Sometimes when I meet really successful women, I get starstruck and forget they’re normal people. I picture them functioning at a robotic level of efficiency — jogging five miles before sunrise, always making smart and professional decisions and saying things like “the book practically wrote itself.” They definitely don’t let their friends cut their hair while drunk or spill entire cups of coffee on themselves at the beginning of a workday.
Luckily, when I met Carla Piñeyro Sublett, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of National Instruments, she broke my starstruck spell early by making a joke about wanting to be a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake in a different life. Once I got past the shock of thinking she was reading my mind (call me, Justin), I realized she was not a fembot, but a real human.
From bar manager to powerhouse exec
Carla started out in architecture school, where she learned design thinking (topic du jour not just in design fields but also for figuring out your life), and ran a restaurant and bar to support herself. One lucky day, she was plucked from the restaurant when a patron overheard her speaking Spanish and asked if she would be interested in working for the new Latin American division of Dell.
After 10 years of working her way up from being a sales representative, Carla was CMO of Latin America for Dell and running a team of 600 when opportunity knocked again. A good friend called to recruit her to Rackspace, a cloud computing company. He encouraged her to join, saying, “I don’t know what you’re doing at Dell, but you’ll never be the next CEO there.” She realized she had gotten too comfortable, and she felt ready to push herself. So she took it.
Climbing down from the corporate ladder
And push herself she did. After two and a half years of hard work, and a daily three-hour round-trip commute, a successful rebrand and sale of the company, she felt her work was complete. Rackspace, happy with her work, offered her the opportunity to stay and continue to watch the company grow. But as she reflected on her options one day, while watching her children make their own breakfasts and barely speak to her, she had a harrowing thought — “I’m a ghost in my own house.”
Carla had been working since she was 13 and was totally burned out: “As an executive in tech for 20 years, I’d found that I’d ironically become disconnected having grown up during the connected era. I’d been operating from a place of mind and gut for so long – that I’d totally lost heart connection.”
So she did something drastic — said no to the job offer, pulled her kids out of school and traveled the world with her family.
A drastic shakeup
Carla unenrolled her kids from school in the spring, and by summer they were deep into what would turn out to be nine months of intermittent travel. The family traveled to Asia, Central America and Europe and spent anywhere from a few days to weeks in each city they visited — experiencing new cultures, new religions, new ways of thinking and connecting with the people around them.
Carla and her husband homeschooled the kids while they traveled with the help of coursework provided by their school. To top it off, the family went largely device-free during that time, sharing one phone among them and limiting its use to emergencies and staying in touch with family.
When I asked her what device-free life felt like, she said, “After 24 hours it’s basically euphoria.” She and her entire family slept and ate better and felt generally happier.
Living a “fluid life”
Back from travels, it was time for Carla to consider her next move. She proceeded to go on “100 professional dates,” meeting with CEOs, private equity firms, recruiters and friends to network and talk about job possibilities. By the end of that journey, she had a clear idea of what she wanted. When the offers began to roll in, there was only one that met what she was looking for.
But this time she knew things needed to be different. She didn’t want her work to end up dominating everything. So she decided to take a new approach, which she calls “living a fluid life.” Far from drawing hard boundaries between her personal and professional life, now, Carla lets life and work mix. For example, she runs in the morning with friends to talk about work and life, and leaves her office to have lunch with her dad. She makes herself available to her team while she’s at home, but managing her work and life holistically makes it feel less like work is taking over.
In Carla’s words, “There’s no day you’ll be great at everything,” whether that’s being a worker, friend, mom or wife. Living in a way where she doesn’t feel bad for leaving work early for an event at her kid’s school or having to send an email in the evening allows Carla to juggle all the things she does and shine at what she’s best at that day, whether it’s her job or her family and personal life.
The value of fluidity doesn’t stop with her — it’s something she’s always instilled in her employees too. When she started at Dell, she noticed the health of the sales staff flagging. New employees often gained 15 pounds in their first month because of the sedentary culture — they ate takeout all the time and didn’t move around enough.
Concerned, she implemented a new policy — letting workers exercise during work hours. In an environment where the success of sales is often tied to being available to clients during business hours, this was considered radical. But she wanted to encourage people to get healthy and foster relationships with each other. She also had a hunch this would increase productivity. At the peak of her policy, there were over 175 participants. Participants began living healthier lifestyles, and many people ran their first race during this time, with many first time runners still running today.
A new outlook
After almost losing her sense of self to an unhealthy dedication to her job, Carla has a new outlook on work and life. Aside from her fluid lifestyle, Carla brings a new heart-led approach to the office. Connecting with people is what matters to her.
For example, when she started her role as CMO of National Instruments in February 2019, she scheduled 100 one-on-one meetings in her first two months to get to know as many members of her 500-person team as possible.
Carla has always been a hard worker who prides herself on her and her team’s success. But her travels taught her that in order to live a full life, you need balance. In her words, “I’ve always been an ambitious person. However, it isn’t personal ambition. I’m more interested in making an impact — through my work, for my teams and in the community I live.”
Staying in touch with herself and spending time with her family and are more important to Carla than ever. “I want to do great work, but not at all costs. If I’m going to spend time away from people I love, it’d better be worth it.”
Here’s to having a life and a job you enjoy, and letting it all be fluid.