This speech was given on September 16, 2019 by Maril Gagen MacDonald as she was inducted into the 2019 Arthur W. Page Hall of Fame in Boston, Massachusetts.
Thanks, for that great introduction, Aedhmar! And Bob – congratulations on your Distinguished Service Award. It’s a little daunting to follow the two of you on stage. Not only are you my friends but you’re two of the most beloved and accomplished members of the society.
Bob, I’m so delighted that you’re being recognized tonight for your many, many contributions to our industry. I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with you through the years and have seen first-hand how much you do, and how generously you contribute your wisdom, and your wit!
And to all of the former Hall of Fame and Distinguished Service honorees, it’s a real thrill to be in your company.
Aedhmar – your visionary leadership as our chair has been an amazing gift to all of us. I thank you, Roger, Bill Nielsen and the Page Honors Committee for honoring me tonight.
When I saw the news release announcing this award, I was struck by a quote from Bill Nielsen describing me as a “prolific thinker”. And of course, that got me thinking.
I’m very flattered by this characterization and hope my thinking has influenced Page and our broader profession. But what’s really influenced me is that I’m also a prolific believer.
So on this very special occasion, let me share six beliefs with you.
Einstein once said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
I believe we live in a friendly universe.
When you look at the world these days, it’s easy to believe that hostility rules.
The way information – and misinformation – are being weaponized…
the way that private information is being hacked and exploited…
the never-ending parade of scandals and abuses of authority…
it feels like hostility is all around us.
Maybe I’m a bred-in-the-bone optimist, but I refuse to concede that this hostility represents the universe’s fundamental nature. Rather, I believe that it’s simply evidence that society is not currently organized in a way that allows friendliness to shine.
Here on earth, we experience the universe through people…and people are wired to search for meaning. That’s humanity’s defining trait. We want to feel that we are continually growing and achieving … that our efforts matter.
I believe the negativity that surrounds us today stems from a deficit of personal and professional purpose. In today’s hectic and harried world, many people are searching for the sense of social connectedness they once experienced through things like their neighborhood or their church.
This is a huge opportunity for companies to step up to fill the void. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves…which leads me to my second belief.
I believe that companies can transform the world.
Large companies, like the ones served by members of the Page Society, are among the world’s most powerful forces. It’s up to us to make sure they are forces for good.
There’s been much discussion of the purpose of a corporation. I’m not going to rehash that here. However, I will point out what I think is often overlooked.
It’s something Stacy Jones touched on earlier today.
People spend the majority of their waking hours at work. So, at their best, companies provide more than just a paycheck. They provide a community, a place to bring one’s greatest gifts, energy, and passion.
At their best, companies create peace and satisfaction in believing that our time spent at work really matters. When done well, this is where people come together to collaborate, find personal fulfillment — and together make their mark on the world.
After all, a company is ultimately a collection of people.
Those of you who have known me for a long time are familiar with my experience as the Chief Communication Officer at Navistar. That was nearly 2 decades ago. I’m raising it here because that experience, and the inspiration I took away, were a turning point in life. And is still really relevant today.
For those of you who don’t know Navistar, it’s an icon of American industrial history.
The company was founded in the 1830s as International Harvester, and at the time
was one of the three most recognized brands in the world. However, by the early ‘90s, the company was beaten down and exhausted. We had gone through six failed labor negotiations…our brand was colossally damaged…and our stock was in the tank. During the worst of our struggles, tempers ran hot and fingers pointed in every direction. I remember once being told that our CEO couldn’t hold a meeting on a plant floor for fear of getting pelted with tomatoes. It was a hostile universe.
Five years later, when we’d turned around the company, we’d achieved more than improved performance and profitability. We’d made the universe a little friendlier.
Thousands of people who had been trapped in spirals of resentment, frustration and malaise rediscovered purpose and meaning in their work.
The most rewarding part of what we accomplished was hearing people talk about how — as their pride in their work increased — they became better. Not just better employees but better spouses, better parents, better friends, better community members — and better citizens.
That’s when I realized our company vision: To help transform the companies that transform the world.
This leads me to my third belief. Our biggest opportunities exist in the white space between functional siloes.
Companies face such complex challenges these days. You know what they are: speeding innovation, building agile cultures, meeting evolving customer expectations — all while delivering quarterly results without a hiccup — in an era of radical transparency and deep mistrust. It can feel overwhelming.
None of these challenges have a clear owner or live in a functional silo. These kinds of issues can only be solved by tapping into a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
Let’s go back to Navistar. On its surface, its turnaround story was about first-time quality. We were at 2%. That means…yes…98 out of 100 trucks that came off our lines needed re-work. We had football fields full of trucks waiting for repairs. Every day, the repair lot grew, morale declined, and our bottom line suffered.
When I was hired as CCO, our CEO told me my job was to change our name. He said he was tired of his wife complaining that the Wall St. Journal only referred to us as “beleaguered Navistar”.
However, when I started to dig into things, it quickly became clear that our “name” wouldn’t be fixed by a better perception, we needed a better reality. And that reality hinged on quality. To improve quality, we did an enormous amount of research –
with validity and reliability that would make our academic brethren proud.
Our goal was to better understand the roots of our issues. What the research told us was stunning in its simplicity. Everything came down to respect for people.
Over the course of our struggles, we’d lost a sense of respect between management and frontline employees. Lack of respect bred lack of pride, and lack of pride bred poor execution. Poor execution meant more quality issues. To treat people with respect, we needed to acknowledge their intelligence and expertise and bring their perspective into the solution. When we created avenues to collaboratively develop and test new ideas, our processes and execution got better. Not only did performance improve, so did engagement. With greater engagement came more improvement. It was a virtuous cycle that started with culture change. We called it Climate For Performance.
I’ve found that the problems I’ve felt most proud of tackling, and the solutions I’ve felt most proud of pioneering, have been ones that were bigger than my job description. At Navistar, I was hired primarily to direct our communication efforts.
Instead, we utilized culture to restore respect, brand to restore pride, and predictive analytics to show the casual relationship between specific leadership behaviors
and better operating performance – such as increased quality and decreased absenteeism.
This wasn’t my original remit — and 25 years ago, culture, brand and predictive analytics weren’t the buzzy topics they are today, but they got us to the heart of the problem and to the best solution. We just needed to make everyone think bigger to get there.
This leads me to my fourth belief. I believe we need to define communication in its broadest sense.
At Gagen MacDonald, we’re often asked to help our client’s design the communication function of the future. As part of that, we’ve been fortunate to interview hundreds of top executives to understand their view and expectations of communications: why it exists, what it does and what it serves to accomplish.
Guess what? We’ve learned that our C-Suite colleagues view communication through the lens of the individual with whom they most frequently interface. So, if you present an expansive skillset and broad set of capabilities, you will be asked to use them. So many of us see the fact that “nobody understands what we do” as a curse. It’s actually a blessing! Our new Page report, that Roger top-lined today, The CCO as Pacesetter, addresses exactly that.
All of us should be pushing our teams to define our scope more broadly. We’re already seeing that when we don’t claim the bigger space, someone else does
Navistar CEO John Horne once tome me that when it came to my title, he didn’t know what to call me. However, he noted, I always call you. One of my greatest career highlights was John announced at a Leadership Conference that he didn’t consider communication to be a staff function. He declared that we were an operating function. Why? Because we drove company performance.
I’ve learned through experience that communication crosses all, if not most domains. So I encourage all of us to break free from thinking of communication
in its traditional sense.
If you look at my career pedigree you’d agree. I’m a functional mutt. I’ve worked in Finance, HR, and operations, including running oil spill response for British Petroleum. I’ve been an executive and entrepreneur, for organizations large and small. I draw on the skills I acquired in each of these different roles all the time.
They’ve made me a better communicator, and as importantly, a sharper business person and better leader.
So when I started Gagen, I was determined to build a team with expansive collective intelligence. In addition to experts in communication, HR and leadership, we brought in people with backgrounds in neuroscience and linguistics, former lawyers and former poets, people with degrees ranging from MBAs to systems management to industrial psychology. Individually, we look at problems differently. Collectively, it pushes us to think bigger.
Gagen MacDonald is truly an ensemble cast. Everything we’ve accomplished, I owe to my amazing colleagues – some of whom date back all the way to our Navistar days.
I wouldn’t be here tonight if not for their collective intelligence. We’ve been on a mission of a lifetime, and I learn something new in every conversation.
So, my fifth belief. I believe we need to let go. Many of you know that my passion is helping people and organizations navigate the human struggle of change. Ten years ago, to explore the relationship between change, leadership, and individual growth, I launched a digital community called Let Go & Lead, which has evolved into a podcast. In it, I speak with business leaders, academics and creative thinkers to hear about their career and life journeys, and gather what they have learned about change, transformation and creativity along the way.
In every interview, I ask a common question; “What do you think leaders need to let go of?” Certain responses come up frequently: the need to make things manageable,
the need to have all the answers, the need to feel busy, the need to hang onto the past. Only one answer has been nearly universal: the need to let go of control.
As individuals and as companies, the world today moves too fast and in such dynamic networks, that control is an illusion. This leaves us two choices – we can entrench ourselves in old behaviors and power structures and try to ride out the storm – or we can loosen the reins. Only when we choose the latter does personal or organizational transformation become possible. This is my life’s work.
So what’s next?
I’m working with my Gagen colleagues to continue to pioneer new ways to help leaders think about their role in transformation and engagement. We’re currently experimenting with how we can learn from nature. For example — we all know that caterpillars become butterflies. I’m fascinated by the fact that a living being is capable of transforming to become something entirely new. What makes that possible? Something called imaginal cells.
Imaginal cells live in a caterpillar, but they are the blueprint for a butterfly. At the point when a caterpillar is ready to transform, while other aspects of its body dissolve into goo, imaginal cells find each other. They connect. They expand. And eventually,
a butterfly begins to emerge. A butterfly — not a better caterpillar. That’s real transformation.
And so, the Imaginal Cell is my next adventure. We’re taking the leadership workshops in which many of you have participated to a heightened place. A place where people can slow down, learn from nature, understand their personal energy and discover the imaginal cells that reside within all of us. It’s only when these cells come to life that we can truly let go and lead. And only when we let go and lead that we truly manifest what each of us was uniquely built for.
So, you may be saying to yourself… using nature to better understand leadership? Interesting. But why discuss that here? And why now? Well, I’ve learned through experience that whenever I’ve put my intent out into this friendly universe, the universe will conspire to make it happen – and people will come forward to help.
So, I’m going to share one of our latest crazy projects with you.
Like everyone in this room, our firm continually explores how to make better use of technology. I thought Alan Mark’s presentation was fantastic. We’re looking at how to build that CommTech stack and we’re continually getting better and better at new ways of engagement and of doing our jobs. But I don’t think that’s the final frontier. I believe that the more technology takes over our jobs of Doing – the more our real work as humans will be centered on Being. Our greatest work is internal to ourselves. That’s where I believe we have much to learn from the collective intelligence of nature.
My team and I have been piloting integrating nature into several of our leadership workshops. One small but important pilot project we have underway is how to use horses to mirror our leadership intent and energy, to teach us to be mindful of our nonverbal communication and to take us back to that 10-year old authentic self that many of us have buried along the way. My intent is that this work will inform the other work that’s at our core, much as Let Go & Lead has done for us. Again, we’re reaching into other domains to define communication in its broadest sense.
Many of you have patiently encouraged this idea. And many of you have said that when I call, you’ll be along for the ride. And so, my 6th and final belief for the night. I believe we all need a posse.
We need those people who believe in us, will ride with us, and will push us to be as amazing as we were made to be. My gratitude for my posse would take hours to fully express. So let me just say this.
To my husband of 35 years – Mark, my daughters Morgan and Killian, and my son-in-law, Tom – I’m forever grateful for your incredible love and support for me and for all of my crazy entrepreneurial endeavors.
To my Gagen MacDonald colleagues – thank you for always staying ahead of me – and for always having my back.
And to all of my kindred spirits at the Page Society. It’s been an honor to work with so many of you to help make this world a better place.
I’m forever grateful that I get to manifest this friendly universe with you.