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CMO Files: Elissa Fink, CMO, Tableau Software

CMO Files: Elissa Fink, CMO, Tableau Software

Get inside the mind of the world's top marketing professionals. In 20 questions we find out what they love most about their job, what their biggest achievements are... and what keeps them awake at night. Read 'The CMO Files'.

Name:              Elissa Fink

Organisation:   Tableau Software

Job title:          Chief Marketing Officer

Location:          Washington, United States


(1) Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised just outside Los Angeles– but not the LA most people think of. It was a diverse community but more Midwestern in style than LA.        

(2) What was your first job?  

The day I turned 16 I started a job as a strawberry pie maker. It was messy, sticky work but I worked hard and got promoted to be a waitress. I wasn’t that great but I bought my first car (a VW bug) with my tips. That was a life-changer in high school.

(3) What was the first product you got really excited about?   

I’ve been excited about many products for personal and professional reasons, but when I saw Tableau it changed my life (literally). It was late one afternoon at my previous employer. I downloaded it and within just a few minutes, I was getting answers to questions that were taking my previous company’s programmers weeks to create. It was instantly obvious that Tableau was on a special mission with something unique to offer the world. I just had to be a part of it.

(4) Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

My mother. At a pivotal time in my career, I was struggling to decide to whether to move because of a job and leave my friends and family, or take on an exciting new challenge in a new city. I called my mother half-expecting she would convince me to stay. But she surprised me – she said that even though she would regret it, if I had the chance to learn something new, and expand my horizons, I should do it. To this day, I admire her courage and enthusiasm for experiencing life.

(5) What has been your greatest achievement?

Being part of Tableau’s growth from a company with $3M in revenue to $400M has been incredible. The IPO experience was one that most people never experience, yet I got to be part of the journey and see the efforts of our team help build a public company. It’s also been an honour to build and work with an amazing, world-class marketing team. I learn something new from them every day.  

(6) What has been your biggest mistake?

There have been more than a few. Maybe it was the time I sent a joke email around the office on April Fool’s Day and my boss at the time thought it was real? I nearly got fired. In terms of mistakes about my work, one underlying theme was that they were almost always about taking the safe road, not the challenging, risky road. I think I’ve learned to question myself carefully when I want to take the safe, easy way out of things. One way I gain confidence is through analyzing data with Tableau – I feel more prepared to take calculated risks because I know the facts.

(7) What is your greatest strength?

Although I resisted it for a long time, I’ve learned to embrace my optimistic enthusiasm for new things. It’s led me to learn so much, try new experiences and meet different kinds of people. For example, as a Tableau customer, I was absolutely enthusiastic about the product and here I am 8 years later leading the marketing team. What a privilege!

(8) What is your biggest weakness?

A former mentor of mine used to say sometimes your weaknesses stem from your strengths – as in “too much of a good thing.” So, too much enthusiasm means I’m always wanting to take on too many new projects when I should resist.

(9) What do you think is the aspect of your role most neglected by peers?   

My peers are very talented and I see amazing CMOs all around me. But I guess one aspect of my role that I worry about neglecting is that I’m not doing enough to develop the people on my team. I push everyone pretty hard to achieve our goals and I want to be sure they have time to develop depth around their interests and to work in new areas.  

(10) Which word or phrase is your mantra and which word or phrase makes you squirm?

“Seek to understand first” is something I’ve said more than once. It means that if I see a project that seems like a bad idea, I seek to understand the circumstances first. People don’t purposely make bad decisions. There are probably perfectly sensible facts behind even dumb projects. The problem could be that not all the facts were considered. That’s why being able to rapidly analyze data is so important – you can get your head around more facts and thus have a better basis for your decisions.

(11) What makes you stressed?

Occasionally, the pace at Tableau gets pretty fast - it’s hard to keep up and evolve as fast as the company is evolving. So I get stressed when I have too many things competing for my attention. Fortunately, we always have our eyes on our data and I can see pretty quickly when things are changing and I need to change.

(12) What do you do to relax?

The best thing is spending time with my husband and daughter. I love a long weekend where we can just focus on each other.

(13) What is your favourite song?

I have a lot of favorites and I’m listening to some oldies as I write this. I particularly like “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty. It’s a simple song with a nice lyric. It includes the line “You belong where you feel free” and I think we should all be that fortunate.

(14) Which book taught you most?

That’s a tough one because I love books and even the same book can give me different insights depending on when in my life I read (or reread) it. When I was younger, I read “The Road Less Travelled” and learned a lot. It starts by acknowledging that life is hard, it takes discipline and that personal growth is a lifelong journey. By accepting that, I found that life was easier because my expectations were different.  

(15) Do you have a team or sport that you follow?

You can’t live in Seattle and not follow the Seahawks.

(16) Which country would you like to work in?

I feel very lucky to live and work in the U.S. But I do love traveling for Tableau particularly in EMEA and APAC and evangelizing on Tableau’s mission to help people see and understand data. In fact, I’m spending five weeks in London later this year.

(17) Which company do you think has the best marketing?

While there are several companies that are great at marketing overall (Apple, Coca Cola, Dove, many brands in the alcohol category, etc.), what I admire about other companies’ marketing is the strategy behind how they solve their particular marketing challenge. Of course, I love the old Mac ads for cleverly drawing out the distinctions of the Mac while depositioning their competitor. Or, Kmart’s Ship My Pants was a great way to get us thinking about Kmart as an ecommerce alternative. Nike’s campaign celebrating ordinary people during the Olympics when they weren’t a sponsor was genius. And who doesn’t love the Old Spice guy making your granddad’s deodorant popular again?

(18) What do you love most about your job?

The Tableau marketing team and I have an incredible opportunity to work hand-in-hand with our sales team around the globe. In some companies, marketing and sales have a tenuous relationship, but in my case our EVP of Sales is a great friend and collaborator. As a result, I have worked with some of the most talented sales professionals around the world – from our VPs of Sales in EMEA, APAC and LatAm to our ground-level sales folks that continually impress me with how they’re able to take a company from using a single Tableau license to a major enterprise deal. Helping our London office, in particular, grow into an international hub has been great fun and very satisfying for both our marketing team and me – and a true privilege to be part of.

(19) What is your favourite book?

My favourite book is any book I’m reading at night with my 8-year-old daughter. Books and stories have been a great way for my daughter and I to connect at the end of the day; we’re able to talk about ideas, people, challenges and feelings. It’s such a revelation to see how she thinks, wonders and reacts. Stories are so universal – they bring people together. And in some ways, I guess I get a bit of that as Tableau’s CMO – we use data to tell stories to help our teams connect and relate.

(20) What keeps you awake at night?

Staying true and authentic to ourselves as a company. Tableau is growing so fast and we’ve seen companies before us lose sight of their mission and what they stand for. If we do it right, we won’t lose sight of what got us here and we’ll continue to be an amazing place to work and do business with.


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