How NPD Group's CEO leads and communicates

Karyn Schoenbart has spent more than 30 years at market-research firm NPD Group, working in several areas and serving as president and chief operating officer before becoming CEO this year. She is also the author of “MOM.B.A.,” a book that came out of conversations with her daughter and seeks to impart business and career advice to people early in their careers and executives alike.

Her book includes sections on motivating others, surviving your boss, dealing with difficult situations and other common scenarios we face in the workplace (and elsewhere). I thought she was a great person to talk with about the challenges people are facing at work today and how they might find the motivation to move forward and inspire others to do so, too.

Below are some of her lessons learned in an interview condensed and edited for clarity.

Why she’s stayed at NPD Group for so long

"Several things. The first one is, the company’s growing. So, when a company is growing, it affords continuous opportunity -- opportunity to advance, opportunity to move laterally, opportunity to take on new responsibilities. So, NPD has been growing pretty much the whole time I’ve been there. The second thing is culture. For me, it’s a really great culture fit. It’s very collaborative, people work together in teams. It’s not a backstabbing type of environment. And the third is, I like both the business model and the people. I like what we do, people have a lot of passion for what we do, and I enjoy the people I work with. So, why leave?"

At what point did she start to think, “I could turn my experience into a book?”

"My daughter, when she started working in advertising, she realized she knew all these things that her peers didn’t know. And she just assumed that they all knew the things she knew. She realized it was because she had me as a live-in mentor her whole life.

"For example, when she was 6 years old and she wanted to have a sleepover, I made her give a presentation on why she should have a sleepover.  When the other mom and I agreed, and she kept talking, I said, ‘Stop. Don’t sell after the close!” … And when we would be driving in the car, we would play the interview game. And I would say things like, ‘So, Danielle, for what things have you been criticized?’ So, she just grew up having this around, and once she started working and realized that not everyone knew these things, she said she felt like she had gotten a ‘Mom.B.A.’ … The idea of the book was to provide that competitive knowledge, on questions you didn’t even think to ask, to people starting out in the workforce. Interestingly, the feedback has been that it could be for anyone in the workforce.”

How would she describe her leadership style today? How has it changed since she’s become CEO, or even earlier, compared with when she first became a manager?

"I think that I’ve always been very transparent, a very clear communicator, and when I made my first transition, which I talk about in the book, from an individual salesperson to a manager, you have to learn that your success as a leader or a manager is now not based on your own performance but based on the success of your team. So that lesson really taught me of the importance of helping to make other people successful so that we can all be successful. And, it’s kind of in my nature to be a mentor. I was an education major, so my leadership style is very much about helping people bring out the best they can be and helping us all succeed together.

"I’ve been working in this company for over 30 years, and been working for the owner, so I wasn’t sure how much things really would change with my promotion to CEO. But, what I found I was able to start to tweak the culture a little bit. I love the culture, I love the company, but there were things we that needed to do to be competitive. So, my three things that I’ve been working on -- and they’re tweaks:

  • More outside-in thinking. This could be more client-oriented, more technology-oriented, more focus on competition, because we have a tendency to build good products and they will come. But in today’s world, you have to be more outside-in thinking.
  • Speed. I quote Jeff Bezos all the time, because he said today, you have to make a decision with only 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90% you’re too slow. I feel that’s very true, so I’m trying to push us to be faster. The world is going faster, the clients demand it, technology demands it.
  • Accountability. Since so many of us in leadership have been iwth the company a long time, people tend to look up for answers, and I’m trying to convince them to step up and not just look up."

SmartBrief’s most popular leadership stories this year have largely reflected people’s worries about work, on dealing with difficult workplace situations or co-workers. How has Schoenbart dealt with such situations? How has she motivated?

"I can think of several of them. In 2008, we had the recession. In 2001, a major, major client pulled out … from all market research companies. They stopped providing their information, which was a big blow. It wasn’t just to us, it was to everybody.

"I would say three things that, as a leader, I try to do in any of those situations. Number one is to be really transparent. We are a private company but we still do quarterly WebExes to all 1,600 employees, and we share with them financial performance, and we share with them highlights and lowlights of what happened in the last quarter. And we’re very transparent about what’s going well and what’s not going well, so that there’s trust. So that’s number one, because even in bad times, you’re going to stay with a company if you trust them, you’re not going to stay with a company if you don’t trust them. So, transparency equals trust.

"The second thing is to still have a vision. ‘OK, this is bad, but here’s what we’re going to do about it. And maybe we haven’t figured it out all yet. But we’re still going to be tracking this business, we’re still going to” -- whatever it might be for somebody’s particular business. And, how the employees fit in. So, here’s the vision, and here’s how you can help. Again, that might require multiple levels of communication. You want to show people there is a vision, and how they fit.

"The third thing is demonstrating confidence. I have confidence in our vision, I have confidence in you as employees, and also you have confidence in me. So, I would say transparency, which equals trust. Vision, how they fit, and confidence."

What about when people are miserable at work? How do they cope?

"Very often, if you look back on a long career -- and I’ve been doing this over 30 years -- some of your most learning opportunities are during a tough time. Dealing with a difficult person, dealing with a difficult boss, dealing with a difficult economic situation. So you kind of have to take a look at the broad perspective and say, ‘these are notches on my belt. And if I learn how to get through this, then that’s going to make me a stronger worker, stronger manager, stronger leader.’

"And, again, it’s tough in the day-to-day moments, but just try to acknowledge that these are opportunities to get a notch on your belt and learn how to do the best you can in that situation. … Then, of course, try to focus on the positive. I’m big on keeping lists. So you keep a list of the things that you’re not happy about, but you also keep a list of the things you do like about your job or you are happy about. And try to keep that list going so that you see that balance. When you’re feeling down, you can look at the positives."

How does a CEO make sure her messaging is properly communicated and followed through on?

"First of all, I try to use multiple messages, and I try to do some of it directly. And there’s so much technology today to take advantage of. We use company webinars, and I started using Salesforce Chatter a lot, and I have a Chatter thing that goes to all 1,600 employees from me. So, once a week or so, I can do some informal communication directly from me on something important.

"Then, it’s having trust in your next level of management to make sure that they are really clear on the message. One of the tips is to just not make it too complicated, to try to keep to three things. And if you continue to reinforce those three key things that are most important, up to maybe 5 at most -- because if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority. So if I can be very clear in my communication to the whole company and then to my leadership … then hopefully there won’t be so many opportunities for miscommunication because everyone knows what those things are and what we’re working towards. The more you try to make it too complicated, I think that’s when you get into trouble with miscommunication down the road.

"And then, what we do, this is just basic kind of management 101, we have our corporate objectives, and then we cascade that down to department objectives, then we cascade them down to people’s SMART objectives, so that it all ties together.

“For example, we’ve got three [objectives]: it’s growth, quality and culture. Under those, there’s a couple, but I’m trying to drive home growth, quality and culture. You just keep reinforcing it, and you have lots of different ways of communicating the same messages.

"There was something I read once, that said you have to tell people something 22 times before it really stick. Now, that may be an exaggeration, but we do that a lot to make sure people really understand, and then understand again, what does that mean for their department, and what does that mean for them? And if you’re consistent, and it cascades down to the departments and the individuals, it’s pretty easy to be on the same page.”


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he worked in newspapers for four years, where he witnessed the industry's ongoing struggles with digital amid the great recession. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.