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McKenna delivers management lecture on philanthropic leadership

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories

Margaret McKenna, author, speaker and expert of issues such as educational access women’s economic empowerment, hunger and social change leadership, discussed components of good leadership at the 2013 MBA Distinguished Management Lecture, which took place at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management on March 19. McKenna was named president of the Walmart Foundation in 2007, helping to create and implement its signature ‘Fighting Hunger Together’ program, served as president of Lesley College in Cambridge, Vice President of Programing and Planning at Radcliffe College as well as having worked as a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.

McKenna explored aspects of leadership, asserting, “If you’ve worked at an organization that you think you’ve transformed and everyone loves you, you haven’t done enough, because change is really hard. And unless you’ve offended someone and made them really mad, you probably only have tinkered.” She further elaborated, “you don’t want to be loved but you do want to be respected and you will be respected if you can make really tough decisions for the right reasons.”

She emphasized the importance for courage and vision, highlighting the importance of seeing something and envisioning what would be possible instead of looking for things to fix. “You have to have courage, real courage, to try to step out of the box. And to have people look at you funny,” McKenna said. She also noted, “You have to be able to accept ambiguity, because when you’re changing something you have a vision but you don’t have all the pieces there, and if you’re smart you will change your vision as you move along…you have to be able to say I made a mistake and I don’t know, you have to be comfortable with conflict.”

She reflected on her decision to close down the school of management in Lesley University even though it was profitable, saying “One of the rules you learn in any organization is you should only do what you do as well or better than anyone else—and the School of Management was not that” McKenna stated.

“You can move people in a crisis. It is usually not the best time to make change because you’re doing it at a frantic pace to avoid something else. So if you can transform something while thing are going well, it’s much better. It’s harder for you as a leader to do that, because people are content. They’re not going to lose their jobs, things are going okay—but it is the right time to do that,” McKenna said.

In addition, McKenna argued the importance of having skills to accompany passion: “If you really, really care about something, first be successful…To be good at what you do, if you really care about it, you have to have excellent skills…If you want to be a civil rights lawyer, first be the best lawyer technically you can be. Your passion is not going to help your client,” she said. “Passion doesn’t substitute your skills.”

McKenna articulated the importance of careful planning before starting a non-profit organization, mentioning the need for experience and understanding of your goal. “Just because you spent a week bicycling around Uganda and now you feel very passionate about bicycles in Uganda, doesn’t mean you should start an organization,” she said. “Maybe you should work for a non-profit before you start one.”

McKenna stressed need, goal and impact in your actions. She suggested, “before you start anything, just ask yourself—is there a need? Who else is in this race and what can I bring to the table? Because, what I want to know is, what is the impact of what you’re doing.”