2-25: "The Honest CEO" - Joanne McKinney

JoanneMcKinney%5B1%5D.jpg

"The Honest CEO"

Joanne McKinney is the CEO of Burns Group - an advertising brand consultancy and innovation company.

She’s worked on the agency and client side. She’s lived and worked in the US and in Europe. She’s started her own company, been named one of 24 global agency innovators by The Internationalist, and has succeeded at every step of her career. And while doing all that she’s been a wife and a mother to two children.

She’s a year into being a CEO. She’s smart, self aware and honest.


Three Takeaways

  • Explore new possibilities.

  • Take clear, specific steps.

  • Care about others' success.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-25: "The Honest CEO" - Joanne McKinney

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless'’.

Joanne McKinney is the CEO of Burns Group - an advertising brand consultancy and innovation company.

She’s worked on the agency and client side. She’s lived and worked in the US and in Europe. She’s started her own company, been named one of 24 global agency innovators by The Internationalist, and has succeeded at every step of her career. And while doing all that she’s been a wife and a mother to two children.

She’s a year into being a CEO. She’s smart, self aware and honest.

“I think I've probably experienced fear more in my first year of being CEO than I ever have in my career. I've always been pretty ballsy and bold, and I think just the responsibility of both running a company and the lives of the people in the company has brought up some more fear.”

Leadership contains two essential paradoxes.

Being leader comes with no training.

And it provides no time for rehearsal.

You succeed in one discipline and suddenly you’re being tapped on the shoulder and asked to lead the whole thing.

And as you step into the spotlight, you suddenly discover it never goes off. Not for a moment.

If the reality of that doesn’t make you afraid for a while, you’re not paying attention. Or taking it seriously. Or both.

Of course some people admit to being afraid more easily than others. Many leaders have an instinctive reluctance to reveal what is traditionally perceived as a weakness. 

Others believe that if the leader shows fear then others in the organization become fearful.

Those are logical and traditional views. But both require a human being to suppress a lot of emotion in order to carry out the bluff.

Admitting we are afraid is a tough step to take. But those that do are then usually better able to understand what part of leading is making them afraid. Which in turn makes it easier to establish context. And to ask for help. 

Denial is a tough place to live from. It strengthens the underlying fear and it builds bigger, higher walls between you and the real world.

Put fear on the table early. You’ll find the people you want around you will respect you for it. And that when you look at it in the cold light of day, it’s smaller and more shriveled than when it’s holding a pillow across your face in the middle of the night. 

Here’s Joanne McKinney.

Charles:

Joanne, welcome to Fearless. Thank you for joining me here today.

Joanne McKinney:

Thanks for having me.

Charles:

When did creativity first show up in your life? When were you conscious there was such a thing as creativity?

Joanne McKinney:

I guess as a child I would say creativity for me was really around imagination. That I definitely led a very large, imaginary life. I was a big reader from a really early age, and I think that kind of fueled my sense of creativity. I always wanted to write, but I was always creating worlds, and whether that was in my backyard turning our tree into a ship, or whatever it might be, or writing plays with my sister that we would put on for all the adults.

But probably the best expression of it in my childhood was my grandfather built me this beautiful dollhouse that he made with lights and everything. But it was an empty shell, and so I started right off the bat decorating it. I sewed curtains. I baked bread in little loaves that I actually baked and then shellacked.

Charles:

Real bread?

Joanne McKinney:

Real bread. I decorated this whole thing soup to nuts, and then in my bedroom there was a little door that went to an attic, and there was a little attic room, and I asked my parents if I could turn that into this world for my dollhouse. I painted the walls blue with clouds, I made a road out of those peel and stick tiles, put the dollhouse there, and created this whole kind of community almost. I think I played for so many hours. Just myself. My dolls all had their own personalities. I was probably acting out some novel that someday I'll write. But that was really such a huge memory of my childhood, and I think it was really creative in many ways, but very solitary creativity.

Charles:

Did they have relationships? In this world that you created, there was a whole-

Joanne McKinney:

Oh, sure. It was a whole family. All of the daily things, and probably acting out a lot of things that were happening in my life on a daily basis, too, but I think I've always been really into creating, and that was probably the earliest expression that I can remember of it.

Charles:

Did you make the stories up as you went along?

Joanne McKinney:

Yes. Always in the moment. Unless we were writing a play, my sister and I did a lot of acting out little plays, and we'd create little plot lines as if we were producers of Saturday Night Live probably. But just putting things together and sharing them with people. We weren't a big television household. Growing up, my parents [crosstalk]-

Charles:

Sounds like you didn't need it. You were creating your own, right?

Joanne McKinney:

No. Right, and my parents were teachers, and I think they were probably not high on TV in that way. We were allowed to I think watch unlimited TV Sunday mornings. That was our one time to really sit in front of the TV, and it was mostly public television. Yeah.

Charles:

I was going to say Meet the Press or something.

Joanne McKinney:

No, it was like Electric Company or Brady Bunch. I don't know. Down the line.

Charles:

Did you feel left out at school because other kids were having different experiences?

Joanne McKinney:

No, I don't think I actually thought that was an unusual experience. We did watch television and things like that. No, I just think that was normal to me, and a lot of my friends it was the same. When we got together to play, it was all a very outdoors, imagination kind of play. It wasn't video games or staying inside. I don't know. It was just kind of the norm maybe at the time that I grew up.

Charles:

You have kids, right?

Joanne McKinney:

I do.

Charles:

Has that informed how you raise your children?

Joanne McKinney:

Well, definitely but I think obviously the technology is so different today. Keeping them clear of that is a battle from the beginning. My kids are now grown, but certainly I was really big on giving them experiences, and kind of focusing on experiential learning for them. Getting them out into the world to really experience things rather than just passively receiving it from a device where possible.

Charles:

Right.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

Were you a risk taker as a kid? Growing up?

Joanne McKinney:

Definitely. I think if I look back, I think always for me new experiences and kind of putting myself out there has always been part of my DNA. That's kind of the way I do it. Risk taking when you were a kid for me was more wanting to play little league with the boys if I could. Trying new things and new sports that no one in my family did. Begging to play an instrument when no one in my family was musical. Things like that where I was just pushing, pushing to get involved in things, and pretty diverse things.

Charles:

Where did the encouragement for that come from?

Joanne McKinney:

My parents were always very empowering against those kind of asks. They never really initiated those, but they supported whatever I initiated. I would definitely say I grew up in a household where it was child directed, not parental directed. Even though my parents were teachers, they didn't ask to see our homework, or ask us how we did on tests. They really were expecting us to be more self-directed in most of our interests and even in academics.

Charles:

Were you a high-achiever academically?

Joanne McKinney:

I was. I was a bit of a blow-off in the late part of high school. My parents got separated right when my sister left for college when I was a junior in high school. Fortunately, my sister had a really great reputation at my high school. Even though I became a blow-off, everyone just thought I was off doing something more important because my sister was such a good student. Yeah, I did well in high school, but I think I didn't really apply myself in the later couple of years. I was really distracted by my parents situation, and exploring other things like boys and I don't know. All sorts of experimentation going on at that stage of life.

Charles:

What did you do at college?

Joanne McKinney:

I went to Cornell University, and I studied Communication, but mostly I would say diverse Liberal Arts. I dabbled in English Literature, Psychology, I was really interested. Basically kind of diverse things. I've always been I would say kind of skittish as it comes to things that I'm interested in. I move through things pretty quickly. I'm bored pretty easily. But I love my education. I got to take so many really interesting classes. I did a lot of writing as well.

Charles:

So, you've always had multiple interests.

Joanne McKinney:

Always, and I actually think that's why I ended up in advertising as well. I think I needed a job where you could do something different every moment of every day. Now it makes me a little crazy that piece of it, but I do think it's really well-suited to my personality.

Charles:

What was your first career stub?

Joanne McKinney:

I had been working since I was in eighth grade, whether that was babysitting or camp counselor, you name it. Always saving money. I financed a big part of my college education and had a ton of loans, so during college I worked. I was a work study student, so I worked throughout the school year which was always difficult to do in academics. Then, every summer I was like if I have to work and earn a lot of money, I might as well try to get a career opportunity. I think of course that's what kids do today, but it was less so I think when I was coming up in college.

I had a number of good internships. I thought I wanted to be a writer and potentially work in PR as a writer. But ultimately, I got recruited by Gray Advertising at Cornell which felt like I won the lottery in many ways. In fact, when the recruiter from Gray, when he hired me he said something like, "Oh yeah, we got 10,000 resumes for account management training program, and we only hired one person through recruiting and it was you." A lot of my peers were somehow connected via parents who knew someone, you know, the network. But I really didn't have a network. My parents were teachers so I was really lucky to land-

Charles:

You were one out of 10,000? You were the one out of 10,000?

Joanne McKinney:

Well, I don't know if there were really 10,000, but that's what he said. I was the only one that was hired out of recruiting. Every other slot was pretty much filled at that time.

Charles:

How did you feel? How did that make you feel?

Joanne McKinney:

Good. He said I basically tap danced on the table when he met with me. Cornell had this weird system. You got points that you could bid on interviews because all the big companies would come.

Charles:

Based on your accomplishments at university?

Joanne McKinney:

No. Everyone got the same amount of points.

Charles:

Oh, I see.

Joanne McKinney:

So you got points, and then people came, and you could bid on getting some of those interview slots. Of course they also had a choice as to who they saw, but imagine you're seeing so many people. I bid all my points on two interviews, Procter & Gamble and Gray Advertising.

Charles:

And ended up working for both of them.

Joanne McKinney:

Well, it was funny, I actually went through the process with P&G, and this is my best advertising story ever. I tell this to everybody, but I went through the whole interviewing process, and got quite far along, and got a note saying they wanted me to come to Cincinnati. When I arrived, I would have to take a standardized test. I said to them, "Well, what do you mean?" And they said, "Don't worry. It's just like the SAT."

I said, "Well, I took the SAT to get into Cornell, and I've worked my butt off for four years. I have all this work experience. I'd really rather be judged on my potential in the work that I've done versus some quantitative score." The recruiter said, "Well, let me talk to someone. I'll come back," and they came back to me and they said, "Well, we're really sorry. You can't continue in the process if you won't take the test." I said, "Well, I think it's probably a good indication that it's not a good fit for me because if that's what you really value in the decision process, and it's not something that I do, it's probably not a great fit." I said it in a nice way, and I bowed out of the process.

Get my job at Gray Advertising. I'm on Procter & Gamble. Day one, I walk into my new bosses' office and they hand me my client list, and the name on the list is the woman who I was interviewing with at P&G.

Charles:

Of course it was. Unbelievable.

Joanne McKinney:

I literally ... What's the likelihood of that? I didn't know how small a world marketing is, and now of course I know. But I said to my new boss, "Oh my goodness, I think she might not want to work with me," and I told her the story, and she was like, "Oh shit, I better call this woman." She called her and the woman who was very kind said, "We really respected the way Joanne bowed out of the process, and we're excited to have the chance to work with her." I was like, phew. Can you believe that?

Charles:

Did she mean it?

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah, she meant it, and she [crosstalk]-

Charles:

Did she show up that way?

Joanne McKinney:

Yes, and she was a good client. That was day one of my career.

Charles:

That's amazing.

Joanne McKinney:

I learned the most valuable lesson of my career which is it's a really small world in our business. Don't ever burn a bridge, don't ever leave a job or enter a job badmouthing anyone in the business. I just think it's a really valuable lesson.

Charles:

Yeah, I think that's absolutely right.

Joanne McKinney:

A really early lesson.

Charles:

What an incredible story.

Joanne McKinney:

Isn't that crazy?

Charles:

Yeah. The chances of that are just ridiculous.

Joanne McKinney:

So slim. I even remember the woman's name, but I won't say it out loud.

Charles:

Given how willing you were to jump into new situations, and how willing you were to tell somebody as powerful as that in your career path the truth early on, let's talk about fear. What's your relationship with fear?

Joanne McKinney:

I would say in general I'm not a very fearful person. Maybe to a fault, and with a bit of naivete that I'm really trusting. I'm the kind of person that doesn't lock the house. Leaves my bag on the front seat of the car with the keys in the car and leaves it in the driveway. I just don't fear the world around me per say. I have an incredibly intense fear as it relates to the safety of my children. That's really the most palpable relationship I think I would have with fear. Any time I think about something happening to them, or when I know they're in a situation that's dangerous like my older son now drives a motorcycle, even the thought of him being on that motorcycle creates just a horrible feeling within me.

But from a work standpoint, I don't think I'm that fearful. I think I've probably experienced fear more in my first year of being CEO than I ever have in my career. I've always been pretty ballsy and bold, and I think just the responsibility of both running a company and the lives of the people in the company has brought up some more fear in me.

Charles:

How has that shown up? When did you first become aware of it?

Joanne McKinney:

Of that fear?

Charles:

Yeah.

Joanne McKinney:

I think actually when Mike Burns first came to me and said, "I'd like you to be the CEO of the company." At first, I was very surprised, excited, thrilled. I felt I deserved it. I had the vision for the company and I felt for that reason I could lead, but I had never considered myself in that role.

Charles:

Did you want that job?

Joanne McKinney:

When he said it, yes. I wanted to lead.

Charles:

Before he asked you.

Joanne McKinney:

I wanted to lead. Actually, one of our planning directors who's worked for me for a number of years in my role as chief strategy officer had been encouraging me to really bring out that part of myself and state it, to come and say I want to lead the company. I don't know that in my mind I thought that meant I would be the CEO of the company. It was more that I wanted my vision to be on the front line of a company. I think I was surprised when it come out as you'll be the CEO because in my mind, that came with a whole lot of other responsibilities that I didn't feel like I was as prepared for. Whether that's the financial decision making, and all the things that come with the role.

I think the fear also for me is that our industry is really unpredictable. If you said to me you get to be CEO of a company, I would not pick the advertising industry as the category I want to be a CEO. I work with a ton of start- ups. I could see myself as the CEO of a brand or a business in that way, but an agency, regardless of how good you are, how much work you do, how creative you are, there's an unpredictable aspect to the business that allows you never to truly protect the people in the organization.

This year, our largest client is merging with another very, very large client, and it's caused the loss of a business for us. It may cause the gain of some additional businesses, there's always the upside, but that was totally out of our control. Why would you want to be a CEO in that kind of environment? Where regardless of your hard work or with the efforts of your company or all your people that you can rarely control the outcome.

Charles:

Why did you say yes?

Joanne McKinney:

I just figured you're ready to do this, you have to lead. I actually also think looking around, I thought I was the right person to lead the company. In my mind, I had to put company first. In my love of the people in that company, and the company itself, I thought I could do this job, and that I felt that they needed me to do the job.

Charles:

That a very rare piece of self-awareness and recognition, and what's the word I'm looking for. The willingness to actually declare to yourself if nobody else, and say, "I am the best person in this group to do that," doesn't happen very often. I think happened-

Joanne McKinney:

Oops.

Charles:

No, I think it's a massive credit to you, and I think it happens even less often for women. Right? We were talking a little bit before we started rolling about imposter syndrome. Did you feel that as the opportunity came along?

Joanne McKinney:

I think as soon as it was stated to me, my first emotion was great excitement. The second one was doubt. Doubt-

Charles:

Doubt about whether you could do it?

Joanne McKinney:

Doubt whether I could do it. Doubt whether it's the right role for someone with my skill set. What I've learned over my career, and I think this is true at every level, the skills that you had that made you great at the job you did are rarely the skills that you need to do the next job. Actually, if you move to that next job and use your skills from the last job, you're typically not doing a good job at the new job. You go from being the best at your job to the worst at your job.

Charles:

What got you here won't get you there.

Joanne McKinney:

If you don't, actually you're just doing your old tasks and not growing. If you have a real growth mindset, and you say I have to keep moving, keep growing, you have to be prepared to be a beginner at every level. This is actually the theme of our agency is beginner's mind. This is how I position the company around that idea that you have to be willing to recognize that you are missing certain skills, but it doesn't mean that stands in the way of you gathering those skills and moving.

I think, yeah, I questioned whether I had everything needed. I don't have an MBA for instance. I've never studied finance and accounting, so I immediately went to school at Columbia Business School and took finance and accounting to try to on-board some of that skill. Not that that's the full part of my job. Obviously, I have really good people in the organization who do that part of it, but accounting is a business tool, and it's a business decision tool. Without it, I didn't feel like I could do a proper job. I think it's how do you kind of gather those skills, while recognizing you don't have it.

Charles:

Yeah, I think that's such a powerful articulation. I spend a lot of time working with my clients on helping them to recognize more easily and more clearly their great natural strengths, because we all diminish those, I think. They're easy for us, we don't see them for what they are.

Joanne McKinney:

It's really hard to see your own strengths.

Charles:

It's very hard to see them, right?

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

When it's that easy, when it's as easy as breathing, we assume everybody else can do it that easily and well. Therefore it's not special to us when obviously the opposite is true. I'm a big advocate of focus on those things and allow the other people around you to do the thing that they're great at, right? Accounting, the numbers, [inaudible] the numbers.

I also agree with you entirely, that you need a baseline of competency in all of those pieces in order to be able to evaluate correctly, "Am I getting the right information? What is even possible here?" I think that's, again, a testament to the fact that your willingness to see both sides of the puzzle.

Joanne McKinney:

Sure. I think as CEO, when ultimately all decision-making comes through you at some point, there's so many people in my organization that I trust with my life who have far greater skills than I do in certain areas. Thank goodness for that, because I think the company wouldn't be able to grow without that. But I don't even think I could even be an appropriate partner to receive their information if I have no knowledge.

In fact, I think if I look back over the last five years, let's say, whenever I was in a financial-type meeting for the agency... I was a partner in the company as the Chief Strategy Officer, so I was exposed to some, not all of. I didn't have full transparency, but I saw some of it.

I think I probably glazed over in a lot of those meetings thinking, "I don't really get it. It's not really my job. I'm just going to do what I can do to make the company bigger, better. That's by being a fantastic strategist, and building out a brand consultancy, and building out our startup practice." All these things that I did that I felt were really innovating and growing the company allowed me to feel like I didn't need to know those other things. But there's no luxury of that at the CEO level.

Charles:

No, none at all. Right. No room. No escape. Right. Absolutely.

Joanne McKinney:

I miss my old job.

Charles:

Do you?

Joanne McKinney:

I really do. I do. I really do. I felt that I could really make a difference with my skills. I think in my new role, I don't yet have that feedback loop, in the sense of feeling, "Wow, I've got this."

I feel like I'm doing good things, and I'm learning, and growing, and hopefully the people in my company feel the same. I think I've changed up a lot of stuff, which is exciting. I think it's a tipping point for the company, either you're excited by that and you're like, "I'm in," or you're like, "I don't like this at all. I'm out," and that's okay.

I wouldn't say that I feel as I did in my past role that like, "Oh man, no one can do this job better than me."

Charles:

What do you want the feedback loop to look like in this job?

Joanne McKinney:

To me, it's really comes back in the culture and satisfaction of the folks in the company, and how they feel. Of course, combined with the fact that we're growing and growing our creativity, which has been a big goal over the last year. It's a combination of external, I would say, and internal factors.

It's so hard to measure the feelings of the folks in your organization. One of the double-edged swords, maybe, of being the leader is suddenly your relationships change internally. People don't feel, I think, that they can say to you, in the way they have in the past, as transparently as you might hope.

I've always enjoyed, I think, a great relationship and saw everyone is a peer. As soon as you move into that role, something changes. Even though I don't feel like I wanted it to change, but it does chance. I don't think it-

Charles:

Do you look at it now and think it needed to change? Do you recognize now that there has to be a line there?

Joanne McKinney:

I think there probably has to be. I understand why the folks who I work with felt that there should be. That now that I'm the CEO they had to think differently about how they interact with me. I just still want there to be a real honest conversation, though. I hope that the honesty can still bubble up.

I mean, we instituted 360 reviews, which was one of the promises I made when I became CEO. We did that shortly after I did. We're about to do it again, so I think I'll get some more concrete feedback.

One of the things, I think, that's changed a lot in the company is the level of transparency. There used to be no sharing, really, of any information, particularly the financials of the company. I share very openly where we are in terms of profit and revenue, and what everyone individually is contributing to that so people can feel very empowered to make a difference.

I think everyone sort of adjusted to that. In some ways it's great. In other ways it became very scary for people. I got a lot of feedback early on around, "It's great to have that information, but I'm not sure I know what to do with it." Like, "It's scaring me a little bit."

I think I'm in learning mode of how much is too much. What are those boundaries and borders? It's kind of learn-as-you-go.

Charles:

Well, and people, I think, do struggle to go through that kind of shift, right-

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

... from no information to too much. I think sometimes the consistency with which you pursue a practice or an ethos like that, it might take a couple of years for people to go, "This is actually institutionalized, now. We expect that, and it's better for all the reasons you're espousing."

Joanne McKinney:

Right. Well, and it's funny. Last year, when I started in the role of CEO, we quickly were seeing results of that growth. We had a strong growth in revenue and a very large growth in profit margin, which was amazing. As I was sharing that quarterly with people, I think people were super empowered and energized.

Then we had this client merger and a chunk of revenue walking out the door. What I had to show people in the beginning of this year wasn't as exciting as what I got to show them last year. Then, "Here's the plan for us to grow beyond that and make up the revenue. Here's what it's going to look like. Everyone's going to have to tighten belts and there's going to be some changes."

That's really scary, particularly for young people. I could see the fear in people's faces. I wasn't sharing it to scare people. I was sharing it to make them feel that they knew the reality, and that they could equally contribute to getting us to the next phase.

I think generationally, everyone takes that information differently. Some people are super-energized by it. Others are really intimidated by it. Building a company where you can be relevant, internally, to multiple generations is the craziest thing you can ever try to do.

Charles:

Yeah, really difficult.

Joanne McKinney:

It's so hard.

Charles:

Yeah.

Joanne McKinney:

So hard.

Charles:

No, I think it really is. I think, to that point, as you create a cultural awareness, or cultural expectation around transparency, for instance, it takes a while to hire people against that, people who want that. Right?

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

You can start off with this real struggle for people internally for whom, "I didn't want to know, and just let me get on with what I wanted to do. Don't tell me that because it terrifies me."

I was talking to a leader a month ago who's very proactive in terms of their desire to articulate a new vision for a company that's in a pretty traditional industry and is feeling the struggles that that industry is going through. They very badly want to move forward. They had a big staff meeting and they said, "This is the vision. We're going to be different. We're going to do these things differently."

Four people came up to them after and said, "Don't tell us that stuff. It's too scary."

You have to encourage leaders to say, "No, keep doing what you're doing. That's the right thing for the business. Not all these people might make that journey with you. It might not be right for all of them."

Joanne McKinney:

No. Maybe that's okay. You know?

Charles:

Yeah.

Joanne McKinney:

When I first... I think one of the reasons I was given the leadership role is because I re-wrote the positioning for the agency. I had this idea of really re-framing. It came off the fact that three years earlier I had founded this startup accelerator at our company called BGIN. Mostly, because I felt like most of our clients were getting their lunches eaten by young, disruptive brands.

The branding on a lot of those brands is terrible. So could we help the startups? But also could we help the legacy brands really learn how to compete against startups, by getting better within the startup world?

We created a new model of working, a new revenue structure for startups. We've worked with about 30 startups in the last three years, really rapid-fire transformation on their naming, identity, brand strategy, you name it, communications, which has been great. It has fueled this amazing growth in the way that we deal with legacy brands. We really changed up the way we did it.

I thought, "Wow, this has really happened. It's really true, and we have not reflected it in the way we talk about the company." So I went offsite for a few days, and I really cleared the decks. I said, "If I was imagining a company for today, if I was launching this company today, what do I feel it should be? How would I position it? I'm a strategist, I should be able to this for Burns Group, not just for my clients."

I came back with an idea. I wrote it, actually, as a manifesto. It was just a script of a thought process. I brought it back and I met with the leadership of the company and I just stood up and read it. I had a few slides that just had visuals on them, to prompt, and I read it. I stopped and everyone was like, "Yes, that's it."

I really felt that way, too. I felt like, "This is it." It was born out of the reality of what we were doing, and that's what you try to do with brands when you're positioning them. You know, how do you take what's truly a part of their DNA and bring it to life? So we re-positioned the company, which is exciting but also can be scary for people.

Coming out of that re-positioning, I felt like we really needed to chance up a lot of our process, and the way we worked, and our structure. You don't really believe in the legacy model of the advertising agency. It was born at a time when you made like one TV commercial and waited nine months to see if the business was responding. It's just a different world.

Charles:

And bought a lot of media, right?

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah, right. Exactly.

Charles:

[crosstalk] actually got paid.

Joanne McKinney:

Right, exactly. Now we make so much disposable content, in many ways. It has a very short life. It's very culturally driven. So I really felt like we needed to change up the model.

I could tell people were scared, so I decided we'd have a change and I'd pick a diverse group of people. It didn't really matter what level they were. It wasn't about senior leaders, it was about people with diverse points of view and skills in the company.

We met every Monday. We called it the change meeting. The rules of the road were you had to bring a beginners mind to this meeting. You couldn't say, "We've tried that and it didn't work," because trying it two years ago and it didn't work might not be the same thing as trying it today.

Week by week, we started to chip away at some of the things that we felt needed to change. I had people in that group who were one year out of college, and people in that group who had as much experience as I did. Obviously, as with any large collaboration when you're trying to drive change, there were times where I felt we were super productive and really landed some new ideas; and times where we probably wasted an hour bitching about something else that was going on.

I felt like it was a good way to enfranchise people, in many ways. I knew that the people who were in the room would go back and talk about what we were talking about to everyone else, and that was the goal. It wasn't, "This is a closed group. This is secret, don't talk about it." It was, "Let's share ideas, then let's go and talk to everyone else in the company and bubble some of this up."

I think it has resulted in some interesting new thinking and new changes. We're definitely not nearly there yet, in terms of what really needs to happen. I really want to change up the whole working model. I'm looking for one of clients, right now, to actually experiment with us in that, to do a little pilot.

I think it's nice to get diverse minds in the room, and to really give people ownership of change. If it's just coming from the top down, it's super scary. If it's coming and being designed by a diverse group of people that you trust within the company, I think it could help bring other people along.

Charles:

I couldn't agree more. I mean, the old adage of people want to be soldiers and not victims, right?

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

They want to be part of process.

Joanne McKinney:

Sure.

Charles:

Absolutely.

Joanne McKinney:

Absolutely.

Charles:

As you look back at your first year, are there things that you sort of cringe about, in terms of decisions you made or things that you look at? Maybe rephrase that. As you look back at your first year, what did you think it was going to be like, and how has it turned out to be different than that?

Joanne McKinney:

I think I didn't necessarily anticipate certain aspects of the role. Like it turns out to be a real HR job in many ways, more ways than I imagined. I think, as I said, it didn't really tap a lot of my day-to-day skill-sets, in terms of being a brand strategist. I really felt I needed to change up a lot of what I was doing, and I think I made lots of mistakes.

I'm trying to think of specific examples. I just, there was lots of things where I think, "Oh shoot, I wish I had shown up differently in that meeting." Or-

Charles:

Where you yourself had shown up differently? Just-

Joanne McKinney:

That I wish I had shown up differently. I think the number one thing is, I really need to become a better listener in many ways, I think. As my role of head of strategy, my job was to come into the room and be the person that said the smartest things. To be the person that always landed the big thought, and I've been reward for that my entire career, honestly. To be quick on my feet, to be the smart one in the room. As the leader of the company, I need to make sure that there's other people doing that, not myself. It's very hard when you're used to collaborating in ways, and being that shining bright light in the room. I really have to make myself back up, and I don't think I've done that enough. I think I need to do that more and more.

I also think, one of the things that we've really been talking about is how does everyone feel truly empowered and connected to their contribution in the company? We lay it out for every individual, actually. A financial goal, a budget to actually to spend on culture individually, so that they could bring people along in activities and things like that.

I've tried to get feedback on how that worked. I don't know that I've received the quantity of feedback I really need to know how to improve on each of those new ideas that we've been experimenting with.

Charles:

So as you think back, or as you look forward, rather, your focus now is, "I want to be more present, I want to listen, I want to..."

Joanne McKinney:

I want to be less of the mouthpiece of the agency, and more of the sounding board of all the other really smart leaders in the company. Does that make sense?

Charles:

Yes, totally.

Joanne McKinney:

I just feel like, in generally, as I said, I've been propped up for so many years as the person who had to be the lead voice. Certainly, in new business that's still my role in many ways. The CEO role is also the head of new business. As with any agency, you have to constantly be out there growing your business. But I just want to find ways to be better at helping support others versus being that front person. Does that make sense?

Charles:

I think it's very well said. I think it's a really big transition for leaders to make.

Joanne McKinney:

It's really hard.

Charles:

It's a struggle, yeah. Especially when you come out of accolades and expertise in a specific discipline.

Joanne McKinney:

It's the only way I've ever been rewarded in my career. It's funny, I will say too, I've never had a female role model as a leader, ever. In fact, it's I think why I never thought I would ever be a leader, because I never saw one. I thought all the decisions that I made throughout my career were career limiting. Because of my desire to raise my kids my way, and go abroad and blow up my life, and all these different changes that we had throughout our lives, I never thought I would be a leader. I also realize, I just don't have a good role model for leadership.

Actually, I would say in general, I've worked at a number of agencies, I can't say there's that I've seen that I was like, "Oh, that's who I want to be when I grow up." I don't know that I've ever really worked for that kind of inspired leader in my past in my career.

Charles:

What do you use as a reference point now?

Joanne McKinney:

I've been really working hard in the past year of finding a peer group, a group of women in diverse industries that I can be a part of. I actually joined this organization called [CHIEF 00:36:18], and I have a core group that I've been put together with. I'm really leaning heavily on, "How do I help develop those relationships outside of my workplace that can help me bet a better leader?"

In fact, our core group, we meet monthly with a coach. We set our objective, and it was really all about inspired leadership. How can we all help each other get there? Every single one of us said we never had a model for what female leadership looks like.

Like I don't want to be everyone's mother in the company. I obviously am maternal. I know how to nurture. I've taken care of people in my company for a long time, in terms of wanting to mentor and nurture, but I want to be known as a leader, not a female leader. I have to figure out what that looks like, and I'm not sure there's a real blueprint for that.

Charles:

Yeah, no, I don't think there is.

Joanne McKinney:

No.

Charles:

I think even if there were, it's changing so fast these days that nobody can keep up with it anyway, right?

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah. I think finding the peer group is... I mean, I'm obviously putting a lot of eggs in that basket, as something that's going to be helpful to me. I think it will be. We're just at the beginning of that. I don't really feel like...

I've always had an amazing peer group at work when I was not at this role. It always felt like I had great collaborators that made my work better and I could make their work better. This is a different kind of job, and even though I ask for feedback a lot from people, I don't know that they can help me necessarily learn how to be a better leader.

Charles:

Well, it's just-

Joanne McKinney:

They need me to be the better leader.

Charles:

Right. It's very hard, no matter how well-intentioned anybody is, to actually be completely direct and honest with the person that you work for. I just don't meet that many people who have that capacity.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah. I think I have to recognize that. That's another really big piece of learning. I think I assume that everyone who was so used to being so transparent with me would still be, and not really realizing the barrier that this title creates, in a way. And actually how lonely this job can be.

It is really the only lonely job I think I've ever really had. Lonely not because I don't have great collaborators and people who are together helping build and progress the company. It's just lonely because ultimately people see you differently.

Charles:

Yeah, that's true, and they need to see you differently.

Joanne McKinney:

They have to.

Charles:

I think people need, they need to understand who the leader is. They want to be led, for the most part, right?

Joanne McKinney:

They do.

Charles:

They need to know that there is a line. I think whether it's overt or implicit, that line exists because... I dealt with this myself when we started our own business and went from having people I worked with to having people that worked for me. You suddenly realize when you have the ability to fire somebody, that changes the dynamic. They know that. Whether it's instinctive or explicit, they know that. There has to be, I think from a leadership standpoint, there has to be a respect for the fact that you have that ability, have that authority.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah. I had kind of the ah-ha moment on that. I had put a meeting on someone's calendar with the plan to promote them. It had just been like 15 minutes, and I put it for the next day. She told me that-

Charles:

Couldn't sleep the whole night.

Joanne McKinney:

... she was scared the whole night, which is so sad because that wasn't my intention at all. The next time I put time on her calendar, I wrote on the subject line, "This is all good news. This is not scary." Just because I didn't see myself transform into some sort of scary dictator who was going to come in and fire people, that wasn't the way I saw this job.

To me, this job was about actually having a vision and bringing that vision to life, and creating something that people were really excited to be a part of. The fact that it comes with all that other stuff wasn't the way I had imagined it.

Charles:

Yeah, and it's such an important and difficult lesson for some people to learn when they move into that kind of role.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

I think the impact that the leader has in... I mean, you were talking about wishing in some respects that you had shown up in some meetings differently.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Charles:

The subtleties and nuances with which leaders carry themselves say so much to people. I'm sure I've told this story on this podcast, but I'll just very quickly. It was a woman who worked for me who came up to me in the hallway one day, and she asked me a question about a client situation. I said, "Oh, I think you should do this."She looked at me. I said, "Does that not make sense?"

She said, "No, it makes total sense. It's just exactly the opposite of what you told me a year ago."

I said, "You remember what I told you a year ago?" She looks at me like I was crazy.

Joanne McKinney:

Of course she does.

Charles:

"Of course I do," right? We don't, I think, easily understand that we glance, we sigh, we roll our eyes, and they remember that forever. Literally, forever. The implication of making sure that we are conscious about how we show up in the room, in the moment, in every moment, is a price and a burden of leadership.

Joanne McKinney:

That's an amazing story. I think there's so many instances of that in my first year, exactly that story. Things that I would say, in generally, I don't take things personally at work. I expect that other people don't too, but that's not always the case.

I remember expressing great disappointment. I had walked in. I come to office really early in the morning, I'm in at seven. I'm alone, usually, for an hour and a half. This is because my whole life, my husband dropped the kids at school and I picked them up after three. So this is how I've worked my whole career, 7 am to 3. Now I work past three.

I always come in early. I came in and we had a really big and important client coming in. I walked into the office and it was just a mess and we weren't prepared for the meeting. I had been really explicit the day before, asking people to clean up certain spaces and set things up, and it hadn't happened. I did it.

I often clean at seven in the morning. I'm constantly putting away stuff, putting dishes in the dishwasher, emptying garbage. Things that really are probably not a great use of my time when I could be doing things that might build our business, not cleaning the business, but this is what it's like to be in a company.

I expressed real disappoint on what I had found in the office that morning. I guess it started a tailspin effect of at every level people racing around in a really negative way versus in a positive way, so I think I had to find a way to show that disappointment without it turning into a negative spiral. Like you don't want to negatively affect people's behavior, but in a situation like that at times you just can't help and express how you feel. So, there's always things like that where I'm like, "Shit, I should have done that differently, I should have said it differently, I should have waited and not said it until later," whatever it might be, and I think I'm kind of learning that on a daily basis.

Charles:

Yeah. I mean I think you have to go through those experiences to figure that stuff out. I was always looking for how do I create an institutional improvement? How do I create a sustainable improvement rather than me because having built my own business, I remember those days really well. I'm sure, I'm certain I did those kind of things early on and realized that A. Me cleaning up is not a solution because I'm wasting a lot of time that could be applied to more valuable thing, and B. Somebody should be responsible for that, right? Let’s identify who that person is and then have them figure out how to do it. We all figure that out after the fact, but yeah I think there are lots and lots of subtle experiences that you just have to go through the first couple of times as a leader with that kind of authority and responsibility.

Joanne McKinney:

I had a really positive learning experience this year too. We made the decision to do a pro bono effort for a large non-profit for International Women's Day on gender equality, a company called Catalyst that does all the global research in gender equality, and we had the opportunity to help them and we decided to do this pro bono effort and that's obviously a money losing proposition so as a CEO you're making a decision to spend a lot of resources against something and we actually invest our own money in it too, because we came up with the technology idea that we really wanted to help enhance and I gave myself permission that process.

We developed what the creative folks came back with was I thought like a genius creative idea and one of our goals this year was how do we continue to boost creativity? How do we get creativity to a whole new level? And here we had a younger team of women who came forward with this idea that I just thought was amazing and fortunately we were able to sell it through the client and then we had to figure out how to bring it to life, because with a non-profit you just don't have the deep budget.

And I decided, well actually I did have something to offer to that, I had a network that I could really unleash. That I am rare to call on my network for my own purposes, but I was like this is the time to really call in your network I could help grow this idea to a whole next level and I even gave myself permission. I let the rest of the management team know, I said, "For the next six weeks I'm going to focus 100% on this. I really believe in this idea, I believe this idea is important for the world because it's about gender bias, but I also think it's important for our company because it's something highly creative and we're going to invest money in it and I'm going to invest my personal time in it."

And it was really rewarding to give yourself permission to do something differently, and also to unleash my own network. I don't know why I've always been so reluctant to call on the people that I know to support something and in this case I think I was able to do it because I felt like I was supporting this creative team in many ways not myself and it just turned out to be like a very rewarding experience at every level. I felt like I did something important to the people in my company and I did something important externally for the company, but at the same time I learned how to use what I had in a different way and that was a really great growth experience and something we hadn't done before as a company, which is kind of interesting.

Charles:

I've got a couple of questions I want to get to before we finish, but before we get to those what have you learned throughout your career about unlocking creativity in an organization? How do you lead a creative company?

Joanne McKinney:

It's a really hard question and I think if I had a perfect answer for that our company would be in a different place than it is right now. I think we're really trying to change up the way we think about creativity, and I think first of all I would say as a person with a strategic background I often think one of the ways to unlock vast creativity is to create a very tight strategic idea, that tight strategy leads to expansive creativity. So, one of the reasons we've built out a brand consultancy is to take strategy to a new level, to get to those deeper insights that typically are hard to come by. I think getting to an insight is really hard, but I know from experience when I can hand a for really insight to a creative person, they can do so many great things with it. When I hand them a really crappy insight, that's not a real insight like one of those done manufactured insights, they really can't. So to me it starts by giving them something that they can really unlock whether it's cultural or an insight or whatever it might be.

And then I think it's really about how do you nurture ideas rather than alter them in the process, and I think we all grow up in the business seeing clients and people internally critique work rather than grow work. So how do you really participate in a creative process where you're potentially giving feedback without giving I guess, dictating where ideas can go and I think in general, this can be a hard task for clients in many ways. They tend to tell you what they want versus telling you what problem they wanted to solve and I think if we can continue to demand of clients, getting them to articulate what problem can creativity solve and then let us come back with a creativity, so constantly pushing back on clients to say, well, there's many problems that your business has, but creativity can solve all of them. That one might be a distribution problem, that one might be a sell by pricing, this one might be solved, who knows what, but which one can creativity unlock?

And I think the tighter we can get in that question and the tighter we can get in insights and then how do we get out of the way of creative people to let them kind of get to ideas. I feel like we're not necessarily doing this as well as we really want to do it, and it's something we're really working on. I've got two great partners and two executive creative directors, two women that are leading the charge and I think they're really re-thinking things too. How do we do this differently? How do we nurture ideas? How do we get people exposed?

This year we invested in a great cultural tool, just a cultural research company to really get people more immersed. We encourage people to get out of the office, we encourage people to go have a life, to have ideas. We encourage side games at our office, we pay for people to go out and do humanitarian work and take time off. All those kinds of things I think can build a more creative environment. I also don't think creativity is just the job of someone who has a creative title, I think creativity comes from every aspect of the business in terms of problem solving and how do you come up with real ideas. I'm so bored really easily and I hate things that are derivative in many ways, so how do we encourage everyone to think with fresh mind, fresh eyes, around everything that they're doing.

I know creativity is tough, it's subjective. A client's idea of creativity might not be the same as an agency's. I feel bad for the creative people in the process in many ways because they have to get through so many layers and their ideas rarely resemble what their initial inspiration was. I think there are some agencies that have really cracked that, where clients buy what they sell I don't we're yet in that position, I think that's something that grows with trust with clients over time.

Charles:

How do you define creativity?

Joanne McKinney:

What's the word? I just think to me it's just about bringing freshness and new thinking, new ideas. I also think today creativity in terms of our business also is thinking about new ways to execute ideas, not thinking in terms of media placement or I'm creating a video or I'm creating this, thinking about how am I solving a problem and coming up with an idea. The reason I love this idea we did for gender bias is we created a plug-in for Slack that corrected bias in real time, corrected unconscious bias in real time, like a spell-check for a gender bias. So the solution they came back with was not a piece of communication which is I think what the client was expecting, instead it was actually a piece of technology and that's creativity in my mind. Solve the problem, find a new way to solve the problem.

Charles:

Well said. How do you lead?

Joanne McKinney:

Oh, that's a horrible question. I don't know ask everybody else in my organization. I think, from a leadership standpoint, I'm really all about vision and enrollment to that vision. I think that's probably what people would say about me, that I am a really early adapter, I love new thinking and new ideas, I have vision against that, I'm constantly re-imagining things and then turning over my shoulder to say how do I help enroll you into that idea? How do I get people to come along on that journey? That's probably the way I do it, maybe not so well at times. There comes the impostor syndrome.

Charles:

Yeah, I was going to say. Bubbling up.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah.

Charles:

What are you afraid of? Other than being an imposter?

Joanne McKinney:

Other than being impostor? Yeah, I am afraid of that. Obviously in our business I'm afraid of failing the people in the company by not securing the right type of relationships for us over time. I want all the folks who works for Burns Group to have that daily excitement of what they come to work to do, whether that's working with their collaborators, but for the most part that tends to be what are you working on? I want everyone to have those diverse opportunities yet the world of new business in our industry is so hard to tackle, so hard to succeed in, so hard to really wrap your arms around and I feel like my failure would be if I'm unable to bring in the kind of client that get people excited to work and help them grow their careers, if I fail to give them opportunities to do the kind of work that lets them grow and be noticed that's a big failure. I don't want people to leave because they have other creative opportunities elsewhere, I want them to find them here with us but it's not easy.

Charles:

Yeah it's not. I wrap up every episode with... let me say that again without the cough. I wrap every episode with three takeaways, three themes that I've heard that I think make you successful, from a leadership standpoint. I think you clearly have a willingness to explore and relish and love the exploration of new possibilities. Having seen what's available and what's possible you then clearly have the ability to jump in and make stuff happen, in many cases I think with very clear, specific steps. I mean, your strategic mind allows you to clear the noise and I think allows you to create a plan and say, "Okay, that's what we're trying to do, this is how we're going to do it."

Thirdly, I think you bring a real warmth and generosity of spirit. I mean, you care clearly about the people around you and want them to be successful and seem very much to be leading through a lens of, "How can I make this a better, more productive, positive experience for the people around me?" How do those resonate?

Joanne McKinney:

That's lovely, I'd like to meet that person. No, that's great. No, I do think yes, it's about vision, having the action steps against that vision for sure. I think vision without a way to get there is really disappointing because you give someone a north star but you don't give them the step ladder to get there.

Charles:

Yeah. I think that's great.

Joanne McKinney:

And I definitely think I care deeply about the people in the company and how do I create something for them. I don't think I really knew that was the job per se, but I felt it viscerally very early on. I think the day it was announced to the company and I stood up in front of everyone for the first as the CEO, and I made some big promises to everyone. I was so ambitious, I was so excited to say, "I get to create a company that I wanted to work for."

I mean, particularly as a mom and someone with ambition but who never really had a role model, I feel like I was constantly experimenting to make it work for me, and now I get the chance to help build a company that can be what these people need not just what I needed, but now actually I can change policy, I can do these things and so I was able to make these great promises on the first day and looking out at the faces of everyone and some of the people who have worked with me for years had tears in their eyes. Some of the young women I think seeing that this happened for me and they knew that we left work every day at 3 O'clock to be home with my kids.

They knew that I actually quit my job and moved to Belgium for four years without a job and I came back and had a career. They knew I had made all these career limiting decisions and yet here I was, I was standing in front of them promising them something big and different and I realized in that moment as I looked out at people, it felt like a very inward accomplishment, and then the minute I stood in front of everyone and looked at their faces I thought, "Holy shit! I'm actually here for all of them. This is what I have to do. This is how I'm going to measure success."

Yes, of course to the founders of my company who gave me this opportunity I'm really grateful for the opportunity and I owe them a great deal in terms of building revenue and profit because that's really certainly how they're going to measure success, but ultimately my job is, those people sitting in the room and I have to create growth and a career for them. And that's a massive awakening I think in many ways as you step into leadership. Very exciting and super intimidating at the same time.

Charles:

You said to me that you have no leadership reference point, right? You don't have anybody to look up to. Well, you're leaving one behind for all the women that are following you. Thank you so much for being here today.

Joanne McKinney:

Thank you so much. Yay.

I just love actually that we got to talk about stuff that wasn't about the business.

Charles:

Yeah.

Joanne McKinney:

Typically, when you get invited to do these things it's like well, let's get in and dig into your business strategy, but actually the human aspect of what you're doing-

Charles:

I'm much more interested in that.

Joanne McKinney:

Well, it's so inspirational because that's what's missing. I think every leader should give a cheat sheet to everyone who works for them to say, "Here's my pet peeves, here's how to be a successful with me."

Charles:

You know, it's so funny you say that because I read about a year ago somebody had created what they described as a leadership contract, and they posted it on their door. They said, "This is who I am, this is how I show up best, this is what you should expect of me. This is what I expect of you. If you want me to help you right, do these things. Don't do these things." And they're like, "This is who I am, and I am not changing any more and deal with that," and it changed and I've actually had a couple of my clients do that and it's amazing.

Joanne McKinney:

I just wrote an exercise on it-

Charles:

Oh, did you?

Joanne McKinney:

I did these four boxes writing what are my pet peeves, what are the things that really get me going and all this and I have a new assistant that I hired last summer and my older assistant was leaving and I said to her, "I want you two to sit down together," and I said, "You need to tell her all the things about me that you know are the things that make me crazy or the things that really help me in the day to day basis because we all have our own quirks in the way we work and if we don't communicate them to people, no one knows how to succeed in the conversation with you, so-

Charles:

That's right. I mean, it requires high degree of self-awareness and it requires a high degree of self-confidence I think to be willing to be that vulnerable, because there is a degree of vulnerability about it-

Joanne McKinney:

But remember back 20 years, that wasn't the way you thought about leadership, right? I mean, no one wanted... it was almost like the throne up at the top and you shouldn't know anything about that person.

Charles: 

Totally hierarchical.

Joanne McKinney:

And here you are taking the clothes off and you're saying, "Okay no, actually I'm interested in the human side of leadership which isn't the formal 'let-me-tell-you-what-I-think' it's the who are you inside, and what gets you up."

Charles:

Right, back to the point you made earlier, the challenge with that as you said earlier is that you still have to hold this line that says, "I am the leader," right? So, yes you have to be vulnerable and accessible, but you also have to respect the fact that they need you to be in a different position-

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah. I haven't figured out that yet-

Charles:

And they can't... it's actually I realized, it's not fair of me to ask them to treat me the same, because they shouldn't and they can't.

Joanne McKinney:

Like this year at our Christmas party, we always have this raucous party, I ended up sneaking out early because I realized people were drinking and there were a lot of people coming up to me like, "Hey, I want to talk to you about..." And I was like, "That sounds super important. Let's talk about it tomorrow." And I literally backed out of this like place in the West Village-

Charles:

Have fun. I can't be here.

Joanne McKinney:

Because I just sort of felt like suddenly it's not appropriate for me to be here in this situation. That's so hard.

Charles:

Yeah. That's when it gets lonely right?

Joanne McKinney:

I walked home alone and I got home and I said to my husband I'm like-

Charles:

“I had to leave my own party.”

Joanne McKinney:

"I had to leave my own party, even though I love that party."

Charles:

I'm a pariah at my own party.

Joanne McKinney:

And that's how I felt. It's so sad.

Charles:

It is a reality. It is the loneliest job in the world.

Joanne McKinney:

Yeah. I've got to figure out like though, as we're saying that balance. I have to figure out where I need to check it because I know at times I'm so casual with everyone because that's how it's always been at our place and then at times I can see that, that might make them uncomfortable in this situation and I have got to figure that out. I haven't figured it out yet.