Originally from Silicon Valley, it’s no surprise that StormGeo Chief Marketing Officer Cynthia Harris sees encouraging her employees to innovate, experiment, and take risks as a critical part of international leadership. Harris sat down with AmCham for a dynamic conversation on what it takes to lead in an industry poised to play a key role in the global sustainability agenda going forward.
Where did you start? Can you give us a brief description of your path to where you are now?
I’m originally from Silicon Valley, where I founded a marketing and public relations agency. I built and grew the agency to 34 people, expanded to New York, and when we signed a major client, it took the company to the next level, particularly internationally.
Not long after working with this client, they asked if we could support their marketing and PR efforts in Europe, and I hired my first employee in London.
It was the period after this that eventually led me to my role in StormGeo. The agency had evolved to become a virtual agency with part-to-full time consultants.
At that time, one of my Silicon Valley clients was Applied Weather Technology, who were providing weather and routing information to the shipping industry, primarily in the European and Asia Pacific regions.
In total, I consulted for them for six years as the only marketing resource they had.
And this was through the company you founded?
Yes, it was. They offered me a full-time position, but the timing just wasn’t quite right. A couple of years later, however, they offered me a position again. This time, I took the job. There comes a point in time when the kids are soon to be off to college, and I knew I wanted to return to the corporate workplace.
And that was in January 2014, correct?
That’s right. A month after I started my new position, StormGeo, a Norwegian company, acquired us.
StormGeo asked me to come to Bergen for the summer to begin building the marketing program, then a few months later, they asked if I would head and build a global marketing team for their organization. To me, this was an inspiring opportunity! I was challenged by the cultural differences, but I was quickly put at ease because my colleagues readily spoke English and had an admirable work-life balance.
For 18 months, I went back and forth between Norway and Silicon Valley, and in 2016, my husband and I moved to Oslo.
What are some of the important decisions you make as a leader of the organization, and how do they impact its global presence?
StormGeo has 25 offices in 16 countries, and initially I thought it best to have the marketing team placed in several regions. Now, however, I have consolidated the team – the majority in Oslo, and others in Hong Kong and the US. This has improved the efficiency and comradery of the team.
As far as impacting the company’s global presence, for us it’s important that the public presence of the company is aligned with the company’s vision globally.
What are some recent projects you’re excited to talk about?
One of the initiatives that I spearheaded was to be a part of the UN Global Compact, specifically the Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business. With StormGeo’s ocean scientists, data scientists, climate scientists, and meteorologists, we are made up of people who are passionate about weather and protecting the planet’s natural resources. I believed we could make a valuable contribution.
In 2018, we saved our shipping clients one million metric tons of fuel, which equates to 2.98 million tons of CO2 or the removal of 625,000 cars from the road for one year. This is done by helping them find the most safe and fuel-efficient routes.
Furthermore, we support 30% of offshore wind farms globally, improving the efficiency of clean energy production. Hence, we were very happy to be invited to be a Participant in the UN Global Compact in August 2018.
In fact, I just returned from the United Nations Global Compact Leaders Week at the UN headquarters in New York City, which brought together business leaders from around the world who are committed to advancing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. They challenged business leaders to take action in their companies in regard to all 17 SDGs, including climate action and life below water, calling for a “Decade of Action.” In StormGeo, we are bringing these ideas home in a variety of different ways, training staff and taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint through initiatives such as establishing sustainability ambassadors in each of our offices.
So how do you build team morale and maintain creativity in an international organization?
By taking initiatives like the one I talked about—sustainability! People get excited when they have the opportunity to work on projects that make a difference. In an onboarding meeting with two new employees recently, one of them said he chose our company because of our sustainability commitment. For our employees, the opportunity to tell these stories and influence others to adopt sustainable practices is very cool. Taking initiatives like this are great for team morale.
Aside from that, I think a critical part of building team morale is listening to the creative ideas of the whole team, giving every person an opportunity to share their ideas and voice their opinions – this shows employees that they’re valued. In many of our marketing team meetings, we break into a brainstorm session to get the best ideas to surface. We have a lot of fun!
This gets back to leadership style. How has your leadership style evolved? Have you used the same leadership style in Norway as you did in Silicon Valley?
I believe I do have the same leadership style here in Norway, a leadership style that encourages my team to take risks and to innovate through experimentation. When I ran my marketing agency, one of the first things I did was establish a culture club managed by a small group of employees to ensure we had a good culture across the organization. I believe it helped us achieve a high level of employee retention.
But getting back to risk taking, it’s very important that the people I lead have the freedom to take risks. I always want to be facilitating the exchange of new ideas and trying new things. And that’s something that I would absolutely continue if I moved to another country
However, the culture in Norway is very different from Silicon Valley. I’ve had to evolve and adapt to a new way of doing things, such as a flat organizational structure and valuing the wonderful work-life balance here.
Do you think your Silicon Valley background helps you think outside the box?
The great thing about Silicon Valley is that people there are willing to give their time and connections to help you, whether you’re starting a company, looking for employment, or seeking out resources to improve your job performance. They have ideas and act on them, creating something new, something exciting.
So, in a way, when you think about me moving from San Francisco to Oslo, that mindset took over. I knew I needed to live in Oslo to do the job well, and by inquiring about it, the opportunity opened up. Part of the decision was to take a risk, and that’s where I think that Silicon Valley mindset really helps, in addition to always looking at the possibilities.
How did the integration process between StormGeo and Applied Weather Technologies work?
The integration process was very well done, and I can really give StormGeo a lot of credit for that. There was an integration manager that came to Silicon Valley and wanted to make sure that the Silicon Valley office felt very much a part of the broader organization and very valued.
However, US companies have bigger marketing budgets than Norwegian companies. Norwegian companies tend to be somewhat reserved and conservative about their offerings and their competitive differentiation. And that really surprised me. That was something that I thought I could help to change. I didn’t want to understate the incredible work we’re doing for our clients.
I wanted to tell those stories. Not to overstate them, of course, but I just wanted to tell the real story and highlight how we are making an impact for our customers.
Now, given the incredible growth we’ve had in Storm Geo with the acquisition of AWT and other acquisitions as well, we as a company embrace the fact that we are a leader in this industry and are telling our story.
What do you believe are some shared traits all good leaders have?
Well, I think I mentioned one already. I think that good leaders are creators who can take an idea and bring it to life. Good leaders are also willing to take risks and weigh their options carefully when taking those risks.
Do you think there are any common mistakes that leaders make, especially with regard to other international leaders coming to Norway or vice versa with Norwegian leaders going abroad?
I think a common mistake is not listening and under communicating in the whole organization. I don’t think enough leaders focus on listening to the concerns, ideas, and thoughts of their team. And consistent communication is important to keep people feeling tied-in to what’s going on.
If your job was a sport which sport would it be?
Marathon running. You’ve got to see the end goal. A lot of things that we do in marketing are not immediate, and I think most leaders really understand this. You have to persevere and go through it. If you think about the training of a marathon runner and how they keep relentlessly pushing the limits and going further and further every single day until they reach their goal, well, I think some things in marketing are like that.
Put simply, it’s not always a quick return. Some things are bigger than that.
How do you continue growing and developing as a leader?
Decide to adapt to change that comes along as you go. As the marketing industry has changed, it’s important that I change with it and bring new best practices to my organization.
When I think about my career and the changes I’ve made, I realize how important it is to not dig your heels into the ground and resist change. If you do that, you stay stuck.
I also have a very strong professional network, and I am constantly listening to podcasts, reading about my field and looking for new insights, new ways of doing things. I do the same with various TED talks and other things like that.
In sum, it’s critical to have to an almost continual willingness to learn and develop.
There’s one little extra thing I’d like to add that’s also critical if you really want to grow and evolve. You have to love feedback.
For example, a great friend of mine is a computer scientist at Facebook. I was in Silicon Valley with a group of people from Norway, and I asked him if we could tour their offices. He gave us a tour, and they had a number of places throughout the office where they had posters with nice or funny things on them.
One of the posters really hit me. It said, “Feedback is a gift.” I thought that is a great way to look at it. It really is a gift, you know. How are we ever going to continue to grow, change, and improve if we don’t get feedback?
Where do you see yourself and StormGeo in five years?
I believe I’ll be helping StormGeo tell its story to the world — a story of innovation, sustainability and digitalization. In five years, I see us continuing to push the limits of how far we can innovate in weather intelligence. On a personal level, that means I will be working in Norway, speaking Norwegian, serving on boards, and continuing to mentor women entrepreneurs.
What would be your advice to the next generation of leaders, people such as those in AmCham’s Rising Leaders program?
I would say to take risks because you never know what can open up in life for you if don’t venture out. The thing is though, sometimes you don’t know what you can do until you actually go for it.
That’s where I was, for example, early in my career when our major client asked us to support their efforts in Europe. I had never done that before, but I just decided to go for it, so stretch your own personal limits! When I’ve worked with my clients that are speaking at large events, I always tell them, “You want to speak to that crowd in a way that’s just a little bit uncomfortable for you, in a way that might seem like it’s a little too much. Because if you do that, you might be uncomfortable, but the speech will be just right.”
What was the latest time you responded to an e-mail last night?
Around 7:30, I’d guess. But you didn’t ask me how early I look at my e-mails in the morning. I set my plans for the day early in the morning, before seven o’clock, with my morning coffee. Then I check my email. When you’re an international company, there’s a lot that happens while you sleep. And some things are immediate, and you can respond quickly and get on to other important things.