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How Busy Leaders Juggle Their Personal & Business Lives: With Laurel Flatt, President of mcgarrybowen, Chicago

I’d like to change the desire to live an Instagrammable life that many young people seem to share today. Honestly, I don’t think it’s good. There should be a movement that discourages young men and women from following people who post beauty shots and party shots that are fabricated. It just causes anxiety, and it’s […]


I’d like to change the desire to live an Instagrammable life that many young people seem to share today. Honestly, I don’t think it’s good. There should be a movement that discourages young men and women from following people who post beauty shots and party shots that are fabricated. It just causes anxiety, and it’s bad for everyone.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Laurel Flatt. Laurel is President of mcgarrybowen Chicago, doesn’t sugarcoat the constant push and pull of running a busy creative agency while protecting quality family time at home. Balance is always a work in progress that requires constant compromise and adjustment. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Laurel as part of my series about the strategies that extremely busy and successful leaders use to juggle their personal and business lives. After landing at mcgarrybowen in 2009, she was tapped as president six years later and now leads the agency’s constant quest to engage clients and their customers in more compelling and impactful ways. Her work with Disney Parks and Resorts is a prime example — its “I Am a Princess” campaign inspired young women everywhere. As I learned, Laurel is quite an inspiration herself.


Thank you so much for joining us Laurel! What is your “backstory”?

I went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and always wanted to be involved in advertising. After working on the research and analytics side of the business, I moved to account management after finishing graduate school at Northwestern. I wanted to experience a smaller, creative-driven agency, so I worked at Fallon in Minneapolis for 10 years, working with clients such as EDS, Nikon, and Citi. Then, wanting to be closer to family, I moved back to Chicago at age 39 and pregnant. I joined my agency, mcgarrybowen, two years later, when I was 41 and an overwhelmed mother of a young child. It’s a move I’ve never regretted.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I had an interesting ascent to the president. I received a phone call from [mcgarrybowen cofounders] Gordon Bowen, who told me that our previous president was leaving in about a week. Gordon said that I had to step in. At the time I was perfectly content running the Disney account, so it was an interesting way to get into management. I had to take charge without a lot of ramp-up time, or even time to think about it. I was on the search committee to find the new permanent president when leadership said, ‘We like you. We want you to take the job.’ Looking back, I didn’t think I was ready for the job, but I was.

What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?

Before I took the job as president, I thought had a very full plate. I couldn’t imagine taking on anything else. I loved the Disney business and all our clients, and there’s the usual craziness that goes along with account work. But sometimes you’re amazed at what you can do when you have to do it. My son was eight at the time, and managing everything at home and work was the biggest challenge. To meet that challenge, I had to realize that I didn’t have to do everything. I had great teams at work and at home to help.

What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?

First, leadership is about creating an environment in which people can do their best. Account leaders here are essentially running their own businesses, and they have the autonomy to create an environment that works for their team. My job is to provide them with what they need to be successful. Second, creating a team that can quickly solve problems and work together to address issues and opportunities is critical. Honestly, I try to inspire people by not getting in their way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are two people in my professional life. Ned Crowley (mcgarrybowen’s U.S. Chief Creative Officer), who hired me, has always believed in my abilities and trusted my instincts. He constantly pushes me to do more. And the other is a client, Marty Muller, who is the Senior Vice President of Global Creative at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. She was running Yellow Shoes, the global creative agency at Disney when I was approached about the role of president. She told me that I had to take it because it was important for people to see someone rise up the ranks, particularly a woman. On the personal side, my parents have always encouraged and supported me in whatever I’ve done. They gave me the freedom to follow my passions.

Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?

It’s always difficult. Any business today demands a lot from people, but the family must be cared for, too. I have a great, supportive husband and family, and caring people who’ve helped me with my son. You always feel like you’re trading one thing for the other. I wish that wasn’t the case. I’ve always tried to do the best I can on both sides and just hope for the best.

Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?

No, not really. It’s hard with a family because they depend on you, but people in this business who really thrive put their all into it. It depends on what stage of life you are in. When I was younger, I’d be stressed out by certain things. Now, because I’m older, I get stressed about completely different things. I think you have more guilt about children later in life, but you’re always figuring out how you can do a better job balancing work and life.

Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?

1. Buy an alarm clock so you never bring your phone into the bedroom at night. Pick it up the next morning after you’ve had some coffee. That’s worked well for me. You just have to just shut it down at some point.

2. Try to schedule family things as much as possible. There will always be a reason why you can’t do something in your personal life, and if you don’t put it on the books, it might never happen.

3. Get a good night’s sleep. It’s easier to have a clear head if you’re not exhausted. And along with sleep, regular exercise helps too.

4. Build a great leadership team around you so everything is not on you. Our leaders don’t feel like we have to be involved in everything. That’s the way it should be.

5. Having fun at work makes it easier to face anything that might come up when you get home. You’ll be a lot less stressed when you’ve had a good day at work.

What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride.

The fact that my 12-year-old son is proud of me. He’s proud that I’m the president of a company, and sees that it’s a good thing. I don’t think he feels shortchanged in any way. In turn, I feel proud that he’s able to see what a woman can do in the world.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d like to change the desire to live an Instagrammable life that many young people seem to share today. Honestly, I don’t think it’s good. There should be a movement that discourages young men and women from following people who post beauty shots and party shots that are fabricated. It just causes anxiety, and it’s bad for everyone.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

That’s an ironic question given my last answer! For me, it’s LinkedIn. I appreciate the platform and find it informative. I think it’s helpful and a good way to connect with people professionally.

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