Welcome to our interview series in partnership with Empowered Women, a nonprofit advocating for women to live a fulfilled life as they define it. We’ve teamed up to interview inspiring women who are forging their own paths and living what it means to be an empowered woman. Join us as we meet a new woman each month.
In the closing months of the 2016 election, Politico named Poppy MacDonald as its new president, a role that puts her in charge of leading business operations and strategy for the growing political-media company. Fresh off a successful stint at Atlantic Media’s National Journal, where she rose to be president and publisher, MacDonald has taken the helm of Politico, a must-read publication for anyone who follows politics and policy. Her career has taken her from Capitol Hill to Gallup Inc. to the business side of some of the most prominent political-journalism publications in Washington, D.C. (including a prior role at Politico as executive director of business development), so she’s up to the task of leading the company as Washington gears up for a new administration.
MacDonald, 41, spoke with us about the adrenaline rush that comes with being in a constantly evolving industry, the leadership lessons she’s picked up over the years, and how she navigates workplace moments when others take her less seriously due to sexism and other stereotypes. Poppy also elucidates how she manages to put in long hours as a publishing executive while being a mother to two children. Her advice to women who worry it’s not possible to do both? Having kids can actually help you stay driven in your work life.
Katherine Connell: How did you end up with a career in media—was that the path that you envisioned?
Poppy MacDonald: To some extent, I started my career in media. My junior year of college I lived in Nepal and went trekking in the Himalayas and showed up in Washington my spring semester and ended up at The McLaughlin Group, which was a television program. It was an internship, and I was a production assistant. At that point I was a U.S. history major with a liberal arts education who had just been living in a mud hut in Nepal, so I wouldn’t say I had a ton of direction about what I wanted to do when I grew up or even what I wanted to do right out of college. Landing at that media company was fortuitous. It put me at the center of the 1996 presidential primary on the Republican side that was really exciting. I got exposure to all the candidates who were running for office who did our one-on-one interview show, and I got to research the issues of the day in Washington for our weekly news segment. It gave me a sense of the excitement about being part of a media company and being part of Washington.
After that experience I decided I wanted to come back and work on Capitol Hill. I ended up being a press secretary for my senator, which was connected to the media in terms of what was happening in Washington and why it matters. And I think in finding my way back to media, I was chasing the opportunity to reconnect with that adrenaline rush of feeling like you’re part of something significant and important. It satisfied my craving for continuous learning and not knowing what the day is going to be like. That’s partly because of how fast-paced the media is, but also because in politics and policy, you can’t anticipate what is going to happen the next day. Being on the business side at Politico and National Journal definitely brought me back to the exciting challenge of taking what’s happening and connecting that to your audience in a way that they find valuable and meaningful.
KC: There’s a lot of change happening quickly in media. How do you see that playing out, and how do you stay optimistic and innovative in the face of what can sometimes seem like depressing industry-wide trends?
PM: Part of how I stay optimistic is that the fun of this industry is constant reinvention. Whether it’s reinventing how you’re covering an issue because of how politics and policy around it may have changed, or thinking about how to best serve your audience and how people want to consume information. That’s constantly evolving as there are new platforms and devices. You don’t get into media if you want a predictable job. What makes this exciting is trying to stay ahead of that curve, and the best way we can do that is understanding our audience.
I think Washington has been a little bit protected by the fact that people here do have an appointment-read with the media. There is still a culture in Washington where, while people may be waking up with their phones instead of a physical newspaper, people are continuously consuming information all day long. It’s part of our diet. It is still a critical resource. People here aren’t just hoping to bump against an article in their Facebook feed—they actually seek out trusted and reliable media sources. So I think that really helps Politico, with our roots being in Washington, but like other media companies, our audience also comes from across the country and increasingly across the globe as we’ve expanded into Brussels and will continue that global expansion. I think we are not protected or immune from those trends, but what keeps me optimistic is just thinking about it as an exciting opportunity for constant reinvention.
KC: I’m curious what a typical day is like for you and how you make space for your personal and family life. How do you strike that balance?
PM: On a typical day I’ll get into the office at 9 a.m. and usually try to be home by 7 p.m. so that I can have dinner with my kids, and it’s probably a later dinner than a lot of families have. In terms of how I make that work, one way is by trying to not be so rigid about my schedule. If I don’t have a meeting right at 9 a.m., and there’s an opportunity that I can take my daughter to school or spend a little more time over breakfast with my kids, if the moment presents itself, and I want to sit and engage in more conversation that morning, I’m not rigid about my arrival time or rigid about my departure time. But I’m pretty cognizant of the fact that managing a big team means I do have to physically be present there every day and spend a lot of time in the office. But I think just trying to balance that around where there are opportunities to connect with my kids or drive them to school or sneak out to go to a school performance—I will do that while still generally working long days in the office, every day frankly.
KC: What would you say is the hardest part about your job and leading a company?
PM: It’s the art of diplomacy. It’s trying to get a number of different stakeholders to agree on what is the right direction, because generally not everyone wins. It’s really trying to find out: How do we compromise? I think at the end of the day it’s by rooting that compromise back into what serves our audience best and putting what may feel like experiments or gambles in that context. And it ensures that we have a business that continues to support our editorial ambition. As you can imagine, when you have a subscription business and an advertising business and a live events business—and then you’ve got lots of different editorial stakeholders who are passionate about what they want to cover and how they want to cover it and want to get that out onto as many platforms as possible—trying to figure out, “What strategic bets are we going to place?” and getting everyone to a point of compromise is a challenge.
KC: Did you have mentors who were particularly helpful in modeling what leadership should look like for you?
PM: I worked for some awesome leaders who I’ve taken different things from along the way, while trying to develop a leadership style that’s unique to who I am. One leader I really look up to is Jim Clifton, who’s the CEO of Gallup. I got to work closely with him, and I thought what he did so well was to make everyone feel like their opinions counted.
He would put people of different levels who worked on different products and programs across Gallup around a table—he’d get 15 very diverse folks who had probably never worked together—and present them with a concept of where he was looking to take the business. And while none of those people was going to be a decision maker at the end of the day, he’d get different perspectives on: “What does this mean for your division? Where do you see holes in this place we’re thinking about going? What do you see as the opportunity?” And I loved that—it was so meaningful for someone as an employee to get called to that table and have the opportunity to weigh in on a business decision. And I actually think it was really helpful for him to get out of a kind of leadership bubble. That’s something that I’ve taken away: listening and getting yourself out of the bubble of the people you talk to all day, and making sure you’re staying constantly connected to your employees throughout the organization and to your customers.
Another leader I worked for is David Bradley at Atlantic Media. He always talked about a “spirit of generosity” and I loved that. The idea was that you always lead with being generous to each other as employees and to customers. It’s always, “How can I be helpful? What can I give?” And you worry about the commerce part of it second. If you lead with “How do I add value? How can I be helpful,” you will get returns tenfold.
KC: It sounds like you’ve been fortunate with the people that you’ve worked for. But I know sometimes women who work in politics and media and the corporate world can feel like they have to make an extra effort to be taken seriously or have their ideas heard. Was that ever something that you faced?
PM: You know, I had those situations, not with my coworkers or my bosses, but with the external market. Being a woman and looking young, I have experienced that people don’t take me as seriously. They kind of assume that I might not be the decision-maker in the room or the leader in the room just based on the first impression of how I look. And I think sometimes they question how much background I bring to the table or what my level of experience or depth is.
Probably my toughest scenario of that was inheriting a consulting relationship that I owned as the partner and having a woman client just reject me outright from the first meeting, from the ten minutes she spent with me. Her response was just: “I need somebody more senior, I need somebody more experienced. You can’t translate to my executive team who expects somebody with significant experience to lead this.” And I think what I appreciated about that was that my boss said to me later, “I don’t care if we lose the account—you are the most experienced person. You have the expertise that they need. So just go back and do your best and serve that account, and I think this is unfortunately a mistaken first impression, and you’re going to have to try to win her over.” I think that kind of challenge to go back and keep pushing forward was a valuable lesson, and I was fortunate to have a boss who didn’t immediately cave to the customer and put somebody else on the account who looked older.
KC: I know Politico recently cohosted a Women Rule summit for women in politics that featured a lot of conversations about some of these issues. Was there a moment or a takeaway from it that stood out to you?
PM: One was that we had Kellyanne Conway, who was Donald Trump’s campaign manager. It was interesting that when we were thinking about Women Rule, we probably thought that the big Women Rule moment of 2016 would be the first woman in the White House, that glass ceiling being shattered. We didn’t find that, but it was great to have Conway there who did shatter a glass ceiling—she was the first woman to run a presidential campaign. So it was great to have her on that stage and just have her give some practical advice to the audience. I loved her talking about her ability to break through to a strong male candidate by being politely persistent and kind of using the way she communicates as a woman to break through to a candidate who had trouble listening to male campaign managers before her.
I also loved that she gave the audience very practical advice on negotiation. She talked about being called to be a speaker alongside a Democratic campaign strategist; they wanted her to come in as a Republican campaign strategist (this was some years ago) and her not knowing what to charge. The person asked, “What is your rate?” and she kind of froze. And then she responded, “Well, I’ll just have what he’s having.” And the person said, “What do you mean by that?” and she said, “Well, you’re asking this Democratic strategist to come, and I assume you’ve already negotiated a rate for him, and since you’re asking me to serve the same role and offer the same level of expertise, it seems fair that you would pay me the same that he’s getting.” And then the person just said, “Well this is the rate he’s asking for,” and she said, “Fine, I’ll accept it.” I loved that idea of knowing your value—just saying, the same as the man doing the same job. And she obviously had a very creative way to find out what that was and then demand the same for herself. That was definitely something that I took away from that summit and appreciated.
KC: Do you have any closing advice for other women about pursuing a demanding career while still having a family?
PM: You hear that women are still nervous about, “Can I have children and a have a driven job—can I balance those two?” The one piece of advice I would say is, use your kids to motivate you. I made the choice to come back to work, and I now am very conscious of what I’m giving up by being in an office so long every day. I think, “Hey I’m making this sacrifice of being away from my kids during the day, what is that sacrifice for, and what am I building here?” It makes me think: How do I do something that feels significant and worthy of that sacrifice? So I would say, rather than thinking about children as an impediment to a driven career, actually use your children to motivate you to have a significant impact, because otherwise it’s not worth the sacrifice of being away from them.