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North Star Leaders Podcast

Leigh McMillan

Season 1 Episode 8 28 Nov 2023

Transcript

Leigh McMillan:

Obviously we're not doing phone books anymore. It's now about how we can pull together big sets of data to help consumers and businesses improve their workflows, prevent fraud, enable last mile shipping, things like that. So while the products and services and uses are different and has evolved significantly over the past 20 years, the trust in the brand name is the same.

Lindsay Pedersen:

The world needs what only your business can bring, and as a leader, it's your job to deliver. But where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget, and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders Podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose.

I'm Lindsay Pedersen, brand strategist, author of Forging An Ironclad Brand and host of the North Star Leaders podcast. Let's get to it. Today I am so delighted to be joined by my guest, Leigh McMillan. Leigh is the CEO of Whitepages. She is also a board member and she is a winemaker and co-owner at Welcome Road Winery in Seattle. Leigh, welcome to the show.

Leigh McMillan:

Thanks so much, Lindsay. What an honor to be here.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I'm so happy to have you. To start us off, can you tell me about your very favorite thing about Whitepages?

Leigh McMillan:

People, the people. I have never worked with such a diverse, unique, passionate, collaborative group of people. We're a pretty small company. We've got about 40 people here in Seattle and another handful across the country, and then we have some folks in South America and we're such a small company. I mean, we've got people who speak, I think seven different languages, really diverse backgrounds and it makes the work better and the days interesting and I've never worked with such a foodie group of people.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh.

Leigh McMillan:

Everybody's really into food and what's the newest restaurant in Seattle and very social group of people that hang out together outside of work. And like I say, it makes the work better, fun and the time that we're spending together more fun. And so that's the best part by far.

Lindsay Pedersen:

You're so lit up just talking about it. It's so clear how effervescent this is for you. What do you attribute this to? So it's this amazing group of people, that's not luck. I imagine that there's an intentional element that brought that, all of those forces together. Why is it? Why do you have such wonderful people?

Leigh McMillan:

Oh, it's so grateful and lucky. There are some things that are intentional. Whitepages has been around for 20 plus years, people remember the phone book and while the company is very different than the phone book now, over those 20 years, it is always helping people grow their careers and bringing people in early in their career and then helping them get to where they want to go next has always been a part of Whitepages' DNA, which is why everybody you may talk to in your podcast or otherwise will know somebody or will have worked with somebody who at some point pass through the doors at Whitepages.

And so we continue that, call it tradition now to where if somebody who works in marketing wants to go learn about product management, we help make that happen. On the engineering side, we're really a data company and so we enable engineers to really get a deep understanding of big huge sets of data and we'll create projects and things to help people grow their careers and go onto their next thing, whether it's at Whitepages or somewhere else.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow.

Leigh McMillan:

That's a big part of it. And then of course, start with some good people. They bring in good people, interesting people. So I think it's the combination of those two things.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I hear you saying we're playing the long game. First of all, there's a heritage to the company. This is clearly not a fly by night organization where we're just going to drop [inaudible 00:04:46] and all of our customers tomorrow. There's heritage. And what matters is not just today's performance or the people here today, but what is the goodwill that stretches beyond even their tenure at the company? What are even the things that matter to these people that are years out from when they're not even at Whitepages anymore, which is about caring about these people? You can't fake that.

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I always kind of counsel folks, "Think about the job that you want after this next one. What's the roadmap and what are the things that you would need to do to get there or want to do to get there, or things that we'd like to try to make sure to test out your roadmap and determine is this really the right thing?" When you see people move from one role to another and just excel and you just see the excitement that people have and how much they're enjoying their work, what's better than that?

Lindsay Pedersen:

For you as the leader, for them as the employee, for their teammates, for their manager, for the people who work for them that their life force is being celebrated outside of just the things that are on today's job description.

Leigh McMillan:

And that's kind of how my career has gone. I've worked in politics. I worked for Major League Baseball, I worked in video games, car sharing. I did PR for a while, which at some point I learned, "Gosh, I'm really not awesome at this, and so let me go hone in on the thing that I'm better at." I've been an executive producer for programs online. I've done business development, so I've navigated through that as opposed to having a straight line. And so it's great to see when other people can find their way and trying different things and taking some chances.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Right. The diversity and the variety of experience comes to bear even when it's not a straight line, easy to see where working for the Mariners helped being the CEO of Whitepages, but at the same time it does because the values that you're talking about right now came from all of your experience throughout your career. Did you ever codify or somehow write down what is the filter for people or for Whitepages, this is the thing that's going to guide the decision-making around people or around things beyond people, partnerships, innovation, or is it more in your head?

Leigh McMillan:

I guess, I should do some writing down maybe a little bit, but no, I think it's more in my head and I'm fortunate to work with such a great leadership team at Whitepages, half of which have worked with me at previous companies. So we know each other pretty well and think about certain things the same way and other things completely differently, but when it comes to the environment we want to operate in and the culture that we would like to have and our goals to help people advance their careers, we're very united in that.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah, it strikes me about Whitepages. It's kind of as close to of a household name as a brand gets. I mean, there might be another 10 or 20 that are up there with Whitepages, but it's a very high awareness, high trust brand. There's a huge breadth to it. It means a lot. It's consumer, it's B2B, it's B2C. It seems like there's a large span that you could kind of lead with or lean into. What's it like to lead a business that has so much brand awareness and trust and familiarity compared to other businesses that you've run?

Leigh McMillan:

For sure. Some of my prior companies, of course, were startups, technology startups, where big goal of ours was to increase the brand awareness. Very different at Whitepages and yeah, I hope we can talk some brand strategy.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, okay.

Leigh McMillan:

You're absolutely right. Whitepages is very broadly known and we've done some surveys and measurements, not recently, but in the past prior years, and I am still kind of stunned at the broad awareness that we have because of course people remember the phone books despite the fact that the print version has been gone for a long time. Obviously folks who are coming up who are much younger, less brand awareness associated with it, so they don't totally know what it is, but they've heard of it and they trust it.

That's always really surprising to me and it's valuable and it's important. So the questions that we have is, how do we continue to evolve the business under that umbrella? Part of that is just maintaining customer's trust no matter what type of product or service that we're doing. And so customer service is very, very important to us to maintain that sort of trust feeling.

Might not get what it is, but I know that it's trusted and that's the part that's important to us. But obviously we're not doing phone books anymore. It's now about how we can pull together big sets of data to help consumers and businesses improve their workflows, prevent fraud, enable last mile shipping, things like that. So while the products and services and uses are different and has evolved significantly over the past 20 years, the trust in the brand name is the same.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. I mean, it's an enviable position. Lead the leader from seven or eight years ago when we worked together on a brand strategy would've been really envious of the Leigh of today who has such strong brand awareness. So what is the challenge that if it's not brand awareness building, what's the next frontier once you have that that is tricky that you wouldn't even know to be stressed about from a startup's perspective? What comes after you've got brand awareness and now what? Then what's the challenge if it's not that?

Leigh McMillan:

You're right. It's very, very different challenges from when you and I worked together a few years ago. Now it's about evolving our business in a era where, you know how people say data is the new oil or whatever?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Right.

Leigh McMillan:

Technologies around data, privacy norms around data is changing rapidly. And that does two things. You have to evolve with that, and so the business needs to change, but it also creates new opportunities. And so the thing that I think about is, how do we remain relevant and continue to do what we do and you have millions and millions of customers to continue to do what they need to do to operate their business or just day-to-day tasks when things are changing so rapidly?

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. I can't remember if we've talked about this before or not, but it's interesting how the familiarity and almost like old schoolness of Whitepages, I mean, it references physical paper is equal and opposite to how amorphous data is. It's a neat kind of intersection that you have this brand umbrella that's about something borderline nostalgic for something like data and AI, which is so future looking and other ways kind of difficult to wrap your arms around.

And it's kind of a cool, I don't know how intentional that blend was to stick with kind of a old school idea for something that is so rapidly evolving. It's kind of magical because it puts people at ease for something that otherwise is so novel that it might kind of feels too nebulous to think through as much as they otherwise would.

Leigh McMillan:

I hadn't really thought about it that way. The thing that's great about it in that context is it is a simple product that we put forward that helps people do literally hundreds of everyday things. If you're an e-commerce site, gosh, is this a fraudulent transaction or not? When I get an incoming phone call, is this an existing customer or a new customer? For consumers, our traffic goes crazy in November because people are shipping packages and still sending Christmas cards and you don't have that traditional address book where you had your grandmother's address.

Now half of it's on your phone and if it's not on your phone, you don't have it. So these are all pretty old school or traditional needs that still exist, but the way that people get that information, addresses for shipping and things like that is very complicated now and it requires a lot of behind the scenes technology and the sausage making in order to present a simple interface that people can engage with online to solve simple tasks. I think that's right. You nailed it. It is the nostalgic, but they're the same things that we had to do 10 years ago. You still have to do them now.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Right. Even 200 years ago, people needed to know where somebody was in order to contact them. It's almost like an ancient, the need to be able to connect human to human. It's not just old school like when you and I were growing up in the late 20th century, it's also eons and centuries and millennia old and just changes shape and form. I suppose before Whitepages, it was somebody had just memorized so-and-so lives down the lane from Joshua who lives down the lane.

So there's that kind of commonality feels so reassuring as a human being. And then it makes me okay, hearing about this newfangled thing that you're going to tell me about that solves this problem, that simplicity is so disarming for customers. You might've just said it, but what would you say is the promise of Whitepages? What's the brand promise or the core value proposition or fill in the blank term?

Leigh McMillan:

We talk about it in terms of, and this is going to sound a little [inaudible 00:15:43], data for good. It really is we strive to strike the balance between meeting the changing privacy norms. People are concerned about what's happening with their data online and data associated with them to balancing that with we will always have a need to contact people who are outside of our phone book, the contact list in phone. We'll always have the need to do that. So how do we balance those two things and enable, frankly, commerce to continue?

You can't have online commerce without a way to contact people and engage and ship things and mail things and communicate with people. Our brand promise is we think about it data for good. We try to do the right thing for our customers and make data available, and particularly this is public information that is largely public for a reason because people need it to operate.

We understand people are concerned about their data privacy, and so I guess if I had to sum that up into one word, it's about transparency. Transparency and trust. We don't collect or do things with data that isn't readily apparent on our website. You can see all of the data and how it gets used. We don't do anything behind the scenes or otherwise. We have a strong customer service team that will meet the different needs that people have. So trust and transparency, two Ts.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Love it. I love it. As somebody who has spent time using your product, I feel it. It comes through, it feels very transparent and sincere. There's an element of just crystal clarity. Since you're a good size company and there's really audacious economic growth goals, you're also preserving this asset, this trust. Are there times when you have to say no to things that would be really growth enabling, but would tarnish that transparency and trust that are such an asset as well? Does it filter in and filter out decisions that you need to make as the CEO?

Leigh McMillan:

More so on a day-to-day, I don't want to say tactical, but execution and strategy than it is, "Oh, we could go pursue this big bet over here," but that doesn't meet with our trust and transparency tenants. It's more on a day-to-day basis. Like I say, privacy norms changing quickly, business and consumer needs for data is changing, and so we more often have to kind of think about how we'll approach something within that trust and transparency on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, there's no shortage of bets or things that we could go tackle, but that's more done through the lens of, do we think we can execute on this in a leadership position? Will it help people grow their careers? Is it something that's interesting for people to work on? And do we understand how it would grow and could grow our business? So that's more the lens that the larger decisions are made.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I love how there's sort of this dual lens of, does it enable us to better deliver on our promise data is good, promising the transparency while also enabling people? This is back to the first thing you said about Whitepages, also allowing our people to expand in a way that they want to expand. Does it meet with both of those criteria? If no, then don't pursue, and if yes, then probably pursue.

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love that. Okay, so kind of shifting a little bit, thinking more about you as a leader and your style and how you bring to bear your own emotional energy to the job of being CEO of Whitepages, what gets you through on the hard days? What's the motivating force that is present with you even when you don't have things to look forward to that are not fun that you have to do on a given day?

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah. We all have those things, don't we? There's two things, and the first one is frankly the legacy of Whitepages. I in part came to the company because I was interested in what the next chapter could look like. Particularly with privacy norms, things are changing so rapidly with data online, I was like, "Okay, I know so many people who have worked here over the years." So I felt like, "Okay, this is an interesting time. Let's write the next chapter.

What could that look like?" That's a piece of it. There aren't a lot of companies like us in Washington State, our size, first of all, relatively small, and for the amounts of revenue that we generate, it's pretty impressive. Lean and mean team. But that gives us the opportunity to do things, to move people into roles that they're interested in and to try some different things.

And so I think that's really special. So that legacy. And then the second one is a number of people have joined me at Whitepages that have come from, I think, three different companies that I've been at in the past. And so I feel also a responsibility, not just to them, but it kind of starts with them and to the rest of the company that, yeah, this is pretty crappy right now, but they all came here and trusted me, and so we just got to power through.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I hear so much in both of those responses. I hear such a sense of stewardship like, "I care about the legacy of this company. I care about these human beings who work for this company, especially ones who came because of my stewardship." And that that lights you up. We're on the screen together, so I can see how it lights you up, but I also can imagine that when there's a tricky day ahead that that is a source of fuel to be a steward for this company that you're the steward of right now, and also for these people who you cared enough about to bring them over.

Leigh McMillan:

Quite frankly, the tricky days are less tricky because of the awesome team.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, I love that. I love that. And it hearkens back to what you love most about Whitepages. You inspire and you expand the people, and you take good care of the people. And then longer term, short term, it's nice on the day-to-day basis, you get to work with amazing people, and the longer term, the tricky things are less present. The tricky things are less debilitating. It's kind of that virtuous cycle of goodness that gets from living the purpose of the company.

Leigh McMillan:

I've been around for a while, and I think it took me a while to get to this point to where I got it, I guess, in terms of how to help facilitate a collaborative environment. It took me a while to get here, so now I feel like, "Okay, it's all coming together now," and that makes it special as well.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I was actually just going to ask you that. If you think of the Leigh of 20 years ago, what would you tell yourself? What would've been the most kind of fruitful thing to hear at that point in your career that you know now?

Leigh McMillan:

So many things. First thing that comes to mind is, "Oh, just mellow out."

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Yes, I know. I feel it. Yeah.

Leigh McMillan:

It's just not that big a deal.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Leigh McMillan:

Back 20 years ago, it was probably right around when I started in technology. That was probably my first technology job, which back in the day was RealNetworks during its heyday, and I remember everything was so important and sleeping at the office back in the day.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow.

Leigh McMillan:

Now, and I do cherish that experience because so many of us, again, have gone on to many other companies and many other experiences, and we're pretty close at that time, being in the trenches and doing 80, a hundred hours a week, which now just seems crazy to me. But yeah, I took everything very, very seriously and probably caused some stress. It might've taken some time off my life, but-

Lindsay Pedersen:

Aw.

Leigh McMillan:

... I think it back now.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I think about this a lot too, how there's such an illusion, at least I think it's an illusion that, "Okay, well, if I put 80 to a hundred hours of work in a week, it's going to lead to a better outcome than if I put 70 hours of work." That we think of it as a straight line and not diminishing marginal returns on all of those hours, and that if I suffer more, if I stress more, then there's going to be a better outcome. When sometimes it's true. I'm sure that there are instances where that's true, but it's not always true or even usually true.

Leigh McMillan:

Back in the day, it was the badge of honor to be the last one at the office and eat at your desk and, "I'm working more hours." And I look back on that now and just how that was just bananas.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah. And I think we've evolved, obviously significantly. COVID had an impact on that as well, but now I think reality has set in, and I think people, at least me and I see this with the team, are better at recognizing when it's time to take a break and step back and not everything is equally important. So that when you do have times, and we've had times at Whitepages where we've asked people, "Hey guys, we got to pull together and put in the time and do it," then that just makes that time more successful.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Yeah. Okay. This was amazing. Are you ready for some rapid fire questions?

Leigh McMillan:

Okay.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Single word or single phrase answer. Okay. Favorite snack?

Leigh McMillan:

Chips and salsa.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Last splurge purchase?

Leigh McMillan:

Oh, new golf club.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Ooh. Favorite guilty pleasure TV show or non-guilty pleasure if you prefer?

Leigh McMillan:

Okay. This is an old show. I don't know if people will remember it, but I used to really be into that show Army Wives.

Lindsay Pedersen:

If you had given me a hundred guesses, I still would not have guessed that.

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah, and my friends still call me a nickname that was related to the show still to this day, so I can't explain why. I don't know.

Lindsay Pedersen:

It just spoke to you.

Leigh McMillan:

It did.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. What book is on your bedside table?

Leigh McMillan:

It's a book about Robert Mondavi.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh.

Leigh McMillan:

The California winemaker.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Sure.

Leigh McMillan:

And pioneer, wine pioneer. It's a whole story about how he built the winery, and I've read it probably five times.

Lindsay Pedersen:

No kidding. This isn't rapid fire, but are you more of a nonfiction person than a fiction person for your bedside table?

Leigh McMillan:

I go back and forth. I'd like to read Scandinavian crime books.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh.

Leigh McMillan:

Noir, I guess it's called.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Do you have a favorite one?

Leigh McMillan:

Oh gosh, there's so many. There's so many.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Well, I love Scandinavian Crime TV, so I would be very game if you think of a recommendation for a good Scandinavian noir detective's book.

Leigh McMillan:

Yeah, I can recommend tons of them. Yeah. They do them in series, so you can go from one to the next.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Share with me later, and I'll put them in the show notes for our listeners.

Leigh McMillan:

Deal.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Final question. What is your favorite brand?

Leigh McMillan:

Patagonia.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Boom. I love it. Well, Leigh, this has been great. It's been so nice talking to you. Thank you for sharing your insights with me and with our listeners. If our listeners want to hear more about you or stay in touch with you, how can you direct them online to how to follow you, stay in touch?

Leigh McMillan:

So probably the best thing is LinkedIn. I don't do the Twitter X. I don't do that.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I don't do that. LinkedIn is my happy place, too. Okay. LinkedIn, Leigh McMillan. Thank you for joining me today.

Leigh McMillan:

Thank you, Lindsay. It was an honor and a pleasure.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thanks for listening to this episode of North Star Leaders. Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing on your favorite podcast app. For show notes, transcripts and newsletter signup, visit ironcladbrandstrategy.com. Please join us again for another episode of North Star Leaders.

Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.