Oral Histories

Kelly McGinnis

Interview Segments on Topic: Mentors

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: Well, it is March 22, 2012 and we’re in New York City, sitting with Kelly McGinnis, who is the Vice President of Global Communications at Dell. Welcome, we’re so glad you could spend some time with us. I’d like to just start out with you telling us a little bit about the development of your career; from your educational experiences to where you are today at Dell. What happened and how did you get where you are today?

MCGINNIS: Well thanks for having me. You know, how do you get there? You get there on the shoulders of some really generous sponsors and mentors and other folks. For me, I actually started out as a social worker and was very committed to doing that type of work. After a few months of doing that in East St. Louis, it was not what I anticipated, and was very disappointed that it wasn’t going to be what I was going to do, so I hightailed it off to graduate school. Really, the issue for me was getting to know the folks who had been doing it for a long time. What they taught me was that it was really ‘work around the system’. It wasn’t a situation that was straightforward, so I really got committed to figuring out how to become part of policy and changing things, and I went to graduate school and quickly joined local government and had an amazing time. Loved it—the immediacy, the fact that you could see the stuff that you were working on in real time. The fact that decisions happen, and they happen in your local community, it was very exciting. The only thing about that is, you can move—if you’re relatively quick and engaged, you can move really quickly, but then you hit a ceiling really fast. So basically, the folks who were in the positions that would be next, had been there 15-20 years, and were going to keep doing that. So really there was little outlook for growth opportunities, and the experience in government gave me a lot of breadth of experience. It was a time when public relations, particularly agencies, were really diversifying into new areas, so since I’d done some labor work and had the opportunity, and since a lot of policy work is the same as communications in a lot of ways, I went to Fleishman-Hillard, having been exposed to them through a leadership program that I’d been in the past. And some very generous, former journalists taught me—here’s a style guide, here’s the mandatories, learn all of this, and then you can come with us. It was a time when the agency was growing exponentially and had a very deep relationship with what was then SBC, as they went through deregulation. I saw all the things that it grew into, and so had a chance to work on almost every piece of business from employee communications to the corporate M&A [marketing and advertising] team. I worked with them in Europe, and to San Antonio and was on site. Just really had a breadth of experience there. After those opportunities, I really wanted to test myself and say, is it just this environment, or could I do this at other places? It was a time when the .com boom was bubbling for sure, and I went back to Seattle – having gone to graduate school there – and was head of communications at a company called Drugstore.com. I always say that my .com experience was very atypical, so while the business model reflected a lot of the things that came about with the bubble, the executives were all Microsoft employees—former Microsoft leaders. And so the experience inside that company was very consistent with the discipline and the other things that I’d come from…but I learned a lot and had a lot of fun to be honest too. It was a time when our communications strategy was very diverse, so we had lots of privacy issues that we had to deal with, in terms of dealing with people’s medical information online. But our communications strategy, at least on the consumer side, was to go and get very accessible pharmacists to talk about any embarrassing topic on the news. And it was great fun. We had a great time, but as the business started to get really, really focused, it became about developing insurance relationships. It got much narrower, from a communications perspective, and so Fleishman called again and I had a chance to go down to San Francisco and move to the Bay Area, and really help to build the consumer Internet practice. I worked on Netflix, Yahoo, and Expedia, and got to be exposed to a lot of the really defining entrepreneurs at that first wave of the web. It was really great, because we had a level of flexibility and autonomy to really just build the business, but always with the net of incredibly smart senior leaders within a company the size and scale and with the history that Fleishman has. And so it really wasn’t that risky even though we were playing way above our game. I was with Fleishman for about 10 years and it was time to do something different. As often happens in our world, clients and colleagues and colleagues and clients end up being the same folks. A former good friend and client of mine was internal at Dell, and it was at a time when Dell went through one of those experiments that happened in our industry. They consolidated all of their marketing dollars with WPP, created a fully integrated agency to cover all of their marketing aspects. Public relations was always a part of that, but not the center of it. We had a breadth of time to go through that transition, to build essentially a purpose-bred team, to take advantage of the scale of that engagement with WPP, without the pressures that hit some of the other parts of the marketing aspects. So we were able to build an amazing team of folks who were hand selected to work on the Dell business. Over time, that model didn’t work, and they diversified using multiple agencies and other things. We’re still working with that agency though, and it’s changed a lot over time. I was on that for about 2 ½, almost 3 years, and then with internal changes; people growing into bigger jobs and moving on to other things, we built a good strong relationship—particularly with the chief marketing officer. As a consultant, it always happens at some point they say stop consulting and come in and see if you can deliver, and a couple years ago had the chance to come in and help to drive the reputation transformation that we’re going for within Dell. So that’s kind of how I got there, but mostly at the hands of a lot of other people’s generosity.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. How important is mentoring to the fostering of ethical decision making in the workplace?

MCGINNIS: I think it’s incredibly important. I think about it in two ways; there’s mentoring, which are those folks who are there to give you guidance and counsel and to ask you those really uncomfortable questions, to push you beyond those areas where you feel comfortable and successful. And then there’s the sponsors who are there and who are really advocating for your growth and other opportunities along the way. In my experience, so much of learning communications has been an apprenticeship. I’ve gotten to learn from very, very smart and accomplished people. Some of them have played that real role, to be that really tough coach who pushed me really hard. Some of them have been the ones who put really big opportunities in front of me and I said, ‘I don’t have any idea how to do that.’ But, it’s really been watching them make decisions day in and day out, and to see how they can influence a conversation, how they can influence the direction of a decision being made—that’s where I think learning how to be able to be effective at that piece of it, the softer skills, and really those counseling skills—that’s where you learn how to impact. You’re asking the question around ethics, but you know, it’s really how you learn to be influential. And that really happens at the shoulder of someone else who’s doing it really, really well.