Wonder Women: Mary Lou Panzano, change agent

Wonder Women: Mary Lou Panzano, change agent

By Jill Vitiello

Mary Lou Panzano
Mary Lou Panzano, Vice President and Head of U.S. Internal Communications at Bayer

Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Mary Lou Panzano, Vice President and Head of U.S. Internal Communications at Bayer. She is responsible for leading communications with nearly 24,000 U.S.-based employees at Bayer, which recently acquired Monsanto for $66 billion.

An influential and widely respected executive, Mary Lou developed a corporate change communications model based on her experience spearheading employee engagement and workplace modernization at companies in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries. My team and I have the pleasure of working with Mary Lou and her colleagues as they pioneered change that has become mainstream such as open workspace and STEM education for young women. On September 5, Mary Lou was honored by Bayer as one of the company’s top 10 women driving its Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI). In the last 12 months, Mary Lou attended two Leadership Experiences in Gettysburg, PA, and Normandy, France, led by retired Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, Ph.D. and military historian, and The New York Times bestselling co-author of Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters. I caught up with Mary Lou shortly after her return from the site of the D-Day Battle.

Q: Mary Lou, what was your first job and what did it teach you?

A: I worked in retail, first at Sears as a cashier, then as a sales person at a bridal store. The first thing I learned was how to be responsible, because you’ve got to show up on time and you’ve got to do your job. You have to learn fast because things change all the time, so you need to learn how to adapt. When you are dealing with the public – and in particular, brides – you learn what it means to serve others. That means not only listening and taking care of their needs, but also learning how to smile and take it when a customer is mistreating you or others – you can’t just tell off a customer; nothing good will ever come from that.  When you’re with customers on the front line, you get an appreciation for observing how other people respond to things and how they interact. There are lessons you can learn about observing behavior, good or bad. Following up proactively with customers is also something I learned. Think of how you feel when you get a call or message asking how things went or if there’s anything else you need – it makes you feel pretty special. My guiding principle in life is to live by the Golden Rule – treat others the way you want to be treated. That definitely translated into the corporate world.

Q: What is the one thing that you would advise ambitious women to do?

A: Say “yes” to new challenges. I found that when I volunteered to do things that were out of the scope of my job or that I just knew needed to be done, or when I saw an opportunity to work with a group or a person that I liked or admired, it always benefited me. I gained great experience and exposure. I think early in your career the more you can say “yes,” the better it helps prepare you for the future and the more it contributes to your growth personally and professionally. You never know where the next opportunity will be, and it may not be where you think. I started my corporate career as a secretary and just happened to be a decent writer. As part of my role I wrote many letters for my boss and when a communications job opened up in another area, I lifted those skills and moved forward. But, if you don’t say yes to yourself or to an opportunity, you may miss out. As you get older it’s harder to draw the lines, as your life and family situations change. Then, you probably will need to say “no” more often because priorities change, and nobody can do everything. When you are first starting out and if you are ambitious, you need to say “yes” a lot and see where it goes!

Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI)
Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) Panel

Q: How would you describe the honor that you received as a pioneer of Bayer’s WLI?

A: Being selected as one of the top 10 women at Bayer who helped to drive the company’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) forward on the occasion of WLI’s 10th anniversary is as much an honor as it is humbling. When I first learned that I was among the finalists being considered, I was surprised and flattered. But honestly, I was also a little embarrassed. I’m a leader. I also happen to be a woman. I’m highly engaged in my work and helping drive the culture and environment in which my colleagues and I work. And, I can see – literally – that there should be more women executives at my company. So, why would I NOT get involved? That’s what leaders do. I have to admit, at first I was feeling a little like I was being recognized for something I would normally do. As I thought more about it, I began to realize that everyone has a choice. She can choose to get involved and make a difference where she sees a need, or she can choose not to. I chose, ‘yes.’ Once I commit, I’m all in. When I learned I was selected as one of the Top 10 and saw the group of accomplished, dynamic women there with me, I felt really proud to be viewed and respected for what we’ve been able to achieve so far. These women and I put a lot of work outside of our already demanding jobs into helping form, communicate about and advocate for WLI’s cause and gender parity. Reflecting back on how much that has made a difference is very gratifying. It also reminded me that I need to keep at it; we can’t claim victory yet.

Colonel Cole C. Kingseed and Mary Lou Panzano at Ponte du Hoc
Colonel Cole C. Kingseed and Mary Lou Panzano at Ponte du Hoc

Q: Do you have a role model that you look up to or someone who is influencing you right now?

A: For me right now, it’s Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, retired from the U.S. Army. I just spent an incredible experience with him in France, walking Normandy Beach. There and in Gettysburg, he shared examples of leaders who were courageous, honest, humble, and who put their team’s best interests in front of their own for the good of the cause. He emphasized preparation, training and working really hard to be the best you can be at whatever you do. He talked about physical fitness and how important it is to take care of yourself while you are trying to lead and take care of others.

After meeting Cole at the Gettysburg Leadership Experience, I received a copy of his book, “Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of ‘The Band of Brothers.’” Dick led Easy Company, the elite paratroopers that parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944 and took out the guns wreaking havoc on the beach as infantry troops were advancing. The mini-series, Band of Brothers, is based on Dick’s experience. After returning from Normandy and learning more about how Dick had to assume leadership of Easy Company and how he led his men against all odds with so much at stake, I just had to read that book. As I did, I became so impressed with how respectful Cole was of Dick as he interviewed him for the book and of the relationship they carefully built. Cole outranked Dick and yet, treated him with such respect and deference. Leaders can get caught up in the ego and status of their roles, and easily forget how important building trusting relationships are. I loved Cole from the get-go, but after reading that book and spending more time with him, I have so much admiration for him as a human being and how he treated his relationship while telling the remarkable story of Major Dick Winters. I’d love to help someone find the peace in his or her life, the way that Cole helped Dick find his.

Q: How can you be the leader and person you want to be within a large, complex, global organization – like the U.S. Army or a major corporation?

A: Right now, my biggest challenge is the integration of Monsanto – a process that we’ve been working toward for almost two years since the deal was officially announced. If there is one thing that has rung true for me a leader throughout this period, it is this: expect the unexpected. How do you deal with that? First, preparation and patience. You will need to draw on your experience, be agile, listen, remain patient as things change – and they will, often – and trust that you can handle whatever comes your way. If you keep your eye on the goal, you’ll get there. The path is not going to be straight. In fact, the bigger and more complex the organization is – or the deal is, in this case – the more you should plan on that path twisting and turning and not going as you envisioned. But, trust that you’ll figure it out. Dick Winters reminded me of that. Second, remember to engage your team and others you trust as you go along, and keep your eyes and ears open so you can get out in front and proactively be ready for whatever nuances you see coming. Third, figure out a way to have some fun. Change can be stressful. You have to remember that people are human beings with real feelings and emotions, and those things need to be considered, especially in times of great change. Laughter is pretty good medicine, and it will get you and your team through some tough times.

Q: Where do you see corporate communications heading?

A: The technology available today to internal communicators is probably five- or ten-fold what it was just a few years ago. I think one of the challenges, especially with larger organizations, is the desire to give your employees an experience that is interesting and engaging, and not being able to do that easily. People want all the tools available to them at work that they use in their personal lives. That’s not always possible or practical. We need to be smart about understanding that to deploy a new technology in a large organization is a bear! And if you want to go down that track, be ready for it. You’re in for six or nine months at best and then you have to work it, test it, train it, and get people to engage in it – that includes you and your team. Establishing the partnerships and getting data security clearance takes time – be ready for all of that. And know that a year after you roll it out — hopefully successfully – something new will probably come along. While everybody deserves more than “good enough” communications tools and technology in an organization, you have to be smart and careful about how you invest in them. I know that people get excited about it and they should, but I would say, proceed carefully. And, remember to try not to discount the importance of face-to-face, smart, purposeful communications with managers and their employees. Conversations are still the place where you can have the best engagement. And as old-fashioned as that sounds, talking to each other is probably still the most important thing that you can do.

Do you have a question for Mary Lou or me about leading change? Ask it here in our comments, or reach us on Twitter: @mlpanzano; @JillVitiello.

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