Marilyn McLeod is an executive coach, author, and popular speaker.
She is an expert in professional social media networking. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Media Communications Association International, OC/LA chapter, she advises people in the entertainment arts on how to maximize their positive exposure to others in order to maximize their opportunity for success. Marilyn is an accomplished and highly respected professional. She has traveled an extremely interesting path and, I am sure, will provide inspiration to many who read this interview.
SOCAL: Where were you born and raised?
Marilyn: Rural Minnesota. I grew up surrounded by corn and soybean fields, and walked an eighth of a mile across the open fields to the nearest neighbor’s house, to catch the school bus which would take me into town. Our television stopped working when I was about seven, so in a sense I was very isolated from the rest of society and became familiar with nature in my surrounding environment. I found other ways to explore the larger world. I read books extensively. I was always very interested in people from other parts of the world, so I became friends with the few foreign exchange students who attended my high school. I corresponded with about thirty pen-pals from across the globe beginning when I was ten years old.
SOCAL: Tell us about your family life and early education.
Marilyn: School was a positive experience for the most part. I was no longer alone in my learning experiences, and the libraries, teachers and other students opened up even larger worlds to me. I filled every part of my day with whatever additional classes or opportunities were available. I was interested in everything from how mechanical things worked to history to gardening, art, dance and music.
I wasn’t completely alone as I had three younger brothers. We would do some activities together, however our interests were very different. They were engineers and preferred their solitary activities. In school my friends were from all of the various cliques … I wasn’t a member of any however, I was accepted by all. Artificial barriers between people, keeping some in and some out, just never made any sense to me, so I never participated from that frame of reference. I enjoyed various friends because of their individual merits, and how our interests fit with each other.
So in a sense I grew up alone, however in another sense I had the whole world available to me.
My perspective was quite different from the classmates my age for other reasons as well. I began working at the age of ten, I left home at 15, I got married at 17 and divorced at 21. By the time most of my friends began dating, I was already divorced, during a time when divorcees were viewed with suspicion and isolation. When I’d visit friends my age I’d have meaningful conversations with their parents who would suddenly realize my age and end the conversation. I was married before I finished high school, and began college before I finished high school. Before I finished high school I studied school administration and open schools, and experienced as much as I could personally as a student as I completed my final year of high school, married, in an open school which was part of the local college.
I’m not sure how all of this affected me and my outlook on life and my work, however I do find myself taking more risks than people my age because I’ve spent less time watching life on the television and more time living. I calculate cost/benefit based on my personal experience and what I learn from the experience of people around me, rather than some scary story created by media looking for attention. I’ve traveled to Alaska and throughout Canada and the United States by myself several times. I’ve created my own small business and allowed it to evolve in such a way it fits my personal lifestyle and non-business projects, rather than waiting for someone to hire me to fit into their small box and tell me what to do. I do miss family and support from other people, and at the same time I value my independence.
I began working outside my home when I was ten years old. I first babysat the neighbor’s small children, then worked in the soybean fields, carrying a hoe and pulling out the weeds from in between the bean plants, in the hot sun. It was very hard work, and I looked forward to the end of each long row of beans because waiting there was water to drink. I read an ad in a children’s magazine that offered a sales kit and proclaimed the greeting cards sold themselves. I ordered the kit and rode my bicycle the long distances between rural houses and created some regular customers. I began writing articles for children’s writing contests. I designed clothes to compete for a local design team.
SOCAL: I think it is fair to say that you had a difficult childhood and it is hard to see a straight line between your early life and the success you’ve achieved. Was there an aha! moment when you knew that you would be successful?
Marilyn: It’s all a step at a time forward, working with opportunities as they came my way, and I don’t have a sense that I’ve yet arrived. Rather than living without heat in the winter and without food, I now have plenty of food and a wonderful climate controlled home. Rather than trying to function under the umbrella of out of touch, self-involved parents who used my resources to feed their addictions, I now have independence and the right to make my own choices in life. That’s a very long way between where I started and where I am today, however in many ways I feel like I’m just getting started in life. I look in wonder as I see so much more possibility ahead of me, looking for ways and willingness to limit my focus so as to be more effective. So much interests me, yet there is only one of me! I am finding finally that my seemingly disparate skill sets are coming together in ways to support one another in the larger picture, which is reassuring to me and fun!
SOCAL: You’ve got some interesting ways to help people understand more effective ways to look at approaching problem solving. Please tell us about The Soybean Story.
Marilyn: Well, we think sometimes how our options are limited as we look around us, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed by challenges. I think back to a realization I had about thirty years after leaving my childhood home when I’m feeling stuck and out of resources.
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a house surrounded alternately by corn fields and soybean fields. After the farmers harvested the soybean fields in the autumn, there would often be these golden yellow mature soybean seeds lying in the furrows between the now stubbles of soybean plants. One year I took a glass jar and put a couple of inches of these soybean seeds in the jar, and I looked at the seeds. I just had a sense there was something important about these seeds, if I just knew what it was. For several years I picked up that glass jar and asked myself the same question … what was I missing that I didn’t know, that would turn these lost and forgotten seeds into something of value?
In later years I put it together when I saw edamame becoming a popular snack in the U.S. What was one of my main issues as a child? Having enough to eat. What were soybeans? Quality protein. Why didn’t I utilize this valuable resource which surrounded me every year? Because in my mind soybeans were for farmers, for whatever farmers did with them. I had no clues in my environment that soybeans could become food for me except the word ‘soy’ in ‘soy sauce’. Apparently I didn’t come across any books on the subject, either. In today’s world I could have taken my question to Google and come up with many delicious ways to prepare soybeans!
In any case, the learning I took away from this experience is … are we leaving valuables on the table? What in our environment may be in plentiful supply that we desperately need, that we’re dismissing because of some limited, unrelated, or even inaccurate, paradigm which keeps us from seeing the connection between what we need and the resources available to us? How are we limiting our own fulfillment and wellbeing?
SOCAL: I know you have a deep interest in clothing design. How did that come about?
Marilyn: Somehow I always noticed clothing design. I watched people dance and noticed how their clothes flowed (or not) with their movement. Later as I learned how clothes are constructed I watched how the various parts of a costume were cut, from which type of fabric, in relation to what grain of fabric.
I played with paper dolls when I was very young. My mother got McCall’s magazine which sometimes contained a page of a paper doll and various changes of clothing. My mother gave these pages to me, and as I cut out the clothes I could see how they added tabs at various places on the garment so it would stay on the paper doll. I began taking crayons and paper and designing my own clothes, putting tabs in the same strategic places on my dresses.
Designing on paper turned to three dimensions a few years later. My mother had an old Singer sewing machine and my father had ten sisters, most of whom had children older then I. When we’d return from family events we usually brought with us boxes of outgrown clothes from my cousins. I took the clothes apart and noted how they were constructed. Then I’d iron out the pieces and re-cut them into current styles and put them back together to create my own clothes. We lived 5 miles outside of town and didn’t have money to buy clothes anyway, so whenever I wanted a new outfit I’d just go to the box of clothes and make whatever I needed to wear the next day.
I still love designing clothes. I love fashion and I also love costume design, especially in dance. I love dance and movement, yet as I’m watching the dancers I’m usually watching how the fabric was cut, and how it flows as dancers move in different ways.
SOCAL: Can you tell us about one or two of your most successful coaching assignments (no need to identify names, just the situations will do)
Marilyn: I’ve coached professionals in a variety of industries on topics that include personal organization, behavior, self-publishing, social media and television production. I help people develop skills to empower them in their chosen endeavors.
Sometimes from the outside it may seem a person lacks an important skill to make them more successful. I try not to judge because I’ve learned everyone has their own way of balancing their resources with their way of working. For instance, one of the professionals I helped early on was a man whose girlfriend hired me to help him. She said he needed major organization in his office. When I arrived at his home I saw stacks of paper lining either side of the doorway on the floor, piled neatly in stacks on all counter and table tops within view downstairs, lining each side of the steps going upstairs, then lining each side of the hallway along the baseboards on the floor, and finally in stacks all over surfaces and the floor in his office. A person looking from the outside would see a huge mess and think this man wouldn’t be able to get anything done. However, it turns out this man was extremely successful in his work. Yes, as we went through and found an appropriate spot for each bundle of papers, he did find important paperwork (like taxes due) that he’d missed, but overall I can’t say this man was dysfunctional. It was just a few months past time for him to make sense of the piles. Apparently he functioned just fine with his current systems. His systems just didn’t work so well on the domestic front when he invited his love interest home.
Using Marshall Goldsmith’s FeedForward coaching method, I volunteered my time to work with an Air Force officer. If you haven’t taken the time to meet these leaders who put their lives on the line for our way of life, find a way to let them know how much you appreciate their contribution. My own small way was to offer my talent for free to someone who’s making a difference. His first task was to identify stakeholders, both supportive and non-supportive, whose influence or power was important to his project’s success. This included a mix of managers, peers, and direct reports. He asked each person on this list what he was doing well, what he could do better, and if they were his coach, what would be their suggestions. He wrote down their comments verbatim without any comment except ‘thank you’, and sent them to me.
We had a phone conversation to discuss them, and developed a behavioral goal that would speak to something important to his stakeholders, and also of personal value to himself: Focus on the most important things. We spoke by phone a couple of times a month to see how this goal was being applied to the various circumstances in his work. As his wife became ill his focus shifted in terms of what was most important. Then it shifted back as she got better and his work deadlines became more important. At the end of the coaching assignment he reported our work had helped him become more aware of his choices during the day. With his new awareness he’d been able to talk with his managers to be relieved of the duty of attending meetings that were marginally helpful to his work. He became clearer regarding his duties toward work as well as his duties at home, which reduced his stress level and increased his happiness level. Through a mini-survey his stakeholders all reported that he had improved in his target behavior.
On the creative side I’ve helped several people with television shows and book publishing. One woman had written her book to her satisfaction, and was in the process of going through book agents to try to get a publisher, and this went on and on and cost more and more as time went on, without results. I told her about self-publishing and the reasons I’d chosen this route: I own the intellectual property and can repurpose as I choose without getting publisher permission, my books get published on my terms, with my title and I don’t have to go through the painful process of my publishers cutting or changing key sections of the content, plus I keep more of the profits myself. She felt strongly about going through a traditional publisher so I simply helped her with online marketing. In the end she decided to publish her second book herself, so I was able to steer her in the right direction in terms of options and resources.
SOCAL: What was your most difficult/challenging assignment?
Marilyn: I create my coaching assignments in such a way to encourage them to go well, and if they’re not going well, it’s easy for either party to bail. It’s just no fun to keep plugging along when the interest and motivation is missing. Perhaps the most frustrating was early in my career when I was working with a small manufacturing organization who asked me to find their redundancies and help them streamline their staff processes. As I interviewed staff they seemed disengaged, and one woman finally told me flatly that nothing was going to change. They’d been through this before and the owner/manager wouldn’t let anything get better. It’s sometimes true that the person who hires me is actually the person causing the problem for their own company … I didn’t know that at the time! In any case, I realized later that she was right. Luckily I’d built the proposal in various standalone sections so when the owner cancelled the project just before the implementation phase, it fairly was easy to regroup and disengage from the project.
SOCAL: What assignment or personal activity has given you the most satisfaction in your life to this date?
Marilyn: I think the most fun I’ve ever had is being on a team that’s working seamlessly together. Everyone knows their part, is skilled in their part, respects and depends on everyone else, we’re all in integrity with each other and it’s a real joy to work together while we accomplish important work. When I was young I studied the violin, and after a few years was invited to join the orchestra. What a different experience it was to be part of a team in comparison with practicing by myself! While watching and hearing the second violin, viola, cello and bass sections playing their interdependent music, I was playing my first violin part and actively contributing to the whole effect. It was stunning.
SOCAL: Do you have some interesting books or assignments on the horizon?
Marilyn: I’m writing a book on peer coaching. Peer coaching allows anyone regardless of budget to benefit from a coaching experience. It also helps companies leverage the coaching methodologies that work for their C-suite and implement them throughout the company with little additional cost.
I’m also working with Gary Ranker, Forbes 5 CEO executive coach and Donny Huang, cross-cultural coach in Beijing, to write a book called “Global Mindset Leadership: Navigating East and West Business Cultures”. In addition I’m working with John Kuek, Ph.D. to publish his book “Southern Sudanese Community Insights: A Cross-Generational Cross-Cultural Rescue Model for Families and Family Counselors”.
I’m also utilizing my technology background to bring books into the mobile app world and exploring other ways of bringing author and reader more closely in touch with each other.
SOCAL: What key items would you suggest someone coming up the ranks in the entertainment business should pay attention to in order to tilt themselves in the direction of success?
Marilyn: I’ll speak from the social media world. Young people often don’t realize how what they say online can affect them in their future. Especially when your goal is to be seen publicly in the media as your career, it makes sense to think seriously about how you want to be seen by your public. I know there are many stars whose every private foible is spread around as news and they continue to have fabulous careers. I’m just talking in general. For anyone it’s important to pay attention to one’s online image, and for young people who often see the Internet and social media as a way to become independent and explore unconventional behavior, it’s especially important to be aware that servers save this information indefinitely.
For instance, it’s now possible to have one’s Twitter feed flow directly into LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional social media site often used by HR Directors when deciding whether or not to hire someone, where Twitter has a more casual tone. While looking through someone’s LinkedIn profile one day, I noticed their Twitter feed talking about how drunk they’d gotten the night before. The young man probably didn’t intend to advertise his night time adventures to his potential employers, and he probably forgot he’d set his Twitter feed to flow through his LinkedIn account. I heard someone say before they post something online they consider whether they’d like someone to broadcast this about them across a public location. I suggest not posting when under the influence of a chemical, anger or fear. Wait until you have your wits about you again and consider the long view rather than posting something in haste.
SOCAL: We’re all so busy these days it’s easy to get overwhelmed and difficult to know sometimes where to focus. Do you have any suggestions to help us be more effective?
Marilyn: The first anchor point is to know your values. What’s most important to you? Right now I’m not asking what’s important to your boss, your partner or your parents … what’s important to you personally? If you know you value honesty and integrity, then when the seemingly easy money if you step on someone else comes along, you’ll think twice before grabbing for the money. There may be another way that more closely fits your values to get what you want. Is there a saying or image that reminds you of your values and what’s important to you? Make a miniature of it that you can carry around to remind you throughout the day.
The second anchor point is what I call a focus session. Ideally by the end of today you’ll have a list of what’s most important to you to accomplish tomorrow. This may include not accomplishing anything, just having a day when you turn off the phones and rest! Or it may be an ambitious day to plow through projects you’ve been putting off. In any case, write down your goals for tomorrow. Look at them when you’re quiet and ready to go to sleep for the night, imagine everything going well, and then get a good night’s sleep. In the morning look at your list again, and imagine how this will all work out together somehow, then go about your day. Keep your list handy so when other people come to divert your attention to their list, you’ll be clear on your priorities before giving away your resources so quickly to them. Or you may decide their priorities truly are more important to you than what you wrote on your list the night before. The point is you’re making a conscious choice.
SOCAL: How do you see the role of entertainment and media?
Marilyn: The availability of quality entertainment is so important to us in so many ways.