Katherine Melchior Ray on What to Look for in Your Next CMO

Katherine Melchior Ray and Roy dig into what makes an outstanding, modern CMO, the benefits and challenges of pursuing a global career, and how to connect across cultures as an expat leader.

Katherine’s professional journey spans nearly three decades and includes mobilizing growth in a variety of businesses across five different industries and three continents. Her wealth of experience extends across a wide spectrum of business sectors, including beauty, hospitality, and fashion.

She’s worked with legendary brands like Gucci, Shiseido, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Hyatt, and currently teaches International Marketing at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

Highlights from our conversation

  • Factors and experiences that shaped Katherine’s leadership and hiring philosophy (6:48)
  • Navigating language barriers and developing cultural competency (8:27)
  • Lessons learned from hiring and leading global teams (10:10)
  • How to develop and manage the capabilities of new teams (11:22)
  • How she makes decisions around important hires (14:09)
  • Insights gained from hiring successes and failures (14:54)
  • What makes a great CMO (15:58)
  • How Katherine applies her knowledge of history to marketing strategies (17:19)


[00:00:00] Katherine Melchior Ray: They have to be able to articulate and live the values of the company authentically, and they have to be able to accelerate innovation.

[00:00:14] Roy Notowitz: Hello and welcome to How I Hire, the podcast that taps directly into the best executive hiring advice and insights. I’m Roy Notowitz, founder and CEO of Noto Group Executive Search. You can learn more about us at notogroup.com. As a go-to firm for purpose-driven companies, we’ve been lucky to work with some of the world’s most inspiring leaders as they’ve tackled the challenge of building high performance leadership teams.

[00:00:42] Roy Notowitz: Now I’m sitting down with some of these very people to spark a conversation about how to achieve success in hiring and create purposeful leadership for the next generation of companies. Katherine Melchior Ray joins me on the podcast today. She has over 25 years of experience in global marketing and brand development, with an impressive track record of success, catalyzing growth across industries from hospitality to media to luxury consumer goods and beyond. 

[00:01:11] Roy Notowitz: She’s led international marketing initiatives for companies like Nike, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Hyatt, and Shiseido, and today, she’s both a teacher and consultant, helping others to expand their business across the global marketplace. Katherine and I discuss lessons learned from working across many different consumer sectors and how that shaped her hiring philosophy. We also cover how she develops cultural competency and much more. 

[00:01:36] Roy Notowitz: Katherine, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. It’s great to have you on. 

[00:01:42] Katherine Melchior Ray: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

[00:01:44] Roy Notowitz: So let’s dive right in. You’ve had an incredibly exciting career as a global marketing and business leader across many consumer segments, including media, retail, fashion, personal care, and beauty, and technology. Take us through some of your career highlights and the path that led you to where you are today. 

[00:02:03] Katherine Melchior Ray: I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work across five different industries on three continents, and I think what’s led to those changes, if I look backwards, is a combination of external and internal changes.

[00:02:20] Katherine Melchior Ray: External, of course, company changes, new markets opening, losing my job. And internal changes of recognizing that what I want to do next changes. And I think that’s a really important part about life and managing one’s career. So, for instance, I started out with this fascination of Japan. I studied Japanese in college, and I wanted to be a journalist.

[00:02:48] Katherine Melchior Ray: And I went to Japan right after college, and I actually found my way into a Japanese TV network. I ended up producing a TV show that introduced the Japanese audience — it aired in Japan — to American products. And I would research products that were not yet in Japan, figure out a compelling story, and then actually do the direct distribution with the company to sell it into Japan. 

[00:03:13] Roy Notowitz: Wow. 

[00:03:13] Katherine Melchior Ray: So it was a[n] entire direct marketing, and so, I learned how to identify products that would sell in Japan. 

[00:03:21] Katherine Melchior Ray: I I came back and I didn’t want to be just a Japan hand, so I worked for one of the companies whose story I had looked into, which was Hanna Andersson. 

[00:03:31] Roy Notowitz: Oh, interesting. Gun Denhart. 

[00:03:33] Katherine Melchior Ray: Gun Denhart, founder. So imagine going from large, Japanese, standard, conservative corporation to Gun Denhart here in Portland, Oregon.

[00:03:41] Roy Notowitz: Portland, Oregon, yeah. 

[00:03:42] Katherine Melchior Ray: Swedish values, very futuristic with, you know, the triple bottom line. So then I helped her grow her international business, and I got very interested in marketing to women, at which point, Nike came along. It was back in the day that, you know, if you were in Portland, Nike would come calling. 

[00:04:01] Katherine Melchior Ray: And it took us a while to find a job that I would be passionate about, but I had been an athlete in high school, and college, and junior Olympic volleyball. 

[00:04:12] Roy Notowitz: Oh wow. 

[00:04:12] Katherine Melchior Ray: And when they asked me to come in to grow the women’s footwear business in the nineties, how could I say no? It was very personally motivating. 

[00:04:21] Katherine Melchior Ray: Spent several years there. It was very helpful, and interesting, and productive, and they finally got rid of that role, so I was a free agent. And I ended up doing consulting for various companies, one of which was Nordstrom. I was working with them on Japan. I was working with them on a French brand, in case they were to buy it–

[00:04:40] Roy Notowitz: Right. 

[00:04:40] Katherine Melchior Ray: –called Façonnable.

[00:04:41] Katherine Melchior Ray: So I wrote the Global Business Plan, and, a year later they said, “Oh, well we bought it. Go build it.” So, on september 11th, 2001– 

[00:04:53] Roy Notowitz: Wow. 

[00:04:53] Katherine Melchior Ray: –my husband– 

[00:04:54] Roy Notowitz: Interesting timing. 

[00:04:55] Katherine Melchior Ray: –two children, 16 bags, and a dog flew from New York to Nice, and landed on September 11th. 

[00:05:01] Roy Notowitz: Wow. 

[00:05:02] Katherine Melchior Ray: Yeah, and then Louis Vuitton found me and sent me back to Japan.

[00:05:06] Katherine Melchior Ray: So I spent many, many years — about 20 years — in retail all over the world. At Louis Vuitton, I was Vice President of marketing in Japan. I worked with Gucci in Asia and strategic planning, and, after a while, I started to get tired of things. Just too many things. I was at the pinnacle of product, fashion, culture, and my own values were changing. My children were growing up, and I wanted to settle down and move to experience. So I went to Hyatt, and I ran the Park Hyatt and–

[00:05:37] Roy Notowitz: Interesting. 

[00:05:37] Katherine Melchior Ray: –ran Hyatt Brands globally. 

[00:05:39] Roy Notowitz: So cool. 

[00:05:40] Katherine Melchior Ray: Years later, I went back to consulting and was working for Shiseido — a $10 billion company in Japan — for a year and a half on how can they transition from a Japanese marketing company to a global prestige marketing company.

[00:05:55] Katherine Melchior Ray: And, after a year and a half, the CEO asked if I would come in full-time, and so I went back to Japan — this is now industry number four — and I went into cosmetics with Shiseido. As I was at Shiseido, growing Japanese-origin brands internationally. I realized how much those teams — this was 2017, ’18 — how much those teams needed to embrace the digital-first mentality. And they were late to the game, and we needed to do a complete digital transformation.

[00:06:24] Katherine Melchior Ray: I realized for myself as a marketer, I needed to get into the tech game. And so Babbel came calling in Germany to be CMO, and so I went over there right before the pandemic and cut my teeth. 

[00:06:42] Roy Notowitz: That’s amazing. So you’ve been exposed to different hiring practices in a variety of world class companies. What are some of the experiences, learnings, or best practices that have shaped your leadership and hiring philosophy over the years? 

[00:06:56] Katherine Melchior Ray: That’s actually really quite interesting because it’s true. I have been recruited and hired on three different continents, and they are quite different. 

[00:07:05] Katherine Melchior Ray: When you go to certain companies that try to really have cultures reflecting their brand, the more you can put yourself into the mind of the consumer and the mind of the culture, the better able you are to land on your feet.

[00:07:20] Katherine Melchior Ray: The other thing I’ll say that’s quite different — and I think it’s a challenge for companies in the Pacific Northwest, and for the United States in general — is a closer understanding to cultural difference. So when you live in a foreign country, obviously you learn daily; you go out the door, and everything is different.

[00:07:42] Katherine Melchior Ray: That kind of proximity to a different language, a different currency, a different history, a different way of being makes you realize very early on in a company’s growth that you have to embrace difference to grow. And I think, in the US, we are both privileged and challenged by our size. Privileged in that we have this enormous market, even though there are differences across the country, but then we have these two huge oceans on either side that sort of buffer us from other countries. Of course, we have Canada — they’re a lot like Americans — and then we have Mexico that we have not, I think, really respected as a market. 

[00:08:23] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. So having all this significant global experience, how did you navigate the language barriers and develop enough cultural competency to credibly motivate and influence? 

[00:08:34] Katherine Melchior Ray: Well, this is one reason why my background is quite unusual, is that I have on-the-ground marketing experience in multiple countries. So it’s one thing to go over and lead a business in different countries if you have a base. It’s another thing to do the marketing in that market. You have to have your ear close to the market, close to the consumer. And this is why I think language is actually a hidden power tool of a career. And I think also in the US we don’t value it enough. It has certainly been a key asset of mine.

[00:09:06] Katherine Melchior Ray: So as I said, I’m American. I grew up speaking English, but I went to a French school in San Francisco. I learned Spanish in high school, and then, in college, I was fascinated by Japan, so I tried to learn Japanese. And so language has been incredibly helpful for me. One thing for people who don’t speak languages is when I brought Hanna Andersson to Japan — small company — I brought several of our employees in my team, and we created a customer service center in Tokyo.

[00:09:34] Katherine Melchior Ray: And these people did not speak Japanese who I brought with me, but they were very good at listening. And I would always say you have one mouth and two ears– 

[00:09:42] Roy Notowitz: Mm-hmm. 

[00:09:43] Katherine Melchior Ray: –so listen twice as much as you speak. And, in Japan, so much communication is nonverbal. 

[00:09:49] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:09:49] Katherine Melchior Ray: So if you walk into a room and observe with your eyes, and listen with your ears, and try to read the air. There’s an expression in Japanese– 

[00:09:58] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:09:58] Katherine Melchior Ray: –called– 

[00:09:59] Roy Notowitz: I’ve heard this before. 

[00:09:59] Katherine Melchior Ray: “Kuuki wo yomu.” 

[00:10:00] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:10:01] Katherine Melchior Ray: And it means “read the air.” And so, if you can go in and do that, you may not get all of it, but you will get half of it. 

[00:10:09] Roy Notowitz: Amazing. So what are some other learnings that you can share around hiring, aligning, and leading global teams?

[00:10:16] Katherine Melchior Ray: One of the interesting things is that each country is quite different. So if you’re looking for a job in your own country or you want to go to another country, understanding how that country works in context. So, for global businesses, Americans are very expensive. 

[00:10:33] Roy Notowitz: Yes. We’ve run into that– 

[00:10:35] Katherine Melchior Ray: Yes. 

[00:10:35] Roy Notowitz: –challenge. 

[00:10:36] Katherine Melchior Ray: So I think Americans don’t realize their own talent in a global marketplace.

[00:10:41] Katherine Melchior Ray: In my case, I started in Japan, but I came to the US early, and then one might say I took a pay cut to go to Europe. And then, I ended up in Japan again with Louis Vuitton. But, in many ways, it was an investment because then I made more money than I ever did because then I had skills in the US, in Europe, in Japan, um, I speak all three of those languages.

[00:11:05] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:11:05] Katherine Melchior Ray: And so I think that if Americans can tend to see that in that perspective– 

[00:11:09] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:11:09] Katherine Melchior Ray: –if they want global careers, it’s very, very helpful. 

[00:11:11] Roy Notowitz: That’s good advice around managing your career because if you look at opportunities as future retained earnings because you’re building your experience and knowledge and portfolio.

[00:11:20] Katherine Melchior Ray: Exactly. Right. 

[00:11:22] Roy Notowitz: So when you come into a new organization, what’s your approach to developing an understanding of the capabilities, the roles and the leadership of the people on the teams that you’re inheriting? 

[00:11:32] Katherine Melchior Ray: Again, a lot of listening, right? I talk a lot about language, and I think language is not just speaking, but it’s listening. So, a lot of leading and listening, and then I spend a lot of time on one-on-ones. I think it’s extremely important to get to know people one-on-one, and so I will over-index on the early side of getting to know, not only my team, but my peers and the organization as a whole. 

[00:11:56] Roy Notowitz: So how do you determine when to invest, and develop, and bring somebody along versus managing them out of the organization?

[00:12:05] Katherine Melchior Ray: Yeah. 

[00:12:05] Roy Notowitz: Which is always a tough thing to do. 

[00:12:07] Katherine Melchior Ray: It is a tough thing to do, and I have lost my job, so I’m very sensitive to that. You know, again, I go back to my early training in Japan. In Japan, people don’t fire. I think that colored my perception so that, in the US, when someone would say, “Well, that person’s not doing very well, let’s just fire them.”

[00:12:29] Katherine Melchior Ray: I’d be like, “No. I can see they have talent. They’re just not in the right role.” And so I am someone who tends to believe that people are all very capable, they just may not be in the right role. So I don’t really like to fire; however, if someone is really not capable at the level of work, then you want to let them go as soon as possible.

[00:12:55] Katherine Melchior Ray: And, in that case, I believe the faster the better. It’s extremely important to do it with compassion. So separate the person from the tasks. 

[00:13:03] Roy Notowitz: Right. 

[00:13:04] Katherine Melchior Ray: Treat the person as whole as you can with respect, and then tell them the tasks we need are not fitting to their skills. 

[00:13:12] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. I mean, sometimes people get promoted, right, beyond what they’re capable of doing, or the company gets to a point where they just need a different kind of leadership.

[00:13:21] Roy Notowitz: So, just curious, in France, my experience working with French companies is that they really value tenure as well. Is that true? 

[00:13:30] Katherine Melchior Ray: Japan is tenure. 

[00:13:32] Roy Notowitz: Okay. 

[00:13:32] Katherine Melchior Ray: Japan is tenure and age. France is definitely authority. They respect authority. I do this chart of trying to understand different cultures of Japan, France, US, and I say, “Look, you know, both of those countries had kings and emperors. There’s a reason they respect authority.” You think of the US where we rejected having a king, or an emperor, or anything like that, then you start to realize why we have a much more egalitarian workforce than they do in France or Japan. So I do think that notion of France is not so much they respect tenure, but they respect authority.

[00:14:09] Roy Notowitz: So let’s talk about how you make decisions on important hires. What’s the process for sifting through inputs and feedback? Who do you involve when you’re making important hires for your leadership team? 

[00:14:22] Katherine Melchior Ray: First of all, I figure out exactly what I need. What is the role I really need, and how does that role fit into the team as a whole?

[00:14:29] Katherine Melchior Ray: And then, through the interview process, I will want multiple people to interview that person. I’m a big believer in diversity. Obviously, I’ve worked internationally. I’ve been a woman in multiple markets. I’ve been an American in multiple markets, and so I believe in the value of diversity, and 

[00:14:47] Katherine Melchior Ray: I think that it is very important to work twice as hard to find people from different backgrounds. 

[00:14:54] Roy Notowitz: So what learnings or insights have you gained from hiring successes and failures? 

[00:15:00] Katherine Melchior Ray: One of the key things is listening to other people in the team because you can’t make someone successful on your own.

[00:15:08] Katherine Melchior Ray: You can help them succeed, but they’re going to have to be standing on their own two feet in an organization with their own team and their other peers. And so, you have to listen to what other people say. You don’t have to follow it, but you need to be aware of those signposts. And I think one of the key things is adaptability.

[00:15:29] Katherine Melchior Ray: How does someone think? How have they learned from their past successes and failures? That’s one of my favorites. 

[00:15:37] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:15:37] Katherine Melchior Ray: How do they learn from their failures? We’ve talked a lot about change and turbulence. 

[00:15:40] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:15:40] Katherine Melchior Ray: And how do you learn from that? And have they adapted? Do they learn from prior mistakes? Is the person adaptable? I mean, the world is constantly changing, and you want leaders who are going to be able to embrace that and lead through it. 

[00:15:57] Roy Notowitz: That’s great. What do you think makes a great CMO? What are the elements, if I’m an executive hiring a CMO right now for a premium consumer brand? What are the things that you think are key?

[00:16:11] Katherine Melchior Ray: The CMO roles change a lot. They have to be able to set a vision. They have to be able to articulate and live the values of the company authentically. And they have to be able to accelerate innovation. I think one of the key things for a CMO is being half left brain, half right brain. 

[00:16:31] Roy Notowitz: Right. 

[00:16:31] Katherine Melchior Ray: I had to do some sort of a personality profile for a recruiter in Europe, and they were like, “Oh my God, you are 50/50.”

[00:16:40] Katherine Melchior Ray: I’m like, “What does that mean? I don’t want to be 50/50, I want to be a hundred, a hundred.” And they said, “Oh no, you’re 50 left brain, 50 right brain.” And apparently, that was one of the key things for a marketing role, and I learned what they mean. And the notion of that is you have to be able to read the data, appreciate data, love data, go into the data, but the data will not tell you the answer.

[00:17:06] Katherine Melchior Ray: It will direct you to the area and the need, and then the answer is using your right brain and the creativity. 

[00:17:14] Roy Notowitz: You had talked about marketing and having a history background. So why does having a history degree or background help? 

[00:17:24] Katherine Melchior Ray: History teaches us how to see evolution. What were the strains that caused something, over time, to happen?

[00:17:34] Katherine Melchior Ray: And so you’ll have to read, you know, read the tea leaves, if you will, looking at political, social, cultural, financial strains that come to some kind of turning point. Marketing is creating demand for the future. So you have to be able to be very in tune with current culture. And what are all of the strains that are going on that are forcing changes that we don’t quite see yet?

[00:17:57] Katherine Melchior Ray: Because you want to be a half step, half step in front of your consumer. If you’re a full step, you’re too far in front, and if you’re a half step behind, someone else is going to get in between. 

[00:18:07] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:18:08] Katherine Melchior Ray: So you have to be just a half step in front of your consumer to be able to understand all of these changes that are slowly, slowly building so that you can create strategies, products, services, and teams to be able to manifest.

[00:18:23] Roy Notowitz: So how does a CMO or a marketing leader do that? Are there examples that you can think of that would help? 

[00:18:29] Katherine Melchior Ray: That’s, that’s the job. I mean, it’s a fun, it’s a fun and complex job. I always start with research, whether it’s building the teams as I mentioned, or whether it’s for understanding the business to see what’s happened in the past.

[00:18:41] Katherine Melchior Ray: I need to understand where we have had the best successes, what people’s strengths and weaknesses may be, and then I look at where the market is today and really try to understand what are the deep pressures on the consumer and on the market in different markets, right? So you have different markets in different parts of the world, and you can’t do it all yourself.

[00:19:04] Katherine Melchior Ray: So you need to help ask those questions so that your teams– 

[00:19:08] Roy Notowitz: Right. 

[00:19:08] Katherine Melchior Ray: –will be empowered to do that in their markets. 

[00:19:11] Roy Notowitz: Yeah.

[00:19:11] Roy Notowitz: So 

[00:19:12] Roy Notowitz: Tell us about the book. You know, where did the idea come from? What compelled you? Because that’s a big undertaking. 

[00:19:18] Katherine Melchior Ray: I think, as I was living this life of being an international CMO, who was the head of household, making decisions, of course, with my husband, I just found no one was there having these same challenges. And I felt that people need to understand what it’s like so that more companies can support both men and women in these roles of being an expat with children and a what’s called a trailing spouse. Not very– 

[00:19:48] Roy Notowitz: I remember. 

[00:19:49] Katherine Melchior Ray: –empathetically. And to be a woman in that situation, because it is particularly hard as most of those environments are very male-dominated.

[00:19:59] Katherine Melchior Ray: You know, it’s about taking risks. It’s about learning to be resilient, and it’s about sometimes reinventing yourself. We talked about consumer marketing and insights and how you have to listen to an audience. The same thing is true of yourself. So the book talks a lot about listening to foreign markets, listening to literally foreign consumers–

[00:20:21] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. 

[00:20:21] Katherine Melchior Ray: –but then ultimately trying to listen to the changes deep within. 

[00:20:25] Roy Notowitz: Fascinating. So in addition to the book, how are you thinking about the future? And what new and exciting things are you working on currently? 

[00:20:34] Katherine Melchior Ray: Well, I’m always very excited at this time of year because I’m going into my fall teaching. So I teach at Berkeley Haas School of Business in the fall, and I teach global marketing, and it really is a class about culture.

[00:20:47] Katherine Melchior Ray: I’m really excited about my class and the work I do between my consulting, helping international businesses grow, both their business through marketing and their teams, through this kind of diversity and bringing diverse teams together. My fundamental belief is that learning to understand explicitly foreign cultures helps us understand the diversity at home.

[00:21:12] Roy Notowitz: Interesting. 

[00:21:14] Roy Notowitz: Well, this has been such a great interview. I really appreciate your time. We’re doing this in person, which I appreciate and it’s great to see you. 

[00:21:22] Katherine Melchior Ray: Thank you so much for inviting me to be here. It’s been really fun. 

[00:21:27] Roy Notowitz: Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire. Visit howihire.com for more details about what you heard today, as well as show notes and other podcasts that we’ve done in the past. 

[00:21:38] Roy Notowitz: How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. To find out more about Noto Group, visit notogroup.com, and you can also sign up for our newsletter there where we share monthly updates on jobs and projects that we’re working on. 

[00:21:52] Roy Notowitz: This podcast was produced by AO McClain, LLC. To learn more about their great work, visit aomcclain.com.