebrating employees who model positive behaviors helps create a culture of appreciation that permeates through the entire team. At CR, we recently began to regularly recognize ‘creative risk-takers’ among our staff — including people who tried out new initiatives and ways of working that ultimately didn’t quite succeed. Doing so has been helpful in fostering a spirit of innovation and encouraging people to (responsibly) try new approaches without fear of failure.
5) Clearly articulate strategy and goals — and especially the ‘big picture’ purpose behind organizational initiatives and changes. Employees are always more keen to embrace change if they understand the rationale, see their role in it, and have a sense of the vision it’s serving.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We could start with a movement to achieve the peaceful coexistence and mutual respect of all peoples. It’s a tall task, of course, but we know that a foundation of mutual respect creates the conditions for limitless possibility.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No hay mal que por bien no venga.” My mother quoted that familiar saying often as I was growing up. It essentially means that there’s always a silver lining, and that something positive is going to come from whatever challenge you may be facing. I am an irrepressible optimist — at this stage in my life, I can actually say that with confidence because it has been tested more than I care to admit. Whether you are trying to find a way to pay for your education, are staring down a life-threatening illness, or are searching for inspiration in the midst of a seemingly impossible task, finding your passion and purpose in those moments can propel you forward in ways you could never anticipate.