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The Road to CEO: Kristen Cavallo, MBA ’93

By Mason Spirit contributor on June 19, 2019


“Society is shining a light on women leaders right now, and I am glad that I was able to step into it when it came my way,” says Kristen Cavallo, MBA ’93, and CEO of the Martin Agency, a leading Richmond, Virginia-based advertising agency.

Kristen Cavallo

Cavallo was named Martin’s first female CEO in December 2017, after allegations of sexual misconduct against a former senior leader. The significance of this particular moment is not lost on her.

“It was a challenging time for the agency in that moment. A company and brand I cared deeply about was in a time of crisis,” she says. “I hoped my relationship with the company would be beneficial, and my years away would give me a clarity toward problem-solving that would be additive.”

During the last year, the #MeToo Movement has turned the public’s attention to issues of sexual harassment and assault in workplaces from Hollywood to corporations. As CEO, Cavallo has made it her mission to change the culture at Martin, making intentional changes internally that have impacted the company’s success externally.

“We’re hell-bent on defining what progress looks like in the industry. #MeToo has forced conversations about transparency and accountability, but that is mostly about correcting wrongs. Progress requires implementing new ideas,” she says. “It has truly been the gift of my career to lead during a time of crisis. I’ve been given permission to act with impatience and purpose.”

In her one-year tenure as CEO, Cavallo promoted the first woman in the company’s 53-year history to chief creative officer, doubled the number of women, and for the first time, included an African American member on the executive leadership team. Of Martin’s 345 employees, 63 percent are women and 35 percent of 2018 hires were racially diverse.

Cavallo has also committed resources to expanding human resources, including conduct trainings; launching TINYpulse, an anonymous employee survey tool; instituting paid paternity leave; eliminating the wage gap; and joining Times Up Advertising as a signatory.

“I believe there is a direct correlation between the things we’re doing for our culture internally and our business success externally,” says Cavallo, citing double-digit increases in revenue and margin.

Journey to CEO

Despite her years of experience and obtaining an MBA from Mason’s School of Business, Cavallo never interviewed for CEO positions prior to returning to Martin.

“I never interviewed to be a CEO before becoming one, and I don’t think it’s because I wasn’t qualified,” Cavallo says.

Cavallo, who was hopeful for a marketing position with a New York firm, decided to pursue an MBA to advance her career. She found her professors to be front-line practitioners, which enhanced her experience as a graduate student.

“I felt that there was an enormous amount of real-world application that I could only receive at Mason. The location of Mason magnified my education,” she says.

Cavallo is grateful for choosing Virginia schools for both her undergraduate (James Madison University) and graduate education. With the value and experience gained at these institutions, students “win, hands down,” she says. Cavallo also tries to hire graduates from Virginia schools.

“There’s a lack of entitlement, mixed with a hustle and hunger, that is super compelling as an employer. It makes me extremely proud to have gone to school in Virginia,” she says.

After graduating with her MBA, Cavallo moved to Boston to work for the ad agency MullenLowe. She then moved on to Arnold Worldwide, where she pitched a Volkswagen campaign that put her on Martin’s radar. Once with Martin, she stayed for 13 years before going back to MullenLowe to serve as chief strategy officer and chief growth officer for North America. After seven years, she returned to the Martin Agency in December 2017.

Doing the Impossible

As head of a company reeling from the effects of sexual misconduct allegations, Cavallo immediately assessed and instituted change at the agency, a task that might have seemed nearly impossible one year ago when she accepted the CEO position.

“We believe that when you impact culture, you impact sales, and we work hard to create ideas with significance and positive influence. I hope that’s a legacy I leave,” she says.

As a woman growing up in the industry, she acknowledges not seeing a lot of women in leadership positions.

“If there’s the sense that you have to see it to be it, there were not many opportunities for that. But I was fortunate to have male bosses who pushed me forward. I wasn’t held back by the lack of female mentoring, because I had progressive male mentors,” Cavallo says.

Because supervisors can serve as role models and help employees develop their careers, Cavallo says picking a good boss is even more important than picking a big-name company or brand to work on. She advises young professionals to choose a boss who advocates for them, provides constructive criticism, and invests in their development.

“I think sometimes we get caught up in working for the company or the brand ‘of the moment.’ But the biggest impact on your career is the person who is evaluating and championing you on a daily basis,” she says. “I would say oftentimes the most overlooked—but [most] important thing—you have at your disposal is the ability to choose your boss.”

While Cavallo has endless goals for improving Martin, the mother of two always sets a personal goal of doing one impossible thing a year. Last year, Cavallo and her children trekked to their seventh and final continent, Antarctica. The year before, she and her son climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. This year, in honor of her 50th birthday, she aims to complete 50 acts of service with 50 different organizations.

“I relish the idea of figuring out what my impossible task is for every coming year and then doing it,” Cavallo says.

—Katherine Johnson Dias, MPA ’19


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