Forbes CMO Leadership Talk: Katharyn White, T-Systems

Katharyn White
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: January 23, 2020

Why Katharyn White wants to redefine the collective impact as marketers.

What makes a successful CMO? In this series, I explore the practical secrets of marketing leadership: what works and what doesn’t. This time I spoke with Katharyn White, Senior Vice President and CMO of IT services giant, T-Systems. Katharyn is also an alum of the prestigious Marketing Academy CMO Fellowship.

Thomas Barta: Forrester predicts 2020 marks the beginning of a final, desperate fight for CMO relevance. Do you agree?

Katharyn White: Expectations of marketing are changing, but we haven’t clearly redefined the CMO role. We started redefining it, or allowed others to do so—and in the process misaligned expectations. Everyone knows what a CFO does, but still the CMO role introduces uncertainty and variability. We must clearly redefine the Chief Marketing Officer Role.

Barta: You recently said the 4Ps of marketing are changing. In what way?

White: I like the consistency of the 4Ps, but we know the changes impacting our function, customers, and markets require new thinking. At the core, I believe the 4Ps are still relevant. Take Product: we still create something to exchange for value, and firms need differentiated positioning. Or Price: while business models have changed, we still need to define the model and pricing implications. And when it comes to Place, the channel mix continues to be relevant, although that mix—for many marketers—is now very different than initially defined.

The big change I see is in Promotion: it’s here where the framework doesn’t hold up any longer. We meet our client/customer where they are on their journey with us, through the data and value around which we engage. Perhaps we should change the fourth P to Personalization. This small change would allow us both a consistent framework and a powerful change mandate.

Barta: What do these changes mean for CMOs?

White: Data is our greatest and most underutilized asset. We need to make data relevant to surprise our customers with timely value. Take taxi services: I give a car service my location data as the value exchange is immediate: I’ll get picked up in the right place. We need the equivalent in business services—a compelling use case to strengthen our customer relationships and marketing effectiveness. We need to move from the old “opt-in or opt-out” to personalized and valuable. At T-Systems we have plenty of customer data. We use it in a secure, anonymized way to understand how to continually increase value and customer engagement. In the context of the new 5G technology, for example, we can assess network and data flows and advise our clients on how to improve performance with existing and emerging technology—for better returns.

Barta: For this new world, do we need a different breed of marketer?

White: The required marketing skills are changing. Simply put, a marketing expert no longer exists. Marketing today is multidisciplinary. We need expertise in design, analytics, content, behavior, and more to fully drive the value equation. At T-Systems, we create this capability or expertise through marketing squads. With internal and external experts, we have started working together in a completely new way to shape a much more effective marketing mix. We move from functional expertise to collective and collaborative impact. This approach further aligns external focus, objectives, and test-and-learn methods. It has improved marketing effectiveness and is more fun. For example, our website leads are up 195%, with conversion up 45%. This breed of marketing has repositioned the functional relevance to the business by significantly increasing value.

Barta: How do you personally master your leadership challenges?

White: First, humility. Having lived in five countries and six states and worked in/with hundreds of companies/locations, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized how much more I have to learn. I understand changes are not easy and that small, rapid changes, with smaller missteps along the way, produce greater, lasting impact—and are more gratifying. Team confidence builds. I’m also constantly learning and teaching. Take, for example, the concept of time. I learned everything about time in Switzerland, and I unlearned everything about it when I moved to Kenya.

Barta: What was your most defining leadership experience?

White: My most defining leadership experience was in a crisis. I was leading IBM Consulting in Nairobi at the time of the Westgate terrorist attacks. While I had leadership positions prior to that, I grew the most in that moment of questioning. Where were my employees and their families? How should IBM help? How do we balance safety and speed? And many more life-defining questions. In the uncertainty of the aftermath, I wanted to be led by someone. Someone strong, clear, compassionate, collaborative, and resilient. I decided I had to be the leader I was looking to be led by. And I’ve never looked back.

Barta: Even if you don’t have all the power, how do you get things done in T-Systems?

White: Power is elusive. The greatest power to be had is always earned, not bestowed. I create teams that accomplish great impact through an outward mindset, continuous learning, focus, and adaptability.

Barta: How has your leadership changed since you started?

White: The more I’ve learned, the humbler I’ve become. Leadership, like the 4Ps, has key elements that are consistent through time. But the pace, skills, and tools have enabled us to be even better. I believe that good leaders create impact and followers, and great leaders create leaders. I’ve become better at both, and I’ve hopefully changed more than expectations have changed.

Barta: How have you successfully mobilized people who don’t report to you, to make a great customer experience happen?

White: The ultimate marketing test is always external; we influence customers and markets every day in our roles. Our role internally is to be the voice of the customer, while bringing the organization together to achieve impact. Every day we are influencing, and yet the formula is simple. Inspire others to see their objectives are accomplished more effectively together, create internal and external heros.

Barta: What’s your best advice for leading high-performing teams?

White: Hire the best. Inspire and support. Impact over roles. Go fast and learn.

Barta: What’s going to be your biggest future leadership challenge?

White: Test and learn needs to be a daily practice, not a quarterly or annual assessment. Pace, value, impact.

Barta: How do you inspire other people?

White: Through questions.

Barta: What gives you confidence in your role?

White: Positive feedback by people I value.

Barta: Finally, what’s your personal dream for the future?

White: That we redefine our role to raise our collective impact as marketers.

This interview first appeared on