Kathy Mazzarella is the Chairman, President, and CEO at Graybar, a wholesale distribution company that’s been around for 151 years. The company has around 8,700 employees and $7.5 billion in revenue. She has been with the company for 41 years and has been president for 9 of those years.
Kathy Mazzarella has a great story of how she first started at the company she now leads as Chairman, President, and CEO. When she was 19 years old she decided she didn’t want to go into medicine anymore so she dropped out of college, where she had a full scholarship, and moved back home with her parents.
It only took about three days before both she and her parents came to the mutual conclusion that Kathy needed to get a job and move out.
So she set up an interview with a company called Genentech where she was applying to do some research work. But on the day of the interview she got lost and had to ask for directions.
She just happened to walk into Graybar to ask someone at the front desk for directions and the woman asked Kathy if she was looking for a job. Kathy said she was and the woman let her know they were hiring and asked if Kathy wanted to take the test. Kathy agreed to do the test, she was hired, and that was the start of her 41 year career at Graybar.
Over the past few decades she has worked her way up from an entry level employee to leading the company. And she believes that day she got lost was a blessing because it led her to an amazing career.
Why you should take the jobs that make you the most uncomfortable
Even though Kathy has worked at the same company for 41 years, she has worked in around 15 different positions within the company. It was actually her time in HR that really shaped her current leadership approach, because she was truly able to see the people side of the business.
Prior to working in HR Kathy was a very number focused type of person. It really changed her perspective and made her focus more on the people she worked with. Kathy believes the best leaders have the broadest experience. Because experiencing different roles inside of a company or in a few different companies helps leaders gain an appreciation of how interconnected the business actually is. It helps them see the different roles, elements, and responsibilities that make up the business.
A lot of roles can look easy from the outside looking in. But when you truly experience the role for yourself, most likely it isn’t as easy as it seems.
Kathy also advises leaders to take jobs that make them uncomfortable. She says, “When you’re the expert, you tend to get into autopilot mode. You’re very comfortable in your lane, you stay in your lane, and it’s really fun to be the expert that everybody comes to you to ask your opinion on a particular topic. It’s very uncomfortable to go into a position where you have no grounding. But you also really challenge yourself. I’ve told people in the past, take the job that you’re least qualified for. Because you’re going to learn the most, you’re going to work harder than you’ve ever worked, you’re going to challenge yourself, and you’re going to have to lean and depend on your team more if you don’t know the topic.”
You definitely open yourself up to a lot more opportunities when you have a wide variety of experience and skills.
What it’s like being a female CEO
When asked what it is like being a female CEO Kathy says she doesn’t think of herself as a female CEO. She just always knew she had to do a good job and work hard.
As Kathy shares, “when I said I was going to do something, I would make sure I did it. And I never really thought about the fact that being a woman, I couldn’t be president. Some of that could have been because I was raised that way to my father was a very big influence on my life. And he taught me that the only limitations I had in life were those that were self imposed and that I should never let anybody in my life put me in a box.”
When she first started as CEO there were 18 women who were leading Fortune 500 companies and now there are 37, so progress is slowly being made even though there is still a long way to go. But as Kathy mentions women didn’t really become influential in the workplace until the 80s and 90s, so the start of the progress didn’t start until fairly recently. So Kathy believes that as time goes on we will see more and more women leaders.
The truth about balancing everything as a CEO
Early in her career Kathy was traveling a lot, she was working long hours to prove herself at work, she was going to school at night, plus she was raising young children with her husband who was also in school getting his PhD. She remembers it being very difficult and stressful, but they made it work.
A lesson that she learned during this time was that not everything is going to be balanced all the time, and that’s okay. She says, “Keeping the balls in the air, some of the balls fell, you know, I mean, you can’t be perfect. That was a lesson that I learned in my mid 30s. I remember coming in from traveling in the house was a mess. And because my husband was doing the best he could, I had two little kids running all over the place. And I remember falling just to the floor in the hallway and I said I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be perfect. I can’t have the perfect house. I can’t have straight A’s. I can’t be number one at work. I can’t have my kids being perfect, I just can’t.”
And she says finally giving herself permission to not have to be perfect was a life changing moment. She realized that trying to be perfect was actually selfish, because being perfect is not about helping other people, it’s about caring too much about what people may think about you. It is a never ending quest to be an artificial character.
Giving yourself permission to be human releases a lot of stress and pressure that comes along with perfection. In life you are not always going to have things balanced, it is about making choices. At different points in your life you will need to focus more on work and in others you will need to focus more on family and your personal life. And that’s okay.
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What keeps Kathy motivated
Kathy has a very rigorous schedule with a lot going on, especially now that she is leading a company through a pandemic. She also wakes up at 4am everyday so she can go through her morning routine before starting work around 7am. In normal times she travels a lot, although this year has been different.
But with her busy schedule and the pressure of work what keeps her motivated? She says being the CEO of one of the largest and oldest companies in the United States comes with a lot of responsibility. A lot of people are depending on her to run the company in the best way possible.
How she leads impacts how her employees feel and how they interact with their customers and their communities. They count on her to make the big decisions so that they can do their best. Kathy feels she has to work harder than they do.
She says, “I need to work harder than them. Because they depend on me to take care of the big stuff. So they don’t have to worry about it. And I can’t let these people down. I just can’t let these people down. The people that work for Graybar, and our customers are amazing human beings. That became even more evident during this pandemic. And the way they gave back to the communities the way they took care of each other. And even the way they took care of me. That’s the reason I get up. And anytime I feel sorry for myself or get tired or get exhausted, or get frustrated or burned out, I think about that person that’s counting on me. And the fact that these people care so much, that they even care about me, I can’t let them down.”
The moment that had the biggest impact on Kathy’s leadership approach
When asked what moment most shaped her as a person and her leadership approach, Kathy shared a story of a time when she was passed up for a big promotion. At the time she was a vice president and there was a senior position open that she applied for.
She worked really hard, she and her family had sacrificed a lot in order to work hard. She worked on the weekends, she worked overtime, she traveled a lot. So when she didn’t get the job she was devastated.
She thought about giving up on growing her career or about possibly moving companies. But she called her dad and he gave her great advice. He told her, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Everybody’s going to watch how you recover. This will determine your future and leadership. So make that call now and step up.”
He told her to call the person who got the role to congratulate him and to offer her support. He reminded her that not everyone gets the job they want, it’s all about how you recover. Her dad went on to say that one of the biggest regrets he had in his career was moving companies when he didn’t get a promotion he wanted. And he advised Kathy to not make the same mistake.
So Kathy took her dad’s advice. She called the guy who got the job, congratulated him and told him she wanted to do anything she could to make him successful in his new role. And it ended up having a big impact on her career.
When the time came for Graybar to get a new CEO one of the people voting on who to put in place recalled the time when Kathy lost the job and how she handled herself. He said it really showed that she put the company first and that really changed his perspective of her. Now the man who got that original promotion reports to Kathy. And he is one of her strongest partners.
Leadership lessons Kathy has learned
Kathy has learned a lot during her 41 year career at Graybar. One thing she shares is never settle for the status quo. Whatever it is you want to do in life, do it in the best way you can, aim high and don’t just settle. She says we all have special gifts to offer our communities, our families, and our organizations and in order to reach our full potential we have to work hard and keep reaching.
It is also important to be true to who you are and to stand up for what you believe in. She says, “I tell our young leaders all the time, if it doesn’t feel right, and you walk from a business transaction, you will never lose your job. I have your back. But if it doesn’t feel right, and you take that contract, or whatever it may be, and it’s bad, you will lose your job. Because you got to stand up for it. There’s a level of integrity and you know what’s right, and you know what’s wrong, never, never sacrifice it. Once you lose your integrity, you lose everything, you lose everything. And no career and no business environment, or whatever it is you’re trying to do is worth losing your soul. It’s not.”
Another lesson she thinks is important is to use your setbacks to build strength and resilience. Don’t give up and run away from hard things. And make sure as leaders you leave things better than when you took over. You should always aim to leave in a way that allows the next generation to come in and continue building where you left off.
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