Mara Hedgecoth: “Always keep a sense of humor!”

Always keep a sense of humor! I know this is an extra piece of advice, but I already expect to make a mistake like taking one of my children to school on a wrong day. I’m ready to laugh about it and not beat myself up over it. This is a time like no other […]

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Always keep a sense of humor! I know this is an extra piece of advice, but I already expect to make a mistake like taking one of my children to school on a wrong day. I’m ready to laugh about it and not beat myself up over it. This is a time like no other and many people are under so much stress, we have to maintain our mental health.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mara Hedgecoth, senior director, global marketing and communication, leads the global corporate marketing and communication team, is a member of APCO’s Global Leadership Team and is a board member of Women Entrepreneurs Grow Global. She sets the strategic direction and oversees APCO’s corporate communication, including media relations, thought leadership, internal communication, and crisis and issues management. She also directs the development of APCO’s brand and global marketing and business development initiatives on behalf of the company.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Before joining APCO nearly two decades ago, I had a career in the hospitality and tourism industry. I started my journey with summer internships at local restaurants and with Sheraton hotels; participated in the college program at Walt Disney World and worked on the property for nearly half a year during my time in college, and upon graduation was selected to be part of a management training program with Renaissance hotels where I served in various management roles in hotel operations and moved on to become the senior convention services manager with the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association (BACVA). During that time, I organized meetings and events for up to 30,000 people on behalf of numerous corporations, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. I was also responsible for marketing the city of Baltimore to associations and corporations around the United States.

My professional experience at that time included designing and producing promotional materials, advising local businesses on ways to improve their marketing efforts, serving as a liaison between Baltimore city agencies and Baltimore’s tourism clients, and implementing innovative programs to provide visitors to the city with a quality experience.

I received my Bachelor of Business Administration with a specialization in Hospitality and Tourism Management from James Madison University and while I was working at BACVA, I went back to school to earn my Master of Business Administration with a specialization in Marketing Management from Johns Hopkins University. This career path led me to want to take my cumulative skills and experience to apply them more holistically to one organization or brand and to delve deeper into business strategy, brand management and business operations on a global basis.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

One of the more interesting things that happened since starting at APCO was when I was asked to work alongside the lawyers and bankers to advise on the internal and external communications for one of the most significant bankruptcy filings in U.S. history for one of our clients. This was happening at a time that I was still completing my MBA and happened to take place during our accounting course and we were studying bankruptcy. I was brought into a highly confidential situation and was trusted implicitly. It really brought together my studies, real-life and stretched my skills to new heights. To be in the room when all of this was unfolding in real-time, contributing to the conversations and working 24-hours straight to make sure everything was attended to, was incredibly interesting and a deep learning experience for me in many ways. I was then able to take those experiences back to my classmates in real-time as we learned the technical elements of bankruptcy filings, as well as the communications experience to inform my approach/thinking throughout key moments of my career.

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

One of the most exciting projects I am working on right now is looking at our positioning in the marketplace and making sure it is fit for the future in this changing world. This is for both our external offerings to clients and how we articulate what it is we do, how it is different and what we stand for as a company, as well as our employees, so they are proud of their workplace and choose to stay and grow their careers at a company that is thriving and committed to being a model for an inclusive workplace. It challenges me to think of new ways of working; bringing new products and offerings to the market; and making sure we are in tune with both our clients’ and employees’ changing needs. The advice and counsel we give to clients will secure livelihoods and help companies transform for the future, tackling some of the toughest challenges of our time like racism, global warming and tech transformation. This work will also help ensure we continue to demonstrate our purpose and values in how we conduct ourselves as a company to continue to make positive contributions to society in how we operate and through the clients we serve.

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?

My mother is my biggest role model and advocate, personally and professionally; she always gives me sage advice and helps me be the best both in my career and as a mom. Instead of staying home (like was common for her generation), she worked and pursued an ever-advancing career. When I was starting middle school, she founded her own company, APCO Worldwide, where I work today. She founded APCO inside of a law firm as its sole employee and grew it to where it is today as an independent, majority women-owned firm with more than 800 employees in nearly 30 markets around the globe. She demonstrated to me how to have a big career and still be there as a mom for your children. At the time I didn’t realize how special that was or how many lessons I was learning by observing how she juggled it all, but today I apply many of those lessons she taught me as I live the same experience of being a working mom. While she couldn’t be there for everything for me when I was growing up, she would make it a priority to commit to and come to specific events. Once she committed, she would always be there, fully present and cheering me on. I can go on with stories about this balance, but you would be surprised at how much business was done while cooking dinner, back to school shopping or other mother-daughter bonding experiences. This gave me a window into conducting business — how to treat others with respect, be a good listener, act with compassion and not to be afraid to have bold ideas. She taught me that as a woman not to underestimate the power of being underestimated. And from a young age, I had a large level of responsibility and trust — which allowed me to be more independent and respect the value of hard work.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

The pandemic has impacted every aspect of my personal and professional life. As a woman in business, there is even more pressure to keep up with the high levels of work and family responsibilities while also trying to carve out time to do the things that keep me going and manage my stress. For my family, we are in a constant balancing act with the kids — balancing their remote learning for school, keeping them occupied over the summer and during their free time, and doing so without the normal conveniences and help that we typically have for childcare and cleaning. This has put a lot of pressure on me since I am working from home and my spouse is an essential employee and goes into his workplace every day. At the same time, I feel an obligation to make sure my team is also managing the changing circumstances well and not becoming overly stressed or overworked.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Every day there are new challenges to face with the changing external environment, but I’ve learned to take it day-by-day, go with the flow and meet every new challenge head-on and with a clear mind. I feel fortunate to have a company that is flexible and allows me to rise to the challenge of taking on all of these responsibilities. I established a regular cadence of team meetings over Zoom to stay connected with each other, so I have a good pulse on everyone’s workloads and can ensure work is distributed equally across the team. I along with others on the team regularly recognize team members for their efforts and contributions to the company. I ensure at least once a week I encourage the team to do the meeting outside to get fresh air and away from their computer screens. On a personal front, I make sure I carve out time for my daily workout to help manage stress and feel good about myself, and I started some new family traditions (like family movie night with popcorn), so we have things to look forward to doing together. In many ways, I am more productive than ever and enjoying the quality time with my family; however, I constantly feel the magnitude of the personal and professional responsibility and do everything I can to be a role model for my children and my team.

Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

As a working mother, the pandemic has made the ever-difficult challenge of work-life balance even more acute. Working from home while having children at home without childcare creates an even greater need for work-life integration, flexibility, patience and creativity. Uncertainties about the pandemic result in shifting expectations for the rest of the year, whether it be school schedules or physical office re-openings. The key is to remain flexible; take it a day at a time; don’t let the uncontrollable challenges affect you; and most importantly, keep a sense of humor and employ patience and empathy for your coworkers and family alike. It is reassuring that we are all facing the same challenges and will get through this period together.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Despite the uncertainties ahead of us, I am tackling the challenge straight on, by combining the two — work-life integration.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of staying connected with friends, colleagues and clients to help each other through this crisis. I have taken steps to stay positive, boost morale and lighten the mood — at home and at work — and encourage my family and colleagues to cherish the positives and regularly step back to enjoy a brief reprieve from the pressures of the “new normal.” For example, my children occasionally join the weekly huddle with my team and share a riddle for them to solve.

I believe COVID-19 will fundamentally change how we live, work, collaborate, travel and convene and the rapid acceleration of virtual engagement is likely to stay and become a key part of our professional and private lives.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

I feel fortunate that my children are fairly self-sufficient with their distance learning. They have both impressed me (and their teachers) with their ability to adapt to the online learning environment and how they have risen to the challenge. I typically share my schedule with them each day and let them know when I am in meetings/on calls and which ones are really important not to interrupt. I also schedule time on my calendar to help them with school subjects where they may need some additional assistance or just to cook lunch. At the outset, my husband and I talked to them both about helping more around the house and helping each other — that we all needed to work together to make the best of our situation. It’s not perfect, but it is a good place to start, and it has been very rewarding to see them grow and become more independent and learn to do things that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

My strategy has been to find different things to do with each other that we can all look forward to. Besides our new tradition of family movie night, we’ve done everything from regular family walks and bike rides to taking turns cooking dinner and dessert (even the kids too!) and getting a puppy. We try to create moments to look forward to, spend quality time together as a family unit and make sure we are getting in plenty of physical activity to keep us energized and refreshed. I also make sure to carve out 30 minutes to an hour for myself to get in some daily exercise to keep my body and mind healthy, relieve stress and keep my focus.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Strength comes from within. The Coronavirus crisis has pushed us to experience the unthinkable in our daily lives. Figuring out how to overcome and thrive during these times shows us how to be resilient and what we are capable of if we are stretched outside of our comfort zone. One example is that I have many friends who have decided to go out on their own in business with the impetus being the pandemic — something they may never have tried but are already so proud and happy of that decision.
  2. Take it one day at a time. Don’t let the enormity of the situation overwhelm you. Figure out what you need to do for the day ahead and plan, prepare and stay on task — for both personal and professional obligations. Every Sunday, I sit down with my work and family schedule and look at the week ahead — a day at a time. I plan out dinners, choosing quick meals on days I know will be overwhelming, and I let my spouse, kids and co-workers know when I have daunting-looking days. We work together to get through the week successfully. Each night before I go to bed, I look at the upcoming day and prepare for the day ahead … taking it one day at a time.
  3. Schedule time for your family. Put time in your work schedule to help your children with their school work, drive them to school or activities (if they are happening in your state), cook them a meal and eat with them, or just to spend a few minutes together reading a book or playing a board game. I make sure to let my children know the time I have set aside for them and ask them to save any help they need for school or activities they want to do together for that time.
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure you keep a comprehensive calendar and you communicate with your spouse (if you are married), children and co-workers. Let them know when you have an important obligation and cannot be disturbed or need help with the responsibilities.
  5. Make time for yourself. It is hard to make time for yourself, but schedule just 30 minutes or an hour a day to do something that helps you reduce stress and clear your mind, so you have the energy and focus to continue. I make sure to exercise every day, and if my calendar won’t allow for it, I try to take at least one of my conference calls on the phone and get up and away from my computer and walk around to get moving and some fresh air. Don’t apologize for taking time for yourself, just do it.
  6. Always keep a sense of humor! I know this is an extra piece of advice, but I already expect to make a mistake like taking one of my children to school on a wrong day. I’m ready to laugh about it and not beat myself up over it. This is a time like no other and many people are under so much stress, we have to maintain our mental health.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

To support family, loved ones, friends and co-workers who are feeling anxious, I suggest listening and being empathetic. Everyone’s situation is different, and people are under unprecedented stress. Don’t compare situations, just be understanding. It helps people to be able to talk things through. You can share experiences or advice, but I always tell my loved ones, friends and co-workers that they have to do what they feel is best for them and do what they are comfortable with.

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

I love this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” It reminds me of how I can get through any situation (professionally or personally) and it will continue to make me stronger. I confront challenges head-on and with a positive, “can do,” mindset. This helps me rise to a challenge, believe in myself and abilities and continue to grow professionally and personally.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter. Also, keep an eye on APCO Worldwide’s blog — the APCO Forum — for blogs or articles by me!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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