Making Work Matter, An Interview with Nancy McGaw

June 13, 2024  • John Peabody

Nancy McGaw

Nancy McGaw joined the Business & Society program in 2000 after working nearly two decades as a corporate banker, becoming an ardent student of values-based leadership. Since then, she has led many BSP programs with a particular focus on management education, sustainability, and leadership development and founded the First Movers Fellowship Program

In her new book, Making Work Matter: How to Create Positive Change in Your Company and Meaning in Your Career, she shows how business managers and leaders who were selected to participate in the program created positive change and shares leadership insights for the rest of us.  

From Paul Dillinger who launched the Wellthread™ Collection at Levi’s® to produce garments that not only look great but are sustainably produced at every step of the design process, to Gyanda Sachdeva who developed tools on LinkedIn to connect hiring managers with a diverse pool of freelance professionals, and Rahul Raj who piloted Walmart’s guaranteed take-back program for electronics that enabled customers to return and buy refurbished products, Making Work Matter combines over forty inspiring stories with the mindsets, best practices, and practical advice you need to become an intrapreneur.

In this interview, we asked Nancy about the work that inspired the book, what leaders need to keep in mind and more. 

The subhead of your new book Making Work Matter is “How to create positive change in your company and meaning in your career.” How are these two linked?

Employees want to have a sense of purpose in their work, and they want to work for companies that are making a positive impact in the world.  They think business has a role to play in helping to solve some of society’s biggest challenges – like climate change and economic inequality and ensuring technology is developed and deployed ethically.  And they want to contribute to that effort. Many employees have creative ideas about how they can use their own skills to help their companies develop products, services, and management practices that address these challenges. Being able to help unlock the potential their company has to create more positive value for the world – and be recognized for their efforts – is a way for them to have greater meaning in their careers.  

This book came out of the First Movers Fellowship. Tell us about that and your work with the Business & Society program.

At the Aspen Business & Society Program we believe business has enormous potential to create economic value and positive impact on society and the planet. Innovative employees who see opportunities for companies to change can be key to unleashing this potential. Much of my work has focused on helping these employees – across the company – build their capacity to lead this kind of change.

Toward that end, in 2009 I founded the Aspen First Movers Fellowship Program for “corporate social intrapreneurs,” the innovators within business who are creating new products, services and management practices that help their companies thrive and have a positive impact on business and on society and the planet.

My new book includes dozens of stories from these Fellows and practical tools that, I hope, will inspire others to step up to help their companies create both business and social value and provide guidance for how to do so.

You started your career as a corporate banker before joining the Aspen Institute. How has your view of work and leadership changed over the years since you’ve been working so closely with fellows and the institute? When you look out at the landscape of business leaders, do you feel there’s been a lot of positive change? 

When I was in banking I don’t recall a single time when a senior leader talked about the purpose of our work or the impact that we were creating in the world.  Since then, although more progress is needed, there has been a significant shift in leadership focus.  More and more business leaders understand that for companies to thrive over the long term, they must deliver results that are good not only for the business but also for society.  That is why we are seeing so many companies committing, for example, to reduce their environmental footprint, design more inclusive cultures and products, develop technology solutions rooted in ethical principles, and build a talent pipeline that is open to job seekers with diverse experiences. 

You’ve worked with hundreds of fellows. Have you seen any universal traits or characteristics of successful entrepreneurs?

One of the ways we capture insights about the capabilities successful intrapreneurs bring to their work is by inviting them to tell us a story of a time when they were working at their best to achieve a change that created value for their company and society. We then ask them to highlight the skills or mindsets that allowed them to achieve these results. They frequently cite vision, persistence, institutional savvy, willingness to listen, deep curiosity about others’ expertise and points of view, commitment to collaboration, and communication skills. This list is quite representative of what we see in successful intrapreneurs.  

Enacting real change in an organization can be daunting. What’s the first step in the intrapreneur’s journey to create a positive impact?

I’d say that the launch pad for corporate social intrapreneurs is to have a vision about what kind of social and environmental challenge you want to tackle and where your company could make a difference. You can start by asking yourself four key questions: What needs to change in my company to achieve a greater positive impact? What is possible to change? What change matters most to me? How can I most effectively use my talent to effect this change?

This work is challenging for sure, and social intrapreneurs can expect setbacks.  That is why, in the First Movers program, we emphasize the importance of connecting your work to your own sense of purpose – so that you are doing work that matters deeply to you. 

Collaboration is extra hard in the new remote world. I’m wondering what leaders should keep in mind, perhaps broadly, to spark collaboration.  

Whether we are in person or connecting on a Zoom screen or phone call, we can all commit to ask better, more insightful questions and listen carefully to what others have to contribute. Many of us have been trained to have answers, to demonstrate our problem-solving prowess. But to spark collaboration – which is critical for social intrapreneurship – we need to lean into asking thoughtful questions that we don’t already know the answer to and allow ourselves to be changed by the answers. Inquiring and listening are leadership skills often overlooked, but they are essential if we are going to tackle some of our most complex social and environmental challenges and co-create solutions.

The book is broken into four sections: Beginning, Essential Tools for Changemakers, Impactful Collaborating and Staying on Course. This is a process to create positive change and meaning in your career. Tell us more about the staying on course part. What are some tools we should keep in mind so we don’t lose our way navigating this journey?

The business of organizational change-making is hard, and achieving results takes time and persistence. One of the most important things you can do to stay the course is to build a practice of reflection.  That means taking time to step away from the relentless demands of daily activities to think about what your values and aspirations are and consider whether your decisions and behaviors are aligned with what you care most about and what you hope to contribute.  

The 15th Class of Aspen First Mover Fellows.

Reflection is a time-honored practice that has been at the heart of the Aspen Institute programming throughout its 75-year history.  The intent of the Aspen Institute seminars, Walter Paepcke, the founder of the Aspen Institute, explained, was not to make “seminarians” more technically competent.  Rather, it was “to help a leader gain access to his or her own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling.”

Everyone must find the reflection practice that works best for them. There is no single formula for doing so.  Some people find journaling helps them slow down and think.  Others block short periods of time on their calendars to think about priorities and values and set intentions for moving forward.  Others rely on mindfulness apps or walks outdoors without cell phones. 

Working with innovators in business has taught us that taking time for reflection is not an expendable luxury. It is a discipline that helps us become better professionals, friends, community members, and parents. And for corporate social intrapreneurs, it can serve as the fuel that keeps them going on their intrapreneurial journeys.

Lear more about the First Movers Fellowship Program, Nancy McGaw and her new book Making Work Matter: How to Create Positive Change in Your Company and Meaning in Your Career.