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iRobot CMO Kiran Smith: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive

Don’t be afraid to take risks. I talked earlier about leaving the client side of the business to become CEO of an agency — without having any agency experience. That was certainly a risk, but I learned I could do it, and it helped me build an even stronger foundation that I can apply to my own work every day. If you love your job, stay, but if you are feeling the pull of something new, don’t be afraid to take a leap. Believe that you can do it.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kiran Smith.

As iRobot’s Chief Marketing Officer, Kiran Smith leads iRobot’s global marketing team, driving consumer marketing strategy in the U.S. and overseas. She has been with iRobot since August 2020. A computer scientist turned marketer, Kiran was most recently CEO of Arnold Worldwide, a leading global creative advertising agency headquartered in Boston, delivering services across various consumer verticals. Before Arnold, Kiran held several brand marketing leadership roles at Brookstone, Stride Rite, and two of the largest supermarket chains in the U.S. In addition, Kiran has a strong background in professional services. Earlier in her career, Kiran held leadership positions at Accenture and Alliance Consulting Group, providing strategic planning and analysis to propel the growth and diversification of several iconic global brands and Fortune 500 companies. Kiran holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Bucknell University and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

After graduating from Bucknell, I was fortunate enough to end up at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and my client was M&M/Mars. The project I was working on gave me an opportunity to work with colleagues from almost every function of the business including finance, supply chain, distribution, merchandising and…marketing. I was enthralled with the work the team did and how they used both data and creativity to drive the business. The head of marketing for M&M gave me some great advice. He said if I ever wanted to do what he did, I needed to go to business school, and I needed to go to a good one. I ended up going to Tuck, and that set me on this amazing path.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of the coolest experiences I had was when I was with Shaw’s. We were creating a program, partnering with America’s Test Kitchen to help solve the question every family has — “What’s for dinner tonight?” We created a recipe program that was meant to save time, tasted great and was “fool proof”. The reason it had such an impact on me is that I was not a cook. My husband did all the cooking, and I took advantage of that. I think it came from growing up in a house with a mom who is an AMAZING cook but did everything by feel (no measurements, recipes, etc.). And for someone who likes structure and precision, that was not an approach I ever felt comfortable with.

Long story short, this program completely turned me around. I went from someone who avoided cooking at all costs to someone who now relishes cooking for friends and family and takes a lot of pride in it. The program gave me confidence, brought out my creative side and changed how my family eats. Family dinners became a cornerstone of our home, a tradition my girls still cherish. I love that a marketing program could have such a significant impact on an individual, namely me!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Others’ belief in you will only come if you believe in yourself.” It took a long time for me to understand what my parents meant when they told me that. I knew it had something to do with being self-reliant, but I didn’t really get it until years later. As I progressed in my career, there were sometimes challenges. There were people who I worked for who I didn’t necessarily connect with. I found myself letting my feelings of self-worth and confidence be dictated by others. To this day I remember hearing, “you will never be a CMO”. I still feel the pain of hearing that line years later. I gave them control of something they had no right to — the control over how I felt about myself. It took me going through some tough experiences before I was able to take back control of my story and of my worth. When I did that, I found that the richness of my relationships, both personal and professional, were impacted in all of the right ways.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

“Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg was that book for me. When it came out in 2013, I was the mom of three young girls — ages 9, 5 and 5. I had been in the grocery retail business for 10 years and was contemplating what was next. The easier path would have been to stay put. The other option was taking a risk, leaving what I knew and seeing if I could apply the skills I had built in a whole new industry. After reading the book there were several lessons I learned, but the one that still comes to mind whenever I tell this story is, “don’t think you have to have it all figured out before you raise your hand.” So, I took the risk. And I’ve done it a few more times since then. The experience impacted my leadership style because it let me back off from feeling like I had to be perfect. It allowed me to bring others in, learn from them and be confident that I had a lot to contribute. It also made me realize how much I love the adventure of trying something new.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

iRobot is a founder led business with an amazingly open and collaborative culture. Colin Angle started iRobot 30 years ago with a fellow student and professor, and he continues to lead from the front. He has successfully led the business through many transformations, but what has stayed constant is his belief in the people who work here and the customers we serve. That ethos permeates throughout the entire organization and gives us a foundation that is unique. I didn’t know too much about the company when I was interviewing for the role, but in my very first interview, I sensed something was very unusual (in all the good ways). I think the sign of a good interview is one that feels like a conversation and not a grilling, where 60 minutes feel like 5 and where you feel like if you were stuck in an airport, you’d be grateful to be with the person on the other side of the figurative desk. That is how I felt from the first conversation with Colin and with every subsequent conversation that followed. It became more and more apparent that this was a special place and that it would be an honor to be a part of it. iRobot made robots a reality in many ways, and there’s a strong belief that we can help people do even more in the future.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Find your squad. Find people you want to be around and people who believe in you and the larger vision. Find people that pull you and each other up when you feel like the walls might be crashing down. Find people that pull you back to earth when you might be getting a bit overbearing. Find people that tell you you’re doing a great job at home when it feels like you can’t do anything right — and that make you feel like the best version of yourself when you are with them. Find them, and then keep them close. Make time for them, even when you don’t feel you have a minute to spare — because relationships take work. The investment in your squad is one of the best investments you will ever make.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Wow. That’s a great question! At one point, I let someone else control my narrative. I knew things in the role weren’t going the way I wanted and that it was likely I would need to leave. But someone told me to keep my head down and let things play out. I did, and as you can imagine, things didn’t end well. Instead of me driving change, I found myself a player in someone else’s game. It really hit me hard, and it took me a while to build myself back up. But the lesson was learned. I couldn’t let anyone dictate my story or impact how I felt about myself. That responsibility is all mine.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Willingness to try something new: I’ve gone from consulting to grocery to kids’ shoes to agency to robots. That’s a lot of change, but I always brought with me the experiences I had prior. That gave me a strong foundation to build from so that I didn’t have to learn everything, just the new stuff.

Confidence that I was smart…enough: People never believe me when I say this, but it’s true. I never knew I was smart (enough) until I went to business school. Surviving the first year at Tuck was no small undertaking. I never worked that hard and slept that little, but it taught me a million lessons, including the fact that I could hold my own. I wasn’t the smartest in the class, but I could keep up, and the resilience I developed continues to serve me well.

Being authentic: I joke that I have no filter — I say what is on my mind. I like to share stories of growing up, my family, what I did on the weekend (when we used to do more stuff on the weekends). I love to hear other people’s stories as well. Creating more personal relationships in the office bring a richness to work that I love.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

I overuse sports analogies, but bear with me. We are the offensive coordinators that sit in the booth during a football game. We look at the whole field. We try and anticipate what the other team is going to do and help our teams prepare for what is ahead. We make the calls, make sure we have the best players on our team and try and create an environment that allows them to be their very best.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

That we have it figured out. The world around us is changing all the time. We are challenged to stay ahead and inspire our teams in a world where not everything is certain. Whether it is how to navigate through a pandemic, staying up to date on the latest technology and assessing how it impacts the business, or keeping a pulse on changing consumer habits — these are examples of things that keep us up at night.

What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

It’s a world of extremes. Some leaders come in and want to make their mark day one, before taking the time to understand the capabilities of the team. Others accept what they have “inherited” and continue on, not wanting to make waves. I believe that you have to end somewhere in the middle. Take time to get to know the team, but don’t be afraid to apply your past experiences to make changes when needed. You may not get it all right, but if you can communicate and bring the team along, you will have a much higher likelihood of success.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The number of decisions you have to make each day. Every meeting has new information. Most meetings require that you connect a lot of dots. Many are emotion-filled. Both sides of your brain have to work overtime. The need to find outlets that let you recharge or unplug, and give yourself permission to do that, is severely underestimated.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1 — Don’t be afraid to take risks. I talked earlier about leaving the client side of the business to become CEO of an agency — without having any agency experience. That was certainly a risk, but I learned I could do it, and it helped me build an even stronger foundation that I can apply to my own work every day. If you love your job, stay, but if you are feeling the pull of something new, don’t be afraid to take a leap. Believe that you can do it.

2 — Own your story. Do not let someone else make important decisions that are rightfully yours or let them define your future. Define your own future. If you feel that something needs to change, speak up, and create meaningful change.

3 — You don’t need to figure it all out first. Something I learned about when shifting from computer science to a marketing career, moving from one industry to another, and transitioning from the client side to agency life is that one of the biggest joys of taking on a new role is learning about it. Enjoy that process. Listen to others, be humble, and be curious. Also, be confident. Know that you have the ability to learn, know that you have previous experiences to tap into, and know that you have the ability to work with others to figure things out together.

4 — Prioritize relationships in the workplace. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find your squad. Surround yourself with smart, driven, kind and funny people who know when to lift each other up, challenge each other and have fun. It’s not only important to focus on the job at hand, but also on building personal relationships that allow for a more open, candid and collaborative work environment. At iRobot, I’ve been able to build amazing relationships with my colleagues and team (luckily, much of that seems to come naturally to them). It takes time, and a desire to do so, especially in this virtual world we find ourselves in. I can’t wait to meet many of them in-person!

5 — Don’t forget about your personal life. It’s important to love your job and to be fully committed to doing the best that you possibly can, but it’s also important to relax, unwind, and spend time doing the things you love outside of work — with the people you love. We spend a lot of time at work. It’s OK to disconnect, rejuvenate yourself and de-stress. For me, dinner with my family is non-negotiable. It’s the most important time of my day. I also have no issue fitting in a quick Peloton ride during those odd times when there’s not a meeting on my calendar.

In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Getting everyone behind a fantastic work culture is essential, but it can’t just come from the top down. One of the many special things about iRobot is an employee-led initiative called The Builders Code, which outlines the behaviors we expect of ourselves and our colleagues. The Builders Code calls for Putting Consumers First, Pursuing Possibility, Moving with Urgency, Owning the Outcome, Debating and Committing, and Having Each Other’s Backs. These are the defining principles and values for how we all work together to succeed and create an energizing workplace at iRobot.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)

My parents moved to the U.S. 3 years before I was born. They left their families and friends to start a new life in a country that seemingly had limitless opportunities. While they found opportunities, they also found a country that was struggling with divisions: race, gender and income to name a few. Fast forward 50 years later, and these divisions still exist. We need to change this. A movement where kindness, openness, and acceptance rule — where we see there is so much more that we have in common than what makes us different — isn’t a movement that can be started by any one person, but it’s important we all play a part.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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