By: Judith B. Taylor with Jan Mazotti Issue: Vision Section: Business
An Interview With Cathey McClain Finlon
With insight, determination and perspective spanning over a four decade career, Cathey McClain Finlon is a commanding and luminary force in the Denver area and beyond. Her belief in the constant path of learning, combined with her belief that growth leads to change, are hallmarks of a stellar career, where she currently serves as president of the Denver Art Museum and chair of the Board of Trustees of The Children’s Hospital.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, McClain Finlon decided at an early age that work was a path to meeting her goals. Self-described as rebellious and strong willed, Finlon had the desire to branch out and be adventurous as a young woman. She was encouraged to leave the nest with the “you can be anything” attitude.
After receiving her Masters degree, Finlon headed to Philadelphia with little cash and lots of desire. Her first position was with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and involved development. Her next stop was the Denver Art Museum when it was the Gio Ponti Building.
Moving on from the art world, Finlon took up marketing and advertising. Under her ownership of McLain Finlon Advertising, beginning in 1985, she built her company to one of the top 50 agencies in the U.S., as ranked by both Ad Age and Ad Week. Her company also consistently ranked in the top five Colorado-based, woman-owned businesses. INC. recognized McLain Finlon with a Top 100 Inner City Award and hundreds of creative awards including 5 Clios. She was a founder of Linhart McClain Public Relations as well.
An avid sportswoman, Finlon has cycled all over the world and climbed almost half of Colorado’s 14ers. She is also active in her community and her board work is extensive. She is past chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and of the Junior Achievement board. Her board service also includes the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Schools Foundation, Advisory board of the University of Denver - Daniels College of Business and the Center for Colorado’s Economic Future at the University of Denver. She has also served on the boards of the Colorado Outward Bound, National Repertory Orchestra, Alliance for Contemporary Art, World Trade Center and is past chair of the Denver Advertising Federation. Finlon served on the board of the American Association of Advertising Agencies which represents the top agencies in the U.S., as well.
VISIONARY IDEAS INTO ACTION
Finlon has several themes underscoring her career and many lessons learned that she willingly shares. She knows that realizing one’s vision in a business environment generates challenges and she has likely dealt with them throughout her career. “The way to grow is to change,” Finlon says. “It is important to look for shared values because it is not perfect in business.” Her journey through the years carried career lessons including the need for change and teamwork. “Connecting to common values sets the stage for continued growth. Being part of a team is essential with constant nurturing and hatching,” she said. “For things to change, I have to change.”
In growing the advertising agency to an Ad Age Top 100 U.S. agency, responsibilities had to be shared. Finlon could no longer do it all—she had to let go a little bit. She said, “When you are part of a team, you give up some things. You need someone who knows more than you, and that can be scary.” To allow herself to let go, Finlon says that she had to “revise” herself quite a bit. “Constant revising allows for striving to be the best,” Finlon declared.
Working with industry and community boards to build skills was paramount to the success of her endeavors as well. She credits her active board participation in helping her take newly learned skills into her company. She is committed to connecting and collaborating. In fact, she has spent up to 30 percent of her time on boards. She says, “It is important to participate in our community in any way we can.”
LESSONS LEARNED DURING A FORTY YEAR CAREER
There are five key lessons—themes—if you will, that Finlon believes are important to positive personal and professional endeavors. She frames each in personal anecdotes of challenge and success. Theme One: Opportunity and serendipity are spectacular friends.
With $500 in her pocket, Finlon left home to work for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The thing was, she didn’t have a job there yet and they were not interested in her professional skills (or lack thereof). She worked tirelessly to get someone there to notice her, to no avail. With her last dollar in her pocket, she interviewed with a fundraising firm and got the job—as a contracted fundraiser for the museum. In a suit bought on layaway, Finlon walked into the interview looking and feeling great, but a bit intimidated by the Degas ballerinas on the wall. Passing the first interview, she proceeded to meet with a member of the executive committee, Elizabeth M. Greenfield, who was well-known in the art community and “had a Jackson Pollack over her fireplace.” She got the job and came to realize that had it not been for the last ditch effort with her resume her career could have gone in a completely different direction. After performing well in her role as a fundraiser, she asked for a small raise and was told by her boss, “I can go out on the street today and find any other girl to do this”….and click, I knew I had to get out of there. Which leads to theme two.
Theme Two: Run, don’t walk away from unacceptable situations. See them. Know them. Respond to them. Have a plan. She said, “I had outstanding mentors, respectful references, and a way to grow, but there is no substitute for a bad boss. I couldn’t change this person’s mind about my value, so on to the next job—The Denver Art Museum. Theme Three: Mentors Matter. They make a real difference. They pick you. You earn your way with them.
Through her early career, Finlon found herself in the midst of some of the best minds in the art community. And, as the youngest development director in any U.S. art museum, and one of only a few women, Finlon says, “I had a plan for how to revolutionize fundraising. I was young, assertive, and full of myself.”
She launched a fundraising campaign and Fred Mayer, a quiet, brainy, savvy businessman who was a serious art collector, picked her to mentor. Finlon recounts how Mayer worked with her over the years. “I asked him to endorse a campaign. Instead of endorsing the campaign, he asked me what he should do—what should he give. In that moment, he touched me. In that gesture, in asking my opinion, at my young age, he gave me trust and respect, and would give me that trust in years to come. And he laid on me the deep responsibility to perform for him. It was a breathtaking moment. He would go on to advise me off and on for many, many years. And, these relationships from the Denver Art Museum have formed a family of connections—never for business—but always for spirit that has sustained me.” Theme Four: Hard work can be the difference between success and failure.
After several years at the museum, Finlon was recruited by a Boulder-based advertising firm and she said, “My life changed!” She expounded on how, with no business experience, she took her entire $10,000 savings and put it into the agency, how she bought it completely less than three years later, and how she learned that breaking even wasn’t a great thing—the company needed to grow. So she began to read and learn more. “I read every book I could find about how to be a better leader, how to work with teams, how to build business, soak up learning wherever it would come,” she said. It was the mid-1980s—times were tough and business was pressure-filled. She was afraid for her business and reputation. But her father, a modest man who never made more than $13,000 a year called one day and told her he had set aside $10,000 for her in case she got in trouble. At that point, Finlon knew she, “Had to stay the course.” Theme Five: Work must have meaning and value every day!
“It troubles me that today that many women feel that they cannot find meaning in their work—except if they move into the nonprofit world. I don’t understand that, considering that both nonprofit and for-profit worlds are stimulating and motivating,” declared Finlon. She talked about her advertising agency and how as they added new people and capabilities to the business that they had to look for, “Meaning in their work—beyond the ads.” As a result, they created the McClain Finlon Global Do Good Grant which was a competition for employees to get an all expense paid trip anywhere in the world to do some good. The catch—they had to make the rest of the organization understand the need before the trip, and then share their learnings with the agency upon return. She said, “We sent emissaries to a Romanian orphanage and Tanzania and heard stunning presentations of first hand experiences of these Global Do Gooders.” She recounted a story of an employee that went to Rwanda. To raise funds, one of their employees grew an enormous head of hair and the receptionist’s partner, a hairstylist, shaved it all off. As the stylist cut, the other employees threw dollars into the stairwell where they were working. This haircut raised an additional $3000, which was used in Rwanda to buy clothing for children, 10 female goats, school materials and a huge water tank. “The presentation upon their return about the terrible destruction in Rwanda and the impact of these small gifts was unforgettable,” she said.
It was not just traveling abroad that brought meaning to employees at the agency. Together they created the McQuick, the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day for Busy Corporate Executives. It was a 10 foot parade complete with floats, motorcades, and horse patrols.
Finlon proclaimed, “Creating meaning in work is about doing work professionally and with satisfaction—about striving to do it different and better than ever—by seeking new ways to replace the old—and it is also about finding the way to personally give to others. It’s only in our heads to realize.”
As Finlon looks back at her career, she emphasizes the connection between art and ideas—the importance of people engaging in an art experience. Creativity at every level is paramount. “We all have options. Our vision comes from a world of inclusion. It embraces all kinds of people and skill sets across many diverse audiences.” Finlon also loves her work in the nonprofit arena. “It is a heart thing,” she says.
She goes on, “I love women in the workplace. I want for them to achieve balance—to perform and receive recognition and reward. To be respected completely. To entrepreneur as I did with belief in a positive outcome.” “Collaboration is vital,” she says. “Being part of a community and being a participant are very important.”
“Today, I am on a mission at the Denver Art Museum,” she says. “I have skills that are useful to it. We have new and dynamic programs. We have an extraordinary team, unbelievable board, an incredible facility. I for one will take these moments in time to use what I have to move it upward. I have not really come full circle. I am continuing to climb the stairs.”