Oral Histories

Kelly McGinnis

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

Kelly McGinnis Biography

Kelly McGinnis is the senior vice president and chief communications officer for Levi Strauss & Co. She shapes the company’s corporate affairs strategy and managing stakeholder relations.

Previously, McGinnis served as the vice president of global communications at Dell, Inc. Before Dell, she was the general manager of Fleishman-Hilliard’s San Francisco office and led corporate communications for drugstore.com.


INTERVIEWER: The aim of the Arthur Page Center and the Arthur Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How can individuals best prepare themselves for this role?

MCGINNIS: I talked about, I think the thing that you earn with our business leaders is an ability to toggle between understanding the business, understanding the strategic direction of what you’re trying to achieve and then actually being able to execute in real time. That’s how we earn it. I think the way that you get there as a counselor takes a huge amount of courage. You have to really get comfortable with the uncomfortable places. No one is an expert and you just have to be really willing to engage and jump into that. I think for us, one of the things that our internal stakeholders expect of us is to bring an outside perspective. So one of the great things in today’s environment is that that’s more immediate and closer than it’s ever been. Really being able to channel and understand what the possible implications are and the reception that we’ll hear from external stakeholders is something that we’re relied on for. I think those are probably some of the big ones, and then I think the other piece is like I said, being able to build the network and relationships so that you can be able to effectively drive change within your organization. For us, the people that are really successful are the ones who are passionate from day one. It takes a level of optimism and energy to be able to do that every day, and I think it’s really hard to underestimate how much a really positive attitude and a strong sense of passion and energy—and bringing that to a conversation—how compelling that can be to an organization.

INTERVIEWER: Talking again about the counseling role, what’s the status of it in the corporate world today? Do you think it’s growing in importance or diminishing? Was there a difference in that role, the counseling role, between when you managed the agency teams versus when you became the Vice President of Global Communications for Dell? What are the differences that you saw?

MCGINNIS: I think for us, we’re at a stage in the company’s development where the need for strategic counsel on communications and reputation issues are more important than ever. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been important in the past, but for us to successfully navigate both a brand and reputation transformation, to become defined as something different than we are so widely known, we’re relied on in a way, and there’s an extra level of expectation that is incredibly important to the company today. What that translates to in terms of expectations for us, is to really understand the business, to be very, very close to the data in terms of our sentiments—and to be able to share that, to translate that into what our choices are at different junctures in terms of key issues. So what is the appropriate role for our key executives? How many messages can we effectively deliver in the market to actually build the credibility? How quickly do we migrate through the evolution of our story and doing that in really close partnership with the IR team, with the HR team, and really have an alliance around the folks who are helping to manage all of the stakeholders.