Sonja Jacob is a strategic content and growth marketer with more than a decade’s worth of experience fueling demand for B2B companies like Drift, HubSpot, and Mattermark. A lifelong writer and storyteller, Sonja now leads global content marketing at AppDynamics, a part of Cisco.
How did you break into leadership?
Breaking into leadership was definitely not a one-time event for me—it was, and is, an ongoing process. That’s because I think leadership is about willingness to grow as a professional and being open to change versus fighting it. But this wasn’t something I learned overnight. Having worked at a couple of startups earlier in my career where I had director-level roles and now leading content marketing at a very large company, I’ve learned leadership is truly a progressive term—good leaders know it’s an ongoing, reflective process. It isn’t so much about achieving a specific title, but about being willing to test your ideas, learn from mistakes, and be accountable no matter the outcome.
What unique obstacles or challenges have you faced as a woman in a tech leadership role?
Women in tech leadership roles often have to fight for a place at the table, and then continue to fight for it once they’re there. Earlier in my career, I definitely experienced that at companies that claimed to be committed to diversity and inclusiveness, but clearly were only comfortable investing in leaders that looked exactly like them. The greatest lesson I’ve learned is to pay attention to what people say about inclusiveness versus what they actually do. If you say you’re dedicated to building a diverse leadership team, but then demonstrate zero evidence of that, something’s clearly not right.
How do you grow your career?
Mentors have played a crucial part in the development of my career, and they’ve helped me navigate the uncharted waters of leadership at various companies over the years. While some of them have been inside of the companies I’ve worked at, most of my mentors have been “on the outside”—entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, colleagues who I admired, and contacts I was introduced to through friends. While I’ve had different types of mentors over the years, one thing they’ve all had in common is that they’re good listeners who truly want to help. Look for those people—they’ll speak the truth when you need to hear it the most and offer support when you’re struggling. And one thing you can do if you’ve had a good mentor? Be a good mentor to someone else who’s trying to make their way in marketing.
If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I have few regrets about my career because I’ve mostly optimized for learning and not a particular title or trajectory (that’s ultimately not super-fulfilling in my experience anyway). But I see so many people beat themselves up for not having a certain title or managing enough people by a certain age, and I think that’s really damaging thinking. While there’s not much I’d do differently, I would remind my younger self how powerful a teacher experience is. Don’t take shortcuts and don’t rush the process. And maybe spend less time chasing external sources of validation and more time on the work that delights you.
What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?
The highlight of my career was starting The Cultivated Word, my content consulting business, in my mid-twenties. Back then, people told me I was crazy and laughed at me when I told them what I was planning to do, but running my own business was ultimately the best career decision I’ve ever made because it taught me true ownership and accountability. Even now, the lessons I learned over those four years with The Cultivated Word still drive my decision-making today as head of content marketing at AppDynamics. It was a huge risk for me back then, but it paid off.
What’s your advice for up-and-coming marketers?
My advice for up-and-coming marketers is to reject the status quo. Stop playing by the rules for marketing, the rules for becoming a CMO, and just do great work. Hone your craft, be open to learning more, and teach others what you’ve learned. Everything else will take care of itself.
Thanks to Jes Kirkwood who conducted this interview in July 2020.