Maril MacDonald is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Gagen MacDonald LLC. She is a nationally recognized leader in communications and strategy execution. Prior to Gagen MacDonald, she served as vice president, corporate communications, and was a member of the Executive Management Committee for International Truck and Engine Corporation (formerly Navistar), and with CEO John Horne, directed a successful cultural turnaround, bringing the company from the brink of bankruptcy to being named to the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 Performers” list and Business Week’s “Top 50 Companies”.
MacDonald is the current President of the Arthur W. Page Society an is a member of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.
INTERVIEWER: Marie Hardin
INTERVIEWER: Maril, thank you so much for doing this interview. I want to start with talking about your beginnings in your PR career and; my first question for you is, following your graduation from Purdue how did you get started in your career?
MACDONALD: Well I was pretty fortunate because then president of the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, a guy named Joe Harnett, had come to talk to an evening business school class that I was taking, and he brought with him his head of public relations, who was also a Purdue graduate. He actually had graduated in engineering, believe it or not; he did not have a background or degree in public relations. While they were at the University and talking to a variety of people, they got this idea, “Why don’t we hire someone in public relations, a new graduate to come into the PR department?” The next morning they talked to the school—the school recommended three of us. We interviewed that afternoon, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a job. At the time, I had been interviewing for a lot of sales jobs, because there weren’t any recruiters coming to Purdue looking for public relations majors. As we know, it’s very difficult to get a job with a major corporation right out of school. I’d had several offers in sales, and really, it was of no brilliance, but just a basic logic that I thought well, if I can get 4 or 5 offers in sales and I can only get one offer in PR, maybe I should go try that one because if it doesn’t work, I can always go into sales. And that’s how it started.
MACDONALD: Yeah, just a very fortunate opportunity.
INTERVIEWER: What appealed to you most besides the—you mentioned the offers in sales versus the one offer in public relations—what appealed to you about going on the public relations path?
MACDONALD: Well, my degree was in communication, and that had really been what my initial choice would have been. It was just through the interview process that I started becoming interested in the sales side, and probably convincing myself it was the only kind of job I was going to get, so was becoming very happy with it. But I would say, I looked at it as if I could get a job in a corporation where my job was to learn the business of the business, it would be a forever learning opportunity. And that to me seemed to be really appealing. And the idea that often times in public relations, we’re one of the few functions that gets to touch every aspect of a business, and really get in there and find out about it and see what’s going on. I was very smitten with the whole notion of business, and wanted to learn as much about it as I could, so this seemed like a fabulous opportunity, which it was.
INTERVIEWER: What key steps do you look back on, now that you’ve taken a career path that eventually led to your appointment as vice president of corporate communications of Pitman-Moore?
MACDONALD: I think #1, the things that probably made me most qualified for senior-level positions, were the jobs that were most off track when I was younger. The fact that, even at Purdue, I helped put myself through school by teaching biology at Purdue, I was a TA, and tutoring in math and science. That was one of the things that really helped me get the job at Standard Oil. But of course it’s a very scientifically based company, and that just seemed odd, and it made me stand out. I was a Russian language major when I first started there, too. There were a variety of things that just helped me stick out from the pack. And then, when I was at Standard Oil, I got into a fast track management program, so I had the opportunity to work in human resources, finance, and marine transportation. I actually ran oil spill contingency planning for what later became British Petroleum, so I used to go to bed every night praying I’d be out of that job before we had an oil spill, and you know, thank goodness, any major oil spill anywhere. So I think, always really taking the opportunities to learn the business is what, in the end, helped me the most. And it also helped me understand communications, in a way, differently, because when one’s in the bowels of the business, you have a very different idea of what communication is all about than when you’re at the core and in the PR department.
INTERVIEWER: You took steps to learn the business and you obviously took steps to learn the communication, what did you do to learn the management side of things?
MACDONALD: I probably learned, with a few bumps along the way, but I had some wonderful mentors. This is another fabulous thing about our field—as a very young person I worked very, very closely with many CEOs and presidents of the companies and business heads so I got to learn from the real masters. And I have to say, they were very generous with their time, and their thinking, and their coaching, and I was very curious; I was like a sponge. I think when one shows up that way, people are really happy to help you. I was always asking questions, “Why did you do it this way…how do you think about this…why would you make that decision?” Sometimes they laughed. I think they just thought it was kind of funny. I was really young, I always wanted to ask about all these things, but they were really great about it, and so that’s where I learned most of it, and I read like a nut. I read everything I can get my hands on and still to this day—on management, on leadership, on you know…various ways of approaching things. That’s helped as well.
INTERVIEWER: I want to revisit the mentorship piece of it since you’ve mentioned that, and I guess my question to you is, did you choose your mentors or did your mentors choose you? How did that work?
MACDONALD: I don’t know for sure. I think in some cases it ended up just to be a fortunate set of circumstances and chemistry. I really was never as methodical about it as perhaps I should have been. Though I certainly think I was really good at recognizing when somebody had something to teach me, to be smart enough to show up and listen. And that’s not just of the people to whom I reported, that’s very true of people who’ve worked for me. I’ve learned incredible things from everyone around me. And so I think that’s probably where I was intentional but in setting out and saying, “Oh, I need this kind of mentor,” that wasn’t as much my experience. One of the best mentors I ever had was a woman named Olive Conti. I was in my early 20s at Standard Oil. I have no idea how old Olive was, but she seemed really ancient to me at the time. She was the assistant to Joe Harnett, the president of the Standard Oil Company, and Olive took me under her wing, and that was enormously helpful, because she used to say to me, “Honey, let me tell you how it is.” “Honey, when you talk to this guy, you got to look him right in the eye, you got to tell him what it is, don’t you let him give you any guff and you just stand tall, honey.” And I was always like, “Yes Olive, okay Olive,” and it really helped, because I learned very early on, to really tell it like it is, and that helped a lot as well, because I was one of the people that always told Joe exactly what I thought. He’d come seek me out. And then after a while, people in my department would say, “You need to tell Joe Harnett” and I’d say, “Why aren’t you telling him?” But that was one of the great things I learned at a very early age and really, just thinking about this now, it’s really thanks to Olive Conti.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned Olive, obviously a female mentor for you. Male/female mentors, does it matter, do you think?
MACDONALD: No, I don’t think it matters in that, mentoring can come from anywhere, and different people have different things to offer. There’s that old saying, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And I think there have been different times that I was ready for one thing versus another. There were many women who were phenomenal mentors to me as I was having young kids, and just trying to figure that out. “Am I a good mother? Am I unreasonable? Am I doing the right thing? How do I balance all this?” I think they were very helpful. I’ve had many brilliant women give me fabulous business advice, and I happen to believe, by the way, that women are fabulous to other women. So many times you hear the contrary. That has never been my experience. My experience has always been that women have been just so generous and wonderful to me.
INTERVIEWER: What advice would you give to women or men in the industry who want to mentor? In other words, how are you a good mentor?
MACDONALD: I think a good mentor is like a good coach, and one can’t coach unless the other is willing and asks for it. So I think that’s the first thing; it’s really important to remember as a mentor, that it’s not about you, it’s about the person you’re helping. So you need to go to where they are. You can’t start from where you are. So listening, really understanding, what is it they’re trying to do; what are they struggling with; what are their dreams. You know, I think when I was younger, sometimes I’d make the mistake of trying to mentor someone somewhere they didn’t want to go. Like maybe my dream was, in a way, bigger for them than what they wanted in that slice of their life, and that’s not really helpful or productive. I think you have to really meter yourself and really understand, where is that person? And go from there.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about ethical decision making in the workplace. How important is mentoring to fostering ethical decision making, do you think?
MACDONALD: You know, I believe most of us get our ethics from our family, and that’s where it starts. So from that standpoint where mentoring becomes critical, is in helping someone learn how to navigate the world in a way that they can stay true to themselves, and in giving them advice and suggestions if they bump into a problem or make a mistake of how to get themselves out of it. That’s what I think the mentoring is. I don’t believe we put ethics into somebody. I think we just help get the world out of the way for them, so they can be the ethical person they want to be.
INTERVIEWER: Thinking about that then, the Page principles. How valuable are the Page principles then, if you said that you know, the development of ethical character happens early in life and our job as a mentor is to help clear the path for ethical decision making? Talk a little bit about how the Page principles would factor into that, learning and understanding the Page principles.
MACDONALD: Well, where I think the Page principles have a very powerful use is that in any community, giving voice to our shared values really matters. And it helps us then have conversations and articulate where we see something working and perhaps where it’s not. For example, if we all live by the Page principles, and we say, “Tell the truth, conduct business with humor,” you go through the various principles, then there’s an opportunity for you to say to me, “Hey Maril, are you really calm, patient and good humored right now? I’m not sure.” We have a common place to go, right? It’s like the pinky promise we made to one another that we’re going to live that way. So it’s easier to call one another out on it. The other thing is that really, the Page Society established the principles so that we could have a way of saying, “We are inviting others who share these principles, to join us on a quest in furthering the mission of the chief of communications officers.” So they’re not meant to police anybody but they’re meant as an invitation, looking for people who are on the same journey and want to live the same way. And how do we become a community to support each other when things get tough? Because the thing about ethics is that everybody has ethics and where it makes a real difference, is when it’s really tough. And it’s usually tough because it’s not clear. I think those are the toughest situations, not the incredibly right or wrong issues. Most of us know, okay that is really wrong. What’s hard is the gray, and finding a community of people that you can call and tap into or I can say “Marie, let me run this one by you, because the reason it’s gray to me is that I’m trying to support and live up to my obligations to many different people and stakeholders. In this one, somebody’s not going to come out as well as somebody else, and I’m trying to sort through how would you look at that, what would you do?” Well, that’s where having a society and having principles like that really matter.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. You describe one of the Page principles as a key motivator to improve performance at a company. I’m going to read this:
“By listening to the internal constituents, the employees, leaders can create a message related to what they’ve heard, represent it as a cause for all to rally around. That, in turn, creates a sense of community, loyalty and motivation.”
You’ve put this into action in your own work. Can you talk about how it has mobilized a company’s internal stakeholders?
MACDONALD: Real communication is in a dialogue, it’s in listening, it’s in the give and take and messing around with something together to come to alignment and…really common in place. So what that involves, is that I have to listen to you, not just for what you’re telling me, or not to just listen to say okay. How am I going to now convince Marie of my point of view? I really ought to be listening to be convinced of your point of view, that’s when the real strong listening happens. And when leaders can really think about it that way, and engage with people in a way that says, ‘”We’re going to co-create something even better, by working together and hearing each other, that’s when employees are really engaged.” And what has to happen for you to want to join me, is that I have to tap into something that matters to you, that you say, “Okay, I’m with you babe, I want to go there,” right? It’s not just me pounding on you until you roll over and say “Okay, I’m fine, I’m done.” That’s not communication.
INTERVIEWER: The silent partner. Can you talk a little bit about who the silent partner is and why that’s an important concept?
MACDONALD: Oh the silent partner, yes. The name of our firm is Gagen MacDonald. The firm was actually founded in 1998 with the name Matha MacDonald. I had a partner named Bob Matha at the time and bought him out in 2004. And so, in thinking about what to do with the name, there were many options for the company—we could call it MacDonald’s but that was already taken. And I didn’t really want to have the firm be all about me. There were 25 or 30 people in the firm at the time. So we looked at all kinds of names. Just going to the manufactured names, that companies do, adding a variety of different things. There was equity in the name MacDonald and in my name and ultimately, this was around the time that my father had passed away and at my dad’s funeral—I’m one of seven kids—we were all taking about what we learned from both our parents, really, and our values, and at a company retreat right after that, I was telling our team how amazing it was to me that everything my siblings voiced were the values of the firm. It could have been as though we were all there taking about the firm and then everyone else on our team started saying you know, that’s the same thing, I feel the same way. These are my family values. So I told the story about the silent partner. The silent partner is a plaque my father had on his office wall for 40 years, and it was all about one’s true north. And about finding one’s purpose in work, and one’s life work and really sticking to that true sense of self, and the incredible power that it gives you throughout all sorts of very difficult times. And in the context of all this, someone in the team said, “You know, what if we name the firm Gagen?” And Gagen became the silent partner. And that’s how we ended up with that name. I was concerned a little, that’s my family name and everybody said, “But it can take on something so much bigger than that, because we’re also silent partners to many of our clients.” And it’s the reminder of that very core that binds us, because we’re a very values driven firm. So it was like, that’s the core and it’s very interesting because people always talk about, is that Gagen? What does it mean to be Gagen? And it’s become something very different than my family name, in my mind. So, that’s what that’s all about.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean when you say, ‘we’re a very values driven firm?’
MACDONALD: We started the firm to change the world—one dysfunctional company at a time. And I’m always sort of careful about that word dysfunctional because it’s sounds kind of snarky, but in reality, it was meant to really acknowledge the fact that, for all of us who’ve worked in many corporations, they’re tough places. And there are a lot of dysfunctions. Just like our families, right? Every family has its dysfunctions; every company has its dysfunctions. You learn to love them, you learn to work with them, and you learn to apply them to something better. How do you take what are your dysfunctions and apply them to the good for the world? So, we started the firm with that dream and set out. From the beginning we established our values, which are all around courage, passion, a sense of fun, integrity and humility in everything we do. A real joy and honor for the individual, as well as a collaborative, inclusive team. And as all of that was centered around the core rally-cry, that our cause is our clients’ success. That’s what we’re all about as a firm. And so we spend a lot of time on that, we talk about it a lot. It’s how we recruit people through it, and there are many very talented people we haven’t hired because we didn’t feel they really shared the values in the same way. But I know and feel very confident that every person who’s here, they’re here because of our values, because they could work anywhere. They’re incredibly bright, talented, gifted people. And the tie that binds us are those very things. It’s kind of the community we want to hang with.
INTERVIEWER: I have to ask this because when you were talking about the values you mentioned things like courage and integrity, which I expected to hear. What I didn’t expect to hear, and I just want you to talk for a minute about this, is how is a sense of fun an important value?
MACDONALD: I think it’s really important because…we talk about the Page principles; conduct public relations as though the whole company depends on it and I always want to say probably because it does. Well, that’s a serious calling right? And that’s a lot of work and something one shouldn’t take lightly. In the same sense, a lot of what we do is very exhausting work. A lot of what we do is working with organizations that are going through tough times, and people who are working day and night through extraordinary conditions; trying to balance their family, trying to turn around a company or deal with some difficult issue, and for us, we should show up and bring energy to them, not deplete them. And we should show up in a way that always bears in mind how critical the mission is, but not take ourselves so seriously that we grind everybody into the floor. And that’s a really important distinction for us, and something we spend a lot of time on, because as consultants, the worst thing to do is to swoop in and drown everybody or just really exhaust them. And that could happen a lot. It’s very easy to go in and go oh, you should be doing this or you should do that or isn’t this terrible. I just really believe that it’s totally wrong. And so we’ve always looked and said, if you can’t have fun along the way, and keep a sense of humor, then why are we doing this?
INTERVIEWER: Do you have an official code of ethics or a mission statement? Do you provide ethics training? Values training?
MACDONALD: No. We have an employee handbook, and of course it runs through all the ethics types of things that you would imagine. But I think the real power of it is in talking a lot about decisions we make and why we make them. That’s what really makes the difference. The other thing is, standing behind somebody who makes a decision on something that felt wrong to them, even if it didn’t feel wrong to me. That’s also very important, so just as an example, we’re a consulting firm. With many of our clients, we bill them by the hour, and we’ll have people make a decision that says, ‘I wrote off this time because it just felt like it took too long. I don’t feel I was my best self, I just couldn’t whip it together, you know, so I’m writing off the time.’ We don’t question that. Now, you could say ‘well are you sure?’ It just starts a whole host of issues right? We’ve had clients who suggested to us—because of purchasing, they can’t pay our billing rates so they’ve suggested, we’re fine with the budget you proposed but purchasing won’t allow those billing rates, so just charge a lower rate but add more hours and we’ve declined. We ended up not getting a large client because of that. Because our client couldn’t navigate the billing rate , and there’s no way I could say that we were going to pretend we had more hours on this than we did. And it’s an interesting thing because people say, “Well the client’s okay with it, so why wouldn’t that be okay?” And these are the kind of conversations we have, and I say because that’s a slippery slope. The client doesn’t own the company. The client is an employee of the company representing the company and they’re asking us to sign something that these are billable hours. And then people say, “I understand totally.” So it’s going through things like that, that I believe are what really make a difference for people.
INTERVIEWER: So conversations about ethics and values are a regular part of the work day or the work week?
MACDONALD: Yeah, I think they’re just the natural way we do things. We have a regular cadence of meetings where at least once a year we do a two day retreat with everybody. Then we have what we call block parties, where everybody shows up and brings food, that we have every six weeks or so, that are usually half a day. Then every two weeks we have an all team phone call to catch people up. So there are opportunities. These things come up; “What happened with this client?” Or, “Why didn’t we get it?” Or, “Can you explain this?” “Why did we make that decision?” So we talk about them in that context.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about when you hire senior people, what are you looking for?
MACDONALD: Well, we were talking about ethics so obviously that’s extraordinarily important. Also, people who are very grounded; I think that’s important, and really emotionally healthy. Strong people developers. Obviously, we’re looking for people who are really strong in everything we do, which is leadership, engagement, culture, communications, that area. But the other thing that’s really important, are catalytic learners. So I look for people who love to learn, and who can take what they learn to something way bigger. They can synthesize it. They can pull it together, and you know, if we just learn this, it took us to here, now we can combine it with these three things and take it to there. And that’s what I think is really critical in a senior person. The world is changing so quickly and we need to be able to keep ahead of it. This is a firm that we’ve prided ourselves in pioneering since we started. It was one thing to be pioneering 15 years ago when not many people were in our space, to be pioneering now requires more and more and more. So we really turn to everybody on our team, but certainly the more senior, the more expected it would be that we can really keep ticking and pushing and thinking to the next place.
INTERVIEWER: Can you think of a recent example or an example of this idea of synthesizing? Taking this idea and this idea and taking it to a bigger place?
MACDONALD: Yeah. For a long time we had a really, really strong hold in the area of communication. We’re very well known among the communication people and in the area of employee engagement. And we began then to start looking at the whole issue of the communications function and where it needed to evolve to really have a stronger what everyone refers to as, a seat at the table. I like to say for the communication—to be the table. Bring other people to the table. And it always made me crazy that we always talk about communication -- and then there’s the leaders. How do we get leadership? And I’m like wait a minute, we’re leadership. So we started bringing in people with leadership expertise and started looking at, how do we use leadership expertise to really help propel the communication function and develop communication professionals? And then at the same time, how do you take communication expertise to strengthen the role of leaders and actually help leaders learn to be better communicators? And from that, it enabled us to really begin to look at the whole intersection of reputation, culture, brand and leadership in a very different way in terms of our offerings. So we started really looking at all of our offerings that way probably 8 or 10 years ago. Now with the new model, all of this is coming up as where the functions need to go so, we’re now looking and saying, ‘okay, now we are all that, where are we going next?’ And how do we continue to stay ahead of this then.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve ‘claimed the white space between the silos, as your ultimate functional expertise.’ Can you talk about that?
MACDONALD: Sure. We talked a little bit about my early career, so I was in public relations in the finance department, and HR, and operations, and one of the things that I saw along the way is how ‘siloed’ all of these departments actually function. I think for any of us who’ve been in any one of them you feel it, you feel that difference. Having been in four very different functions, it was really amazing to me to see. I had the benefit actually when I was in Standard Oil, in one company, to be in those four functions. When I was in marine transportation, I never thought about the communication function, the HR function. I was so focused on what we would do if we have a big spill on the Pacific Coast. Are the balloons and the skimmers…are the regulators in line? Are the ships all equipped? That’s what I was thinking about every single day. When I was in HR, I was thinking about processes and performance development, talent management. I wasn’t worried about what was happening to the ships and I wasn’t really thinking a lot about communicating either. And it was so interesting to me how absorbed we’d become in our own world, like our own little community. And I began to really push myself in each of those roles, to think more cross-functionally, and think about what I might do differently, so in marine transportation, pulling in the communications people or the HR people. In HR, looking at well, “What can we do—how is life different in performance development if you’re in finance versus if you’re in marine transportation?” And that began to give me the ability to play in what I call, if you think of the silos like this there’s a white space running between them, who’s connecting all that? And that’s where that term came from. That was a lot of the thinking behind how I founded the firm and hired people for the firm, because we hire people from all walks of life to cross those silos.
INTERVIEWER: I want to switch gears for a minute and drill down a little bit on a couple of communications issues. Can you talk about social media and its impact on the ethics of the public relations industry?
MACDONALD: I don’t know how to answer that relative to its impact on ethics. I’ll come back to what I mentioned earlier; I think individuals have ethics and communities develop shared ethics and values. Where social media has really impacted that is of course it makes those values more transparent more quickly. I don’t’ know that it makes anybody more ethical or less ethical. I’m not sure. Somebody has probably done a study on this, I have not. I think that what’s difficult is that many ethical issues are complicated and that in social media when things are moving at 140 characters at light speed, it’s difficult to always get to the bottom of what ones thinking was, what really happened, what’s going on, to really understand things. I think there’s a lot that just gets spurted around that may or may not have anything to do with ethics. Now, the fact that people can move as quickly as they can probably does lead some people who might shave a little bit off here or there, to think twice about it, in that sense. There’s probably some truth to that but in the main I think it really comes back to that technology is not going to make us more ethical or less ethical. It’s what we value as a society and that as a society people really need to stand up for what’s right. You look at what happened in the whole financial world, a lot of that was valuing money over everything else, right? That’s not a media issue, that’s just a serious values issue.
INTERVIEWER: I want to turn now to women in PR and diversity issues. When you cofounded Gagen-MacDonald, you reached a pinnacle that few women experience, and I’d like you to talk a little bit about how your career path—the obstacles and the springboards you might have had on your career path being a woman.
MACDONALD: I don’t know that my career was shaped as much by being a woman as probably certain other things. I read an interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly, I don’t know if you read the article, I can’t remember the author’s name, I’m sorry, but it was very interesting about how difficult it’s been for women, and it actually did have me stop and think about whether or not that may be the case. I think what women do deal with are the many obligations that we have. But I see many men who are dealing with those obligations as well, that’s changed a lot. Many men stay home to raise their children. I interview many men who would love to come work here, but they don’t want to take a job where they’re on the road a lot, because they have young kids. We have people here in the firm who are dads who work from home a couple days a week. So I think a lot of that’s changing now, it wasn’t the same of course, when I was coming up the ranks, but one of the things that was wonderful about being a woman, is that women have always been allowed to feel. I think that was something that was very difficult for men for a long time. There was a belief that there is no humanity at work, so buckle down and let it go. I always was a very feeling person and I used to stand up and say, “It’s not because I’m a woman, it’s because I’m Irish.” I don’t know, maybe not. I’d just say it, but I’ve known a lot of very emotional Irishmen. I think that sometimes it was an advantage to me, because I was very unexpected to people. I tended to approach situations, often in a very similar way to which a man would, and so particularly when I was very young, men found it very perplexing and kind of funny. Which almost let down the guard and it was probably part of why they helped me. So there was probably an advantage there. I think that, you’d mentioned something earlier about reaching a pinnacle few women have had, many women run very successful things. And I think it’s really, really important that we remind everyone of that. I’m a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization and off the top of my head, I wish I could remember the statistics to do them justice, but it’s absolutely incredible how many women are running multi-million dollar firms, and in very successful ways. Now, one thing that is interesting is many of us chose to go that route because it gave us the flexibility that we might not have had otherwise in a corporation. So I think through the years, women often need to find a path that may not be quite as straight a path for them as men might take, but in the main, I love being a woman. It’s a great thing.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds as though over time you believe that things have improved in the public relations industry for women and men—is that fair? In different ways they’ve improved for both?
MACDONALD: I’m not sure exactly what you’re thinking when you ask that question but I think the whole industry has improved dramatically. I think it’s definitely—it’s a very strategic function, it’s clearly seen as a strategic function. I hear from all of my friends who are executive recruiters, that the C-suite has become more and more clear on how absolutely critical the job is. We see just phenomenally gifted people in our field, and one of the wonderful things about being part of the Arthur Page Society, or the Institute for Public Relations, or you know, Seminar; just seeing how many people are doing amazing, amazing things. And one great thing too about our field is they’re not only very talented, gifted people, they’re fun, interesting people. They’re people who know a lot about a lot of things. And so, I think it’s a wonderful industry, and for women and men, I think the drive rate now is to find the people who really have the talent that are going to take companies where they need to go in the future. We’re all scrambling to keep up with that, because it is a big job, a very big job. So those who are up for it and want it are going to have a hell of a ride.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about the future for a couple of minutes here looking ahead, what do you think are the biggest challenges that face public relations and communications professionals in the next decade or so? What will those be?
MACDONALD: I think the biggest challenges are going to be how many skills and competencies are required of us, because as you look at where everything is going, we need to be data analysts; we need to be synthesizers; we need to be story tellers; we need to be great people leaders, and people developers. We need to really be able to see around corners and really kind of know where the world’s going. Those are a lot of varying skills and competencies for one person, and they’re very left-brain and right-brain, which is a difficult combination, to which, by the way, is actually a benefit to women, because there are a lot of studies that show women have a much stronger ability to work across both hemispheres of their brain. So there, when we’re looking for something to add to the females, we can give them that. So, I think just keeping up with all of it, and moving more and more as an industry, moving from the people who are brilliant, brilliant doers and executors, to the people who are really able to amass an incredible earning of talent, is going to be the next big challenge. Because, we still have many CCOs who really are brilliant writers and brilliant storytellers and have a very critical role in an organization, beside the CEO, because they’re the person who best crafts the story. I think we’re going to need to give that up. We’re going to need to really be the people managers, and the functional managers that are driving the business. If you’re sucked into crafting the story, you can’t do the other job. It’s just a physics problem. It’s a matter of time and space, so I think that’s the only (or should be one) challenge right now for us.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked a lot about the way the industry is changing and the lengthening list of skills and competencies, and my question to you, is what are the enduring truths, despite the changes in the industry? What are the enduring truths to you that you’ve learned in your career, that are true today, and will be true in 10 years and 15 years out.
MACDONALD: At the end of the day, people are people, and people want to engage with other people in organizations that they trust, that they feel have a mutual view, and path, and vision of the world. That to get that kind of trust; we need to be open and transparent. We need to be willing to share, and we need to be willing to listen. And ultimately it’s going to come down to not what we say but what we do. I think those things are going to continue to carry forward.
INTERVIEWER: Anything that I haven’t asked you about that you think is important for thinking about ethics, values?
MACDONALD: You know, one thing we haven’t talked about is really being true to oneself. I think that for anyone in any field, it’s important, but particularly in this field, because we are often in a room or in a situation where there are many different realities brought to the table, and it can be very confusing. There’s a lot of ambiguity to many of the discussions that we’re involved in. There are many articulate people advocating many points of view, and sometimes we know what the right answer is, sometimes we would go to instinct as to what’s right. I think not losing a sense of center really matters. So here’s where that comes into play, if you really know, and you have the facts, you’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to say it, right? Most often, we have some of the facts; that’s what we know. There’s some things that we feel through our gut, through our experience, through our intuition, you don’t’ want to confuse the two. #1, so never say “no” if you think. Get it clear, here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know but my experience would tell me here’s where we’re going to go. And I think staying true to that, and not getting waked up in having such a strong clear view that you overstate your facts, or feeling that you don’t know enough to take a stance. Either way can be very detrimental, so that getting clarity in that is key.
INTERVIEWER: To me what you were saying really relates back to core values and the Page principles, this idea of authenticity right?
MACDONALD: Yeah, authenticity is everything, because at the end of the day, who wants to die and have been somebody else?
INTERVIEWER: Right. Is there anything else that you want to add? I think we got through all the questions.
MACDONALD: No, I thought you asked great questions. I think we covered a lot.
INTERVIEWER: All right, thank you.