Marlene Williamson, CEO of Watermark, discusses how to create thought leadership for women CEOs and executives. Watermark, which started 22 years ago in the San Francisco Bay area, has a mission to increase the representation of women in leadership positions. Learn about the work required to become a thought leader in more male dominated fields such as engineering and three top recommendations to become a thought leaders in your field.

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Creating Thought Leadership for Women CEOs and Executives

The following is an edited transcript of this podcast. Since how we talk and how write is often very different, this transcript may contain uses of the English language (including grammar) that are not 100% correct. We are counting on your understanding in advance.

Karen Leland Branding ExpertToday, my guest is Marlene Williamson, the CEO of Watermark, and we will be discussing the importance of creating thought leadership for women CEOs and executives.

What is Watermark and what do they do?

BB4 | Thought Leadership for Women - Marlene WilliamsonWatermark has been in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 22 years. It was started by a wonderful female entrepreneur named Denise Brusseau, who was very challenged years ago in finding likeminded female entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. She said, “I am going to start an organization of female entrepreneurs.” She called it The Forum for Female Entrepreneurs. It grew and expanded to include corporate executives. She then changed the name to The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives. It was quite the mouthful of a title, so a few years ago, the board changed the name of the organization to Watermark.

But despite the name change, our mission has never wavered — and that is to increase the representation of women in leadership positions in creating thought leadership for women. We do that in three primary ways: We produce over 50 events a year in the San Francisco Bay Area. Second, we do a variety of networking events. Thirdly, we produce conferences on innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills.

A lot has been said today on the lack of women in top positions at high-tech companies. Why do you think we are still lagging behind in women being in top positions, particularly in high-tech companies, its it a lack of thought leadership for women?

The high-tech industry is dominated by engineering talent. The pipeline for engineering talent has always been predominantly men. Consequently, in the high-tech arena, most of the senior executives have been men because they have been groomed in engineering skills. The pipeline for female technical careers is critical, and Watermark feels passionately that we need to pay it forward. While we are a nonprofit, we do raise money for girls’ leadership programs, some of which are focused on STEM skills, to address the pipeline issue.

Why do you think that there are not more women going into engineering? Is it because they are not encouraged? Is it because it is harder for them to get into engineering schools, or maybe because they don’t think of themselves as engineers?  

They are not going because, especially in junior high, girls’ self-esteem is fragile. Many of them do not want to be perceived as geeks, which is why they tend to shy away from math and science. There are so many great organizations now that are showing young women that you can be a fabulous executive, have a fabulous career, and learn math and science. It does not mean that it is going to turn you into a geek. Geek has a negative connotation to young women. That is a very real issue that many young girls and organizations, including the Girl Scouts, are trying to rectify.

Is the personal brand that a woman leader creates different in any way from the way a male executive might create his brand? Do you feel that there is a difference in the way female leaders create thought leadership for women or men versus male executives?

We have all heard about how women are perceived as bossy and aggressive, whereas the man is perceived as a go-getter. There is that bias. There is no doubt about it. There is a lot more attention paid to her, right or wrong, on how she performs, and how the company performs with a female leader at the helm. That said I know of no female CEO or executive who wants to be known as a female CEO. They want to be known as a great CEO, and they just happen to be female.

You make a good point. When I work with CEOs on creating thought leadership for women specifically or on creating thought leadership in general, it is always about the thinking and the content that they are bringing to it. It is always about the expertise. It is not about their particular race, gender, age, or background.  

It is true. There is a wide variety of evidence now to show that diversity of thought drives the bottom line. A female perspective or a person-of-color perspective does bring a different filter or lens, and the variety of the diversity of that thought is what drives wonderful leadership teams to success.

BB4 | Thought Leadership for Women - Marlene Williamson

Watermark hosts Women Like Us (WLU) Network events as part of the many things they do to promote creating thought leadership for women.

How important do you think creating thought leadership for women CEOs and executives is?

I think creating thought leadership is important for any executive, because you are the face of the brand and you represent the brand. You need to have a unique point of view to distinguish your company from your competition. It will get you the attention that you deserve by having a point of view and marketing that point of view very effectively. That is Marketing 101 and it is extremely important because the rest of the world will stand up, take notice, and pursue you for your opinions because of being a thought leader on that particular issue.

Whenever I work on creating thought leadership for women CEOs and executives, they often say to me, “I don’t want to brag.” I tell them that it is not bragging; it is about owning your expertise and what you do, and showing it to the world. When it comes to personal branding, thought leadership for women, CEO branding there is a big difference between bragging and authentically owning what you have accomplished and what you have to contribute.  

I totally agree with you. It is interesting when you are seeing folks who are competing for a job or a promotion. They are looking for the ideal candidate that has these 10 qualities. The man says that he has two of them and he is in; then the woman says that she has two of them, and she is not qualified. It is crazy.

Everyone is so searchable today that people look you up and can find information about you almost instantly. In my opinion, you must have a public online presence. It may either be podcasting, blogging, or speaking at conferences. You have to establish your leadership presence, because that helps promote the brand of your company. I talk to my clients about creating a parallel brand where you have a CEO or executive brand that is parallel with your business brand.

Yes creating that CEO brand is critical. It drives your stock price, it drives your revenue, it helps you attract and retain employees, and it is a critical checkbox. Your board is evaluating your efforts in that area. That is just as important as anything else that a CEO is held accountable for. It is not something that a lot of people are comfortable with. I remember years ago that I had the pleasure of working at Apple Computers with John Sculley, who was the CEO, who described himself as an introvert. I was doing public relations for him in the company, and John would say, “This doesn’t come naturally to me because I do consider myself as an introvert. I do it for the company; I do it for the brand, because I know what is important for the stock price.”

I have observed that there is a gap between CEOs and executives. I think creating a personal brand and putting it out there is just as important for executives as it is for CEOs. So many C-Suite executives I talk to really don’t understand why it is important for them to do that. More to the point, their companies do not understand. I get at least one or two calls a week from a C-Suite executive from a Fortune 1000 company or an Inc. level 500 company who say, “I know that I need to create a stronger personal brand, and I know that it is going to benefit my company. But I am paying for this myself because I can’t get my company to pay for it because they don’t see the value in it.” What is your perspective on it?

I do think that it is a fine line when you are the CEO. You don’t want to market yourself personally, because it is important to market the company and you just happen to be the CEO. You could be the CEO of another company, or doing something differently tomorrow. It is important to market the company. You just happen to be holding the torch. You happen to be the CEO today, and your brand is a reflection of the company. I know many CEOs who walked that fine line very carefully because they don’t want to market themselves as the brand. They market the company, and they happen to be the spokesperson.

I agree and disagree. First, I think a CEO brand has to be in parallel with the business brand. It can’t compete with it, or be at odds with it. I agree with that you are the CEO and the torchbearer of the company, but where I disagree is an example like Tony Hsieh or Zappos, who I feel created a very separate thought leadership brand for himself, but it was connected with his business. It was in parallel with his business. Every time you hear of Tony Hsieh, you think of Zappos. Every time you hear of Zappos, you think of Tony Hsieh.

I feel that in today’s world, there is value in a CEO and executive being known as both a thought leader in some particular space, and the CEO or executive of a company. There is a value in the CEO or in the executive having somewhat of a personal thought leadership brand themselves. It is connected with the business, but it also stands on its own to some degree.

You make an excellent point because in that particular example, Tony Hsieh is known for social entrepreneurship. He can be a thought leader on that particular topic, while representing an individual brand or a company that he just founded. No matter what he chooses to do in his future endeavours, he will still be known for that.

What are the top three recommendations you give to women CEOs and executives to establish themselves and create thought leadership for women in a particular space?

The first thing is that I try to encourage people to think of that process as part of their DNA as an executive and as a leader. You are expected to do this. Whether you like it or not, it comes with the territory. You aspired to that rung on the ladder, and that is what comes with it. Speaking of creating thought leadership, I think of networking and branding as your 24-hour fitness for your own personal development.

I don’t find that that is the case right now. I don’t think most CEOs or executives realize that it is part of their DNA and part of their job. I think a lot of them still look at it as a nice add-on if they have time for it, as opposed to that it is actually part of the job description.

I agree, as I have had so many conversations throughout my career with CEOs. I looked them right in the eye and said, “You have a night job, you have a weekend job, and it is called as being a thought leader.” They then look at me and go, “Oh my gosh.” But they get it.

If you are an accountant by trade, and all of a sudden you are a CEO, or perhaps you are an engineer and you loved to code, and then all of a sudden you are a CEO, and it just does not come naturally to you, the smart people say, “I asked for this thing; I’ve got to jump in.”

What is your second recommendation to create thought leadership for women?

I would say, having a point of view and marketing that point of view — being known for something. The human brain can only handle so much data. When they look at you representing your company, they are going to remember one particular image and concept. Marketing that concept over and over with that point of view is very important.

This idea of having a point of view is so important, because you don’t create thought leadership for women in the middle of the road. You build it on anecdotes, stories, very specific ideas, and on particular content that you have come up with.

What is your third recommendation?

My third recommendation for creating thought leadership for women is, to be a CEO and an executive who knows all aspects of the business. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, no matter where your roots have been planted and what kind of discipline or function that you rose up the ranks. You have got to spend time and energy learning enough about the other functions of the business to clearly articulate a strategic level. Be conversive enough on the other areas to really succeed in that CEO role.

I’m not sure I think that the challenge of being a leader is fundamentally any different for men and women.

I totally agree with you. There are some nuisances and challenges that are unique to women. However, I want to add something, which is that the best workshops that we at Watermark offer are focused on leadership skills for both men and women. They learn from one another. We can talk about how the male brain operates differently than the female brain, as well as how men negotiate differently. You can see the light bulbs going on in their heads, but giving leadership skills to both men and women is extremely important.

We do emphasize that creating a culture that is welcoming and supportive of a diversity of thought, which includes women, is extremely important because there are too many female executives that are recruited to new environments, cultures, opportunities, and they leave, because the culture was not welcoming to them. That is something that we have to work on, that women don’t have to change themselves, that the culture is supportive of a diversity of thoughts.

I completely agree with that. As a management and marketing consultant, I see this all the time in many high-tech companies who struggle with a lack of diversity, and diversity makes a richer, better, more productive, and happier workplace.

BB4 | Thought Leadership for Women - Marlene Williamson

Any final thoughts?

I see that so many female executives who are busy working so hard, and trying to balance their home life with their career. When something goes wrong with their career and they did not get that promotion, or perhaps lost their job — at that point, they say they   should work on their network. In my opinion, at that point it is too late.

It should be something that you should always be working on at all times, because you never know when you are going to need it. If you do that, good things happen when it is unexpected, thanks to your network, your ecosystem, and relationships that you have developed over the years.

People know you, that you have a perspective, a point of view, and you are a thought leader. Then they they will seek you out, and that will help you propel whatever career aspirations that you have.

I always tell my clients, “You want to be creating your brand by design and not by default.” When you are in an emergency, it is almost always by default. I think it is very important to start working your CEO brand and thought leadership today. There is no time like the present.

Marlene, thank you so much for the interesting and lively conversation today. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule as a CEO to create thought leadership for women in being here and enlightening us.

My guest today has been Marlene Williamson. She is the CEO of Watermark. If you want to find out more, please go to

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About Marlene Williamson – CEO of Watermark

BB4 | Thought Leadership for Women - Marlene WilliamsonMarlene Williamson is the Chief Executive Officer of Watermark, an executive organization focused on gender diversity in business.  Previously Marlene was Chief Marketing Officer of a number of technology companies including Alfresco, BigMachines (sold to Oracle) and Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (sold to Western Digital).

Prior to joining Hitachi, Marlene was vice president of global marketing for Ericsson.  She has held vice president of marketing roles at Symantec, IBM, Polycom and Acer.  Earlier in her career, she led global consumer marketing at Apple.  Her expertise is in go to market & digital strategies for enterprise software companies.

She has been named Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association, Partner of the Year by Yahoo, Innovator of the Year by Google, Outstanding Female Executive in Silicon Valley by the YWCA and a Woman of Influence in Silicon Valley by the San Jose Business Journal.  She is a current board director of Watermark, a board advisor to several technology companies and a former board member of the CMO Council and the Association for Corporate Growth.

She holds an MBA from DePaul University, is accredited in corporate governance from Harvard and is a frequent  speaker on high tech go to market & digital strategies, leadership & gender diversity issues.

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This article is copyrighted by Karen Leland and cannot be reprinted in any form, electronic or otherwise, without the express written permission of Karen Leland.

Karen Leland is President of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding and marketing strategy and implementation firm. She works with individuals, businesses and teams to enhance their business and personal brands. Her clients include LinkedIn, American Express, Apple, Marriott Hotels and others. Her ninth book, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand, (Entrepreneur Press, 2016) is available online at, Barnes and, and in bookstores now.