McMillan President Theresa Forman: “There is a time for humility, and there is a time for swagger”

There is a time for humility, and there is a time for swagger. I have been told countless in my life that one of my key strengths is my humility, and one of my key weaknesses is my…humility. What I have learned over time is that it is a wonderful quality to have for all […]

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There is a time for humility, and there is a time for swagger. I have been told countless in my life that one of my key strengths is my humility, and one of my key weaknesses is my…humility. What I have learned over time is that it is a wonderful quality to have for all the reasons you would expect, but at times, it can impede success and growth (whether to you personally, or to the organization you lead.) Who else is going to shine a light on your successes if not you? The key is to navigate speaking about your accomplishments in a way that doesn’t sound braggadocios. Find your swagger and use it selectively.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Theresa Forman. Theresa is the President of McMillan, an independent creative agency headquartered in Ottawa Canada with offices in NYC that specializes in the brand experience for a global clientele. She’s responsible for plotting the pragmatic course of action through business development, services offerings and strategic partnerships that define the agency’s growth and corporate strategies. Theresa’s been a B2C and B2B marketing professional for more than 25 years, honing her craft in the consumer-packaged goods, software and advocacy sectors before plunging into the mysterious world of reverse engineering, a career phase that amplified her life-long passion for pulling things apart to see how they work. She brought that insatiable curiosity to McMillan in 2007, building the agency’s strategic services practice from a one-woman operation into the guiding force behind successful projects for Intuit, Trend Micro, Lexis Nexis and Commvault, and becoming President in 2018.

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

While my career path has been somewhat typical for a marketer, what’s atypical is that it is a path I fell into rather than chose. Initially, I wanted to be a teacher, as I come from a long line of educators. I grew up in Montreal, Quebec, and at the time, there was quite a surplus of teachers across the province. Finding jobs was becoming increasingly difficult, and the exodus of teachers with tenure wasn’t expected for another 5–10 years, and so I had to really reconsider that path. In the meantime, I took a coordinator job in the PR/Marketing department of a global Telco, and then with a consumer goods company doing product/category management and marketing. I fell in love with Business; more specifically, Strategy. And the rest — as they say — is history.

The lesson for me was that sometimes, not getting what you want is a blessing.

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

The thing I have found most interesting about the change in title is the change in the way people treat those with a “leader” title. Whether it’s internally or externally, there seems to be this newfound perceived gravitas; while part of me gets the “why” behind that, the other part of me continues to be mystified because — to a large degree — I (perhaps erroneously) believe that I am essentially the same person I was before I took on this role and additional responsibilities. The bonus is it certainly opens some doors, the unfortunate part of it is, at times, it has a negative impact on being relatable.

Shortly after I moved into this role, I headed into kitchen at the office to put my mug in the dishwasher. When I opened the dishwasher, I saw that the dishes were clean, so <gasp> I started emptying it and putting the clean dishes away. A staff member came into the kitchen and asked, “Why are you doing that?” And I said, “Because the dishes are clean.” And he said, “No, I mean why are YOU doing that?” And I said, “Why NOT me?” And he said, “Because you’re the PRESIDENT now.” I smiled and kept emptying the dishwasher.

I have told this story many times because it still makes me laugh.

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 took over at a time when things were really quite busy, so a couple of aspects of the formal “onboarding” to this role fell by the wayside. The funniest mistake I made was dropping the ball on a deliverable because I (wrongly) assumed it was on someone’s else’s plate…in actuality, it was on mine. The realization happened while I was sitting in a meeting, inquiring why an action item on a project hadn’t progressed, and I asked the people in the room who typically owned that responsibility on a project, and one of our staff said “well, you.” I burst out laughing, said “Whoops!”, and then worked all night to get it done on time.

The lesson learned is always ensure roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and understood at the outset of a project…even if you’re the President. ☺

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

I believe what makes McMillan stand out is that we are good people to think with. A lot of agencies trot out their “unique” and “proprietary” processes…and while we have our processes at McMillan as well, we go out of our way to tell our clients and our prospective clients that really — it’s smoke and mirrors; the “process” is essentially the same. An agency first does discovery, then creates a strategy that will differentiate the company in the market, then develops a (hopefully) killer concept, executes, evaluates, and optimizes. The “process” is not really where the magic happens, it’s in the “journey”; in the collaboration with the client. We try to avoid the “tah-dah” Powerpoint presentation moments; we invite those we are working with into our “kitchen” and we collaborate and prototype every step of the way. That’s where we’ve collectively found the best success and frankly, more job satisfaction. Again, we’re good people to think with. And we seek out clients who are good people to think with too.

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

We are absolutely working on several exciting projects at the moment, across several sectors; B2B, B2C and Non-Profit. There is a thread running through many of our projects right now, and that is that marketers are trying to figure out how to make their brand experiences more meaningful. It’s noisy out there. Marketing investments have become less effective for maintaining market share and product/service preference across many sectors. To drive growth, organizations are looking for a fresh and disruptive approach to communications. There is a lot of opportunity to add emotion/values/purpose to typically rational/feature/function-type marketing initiatives. That is really exciting, and frankly — as a creative agency — a really important, and at times, complex challenge. We really have to tune in to and unearth not just the explicit value of engaging with a brand, but the implicit one as well.

This approach will help people choose brands that better align with their personal needs and value system. This is scary for some organizations because being so specific and personal comes with the risk of alienating certain audiences. Yet savvy marketers realize offering a meaningful brand experience means offering one that is audience-focused and suggests an interaction that’s immersive, collaborative and engaging. So what? That type of experience will drive loyalty beyond reason for the organization, and increased relevancy and satisfaction for its audiences.

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

My biggest piece of advice to women to help both themselves and their teams thrive it to embrace their gender. Over the course of my career I have always found the premise of “in order for a woman to be successful, she needs to ‘act like a man’ or ‘grow a pair” to be quite curious. There is a marked difference between being aggressive and being assertive. Women are more likely to be successful if they — frankly — lead with their own anatomy. Sometimes it won’t work to her advantage, sometimes it will. The bottom line is that having women — who tend to have better emotional intelligence — in leadership roles is good for business; there is documented research to support this. Lower turnover rates, greater productivity, better quality output — all of those things are linked indisputably to employee engagement. And the research yields that women do the best job of engaging employees. So, again, my advice for female leaders looking to drive a thriving employee base is to embrace their gender.

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

Delegate. In my experience (and I have been guilty of this earlier in my career), one of the biggest disservices female leaders do to their teams is take more on than they need to for whatever reasons (fear of burdening their team, hero-complex, they are uncertain whether a team member can handle the responsibility, don’t want to ask for help, etc.) What I have learned and witnessed is that, in the end, all this does is a) burn the leader out and impact her performance, b) erode her team’s respect for her, and b) prevent the team members from growing personally or professionally (which leads to low job satisfaction.) My experience has proven out that — in almost all cases — when you give a team member just enough to stretch, they will rise to the occasion. Empower your managers and encourage them to empower their staff; everybody wins.

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 am blessed in that I have had several fantastic mentors over the course of my personal and professional lives. All came along at exactly the right time, and whom said “yes” when I asked for guidance or advice. Some were in my life for one conversation, some for a lifetime. I believe we can learn from anyone and as such, I have sought advice from all walks and stations of life. I am very grateful for their time and their contributions.

Mentorship is extremely undervalued and certainly not practiced enough, particularly for those coming out of school and entering internships, as well as the next generation of leaders. No one I have ever asked for guidance has ever said no. NO ONE. It’s my experience that people want to help and share their experiences and wisdom. The moral of the story is don’t be afraid to ask; you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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

I try to give back and be the change I’d love to see in the world. I personally believe that good is more often than not brought to the world in sustained daily acts of kindness than in the one-off large, sweeping gestures. Whether it is sharing my expertise with the Volunteer Association Board at a local hospital, teaching a class at the local college, agreeing to mentor others in their career, or buying the person behind me in line a coffee, I have tried to give back. I am so grateful to those that have given to me and the benefits I have reaped; all I can do is pay-it-forward.

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

  1. Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you, or who know more about a particular subject matter. Similarly, don’t hire smart people and then ignore their contributions because you need to feel superior. Your job is to guide and pave the way.I had a mentor who credited his CEO success to empowering his employees to be the “CEOs of their own roles.” Whether it was the cleaning staff, the administration, the marketing executive…he never presumed to know more about their role; quite the opposite. He would listen to their opinions and ideas and empower them to effect change. To this day, I know people whom have been working for him for years; he inspires that kind of success and loyalty.
  2. Toxic people are not worth it, no matter how intelligent and productive they are. The impact they have on morale, productivity, the trust of management, etc. is counterproductive and expensive when you look at turnover, and not worth what they’re bringing to the table. Early in my career, there was an executive who was verbally abusive to the staff. Despite many complaints to senior management, he continued to be employed because he was bringing in healthy revenue. However, his behavior was creating a very unhealthy and disengaged work force. Over the course of a few years, staff turnover increased, productivity decreased, and a law suit was threatened. It taught me early on that difficult employees need to be dealt with swiftly for the sake of the collective.
  3. Be a servant leader; your employees are your MOST important audience and your biggest brand ambassadors; if you take care of them, they’ll take care of your customers. I personally know several leaders who live by this approach; you can see that this premise is true in the loyalty and longevity of the relationships between them and their staff, and their customers.
  4. There is a time for humility, and there is a time for swagger. I have been told countless in my life that one of my key strengths is my humility, and one of my key weaknesses is my…humility. What I have learned over time is that it is a wonderful quality to have for all the reasons you would expect, but at times, it can impede success and growth (whether to you personally, or to the organization you lead.) Who else is going to shine a light on your successes if not you? The key is to navigate speaking about your accomplishments in a way that doesn’t sound braggadocios. Find your swagger and use it selectively.
  5. Finally, experience has taught me that anything in life can be overcome with a healthy dose of grit, grace, and gratitude.These are the three touchstones I live my life by.

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. 🙂

I would bring back the concept of the family dinner. Truly. This is something I am very passionate about; ask my children — they tell me I’m a little maniacal about it. That ritual is sacred to me. Phones are not allowed at the table (if you’re caught with it, you do all the dishes.) We go around the table and there is a list of questions everyone must answer (How was your day? What did you do? Best part? Worst part? Did you feel proud today? Loved? Did you do anything kind for anyone?) We’ve been doing this since they were toddlers and they are now young adults. We’re not all together as often anymore because life is pulling them in different directions, but when they’re home, it’s still our ritual. I can’t tell you how much joy this brings me, and despite the occasional eye roll, the joy it brings them.

This has always been the favorite part of my day, but what became very clear to me when they were old enough to have friends join us for dinner is how rare this is in today’s world. I had countless children, teenagers and now young adults through our house over the years, and the majority don’t eat dinner as a family. They eat by themselves, in their room, in front of the TV, etc. The interesting part is that my kids used to apologize to them in advance of dinner for the barrage of questions that “mom” was going to send their way (because if you’re sitting at our table for dinner, you’re answering those questions too.) The funny part? Their friends LOVED it. They CRAVED it. They ASKED for it every time they were invited. And then they started inviting themselves. My daughter is away at school in her 4th year of University; on the weekends she comes home, she has friends still ask if they can come for dinner at our table. I love that my dinner table is the stuff of legends, but I always found it a little sad. I still do.

There is SO much evidence about the benefits of eating dinner as a family. Benefits that extend beyond the closer bonds you develop; benefits that can alter the course of your child’s life: lower risk of behavioral problems, depression, and substance abuse; they are more emotionally content and have better relationships with their peers. The list goes on. So hopefully this triggers more of that.

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

This is a really, really hard question for me because I am a collector of quotes. I collect them the way others collect knickknacks, and I have been collecting them for years. (Ask my children; much to their annoyance, I am constantly sending them life quote memes.)

That said, if I have to choose one that is incredibly relevant in my life, I would choose a quote by the indelible Maya Angelou:

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I find this notion incredibly powerful on so many levels; really, I could probably write a whole dissertation on this quote. What it comes down to for me is, what do you want your legacy to be? Personally, at the end of my life it won’t matter what my résumé says, what my bank account sits at, what kind of car I drive…what will matter to me is the impact I had on people and what their experience of me was, in both my personal and professional lives. I don’t mean I need everyone to like me, because I have (finally) reached an age where I don’t. I want to be known as — no matter whether we agree or not, like each other or not — the type of person that always chose kindness and treated people with grace and respect. (I won’t say I always succeed, but it’s what I strive for.)

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Again, tough question. So many amazing people to choose from. At this moment in my professional life, recently appointed as President, I would say Richard Branson. He has built an incredibly cult-like following and successful Branded House with Virgin and its sub-brands, as well as a healthy corporate culture, while seemingly keeping his authenticity, adventurous spirit, and integrity. I’d love to ask him how. ☺

On a personal level, I would also absolutely love to sit down with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What a force of nature that woman is. She has consistently risen in the face of adversity and spent a career setting the legal groundwork to enable others do the same. She was a professional at a time when it was frowned upon for women to have careers outside the home, had a strong, long-term marriage, and raised 2 children. I mean, what a role model!!!

Thanks for asking me to weigh in!

About the Author:

Author and business coach, Akemi Sue Fisher, has helped thousands of Amazon sellers scale and grow their businesses to six, seven and eight figures. Akemi has quickly become one of the most trusted and sought after E-commerce consultants in the world. In only three years, her agency, Love & Launch, has helped her clients achieve over one billion dollars in sales through Amazon, Ebay and other e-commerce platforms. Her entrepreneurial spirit and direct approach continues to help elevate not only her success, but the success of her clients which range from startups to fortune 500 companies. Akemi also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column that profiles the lessons of prominent female executives. If you would like to book Akemi for an entertaining speaking engagement, or if you would like to learn if Akemi can help you scale your business, you can reach out to her HERE.

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