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October 11, 2023

'Embrace uncertainty' and other takeaways from the Mainebiz CEO Forum

Panelists seated on stage Photo / Renee Cordes Maine Development Foundation CEO Yellow Light Green, left, was joined at the Mainebiz CEO Forum by Tom Watson, James Herbert, Malinda Gagnon, Jacqueline Edmondson, Elizabeth McLellan and Brian Corcoran.

From boardroom insights to the human side of leadership, six Maine business and nonprofit leaders shared lessons from their career paths at a Mainebiz forum in Freeport on Wednesday.

The event covered “60 ideas in 60 minutes” in a panel discussion moderated by Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation. 

In his introductory remarks, Breen said the speakers and their organizations “are six more reasons to be eminently hopeful” about Maine.

Representing a range of industries from higher education to real estate, the panelists brought their ideas to life with personal anecdotes and relatable takeaways. Around 165 people attended the morning event, which took place at the Hilton Garden Inn Freeport Downtown. 

Here are some highlights from the conversation.

‘Embrace uncertainty’

Two guys seated
Photo / Renee Cordes
Tom Watson, left, and James Herbert on stage.

On the topic of embracing uncertainty, “it's difficult to do and will keep you up at night, but it will help you,” said Tom Watson, founder of Reveler Development, a real estate investment, development, construction and management company based in Portland and Wilmington, N.C. 

Watson also spoke of the need to hire talent, using a hockey analogy to make a point about hiring someone who is able to put the puck into the goal.

“I always thought, if I can do it, everyone can do it,” said Watson. “Hire talent.”

On a more personal note, Watson talked about his long struggle with anxiety and depression. Today, he takes medicine and meditates, which he also recommends for others.

“Successful people meditate,” he said.

Watson was honored as a Mainebiz Business Leader of the Year in 2022.

'Welcome pushback' 

Effective leaders welcome pushback on their own ideas, according to James Herbert, president of the University of New England.

He said that while employees frequently “try to read the tea leaves” to determine what the boss is thinking and go along with it, at UNE he aims to encourage a diversity of perspectives and foster an environment where people feel comfortable airing competing ideas.

Sometimes he will even throw a wrench in the works by presenting another perspective. 

He also underscored the need to develop a thick skin when it comes to facing criticism, which comes with the territory of leadership.

“If you don’t have a couple of daggers in your back at any given time,” he said, “you’re not doing your job.”

‘Blend over balance’

Rather than focusing on achieving work-life balance, Brian Corcoran, founder and CEO of Shamrock Sports & Entertainment, suggests aiming for a “work-life blend” as he and his wife have sought to do.

“Time is our most precious asset,” he said, highlighting the importance of finding ways to unite one’s community, corporate and friend relations. 

While that’s challenging given everyone’s busy lives, Corcoran recommends finding ways of complementing rather than competing against the daily grind. One way he does that is via family ski trips to Sugarloaf.

“You have to make lifestyle choices,” he said, saying it’s important to stay active and well, both mentally as well as physically. Corcoran was honored on the Mainebiz Next list in 2016.

'Trust your gut '

Malinda Gagnon, CEO of Uprise Partners, a Portland-based technology company, said we all have the ability to know when something is off or right. 

woman seated
Photo / Renee Cordes
Malinda Gagnon

“When COVID hit in 2020, we were barely in year two of business and we wanted to offer health insurance,” said Gagnon. “Then the world changed. So financially it would be a good idea to step back and wait. But I knew in my gut we needed to move forward with the initial plan. By offering health insurance, we have grown like crazy and gained employees.”

“A time when I didn't go with my gut was when I mashed two companies together and it didn’t work,” said Gagnon. “Took me a while to untangle this but we are all learning.” 

‘Never underestimate the power of luck’

Elizabeth McLellan, founder and CEO of Partners for World Health, said to always put your best foot forward because you never know who’s in the audience. 

Put a smile on your face, be engaging, you don’t know who your audience is and you might impact someone in a great way, she said.

Photo / Renee Cordes
Elizabeth McLellan

“You might receive a phone call from someone in that audience offering to buy you a storage space; that's what happened to me,” said McLellan. 

McLellan, whose organization aims to improve health care around the world by improving the medical supply chain, was honored as a Mainebiz Woman to Watch in 2020.

'Importance of relationships and listening' 

Jacqueline Edmondson, president of the University of Southern Maine, talked about the importance of relationships and listening to people.

Knowing that some people wait weeks to get on her calendar, she said, “when they come in they deserve my full attention.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Edmondson recalled a former mentor once telling her, “Don’t think you’re special.” She interpreted that as encouragement to learn from others’ experiences and that if you make a mistake, “it’s not the end of the opportunity, you can keep moving forward.”

Edmondson, who took the helm at USM last year, will be inaugurated as the school's 14th president at an afternoon ceremony today in Portland.

‘Human-centric leadership’

Wednesday’s lessons hit home for a number of attendees, including Gretchen Johnson, director of strategic partnerships at Preti Flaherty, a Portland-based law firm.

“I was most struck by the focus on collaboration, listening and vulnerability in leadership,” she said. “It’s not unusual to think of CEOs in terms of stoic absolutism, focused on the bottom line. These leaders epitomize a human-centric leadership model, focused on understanding and emotion. It is gratifying to see success in this way.” 

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