E2A 075: Knowing Your Why for Writing and Learning from Leaders with Dr. Monica McGrath 

 June 11, 2024

By  Scott A. MacMillan

In this episode of The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan speaks with Dr. Monica McGrath, author of "Learning from Business Leaders: A Coaching Memoir". She shares her journey of transitioning from a family business to earning her PhD and her subsequent career in leadership development at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her approach, blending personal reflection and evidence-based management theory, has guided countless leaders in navigating their professional paths.


A former vice dean and adjunct professor, consultant, and executive coach with over thirty years' experience working with senior executives, educational leaders and nonprofit leaders. Dr. McGrath is educated in psychology, adult learning theory and organizational dynamics and has worked both as an inside employee and an external consultant. Her approach is informed by education and a trust in both the individual's ability to learn from their experience through the client's personal reflection and evidence-based management theory.


Email: drmonicamcgrath@gmail.com



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Episode Transcript

Please note: The transcript is produced by a third-party company from an audio recording and may include transcription errors.

Scott MacMillan:

You're listening to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast.


Welcome to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now, here's your host, Scott MacMillan.


My guest today is Dr. Monica McGrath. Dr. McGrath is a former vice dean and adjunct professor, consultant, and executive coach with over 30 years experience working with senior executives, educational leaders, and nonprofit leaders. And she's the author of Learning from Business Leaders, a coaching memoir.

Her approach is informed by both her education and a trust in both the individual's ability to learn from their experience through the client's personal reflection and evidence-based management theory. Dr. McGrath, it's so great to have you on the show.

Dr Monica McGrath:

It's great to be here. Thank you for asking, Scott.


Wonderful. Well, look, I shared a little bit about you in the intro, but it would be really helpful, I think, for our listeners if you could provide a little bit more detailed overview of your expertise and the work that you do.


Well, you know, the expertise, a lot of it came from my experience as a leadership development consultant and executive coach. I mean, I had the opportunity, a really wonderful opportunity after I finished my education, which I began in my mid-30s, frankly, because I had a family, we had a family business. I worked in that for a number of years, and then I went back to college and got my PhD within 10 years in my mid-30s to mid-40s.

So I had the opportunity to begin my career path in midlife with some maturity. And as I finished my PhD, I had the opportunity to work inside organizations as an organizational psychologist and a really wonderful 20 years almost at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. So my experience, my expertise comes from being in relationship as a coach, advisor, course designer, educator with hundreds and hundreds of executives.

And I'm also a parent of two professional people and the wife of my husband, Jim, who's an entrepreneur, and we've been married for 20, I made it opposite, 52 years, not 25 years. So I have a lot of life experience and professional experience, and it all matters in coaching and developing leaders.


Wonderful. And you've recently published your book, Learning from Leaders. Could you share a little bit more about it?

Who is it written for and what's your goal for your reader?


You know, initially I wrote this book for myself as a sort of a legacy project. Certainly my nieces and nephews and children and colleagues who are in the early stages of their career would often come to me with issues, problems, challenges, excitement sometime, but they wanted advice, thoughts, and perspective on the things they were going through as they took on leadership roles in their career. And I had a lifetime of experience and very interesting, I thought, some stories about leaders who had taken on those challenges and some who did really well with them, but wanted additional support and insight from someone like myself, an outsider, somebody who's not enmeshed in the organization.

So I took on writing these stories probably four years before I really even thought about publishing a book. And what I think is unique about the way that I have thought of the book, at least initially and still do, was that it's not just telling those stories. They're very interesting and these were really, I think, for the most part, wonderful people who really wanted to do well and to continue to learn.

But I, as an executive coach, had sort of a special seat because I could watch what they were experiencing. I could advise, and the way my approach was that they knew their organizations much better than I did. So my job was to be sort of a mirror for them sometimes, a questioner, but I learned a lot from that and I thought it would be useful for me to reflect upon those situations and cases and then ask myself some critical questions, the way I would ask a client of mine, and then do some reflection on what are the action steps, what are tools and tips that people can use as they begin to navigate complicated situations in a leadership role. And in that way, I could share both personal insights, but tools and evidence-based research and the thought leaders' insights into how we begin to be more effective in our roles as leaders.


Yeah, and I think it is that personal experience that you bring to the stories and then being able to translate that into really meaningful insights for your reader that really makes the book work so effectively. And our audience is made up of primarily entrepreneurs and small business owners. And I know that, particularly because of your background in entrepreneurship and your exposure to entrepreneurs, you can speak perhaps to what some of the key lessons from your book might be that could apply to them.


Well, first of all, let me say that I think the book is for people who are thoughtful and serious about the challenge of leading. That's pretty much anyone who takes it on initially, but the world sort of absorbs you. So you're not always feeling thoughtful.

As a matter of fact, we live in such a short-term, quick-fix kind of a culture that we say, oh, that greatest quote or this recent book or this recent article, I'll apply that. It's not so easy and particularly not easy for business owners and entrepreneurs. And by the way, I think entrepreneurship exists very often inside an organizational system because often you're in the marketing department and you really feel like you're a separate business from the corporation.

So I think all the lessons in the book can be useful to someone either a small business owner or an entrepreneur. But let me say one more thing about those people who are starting from scratch, sort of on their own and feel isolated. And you know, when you start on your own, and I have experience of this in my own family businesses and in other clients that I've had who are in the, they call it the startup phase, you're alone.

You are not only the chief visionary, but you're the chief executive, you're the chief financial officer, you're the marketing specialist. So that is a lot of different roles that you have to play. And you play them because you have such a strong desire for your mission, your vision.

But they're all leadership roles. And the one role that falls apart when you're in that swirl of creating is the part of a learner and any entrepreneur, any business owner, any executive must continue to learn to be not just to be up to date, but to reinforce their strengths and to pay a lot of attention to those things that will get in the way of them delivering on their goals. So I think there's a lot of places.

One particular chapter in the book called Global Gifts. And that was when I was reporting on a situation where I was part of a team delivering a program for the 10,000 Women program, which was all entrepreneurs from all over the globe, funded by a very big bank. And we really didn't have anything.

So we had to start from scratch. I mean, we had faculty, which was great. And we had money.

That was also great. But we didn't have any design. We didn't know who was going to be there.

So it was really like a startup. And we learned through teamwork and conversation and communication to continue to work together and deliver something really spectacular for the program. So I think that's a particular one.

But I think everything in the book is appropriate.


Oh, wonderful. You know, I'd like to shift gears a little bit. We've talked a little bit about the content of the book.

But I'd love to talk about the process of writing and how you found that experience of writing the content. Some authors find it very, very easy to write. Others find it incredibly difficult.

Where did you land on that spectrum?


And how did you approach the writing? I think I'm on the continuum of difficult. I think it was challenging for me.

And it was challenging for a couple reasons. I think, one, I was immersed for 20 years in a very highly competitive academic institution. And I had written my dissertation.

And there is a very different style in an academic and scholarly writing that is really hard to shake. It's actually hard to do initially. And then once you do it, it's hard to shake it.

So that was one barrier that I found. The other was, you know, there's so many books on leadership. There's so many books saying this, that, and the other thing about what you should do.

And I wasn't sure that my voice was going to be adding any value to that. But when I shifted to the fact that this was a legacy for me, that it had value for my own future and my children's future as professional people, I actually found it to be a lot easier. And so what I would say, that's one little piece nugget that I would share with people is find out why you're writing a book.

Now, what is it that's going to just keep you engaged with the book? And I had fun initially remembering these people that I wrote about. And they're all anonymous in the book, but remembering them, remembering the situation, remembering how I engaged with them initially, and then looking at what their results were and who they became later.

So I found that once I shifted my perspective about the actual outcome, and there was a point to be frank with you is that I thought, well, maybe it won't be a book. It'll just be me writing this. It'll be in my computer for the rest of my life.

Who knows? But once I started doing it, I was engaged and happy. I had a lot of help, but I shifted.

I wouldn't say I was excited about writing, but I was much less intimidated by it.


Right. And I'm so glad you brought up that point about finding your why. And that's something that I agree is incredibly important, not just for first-time writers, but for writers of any book.

And in fact, I'm going to be guessing here, but I believe it was our very first episode of the podcast is on the topic of goals, making sure that you understand your goals for your book. And yeah, without that, you're really like a ship without a sail, right? You're just kind of gliding off into the water, and it makes it very difficult not just to achieve what you want to achieve with your book, but also to get the motivation to complete it, because it is a bit of a Herculean effort.


Yes, it is. And I also think that this idea of writing every day... I mean, everybody has...

There's so much advice about writing, but there's not as much. And so that's wonderful that you have talked about that in your podcast, the idea of having what I think is a vision for what it's about for you, not for how many books you're going to sell or what the future looks like, but what does it mean to you? Because the discipline of writing is critical.

But once you're excited about it... I mean, I'm a great reader. I read a lot of books, and I know the people who don't have a mission.

You can tell.


You can tell.


There's no spirit. So I'm excited that people have heard from you as a professional in the publishing business, but also they take a step back before they put their fingers on the keyboard.


Yeah, yeah. And let's talk about the publishing. I hear from a lot of people that the publishing industry can be very opaque.

And so one of the goals that I have with this podcast is to try and demystify a little bit. What was your experience with publishing? What were you excited about?

What did you find surprising or challenging? How was the publishing experience for you?


Okay, so what was my experience would be first. My experience was, oh, nobody's going to want... No, I'm not going to get this published.

It'll be just my book. You know, I'll give it to my family. So that was sort of kind of related to the intimidation about writing and self.

So that was my first endeavor. And then when I had it, and I used numerous people in my community, in my network to help me edit and think about it and talk about it a little bit, not a lot. I was sort of had boundaries around how much I shared about what I was writing.

That comes from my other like, you know, academic institutions. Write a dissertation, you're pretty intimidated by questions. So that piece, that first piece was, you know, very...

That was also very challenging for me. And to your very good point of how opaque and difficult it is, you know, you type Google into self-publishing and you're going to get a lot of information. And I was very diligent about going through all those sort of advertisements for publishing.

When I decided, yes, I'm going to put this in a book and I'm going to use that book for my purposes. And I want to find people who are skilled and professional. And I don't remember really when and how I happened across Grabber Factory, but they were different.

And so surprising, one of my biggest surprises, well, there were two pieces, I would say. One is that once I was finished the writing, and again, I had edited numerous times, the structure of the process that I went through in this self-publishing with your organization was very systematic. And that was surprising.

That was actually very helpful and very surprising to me, you know, since I have so much experience teaching, it's like, I like a class to have a syllabus and a beginning, end, and end. And I don't do well when there's too much chatting and, you know, back and forth. So I found that to be extremely helpful and very surprising.

And the formatting and design of the book, you know, the resources that I was able to access, all that was extremely helpful and very useful in getting this book embarked.


Wonderful. And so you talked about your personal goal with the book. Now that the book is published, how are you making use of it?

How are you using it within your business? How are you using it with your clients?


Yes. So, well, two things are happening. One is that I'm redoing my website so that it is aligned with my goals.

Again, the next step, which, you know, by getting current on how people find, you know, I used to have an attitude that nobody looks at websites. And yet I monitored one time how often I look at websites. So it's important.

We may not use them the way we used them 20 years ago, but we do use them. So fix my website so that it is a vehicle for my book and for how I will use it as an individual work one-on-one with people. But I'm mostly interested in designing and delivering workshops to people in different levels of different transitions.

So high potentials who are stuck in their trajectory for people who are returning to work. And this is of particular interest to me. I have a case in the book that's written about this.

This idea that people have stepped off the track during COVID is very similar to how people stepped off the track in 2001 and 2008 and then again in 2020. And what I know about that, and I know a lot about it, is that that transition back doesn't mean you just send your resume in. There's a process involved.

And I know a lot about that. So another way I can use the book is to re-engage people who have stepped off their track to get back in the workforce by looking at their skills and competencies and increasing their confidence. So that's another way.

And then the third way that I think I can use the book is for people who are managing and developing others to use the cases as a vehicle for conversation, much like we use the cases in a business school class. If you use a case, you start thinking about how you would think about the case if you're a coach, if you're an executive consultant, or if you're a person who's managing people in your business. So there are the three main ways I'm using my book right now.


Perfect. Perfect. For those who have considered, because we've got a lot of listeners who are maybe, I want to say, authorship curious.

They know that a book could have an important impact personally and professionally, but they haven't yet sat down and written the book or completed the book. What advice would you share as somebody who's been through it?


Well, let me just share one other thing before I say how I've been through it. Is that I am, as I said, I'm pretty serious about leadership. So I read a lot of books that are related to leadership.

And they're sometimes peripherally related. So I would say that having a book that captures lessons that you think are important as an author is really helpful. Not only do I read them, I use them and I send them to clients.

So I have authors that once they've published something, I'm immediately getting the book and sending it to a client somehow. So there's Monica as the reader, but Monica as the writer, I have an attitude about things in my life. And this was one of the hardest times to do it, is just start.

Just start. Start with writing up your vision, your goals, the objectives you have. Nobody needs to read that.

That's just you, you in reflection. But once you start, keep doing it no matter what. And I think the form and the style and how you'll put it all together can come later.

But getting your voice and offering your contribution to others is what you want to do. And you can't do that unless you sit down and start writing. And again, I use the word discipline.

It's a little unpopular these days, I think. But I think there's a discipline. I go to the gym, I eat right, and I write every day.

So I think that's the advice I have. And once you find someone that can help you edit and structure and design, someone like Grammar Factory, then I think you then have to really make sure you're on track to reduce the distractions, even the ones that are inside your head that say, oh, this is not worth it, nobody's going to read it, blah, blah, blah, whatever you say, or that I'm going to be the next business guru. And either of those distractions keep you from actually doing the task of getting it published.


Dr. McGrath, thank you so much. How can people get in touch with you to learn more about the work that you do?


They can touch base with me on my email. I answer eventually within a few days every email I get, drmonicamcgrath at gmail.com. And as soon as my website is up, I'll make sure that you know about it and so does everyone else.


Good. We'll put the email in the show notes and when we have the updated website address, we'll put that in the show notes as well. Thank you so much for being with us and being so generous with your time and for sharing your expertise and your experience with us today.

I certainly found it thought-provoking and I know that our audience has as well.

Monica: Great. Great. Thank you.


As we wrap up this episode of Entrepreneur to Author, remember this. Now is the time. Time to write, time to publish, and time to grow.

I'm Scott McMillan. Until next time.

Scott A. MacMillan

Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

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