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Lift Your Legacy: Dispensing conventional wisdom to build the life and business you want

By: Jacob Rupp 

Prior to becoming Burns Group’s CEO in 2018, Jo served as Chief Strategy Officer for 8 years, building Burns Group’s brand consultancy and consumer-co-creation practice. In 2015 she launched BGIN, a new venture focused on bringing essential branding skills to startups, and the bravery of a startup to legacy brands.  Outside of work, Joanne is the Director of Through The Eyes of Children (

What is your “backstory”?

After graduating from Cornell University, I started my career at Grey Advertising, filled with ambition and excitement. I loved the work, but quickly found that as my life expanded to include a husband and the desire for children, there were few role models in my organization. This was in the ‘90’s and there weren’t many senior level women who I could see balancing work and life. I left Grey six years in and over the course of the following ten years, had two kids, became a partner at an independent agency, became intimately involved in a non-profit and started to innovate in the way I balanced my life. I learned that if I made myself indispensable at work, it would give me the power to ask for the flexibility that hadn’t been offered to me previously. In 2005, we overhauled our life and moved to Europe for four years to take advantage of a career opportunity for my husband. Conventional wisdom told me there was no way to leave my career for that long and have any chance of getting back in. Our last year in Europe, I was hired as the Interim Director of Integrated Marketing for Kraft Europe — surprising the doubters, and quite frankly, myself. One year later, we were back in the US and I started working with Burns Group. Throughout my career, I made many decisions that people would deem career limiting in order to create the life I wanted: to have a career and a family, and to devote time to things that mattered to me. I did not put leadership in my sights because it seemed impossible with the choices I was making and the standards of the advertising industry.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The funniest story happened shortly after I became CEO. I was negotiating the terms of a new client relationship and received a call from the finance department of the prospective client, asking to speak to Jo McKinney, at the suggestion of the CMO. We completed the conversation and at the end of the call she asked me if I was the CEO’s wife. She clearly thought Jo McKinney was a man and Ijust happened to answer the phone.

What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?

One of my most recent challenges professionally has been changing the way I work to succeed in my new role as CEO. After 7 years as Chief Strategy Officer, I had a very clear idea of how to make a positive impact on my agency and my clients. But, all that I had done to earn this promotion had little relevance to the actual job. In fact, if I filled my days with what I’m good at, I would not be giving the new role its proper attention. I’ve dealt with it by first admitting it was true and then seeking out learning and guidance where ever I could get it. I had meetings with leaders I admired, took a class at Columbia Business School and have sought out mentors and feedback from anyone who will lean in. It’s a daily challenge to stay outside of the strategic practice I built and love, and immerse myself in areas where I lack experience and confidence — I’m still figuring it out.

What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?

Leadership is about having a vision and the perseverance to bring that vision to life, every day. It’s about showing up with the needs of the whole company at the center of everything you do. It’s paving the way for growth for individuals and the entire organization. Inspiring others to lead is about offering them a real and transparent connection to our goals and helping them identify and leverage their own strengths to meet them.

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?

I’ve been fortunate to have inspiring colleagues at every stage of my career and a family that supported my work life — a husband who wanted me to succeed, kids who were flexible and parents who could step in and rescue us all when work and life collided. As it relates to my leadership role, I have to thank my colleague, Alison Earl (Planning Director at BG) who knew I had it in me to lead and pushed me to articulate that desire to the owners of our company. She gave me the courage to say out loud what was in my heart, and step up.

Was it difficult to fit your life into your business / career and how did you do that?

Yes, it’s difficult. The myth I was sold throughout my childhood by the feminist culture I was raised in was that you could have it all, with no compromises. My generation of working women tried desperately to be great at work, great partners at home, homemakers, mothers, carpool drivers, community leaders, friends, etc. And the truth is, your family suffers your work, your work suffers your family and it’s easy to lose yourself in that mix. I can’t say that I’ve navigated that challenge seamlessly, but I definitely invented new ways of working to try to make it work for me. Starting when my children were small, I left work at 3:00pm every day to be home after school and picked up my work again after they went to bed. Working this “mommy shift” allowed me to be fully present — helping with homework, driving carpools, cooking and serving a family dinner — while still making an impact at work. I did all of this with the philosophy of full transparency and integration. I’m the same person at work as I am at home — everyone I work with knows everything about my family and everyone at home knows about my work. I’ve never hidden any part of my life, which has allowed me to move more seamlessly from one role to the other.

Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?

Yes — as your role within the company grows, so does the number of lives you are responsible for; as CEO, it is my job to care for everyone in our company with the same intensity I care for myself, my family and my friends. That’s not easy to do without sacrificing other things. I feel at times my husband has shouldered the biggest burden as it relates to those sacrifices. After 25 years of marriage, I lean on his resiliency as I devote more and more time and thought to the company. Separately, I have run a nonprofit, Through The Eyes of Children ( for the past 15 years, and this past year as my leadership role at work grew, I have found it more challenging than ever to devote the time I need and want to this non-profit. I’ve still done it, but it has turned into a late night obsession for me.

 Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?

1. Find a work environment where you are judged by the work you do, not by when you do it

2. Build your family with a partner who appreciates your ambition

3. Help your colleagues achieve balance in their lives, and they will return the favor and support the time you need for yours

4. Have a side game that is truly meaningful — so no matter how crazy your life gets, you keep everything in perspective

5. Make yourself indispensable because indispensability is the secret to negotiating for flexibility

What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride?

Living and balancing a multi-faceted life is a big accomplishment, and pride comes from the intersection of all the different aspects of my life somehow actually working together. That includes getting a chance to lead at work. It includes pride in the 19 orphans in Rwanda whom I helped raise and are living amazing lives today. It’s being married for 26 years. And of course, everything my two sons do makes me proud.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

Tweets by jomckinney

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