7 Questions with Sayo Martin
Name: Sayo Martin
Current title: SVP, Marketing and One Day Studio
Current organisation: Teach For America
Sayo is an award-winning marketer who has spent over 15 years helping startups and Fortune 500 companies around the world develop authentic, meaningful and mutually valuable relationships with customers. She is known for her boundless creativity, and her motivational coaching-style has driven the development of high-performing teams that are bold, curious, purpose-driven, customer-first and radically inclusive. As a brand strategist, she has held leadership marketing and communications roles at Samsung NEXT, Dow Jones, Combs Enterprises, UNICEF USA, Participant Media and Teach For America where she currently heads marketing and the newly created in-house brand studio, One Day Studio.
She is a graduate of New York University where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Communications, Media and Culture. She also holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from San Jose State University and a MBA from Strathclyde Business School.
Sayo is an avid reader, published poet and musician. She is a Nigerian American, born and raised in New York and now resides in Los Angeles with her husband, son and rambunctious dog, Bella.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
My biggest challenge is time and resources. It always feels like you're running short on one or the other, or both. And this year has undoubtedly exacerbated those challenges. It has been a true masterclass in mission alignment and refocusing on objectives that truly impact the organization, and even more importantly, the momentous needs of the communities, educators and students who we partner with and serve. Even with these challenges, I see great opportunities for the organization to show up in major ways.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I've been very lucky to meet some amazing opportunities when I was most prepared for them. Coming off degrees in communications, media and culture and a MFA in creative writing/poetry, I always knew that I wanted to work at the intersection of brand, innovation, and culture, no matter the industry. So, I actively sought out opportunities where the ground was most fertile - organizations that had compelling products and bold leaders with an exciting vision who were constantly learning, experimenting and breaking through what they thought the business could never do; organizations that were engaging their customers in delightful ways and that recognized the power of their brand as being in mutually beneficial relationships those customers. Still, beyond achieving biz objectives, I hope to think that I've reached this point in my career because of my ability to motivate my teams and to ensure that every individual has the tools to tap into their superpower and do their best work, whether they're working in fair weather or battling a tempest.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
My days always start with prayer and meditation, then having breakfast with my son before his Zoom school. My husband works in the film and media industry, so we're always juggling schedules. If he has a late start, I may go for a morning run. Otherwise, I get to my desk and hit Slack to see if there is anything popping up that I need to attend to do. I'm then going back and forth between meetings, answering email and checking on my little one to make sure he's not playing with his legos when he should be in class!
By 3pm/4pm or so, I stop answering emails and move into a brainstorm mode. I'm going through news and media updates - everything from business to tech to art to fashion to social impact/philanthropy to black culture. I'm getting inspiration, learning about trends, thinking of ideas for campaigns and partnerships, sharpening our focus based on how the world and our communities are turning. It's really the time when I study and sharpen my edges. By the evening, I'm spending time with my family, catching up with close friends and getting into my personal endeavors whether it be making music or songwriting or continuing to hammer out a business idea.
Before turning in, I'll always read or listen to a book. I try to read one a week. I'm just getting into Gladwell's Talking to Strangers. Next up is Obama's A Promised Land.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
The most significant leadership lesson I learned was from David Eun, President of Samsung NEXT and Chief Innovation Officer at Samsung Electronics. When I first joined the organization, there was quite a bit that I wanted to accomplish and so I really made an effort to hit the ground running. Initially, everyone wasn't aligned to the changes that I wanted to make. What David helped me to see was that great accomplishments aren't about how fast you're able to get them done, but who you're able to bring along in the process and how many are with you at the finish line. I quickly realized that I didn't want to just hit my objectives, I wanted to start a movement and a new way of working within the organization. That takes true collaboration, oftentimes across lines of difference.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
There is a book that I come back to year over year, and that's The 46 Rules of Genius by Marty Neumeier. The book offers so many insights and tools on how to innovate and challenge your thinking/assumptions. It's the one book that gets me unstuck every time.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
It's important to define what type of leader you're looking for and to hire for it. Be willing to let go of candidates who have high expertise, but a low leadership quotient or potential. Whether they're individual contributors or team leads, hiring an individual who doesn't have the ability to lead in the spaces they are in (and doesn't have a willingness to become a leader) will eventually become a thorn in your side and that of your team's culture. Developing leadership capacity needs to be intentional and a core part of every team lead's OKRs because retaining amazing talent and the growth of the organization depends on it.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
Throughout my career, I've had the opportunity to meet with so many customers who are emotionally connected to the products and programs that I'm so grateful to have had a hand in creating. I think one of the most meaningful stories actually comes from a conversation that I had with my mother recently, who I haven't been able to see since last December because of COVID. It has been extremely hard for me and my family. There was a particular day I was coming off a series of really tough meetings. By the end of the day, I was pretty tired when she called. I was explaining to her why I was exhausted and she said, "you know, you may be exhausted, but the work that you're doing is helping to make someone else's life easier. It'll be worth it. Just keep going." I wrote that on an index card and framed it. My mother's words put the fuel in my tank.