The struggles some businesses face in cultivating successful women’s leadership programs, says a highly accomplished woman leader, can be rectified.
St. Petersburg leadership consultant Audrey McGuckin says a billion-dollar manufacturing business CEO recently told her his efforts to promote and boost women in leadership roles were failing. And he had no idea why.
The manufacturing CEO, most likely with the best of intentions, she says, was trying to “fix those women and mold them into the type of leaders he wanted. Most organizations will try and fix women leaders. But it’s not about fixing women leaders. We fix the system.
‘I’ve learned to be fearless. I’ve learned to have a fearless pioneering mindset. I’m not afraid of failure.’ Audrey McGuckin, The McGuckin Group
“There are millions of women’s leadership programs where all they do is cheese and crackers and pants and suits,” McGuckin continues. “And that doesn’t move the needle. What moves the needle is processes and solutions.”
A Scottish-born, 55-year-old entrepreneur, someone who emphasizes candor over chitchat and frankness over fluff, McGuckin isn’t merely going on a rant. The CEO of The McGuckin Group, what she calls a talent design innovation firm, her mission, she says, is to impart her philosophies and experience-based wisdom to other leaders.
Celebrating its five-year anniversary in 2022, The McGuckin Group has executed that mission at a high level. It now has five employees, some 20 contractors and annual revenue, McGuckin says, in the multimillions. Past and current clients vary in size and are worldwide, from Fortune 100 icons like Amazon, Intel and Humana to collaborations with Harvard Business School on leadership development to a Tallahassee church.
McGuckin started her career far from high-and-mighty corporate boardrooms, where she now helps business titans make diversity more than a check-the-box task. Growing up in Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, when economic mobility opportunities were sparse, McGuckin quit school and went to work in a factory when she was 16 years old. “But I always had big dreams,” she says.
She pursued those dreams, first by finding a local economic development office and asking someone there what were the best growth-minded companies in the region. The answer? A computer parts manufacturer named Jabil. The St. Petersburg-based company, McGuckin learned, had a plant in Livingston, Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. McGuckin got a job there, starting at the bottom: she made coffee and answered phones.
With a knack for getting complicated concepts quickly, McGuckin rose rapidly at Jabil. Soon executives were asking her to move from Scotland to St. Pete, to open a factory near the company’s headquarters. Next was an assignment in Taiwan, and after that chief talent officer. McGuckin left in 2017, when Jabil had $27 billion in annual revenue and 250,000 employees.
That was a milestone time in McGuckin's life: she had just turned 50 and also had just become an American citizen. A bit nervous about leaving a C-suite gig at one of the largest publicly traded firms in Florida to launch her own business, a Jabil board member encouraged her not to overthink it. “She told me, ‘you just need to go to Office Depot, print out a bunch of business cards and start hitting the streets,’” McGuckin says.
Her hesitation belied her ambition.
“I didn’t want us to be just another consulting company,” says McGuckin, with a website and LinkedIn bio — it starts off with “I facilitate and enable ‘aha moments’ for leaders to help transform organizations,” — to back it up. “I wanted to do something with impact. I wanted this to be an institution.”
Find a sponsor
In a recent Zoom conversation with McGuckin, the passion for that mission was tangible. Over her 30-year career, McGuckin says she’s identified 14 corporate levers that, when utilized the right way, can make a company’s DEI or woman’s leadership program become a rousing, long-term success. Something beyond buzzwords.
McGuckin and I spoke about four of the core levers. All of these, I think, are valuable ideals for executives at nearly any organization who seek to change their approach and strategy in helping grow future leaders. The four levers include:
Pride: McGuckin says one issue that comes up often is when an executive, usually a CEO, has created a diversity program or initiative and doesn’t want to drop it — regardless of its success. “Pride of ownership is a real big problem,” she says, adding that her manufacturing client with the sputtering women’s leadership program suffered from that. He had even hired a C-suite level DEI officer and considered the concept a failure — not the processes and systems the program failed to create and implement.
Mentoring: While women-to-women mentoring is usually seen as key to building up women business leaders, McGuckin says that masks a deeper problem. “What you need is a sponsor,” she says. “You need someone who has a seat at the table and who can advocate for you.”
“Sponsors,” she adds in a blog post, “are focused on providing connections for higher-profile opportunities and they advocate for women in places where they can’t advocate for themselves.”
Feedback: One of the biggest systemic problems in women’s leadership, McGuckin says, is women leaders are often given vague feedback. The antidote? Candid and transparent conversations, held regularly. “Men are often afraid to give the feedback necessary for women to grow,” she writes in a December 2021 blog post. “There are a number of reasons for this including the “me too” movement. This created caution for men in providing feedback. Also fear of discrimination plays a part in the equation and finally protective hesitation.”
Networking: McGuckin says all the fancy networking events that bring out women leaders, similar to mentoring, overshadow something she considers more important: to use that network properly. “We have to teach (women) how to leverage your network,” McGuckin says. “You can’t just show up and network.”
McGuckin says one of her greatest personal leadership lessons, both from Jabil and at her own company, is to lean on and leverage her network. “One of my superpowers is asking for what I need,” she says, noting that’s not about money. “When you ask for what you need, many times people will say yes. I’m not afraid to ask.”
Who and why
The levers and other work McGuckin has done in her career has led to her company’s latest innovation: Women on Their Way. The program, which the company says takes a “bottom-up and top-down approach to cultivate female leadership,” is designed to help CEOs change processes, systems and mindsets. A scalable model, Women on Their Way consists of cohorts of women leaders from across the globe who take both virtual and a few in-person classes. The program debuted in October.
While The McGuckin Group’s focus, rightfully so, is on their clients, not themselves, in talking to McGuckin about her career, she has a lot to offer personally for leaders. She talks a lot, for example, about two Ws: finding your why and putting the who in your company before the what. On the latter, the company conducts empathy interviews with clients to gain "perspective from the vantage point of those who will be impacted," McGuckin writes in an email. "The who then informs the what so the empathy interviews inform what you prioritize and what you focus on within the system."
And asked what she’s learned the most about being a better leader by going from Jabil to her own company, the usually rapid-fire McGuckin pauses. She then dispenses good advice for any leader. “I’ve learned to be fearless,” she says. “I’ve learned to have a fearless pioneering mindset. I’m not afraid of failure.”
A few of Audrey McGuckin's favorite books on leadership include:
• Good to Great: The Jim Collins classic, she says, works because it “explores the characteristics that bring enduring success to businesses.”
• Start with Why: The Simon Sinek book, she says, “is particularly key for women leaders – and it’s the hard work we need to do on ourselves.”
• Dare to Lead: Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, McGuckin's says, “could not be more crucial for women leaders. Dare to Lead breaks down the four courage-building skills that make up brave leadership: how to lead your team in engaging with vulnerability; acting with integrity; having more productive and honest conversations; and moving on quickly from failure.
Audrey McGuckin spent 15 years at various leadership roles with St. Pete tech giant Jabil. Three leaders she admired and emulated there include:
• Trevor Kay, former operations leader: Sponsored McGuckin from the beginning of her career. “He opened my eyes to what was possible even when I didn’t know myself. He took chances and curated the path for my transition from Scotland to the U.S.,” she writes in an email. “This was a key transition in my career.”
• Forbes Alexander, former CFO: A sponsor for McGuckin early in her U.S. tenure at Jabil, Alexander, she says, “advocated for me when I wasn’t there (and) he pushed me to places outside my limits and provided tough feedback when needed.”
• Bill Peters, former president: Peters, McGuckin says, sponsored her transition from HR to Talent work — a key moment in her career. “He specifically helped me learn the connection between talent and business outcomes in a way that would make it impossible for me to return to old ways of thinking” she says. “Bill was also instrumental in my transition to Asia and cleared a path for me to do the work that needed to be done.”