Kathy Mazzarella is the longtime Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Graybar. She’s also a committed partner and friend to the Technology Partners team.
She recently helped kick off the second all-female cohort graduation for our St. Louis Technology Leadership Experience (TechLX) program. Lisa Nichols, chief executive officer of Technology Partners, opened the virtual graduation celebration by interviewing Kathy about her professional background, Graybar’s success, and the future of work for women.
Below are a few excerpts from the conversation.
Lisa: In the 68-year history of the Fortune 500, we have more female CEOs than ever before. What are some of the reasons for the progress – and where are some areas of improvement when it comes to gender equality that we need to focus on?
There are a number of reasons we continue to make progress. Compared to decades ago, more women are entering the workforce, and they are gaining the experience they need to be promoted to senior leadership roles. Today, more women are completing bachelor’s degrees, and women also outnumber men in law school and medical school. However, when it comes to business leadership, especially in technology, the number of women is relatively low. We need to focus on attracting women to business and technology roles early in their careers, so they can become our future technology leaders.
What are some of the things you’ve tried to do to help both women and men during your tenure with Graybar?
I’ve been with Graybar 43 years, and I’ve been in this role for almost 11 years. While I am very results-oriented and driven to move the company forward, my purpose as a leader is simple: I want to make a difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, when I’m no longer here, I want to make sure that what I did actually mattered. That I did something that helped someone become a better person or helped them reach a goal in their career. That’s what’s important to me.
What is a key learning you’ve experienced while leading such a large organization?
Something I learned once I started progressing into leadership roles with Graybar is the value of human capital. In business, it’s all about people. I’ve been blessed to work with great people over the years and am excited about the energy and enthusiasm I see in the next generation. We have more potential to impact our customers in a positive way when we work together and value each other’s contributions.
What can professionals – especially emerging female leaders – do to differentiate themselves from the pack?
Learn the language of your business and gain exposure to different functions early on. This will help you understand the broader scope of your company and your industry, and will help you influence new areas as you advance. As you start to understand this and take on new responsibilities, the sky is the limit for you.
How are you able to balance the responsibilities of running a business, being an inspiration to so many professionals under your leadership, and oh by the way, having a busy, active family life as well?
I am spinning a lot of plates, yes, but so is everyone else. Expect to drop a plate every now and then – and just hope they’re paper plates. Don’t feel sorry for yourself or beat yourself up too much if you make a mistake. The idea of achieving perfection is really overrated. It’s just not possible. A lot of women worry about taking time from their family for work activities. I traveled from the beginning of my career, and my husband carried the load of our family and home responsibilities. And that’s OK. From a young age, my kids learned about making sacrifices. They developed resiliency and a strong work ethic, and I believe they are better off for it.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
A friend of mine said that, during difficult times, the primary job of a leader is to provide hope and a vision of a better future, to reassure their teams that things will be okay. And when times are good, leaders must keep their teams grounded and focused on executing the fundamentals. It’s like the example of riding a bike: you need to pedal harder and accelerate progress when the road is easy, so you have more momentum going into rougher terrain.
And what piece of advice would you share with others, especially professionals looking to take that next step into leadership?
Dream. I don’t think we dream big enough in our lives I don’t think we dream big enough in our organizations. My dad used to say, “set unrealistic expectations in a realistic time frame.” He believed the only failure in life is not dreaming big enough and I try to live by that.
The TechLX program empowers, equips, and champions high-potential IT professionals as they grow into the next generation of CIOs and technology leadership of St. Louis. Visit https://technologypartners.net/solutions/tech-lx/.
Graybar is a Fortune 500 corporation and one of the largest employee-owned companies in North America. The organization is a leader in the distribution of high quality electrical, communications and data networking products, and specializes in related supply chain management and logistics services. Through its network of North American distribution facilities, it stocks and sells products from thousands of manufacturers, helping its customers power, network, automate and secure their facilities with speed, intelligence and efficiency. For more information, visit www.graybar.com or call 1-800-GRAYBAR.