Oral Histories

Maril MacDonald

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Maril MacDonald Biography

Maril MacDonald is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Gagen MacDonald LLC.  She is a nationally recognized leader in communications and strategy execution.  Prior to Gagen MacDonald, she served as vice president, corporate communications, and was a member of the Executive Management Committee for International Truck and Engine Corporation (formerly Navistar), and with CEO John Horne, directed a successful cultural turnaround, bringing the company from the brink of bankruptcy to being named to the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 Performers” list and Business Week’s “Top 50 Companies”.

MacDonald is the current President of the Arthur W. Page Society an is a member of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.


INTERVIEWER: You’ve ‘claimed the white space between the silos, as your ultimate functional expertise.’ Can you talk about that?

MACDONALD: Sure. We talked a little bit about my early career, so I was in public relations in the finance department, and HR, and operations, and one of the things that I saw along the way is how ‘siloed’ all of these departments actually function. I think for any of us who’ve been in any one of them you feel it, you feel that difference. Having been in four very different functions, it was really amazing to me to see. I had the benefit actually when I was in Standard Oil, in one company, to be in those four functions. When I was in marine transportation, I never thought about the communication function, the HR function. I was so focused on what we would do if we have a big spill on the Pacific Coast. Are the balloons and the skimmers…are the regulators in line? Are the ships all equipped? That’s what I was thinking about every single day. When I was in HR, I was thinking about processes and performance development, talent management. I wasn’t worried about what was happening to the ships and I wasn’t really thinking a lot about communicating either. And it was so interesting to me how absorbed we’d become in our own world, like our own little community. And I began to really push myself in each of those roles, to think more cross-functionally, and think about what I might do differently, so in marine transportation, pulling in the communications people or the HR people. In HR, looking at well, “What can we do—how is life different in performance development if you’re in finance versus if you’re in marine transportation?” And that began to give me the ability to play in what I call, if you think of the silos like this there’s a white space running between them, who’s connecting all that? And that’s where that term came from. That was a lot of the thinking behind how I founded the firm and hired people for the firm, because we hire people from all walks of life to cross those silos.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about the future for a couple of minutes here looking ahead, what do you think are the biggest challenges that face public relations and communications professionals in the next decade or so? What will those be?

MACDONALD: I think the biggest challenges are going to be how many skills and competencies are required of us, because as you look at where everything is going, we need to be data analysts; we need to be synthesizers; we need to be story tellers; we need to be great people leaders, and people developers. We need to really be able to see around corners and really kind of know where the world’s going. Those are a lot of varying skills and competencies for one person, and they’re very left-brain and right-brain, which is a difficult combination, to which, by the way, is actually a benefit to women, because there are a lot of studies that show women have a much stronger ability to work across both hemispheres of their brain. So there, when we’re looking for something to add to the females, we can give them that. So, I think just keeping up with all of it, and moving more and more as an industry, moving from the people who are brilliant, brilliant doers and executors, to the people who are really able to amass an incredible earning of talent, is going to be the next big challenge. Because, we still have many CCOs who really are brilliant writers and brilliant storytellers and have a very critical role in an organization, beside the CEO, because they’re the person who best crafts the story. I think we’re going to need to give that up. We’re going to need to really be the people managers, and the functional managers that are driving the business. If you’re sucked into crafting the story, you can’t do the other job. It’s just a physics problem. It’s a matter of time and space, so I think that’s the only (or should be one) challenge right now for us.