Wife, mother, communicator, mentor – 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, 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 education, publishing, e-commerce, and travel.
In addition to her esteemed career in communications, Marita uses her voice to advocate for diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace. By starting conversations around representation, unconscious bias, and ally-ism, she aims to create an environment where all employees feel welcomed and listened to. With a passion for helping others, Marita enjoys being a mentor within Cars.com and Polished Pebbles, a non-profit organization that helps underprivileged girls in Chicago become great communicators at home, school, and in the 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.
My philosophy is that you’re always in the right place at the right time. Nothing is a mistake; nothing is by accident. I am a southside Chicago girl. When I was 17, a counselor called me into the office to inform me about a small PR firm looking for someone to help out around the agency after school. I interviewed for the position and became a coordinator intern at a PR agency on Michigan Avenue. All of this happened because that counselor saw something in me. I learned so much at that age, working beside those wonderful PR professionals.
Then, I went to college and majored in Accounting. I don’t know what made me do it. I had this internship at a PR agency that welcomed me back every break and I still went into Accounting. Finally, the next semester I asked myself, why am I doing this? I want to do PR. After that one semester, I changed my major to PR and English writing. The rest is history.
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 said, do something that you know you can get a job after college. Forget that! After one semester, I was miserable. So, I knew I had to do 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 that we sit on are not by accident. It’s important to do something you’re passionate about. You should be doing things that you love because it’s not living if what you do isn’t driven by passion. Before I graduated college, my Father gave me good advice. He said never do anything for the money. I understand that is a privileged statement because sometimes people have to do things to survive. But when you are in a position to do it for love and passion, you have to go where your talents lead you. God gave us these talents for a reason, and I believe we should use them to forge our paths.
There’s no one defining moment in my career. I am a true believer that every single role I’ve had, prepared me for the next thing or prepared me for that thing that came two or three jobs later. I can pick something out of every single role in every place that has led to my trajectory. Johnson Publishing is one of the nearest and dearest to my heart. I grew up with Ebony, Fashion Fair, and Jet. To be able to walk into that greatness was one of those breathtaking moments. I really felt the ancestors around me when I first walked into that office. Just to be in the presence of greatness and have a conversation with John and Eunice Johnson still gives me goosebumps. They helped define what the African American advertising market looked like.
I’ll share one of the most memorable moments I had at the company. I was giving a presentation with my co-worker, who has since become a sister to me. 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 at Ebony as long as you want it. For him to say that to me and to see that potential in me meant the world. Though no one job or moment defines my career, Johnson Publishing was the one most special.
The days are never the same because the world changes daily. That’s the interesting thing about communications and PR. I never know what media outlet is going to call our team.In my current position, I lead internal communications. That includes all the employee communications, culture, executive positioning, messaging, investor relations, earnings, and events such as trade shows etc. So, it is a lot of writing and messaging.
Much of the foundation of communications is driven by building and maintaining relationships, whether it is with media or customers. That’s the foundation. Writing is a part of my day every day. I’m building relationships across the organization and bringing things together. That’s a large part of my role. Communications as a shared services team – we act as a mini agency within cars.com.
In terms of my management style, I really like to manage people’s talents and strengths, not just their roles. My management style is high-touch and collaborative. I think you’re a successful manager when you can figure out and harness someone’s talents and strengths. I used to have the tendency to do it for the person I manage. If they couldn’t get something right, I’d do it myself. But that’s a level of impatience. That doesn’t make a good manager.
I’ve learned how to be more of a coach. Especially when someone has the raw talent. What you want to do is teach them how to fish. You don’t want to go get the fish for them. I’ve learned how to be that coach for my team. I’ve learned how to ask questions, guide them through. So that the next time, they can do it for themselves, they’ve learned and grown. I’ve helped create these really competent communications people, where they can do it without me.
Mentorship is something that I think is really important from a really young age. I sit on the board of a non-profit called Polished Pebbles, a mentoring program for underserved girls in our Chicago communities. The founder is focused on making sure girls have the communication skills to present themselves. This program helps them discover what their passions and strengths are, so they can hold important conversations. She wrote a book called Every Girl’s a CEO. It’s about showing every girl that every single day, you’re managing a bunch of stuff like a CEO. Whether it’s getting up and getting your schedule together or balancing sports and school. Whatever it is, you’re managing things, and that’s part of a skill set.
The program is for sixth graders through high school. It starts there, so when they get to the corporate environment, they are important because it’s about representation. I try to make myself open to anyone who wants to sit and have lunch. I have a couple of mentees at cars.com. I enjoy those conversations with them. I think it is important for people to see themselves in you and know that they can get to those levels. It’s about representation.
Being a coach is definitely something that makes a good leader. What makes a great leader is being able to listen and being approachable. I often find that some leaders just don’t feel approachable. You miss a lot of innovation and ideas that way because younger team members don’t feel comfortable talking to you or don’t feel comfortable coming up to you. Good ideas come from everywhere, at every level of the organization.
I think leaders must be approachable. They need to listen and make time for employees. That said, approachability is different from busyness. The size of the company may be a factor in terms of having access to the person. If you have that accessibility, you need to be approachable if you are leading people. That’s why management style matters; having good managers at every level is so important.
Lead by example. My team knows that I am in it with them. I’ve done the task they’re doing, so I get it, and I understand. I think that’s really important to them. The team knows I’m not going to ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do or haven’t done. They know that I am 100% for the team and will defend them if they are right. They also know I’m direct, and I will tell them if they are wrong.
I think what excites me most about PR is seeing the story’s angles land. That excites me. Public Relations has no limits, because at the foundation of it, PR is all about building relationships and maintaining relationships, strong communication skills, and strong writing. All of those things are transferable to anything you want to do. It excites me that in my career, I have zero limits. I know I’m a good writer, I know I’m a good communicator, I know I can build relationships, they are all things that will take me anywhere I want to go.
What I’m most excited about at cars.com is all the important work that the company has done around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Not just when George Floyd was murdered. Not just when Amhaud Arbery was murdered. Not just when Brianna Taylor was murdered, but the stuff they were doing when I walked in the door more than three years ago. Making sure there was equitable pay across the organization and having a diverse board.
Cars.com is a marketplace that connects buyers and sellers. We’re a technology company, and we’re an auto company. These two industries are not diverse at all. Not ethnic and historically driven by men. Despite this, we have a company that looks at equitable pay and holds itself accountable to diversity targets at the board level, the leadership level, and throughout the entire organization. Cars.com is a company I respect because that work was already happening and taking place when I walked in the door.
2020 was a heck of a year for all of us. Racial and social injustice on top of a pandemic, on top of an election. I am really proud that I got to use my voice and the seat on which I sit. I got to lead so many diversity efforts last year, centered around having conversations across the company and allowing our employee resource groups to help lead those conversations about ally-ism. We call it ‘Conversations at Cars’.
We have a conversation about the thing you can do to be an ally, the actions you can take to help clean up our communities, the steps you can follow to start your activism. Something allies really wanted to have a conversation about. _They wanted to know where they overstepped and how they could help. We had those real conversations around unconscious bias and how to start being an ally. THIS PARAGRAPH IS A BIT CONFUSING(We may remove it).
I’m continuing to lead an effort across our company to help drive representation in our industry. So, you have about 1200 minority dealers, auto car dealers, out of 40,000 in the universe 1200. And of that, 246 are black. I have a CEO who is very driven and wants to make sure that representation is there. We were really committed to doing the real work, so we started a partnership. This goes back to the importance of relationship building. I worked with the President of the National Association of Minority Auto Dealers, Damon Lester, to build a program where cars.com helps to drive minority-owned dealerships through supplying education sessions.
We had over 200 dealers in our trial. In the Q4 trial, we gave them our solutions and our technology to really help them bolster their business and compete in the marketplace. To minority-owned dealerships, there are really unique challenges. We want them to start off the year up and not down. I’ve loved leading the charge around driving representation in auto and providing those skills, education sessions, and solutions to help minority-owned dealerships compete and thrive.
We look at it from a company perspective. Our HR team has done a phenomenal job with making sure that we’re hitting metrics and we’re recruiting a diverse slate of candidates. We have Black Employees United, our employee resource group. We went and did some community cleanups, and it’s becoming a community guard. It’s about doing the work. It’s about what those actionable steps are. I work in one of the most diverse companies in the auto industry. 40% of the leadership team at Cars.com identifies as a minority. I am really proud that I sit where I sit and can help drive these efforts. I am lucky to have a leadership team that is committed and understands that diversity is important. Without it, the culture is not there.
You have to have engaged leaders. Right now, I have a board and a CEO that understand the importance of diversity, because it’s a diverse board. He ensures his whole leadership team is actively engaged in this topic. You have to have that at the leadership level. That’s what’s missing; enough company leaders sitting in these seats to prioritize and socialize diversity to provide teams with actionable plans.
Longevity with an upward trajectory. Communications is one of those high-stress roles. To have joy and longevity in communications is a big deal. Every place I went, I was able to climb. I think that’s an accomplishment, because in PR, you can get really stuck.
You have to keep growing your skills. You have to be able to understand lots of things. Any business that you’re in, you have to understand it intimately, not just at a balcony level. You have to understand it to be able to write and pitch stories. There is a place where you can get stuck in a PR/communications career. So, I’m really grateful and proud that I’ve been able to have this longevity and to move up in my career.
I don’t see a lot of things as a challenge. I view things as an opportunity. One thing that I’ve mentioned, you have to keep moving. You need to keep those writing/communication skills fresh and be a student of the game all the time.
That can be a challenge when you’re at the beginning of your career because you need to understand businesses intimately to be really good at what you do. It’s hard to get better at lower levels because you’re not in the conversation. So, what I would say is, it’s critical to have that mentor within the organization or within your team at higher levels; who can explain what’s going on with the business. This helps you understand what you’re writing and what you’re pitching.
The beginning of your career is the hardest part. It’s difficult to write about something that you don’t understand. It’s even harder to pitch something that you don’t know a lot about. So, I think it’s really about having the right mentor, the right person to help you understand that business and that industry.
Absolutely nothing. Everything gets you to the path you’re on. I love the path I’m on. The journey has not been an easy one, but every single role has gotten me here. There’s absolutely nothing I would do differently.
I’ve been home for a year. March 13th was our final day in the office in 2020. Before COVID even hit, my management style was very high-touch and very collaborative. It’s a part of who I am. I’m an extreme extrovert. I like to talk to my teams. 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.
I’m high-touch and collaborative. COVID has accelerated that. So before we couldn’t see each other, my team would sit together in the morning to have our quick chats before we went our separate ways throughout the day. Now with COVID, I’ve implemented team meetings three times a week, which I would never do in an in-person environment. The team meeting is for us to connect with each other. Make sure we understand everybody’s projects and priorities across the team. For me, it really is just to check and make sure everybody’s mental space is good. Right. With my team, I can get on a call and connect with everyone. It allows me to actually see who’s having a rough day and check-in with them later.
Thank goodness I don’t have babies. I have two girls, one is 10, and one is on the verge of 13. They are very independent and can get in their zones and do e-learning while being successful and efficient with their work. To adapt to the new environment, we created structure. It was very much understood that just because you’re not physically in a school building doesn’t mean you’re not at school. So, you’re going to have a structured day. You’re going to wake up, you’re going to shower, do your hair, and put clothes on just like you’re going to school. So, the first thing was setting that expectation for my girls.
The second thing was creating a space for them to learn. We turned a room in our basement into an e-learning room. It’s set up for the girls to do school together. We have a desk, bookcases, and things that they need to be successful. E-learning has been all about creating structure and setting the same expectations. I expect the same effort and grades. In terms of my workspace, I do my work in my sitting area. I’m usually up here all by myself. My husband is a superintendent and works in his district, so I am at home alone with the girls most days.
I don’t want to encourage this, but I’m not a good sleeper. I don’t sleep well. Typically, my day starts at 2am-3am. During this time, I will read through emails. That’s always the first thing that I do. I try not to send emails too late. 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, Slack, and whatnot. Next, I tackle any important writing that I need to do while the world is quiet. Everything is on my phone, from presentations, scripts, and notes.
I think getting up early and getting my writing done. Getting those emails out of the way helps. I like to read enough to know what’s brewing from the day or night before. I think it really helps ground me in my day. It gets me ready for the zone calls. I am prepared for all those unpredictable things that happen in communications.
Spending time with family and friends. Having gratitude is also helpful. When something stresses me out, I always think, is this going to be a thing in 24 hours? Do I just need to get through it? PR is a high-stress job. It’s one of those professions where you have to have a poker face all the time. I always think about how grateful I am to do what I love. Gratefulness really helps me get through those tough times and be realistic about the situation.
PR is constant. It’s one of those things that’s 24/7 because anything can happen at any given time. It can be high stress, but it’s something I love so much that it never feels like work. I’ve been in this game for nearly 24 years. I am a publicist at heart and that still lives in me. I’m a person who loves media and consuming content. I still love creating and crafting those stories and seeing what’s going to hit with the Media. We’ve all been tired, but I’m driven by the love of it.
Mentoring has been a big thing for me because the foundation of communications is just relationship building. I also think being a mother is the most humbling thing. I’ve been a mom for almost 13 years. What I’ll say is being a mother has definitely given me some of that patience I didn’t have before my first daughter. I think that patience is necessary for managing and in my career overall.
I read a lot of the advertising trade magazines because a part of the cars.com business is an advertising business. So, I read AdWeek and every PRWeek all the time. But really, I’m just a student of media. I’m always looking at the news and those morning shows like Good Morning America and Today. I’m always looking at the news. From the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, People Magazine, I try to read everything. Because I do industry comps, I’m reading automotive news and remarketing. I’m trying to see what stories are sticking and landing.
I want to do more of what we’re doing right now. I get asked all the time to speak on panels and do interviews. I am doing it for other people all the time, so I feel like I don’t have the energy and the time. I’ve been in this game for nearly 24 years, and I have a lot of experience and stories to share. I think that people could learn from me. I think I have something to teach. In the coming years, this is more of what I want to do.
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.
I am pretty much an open book. You ask me a question, and I’ll answer it. I am such an extrovert. But for around three hours out of the day, I am a real introvert. After coming off of 1500 phone calls every day, there are a couple hours where I really need to decompress. I can’t talk for hours. In my extreme extrovert world, for like two hours every day, I’m an introvert.
Black Butterfly by Deniece Williams. It’s a song I heard in my house a lot growing up. I love the lyric, rise up even higher, so the wind can catch your wings. I think about that being a part of who I am. I relate to it in terms of my career and my trajectory. When I talk about hard work, if you work really hard at a job, you’ll get to the next thing, and you’ll be ready when an opportunity knocks. You’ll be rising up. The universe will reward you for hard work and put the wind at your back to help you rise even higher.
Inspiration comes through the work that we do. It comes from my team. At the heart of it, I’m a mentor and a coach, so I get inspiration from the people I work with all the time. I love listening and talking with junior team members. They’re so creative and innovative. I am motivated by the work and by the internal teams every day.
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.
If you enjoyed this interview and want to know more, please share this article on social media. We love to hear from you! Stay tuned for the next edition of Executive Insights.
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.
If you enjoyed this interview and want to know more, please share this article on social media. We love to hear from you! Stay tuned for the next edition of Executive Insights!
South Side. I’m from Bronzeville.
London, England. I love all the different cultures there.
My parents. They’ve been married for 57 years.
The Corner Office by Adam Bryant.