Don’t Leave Until After a Triggering Event: An Interview with Mary Jeffries

I’ve known Mary Jeffries since she was the CFO of a startup PR firm in Minneapolis more years ago than either of us will admit. Many from those days would credit Mary with doing “whatever it takes” to push through challenges, taking the organization to the next level. One example is when Mary was seen raiding the vending machine, collecting coins and bills to help with cash flow… things were (and often are) that tight in a startup. That struggling local PR firm went on to become Shandwick International with Mary serving as Chief Operating and Chief Financial Officer. In that dual role she was a primary driver and definitely refined her “bold leader” creds as she worked to create that global network. She stayed with that organization until it merged to become Weber Shandwick Worldwide. You might say her departure after that deal was completed was her first major “triggering event.”

Today Mary is Chairman and CEO of a startup Boston-based technology company called Zink Imaging. The name Zink comes from the simple – but complex – idea of “zero ink.” The technology is described as “the first new fundamentally disruptive printing technology in nearly 30 years.” So Mary is back in familiar territory, taking an idea to the world with the intent of redefining an industry along the way.

Mary JeffriesBold leaders do not bail when the going gets rough

In between Zink and Shandwick, Mary’s bio is one bold leader story after another. When we sat down together a few weeks ago, we started talking about her transitions. She offered, “You don’t leave until there is a triggering event.” Whether a corporate leader or an entrepreneurial leader, Mary’s point is an important one: Bold leaders do not bail when the going gets rough.They may and often do exit and move on to another adventure, but a hallmark of a bold leader is that they see something through to a next chapter. That, in her words, required a triggering event: an outcome of some substance that moves the work from in-process to complete. That could mean a sale, a merger or acquisition, going public, or a handoff to the next leader for the next chapter.

There are lots of folks that many would describe as “bold,” meaning willing to take action and accept risks. However, they don’t rise to the concept of the Bold Leader that we are describing in this series of interviews if they never hang around long enough to see the result of their efforts.

It gets hard really fast

When you are pursuing big ideas and even bigger outcomes, that’s when you need a bold leader. As Mary described from her many experiences, “It gets hard really fast!” Here are a few examples from Mary’s experiences:

  • With a new to the world concept like Zink, as the bold leader she carried the weight of the vision and the job of turning the idea into reality. Then she had to sell it to investors, employees, customers, partners and others.
  • In a turnaround situation, she certainly has had a cash or P & L challenge but also complexity on almost every level – customer, product, service, human capital, infrastructure…
  • Sometimes her entire world has been turned upside down by forces not in her control and she had to find the way through for herself and others that were following her. (Read about PGW– one chapter of Mary’s career.)

Stop the noise and create time to think

Whether an exhilarating opportunity or a mess they’ve vowed to solve, bold leaders are in a lonely place and need time to think. This has come up in almost every bold leader interview I’ve done. Mary raised the issue of loneliness, observing that sometimes colleagues, investors, or board members say something like, “We have faith in you. You’ll figure it out.” This is nice, but not all that helpful. As the bold leader, you might be the singular one, staring at the next hill or wall and needing to find your way up and through. Mary described her stages when facing one of these moments as, “I get sad. Then pissed. Then I suck it up and figure it out.” She continued, “I have never yet hit a wall where I haven’t been able to punch my way through. There is always another idea. You just need to stop the noise and carve out time to think and figure it out.” Now that is a bold leader.

Get people to do the unorthodox

This last point starts with the bold leader being self-aware enough to own up to what they are good at and not good at, and then finding complementary talent to help with the task at hand. Reflecting on her long and storied career of driving bold outcomes, Mary said, “You have to convince people to do really unorthodox things because of whatever circumstances you find yourself in.” Following the rules, company traditions, or the standard operating procedures won’t create that breakthrough performance you need. First, finding the right team and then getting them to think and act in new ways is a fundamental requirement if you are a bold leader intent on delivering extraordinary results.

Are you leading an organization to some “triggering event?” If so, I’d love to hear how you break through challenges, find time to think, and surround yourself with people willing to try the unorthodox. Please share your story!

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.