Oral Histories

Maril MacDonald

Interview Segments on Topic: Mentors

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 took steps to learn the business and you obviously took steps to learn the communication, what did you do to learn the management side of things?

MACDONALD: I probably learned, with a few bumps along the way, but I had some wonderful mentors. This is another fabulous thing about our field—as a very young person I worked very, very closely with many CEOs and presidents of the companies and business heads so I got to learn from the real masters. And I have to say, they were very generous with their time, and their thinking, and their coaching, and I was very curious; I was like a sponge. I think when one shows up that way, people are really happy to help you. I was always asking questions, “Why did you do it this way…how do you think about this…why would you make that decision?” Sometimes they laughed. I think they just thought it was kind of funny. I was really young, I always wanted to ask about all these things, but they were really great about it, and so that’s where I learned most of it, and I read like a nut. I read everything I can get my hands on and still to this day—on management, on leadership, on you know…various ways of approaching things. That’s helped as well.

INTERVIEWER: I want to revisit the mentorship piece of it since you’ve mentioned that, and I guess my question to you is, did you choose your mentors or did your mentors choose you? How did that work?

MACDONALD: I don’t know for sure. I think in some cases it ended up just to be a fortunate set of circumstances and chemistry. I really was never as methodical about it as perhaps I should have been. Though I certainly think I was really good at recognizing when somebody had something to teach me, to be smart enough to show up and listen. And that’s not just of the people to whom I reported, that’s very true of people who’ve worked for me. I’ve learned incredible things from everyone around me. And so I think that’s probably where I was intentional but in setting out and saying, “Oh, I need this kind of mentor,” that wasn’t as much my experience. One of the best mentors I ever had was a woman named Olive Conti. I was in my early 20s at Standard Oil. I have no idea how old Olive was, but she seemed really ancient to me at the time. She was the assistant to Joe Harnett, the president of the Standard Oil Company, and Olive took me under her wing, and that was enormously helpful, because she used to say to me, “Honey, let me tell you how it is.” “Honey, when you talk to this guy, you got to look him right in the eye, you got to tell him what it is, don’t you let him give you any guff and you just stand tall, honey.” And I was always like, “Yes Olive, okay Olive,” and it really helped, because I learned very early on, to really tell it like it is, and that helped a lot as well, because I was one of the people that always told Joe exactly what I thought. He’d come seek me out. And then after a while, people in my department would say, “You need to tell Joe Harnett” and I’d say, “Why aren’t you telling him?” But that was one of the great things I learned at a very early age and really, just thinking about this now, it’s really thanks to Olive Conti.

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned Olive, obviously a female mentor for you. Male/female mentors, does it matter, do you think?

MACDONALD: No, I don’t think it matters in that, mentoring can come from anywhere, and different people have different things to offer. There’s that old saying, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And I think there have been different times that I was ready for one thing versus another. There were many women who were phenomenal mentors to me as I was having young kids, and just trying to figure that out. “Am I a good mother? Am I unreasonable? Am I doing the right thing? How do I balance all this?” I think they were very helpful. I’ve had many brilliant women give me fabulous business advice, and I happen to believe, by the way, that women are fabulous to other women. So many times you hear the contrary. That has never been my experience. My experience has always been that women have been just so generous and wonderful to me.

INTERVIEWER: What advice would you give to women or men in the industry who want to mentor? In other words, how are you a good mentor?

MACDONALD: I think a good mentor is like a good coach, and one can’t coach unless the other is willing and asks for it. So I think that’s the first thing; it’s really important to remember as a mentor, that it’s not about you, it’s about the person you’re helping. So you need to go to where they are. You can’t start from where you are. So listening, really understanding, what is it they’re trying to do; what are they struggling with; what are their dreams. You know, I think when I was younger, sometimes I’d make the mistake of trying to mentor someone somewhere they didn’t want to go. Like maybe my dream was, in a way, bigger for them than what they wanted in that slice of their life, and that’s not really helpful or productive. I think you have to really meter yourself and really understand, where is that person? And go from there.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about ethical decision making in the workplace. How important is mentoring to fostering ethical decision making, do you think?

MACDONALD: You know, I believe most of us get our ethics from our family, and that’s where it starts. So from that standpoint where mentoring becomes critical, is in helping someone learn how to navigate the world in a way that they can stay true to themselves, and in giving them advice and suggestions if they bump into a problem or make a mistake of how to get themselves out of it. That’s what I think the mentoring is. I don’t believe we put ethics into somebody. I think we just help get the world out of the way for them, so they can be the ethical person they want to be.