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How I Thrive: “A routine that I inherited from my mother is the daily pursuit of cultural events” With Jo McKinney, CEO of Burns Group

By: Ming S. Zhao

had the pleasure to interview Jo McKinney. Prior to becoming CEO of Burns Group in 2018, Jo served as Chief Strategy Officer for 8 years, building Burns Group’s brand consultancy and 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, Jo is the Director of Through The Eyes of Children.

Thank you so much for joining us Jo! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path and to where you are today?

My parents named me after Jo from “Little Women” and armed with that feminist tale, I grew up believing I’d be an outspoken and famous writer. While attending Cornell University, I held many different part time jobs to pay for my education which nurtured a variety of skill sets, pointed me in the direction of a creative industry and taught me how to juggle. I was recruited by Grey Advertising while still at Cornell. I loved the work from the start and was one of those rare individuals that finds their career in their first job. I left Grey six years in and over the course of the following ten years, married, had two kids, became a partner at an independent agency and started leading a non-profit. This was a lot to manage — but my early juggling skills came in handy.
In 2005, we 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 future success. 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 my collaboration with the founders at Burns Group. After building Burns Group’s brand consultancy, launching our co-creation practice and founding our startup accelerator, I was promoted to CEO in 2018.


Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Day one in my first job brought the biggest lessons of my career. While at Cornell, I had gotten far along in the interview process with P&G. The final step was to fly to Cincinnati. While planning the trip, P&G informed me I’d be taking a standardized test when I arrived. I questioned the need for it — as a student with a lot of work experience, I wanted to be judged for the work I had done at school and on the job. They came back to me and explained if I didn’t take the test, I would not be invited to continue. With all the confidence of my 21 years, I told the person I had interviewed with that I thought it was a good signal that perhaps it wasn’t a great cultural fit for me, and I declined to proceed. I went on to take the job at Grey, and on my first day found out that I’d be working not just with P&G, but with the person I had interviewed with there. I was horrified and thought I’d be out of a job immediately! My new boss at Grey called the client at P&G and told her I’d be working on her business. Fortunately, she said she was happy to work with me and thought I had handled the situation well. My biggest lesson: marketing/ advertising is a very small world, so never burn a bridge.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture and work life?

Culture-building is an ongoing process. From my experience, listening to employees of all ages and stages, and building your business around their collective needs, is the best path forward to creating an enduring culture. We work hard at Burns Group, but also take the time to be together outside of work. We celebrate the small and big wins, and support each other when things are tough. All of this makes us stronger as a team.

You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

Two things that I fit in on a daily basis are walking and taking a bath. I walk to and from work during the week, and walk at a nearby beach on the weekends. During the week I walk every evening either to get where I’m going, or just for the exercise. And every night, no matter what time I get home, I take a bath before I go to bed. The bath gives me the physical space to relax, be quiet and refuel.

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

I am a huge reader — reading every night and usually at the pace of two books a week. This is a habit from childhood, where our household rule was that you could stay up as late as you want… as long as you were reading. Like every child I craved a later bedtime, so reading was the means to that end. Today, I read not only because I enjoy it, I read to learn. To me it’s like traveling — collecting different perspectives and worlds. And the more diverse my world, the better.
Another routine that I inherited from my mother is the daily pursuit of cultural events. I grew up watching my mother spend nights at the theater, ballet, concerts and lectures, which inspired the same behavior in me. Now, I spend many weeknights attending events in NYC — museums, movies, theater, concerts, dance, you name it. I’m hungry for this kind of experience and it keeps me engaged, interested and excited about the arts.

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

Since 2003, I have been deeply involved with a group of survivors of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi, leading a non-profit photographic project called Through the Eyes of Children ( I’ve worked with a group of 19 children, now adults, for many years, nurturing their storytelling through photography, helping them through their education, and just loving them as a mother would. My travels to and from Rwanda, and my enduring relationships with these children, has been a huge driver in my life — something that feeds me daily.

You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving caretaker at home?

My strategy has always been to be the same person in both places. I’m not a big believer in work/life balance — my strategy is more work/ life integration. I raised my two sons with a deep knowledge of my worklife, and shared my family with my work colleagues with great transparency. In this way, I could just be the same me, wherever I was — and if that meant gushing about my kids at work, or sharing a work speech with my kids at home, that was for the better.

Is there a particular practitioner, expert, book, podcast or resource that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?

The Messy Middle: Finding your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture, by Scott Belsky. This book really spoke to me about nine months into my role as CEO. I had begun my tenure with great energy and intent, but found at this stage, I was seeing more roadblocks than opportunities. This book is very practical and helped me realize that the stage I was in was typical. It helped jumpstart the next phase of my leadership.

What are the 5 things you wish someone told me before you became a CEO?

It’s a lonely job that creates a distance with your co-workers that didn’t exist before.
You’re not going to be able to make everyone happy — so don’t measure success against universal approval.
Being CEO means transitioning your skill set. Don’t expect to rely on the skills that drove your success in prior roles.
Find a peer or mentor that will be honest with you — and take that feedback to heart.
Trust your vision — you’re in this role for a reason.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”
― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

This is my favorite Jo March quote — it captures my own restlessness so well.

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