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Women in Leadership| Leadership Moments

“You Need to Take the Shot.”​ A Life Lesson From Sports for Aspiring CEOs

May 20, 2019

There are those moments that stay with you, that you play over again and again in your mind. For Jodie McLean, the CEO of Edens, a real estate developer, a missed opportunity during a field hockey game became a powerful motivator to make the most of every opportunity. In our interview, she also shared compelling insights about how her perspective changed dramatically once she became CEO.

Q. You started at Edens as an analyst straight out of college and now you’re CEO. How did you set yourself on that trajectory?

A. I’m an early riser by nature, and I would go in to the office around 5:00-5:30 every morning because I realized that our founder, Mr. Edens, was always at the coffee pot then. Nobody else was there, and it was a great opportunity for me to start learning real estate. He would ask me why I’m here so early and what I was working on, and I’d tell him and ask him questions. That created a lot of opportunities for me early on.

I just was a sponge. I learned everything I could. I had the occasion to work throughout the entire organization for small stints in time, so I had a lot of broad knowledge. I also was a competitive tennis player growing up, so I knew how to lose a point but not lose the match. I wasn’t afraid not to be perfect. I took a lot of risks, and always said yes to anything that came my way.

There were some key moments for me in my career, too. At one point, we needed a chief investment officer. I was not invited to the table when that decision was being made, but I just aggressively went after the job. I sort of took the job.

Q. What does that mean?

A. They were bantering about who would take this job, and all of the candidates were really seasoned white men who were over 50. I said, “I think I can do this job better than anybody. I’m going to do this job, and I’m going to change my business cards before anybody has a say in this.” And I walked out of the room. They gave me the job.

Q. That’s a remarkable story. A lot of people might feel intimidated by such a big jump in responsibility.

A. I played competitive sports growing up – tennis, field hockey, squash, swimming. Every major victory had small failures, so taking smart, calculated risks wasn’t unusual to me. I expect excellence, but I understand that on the path to excellence there are a lot of potholes along the way and a lot of learning and teaching moments.

“We could have had a perfect record if I had taken the shot. That lives with me.”

Also, when I was about 17, I had a small moment that had a big impact on me: I didn’t take the shot that would have won the field hockey game. I know it may seem silly but I go back to that moment all the time. I didn’t take the shot because it wasn’t set up perfectly, but I could have made the shot. The clock ran out and we tied the game instead of winning. Worse things have happened in life. We went on to win our league, but we had a tie. We could have had a perfect record if I had taken the shot. That lives with me. You need to take the shot.

Q. You became CEO four years ago. Was it different than what you expected?

A. I scooched my seat at the table, literally, just a little bit to the right. That’s all you’re doing when you’re moving from where I was to the CEO role, but it was such a radically different point of view. I realized that the whole had so much more potential than the individual parts, and my previous role had been so focused on individual parts. I don’t know why I didn’t ever see it that way before. It was shocking to me how radically different the view was.

Q. And how did you approach setting the tone you wanted for the leadership team?

A. I wanted diverse and radical thinking around the table. It was not about necessarily picking the obvious choices but picking people who I knew would always be pushing me, asking me why and not being afraid to push back on anything. And I wanted them to be able to push each other, too.

I also said to the team at the beginning, “Listen, we’re going to be clunky. I’m looking around this table and I know that you guys don’t even know how to talk to each other about the things I want to talk about in this room.” And I gave everybody permission to ask “why?” I knew that when our CFO talked about the balance sheet, somebody on the team might not understand how it all links together. I also felt like I had to lead by asking why, as well, and being vulnerable in that room. And if I could be vulnerable in that room, then everybody else could be, too.

“If I could be vulnerable in that room, then everybody else could be, too.”

The other thing I told the team is that I sometimes talk in declaratives. So I might say, “I know I just said that as a declarative, but can we go around the room and let’s talk about whether this makes sense or not, and why. What’s your point of view?” I wanted our top thinkers to push each other. But then when we left the room, we needed to be on the same page.

That probably goes back to sports and playing on teams. I might not like the play that was called, but we’ve all agreed this is the play, and we’re all going to show up to do it. I don’t mind discourse behind closed doors, but when we go out into the office and into the world, we’re going to show a united front.

Q. What do you want to be better at as a CEO two years from now than you are today?

A. I want to be better at concisely communicating strategy and vision, and I want to be better at using a radically different network than the one I know now. There’s so much I don’t know, and so much our industry doesn’t know, about where we’re headed, and I want to better understand the world that will look radically different than the one I’m operating in today.

I know there’s transformation coming. I’m comfortable with that fact, but I don’t yet have a clear vision of what that transformation looks like. I love my industry, I love my peers, but I have to have a totally different network to understand that.

Follow Adam Bryant and Merryck & Co. on LinkedIn to see more.