Take 5 With Christine Cefalo: Marketing From the Heart Wins Minds

Christine Cefalo credits her early entry into the workforce for helping to instill a strong work ethic, a quality she’s carried throughout her life. Our CMO discusses her career and shares some of the lessons she’s learned over the past 14 years at Workday.

At her first job, Christine Cefalo wasn’t old enough to cook a burger. She’d been hired at a fast-food restaurant but had to be 16 before she could operate the grill. She credits her early entry into the workforce for helping to instill a strong work ethic, a quality she’d carry throughout her life and career. 

Raised by a teacher and a musician, Christine’s exposure to business and the technology industry was limited, but the values she learned from her parents and that early start in the workforce built a tenacious spirit that would carry her forward. After working several jobs to put herself through college, Christine set her sights on a full-time role. 

A technology company called PeopleSoft piqued her interest. But she had trouble getting an interview based on her resume alone, so she connected with an alumnus who worked there. That helped her secure an interview, where she showcased her skills and landed the job. Christine worked on the public relations (PR) team and helped steer the company through media communications related to a high-profile takeover under the leadership of co-founder Dave Duffield and executive Aneel Bhusri (which earned her a place on PRWeek’s list of “10 Rising Stars” at the age of 26).  

After running her own PR consultancy for a few years, Christine joined Dave and Aneel’s next venture—a company called Workday. Today, Christine serves as the CMO at Workday, where she has helped grow the company for the last 14 years through eight roles. We spoke with Christine about her career, marketing, and what’s ahead.

“People buy with their hearts, and people join companies to help make a difference in the world.”

Christine Cefalo CMO Workday

You’ve had some remarkable experiences in your career. What is the best piece of leadership advice you’ve learned through the years? 

It’s tough to choose just one! I’ve been fortunate to learn from very smart and successful people from the early days of my career. Dave and Aneel are certainly in that category. One of the lessons that stuck with me came from a story Aneel shared about him and Dave. They were introduced through a mutual friend, and Aneel had recently completed business school while Dave was already a well-known founder. They went to dinner, and Dave sat quietly at the table. After some time, Aneel asked why Dave wasn’t saying much, and Dave’s response was simple: No one ever learned anything by talking—you have to listen. 

This lesson stuck with me throughout my career. Listening is so important—especially in marketing. We have to listen to our buyers, potential buyers, and the market at large. Marketing serves as the “headlights” of an organization and brings a clear outside-in view to the business, and listening is an essential part of that.

Listening to your team is especially important, and over the last couple of years the importance of listening to one another has increased. At Workday, we deeply believe in our employee-first culture, and the first step is making sure every Workmate is heard. That’s why we ask our employees for feedback every week to help us understand their evolving needs, so we can identify where there are opportunities to build a better employee experience

I’ve also learned about the importance of values, and the power of using them as a North Star—a strong set of values will always lead you to the right answer. Dave and Aneel were very intentional about defining a core set of values since day one at Workday, and these values continue to guide the company today.

“I feel strongly about being an advocate for people with disabilities and for normalizing conversations about mental health.”

So much has changed in the last couple of years. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned when it comes to marketing? 

There’ve been so many lessons. While listening has been an essential component of marketing success for years, now it’s more important to operate with empathy and sensitivity. People can see the difference between brands that are listening to what’s happening in the world and brands that are not, and sometimes marketing’s success means knowing when to pause, or even stop. 

Just before the pandemic, we were getting ready to launch our new brand platform. We announced the campaign internally on March 9, 2020—the day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Although the campaign couldn’t have been more timely, we knew it wasn’t the right time to proceed with our launch. Instead, we stopped and refocused on taking care of our people—employees are our number-one core value, and we strongly believe if you take care of your people, they will in turn take care of your customers. 

It’s clear that the way people engage with brands has changed dramatically. People want to support companies that are doing great things for the world—it’s not just about the product companies sell, it’s about the bigger picture. The lines between marketing, product, and even your people are more blurred than before. People buy with their hearts, and people join companies to help make a difference in the world. At Workday, our purpose is to inspire a brighter work day for all. 

Marketing is at the center of this—helping to inspire current buyers, future buyers and current and future employees. The work we do with our brand ambassadors and Formula 1 are great examples of this. These efforts appeal to our buyers because we know they’re passionate about these areas, and they’re also points of pride for our employees. It’s a virtuous cycle that focuses on emotion and heart, but to be successful we have to operate with data to help us win minds as well.

“I’ve also learned about the importance of values, and the power of using them as a North Star—a strong set of values will always lead you to the right answer.”

Do you have any advice for people who are early in their career?

It’s important to embrace learning and have an openness to doing things differently. A lot of learning and development can come from a sponsor or mentor, and I believe people should find someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself. The power of cultivating these relationships throughout your career is priceless, and a good sponsor can help you see what’s possible. 

For example, after a few years on the communications team at Workday, I was ready to try something new. I was either going to go to business school or pursue marketing. To my amazement, I found a sponsor who offered to teach me everything about marketing, so I accepted their generous offer and absorbed as much as possible. Growing up, becoming an executive wasn’t a goal I aspired to, but I was able to rise through the Workday marketing organization and my sponsors along the way were critical contributors on my journey. 

I also tell people to always take a seat at the table and speak up in the process (but don’t forget to listen, too!). Although you go to school for years, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect or even how to behave when you transition out of the classroom. Early in my career, I tended to take a seat in the corner of a meeting room—I thought it was a sign of respect to leave the seats at the meeting table open for the more experienced colleagues. Fortunately, I had a manager who reminded me I was in the meeting for a reason, and that I should always take a seat at the table because I had something valuable to contribute—and it wasn’t to be the one taking notes. 

Can you tell us about something you’re passionate about? 

I feel strongly about being an advocate for people with disabilities and for normalizing conversations about mental health. I admit I have a lot to learn, but my personal experiences helped shape this passion. In college, I was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and my mom has been a special education teacher for decades. I’m also close to someone who has a disability that requires full-time care. These experiences and relationships have had a profound effect on me. I have a tremendous amount of respect for this community, and although we often use the term “disability,” I prefer to use the term “superpower,” and have found ways to leverage my ADHD diagnosis in ways that are helpful to me and my team. 

When it comes to mental health, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the focus on this important topic, and I’m encouraged by younger generations that are speaking about it more openly and honestly. I once heard someone explain it like this: When someone gets sick, your family or friends check on you and maybe even bring dinner to your house as a gesture of love and support. But when someone is experiencing depression or diagnosed with a mental illness, those same gestures are not as commonplace. Why do we treat mental health differently than overall health? I’d like to see that change. There’s room for much more support and compassion in this space and I hope to be part of that shift. 

What excites you about the future at Workday?

I’m inspired by the pursuit of opportunity and what’s possible, so even though I’ve seen Workday grow exponentially for more than a decade, I know this is just the beginning. We’ve proven we’re a leading player, but people don’t need just another enterprise software vendor. People need solutions in an increasingly complex and changing world. Workday is the partner for change to thousands of organizations, and we know we can be for countless more—that excites me. We celebrate changemakers and we’re here to help organizations navigate all this complexity and transform for the better. 

I’m also excited by the potential of our team. In marketing, our talent is everything. We’re only as good as our creative spirit—you can’t generate that from a machine. I may be biased, but I’m incredibly proud of our talented team of global marketing Workmates, and I’m honored to work alongside them as we continue to grow. Together, the possibilities are endless.

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