Vulnerable Leadership

Tanya Korpi Macleod (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

When Tanya Korpi Macleod’s husband of 17 years died suddenly last year, leaving her in possession of his Bemidji-based Valvoline franchise, her first intention was to sell. She already owned Macleod & Co., a successful Minneapolis-based marketing firm. 

She didn’t want to deal with the mess of an 80-hour work week, raising two teenage daughters, and running two businesses. Such a male-oriented franchise, known for its instant oil changes, “just wasn’t my jam.”

Filled with self-doubt about her ability to lead a group of Valvoline managers, who she understood to be under-performing, Macleod walked in to a meeting with the team. Her intention was to simply say all the proper things. 

Instead, she broke down in tears. She told them her husband didn’t think highly of them. This team of men, largely in their 40s, indicated, “we know.” Macleod learned later that each of the managers had intended to quit while working for her husband. 

The team made a commitment to do whatever was needed to keep the franchise thriving. What that involved, Macleod says, was vulnerability and trust. “Teach me what I don’t know,” she told them. In the process, she learned how much they did know, and how much of the business she could entrust into their hands. She valued their input on budget approaches, and together they figured out how to support each other with a long-term plan.

Macleod says with a smile that what she’s learned from the past nine months is not that crying in front of the team works as a leadership strategy. Rather, it is about being willing to say “you are better at this than I am, and I’m okay with that.” She believes women do this generally much easier than men. 

Many leaders traditionally have a desire to want to feel smarter than everyone else in the room, Macleod says. A good leader can say, “I know your superpower.”

The Arc of Power

Macleod was at a recent Valvoline annual meeting in Las Vegas — one of only two women owners, compared to more than 70 men owners, and a rarity as someone under 50 years old. Macleod acknowledges that she gets more respect now as the boss, not the wife. As a white, now wealthier woman, without the common marital clashes that came from being with a strong-willed man, Macleod says her life feels significantly different in this “year of me.”

It is apparent to her that her daughters are stepping into a different world. Her oldest is an engineering student at the University of Minnesota. The other, 16, likely has a creative entrepreneurial path opening up for her.

The goal in 2018, Macleod suggests, is not necessarily for women to become “equal” in the boardroom as a way to combat sexism. Rather, she believes businesses simply thrive with women decision-makers. 

Conscious capitalism is the future, she says. That means creating companies and communities focused around shared values and operating with partnership rather than ego. “It’s less about stream-rolling others, and more about being ‘and, and, and!,’” she says. 

What Is Conscious Capitalism? by Tanya Korpi Macleod

I define conscious capitalism as the acknowledgement that capitalism is inherently a form of community — that the relationship between the entrepreneur, the capital, and the consumer creates a culture. 

I believe we are at a turning point in relationship-building between  smart companies and consumers. 

In a recent Fast Company article about airline and car rental brands publicly cutting discount partnerships with the National Rifle  Association, ad agency strategist Elizabeth Paul said, “If companies  can exert political influence with their dollars, then voters can exert  economic influence over those brands, and consumers are getting smarter, more organized and more easily mobilized around issues they care about.”

Since we don’t all agree on values, businesses and consumers create “tribes” of markets. How do businesses identify which tribes they want to invest in with their resources and energy, and how?

For example, a big business might be shutting out smaller businesses. A high-paying tech job might shackle its employees to a lifestyle that becomes hard to leave. A sporting goods store has the legal right to stock automatic weapons, but can choose not to.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to reach consumers — all of them  are conscious, value-based decisions.

I agree with Paul, who said, “Most will follow the public appetite  because that’s where the dollars are. What matters is having a grid for how you make those decisions, and making sure that your brand’s behaviors align with its beliefs. This won’t be the last mass boycott, so better gather the team and start thinking through those things now.”

My marketing practice is to provide opportunity to delight consumers, create positive culture, support entrepreneurial goals. My mindful mission is to empower businesses to succeed in shifting tribes of markets. That is conscious capitalism in play.