Maril MacDonald, CEO and founder of Gagen MacDonald, received the 2021 IPR Lifetime Achievement Award for her leadership and significant contributions to public relations. Maril accepted the Institute’s highest honor at the 59th Annual IPR Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner on December 2, 2021, at Current at Chelsea Piers in New York City. The following is the transcript of her speech from that night. View the video of her speech here.

Thanks so much, Tina. 

I’ve learned so much from you and am always in awe of your leadership and passion.  And I know I speak for all of us in saying that it’s truly remarkable how much you’ve raised the research and measurement bar in our profession.

Let’s give Tina a round of applause.

Congratulations to Allyson Hugley, Dr. Marcia DiStaso and our five student winners for their well-deserved awards. It’s an honor to share this evening with you.

And thank you to IPR for this Lifetime Achievement Award.  It’s been a blessing to have spent my career among so many of you who are leaders in advancing the science beneath the art of public relations.

And now you are giving me the joyous and overwhelming experience of joining the past honorees who include my mentors and heroes such as Margery Kraus, Bill Nielsen, Roger Bolton, Mike Fernandez, Pat Ford, Wendy Strong, Ray Kotcher, Harold Burson.  I wish I could name you all.

The people in this room (and on Zoom) have made life better for consumers, employees – everyone – by using research and innovation to help companies communicate more effectively.

As you all know, one of IPR’s priorities is helping to develop better metrics. That’s important work. Better metrics lead to better decisions – for companies and for individuals. Of course, metrics only work if you know what you want to measure.

So what should be on our measuring sticks? Or, put another way, what really matters?

It’s an important question.

In the past 20 months, COVID upended life as we know it. In effect, the world experienced a radical experiment in what really matters to people.

Companies tossed out their old business models and created new ones. The employee experience changed drastically overnight. And in the middle of it all, social unrest and political turmoil seemed to boil over.

Remarkably, all of this happened when we were at home, slowed down, isolated and surrounded by the people for whom we care the most. And so as the world was lurching into something new – we had the time and space to think about it.

 What did we think about? We thought about what really matters. And thanks to social media, Zoom, and other technologies, the imaginal cells have finally found each other.

Imaginal cells. That’s likely a term unfamiliar to many of you, although some of you have heard me talk about this before. In fact, my leadership program is called the Imaginal Cell. These are the cells within a caterpillar that contain the blueprint for a butterfly. And when the caterpillar breaks down into a sort of Gooey Mess, these imaginal cells find each other, and they create a butterfly.  Not a better caterpillar, but something entirely new – and beautiful. Something that soars.

I believe this is what business is experiencing now.  Over the last two years, we’ve seen our systems break down, and we’re creating a totally new way of working. The imaginal cells have found each other. And we’re witnessing a marvelous transformation – based on the things that really matter.

First, there’s great value on safety and well-being – for ourselves and for our loved ones. The days of demanding that employees sacrifice their mental and physical health, or important family time, are over.

Second, people want flexibility and autonomy in their work lives – and we’ve learned that companies can give them that and remain fully functional.

Third, we’ve reaffirmed that people need community. We’re social animals – and we need to be part of something larger than ourselves. More and more, we get that through our work.

In fact, Marcia shared today a McKinsey finding that 70% of employees say their sense of purpose is defined by their work.

So we need to ask ourselves … As leaders, how can we foster that community?  And sense of purpose? How can we truly transform the employee experience?

We can do it by recognizing that people want their work to matter. They want to learn and grow and deploy their greatest gifts, energy and passion.  They want to be heard. To be seen.
To belong.  To count.

The Great Resignation and the Great Exhaustion has led to the Great Reflection and a widespread thirst for meaning, belonging and equity at work. We’re seeing the possibilities and beauty instead of grub-like drudgery. The butterfly is replacing the caterpillar.

In C-suite after C-suite, how people feel is now topic number one. The past 21 months have made the world realize that people matter. We’re recognizing that our measuring stick is all about humanity.

So, as much as I am honored by this recognition of my career so far, I have to say that my focus is on the possibilities that lie ahead.  

We’ve been quietly building an army of people that believe that Love in Business is Good Business and I am thrilled that companies are asking themselves the questions that I have been engaged with for more than 30 years. How can we build a better culture? How can we authentically engage our teams so that they are fulfilled, productive and effective?

My career before starting Gagen MacDonald gave me a unique insight on corporate culture.

I worked in many different functions: HR, finance, operations, corporate communications, marine transportation. Those experiences helped me see that the solution to corporate dysfunction is usually found in what I call the white space between the siloes – the hard-to-understand challenges that no one quite owns… the rapid pace of innovation, fast-changing customer expectations, societal tensions, deep mistrust – and now we can add the even higher expectations that employees and customers have, post-pandemic.

The white space between the siloes is the corporate version of the Gooey Mess. And as leaders, with the right approach, we can turn it into something beautiful.

To succeed, companies need to embrace the idea of permanent transformation. They need to realize they aren’t static bundles of silos led by a heroic leader. They’re ever-evolving ecosystems that should aim to maximize the talent and expertise of their people. Successful companies in this era of permanent transformation will be the ones that excel at Three Things That Change Everything.

First, a compelling story. One that everyone can see themselves in.  One that everyone can tell. You all are the experts at that.

Next, we need committed leaders who make that story come alive in the workplace. A committed leader doesn’t try to do it all.  Instead, the leader helps employees connect their work to the company’s larger purpose… achieve their personal and professional goals… and bring their ideas to life.

The committed leader is a Host, not a Hero. A host who works across the silos and enables the imaginal cells to find each other.

And the third Thing That Changes Everything is an intentional roadmap. We all know you can’t inspire and unite complex people with a GANNT chart. You can’t transform a company with a project management mindset alone. An intentional roadmap addresses all aspects of the employee experience – not just tasks and deadlines, but relationships and feelings. The goal is to foster harmonious collaboration so that everyone understands where we’re going and why — and that we all can get there together.

Our work in this exciting time is to help companies foster that sort of transformation in their people – to find fulfillment by making the best of their gifts and passions.

I want to thank those who helped me transform and grow over the years: the mentors who inspired and encouraged me… the amazing colleagues who always had my back… the clients who invited me to join their journey and contribute what I could.

I wouldn’t be standing here without you.

And, of course, to my husband Mark, my daughters Morgan and Killian, and my son-in-law, Tom – thank you, as always, for your love and support. As I say the words, it sounds too small compared to the magnitude of what you’ve given me.

In closing, it’s been a humbling experience to receive this Lifetime Achievement award from the people I so greatly respect. But if I’m honest, I’m even more humbled to admit that I’ve lived a lifetime.  That makes the time I have left that much more precious.

I’ve waited a lifetime for organizations to truly realize that people and their feelings really matter. And I’m not going to let this moment go to waste.

Thank you.