If Susan McPherson's career has a theme, it's that a business should make the world a better place. Her communications agency McPherson Strategies focuses on corporate social responsibility, and McPherson herself advises women-led startups such as Hint Water (where she's also an investor) as well as in non-profits such as Girls Who Code and the Lower Eastside Girls Club. We talked to her about connecting people, managing an eternal to-do list, and working with a remote team.
Photo: McPherson Strategies
Location: Brooklyn Heights
Current Gig: Founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies
One word that best describes how you work: Tenacious
Current mobile device: iPhone 6
Current computer: MacBook Air
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I often say I've had nine lives at this point (but no, I'm not a cat person). I attended graduate school to be a broadcast journalist about 100 years ago, and ended up at USA Today in its early years (1985). Later, I moved on to PR Newswire where I became somewhat of an intrapreneur, running various special projects throughout my 17 years at the company.
It was in the mid-2000s that I visited Afghanistan with the Business Council for Peace, and started to see how business could be a force for good in the world. After returning, I decided to transition into the world of corporate social responsibility (CSR). I spent several years building out the first CSR practice at Fenton before deciding to open up my own social impact communications consultancy, McPherson Strategies. We are now halfway through our fifth year.
Take us through a recent workday.
Yesterday I landed in Munich after an overnight flight, with two hours to spare before I was due on stage at the DLD Conference to discuss podcasting for social impact. Following the session, I somehow managed to stay awake and meet a variety of the attendees who are doing important work in the social impact space. And of course, I made sure to check in regularly with my team and clients back in the US to make sure all was running smoothly (it was).
Not that this is the norm, but many of my days are spent speaking at conferences and attending events where I get to do my favourite thing: Connect with people who are dedicated to making the world a better place. These connections are part of what sets our firm apart.
What apps, gadgets or tools can't you live without?
I still need my pen and paper (I know there are apps for that, but I still make lists on actual paper every day). My go-to apps include LinkedIn, Slack, Zoom, Apple Mail and my phone - the things that enable connection. And for fun: Bumble and Tinder (I'm single), Instagram, Facebook, and of course all my news apps such as NPR, New York Times, CNN and the FT.
What's your workspace setup like?
I have a home office, and all my team members work remotely. I keep almost all files and paperwork in the cloud so that I don't have clutter in my apartment. And I recently joined the Wing, so I head there about twice a week to take meetings.
What's your best shortcut or life hack?
Lately, it's getting a good night's sleep. For years, I ran myself ragged and it finally caught up with me. The good thing is I used to feel that admitting exhaustion meant you were a failure. NO MORE. I absolutely adore sleeping.
McPherson's team at a 2017 offsite. Photo: Susan McPherson
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
There would be no me without the incredible team at McPherson Strategies. Ellen Miller Gilcrest has been with me for more than eight years and she can anticipate what I'm thinking in advance and is extremely creative. Jenny Chen, my assistant, hasn't missed a beat in the last four years, and I would be completely lost without her help. My managing partner, Kasia Reterska, is an exceptional planner for staffing engagements; in the several years we've spent working side-by-side, we have never had a major disagreement. Isabelle Jetté is a project manager genius and we always say she keeps the trains and planes running on time. All in all, each of us complement each other.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
As mentioned above, I've been a paper-and-pen list person all my life. Of course, the lists are never fully completed, but there is such joy in simply crossing off tasks. I also have the most incredible assistant one could ever ask for. She keeps my calendar in shape with otherworldly skills.
What's your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?
My least favourite is filing expenses and keeping on top of billing clients. But I understand these are necessary parts of running a business. I keep saying I'm going to invest in a bookkeeper.
How do you recharge or take a break from work?
My pup, Phoebe, is my joy and my distraction. Beyond her, I absolutely love to entertain and host parties and salons to connect and introduce friends and loved ones and raise funds and awareness for various NGOs. Lastly, I sit on three nonprofit boards for causes I care deeply about.
What's your favourite side project?
Planning exotic trips - the further away, the better. Last year, I experienced the Finnish Arctic in January and a couple of years ago, I travelled to the exquisite country of Sri Lanka. I really enjoy the planning process - researching, getting recommendations from friends, uncovering the hidden gems - and look forward to my next adventure.
What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?
What's the best advice you've ever received?
My late father told me, "Nothing is a prison sentence." That has always freed me up to take risks, which I have done often throughout my life.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
I'm an avid angel investor, but only invest in women-led start-ups. Also, I'm in the final stages of completing a book proposal.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.