Maureen O'Connell Profile
On Wednesday, July 25, 2007 the Fellows met with Maureen O’Connell, Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Financial Officer of Scholastic. Ms. O’Connell joined the staff in January 2007. She directs the Company’s administrative functions, including Finance, Global Operations and IT, Human Resources, Strategic Planning and Business Development, and Legal.
Several of Ms. O’Connell’s former positions have been as CFO at major companies including Barnes & Noble, Affinion Inc., Newbridge Communications, Publisher’s Clearing House and Gartner Inc., where she also served as President and COO. Ms. O’Connell began her career in public accounting at an insurance company and moved to publishing as Director of Accounting at PRIMEDIA. She is married and has three children.
Below is a highlight of the Q&A session between the Fellows and Maureen O’Connell.Q: Your background is interesting in that it combines a clear interest in accounting, finance, and operations with an emphasis on publishing and direct marketing. How did you initially decide to make the transition in your work from public accounting to private business?
A: I worked at an insurance company, but I didn’t like it; it felt too bureaucratic. I had received a call about a new acquisitions company that was starting up and they asked if I was interested. It was a chance to get in on the ground floor with an amazing team and even though I left a job that looked good on paper, it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made. The media world is very small. Everyone knows each other, and you establish a name for yourself early on. PRIMEDIA went from being a startup acquisitions company to a Fortune 500 in just two years. The CEO was also my mentor, and he gave me the chance to do whatever I wanted to do. He trusted me.
The common thread in the places I’ve worked is that they are all media multiple distribution companies with a technology component. Gartner had a heavy focus on technological development and Affinion was a direct marketing firm. While each company is different in its particular function, the main question for all of them translated into, “How do you deliver content?” Once I became CFO, my thought was, “Well what now?” I’ve gradually taken on broader roles over time. My ultimate goal is to always learn something new; to never stop growing.
Q: I’ve read that you direct all administrative functions, including Finance, Global Operations and IT, Human Resources, Strategic Planning and Business Development, and Legal. How do you prioritize your work?
A: My list of priorities changes everyday. You have to be flexible and willing to shift things around. At the end of the week, I think about what I did and I ask myself what I’ve accomplished or contributed to make the company better. I’m also good at delegating. You’re only as good as your team, and you have to trust them to follow through on what you tell them.
Q: Do you think leadership can be taught? Can everyone learn to lead?
A: Absolutely. You can learn from good leaders and from bad ones. Keep track of the things that both motivate and offend you. You can learn from different leadership styles the same way you can learn what kinds of teachers you like or dislike. I think leadership is constant. Growth is constant.
Q: How can you tell the difference between a leadership style that is truly offensive and thus, a bad one and when you’re just being overly sensitive?
A: It’s kind of like the “count to ten” rule. You don’t want to overreact, but you don’t want to permit things that shouldn’t be allowed. That’s when a mentor becomes really important. Run the situation by them and see what they say about it. And if it truly is offensive, there’s nothing wrong with letting that person know how you feel and asking them to not repeat what was done.
Q: What’s your personal leadership style?
A: I have very high expectations. I’m tough; I’m fair. I hire people who’ll help to balance me out. I can delegate and let go. If you don’t, you can’t move up.
Q: How do you balance the personal and the professional?
A: It’s a constant trade-off, but it’s nice to be at Scholastic, in a culture that cares about people.
Q: Do you have any advice for us, as young professionals entering into the workforce?
A: You have to make your work “look easy.” People want the bottom line, not to know the process of how you got there. Have confidence in yourself. You get through the hard days that way.