How Reinventing Your Business Can Lead To Long-Term Growth, With Mala Inderjit Sharma, VP at Adobe
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mala Inderjit Sharma, VP and GM of the Creative Cloud Business at Adobe, where she is in charge of running product marketing and engagement. Mala was part of the team that drove the business model and strategy to move Adobe from the Creative Suite business to Creative Cloud. Which meant moving the company from using boxed software to a cloud-based subscription model. Mala was in the middle of this massive team effort, leading the strategy and financial forecasting with along with support from her colleagues.
Mala also put together the go-to-market strategy and plan for Creative Cloud, overseeing the development of messaging and communication plans as well as defining the product offering and packaging for each customer segment. She authored the document that captured all of Adobe’s key go-to-market decisions and messaging for each of their customer segments, including: individuals, small and medium businesses, and verticals like education and government. Her colleagues jokingly referred to it as the “Mala-pedia.” Mala also led the creation of a holistic communication plan that considers the perspectives of the company’s different stakeholders in order to make their transition to Creative Cloud as transparent as possible.
What is your “backstory”?
Initially, I wanted to pursue a career in theater, but that didn’t quite work out. During the 1970s, theater in India was not considered a safe profession for women. My next choice was to join the Indian Navy and become a combat fighter, like my father who is a war hero. However, that also didn’t work out because I wanted to be on the front lines and at the time that was not an option for women. My next best idea was to get an MBA, as everyone in school seemed to be doing the same! I pursued my MBA at a school in Pune, called Symbiosis Institute. From there my passion evolved into running a business and becoming a general manager. I realize that in some ways this path brought together my first two passions: being on the front lines and being a storyteller.
After graduating, I started my career in management consulting at KPMG in India. After five years in consulting, I joined Kimberly-Clark Lever (a joint venture between Unilever and Kimberly-Clark) in India as a brand manager for feminine hygiene products. It was thrilling to get this opportunity because I had a chance to re-set my career path for my dream job!
During my time at Unilever, I learned about the importance of understanding of customer needs and the power of positioning products in a competitive market. Most importantly, I learned how to lead cross functional teams, act as a virtual general manager, and continue to pursue my passion of being a storyteller.
Some 20 years ago, I landed in Silicon Valley from India, with no degree in computer science related to tech. I sent out 150 job applications and received only two calls. The first call was from an insurance company offering a sales position that didn’t interest me.
The second call was from a multi-media hardware company called Creative Labs. They offered me an entry-level position as a retail marketing specialist and I was able to reset my career. When I asked my hiring manager why he made me a job offer although I didn’t have relevant experience he said, “I could see you were smart and had potential, so the fact that you didn’t have relevant experience was not important.” After nine years at Creative Labs, I joined Adobe as Director of Product Marketing for the Photoshop brand.
The highlight of my backstory is that during each of these moves, I restarted my career. I was willing to reinvent myself and was not concerned about the level where I was starting. The experience from each career move was more important.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company/business?
When we were building the business plan to move to Creative Cloud, there were a lot of unknowns, including how rapidly we would migrate them Creative Suite business to subscriptions. I remember the first business plan forecast I developed had our first year’s numbers at a fraction of what we actually did. For years my team teased me about being a “sandbagger” as we consistently exceeded our numbers relative to our forecasts. This was particularly funny and embarrassing as I had a reputation of calling our sales team “sandbaggers.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What stands out most to me are Adobe’s values as it relates to people. Thirty-six years ago, when Chuck Geschke and John Warnock founded Adobe, they identified three principles that are foundational to our culture. “our most important assets go home every night,” “we want to build a company where we would want to work,” and “great ideas come from anywhere.” Every company has some form of values. What I am consistently blown away by is how we practice our values at Adobe every day. On a global scale, Adobe is making considerable progress as a leader in diversity and inclusion. We announced equal payin the US and India in 2017 and updated our parental leave program, which provides all eligible parents up to 16 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
There are always a lot of new projects happening at Adobe! One of the projects I’m passionate about is the work we are doing to make Adobe Spark — our app for easy and quick creation of videos, web stories, and graphics — available and accessible at no cost to students worldwide. I had a unique opportunity to see students using Adobe Spark in the classroom during my recent sabbatical in India.
Adobe offers four-week sabbaticals to employees who have been with the company for five years. I recently took my 10-year sabbatical and spent time volunteering through the non-profit, Teach for India,which serves underprivileged students. My goal was to learn how middle school students with limited means respond to technology and creativity using Adobe Spark.
Having an opportunity to see 12–14-year-old students from underprivileged backgrounds respond positively to Adobe Spark reinforced my belief that technology has the ability to cut through socio-economic and cultural divides. It truly creates a level playing field for kids to express themselves. My experience in the classroom also helped me realize what creativity for all really means. It further underscored the importance of having a diverse perspective in order to bring to life Adobe’s mission of enabling creativity for all.
What advice would you give to other CEOs, leaders or founders to help their employees to thrive?
It is easy to get attached to owning something, but successful leaders aren’t afraid to reinvent themselves and their teams as business priorities shift. My advice to business leaders is to recognize and embrace the importance of being nimble and shifting organization priorities based on the direction your business is going in. I’ve always made every effort to be responsive to shifting priorities and to be at the forefront of driving the necessary changes within my own teams. When we moved to Creative Cloud, I recognized our organization priority was to embrace direct digital marketing, develop an end-to-end customer experience methodology, and build a team obsessed with driving customer engagement. During this period, I incubated these organizations and then spun them out to operate at scale.
I also believe successful leaders need to understand the barriers to their team’s success. It is important to create a culture that encourages people to “put their elephants on the table” and foster a safe space where employees know they are expected to bring the tough conversations to the forefront. From my experience, this happens effectively when a leader first seeks to understand why something hasn’t been executed — as opposed immediately casting blame or penalizing one for the lack of execution.
My last piece of advice is obvious, but I can’t underscore how important it is for a cross-functional team: align on how success and outcomes are measured. This serves as my north star in motivating and measuring my team’s performance.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I am an introvert by nature and was raised in India where one is taught to respect elders and seniority. As a result, my natural instinct was not to challenge a senior executive in front of other people early in my career. I often resorted to sharing my perspective during one-on-one meetings or over email.
During an annual review, my boss told me to speak up more during meetings with the executive staff at Adobe. I was dismayed by the feedback and being asked to step out of my comfort zone. I also felt it was unfair since the feedback was focused on “how” I was engaging as opposed to the “content of my engagement.”
I reached out to my mentor who is on the executive team. My mentor’s feedback was simple and reassuring: accept the comment, but don’t be discouraged by it. “The team wants to hear from you,” he said. “Share your insights when you are ready, even if they come via e-mail. But bear in mind that you are at the table because we want to hear from you.” This advice allowed me to understand that the executive team valued my opinion, not how I delivered it. This reminder encouraged me to start expressing myself confidently and as a result have a greater impact.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Adobe we believe that everyone has a story to tell and our mission is to enable everyone to tell their story with Creative Cloud. I have long wanted India, a country rich in art and culture, to stand out on the world stage as a leader in digital content. Given the current government’s vision for Digital India and the goal to reskill over 100 million youth by 2022, I was convinced that digital content needed to be part of the solution.
In a moment of inspiration, I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of India about the importance of creativity as an industry and how the government of India can partner with Adobe to promote upskilling and reskilling. My letter led toa series of meetings with senior officials resulting in the launch of the Adobe Digital Dishaprogram, which helpsvocational institutes leverage the power of Adobe Spark to integrate creativity and digital literacy into classrooms and the curriculum. We expect the program to reach more than 1 million students and teachers across India by the year 2020.
Can you share the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I. According to Adobe’s recent study, “Creativity’s Diversity Disconnect,” the vast majority of creative professionals understand that diversity is not only the right thing to do but also makes business sense. Eighty-two percent believe their best work was produced by a diverse team. This mirrors my own experience. Creative teams that include people with multiple perspectives, backgrounds, and life experiences tend to push one another toward better ideas and products. Adobe’s Creative Residencyprogram is a great example of how we learn insights from young graduating artists about creativity from the next generation of creators. Adobe sponsors residents for a year to pursue their creative dreams by covering their health insurance, salary, travel, and project costs.
II. As you work across large global markets, you’re also working across cultures. Having a diverse employee base that understands cultures outside of where the company’s headquarters are can help companies drive more successful outcomes given their understanding of governments, suppliers and customers. When we were considering introducing Creative Cloud in China, the executive staff sponsor for the initiative understood the nuances of the market. This made our go-to-market more successful — as opposed taking a cookie cutter approach.
III. A diverse team with different points of views often leads to intellectual debate and provides the best outcome for a business by presenting more diversity in thought. I’ve always believed that in order to get the complete picture of a situation, a leader should pay particular attention to feedback from an “alternative POV” on the team. During the transition to Creative Cloud, my boss at the time and I were paying very close attention to the voices internally who represented our users and were opposed to a subscription business model. Ultimately, their input did not alter the direction of our business, but understanding their point of view allowed us to build a communication plan that addressed the alternative point of view.
IV. A 2017 McKinsey study reveals that companies with ethnically diverse executive teams are more likely to outperform competitors on profits. Furthermore, companies with the most women on their management teams were 21 percent more likely to achieve above-average profitability. Leaders have a responsibility to invest in developing a pipeline of diverse talent who will one day lead our business. My goal is to inspire the next generation of leaders from different genders, races, and ethnicities who can develop new opportunities that appeal to increasingly diverse customers.
V. A recent studysuggests that the diversity of leaders’ social networks is a key ingredient in how they grow their companies. I deliberately built a network of senior advisors and mentees comprised of different backgrounds who offer me insights I may not otherwise receive. Mentoring people with different backgrounds exposes you to new ideas and enhances your own professional capabilities along with the capabilities of the business. At Adobe, we display a lot of customer-generated content and launched Adobe Stockthree years ago as a resource for creatives seeking authentic content. The response from our community has been incredibly positive. In the last year alone, the volume of Stock assets we offer has grown 30%, and we’ve seen revenue from Adobe Stock grow at the same rate.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
These are the three values that drive what I live and measure myself by every day when I meditate:
· Unity in thought, word, and action
· Do what’s right, not what feels good
· Everyone is potentially perfect, if you create the right environment
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
I’ve always admired Melinda Gates because of her passion for purpose-driven business and doing good for the world at scale, which are two passions I share. Ever since I spent my sabbatical teaching students in India, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to scale what I learned in order to give back to society in an even bigger and impactful way. I am amazed at how much Mrs. Gates has accomplished at a global scale. I’d love to pick her brain and get her perspective on how leaders in business can do more and have meaningful global impact.