Women in Business Q&A: Betty Noonan, Chief Marketing Officer, Cree

Impassioned and unafraid to break conventional marketing rules, Betty Noonan, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Cree, Inc., is leading one of the most disruptive revolutions in homes and businesses today - the move to LED lighting. As the lead influencer and passionate architect of Cree's innovative branding initiatives across all business units, Betty aligns her competitive, challenger approach with Cree's relentless problem-solving to reinvent a century old category. Already one of the world's most successful multi-billion dollar startups - Betty is pioneering the brand and culture required to scale Cree to the next level, while retaining the entrepreneurial spirit that makes it so unique. She's helping Cree create a new model.

Achieving Cree's mission of 100 percent LED adoption demands an unconventional marketing model that cuts through a competitive marketplace for both B2B and B2C customers and differentiates Cree from old technology lighting giants. It takes a potent combination of ingenuity and action. That's why at Cree, Betty is building a powerful new brand that uses aggressive and results-driven, but cost-effective, marketing to create meaningful engagements. Across platforms and customer segments, she is leading a content-driven marketing machine and creating trial-building vehicles to encourage user experience. She's also championing this same spirit of unyielding innovation, risk-taking and never settling in Cree's internal environment.

Prior to Cree, Betty spent more than a decade in an executive marketing capacity for two Fortune 500 companies. As a high energy leader with a passion for change, she re-aligned siloed organizations to drive cross-division marketing programs and developed a business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) brand strategy and campaign with more than a 15 percent increase in brand consideration. She also created a multi-functional Digital Center of Excellence, and led multi-year brand transformation programs, winning market share positions and brand lift. A champion of digital strategies that engage with customer segments, Betty believes the future of the marketing function intersects with IT.

Betty holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and has completed executive education programs at Syracuse University and Georgetown University. She has been quoted in national publications such as Forbes and USA Today and spoken at conferences around the country about brand transformation, new market development, organizational design and competencies, and succeeding in today's digitized world.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I started working when I was 15 and have never stopped; right through college, the lively days of our young 20s and on through marriage and three kids. I thrive when challenged, it's in my nature. I'm not sure I have an OFF switch.

I believe that at its core, leadership is modeled; a personal, living demo, if you will. Leadership is also earned, nobody gives it to you - and that's important. Three things stand out as having most shaped the way I lead today.

First, I married the right partner. Without the rock star of a husband that I have, I simply wouldn't have had the time to build my leadership skills and work the way I love to do. I found an equal, a meeting-of-the-minds, who challenges me, motivates me and understands my always-on mentality. I am very grateful!

Second, playing and coaching youth soccer, one of my greatest loves. I was exposed to the discipline and the values of team sports at a young age and it changed me. Anyone who has been on a team that values each other as well as performance knows what I mean. I then entered coaching to give my kids the same experience and enjoyed that even more. Developing people is a talent, a leadership skill that I practiced for years with those great young players, without even knowing it.

Finally, I experienced tragedy. The death of both my parents of cancer at relatively young ages, and losing my home in a fire...well, those were biggies. It's a sad fact, but I do believe that suffering and failure are the steps to success. You have to deal with both bad and good. It makes you tougher, and we all need that, especially in leadership. Because, let's face it - running a team, a family, a company is full of challenges. Tragedy has given me a sense of fearlessness, and the ability to take calculated risks, which is the best way to get to the reward.

Any athlete will tell you that the greatest assets are those who can play through the pain; but also read the opponent, play to teammates' strengths and create an unconventional strategy. Physical strength is important, but cunning smarts, teamwork and fierce competition win games.

That's the truth in leadership. No excuses, figure out how to win.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Cree?
My career led me through one of the first and most classic disruptions; when the digital camera was invented and disrupted the film business. The thing about disruption is that it's equally as exhilarating as it is unyielding. Whether you're the disruptor, or the disrupted - there is a constant state of change and you need to continually adapt in order to succeed. From a leadership standpoint, the real challenge is the constant emotional turmoil. There's a personal commitment required to see through the 'today,' straight to the end game, and keep going. This was critical for joining a company like Cree that is truly always ON. The personal fortitude that comes from experiencing tragedy, paired with the passion for team sports prepared me for that.

Cree is a high-tech company in high-growth mode that's driving one of the most disruptive revolutions in homes and businesses today - the move to LED lighting. Disruption is at the heart of Cree. And the most important lesson I learned through the digital disruption and that has positioned me to take on this challenge has been learning to celebrate the process of innovation. Not just the end. I'm fueled by an entrepreneurial culture, building competitive teams who believe in the fact that innovation isn't just inspiration, it is hard work.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Cree?
From the moment I arrived at Cree I felt the inspiration of this company: a company on a mission for 100 percent LED adoption. I knew had to be part of it.

I slid right in like Cree was a second skin; like my best-fitting cleats. This is a company that has positioned itself with the toughest, the smartest, the most inventive - and every employee is working toward the same, resonating goal. I've always aspired to play with the best, work with the best. Surround yourself with brilliance and drive, and you can do incredible things.

Before I joined, Cree had already kicked off the LED revolution, and was doing a fantastic job at delivering its message. But every category disruption presents its unique set of challenges. How do you elevate a company that's reinventing an entire category and shifting fundamental thinking in a 100-year-old virtually unchanged industry? One of the biggest challenges I'm faced with is scaling up a 7,000-person start-up brand, while retaining that restless ingenuity that beats throughout the heart of company.

Cree has also already begun creating a market and demand for better lighting with LED. But we need to continue to reshape the conversation by driving trial and experience of LED lighting. Not just in homes either - in businesses, cities, stadiums.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in your industry?
In the technology industry, every day will be full of change. It's important to be resilient and able to adapt to stress.

Surround yourself with smart people who want to out-think and out-work others like you do, and forge real connections. You may not always have the answer to every problem that arises - so learning to collaborate with brilliant people, and I mean truly collaborate, complement your strengths with theirs- that's the foundation to a successful career.

Stay zeroed-in on what matters most to you. I've always strived to wake up every day excited, and go to bed satisfied. That's what has enabled me to stay laser-focused on my career and passions. And at the end of the day, stay the course and keep going.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I've been asked my whole life, how do you do it? By women and men who don't do it, those who aspire to do it, and by the ones who are doing it.

The truth is, I don't think about it.

When my kids were young, I became an obsessive planner. As they got older, the circumstances changed and work/life evolves. I became an important model for them. I never thought about it - I just focused on the end goal.

I do believe that a healthy lifestyle supports a successful career and try to keep health and fitness at the top of the to do list.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The fact that you asked me that question! Being female isn't my badge. I'm just here to work.

Thanks to playing sports, I never thought about being a girl. I was competing with the best; male, female, whomever. In the technology field, this is the same.

For anyone who wants to be successful, I encourage you to think less about your age, gender, background or culture - and just do your absolute best, every single day.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made a big difference. But the relationship is what's most impactful, not the label. So many mentoring programs fail because not everyone is good at teaching! It's the people you LEARN FROM that matter. I've found that the best "mentors" are the really great coaches.

I look for mentors in unexpected places - competitors, peers. They are those who I admire, respect and would aspire to be more like. Throughout my career, this hasn't always equated to a supervisor, or even someone in my field. Seek them out.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
One of my favorites leaders, male or female, is Oprah Winfrey. She is self-made, resilient and takes action on what she cares about. She represents the striking balance of entrepreneurial business smarts with a sense of humanity. That makes great leaders, and is a model which I've always aspired.

What do you want Cree to accomplish in the next year?
One hundred percent adoption of LED light in America. It's a bit of a stretch, but we'll try. Why? Because today's lighting has forced us to compromise for far too long. It's inefficient, it's poor quality. It's time for change. And the technology is ready for it. In the next year, I want to see this transition become a reality.