Wife, mother, mentor, communicator – Marita Hudson Thomas wears all those hats well on a daily basis and takes pride in helping others elevate to that next level. As the CCO of Cars.com Inc., Marita is the precise definition of a media guru. Her sharp communication skills and hands-on management style have solidified her as a force in the industry. Marita considers herself a student of the game, seizing any given opportunity to further refine her skills. She lives by the belief that every role she has held prepared her for the next. At just 17 years old, Marita fell in love with PR and proceeded to have a career spanning a myriad of industries, including auto, travel, publishing, education, and technology.
In addition to her esteemed career in Communications, Marita uses her voice to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. With a passion for helping others, Marita enjoys mentorship and is a Board member for Polished Pebbles, a non-profit mentoring organization that helps girls in underrepresented communities realize their full potential through education, career resources, and programs. The organization also focuses on helping girls become effective communicators at home, school, and in their future workplace.
In this edition of Executive Insights, Rudly Raphael sits down with Marita Hudson Thomas to discuss the ins and outs of Communications and the importance of promoting diversity in the workplace.
When did you know you wanted to work in the field of Communications?
I believe you’re always in the right place at the right time. Nothing is a mistake. Nothing is by chance. I am a southside Chicago native. When I was a Senior in high school, a counselor called me into the office to inform me that a small PR firm was looking for a student to work at the agency after school. I interviewed for the position and became an intern at a PR agency on North Michigan Avenue at 17, which is still wild to me. All of this happened because that counselor saw something in me. I learned so much at that age – working next to a number of smart, driven, and insightful PR professionals.
What caused you to have doubts about majoring in Public Relations?
I knew within days of being at that PR agency that it was something I wanted to do. I became an Accounting major because PR, Marketing, and Advertising can be difficult industries to break into. The realist in me thought I should do something I knew would land me a job after college. Accounting seemed steady so I ran with it. However, I’ve always had a love for communicating, connecting, writing and storytelling – things you need to be in the field of public relations. So after one semester, I knew I had to change my major to PR. I’ve been in love with it since I was 17 years old.
You are in control of your destiny. I believe that the seats in which we sit are not by accident. It’s important to do something you’re passionate about. Before I graduated college, my Father gave me some good advice. He said, “never do anything for the money”. I understand that is a statement of privilege because so many have to do what they need to do to survive. However, if you are in the position to do it, go where your talents and passion lead you. God gave each of us uniqueness and different talents for a reason, and I believe we should use them to forge our paths.
Was there ever a defining moment in your career?
There’s no one defining moment in my career. I am a true believer that every role I’ve had, prepared me for the next role. Every role has taught me something and led to my growth and trajectory. Johnson Publishing Company (JPC), I will admit, is very dear to my heart. I grew up with Ebony and Jet magazines and Fashion Fair Cosmetics. To be able to walk into that greatness was one of those life-changing moments. This was a Black-owned family company, launched in 1945, I felt the history all around me. I will admit I was overwhelmed as a twenty-something walking into the grand lobby at 820 S. Michigan Ave filled with Black culture, sculptures, and art. It was breathtaking. Having that experience and being in the presence of and having conversations with, Founder John H. and Johnson still gives me goosebumps. He defined the African American advertising market. He created publications that told our stories. Representation matters today. Think about what these publications meant when Ebony launched in 1945.
I’ll share one of the most memorable moments at the company. I was giving a presentation with my co-worker, who has since become more like a sister because lifelong relationships were built at JPC. After we presented, Mr. Johnson said, “you know what, ladies – I enjoyed that. You all are so bright and so smart. You have a future here as long as you want it.” For him to say that and be able to see our potential meant the world to me.
What does your day-to-day look like as the Chief Communications Officer of Cars.com Inc.?
The interesting and exciting thing about Communications and PR – everything moves at the speed of light. No two days are alike. The world changes daily and news cycles can change dozens of times in a day. I never know what media outlet is going to call and what story they are going after. CARS is a marketplace and digital solutions provider at the intersection of auto and technology. While our strategy is clear and constant, our business is fast-paced with innovation at the center so there’s always something new and different happening and more stories to tell.
In my current position, I lead external and internal communications, industry relations, and events. My day is filled with lots of strategic thinking, enterprise-wide collaboration, writing, message development, and storytelling.
The foundation of Communications is relationships, whether it is with media, co-workers, customers, or within the industry. I’m constantly building relationships and if done right, connecting the dots of our business through effective storytelling. Communications is a shared services team – we act as a mini agency within CARS and support each business unit and their communications needs.
How do you manage people to make them successful?
I’m an off-the-charts extrovert so my management style is high-touch and collaborative. I like to focus on my team’s talents and strengths, not just their roles. I think you’re a successful manager and leader when you can harness someone’s raw talent and passion and help them use it to positively impact the team and the organization which in turn makes them feel fulfilled by the work.
I’ve learned to become more of a coach and how to ask the right questions to guide them through the work. I want my teams to feel confident in their decisions and trust their gut.
What is your experience with mentorship and why is having a mentor so important?
Mentorship is a passion. As we talked about earlier, I sit on the Board of a non-profit girl mentoring program, Polished Pebbles, which starts in sixth grade and goes through high school. Mentorship remains critically important through college and in the workforce. In a perfect world, every company would have a manager or leader that each employee could identify with, feel comfortable going to for career advice, and most importantly, having someone advocate for them at higher levels of the organization.
I personally try to make myself available to anyone who wants to sit and have lunch – virtual lunch now. I have a couple of mentees at Ccars.com. I enjoy the conversations and it’s in no way one-sided, I learn from them too. It’s important for people to see themselves in you and know that any goal is attainable.
What separates a good leader from a great leader?
I think a good leader is able to be an effective coach to their team. But to be a great leader you have to add the ability to listen and approachability. Oftentimes leaders just aren’t approachable. You can miss brilliant ideas when team members don’t feel comfortable talking to you. Good ideas come from everywhere, at every level of the organization.
What excites you the most about PR?
Seeing the story angles land. I still get giddy when we pitch a story, it lands and ultimately impacts the business in a positive way. Also, PR has no limits. You get to tell stories and solve problems. My team gets to work with every leader, business unit and touch every single part of the organization. It doesn’t get better than that.
What excites you the most about Cars.com, Inc.?
What most excites me is all of the important work being done around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Cars.com is a marketplace at the intersection of auto and technology. Two industries not known for diversity. Despite this, CARS is one of the most diverse companies in auto from the Board of Directors to the executive team and throughout all levels of the organization. What I respect most – this work was happening when I started at CARS nearly four years ago. What 2020 presented was a movement and a moment of more. And we are doing more in our company, industry, and communities but building on what was an already solid foundation.
What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement?
Longevity with an upward trajectory. Communications and PR can be high stress so to have longevity in this field is a big deal. I’m grateful and have enjoyed the journey.
Do you have any regrets in your career?
I can honestly say no. All the ups and downs lead you to exactly where you are supposed to be.
How have you adapted to COVID?
I’ve been home for a year, like most. March 13, 2020, was our last day in the office. I’m an extreme extrovert. I like to do check-ins with my team to make sure we’re on the same page about projects. I like to just make sure they’re okay.
Before we could see each other. We would have our quick chats in the mornings, throughout the day, and weekly team meetings. Now with COVID, we do virtual video team meetings three times a week, which I would never do in an in-person environment. I think it’s so important to see each other to keep the culture of the team strong. Also, to make sure we know what the projects and priorities are across the team.
Do you have a morning routine?
I am not by any means encouraging this. I’m not a good sleeper. I don’t sleep well. Typically, my day starts at 2 am-3 am. During this time, I will read through emails. That’s always the first thing that I do. I try not to send emails too early. I don’t want people to think they need to be up at that hour to respond to me. There are so many points of contact these days. I’ll try and go through them all, whether it’s email or Slack. Next, I tackle any important writing that I need to do while the world is quiet.
How do you handle stress?
Practicing gratefulness and being realistic about the situation. I always think, is this going to be a thing in 24 hours…just focus and get through it?
What kind of media do you consume to stay on top of industry trends?
I’m a student of media, always consuming content and staying up to date on the news. I read a lot of the advertising trade magazines like AdWeek and PRWeek because they’re part of the Cars.com business. I watch national morning shows like Good Morning America and Today and try to stay on top of publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and People Magazine, Forbes, Mashable – I try to read everything. Because I do industry communications, I also regularly read Automotive News and Auto Remarketing. I’m trying to see what stories are sticking and landing and if there is any news that may affect our business.
If you wrote that autobiography, what would you want the title to be?
No Substitute for Hard Work. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not willing to work, even the most talented person won’t be successful.
Who is Marita?
Wife, mother, communicator, mentor. In that order.
That wraps up our interview with Marita! As our conversation concludes, we take away the importance of diversity in the workplace and using our God-given talents to make an impact in our communities and industries.
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