As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Susan McGalla.
Susan McGalla is the Director of Strategic Planning and Growth at The Pittsburgh Steelers, LLC. Additionally, Susan McGalla has had 3 past jobs including Vice President of Business Strategy and Creative Development at The Pittsburgh Steelers, LLC.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up, I had two older brothers and my dad was a football coach. I was raised to always speak my mind confidently and share my ideas, and I think that naturally set me up for a leadership role. I was always interested in fashion to an extent, but when I was studying at Mount Union College what I really fell in love with was the behind the scenes, how businesses operated, and that all really came together for me when I started my job at American Eagle Outfitters.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since I came on board with the Steelers and took over as VP for Business Strategy and Creative Development, one of the things I’ve been most proud of is the Steelers Nation Unite Loyalty Program. We’ve built the sports industry’s leading loyalty program. And above all else, I was inspired to create that by the loyalty of Steelers fans. And I remember watching a game, and seeing the camera pan over the fans, and how in a single shot, I could see so many generations, people from all walks of life, and they all had in common their love for Pittsburgh and the Steelers. And I thought that was one of the best ways to reach our audience, through that loyalty.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first job out of college was at the Joseph Horne Company, and I think that while I really wanted to do an excellent job, a lot of what was on my mind was where was I going to go next. At my next job at American Eagle Outfitters, I rose through a wide variety of roles over 14 years. It was then that I really learned how important it is to concentrate on where you are.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Too many to mention. It’s true that you can’t have success without a lot of help, from teachers to professors, to mentors to co-workers and bosses. And of course, the teams that work under me have all been instrumental to what I’ve achieved. But above all else, I am thankful for my family. My dad never cut me any slack, and for that, I grew into a hard worker. And it was from my parents that I learned how to express myself confidently.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The right foods and workouts will really empower your body. I find that generally following a healthy lifestyle helps keep stress levels low. I’m not against delicious food, but everything in moderation. Getting in a great workout will help tax my body, which is naturally very stress-relieving.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I feel like my own story is an example of why it’s so important — if you keep out other voices, then the table of leadership becomes homogenized. If you bring other voices to the table, then you are able to get a number of different perspectives and ideas that just don’t occur when everyone thinks, talks and believes the same things. We need to address this stuff head-on and stop beating around the bush. People are afraid of change, but change is here and its happening.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
We have to listen to each other — really listen. If we discredit someone’s story or perspective, then we haven’t helped them and we haven’t grown ourselves. The only way to move forward as a unified society is to understand the struggles. We all have different hurdles. A lot of times, when you are busy jumping over your own hurdles, you don’t even notice if someone else’s are taller or shorter. We tend to have only the perspective of our own lane and think that our path is the same one everyone else has.
For those of us coming in and potentially facing bias, I think it’s important to try to keep a clear slate. If you come in with a chip on your shoulder, it only helps solidify the hurdle and justify the person holding the antiquated perspective. This absolutely doesn’t mean accepting different treatment or disrespect. I’ve been in these arenas where I am the minority and I think my approach has helped me hold my own and prove any doubters wrong.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As Director of Strategic Planning and Growth with the Steelers, I’m in charge of business strategy and creative development. It’s my job to catch the trends and take advantage of opportunities as they pop up. It’s been a wild ride through a pandemic where so much is uncertain. Agility is certainly the name of the game right now.
When you are at the top, everyone else is looking at you. Everyone’s jobs are dependent on you. It’s a tough place to be in, but I loves the strategic aspect of it as well. There is a rush that comes with making a choice and knowing you nailed it — like the Steelers Nation Unite Loyalty Program has been for us.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One common myth is that we somehow have all the answers. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Typically, we come with decades of experience and honed skills. But, we aren’t perfect and we don’t always call it right. While the CEO and c-suite leaders tend to take most of the responsibility, we rely on our entire team to keep us informed and help us every step of the way.
Ultimately, the buck stops with us because our teams trust us to choose the right path. But, that expectation that we should know it all and get it right all the time can be a burden. If you aren’t careful to keep a balanced work-life perspective, that burden can be debilitating.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Honestly, I try really hard not to think about what I’m facing, and I pride myself a little bit on just going in and acting as if the field is even. I suppose that in itself is a pretty big challenge. Every time I’m in a new room filled with all men who don’t know me or my track record, I have to stay very focused. But, I feel like if I dwell on the differences, I’m only going to lose my edge and confidence. For what? I go in with goals that have nothing to do with my gender.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The Steelers’ fans might be the biggest surprise. I’m not sure I knew how passionate and loyal they were before I got this job. I mean, I knew there were loyal fans, but it’s just different when your in the midst of it. They are truly inspiring.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
You really have to have tough skin. People expect all kinds of things and say all kinds of things — it just can’t impact your performance. Some people don’t trust your judgement and others actively want you to fail. If you get caught up in that, you will lose sight of your goals.
You need to be driven. It’s not enough to be a hard worker, you also need to be very organized, insightful and passionate. To spend the kind of energy, focus and time a c-suite position requires, you are going to have to have something deep within that never says die.
You need to be a leader. This one is probably on every list out there, but leading isn’t just telling people what to do. Leaders listen a LOT. They can hear and understand the concerns of their team. They know what their customers (or fans) want. They are able to lead by their example. It’s not an easy role to fill and it isn’t something you can fake, so you need to be a natural-born leader if you are going to be a great executive.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
The main thing for me has always been to not consider myself as different than anyone else because of my gender. I just go in with the assumption that there’s an equal playing field. And while that may not always be the case, I find that I believe that I give it my best, and in the end, that’s usually what’s needed to win the room.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I do think that having a leadership position as a woman, especially in very male-dominated arenas, which American Eagle Outfitters was when I first joined, and the Steelers can still be possible. Let other women know that it is within their power to have leadership roles in business. But above all else, I believe that when I do my job well, I help a company grow, creating jobs and allowing a company to be its best.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Listen lots. As I mentioned above, listening is such an important skill for a leader. One way in which I really learned that the hard way was the first time I had someone leave my team. I hadn’t been listening enough to this person’s concerns.
- Be yourself. You can’t be anyone else, and if you try, you’re depriving the world of the best you have to offer. I think that for me, this was just the way I was raised, and it wasn’t until I was older that I learned it wasn’t the way everyone operates, unfortunately.
- Praise often. It’s so important to let people know when they are doing a good job and to celebrate successes. This is critical in keeping a team motivated. When we achieved the sports industry’s leading loyalty program, you can bet we celebrated that.
- Set clear expectations. So much of being a leader, is leading the team to goals. A lot of my achievements have been through setting consistent goals, both short and long-term and then working on motivating the team to get there. That is so much easier when everyone knows where we are going.
- Stay present. This seems like it should be obvious, but it’s amazing how easy it is to get wrapped up in the past or overly focused on the future. This has never been truer than in these current times, when if you plan too far ahead you will still be completely unprepared for what an uncertain future holds. In a changing world it’s critical to be in the moment so that when the time comes, you are ready to adapt.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I wish that people could leave a lot of the negativity behind and believe in themselves. I think that so many people don’t realize how powerful they are when they have confidence in themselves.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I really love the C. S. Lewis quote, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” It really goes back to what I’ve learned about being present in the moment.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I’d love to pick Jenna Lyons’ brain about the trajectory of her career. I just think that she has beautifully combined business, marketing, and fashion.