Be you. I remember early in my career I would model myself after other leaders and it felt unnatural. It wasn’t until I was fully myself — an imperfect, meditating, vegan yogi working in supply chain — that I found other common ground with people. This was a part of myself that I kept quiet about for the greater part of my career. I found that if you are your authentic self, people will accept you, flaws and all.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Laurie McGrath.
With more than 20 years of executive marketing, branding and communications experience, Laurie has built her career on architecting the digitalization and creative expression of global brands across corporate and product marketing initiatives. Currently serving as chief marketing officer at Tecsys, Laurie has held leadership roles at a number of technology organizations including Savvis (a CenturyLink company), HighJump (now Korber) and Intalere (now Vizient). With the clarity she brings to complex solutions, Laurie helps usher cutting edge technology into mainstream, helping to forge contemporary supply chain best practice.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always had an interest in how people are influenced by strong branding. I figured I would end up in fashion or consumer brands; I never imagined finding a niche in supply chain technology. I remember right out of college going to a warehouse management conference with huge conveyor belts thinking to myself, ‘How did I end up here?’ But it didn’t take long to appreciate the inherent marketing challenges in the space. Over the years, I’ve grown passionate about supply chain, both because of the fascinating sophistication of the industry behind the scenes, and because of the mechanics involved in branding against such a backdrop.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I believe intuition is valuable, but it should never trump data, and here’s a perfect example. When I arrived at my new company, I was confident that key stakeholder and employee research would reveal certain changes that needed to be made to underpin a successful rebrand. After conducting this research, much to my surprise, my perceptions were wrong, and I had to course correct the rebranding process. This serves as a testament to always do your homework and research as a marketer, and that you are never too experienced to overlook what the data is telling you.
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?
I’m not sure how funny the CFO thought it was, but my first budget run was in US dollars rather than Canadian dollars. My lesson: Always, always ask the currency!
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?
I was on my first M&A rebranding executive sponsor committee and I learned a great deal from several more seasoned stakeholders. The most important lesson came from the CEO of the company we were acquiring around the importance of culture as a leading indicator of rebranding success. I remember him saying that branding is an ‘inside job’, and I’ve never forgotten this. I think about that nugget of wisdom through every rebranding exercise.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Mental wellness is vitally important to leading with a clear mind. I’ve been practicing yoga for the last 11 years and have a meditation table right next to my bed. When I travel, I create a space everywhere I go. It is a fundamental part of my daily existence and it carries over to my career as well. I’ve even been known to bring my team into the yoga studio.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Every person on the leadership team has a responsibility to the employees, customers and other key stakeholders to represent the company on behalf of them. That representation needs to include the diversity that is seen in the organization in a fair and equitable manner. And it goes both ways; leaders can and should be influenced by unique experiences and backgrounds, too.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
First and foremost, it is critical to make sure to have adequate representation from each group of society to speak their truth on a given subject. I recall a particular rebranding exercise where we created a steering committee that was not an authentic representative of the two companies that were to come under one banner. When we close the boardroom door and determine what is best for the employees without adequate representation, the results will be lopsided. We need to realize that priorities are not always the same, and no less valuable, across an organization, and it is important not to marginalize non-HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) perspectives.
That leads into organizational structures, whereby we should ensure that we develop an equitable framework that celebrates differences rather than excludes them. At Tecsys, we maintain multi-level feedback loops and intra-departmental steering committees so that myriad perspectives and insights are openly discussed and respected.
The most important step is to foster a willingness to allow for feedback and made adjustments based on this information. I mentioned a compelling example of this at the top of the interview, where my convictions on a rebrand were overruled, as it were, because of the mechanisms for feedback ensured that voices across the organization were amplified rather than silenced.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Executives are usually the top tier of representation for the organization. In many cases, they are the voice that external stakeholders will hear on behalf of the entire organization. As the executive in charge of marketing, I place a high degree of importance on what it means to represent the organization’s brand in an authentic manner; for me, that entails being in lockstep with my team at every level so that there is ambiguity as to what the organization stands for. As a result, the majority of my time is spent meeting with my peers, as well as with my direct reports, in planning and executing strategies for the future to define and refine that value.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth that is definitely not true is that once you become an executive you no longer participate in day-to-day activities. Although you have different responsibilities, most successful executives are very ‘hands on’ and don’t truly believe in the hierarchical view of organizations. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a C-level executive who doesn’t appreciate rolling up their sleeves and tackling a business challenge.
Another myth is that executives are unapproachable — not true. Every organization that I have been part of, from early days to now, I have found an executive team that is completely transparent and keeps an open door. We are not shy to hire people much smarter than we are, and we are stronger as a collective when we work openly together.
Finally, this notion that executives aren’t learning anymore is far from reality. Executives continue to learn on a daily basis from our teams and peers, rare in a state of stasis. We are never finished growing.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I have found myself in a typically male-dominated field and usually the only woman on an executive team throughout my career. I have found that until people get to know me, they are much more careful with what they say and how they say it in the beginning. I believe I’m approached much more cautiously initially; I don’t believe men have the same apprehensions with each other.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I always imagined I would be doing just this; helping organizations find their true brand promise that aligns with their values and build a digital ecosystem to better target that message to prospects to solve their problems. I love everything about the field I’m in, and the sector to which I apply these principles. Supply chain is like a perfect orchestra when everything is moving right. It’s the heartbeat of our economy.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The common traits of most successful executives I encounter are integrity, authenticity and transparency. I have experienced this time and time again. To influence people, you need to be someone people want to work for towards a common goal. Be honest, be authentic and be vulnerable — it’s the greatest power anyone can have in a leadership position.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find your passion and share it with others who want to join you on a journey. Get to know your team; what motivates one does not motivate the other. Give praise. Learn from mistakes together; they are all teachable moments.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am vegan and I advocate against factory farming techniques. I support small cruelty-free sustainable farms and am currently working with an organization out of Portland to update the factory farming regulations to avoid unhealthy food sources and unneeded cruelty to animals. When passion meets purpose, we move mountains, and I am fortunate to be able to have found this intersection in both my personal and professional life.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be you. I remember early in my career I would model myself after other leaders and it felt unnatural. It wasn’t until I was fully myself — an imperfect, meditating, vegan yogi working in supply chain — that I found other common ground with people. This was a part of myself that I kept quiet about for the greater part of my career. I found that if you are your authentic self, people will accept you, flaws and all.
- Find your passion. You will need that passion to fuel you as you encounter mountains and valleys in your career. Many people can genuinely confess that they do not like what they are doing; this is not a healthy place to be. Spend the time to reflect on the changes you need to make and what it is that makes you tick. Figure out what you love to do; then figure out a way to get paid for it.
- Vulnerability is your superpower. Let your team hear you say, ‘I made a mistake and I apologize’. Exercising this level of transparency and honesty is the healthiest way to create strong connections of trust.
- Learn from your mistakes. Every experience in your career is a chance for growth and to be a better employee. Choose your reactions. I have been in the unenviable position of wielding the managerial stick more than once, and I am always impressed with employees who can navigate difficult situations with decorum and grow from those experiences.
- Know your company’s business inside and out. It is a huge advantage to be knowledgeable about the organization and industry you’re in beyond your function. This gives you stronger business context, not to mention better lateral and upward mobility.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’ll repeat myself here: When passion meets purpose, we move mountains. I would create a movement to help people find their purpose and meaning in life. I meet people every day that are searching for meaning in their personal and professional pursuits, and it pains me that there is too often a disconnect. Joseph Campbell told us to ‘follow our bliss’; true success in life is being in complete alignment with your desires. It would be my dream for everyone to explore this journey before they choose a career that doesn’t speak to them. It is the fastest way to job burnout and lackluster effort as an employee.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite lesson is by Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I think of this quote at least 20 times a day. It is the most brilliant take on how the choice is always ours, every time and in any situation. What we do with that space can open windows or close doors; it can wound or heal. Raising teenage girls has given me ample opportunity to navigate that space and be purposeful in my responses; unlike my life as an executive, there are no holds barred in motherhood and I am grateful for those unpolished and perfect moments where Frankl’s words carry such weight.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would have to say Rich Roll. He is a true testament to ‘it’s never too late’ to transform your life. He was a two-time top finisher in the Ultraman World Championships after years of struggle with addiction. Today, he is a plant-based advocate for healthy mind and body, a bestselling author and distinguished podcaster, and a someone who truly practices what they preach. He’s the real deal and I am very inspired by him.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.