Women in Business Q&A: Kristen Celko, CMO, J.Hilburn

Kristen began her career in management consulting and after several years left to pursue her passion for retail apparel. Her 15 years in the retail industry include domestic and international roles with Neiman Marcus, Under Armour, UK based STA Travel Group, David's Bridal, Inc. and New Zealand based Icebreaker Merino before joining J.Hilburn in late 2014. She is an experienced marketing and digital professional with more than 10 years in leadership roles across private and public companies in various growth stages. When not working, she satisfies her curiosity for learning and inspiration by traveling the world and looks forward to her short trips in remote locations that mandate a technology time out.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was fortunate to be raised in a hard-working family where contributing to the collective good was a central theme. I was especially influenced by my maternal grandfather. His name was George and his profession for over 40 years was coal mining. As a little girl I couldn't put into words the respect and gratitude people showed him, I simply knew I was very proud to be his granddaughter. Looking back now I see how remarkable it was for a man with no education to be a school board member, a local union president and a public advocate for accessible health care. Whenever he tasked my cousins and me with a chore, I was determined to be the fastest and best because his approval was -- and remains to be -- the best recognition I've ever had.
My parents tried me in a number of sports. After various attempts it was clear that anything involving moving individuals and a ball was not my forte. When they enrolled me in a swim program at age seven as yet another option, something clicked and I swam competitively for the next decade of my life. Swimming year round, twice daily during the week and every weekend, built my foundational understanding of commitment and pursuit. I'm also grateful to have competed in a sport where I'd go head to head with a teammate in an individual event and hours later be swimming as a team with that person in relay events. Without question, I'm competitive - but team continues to be most important.

Lastly, I'd note my predictable pattern of doing the unpredictable. I have an insatiable curiosity to understand and experience people, places and things that are new and unknown. When I want something, I pursue it with zeal regardless of its place in the continuum of normality. Personally, embracing these qualities has manifested some magical experiences and epic mistakes.

Professionally, it has allowed me to jump into roles and organizations that may have seemed like left turns to others. The variety across my career and personal experiences has built a foundation that allows me to speak knowledgeably on many different aspects of business and life.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at J.Hilburn?
My career spans organizations of varying sizes, ownership models and growth stages. Every role has been an amazing learning opportunity. Per my natural curiosity, I've always been a student of organizations in their entirety. My favorite roles have included a close group of cross-functional peers, each willing to collaborate and teach beyond the normal expectations of their role. I aspire to be a leader in collaboration by example and have enjoyed the moments at J.Hilburn where I see my influence in those behaviors help to drive better results.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure in various marketing roles?
The early years of digital marketing encompass many highlights and also mark the time I expanded my leadership responsibilities to brand marketing and communications. I was working in the travel industry for a global organization focused on students and youth. My core customers were driving digital adoption and I had the privilege (and fun!) of building innovative programs, campaigns and social strategies when there was no playbook. My first campaign recognition in AdAge, "Travel Guides for the YouTube Generation" was in 2007. Around that same time, we partnered with an airline and Facebook for a sponsored March Madness bracket program. Trade coverage of my future work is always a possibility, but a certain impossibility that I'll ever reach the entire Facebook community for four continuous weeks again. It was an exceptionally fun time in my career.

Interestingly, my challenges in recent years have been on tempering and balancing marketing innovation with larger corporate strategies. Before deciding to join J.Hilburn, I had several discussions with CEOs about their marketing leadership needs. My most enjoyable conversations were grounded in customer experience and strategic brand marketing. I also had enjoyable conversations focused on who was doing "cool" work, but those were the opportunities I became least interested in. Media consumption fragmentation, low barriers to category entry and management of multiplying brand communication channels mean we as marketers have to get smarter every day; being "cooler" is no longer a means to an end in marketing strategy.

How is your female perspective bringing a unique touch to this menswear company?
J.Hilburn is a menswear company that is primarily sold through our network of Personal Stylists. Across the thousands of Stylists the majority today are female, though we are excited about the growing number of male Stylists joining our business each day! Our business has always had plenty of female perspective as a whole, but not at the executive marketing level.

As a marketing leader, I'm building practices around understanding the desired emotional connections in all elements of our brand experience. This view of what we want customers to feel and understand is a new lens for the organization. I'm also placing a premium on thoughtful execution and connecting dots, even the fine ones. The integrated execution and understanding of what we have intentionally or unintentionally influenced, positions us to respond to our customers' needs in real time.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to work in menswear?
The menswear market is experiencing strong growth; it's a great time to jump in.
My most important piece of advice is get knowledgeable. Get a handle on the menswear space across entry to luxury by subscribing to email and social for men's fashion publications, a handful of key brand emails and men's fashion bloggers. At J.Hilburn, I'd expect potential candidates to come to interviews showing a basic understanding of our brand and relative positioning. Furthermore, if you are passionate about a potential role, go above and beyond in your preparation. I recently filled a new position on my marketing team. This candidate did a focus group of her male network before coming into interview and I was highly impressed by her curiosity and resourcefulness.

As you educate yourself, maintain your willingness and courage to say "I don't know." I find myself saying that in this role quite often. I'm embracing the learning curve on men's styling, fit and fabrications, but it's a challenge not to have your own personal experience to draw from.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is a continuum of work/life balance that's an individual choice. I've never been one to do only what's expected or do something good enough to check it off a list. My personal commitments to quality of execution and business momentum mean I choose work first on many occasions. Over the years I've developed a good internal barometer for my capacity and creativity. When it starts to drop, I pull back on my work first choices and up the life quotient to keep balance both personally and professionally.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The only formal mentorship program I recall was early in my career when I worked as a management consultant. In the absence of formal mentorship, I've been fortunate to work for a few individuals who were invested in my growth and success. They were fluid relationships that grew with time and trust. These men (I've never reported to a woman) were generous in their willingness to share information about the business and their personal challenges. I took full advantage of those relationships in my requests for their time and teaching.

My experience in giving back as a mentor has also been fairly informal, though incredibly rewarding. I've made myself available to individuals in my organizations that show a natural curiosity and passion for growth. Watching these individuals progress throughout their careers gives me great satisfaction.

I'd ask women to take away two points on this topic from a work perspective. First, in the absence of formal mentorship it's okay to find someone you admire and ask for that relationship. Second, successful mentorship doesn't have to occur within your gender.

Which female leaders do you admire and why?
For me that is a very long and specific list after many years of meeting and working with admirable women. When I think about those individuals many or all of the following core qualities are present.
- I admire every female leader who owns her personal leadership style and makes no apologies

- I admire every female leader who is willing to show vulnerability when she doesn't have an answer

- I admire every female leader who at times is willing to say "that's not good enough" without hesitation

Back to the question on our issues in the workplace, I really admire every female leader who can advocate for herself as well as any male counterpart.

Outside the professional sphere, I'm in awe of politician and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her perseverance, compassion and steadfast composure amaze me. I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar and hear the people speak about her with such reverence and respect. Anytime I read or view a piece regarding her life and work, I feel inspired to challenge myself to do more.

What do you want J.Hilburn to accomplish in the next year?
Be Amazing. It sounds incredibly simple, but if we do that in every execution we will look back at our year with pride and a far more satisfied and engaged customer base.

The business proposition of J.Hilburn is unique and differentiated. I was attracted to the opportunity for many reasons, but a primary point of interest was the high-touch nature of the business. As a marketer, this presents an incredibly exciting challenge. It requires not only defining the best experience at every touch point, but creating a cultural ethos of "amazing experience" in every J.Hilburn corporate employee and personal stylist. A cultural commitment to amazing that delivers when we get it right and especially when we get it wrong.

As an example, when a recent outsourced detail resulted in an error, I personally contacted every affected customer. Out of the responses, one in particular stuck with me and it simply said "Quite an honor hearing from you. Nice to see a company handling things the correct way." To truly Be Amazing in every interaction we have with a customer needs to be viewed as our honor, not theirs. That's what I want J.Hilburn to accomplish.