Uncovering Empathy: The Greatest Skill of an Inclusive Leader with Marni Coffey (1/3)

If asked about your greatest skill, how would you answer? Could you even answer the question? Our guest this week was asked to name her greatest skill in a job interview, and the answer is one of the most important skills of effective people managers.

Marni Coffey is a Senior Manager for Business Systems and Indirect Sourcing and Procurement at McKesson, and her greatest skill is empathy. In episode 278 Marni will share her early career as a web developer, why she didn’t like being a consultant, thoughts on creating an inclusive team culture, and the importance of connecting with the company where she works.

Original Recording Date: 05-19-2024

Topics – Meet Marni Coffey, Building Websites and an Internship, The Glamour of Consulting, Part of Something, Uncovering Empathy as a Skill, Relocation and Connecting with a Company

2:18 – Meet Marni Coffey

  • Marni Coffey is the Senior Manager for Business Systems and Indirect Sourcing and Procurement at McKesson.
    • McKesson is a healthcare company. They do pharmaceutical distribution, medical supplies and equipment, etc. Before Marni started working for McKesson she didn’t quite realize how much McKesson does.
    • Nick remembers ordering from McKesson years ago when he worked at Wal-Mart Pharmacy.
    • John mentioned McKesson is the brand of tissues he sees at his physician’s office.
    • During the time Marni has been at McKesson she has been able to learn about all the things McKesson does. Marni has been able to hear stories of patients impacted by the work McKesson does, feeling it is inspiring to work for the company.

4:20 – Building Websites and an Internship

  • Marni originally thought she was going to be a high school English teacher. After working as a substitute teacher at a private school while still in college, Marni realized teaching was not for her. This prompted a change of major to focus on Management Information Services or MIS (sometimes called Management Information Systems).
    • Marni loved building websites and wanted to do something like it.
    • While still working toward the English degree, Marni had taken on a project to bring a Chicano literature site into copyright compliance. She also took a job in the computer lab at her college to support an online class at one point.
    • Marni considered majoring in computer science, but she felt there was too much mathematics required for it. That prompted the selection of MIS as her major.
  • Marni’s interest in building websites came from deciding to build a Wonder Woman fan site, and she really enjoyed the process of building.
    • She was also working for the school newspaper, and some of it was done online. Marni enjoyed the writing process and thought it would be fun to build her own website where she could do the same thing on her own. That site was never finished.
    • As Marni built websites, she enjoyed playing around with all kinds of functionalities like theming. Then she learned about databases to have data-driven sites and loved that too.
      • “And I just immediately turned into this giant programming nerd…. Most of what I learned I learned from just digging in and learning because by the time you get through your classes, what you learned there is already obsolete. It’s moving fast.” – Marni Coffey
  • Marni had an internship with Logix Communications through her college focused on solving real-world problems like building an intranet site for Logix employees. She and one of her classmates were chosen to participate.
    • Upon bringing some problems and situations from the internship back to her classes, no one seemed to be able to help Marni.
    • Marni and her classmate were offered jobs with Logix in Oklahoma City after their internships. There was a great deal of freedom to learn, but the pay wasn’t great.

8:51 – The Glamour of Consulting

  • After about 9 months, Marni was offered a position as a consultant in Colorado, a place she had always wanted to live. The pay was also triple what she was being paid at Logix. Being a consultant seemed like a glamorous role.
    • The consulting role was initially with an online college, and Marni and others were building an eLibrary.
    • This experience taught Marni that being a consultant wasn’t as glamorous as she thought it might be. She also realized sometimes people can use software in ways it was never intended, and though these people may get praise for it, these scenarios could cause future problems.
  • When she left consulting after not really enjoying it, Marni went to work for a printing company next.
    • “I realized I’m much happier being part of a team in a company because you don’t just build something and go away…. You are invested in it. If you are working there and you build it you are invested in it. You want to build something that you can support and that is going to be valuable to the company.” – Marni Coffey
    • Nick says many people may like consulting because of the ability to work with many companies and their respective technology stacks for a time.
    • Marni realized she could branch out more within a company. She would encourage us to find somewhere we can have a career – a place where we can try new things over time. It might be a little slower than working in consulting, however.
    • “I felt like you got to do a little bit of everything as a consultant…. I think I was more attracted to building an actual solution with a process and making it all work. And seeing that happen and being able to partner across that enterprise and that organization with other people and make it work as this big machine was really fascinating to me. That was where it was at to me…. I wanted to build something and grow it.” – Marni Coffey
    • Marni also had a young child during this time, did not enjoy the travel, and didn’t like hopping around to different assignments. Building relationships within an organization was also important.
      • What was attractive to Marni (working within a company instead of consulting) might not be attractive to everyone. She mentions we can work in consulting without needing to do heavy travel. There are options.
      • Marni also likes the continuous improvement aspect of things once a solution is built (i.e. the maintaining of systems). She knows the importance of not letting things get stale in technology.

13:25 – Part of Something

  • How did working as a consultant and not really enjoying it affect the way Marni worked with consultants after that experience?
    • Marni tells us it can be harder to manage consultants and work with them. It takes a partnership and requires an investment from the consultants in what they are building.
    • “To do that you have to include them. You have to make them feel like they are part of that team. They are part of something. They’re part your group. They are not just some consultant that comes in and does the work and goes home. They’re part of something. It’s almost like a family.” – Marni Coffey, on working with consultants
    • We should make the consultants feel like there’s part of them in what they are doing, and it will urge them to make it as good as it can be.
    • Marni has worked with a number of consultants who didn’t want to leave for that next assignment.
    • “But once they got where we were, working with me, they wanted to stay. That’s because I recognized early that you had to invest them somehow, and the easiest way to do that is to make them feel like they are part of that team… You value their input, and you all work together to build something really amazing…. It’s what I always wanted to feel as a consultant.” – Marni Coffey
    • Marni didn’t feel like she was part of a team when she was a consultant. Her job was to build something and then move on to the next thing.
      • Marni wanted consultants she worked with later in her career to feel included in a way she wished she had been.
      • She wanted them to have real ownership of the projects on which they worked.
      • Marni doesn’t recall any consultant she has worked with having an adverse reaction to being included.
    • Nick points out Marni is being inclusive in a way people do not expect, especially if you know someone is only going to be working with you for a short time.
      • “Yeah, I think they don’t expect it. But I think it gives them something they didn’t know they needed.” – Marni Coffey, on the need to feel included
  • We talked about being inclusive and making consultants feel like part of the team, but how did Marni do it? What were the tactics of inclusion?
    • Marni learned the value of being on teams when she worked as a waitress in college. The people she worked with were more like a family who did things together outside of work and knew about one another’s lives.
    • If planning to go to a happy hour, a dinner, a movie, etc. invite everyone on the team and not just your best work friends. You will likely find you have more in common with teammates than you realize once you’re out in a personal setting.
      • Once you have the familiarity with people outside work in a personal setting, it’s easier to make them feel like they are part of something at work because they are part of a group.
      • The pandemic made this challenging, but people thought up creative ways to do Zoom events like costume parties, etc.
    • “I always try to bring a little something personal into my meetings so that people see you as a human being…. Tell them something embarrassing that happened, or tell them something fun you did.” – Marni Coffey
      • If you do things like the above and give others the chance to share things about themselves, it can lead to a tighter knit team.
    • This reminds John of “the freedom to bring your whole self to work.” It is a skill to promote a workplace where this is encouraged.
      • Making people feel comfortable enough to bring their whole selves to work is part of the skill.
  • Should we expect that no matter how much we try to include others some will still consistently say no to our invitations and attempts to include them?
    • Marni says people could say no for many reasons (family, other personal reasons), and she never takes it personally.
    • Even if someone declines an invite to some sort of team event, Marni continues to invite them and shares the experiences with them (which includes sharing photos).
    • “You were missed is a powerful message to send to somebody. I really like that.” – John White, on the topic of including others
    • When Marni tells someone they were missed, she means it. She often thinks about what someone would have liked about an event they missed.
  • Was the skill of inclusion something Marni learned at some point in her career?
    • “If I were acting this way, if I were this detached, why would I be that way, and what would make me feel more included? I start there. I try to put myself in that person’s shoes.” – Marni Coffey
    • When interviewing for her current position, Marni was asked about her greatest skill. She said it is empathy.
      • Empathy is about putting yourself in the shoes of others and thinking about what might be happening, why the person could be feeling a certain way, what might make things better, how to get them more engaged, etc.
      • This is Marni’s go to strategy when all else fails.

22:03 – Uncovering Empathy as a Skill

  • How did Marni know empathy was her greatest skill to answer that interview question? Nick isn’t sure he would have been able to come up with an answer to that if put on the spot.
    • Marni knew empathy was her greatest skill when she was at PepsiCo (the place she worked right before McKesson).
    • Marni grew a great deal at PepsiCo and began as a developer there.
    • “Over time, I started to get more leadership roles. It was more that there was a void. Nobody was doing it. I just did it. No one asked me to do it. I just did it, and no one told me to stop. So I continued to do it. Every time I would work on a project I would end up as the lead because no one else was really doing it, and they needed one…. Reluctantly, every single big step in my career has been volunteering to do something that no one else wanted to do.” – Marni Coffey, reflecting on her time at PepsiCo
      • Over time Marni eventually became a people manager.
    • No one wanted to manage the Mac machines, and Marni volunteered. This allowed her to hone some skills with a smaller group.
    • When asked to manage the mobile devices at PepsiCo at a global scale (something no one wanted to do), Marni agreed to do it. She saw something that needed to be done and did it.
    • At first, Marni was the mobile device team lead. She had a conversation with the manager of the team about the challenges she was facing in working with the team. In that conversation she asked to be the manager of the team so she could start to build it. The manager at that time transferred the role to her on the spot.
    • “So that’s how I got to be a people manager. I just stepped in where no one was managing the people and started to manage them.” – Marni Coffey
    • Marni started off asking the people on her team about pain points of their job with the goal of improving the employee experience. She knew that would improve employee performance and the service end users received.
    • “It’s a domino effect, but it starts, I think, with employee experience. You can’t have customer satisfaction without employee experience I don’t think…. I just kind of fell into people management. I won’t say I fell into it. I bull rushed it. I went in and just took over and just did it because no one else was doing it… And then they gave me the title of people manager, and I realized how much I loved it.” – Marni Coffey
    • It was in this people management role where Marni realized her greatest skill was empathy – being able to put herself in the shoes of another person and think about what she would want if in the same situation.
    • “I think if you can find out what people want, what they want for themselves, and there’s a way that you can give them that or at least some of that, that’s how you start to begin to build those relationships and those partnerships and you help each other.” – Marni Coffey
  • John wonders if this feeds back into Marni needing to figure things out for herself like when she was building websites.
    • Part of it was watching groups of people have no leadership to help them or clear a path for them.
    • “So, people leadership for me, if you think that you’re going to step into it and be the big boss, you don’t know what people leadership is. They don’t work for you. You work for them. It is your job to make it possible for them to be successful. Get things out of their way. Make it a little easier for them to be successful, to be able to do their jobs and excel even.” – Marni Coffey
    • Marni seeks to ensure people understand her goal is to support people in the way that is needed for them to get the recognition they deserve. If people understand you are genuine and authentic about this they will work hard for you.
      • Marni mentions she’s had people work 24 hours straight with no break to solve a problem because they knew she would be right there with them the entire time. The people knew Marni wasn’t going to take the recognition but would make sure they were recognized for the work done.
      • Marni had seen people suffer through not having this.
      • “It was the empathy that made me feel like someone needs to do something here. Someone needs to help them. And no one was, so I did.” – Marni Coffey

28:30 – Relocation and Connecting with a Company

  • Marni relocated from Colorado to Texas to take the developer job at PepsiCo originally. There were some personal reasons behind the move as well.
    • Most of Marni’s family lived in Texas, but her father was living with her in Colorado and in poor health. Her mother was also in poor health.
    • Marni moved to Texas and had intended to continue working for the same company based in Colorado. But in the process of moving she took a couple of interviews – one at Raytheon and one at PepsiCo.
      • Raytheon offered her a full-time position, and PepsiCo offered her a contract to hire position.
      • “On paper, the Raytheon offer looked better, but I kind of need to connect with my company. I need to really believe in what they’re doing. And it’s not that I didn’t really believe in what Raytheon was doing. It was more that I didn’t really relate to it as much as I related to working for Pepsi because I had been consuming their products forever…my whole life…. I knew who they were. I loved their products. It was just a light, bright atmosphere. I liked the people. I really liked the people that I interviewed with.” – Marni Coffey, on choosing to work for PepsiCo
    • Marni was happy in Colorado, but it felt like Texas was where she was supposed to be and that the job at PepsiCo was the right one.
      • Marni was replacing a developer at PepsiCo who had left the company, and she had to deconstruct the system to figure out how things worked. No one knew if she was right about how things worked, and she put in the effort to make sure she was.
    • Nick mentions not everyone needs to connect with their employer, but if it’s important to you to connect to a company’s mission and purpose, it should be on your priority list when you look for a job.

Mentioned in the Outro

  • The life of a consultant may not be for everyone, and it was not for Marni. She needed to be part of something.
    • We can contrast this with Chris Williams and his desire to pursue consulting as a way to prevent boredom from Episode 229.
    • Marni loves to build things like systems, but she isn’t just a builder. She is a builder, a grower, and a maintainer. She wants to see systems cared for and continuously improved.
      • Pay attention to which of those aspects you like to do as it may guide you to the opportunity you should pursue next in your career.
  • The pattern of tinkering with technology is present in Marni’s story just like with many of our other guests.
    • Tinkering can be a way to learn how systems work.
    • Marni tinkered with websites, going deep in certain areas and even working with databases to form an integrated system.
  • Though not stated in the interview directly, the idea of inclusion is really an aspect of team culture.
    • We discussed a number of inclusion tactics people leaders can leverage to great a great team culture.
    • We learned in Episode 238 that managers are culture keepers. A specific team in a company may have a great culture, but that does not mean every team inside the company does. It is going to depend on the leader of that team.
    • The inclusivity we discussed applies to contractors, part-time employees, full-time employees, and even interns. People who work with a specific group or team in any capacity, regardless of the amount of time spent, can be contributors and take some ownership.
  • It wasn’t like Marni had set her sights on people leadership necessarily. She saw gaps and decided to fill them and turned out to be great at managing people. The empathy has served her well.
    • It seems like Marni seeks to be the type of leader she wishes she worked for at some point.

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