Merrillyn J. Kosier | Gagen MacDonald

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Merrillyn J. Kosier

Jun 17, 2015

Fast Facts


Chicago, IL

Number of employees::


Previous experiences::

Broker, Kemper Financial Services. Marketing, communications, advertising, investor relations, Acorn Funds

First job::

Babysitting. I made a lot of money babysitting, 75 cents an hour. I also worked for Belk in the shoe department when I was 16 or 17 years old. I got an employee discount that I used toward my clothes for college.

Leader you admire the most::

I've been lucky to work for great people. Ralph Wanger, my boss at Acorn Funds, was so generous with his time. He taught me so much about portfolio construction. Also, John Rogers is a marvelous and inspiring role model. He has taught me that time is money. He is very specific about how he plans his day. He is very results oriented.

Questions & Answers

In your leadership role, what has been the most difficult skill you have had to learn?:

One of the most important skill sets a strong leader needs is the ability to prioritize work very quickly, making sure things gets done in an appropriate fashion and at the highest level of excellence. While this was not a hard skill set for me to learn, I’m very mindful of how to make sure that my priorities are stacked appropriately for myself, my team and my shareholders. No one is an island. So when there is something I have to work on, usually other people have to weigh in too, like legal and compliance. I want to make sure that each day counts and that I’m maximizing the work day.

I also think it’s very important not to rely solely on emails to get everything done. For instance, I go see people, I call them on the phone and I drop by their office. I can get a lot more done in a two minute conversation than an email that goes back and forth. There’s nothing like the personal touch. It helps to build rapport and trust.

Lastly, strong follow-up is essential. The best leaders always live up to the commitment they’ve made to others.

What do you think is the difference between leading and managing?:

Well that’s an easy one. Managing is prioritizing the workload, not only for yourself, but also for your teammates. You’re managing the process, expectations, career development, and the end result. That’s super important.

Leading, though, is inspiring others. How do you get the best out of people? How do you motivate them? How do you make sure they are on the right career path? How do you make sure they are learning? Leading means that you are motivating, inspiring and creating a culture where people want to follow. And more than follow, hopefully you’re inspiring enough that they want to be a leader one day themselves. You can pass the torch and say, it’s your turn.

What is the biggest communication challenge for leaders today?:

I’ve seen that managers have a hard time adapting to different work styles. Snake People work differently than Generation X and Generation X workers are different than Baby Boomers. A successful leader today needs to have an open mind— and the ability to motivate different people on a team. The best leader in my opinion, is one that is curious, open-minded and can shift depending on who they are working with. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. How do you focus on the strengths and not worry so much about the weaknesses? One must coach on those weaknesses but more importantly, a strong leader develops their team in a holistic way.

I see that you are on the Board of Directors for the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA). Do you see a correlation between leadership and giving back?:

I think giving back is critically important. As you move up the ranks and your compensation increases, I think it is vital to give back. I think it’s good karma.

I am also on the board for The Harris Theatre of Music and Dance and I love that we have been able to keep ticket prices low so families can enjoy a great performance without breaking the bank!. We bring in buses of children that might never be able to see a world-class dance performance or musical program. John Rogers has taught me the importance of being involved and giving back to one’s own community.

What words of advice can you offer leaders on how to best engage their organization in today’s dynamic environment?:

The most important thing I can say to anyone, is make sure you maintain your focus. If my team were here, they would tell you how often I say this to them because you can become extraordinarily distracted if you allow yourself to be pulled in one hundred different directions.

Also, I touched on this earlier but, the human touch is very important. Sometimes I ask my team if they need a fresh pair of eyes on a project they’re working on. I let them know that I am in it with them. I think that the sense of camaraderie helps them get through a hard project or a tough day. I want them to know I’m not going home until they go home.

How have you differentiated yourself as a leader throughout your career?:

That would probably be better asked of people that know me. I hear from my 360 peer reviews that I’m even-tempered and I don’t fly off the handle. There is no fear around my management style, so people know if there is a problem, they can come and tell me without fear of retribution. I am a very creative problem solver. A lot of people come to me for advice because I’m not too emotional… I can usually figure things out. My coping skills are very good. My judgment is solid. I can see through the noise to get to the other side fairly quickly.

I’ve heard people say that one of the reasons they like working with me is that I’m very transparent, honest and I don’t hold grudges. So when something unfortunate happens, you deal with it, you get over it and you move on to the next thing. It’s better for your health (and your employees health) when you deal with things and then let it go. Lastly, I spend a lot of my time on training; so I host book clubs, pop quizzes, and off-site retreats. I put a lot into my employees. My job is to give them the tools for success and to push them hard; their job is to pace me.

I know that Ariel Investments is the largest minority-owned Investment firm. Tell me about inspiring employees, while leading diverse groups of people. Tell me about your commitment to diversity.:

There has been a tremendous amount of research that proves a diverse group of people have better problem solving/decision making skills. I see it first-hand. John Rogers created an environment where every voice is heard. This ensures we are getting the very best out of everyone. For this to work, you must be a tremendous listener. I am open and curious about what people have to say. I try to create a relaxed and informal posture so that people feel like they can tell me the unvarnished truth. I want to hear their opinions; I know I’m better for it.

When you decide to hang up your high heels (or your flats) and retire to Scottsdale or Miami, what is the leadership legacy that you want to leave behind?:

I want to be known for always doing a great job. I want my peers to say ” she never relaxed her standards and always pushed for excellence. I want my shareholders to say that I worked hard for them.” I want young people to look back on their careers and say with fondness they learned a great deal from me and that I made a difference in their career development.

At the end of the day, I hope people know that I cared about them and I wanted to make a difference in their lives. It’s about connecting with people and making sure you leave this world a better place.

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