Sarah Holliman Furman University

Sarah Holliman '86

— Vice President, Marketing at Sourcing Interests Group

Networking is a powerful tool and developing a relationship with a mentor puts someone on your side that has a vested interest in your success.


Personal/Professional Journey

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

I started my career at a bank in Atlanta in a position that provided me with significant leadership opportunities, but limited creative outlets. After a six-year stint that included branch management and business development at a district level, I knew it was time to move on. Frankly, it was a great first job, but not one that allowed me to tap into the creative side of my brain.

I left banking to get my Master of Business Administration at the Anderson School at UCLA. The business degree allowed me to further develop the skills I’d need to make a radical career change.

My first role out of UCLA was in the financial services practice of A.T. Kearney, a large management consulting firm. I loved working with such a bright group of people and appreciated the fact that my “job” changed with every project.

After five years in consulting, I left the firm to raise my growing family, but was talked into coming back to help launch a technology startup out of the firm. This proved to be the most important decision for my current career as it allowed me to make a complete shift into marketing.

I built the marketing team for this technology startup and led all aspects of marketing. After 18 months as a stand-alone company, A.T. Kearney absorbed it back into the organization, where I continued to lead the marketing for the procurement solutions unit, which was the most profitable unit within the firm.

After a combined 13 years at A.T. Kearney (the last eight in marketing), I left for a brief opportunity to help a friend launch a dress design business, but ultimately entered corporate America again with my current company SIG.

I was recruited to build a regional event program, but ultimately took over the marketing team seven years ago. I currently serve on the executive team as the chief marketing officer and run the marketing team as a shared service to four separate lines of business.

What motivations fueled your career path?

To be honest, I fell into most of my career. I wanted to do something creative and that certainly guided my foray into marketing, but the positions themselves were largely serendipitous.

Within the field

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

I think the single most important thing you can do as a young professional is to find one or more mentors to guide you. Networking is a powerful tool and developing a relationship with a mentor puts someone on your side that has a vested interest in your success.

As far as resources go, for quick reads, I love "Inc." magazine online. It has short articles with impactful ideas.

I also highly recommend reading Jim Collins' book, "Good to Great" and taking his advice to heart. One of the most important lessons in that book, in my opinion, is the idea that as a leader, you look in the mirror when something goes wrong, but look out the window (read: at your team) when something goes right. Few things do more to develop a team than a leader who shares credit and takes blame.
How would you recommend someone interested in the same career/vocation pursue a similar path?

If someone is interested in a career in marketing, I'm not necessarily sure I'd recommend the path I followed. It obviously worked out well for me, but it was fairly unconventional.

However, I do recommend developing certain skills, which are helpful in marketing or virtually any career:
  • Presentation skills. Public speaking is well-known as a top fear, but becoming comfortable presenting to a crowd will serve you in virtually anything.
  • Negotiating skills. Knowing how to state your case persuasively and assertively is an important skill, especially as you grow in your career and have opportunities to interact with senior executives.
  • Leadership skills. This one kind of goes without saying, but it's important to capitalize on every chance to take a leadership role. Leadership skills can be developed on sports teams, in classrooms, in clubs or on the job—and you don't need a "title" to be a leader.
  • Analytical skills. This may not be what people think of when considering a career in marketing, but tapping into both sides of your brain is important as you advance in your career.

What are some challenges you face in your industry?

My industry is heavily dominated by men, so being a woman provides extra hurdles to overcome. For better or worse, stereotypes still exist, so I work hard to create a positive impression based on my experience, personality and intelligence before someone can form an opinion based on external factors.
How have mentors impacted your professional development? How did you develop those relationships?

As I mentioned above, I strongly believe in the power of mentors. In my first job, someone took me under their wing pretty quickly.

In my second, I sought out someone further along in their career who possessed confidence, self-esteem, and strong leadership and speaking skills. We had a lot in common with our backgrounds, which made it easy to start a natural friendship.

Fairly quickly, she was giving me advice and looking for opportunities to influence the direction my career took. In fact, she was the one that talked me into coming back to the firm after I left to be at home with my family, so I guess I owe her thanks for starting my path into marketing.

For someone just getting started

What do you wish you would have known getting started in your field?

I fell into marketing, but if I were planning my path more strategically, I’d recommend starting in brand management (brand marketing) because it exposes you to all aspects of running a business and as you grow in your career, this becomes increasingly important.  
What additional education or certification is required/recommended?

Many people pursue this path without any additional education, but an MBA is immensely helpful as it gives you experience in different business aspects—outside of marketing—that are important as you take on increasingly higher leadership roles.

That being said, with the rate at which the market is changing with digital media, social media and robotic process automation, I recommend staying up to date with current thought leadership and trends by reading online articles, taking classes and attending webinars to develop skills in areas where you may be otherwise lacking.

Furman University

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

I will never forget my first interview for the management training program at the bank. I was fresh out of school and the interviewer (ultimately my boss) told me that he preferred kids with a liberal arts background because he didn't have to spend any time "un-training" them.

In hindsight, I'm not sure I agree that an education alone can have that impact. In my opinion, education—until put into practice—is just theory. It is not really until you have the opportunity to put your education to work that many of the "learnings" sink in. The beauty of a liberal arts background is that it gives you a broad education without pigeonholing you for a specific career.
Any final advice for students or recent grads?

I think my top pearls of wisdom are more life skills than job tips, but here goes:

  • Treat all people with respect, regardless of their title. When I was at A.T. Kearney, I learned quickly that the admins in the office were at the pulse of the organization. Those people who treat all people equally will go further than those who cater to people with titles.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. In the "real world," most of us don't know everything (except your parents when they are lecturing you). Asking for help is not a sign of weakness— it's a sign of industriousness.
  • Be patient. I have a lot of millennials on my team and I can say without question that they are a bright, hardworking group that I learn from every day, but they also want immediate feedback and instant reward. Most of us worked a long time to get where we are. Be patient. You'll get there, but it won't be overnight and it won't be without a few knocks along the way. You must work hard to earn respect—it's not a trophy that is given for participation.
  • Live your life out loud. Social media is not "socializing." This generation is really the first generation that didn't require a parent for access to information. It is a generation that has never known life without devices. And while those devices are amazing for all they have given us, they cannot provide friendship and they cannot give hugs. You may have the illusion that they can do these things, but they will never be a real substitute for human interaction. Which brings me to my last thought:
  • Put your devices down. Engage. Unless a life is actually in danger (and the first call should be to 911, not to you), there is little on that phone that can't wait. When you are talking to someone, your ability to make eye contact and show empathy and emotion significantly impacts someone's impression of you. And for better or worse, perceptions matter. Trust me on this. When you have your phone on the table/in your lap/in your hand while someone is trying to hold a conversation with you, you are telling them that they are not as important as what is on that device. So, put it down and develop meaningful and real relationships with people the old-fashioned way—face-to-face.

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