Model the Way: this is about walking the talk. This is the JetBlue CEO picking up trash on the plane, executives filling out time cards on time at professional services firms, and people at any level being willing to take meeting notes or send recaps.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders understand that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters

creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kimberly Francis, Chief Marketing Officer of Tenth Avenue Holdings.

Kimberly Francis is the chief marketing officer of Tenth Avenue Holdings, LLC (TAH), a privately held, diversified holding company that operates and invests in privately and publicly held businesses. As an integrated marketing leader, Francis brings decades of strategic brand-building expertise handling marketing for emerging and legacy brands to this newly created position. The portfolio of TAH subsidiary businesses, she supports span the gifting, pet, apparel accessories, home, beauty and lifestyle industries. She is also on the board of directors of TAH subsidiaries PackIt and Under Your Skin.

Before TAH, Francis was executive vice president at Edelman, as the client lead and brand operations director overseeing Unilever Foods and its refreshments portfolio, including the spin-off of the tea business. During her nearly five-year tenure, she led large integrated teams in disciplines that included creative, planning, analytics, digital, and earned media. The teams she managed at Edelman garnered many awards, including a Gold Effie, a Cannes Lions, a Clio Award, and a D&AD Gold Pencil: Cultural Driver for Good Humor’s “A New Jingle for a New Era.”

Francis has also held positions at VaynerMedia, General Mills, Target, Omnicom, and Right Management.

Her volunteer work has included Tech for Campaigns, Art Connects New York, Taproot Foundation, Good Works, and the New York City Wine & Food Festival.

Francis holds an MBA from The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and graduated cum laude with a B.S. in Human and Organization Development from Vanderbilt University. She is a proponent of blending the intersection of business and improv in her work life, having studied at the People’s Improv Theater and The Magnet Theater.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that ‘you’re excited about personally or professionally?

After twenty years of working with and for brands, I’m still fascinated by what gets attention, inspires trial, drives loyalty, and encourages sharing. While our tools and technology have evolved and we’ve all experienced the shifting digital landscape, the brands that fill a real need, connect with a cultural reality, and engage with their fans instead of shouting at them will continue to thrive. I’ve worked with legacy CPG and emerging brands, and those principles apply at both ends of the spectrum. Joining Tenth Avenue Holdings has been an incredible masterclass in bringing these principles to life in a DTC environment.

Personally, I’ve joined an improv team and am enjoying that learning journey. Every scene, set, and show is different, and I always learn something new. Often, these experiences relate to how I can be a better teammate, communicator, and leader at the office.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

My first boss at General Mills, Jacob Berning, has incredibly influenced my development as a general manager, marketer and leader. Jacob valued passion, curiosity, and intellectual integrity — and that trifecta has been foundational to my own approach.

  • Passion for the team, the brand and the business manifests in my desire to show up and do my best every day. ‘I’ve been given feedback from other leaders throughout the years that I need to find a way to “care less” and that’s just not in my DNA. Jacob helped me embrace that passion.
  • Curiosity — the willingness to ask “why”, seek to understand, and continuously learn. In my early days, that meant learning the science of thoroughly dissecting our P&Ls and leaving no stone unturned. This was also my first experience in deep consumer understanding and empathy — especially for a brand where I was not a passionate consumer (in this case, Trix Cereal!).
  • Intellectual integrity — narrative and storytelling are essential in the business world to sell our ideas and get our points across. However, the narrative must be underpinned by facts (not just convenient ones). Jacob taught me how to dissect business problems and interrogate potential solutions while crafting a digestible narrative that engaged others.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

  • As a child of Boomer parents, I grew up believing that if you work hard and keep your head down, the recognition and rewards will come. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s not realistic to the world we live in today.
  • I remember Anton Vincent, now President of Mars North America, telling me that two things were necessary for success: “doing the work and getting credit for the work.” That was not intuitive to me — to focus on the credit for myself and the team — but over the years, it’s become clearer that there are so many reasons to take the time to socialize great results. At the most basic level, and I think this was at the core of Anton’s counsel — so many things we accomplish are done by teams, and those teams deserve the time to shine in those accomplishments. While at Edelman, I had the opportunity to do some terrific work with a large team — notably on Good Humor Ice Cream and TAZO Tea. In both cases, I was much more proactive about securing stage time for those teams to share their incredible results with their colleagues.
  • Lesson learned — take the time to celebrate and share those successes with others.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

I studied Human & Organization Development at Vanderbilt University and had the great fortune to take a class in leadership as an undergrad. “The Leadership Challenge” by Kouzes and Posner was required reading. I’m on my fifth or sixth copy of the book because I keep giving it away! Their tenets of leadership that I first learned over 20 years ago have stuck with me: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. These remain my chosen definition of leadership. They’re what I hold myself to and expect from other organizations’ leaders.

I also subscribe to the model of Servant Leadership, originally coined by Robert K Greenleaf and the focus of an incredible Leadership class I took by the remarkable Professor Ella Bell at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The mindset of literally flipping the pyramid — from the leader at the top pushing down to the leader at the bottom supporting up — has been foundational to my own definition. This mindset is one of the reasons I joined Tenth Avenue Holdings — as our founders, Joel Citron, and Laurence Denihan, believe our roles at the holding company are to support and serve our subsidiary businesses.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

As a leader, giving too much input can be tempting — to feed our need to be relevant or put our mark on things. While I’ve always been clear on my leadership accountability, I’ve also had to learn where to let go. I learned a great deal from my boss at Edelman, Smita Reddy when I worked for her on the Unilever business. She taught me the beauty of delivering actionable, concise feedback to the team and when to hold back if the feedback, though valid, was too late to be actioned or would unnecessarily disrupt the team. She’s the master of finding the right balance of giving thoughtful and constructive feedback while championing the team’s current thinking. That leads to an overall higher morale because the team knows she has their back.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

Always, always, always put the team first. You can’t build a brand or grow the business if the team isn’t there with you. Putting the team first means giving them what they need…whether that’s offering a listening ear, providing constructive feedback, resolving inter-team disagreements, fighting for additional resources, or being proactive in taking things off their plates to enable better prioritization.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

You ‘can’t be a successful leader if no one is willing to follow you, and it’s hard to get people to follow you if you’re only concerned with your own success. The best piece of advice I have to offer is to get to know your team — as individuals and as a group, understand what makes them tick, and do what you can to make them successful. Without doing that, you may be a leader in title, but I believe it’s hard to become one in the eyes of a team.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

I will again credit General Mills for the phenomenal learning and development opportunities they offered new leaders, and pass on the advice I learned:

  • You can’t assume that the way you like to be managed is how your team wants to be managed. You get to know them and understand them as individuals.
  • Employees are in different places in their own career journeys, and different levels of competence and confidence require different communication styles. You may be more directive with someone in their first workforce role than someone who’s farther along. Ken Blanchard calls this “Situational Leadership” and has great writing on the subject.
  • You likely became a leader because you were a strong performer — but you need to be comfortable that you’re back at the bottom of the learning curve again. Be cognizant of your own learning journey.
  • Start with clear objectives and give feedback based on whether the work meets those objectives, not necessarily on whether it’s done the way you would.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

‘I’ll go back to The Leadership Challenge (Kouzes and Posner) for this one:

  • Model the Way: this is about walking the talk. This is the JetBlue CEO picking up trash on the plane, executives filling out time cards on time at professional services firms, and people at any level being willing to take meeting notes or send recaps.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision: while we live in a time where agility is critical, it’s still so important for teams to have a north star. Said another way, you can’t get all oars rowing in the same direction if no one has said what that direction is. I had the privilege of watching Unilever do this with their purpose to “make sustainable living commonplace” — and roll out ways to make their home office more sustainable for the planet while also evolving their portfolio.
  • Challenge the Process: I firmly believe that the worst reason to do things is because ‘that’s how ‘they’ve always been done, and the worst reason to change is for the sake of change. As my team at Edelman grew rapidly, I needed to find the right way to engage with my peers across disciplines and move in lock-step. This took a lot of trial and error, but we found the right cadence and tackled our most significant challenges together.
  • Enable Others to Act: As a leader, you must ensure the team has what they need to succeed. For me, this has often meant honest conversations — starting with a safe place to surface pain points and a genuine desire to work together to find solutions.
  • Encourage the Heart: early in my General Mills days, a fellow alum from the Tuck School of Business gave me the best counsel ‘I’ve received on leading a cross-functional team. “They work across other brands,” he said. “They get to choose where to spend their time and effort. They can meet their goals and be successful without you, but you can’t be successful without them.” His advice was to make my team a team people wanted to be on — and as a leader, that continues to be my #1 KPI and greatest sense of pride.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “”Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

  • Learning improv has forced me to embrace the unscripted and get a little more comfortable ceding control…because no two scenes are ever the same and you get to build these delightful little worlds as a team. There’s also an idea in improv that there are no mistakes, just “happy accidents.”
  • While the corporate world certainly has a bit more structure and absolutely has more rigorous goals, the mindset of discovering each day, building together with a team, and embracing the happy accidents as learning moments has changed my work life for the better. For example, think about marketing holistically. We now have more tools and ways to solve a problem than we’ve ever had before — and with that different areas of expertise, frameworks, strategies, and ways of thinking. It’s easy to get stuck when everyone is looking at the problem (or opportunity) through a different lens, and everyone wants to be the ‘’lead” on how that problem gets solved. That improv mindset has taught me that it’s important for me as a leader to articulate a clear brief of where we’re going — but from there to build strategies and ideas together in a manner that doesn’t waste energy fighting for control.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

This is simple: I led teams, brands, and businesses that people wanted to work on because I acted with empathy and transparency, supported the people on the team in ways they needed it and created an environment where everyone could live their best work lives.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

Please connect with me on LinkedIn! I often write about the intersection of business and improv and I would love to hear from you.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!