SVP of Supply Management Mary Kay Runyan draws inspiration from those she’s served under, in the Navy and in business, to inform the way she leads today
The typical mentor-mentee relationship is pretty simple: More senior staff members help those a bit lower on the career ladder to climb to the next rung. But Mary Kay Runyan’s early experience inverted that equation. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy with bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and Operations Analysis, the new Ensign’s first assignment was as Aviation Maintenance Officer for an anti-submarine helicopter squadron in San Diego.
“Senior enlisted personnel have the rank of ‘Chief,’” Runyan said. “The Officers play an important role, but the Chiefs are the most influential in running day-to-day operations. They gave me valuable and sage advice, and I learned a lot from them.”
For the Love of Leadership
During her seven-year stint in the Navy, Runyan earned a master’s degree in Logistics Engineering from National University in California. After fulfilling her commitment to the Navy, she spent eight years serving in a variety of leadership positions in fleet, logistics and strategic sourcing at Waste Management Inc.
“The COO [Chief Operating Officer] of Waste Management offered me the chance to run one of the top 10 truck fleets in the country,” Runyan said, “and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
In 2009, Runyan left Waste Management and joined Coca-Cola Enterprises as Director, Fleet Operations, North America. She was responsible for a $175-million maintenance operation, supporting 50,000 pieces of delivery trucks and material handling equipment. Although a great opportunity, it didn’t align with her true passion: leading others.
“It was an individual contributor job, so I had no team to lead,” Runyan said. “And leading teams to successful results is what I love to do.”
In 2010, she joined ServiceMaster as Vice President (VP), Fleet. Since then, she’s had two promotions, and is now Senior VP, Supply Management, reporting directly to the Chief Executive Officer. And she’s back to leading teams.
A Culture of Engagement
Among her staff of 70, Runyan encourages a culture of engagement. “It’s a two-way street between the leader and the employee,” she said. “And engagement starts with the leader.”
Engaged employees have a sense of empowerment, and that can be the difference between doing a minimal job and going beyond the customer’s expectations. On the other hand, disengaged employees can have a negative impact on the customer experience and on their coworkers.
“The best ideas come from the people on the frontline,” Runyan said. “They work directly with customers and can recommend good solutions to problems, as well as identify new opportunities to better serve the customers.”
A big part of that engagement is rooted in balanced leadership. Fortunately, ServiceMaster presents a situational leadership course to everyone who’s responsible for managing people.
“It helps them understand how much, or how little, to lead in given situations,” Runyan explained. “For example, a newer employee will probably need plenty of clear instructions. But someone who’s more experienced will benefit more from the leader’s support—explaining the strategic intent or helping to overcome a hurdle.”
Ultimately, Runyan favors an informal mentoring structure. “I’ve had 30 or 40 mentors during my career, and most of them grew organically rather than from a formal program,” she noted. “I think informal relationships work better because the two individuals have formed a strong connection naturally, instead of being assigned to one another.”
She points to mentor Ed Thompson, former President of Schneider Trucking, as a key example. “I knew Ed when I was running fleet at Waste Management. He often let me bounce ideas off him as my strategy evolved. And his advice, perspective and connections were invaluable to me.”
In fact, Thompson encouraged Runyan to network with other business leaders to expand her knowledge of their functions and better understand the full impact of the business from all angles.
“I wanted to better understand financials,” Runyan said. “Ed suggested I talk to my own Finance Department and learn to read P&L [profit and loss] statements, income statements and balance sheets, and then apply that knowledge to my own department.”
And it worked.
Learning By Doing
Runyan’s on-the-job study of financial matters exemplifies her approach to employee development.
“Real learning happens through action, especially with adults,” she said. “It’s better to develop them through ‘stretch’ assignments or giving them new responsibilities, rather than only teach through a classroom setting.”
At ServiceMaster, all supply management professionals attend a five-day sourcing “boot camp.” It includes case study prep, negotiation simulations and presenting a category strategy to the supply management team, followed by a self-paced study of management skills in internal stakeholder relations, suppliers and category strategy.
Drawing on personal lessons learned over the course of her career, Runyan offers three bits of advice to rising professionals. First, commit to being a lifelong learner. “As technology and the market evolve, you must evolve with them,” Runyan said. “If you go into a situation with the intent to learn, you’ll be more successful.”
Second, bring the best of yourself to your career and personal life. “Authenticity in your personal life and career is key,” Runyan said. “It is about waking up every day and bringing the best of you to work and home, and then going to sleep every night knowing you gave your all. Balance is important.”
Last but not least, be open to unconventional paths. “I’ve done many atypical things in my career,” Runyan said. “It’s taught me that there’s not just one way to reach your ultimate goal. Careers can be more like jungle gyms than ladders, and sometimes you must be brave enough to jump into something new.”
Frederick Jerant is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
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Mary Kay's Key Partners:Strategic Aim Consulting (Sourcing Bootcamp Consultant) | Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.) (Strategy Consulting Advisor)
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