Executive of the Year Melanie Babcock on change and growth at The Home Depot

We all may find ourselves at The Home Depot for different reasons — from needing paint for a nursery to a new part to fix the lawn mower. (If you’re anything like me, you’re not leaving without a new plant...)

But whether you’re shopping online, via mobile app, or in response to a well-timed and relevant offer, there is one part of the experience that is consistent: the trademark Home Depot orange apron.

What you may not know is that stitched on every apron are the words “we put customers first.”

The world’s largest home improvement retailer has undergone a substantial digital transformation under this charter, embracing a customer-based go-to-market strategy built around customer data and insights. Their Interconnected Retail strategy leveraged Adobe Experience Cloud technology to create one seamless experience for the customer — driving growth and paving the way for retail experiences of the future.

Leading the team behind these efforts has been Melanie Babcock, VP of integrated media and 2022 Adobe Experience Maker Executive of the Year award winner for the Americas who spoke to us about the win, lessons learned, and her advice for other digital pioneers.

Tell me about the feeling of hearing your name called during our virtual awards gala.

At the Oscars, they often say it's an honor to be nominated, but honestly, it really is an honor to be nominated and recognized by the Adobe team for what a tremendous amount of work went into this achievement.

My 12-year-old daughter was sitting next to me and trying to take my picture during the ceremony. I was thrilled to have my own child here to witness that. It’s uncommon to have your children witness your professional success. She picked up the trophy and said, “It’s really heavy!”

This category in particular focused on your leadership as The Home Depot embraced a more customer-driven go-to-market strategy. Tell me about that shift.

The saying stitched on the inside of our aprons at The Home Depot is “we put customers first,” and it’s a mantra for us in marketing as we think about how to deliver personalized experiences for our customers.

As a Home Depot customer, you come with a very specific purpose and a problem to solve in your home. If we know more about you, your style, and what projects are in your home, the better we can serve you and anticipate your needs.

We started by building our foundation of data and new team structures and processes, then were asked one day by our CEO to go. We have worked to scale as quickly as possible — because the customer does need to be put first.

With so many product categories across the many customers you serve, tell me about your approach to managing customer data.

I believe that data science is fundamental and foundational to the success of any retailer. Today, it’s an asset that must be leveraged to compete effectively in the marketplace. It’s so important that I personally have championed the growth of that team, a sister team to mine, that helps to support my vision, strategies, and people. We’re so closely connected.

You have to have a lot of structure and strategy about how to leverage that data, how it's organized, and the speed at which you can respond to it.

We ask, “How do we help the customer at every step?” Personalization is the ultimate strategy for us to make sure they feel confident in the projects they’re in and comfortable with The Home Depot as their partner to complete those projects.

At the end of the day every customer expects to be treated a certain way with a certain standard of care with their dollars. Personalized experiences must meet that expectation, and it’s data science married to marketing that produces that outcome.

“Data science married to marketing.” You really should stitch that on the inside of the aprons. What enabled you to make this important change internally?

I’m fortunate to work for a company that has entrepreneurship as a core value. If we see an opportunity that we know is going to produce a great customer experience, increase our ability to compete in the marketplace, or produce a great associate experience, then we are empowered to bring those ideas and push them forward.

Our culture allows us to adapt to change, and so I felt empowered to go to many leaders across the business and talk about this idea of personalization. But getting there meant really big organizational structure changes, and while that took a lot of time to socialize, we eventually set a date and decided to make the shift on that date.

It happened to occur in the middle of a pandemic, but change is necessary. Sometimes, great changes need a great big shift. Little baby steps and small wins are important, but if you want to scale and go beyond a test-and-learn state, you've got to say, “Today's the day.” You’ve got to have the guts to go.

I admire that bravery. How did you stay motivated throughout the changes within your teams, especially on those tough days?

I have such great respect for the people on my team who embraced these changes, and they have seen great growth in their own careers. At the end of the day, that was a big motivator for me, a passion for my own people who needed this experience to be leaders of marketing someday.

I’m not being a good leader if I don't put my team in situations where they learn on their own, in an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes. How do we give people opportunities to grow their skillsets and learn in a safe way? I have top performers and they need to be challenging themselves within new roles, new technology, new ways of analyzing data, thinking about the financial impact to the business, and embracing new ways of going to market.

I think this exposure and shift gave our people a sigh of relief and permission to transform themselves. That means the world to me. I’ve seen bigger ideas and bigger contributions from every level of the team, and those are the best moments. Those are the true awards.

That’s what this award is all about. It may be the Executive of the Year, but it's not a solo effort. You're creating leaders of tomorrow and investing in your people — kudos. What advice would you give yourself and others going down a similar, transformational journey?

I would first tell myself — you can do it. It's okay, you can do it.

Then my biggest advice would be to have a common goal that everyone can celebrate and see themselves producing. There are 300 of us on this team, and we had only two primary goals. This helped with the speed of transformation, the ease of storytelling, and made clear how to organize our structure from the very beginning.

I’ve also become a very transparent leader and very accessible. We do a lot of skip levels where I go and meet with every group on the team and have very honest conversations. I love hearing what's not working.

People need information, even if it's just a small update. I started a weekly Friday email where I talk to my teams about what's going on so they can see how their work is driving back to mine, and we can all feel connected back to the work we are doing together. Even if it's not good news, I share it, as not everything has to be sugar-coated or rosy. We want to hear the difficulties — because that makes the wins even better.

What are you up to when you’re not creating the future of retail experiences?

My husband and I have two girls that keep us very busy on their travel softball teams. I'm always on a field supporting and cheering someone on.

What a pleasure to sit down with Melanie, a champion and role model for so many — her athlete daughters, the employees at The Home Depot who she invests in and encourages to grow, the full Adobe team and partners, and, of course, any of us navigating the changing world of digital experiences from within our organizations.