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Business Transformation, Digital and Marketing professional Julie Roehm is one of the most dynamic (and most successful) leaders in the business world today.
Nothing portrays her unique and interdisciplinary management style more than the executive positions that have been created specifically for her skillset, including Chief Storyteller and Chief Experience Officer. At times hard to define, Roehm’s style of leadership is characterized by transformation, innovation, and a rejection of compartmentalized thinking.
Roehm has brought her modern leadership style to some of the largest companies in the world, and she has received numerous awards and recognitions for her transformative successes. She has been inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, and her titles include “Marketer of the Year” by Brandweek, one of “Top 50 Women in Brand Marketing” by Brand Innovators, “2022 Top Marketer Award Winner” by ONCON ICON, and “Distinguished Alumni Award” winner by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
After a career of nearly 30 years, Roehm looks back on her leadership positions and what she learned from her many successes (as well as a few bumps on the road). She also shares invaluable leadership insights to help today’s leaders thrive in a fast-paced and dynamic business environment.
Early Success as a Leader
Julie Roehm was not destined to become a marketing professional. In fact, she attended college to become an engineer. But after completing a 5-year program at Purdue, she decided to pursue a different calling and earned her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Roehm’s engineering and MBA studies helped her develop a unique way of thinking about problems, customer experiences, and leadership. This mindset gave her a rare understanding of both the practical and managerial aspects of operating a company.
Her engineering background also led her to her first leadership positions with Ford and DaimlerChrysler. At Ford, Roehm would take charge of launching the Focus brand in the US market. “It was a huge success,” she says. “That put me on the map for marketing.” The 24-month campaign positioned Focus as a modern, youthful brand and resulted in record-breaking sales among the <35 demographic.
Soon after, Roehm moved to DaimlerChrysler and was put in charge of revitalizing the dying Dodge brand. In her pursuit to motivate consumers, she spent time with racers, historians, automotive workers, and everyday people to learn what experiences resonated with the Dodge name. “Everything I do is led from a customer lens, and then it falls from there,” she says.
Roehm decided to bring back the Hemi engine to Dodge—a product development decision far from the purview of a marketer’s office. Her team also created the slogan “Grab life by the horns,” which is still in use today.
Roehm’s leadership extended beyond PR and into concrete product development to transform not just the brand’s image but the vehicles themselves. The campaign was an incredible success, earning Roehm nationwide recognition and induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Learning from Mistakes
Julie Roehm learned as much from her successes at Ford and Chrysler as she did from the subsequent bumps in the road. She had formed an idea in her mind of what it was like to be a leader at a major company, and this caused issues at her next job as Senior Vice President of Marketing for Walmart. “I wanted to hit the ground running. Go, go, go,” she said. But the company culture was not compatible with Roehm’s urgency to innovate.
“Culture eats strategy for lunch,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you are, how good you are, what your skills are, it’s all about the team and the culture that you’re in and it has to be compatible, otherwise you’re never going to be successful.”
Looking back, she realizes that she had gone from launching and resurrecting brands to working for a company that dominated its market. “Logic and experience would now have said, they’re making $400 million a year,” she says. “What’s broken? Why would they change so much?”
Roehm was attempting to bring her transformational leadership style to a brand and culture that weren’t ready to transform. She now encourages business people to be mindful of company culture before joining a team. A poor cultural fit can stifle ideas no matter how good they may be. “I always advise people to trust your instincts and trust your gut because it doesn’t often fail you,” she says.
Relying on Teams
While major companies often have a reputation for reacting sluggishly to change, Roehm is a proponent of rapid innovation. During the pandemic, she orchestrated a partnership between Party City, a retail company with 850+ locations, and a rental car organization to facilitate home deliveries. She and the team had the operation up and running within 8 days.
In order to achieve this level of agility, Julie Roehm relies heavily on her team members, and she gives them the autonomy they need to maximize efficiency. She also encourages interdepartmental cooperation—a necessity for implementing the omnichannel strategies that Roehm is now known for.
“You have to have a great team of partners,” she says. “You have to be super tight because you have to lean on one another and really let everybody do their part and bring their thinking to bear. Without it, you’re just compromising on the solution.”
Roehm also resists falling into traditional corporate power structures, which can restrict teamwork, trust, and innovation. “You can’t be fiefdom or kingdom building, and that’s very hard in a corporation. I have to have peers who are looking to make the whole better and not looking to make themselves personally stand out.”
Among an executive team, she also believes that it’s critically important for each team member to have a say in the operations of the others. While this may seem counterintuitive to promoting agility, it can preempt issues and keep goals customer-oriented in a positive work environment.
“You have to know that you’ve got a voice in what you do,” she says. “Even things outside of my expertise, such as a conversation about finances or manufacturing, I want to be able to have a voice in that.”
Be a Corporate Athlete
At one of her companies, Julie Roehm was jokingly given the moniker of “best athlete” due to the fact that she was constantly hopping across departments and taking on diverse roles.
When she was CXO and CMO at ABRA Auto Collision & Glass, she spent months fulfilling a variety of different roles in order to gain a better understanding of operations and how they relate to customer experiences. When the company’s CTO left, Roehm filled the role until a new executive was hired. This afforded her the perspectives that eventually inspired her to digitize the auto repair process, disrupting the industry and skyrocketing conversions. At ABRA, Roehm also spent time in body shops, warehouses, call centers, and other departments.
“You have to go and spend some time in the body shops, you have to see how it works, hear from the people who are driving the business every day, because the answers to problems rarely lie within the inside of the 4 walls of the corporate office” she says. “You have to watch customers, you have to get on the calls, and you have to listen.”
Her enthusiasm for exploring different aspects of operations as well as understanding the customer experience made her well-suited to practical problem-solving and communications.
“You’ve got to gain an understanding of the worlds of your peers as well and that operational know-how,” she says. “Having the willingness to get into the details makes a big difference.”
Roehm believes that a less compartmentalized mindset—and a less rigid corporate structure—may be necessary for brands to maintain the agility required to provide omnichannel solutions. It’s up to leaders to redefine these structures and the culture that supports them.
Julie Roehm is not a proponent of waiting on the sidelines or staying in one’s lane. She believes in rapid transformation and innovation to meet the rapidly changing needs of customers. As the business community struggles to catch up with her leadership style, companies have tried to capture her lightning by creating roles specifically for her. One of these was Chief Storyteller—a role she took at the software company SAP.
At the time, consumers, and even many in the C-suite of target companies didn’t have a clear idea of what SAP actually did. Roehm wanted to change that. She told the CEO: “ I think there’s an opportunity for you to be the ‘Intel Inside’ of your industry and to really tell your customers’ customer stories.”
As Chief Storyteller, she interacted with different departments and led a team of 100 interdisciplinary staff. Together, they worked to better understand the customer journey and communicate it in a way that changed SAP’s global image. Her work helped change the perception of SAP from a cold IT company to a trusted digital solutions provider.
At Party CIty, Roehm would take the custom-minted role of Chief Experience Officer. Her role was to break barriers between departments and customer touchpoints to streamline the customer experience with omnichannel solutions. Her efforts led to an 80% increase in digital sales.
Roehm believes that the difficulties in defining her leadership expertise are indicative of a changing business environment. Corporate structures resist change, but in a rapidly advancing digital world, innovation is needed to meet customers’ expectations. Roehm’s transformative approach promotes agility, cooperation, and a much-needed modernization of executive leadership.
Never Stop Learning
Julie Roehm’s “athleticism” ensures that she continues to learn in every position she takes. People change, customers change, and good business practices change with the times. Good leaders can never be complacent or think they have things all figured out.
One way that Julie Roehm continues to learn while giving back to the business community is through her podcast, The Conversational. Roehm believes that success doesn’t come from having a dream and achieving it. It comes from reacting to change and learning over time. On her podcast, she interviews top business leaders such as media executive Mark Ford and MediaLink vice chairman Wendy Milliard. Roehm asks them to tell their stories of success and the challenges they overcame. She especially likes to hone in on those unexpected yet pivotal moments that change everything.
Roehm is also passionate about inspiring young women to achieve success in business and beyond. “I do a lot of mentoring and a lot of speaking, especially to young women at universities,” she says. Helping young people learn not just about business but also about success, failure, and growth, are the lessons she believes breed perseverance. “Everybody I know had some thought or plan that completely got derailed, and it’s how they dealt with those obstacles that actually led to their success.”