An Interview with Kelly McGinnis, Chief Comms Officer at Levi Strauss

Posted by: in Austin Social Media, Communication, Communication Strategy, Corporate and Strategy, executive insights, Innovation, Insights, Organizational Communications, Pre-Commerce, Social Media Insights & Trends, Thought Leadership, W2O Group on April 3, 2014

A few weeks back we held our 4th Annual PreCommerce Summit the Thursday before SXSW. The focus of this one day session is to marry a savvy business audience with 15-20 innovative business leaders who speak in 10(ish) minute increments about a particular topic. You can see the full host of videos from this event here but over the next several weeks, we will be drilling down on individual speakers.

This week’s special guest is SVP and Chief Communications Officer of the Levi Strauss & Company, Kelly McGinnis. Kelly’s video is embedded below and I highly encourage you to spend the 12 minutes it takes to watch it (she is a fantastic speaker).

In the meantime, Kelly was kind enough to answer some specific questions about SXSW, innovation, what keeps her inspired and the future of communications.

Aaron Strout (AS): You were kind enough to join us recently at our PreCommerce Summit during SXSW. During your talk, “Step Up or Step Aside,” you mentioned five keys to success. Can you talk a little about those five keys?
Kelly McGinnis (KM): Yes, I think there are five essential things that we can do to ensure we lead and drive effective transformation as opposed to having transformation happen to us.

  1. Establish the right team. Transformation communications isn’t for beginners. It takes experience, a stomach for risk and conviction. You need folks who have confidence, credibility in the organization, an eagerness to build influence, and the ability make an impact. And it doesn’t just start and finish with your team… It’s also about finding like-minded thought partners across the business who share your vision and want to work together toward a common set of goals.
  2. Align behind a core narrative and don’t waver. The key to transformation communications is an ability to always work with the “big picture” and long-term business objectives in mind. You need to align behind a core narrative, and make sure absolutely everything you do as a communications team furthers that agenda. This has a much bigger impact than just simply messaging, it serves as a unifying goal for the entire team to align behind.
  3. Capitalize on your ability to be agile. In transformation, everything is more complex than it looks… But one of the great aspects of Communications is that we’re usually small enough, dynamic enough and flexible enough to move quickly and take some chances. Bottom line: the opportunity of transformation is to become a convener and a leader – someone who helps drive decision-making on emerging issues. Communications can do that because we are accustomed to thinking, acting and responding quickly – and because we also often engage at the intersection points across the organization.
  4. Understand and convey outside perspectives. What’s unique – and powerful – about our role is that we are valued for our connection to the outside world. We’re often able to capture information, insights and perspective that others can’t. So, it’s up to us to be the eyes and ears of the company… and to always rely on multiple stakeholder inputs to inform our recommendations.
  5. Drive innovation and risk taking. Transformation presents an opportunity to implement new strategies, establish new protocols and utilize new tools. There’s never enough time, people or dollars – but the goal is to focus on the low risk, low distraction, high potential actions and innovations that can yield measurable change and improvement on your results.

AS: Thoughts overall about the PreCommerce Summit? Ideally, what were your favorite take aways?
KM: That’s easy. The people. I reconnected with former colleagues and made important new connections with folks who I’ve already had the chance to work with in the two weeks since the conference. You all pulled together an amazingly impressive list of presenters and attendees and nearly everyone brought an idea or insight that prompted new thoughts or questions for me. It was a great opportunity to expand my network and think about things in a different light.

AS: Assuming you stuck around for some of SXSW after our event, what other trends did you see? Any other good/fun events?
KM:  You have to remember I love Austin, having spent a lot of time there in the past few years so it was wonderful just to be back in Texas and see so many friends. But yes, SXSW was even better than I expected. There is so much going on, such great energy and seemingly endless opportunities to learn about new trends. Some of the keynotes were great – I discovered new You Tube personalities, learned how not to be human spam thanks to Austin Kleon’s talk, and got inspired all over again by some amazing entrepreneurs during Michael Dell’s panel. I also can’t help but love the trend reports that folks put together – they put the fun, cool and crazy right there at your fingertips.

AS: Staying on the topic of events/innovation, what do you do over the course of the year to keep your thinking fresh? I’m assuming your mantra around “bring the outside in” might come into play here.
KM: You guessed it. We are shameless about learning from friends and family. We host guests twice a month within our team. Being in San Francisco, there are an endless number of smart communicators based in the area and parading through and we invite them in to share their stories and experience. In fact, Holly Potter, who I met at your pre-conference is coming to chat with us soon. In recent months, we’ve had guests from eBay, Creative Artists Agency, USC’s Annenberg School, to name just a few. And in addition to those outside thought leaders, we invite leaders and subject matter experts from around the business to meet with us as well. Making sure we build our business acumen is just as important as opening ourselves up to “new and different” thinking.

AS: Any favorite authors, journalists, bloggers, Tweeters you are paying attention to these days?
KM: My new obsession is Aaron Dignan’s posts on Medium. They consistently deliver 10 minutes of inspiration and fresh perspective. They remind me why I love what I do … admittedly I have some guilty pleasures as well.

AS: Where do you see the future of communications going over the next 3 months? 3 years?
KM: I can’t predict the future but I am super excited about what is becoming possible with a little extra effort and focus.
With today’s tools and technology, we have the golden ticket – perspective, information, data – to bring our stakeholders’ voices to the table. And it doesn’t seem like we’re that far away from being able to really engage in a direct, targeted and meaningful way with the audience members who have the greatest influence over our reputations as companies and brands. Starting to connect in that way is super exciting.
The other thing I’d say is that I still have hope for Communications and the strategic role we can play in our organizations. To me, the lines between Marketing, Communications and all the sub-functions that exist around digital, content, etc. are collapsing. And the path forward is a much more integrated one, with relatable and compelling storytelling that develops over time, over multiple channels, as the core focus. In the end we want to create an impassioned set of advocates for our companies and our brands and we know compelling narrative is the way to do that.

AS: If people want to find you, when is the next time you are speaking either at an event or online?
KM: I’m super excited to be chairing the Spring Seminar of the Arthur W. Page Society April 3-4 in NYC. We’ve attracted an amazing lineup of speakers from Greg Burke, who leads Communications for the Vatican, to Dr. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, to Katherine Graham Weymouth, publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, to NBC’s Natalie Morales and the co-founders of Warby Parker and One Kings Lane. It will be a powerful two days, and I can’t wait to hear what comes out of it. Follow #PageSpring and the PageTurner blog for news from the conference.

Thank you Kelly! Incredible information here. We appreciate you taking valuable time out of your day for this interview!

By: Aaron Strout

Aaron is the President of WCG, one of the three agencies under the W2O Group umbrella. He is a regular contributor to Marketing Land and a co-host of video podcast, Live from Stubbs.

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Pre-Commerce Check out W2O Group President Bob Pearson's new book, Pre-Commerce, in which he shares ideas for leaders to engage directly with customers to shape their brand and marketplace success. Now available for order on Amazon.com! http://amzn.to/bAmvFN. Join the conversation #precommerce.

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