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Laura Maloney: “Why you need to stay away from gossip, especially in the C-suite”

Stay away from gossip. Especially in the C-suite, where peers are few, it can be tempting to commiserate about a poor-performing colleague. Take the advice you’d give a mentee and don’t do it. It breeds distrust and weakens your authority. If your team has performance issues, address them directly and honestly (and, of course, compassionately) […]


Stay away from gossip. Especially in the C-suite, where peers are few, it can be tempting to commiserate about a poor-performing colleague. Take the advice you’d give a mentee and don’t do it. It breeds distrust and weakens your authority. If your team has performance issues, address them directly and honestly (and, of course, compassionately) with that person.


I had the pleasure to interview Laura Maloney. Laura is the Founder/Principal of Adisa, a business consulting group.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In short, I help leaders, teams, and organizations that are focused on solving some of the world’s toughest problems move from where they are to where they want to be. My team and I do this by developing leadership capacity and engaging diverse stakeholders to craft a vision, strategies and go-forward plans.

I grew up in Maryland and spent a good deal of my free time on horseback exploring the woods that surrounded the farmland, observing plants and wildlife. I still remember the sense of connectedness I felt, noticing the interrelatedness of all living things. That really formed the foundation of my work today.

It’s not just the type of clients we serve at Adisa, but the nature of the organizations in general — I see them as dynamic ecosystems that are always shifting and evolving.

The interrelatedness principle applies, as well. A change in one division can send ripples throughout the whole organization, an organizational butterfly effect, if you will. A great example from nature is when wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone. Much of the park’s systems — both animals and plants — swung wildly out of balance. Sometimes, when organizations identify a problem, the knee-jerk reaction is to simply remove it, or react in such a way that it causes unintended consequences in another division of the company, causing yet another reaction…and the chain continues.

(If you’re interested in learning about the Yellowstone wolves as an example of one change causing an unintended ripple effect, there’s a great video called “How Wolves Change Rivers” here:

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

While the most interesting stories that come to mind since leading my company are bound by confidentiality clauses, there are others that have led me to where I am today.

Strangely, the world of underground animal fighting has played a stronger role in my life than I ever anticipated. One day I could be in the state capital lobbying on a policy issue and the next day flipping rooster houses on a cockfighting raid, working with colleagues and law enforcement on a multi-state dogfighting ring, or advocating for a ban of the ‘hogdogging,’ a ‘sport’ where dogs were used to catch and hold a feral hog by the ear until a human hog-tied the pig or children chased a muzzled feral piglet to exhaustion. The work was heartbreaking and gave me a window into a subculture that was foreign to me.

Weaved amidst serious moments were also humorous ones. I remember when we would move into location the evenings before a raid, staff would sometimes use their black lights to see how dirty our hotel rooms were before climbing under the sheets. It certainly gives you an entirely different view of the cleanliness of hotel rooms! I was often left wondering what in the world people were doing in the privacy of their rooms at night! Needless to say, I now carry a travel size disinfectant regardless of the quality of the hotel. ☺

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, I was working with scientists in the rainforest of Brazil on a project to help a small species of monkey. My role was to help develop a community education program and I was learning enough of the language to make my way, but it was still a barrier. I was asked a question by children and I responded using the American A-ok sign. Everyone busted out laughing, but I had no idea why. Turns out that the signal is akin to flipping the bird in the U.S. It was an amusing life lesson in helping me appreciate cultural nuances and never underestimating the importance of learning the local customs.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our experiences have taken across many disciplines driving social change. We’ve had boots-on-the-ground locally, nationally, and globally in roles ranging from program manager to CEO. We’ve worked side-by-side billionaires who have big dreams of changing the world, and inmates who are helping care for animals in a make-shift shelter in times of natural disaster. We’ve worked with companies and organizations in crisis, and companies and organizations that are simply looking for ways to improve. Being able to successfully float between two extremes seems to define our company.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We work with such interesting people, organizations, and causes — from animal shelters and shark researchers to saving rhinos and helping advance programmatic impact through advocacy and volunteerism. In recent months, we’ve had a great time with the team at OCEARCH (www.ocearch.org or https://www.facebook.com/OCEARCH/) who are making it possible to collect never before known data about great white sharks and other large apex predators. Each shark they tag has its own twitter handle, and they have quite the following. YETI the Shark has been particularly amusing of late. The Global Shark Tracker follows the sharks’ journeys and allows you to track those who are nearby.

The nature of our work is addressing societal challenges, which means all of our projects are hitting the heart and head daily. I’m deeply moved by the work of the Okapi Conservation Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While their aim is to protect the majestic okapi (which is on the brink of extinction), their work goes much deeper. They’re helping the local people learn agroforestry, which is critical to improving the community’s food security. They also invest in education in the rural villages of the Ituri Forest, the homeland of the okapi, and help develop fresh water sources, provide medical care, and offer a variety of other life-essential services in a region of the world ripped by unrest. It is deeply inspiring work done without fanfare.

I also love coaching executives in the area of ‘vertical development.’ Traditional leadership development often centers on skill building — the transfer of knowledge or information to the leader — which develops technical capacity, but not deep leadership capabilities. Whereas vertical development is about transformation of the leader, which in turn, influences the system. There’s a sharp distinction between the two. As a coach, I’m keen to help leaders think in more complex, systemic, and strategic ways. It’s in this space, which is truly rare air, that leaders can begin to radically transform themselves, their organizations, and larger movements.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Build exercise into your daily life. Make it a habit. Great health and physical and mental fitness are critical to our day-to-day lives. We live in a society that prizes busyness and working almost beyond your capacity. It might impress others in the short term, but it’s not a recipe for a good life. Be disciplined about ensuring you exercise several times a week. You’re bigger than your job regardless of what role you play. Don’t leave your soul on your desk at the end of the day.

Give meditation a try. It’s taken me years of practice, but I now have an ability to call upon a moment of zen in the craziest of moments thanks to building meditation into my daily routine. It’s like brushing your teeth; it becomes a habit and a core practice, and you miss it when you haven’t done it. Check out Insight Timer, which has hundreds of teachers and meditations for everyone from beginners to advanced practitioners.

For myself, my “routine” is really a mix of things depending on how (un)focused I am. Walking meditation has been a stronghold of my practice in recent months. I’m generally at my desk very early (between 5–6am), and then take a morning break for meditation. I know most people recommend that you meditate before you do anything else, but for me, my work is on my mind in the morning, and clearing a few things off my desk first helps me settle into meditation more easily.

Take the task seriously, but take yourself with a giant grain of salt. It can be so easy to lose perspective, especially with the types of high-stakes decisions and responsibilities that fall to a leader. But it’s like holding an egg — if you grip your role too tight, you’ll crush what’s trying to grow.

Create a group charter. It should outline your agreements as a team, including how you’ll handle conflict. Make sure you discuss how you will hold each other accountable to it or the charter can be the source of mockery and undermine, rather than strengthen, your efforts.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Be authentic. Learn how to hold the tension between vulnerability and strength. Sharing moments of vulnerability may seem at odds with “being the boss,” but showing your humanity goes a long way towards creating an atmosphere that encourages courage, and that’s open and honest. You’re modeling behavior that can benefit your organization tremendously. After all, if people don’t have the courage to be vulnerable, they’ll never speak up if they have an idea or see something that could go wrong.

Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you fall apart or shed tears regularly in front of the team. Rather, it’s an inner awareness and an honest look at your own challenges. Some leaders want to be seen as bulletproof, but that can also make you seem inhuman. I think resilience — which is fostered by a marriage of strength and vulnerability — is a far more authentic and inspiring quality in a leader.

Be clear about your core values. Hold true to them as you lead, even though it may be challenging at times. These values represent our unique essence. When we have great clarity about what drives us and act accordingly, we make more rewarding choices in our personal and professional lives. That clarity also helps us to swiftly recognize value conflicts, which enables us to develop strategies that will move us closer to roles and relationships that are a stronger fit with our core beliefs. The result is a richer, more satisfying life.

Question assumptions and beliefs. They may have guided you well up until now, and they may have created blind spots. You’ll never discover that unless you have the courage to take a step back and question what you “know,” especially if they’re black-and-white or either/or perspectives.

Be open to all perspectives. I’ve learned to mine for approaches up, down, and across the organization, and it’s one of the things people who’ve worked for me have frequently told me they appreciate about my leadership style. Learn to look for solutions in unorthodox places — you may be surprised where you’ll find them.

Stay away from gossip. Especially in the C-suite, where peers are few, it can be tempting to commiserate about a poor-performing colleague. Take the advice you’d give a mentee and don’t do it. It breeds distrust and weakens your authority. If your team has performance issues, address them directly and honestly (and, of course, compassionately) with that person.

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 about that?

When I was in my 20s, I was idealistic, with strong convictions about what I perceived as right and wrong. I had a heavy bent towards social justice in society and the workplace. In short, I must have been a real handful to manage.

When I was in my late 30s, I called my very first boss, Kathy Wagner (who has also been my only female boss outside of board chair roles), and I thanked her for putting up with me in my early years. She later told me her husband asked if I had a grave illness and was doing some sort of life review; he’d never heard of someone calling out of the blue to thank a former boss for no other reason than sheer gratitude. Kathy and I shared a good laugh over that.

Really, I’ve learned something from every boss I’ve served. Each of them helped me advance my thinking and enriched my experience, even if the ride was rough on occasion. I’m grateful to each of them for giving me a shot and believing in me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Here’s that old idealism cropping up, but I truly do believe in the power of the human spirit to accomplish incredible things and overcome seemingly unbeatable odds.

I also believe in our individual and collective ability to live into our fullest selves — to realize our greatest capacities. Together, I believe we can drive positive outcomes for our organizations, communities, society, the planet, and all sentient beings.

As I work to help others achieve their highest potential, I also try my best to ensure that my own actions are a reflection of my beliefs and principles.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Understand when decisiveness is necessary. I’m a consensus builder by nature. While that’s a strength, when taken too far, it can become a constraint. Effective leadership is recognizing when you have enough information to make a decision, and moving forward knowing you’ve made the best call given the intelligence available at the time.

I had an intense lesson in this when working for the Louisiana SPCA. I was the CEO when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Our facility was destroyed and our staff strewn about the country. With only a core team of people, we established the animal rescue effort and created the official temporary shelter that ended up housing up to 2,000 animals a day within just days of launching search and rescue efforts.

I had to ensure the best possible outcome for animals and the community in an unimaginable and fully chaotic situation, amid flaring tempers and deep despair over losses already sustained. Over and over I had to make the best decisions possible, knowing that each one would anger some of those involved or affected. It was trial by water, and it tested me in ways I’d never experienced or expected.

Years later, when Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey and New York, I had a chance to put what I’d learned during Katrina into practice. I (along with my rockstar colleague Sará Varsa) oversaw the team from the Humane Society of the United States who, under the direction of the State of New Jersey, managed search and rescue operations for pets who needed rescue and/or care. That time I was much more comfortable shifting to the directive style often necessary for effective disaster response, while also finding ways to stay true to my collaborative nature.

Recognize analysis paralysis. I have a tendency to analyze things to death. I can out-spreadsheet the best of them! I also tend towards perfectionism. In the past, the combination must have been massively annoying for people who work with me, but fortunately, as I’ve matured, I’ve developed a good sense of when to put down the bone. I’ve also built in checks and balances with my colleagues to help me see more clearly and recognize when I’m in danger of going too far.

Interestingly, there’s research that shows that women tend to believe they have to be 100% ready before starting on a project or voicing their opinion, whereas men are far more likely to dive right in with less information. I’ve found that to be consistent with my experience. I previously wrote about ways that we hold ourselves back, and ways to change that, here.

Learn the value of being the facilitator rather than the expert. Early in my journey, like many young leaders, I felt a tug to demonstrate my expertise as a way to validate my promotion. After all, it’s often our content expertise that lands us the job. But those aren’t the skills that will take us to the next level. Rather, it’s those skills that are tougher to quantify, the ones that fall in the range of emotional intelligence, along with maturity and overall competence, that contribute to great leadership.

Once leaders move into the senior ranks, most have a solid foundation in sector expertise. What separates the strongest leaders from the pack are those who’ve mastered the ability to bring out the best in a diverse group of people, helping them achieve more than they thought possible on their own. It’s akin to assuming the role of orchestra conductor rather than principal cellist.

Separate the urgent from the important. Time is one of the greatest constraints we face as leaders. As much as we’d love to learn how to bend the space-time continuum, for now we can’t make more of it, so we must learn to use it wisely for greatest possible effect.

As an early manager, Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant Time Management Grid was revolutionary for me in this regard, as was the famous Harvard Business Review article, “Management Time: Who’s Got The Monkey?”

It’s easy for days to be consumed by pressing needs or friendly office (or electronic) drop-ins. It can be challenging to keep the end in mind and develop (and stick to) systems to manage your day, as well as stay focused on proactive measures. It’s those things, however, that will propel you forward.

Value all employees. Over the years, people have asked about why our teams seem so committed, loyal and engaged. Many of us keep in touch long after one of us has departed the organization. My best guess as to what contributes to building loyalty includes:

  • Mining for insights all over the organization. I’m keenly interested in varying perspectives and what people see based on where they sit in the company, and I try to create a safe environment where people feel welcome to share their insights and ideas.
  • Recognizing that each person is inherently valuable. We each have roles we play in our organizations, but we’re all human, with both gifts and frailties.
  • Being compassionately honest.
  • Identifying and tapping into the strengths of colleagues even if the task or project falls outside their normal job description.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could influence a movement, it would be spreading love and kindness like a wildfire across communities, the nation, and larger society; a space of meeting others with a sense of curiosity rather than fear. In my work I’ve seen first-hand that kind acts — even a simple smile — done consistently over time seem to soften even the toughest of characters, infusing the world (and ourselves) with more happiness, openness, and trust.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s hard to choose just one! There are two that immediately come to mind:

“When you scorn your past, you shortchange your future.”

This was said to me by my dear friend Steve Rivkin. He relayed this to me at time in my life when I was spending too much time looking in the rearview mirror. Today, I look at my past as a necessary pathway to my current experience. If it wasn’t for my past — the good and the bad — I wouldn’t have the experiences or perspective that I have today.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.” –Vivian Greene

As a child who grew up in a troubled household, I could have swum in a sea of despair or made the best of “what was.” I chose the latter, and this quote captures what I felt then and still feel today. Life isn’t always predictable or what we expect. When things spin out of control, you can choose to live in angst, or look for a tiny piece of land to find your footing and steady your balance.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m not terribly active on social media, but here are my most public channels –

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