Mary Marx Of Pace Center for Girls: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
Three Sentence Bio: Mary Marx is the president & CEO of Pace Center for Girls. Over the last decade, Marx has led the organization through an extensive period of growth. Since its founding in 1985, Pace’s direct service work has positively impacted the lives of more than 40,000 girls and over the past decade its systems-change work and policies have contributed to a more than 60% decrease in the number of girls that are referred to Florida’s juvenile justice system. Marx has led large, multi-site not for profit agencies focused on the well-being of children for the past three decades. She is a fellow in the inaugural Results for America Non-Profit Fellowship, serves on the Legislative and Child Law committees for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, is a member of the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community and serves on several board and committees for local and statewide organizations.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career as a molecular biologist. I was an assistant faculty member at the University of California at San Francisco and had the white coat, the lab glasses, the test tubes and the microscope. I spent my time studying systems at the cellular level, and over time, I realized I was actually more interested in systems at the community level. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to focus on the issue of equity — specifically, equity in education. Through serendipity I ended up co-founding, with my friend and colleague, Jill Vialet, the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) in Oakland, California. Art is a child’s first language. MOCHA was a place to bring together children from different races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes using the common language of art.
In California at the time, due to Proposition 13, there were no arts education programs in the public schools, even at the kindergarten level. MOCHA became the arts education program for four of the local school districts and implemented community arts programs in collaboration with public housing. After leaving California and moving to Florida, I ran an arts organization for adults in an affluent community, and I quickly recognized that wasn’t my purpose in life. I wasn’t put on the planet to make sure people of privilege had more privilege. I was interested in finding an organization that works on equity in a meaningful way and was introduced to Pace Center for Girls (Pace).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most impactful story is one of the importance of relationships in any organization’s development. Much of our funding at Pace is from the state government. About 10 years ago, we had a newly elected state senator, and I invited him to go on a tour to one of the centers in his jurisdiction. He met four of our girls, and once he heard their stories, he just couldn’t stop thinking about those girls and the importance of having something like Pace in their lives.
At the time, we were working on opening a center in Miami, and he did not represent Miami, but his support as Chair of the appropriations committee was important. I met with him to see if he would support the Miami Center, and he did, but he also wanted to open a Pace Center in the largest county he represented. With his support, we were able to open the Miami Center, our 18th, in 2015 and in 2016 opened our 19th in his district. Eventually, through his role as the Senate Appropriations Chair, he was able to help us ensure that all our state funding was recurring.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have two. I would read in business journals that corporate CEOs were able to change their corporate culture in three months. When I was appointed as CEO, I told one of our external partners that I was going to need six months to “paint the inside of the house.” I knew the culture at the time wasn’t healthy and I wanted to identify what needed to change and make those changes. As the former vice president of external affairs for Pace, I knew that there was work to be done to change the culture at Pace, but I really had no idea how much work it would be.
I thought it was going to take six months, and six years later, it still isn’t entirely “painted.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily funny, but it shows the juxtaposition between what you think and what is reality.
But I do have a funny one. One day, I was working late in the office. It was about 6 p.m. on a Friday, and I ventured to the restroom, which was in the hallway, outside of our actual space. I propped open the front door to get back into the office and when I came back, the front door was shut, and I didn’t have my keys. I didn’t have my cell phone. I didn’t have my wallet. I had nothing. It was just me in the completely empty three-story building. I walked around the entire building trying to think my way out of this and eventually I realized there was an emergency phone in the elevator. I called the police and when an officer arrived, he asked “Well, what do you want me to do?” I said, “I want you to help me break into my office!” His response was, “Ma’am, I’m a police officer. I can’t help you break into your building.” Then I asked him to give me his cell phone and of course, thanks to smartphones, I no longer know anyone’s number. There was one person’s number I remembered, although unfortunately, she lived in Tallahassee, and our office is in Jacksonville; the two are 164 miles apart. I called her, and told her that she needed to call someone and tell them to come over and let me back in. The lesson I learned there was that you can think your way out of a problem if you stay calm.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people. I don’t think anybody gets to where they are or where they want to be without the help of a lot of other people. And I deeply believe in the power of relationships and the power of learning from the people who came before you, as well as the power of connection. It was Jill Vialet, who I co-founded MOCHA with, who taught me the power of optimism. Neither one of us had ever started a nonprofit and we had no roadmap. Anytime I would say, “We can’t do that!” she would say “Yes we can!” And then we would just do it. It was a great lesson in having a vision and the optimism and drive to make it real.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
At Pace, we work with a population of girls from under-invested communities. The population we serve is incredibly diverse, so it is important that our girls can see themselves in our leadership, in our staff, in our board. We recognize that a diverse executive team sets the tone and brings credibility to the organization.
Diversity in leadership is also important because these are the people who make decisions that impact our girls, so it is important to have an understanding of their experiences. People who haven’t experienced the marginalization many of our girls have experienced may not fully understand the impact and the challenges our girls face and may not be as attuned to being able to address these issues and challenges.
I also think that a diverse team, not just of background, but of thoughts, ideas, perspectives and values, enables us to ensure that we understand how to meet our girls where they are. In doing this, girls can overcome their own challenges and not just be passive recipients of support, but rather they can be involved in co-creating what they want for their future.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
That is an interesting question because that is what we’re focused on right now. We rolled out our new vision statement a year ago — a world where girls and young women have power in a just and equitable society. To ensure we work towards achieving it, we formed a power, justice and equity team, made up of people throughout the organization. The Team understands that diversity, equity and inclusion are not human resources issues, they are human rights issues. Power, justice and equity must be reflected in everything we do: our mission, our values, our vision, our guiding principles. We recognize it must cascade throughout the whole organization, from the board to the staff to the girls.
We also recognize that there are barriers and historical realities that have led to systemic inequities, and that they benefit some at the expense of others. It’s important that we recognize that and address it by teaching real, true history to our girls and that our staff understand our history.
One of the steps we took after the murder of George Floyd was to create “culture circles:” small, voluntary facilitated groups for staff and girls to create safe spaces for sensitive dialogue.
We can create powerful systems change by bringing the perspective and the voice of those most impacted to the table. For us, it’s our girls. In Broward County, Florida, we looked at the data of what was driving girls deeper into the juvenile justice system, and it was failure to appear in court. Failure to appear is when a girl gets arrested, goes to court, gets a court date for when she is supposed to return, and then does not show up. Our girls are teenagers, and often they forgot or simply lose the paper with the information. Missing a court date can lead to a rearrest and time in a detention center.
The girls themselves did a study on this. They interviewed judges, peers who had been arrested, and law enforcement. They realized that a solution could be a simple card that they put in their cell phones, because as one of the girls said, “We don’t go anywhere without our cell phones. So don’t give us a pamphlet or a piece of paper. Give us something we can put in the pocket of our cell phone.” They knew that it needed to have the transportation routes to court. It needed to have the phone numbers to call if you can’t show up or need to change the date. The girls put together a card with all that information and translated it into three languages — and failure to appear dropped 27%.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I don’t think anybody really knows what the CEO does, but many people have grand ideas. In my mind, it’s the link between the inside of the organization and the outside of the organization. The inside is the business itself, and the outside is the external environment in which you operate. That environment is always changing. And sometimes, as we’ve seen over the past 18 month, that change happens very fast and it can be very unpredictable. It is the job and responsibility of the CEO to ensure the sustainable growth of the organization, and that requires a deep understanding of the inside and the outside of the organization and the ability to connect them.
You are advocating for what’s needed now so that you’re making the appropriate investment in the present, but you’re also looking toward the future, scanning the horizon, and the CEO is the one who ultimately can do that because the majority of your team is internally focused.
When I first became the CEO, I had to get really clear on differentiating between the business we’re in and the business we’re not in. Human trafficking continues to be a harrowing issue, particularly in Florida. A lot of people, internally and externally, were pushing for us to work in that space. We had to be very clear on where our expertise lay, and what role Pace needed to play with respect to this important issue.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
People think as the CEO you must work all the time. I think it’s very important to model a healthy relationship with work. If our team doesn’t take care of themselves, then it makes it that much harder to take care of the girls.
Another myth is that a CEO doesn’t have a boss. Oh yes, I do. I have a lot of bosses, people I am accountable to. There is the board, the various teams, the girls and communities and our funders and supporters. There’s a whole lot of accountability, even though you may technically not report directly to someone every day.
Another myth about the CEO is that they have to have all the answers. They don’t. No one has all the answers. It’s important to be able to find the answers and hire smart people with expertise to help find those answers; that is the CEO’s job.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I don’t know that there’s really a difference. Other than when I was working as a molecular biologist, I’ve pretty much always made the job up. Nobody told me, “This is what you need to do.” For the most part I’ve always been in the kind of leadership role where you have to figure it out. I’m not sure I had a preconceived notion of what it would be that’s different from what it is.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t necessarily know that anybody should avoid it because people can always learn. I believe that if you have the passion and the drive, a lot can be taught. But there are some specific traits that are really important in a key leadership role. The first and foremost — which has certainly been tested over the last 18 months — is adaptability. You’ve got to be flexible, fluid, and agile. Circumstances change, responsibilities change, people change, the external world changes, your funding sources change. Somebody who needs predictability and structure may find the role challenging, but again, I think you can learn that. You can learn adaptability.
You need external strategic awareness and political savvy. You have to act like water and flow around a lot, whether that’s internally or externally, because you need to think broadly and long-term. I mentioned the importance of people and relationships, and how having an extensive network is also very important. And at the end of the day, it’s all about results. You must take results personally and be really tenacious in the face of obstacles and resistance, because they will always be there.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
At Pace, we have nine values and guiding principles, and I think one of the most important is to act with integrity and positive intent. Do what you say you are going to do and with the best intent in mind. It’s also important that you trust the people that you hire to do what you’ve asked them to do. Understand that accountability isn’t just responsibility, it also means those around you are expected to make decisions that will lead to positive outcomes.
It’s important to understand that because of the power you have in a leadership role, people don’t necessarily find you as approachable as you may think you are. It’s good to make yourself as accessible as possible and to listen to people at all levels of the organization. Especially throughout the pandemic, it has been crucial. People need to feel heard and included. And if you’re going to have an inclusive workforce, then people need to be able to use their voices and feel like they can speak up.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Supporting more girls and making more impact. The girls that we work with are future mothers. They’re the future workforce. They’re future community leaders. And if we can empower girls to become empowered women, and if we can give them what they need to be successful at home, in school, in their communities, then we all benefit. There are thousands and thousands of girls whose lives have been directly changed because of the work we do at Pace. And with our policy and systems reform work, we have impacted more girls than we once thought possible.
About a decade ago, Florida was arresting more girls than any other state in the nation. We looked at what were some of the policy changes that could be implemented and eventually, over a 10-year period, saw a 67% decrease in the arrest rate of girls in the state. And this doesn’t impact only girls — it impacts all young people because we’re keeping them out of a system that often does more damage than good.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
The first one is that everyone who is a CEO was a brand-new CEO at least once in their lives. Second, you will make mistakes, and that is okay, as long as you learn from them. You need to pick yourself up, figure out what happened, think about what you’d do differently, and then carry that lesson forward.
Thirdly, you can’t make everyone happy. No matter what decisions you make, somebody is going to like it and you need to be okay with that.
Fourth, I’d say closely evaluate enthusiasm and willingness when growing your teams. I can teach people how to do a job, but I can’t teach them to be passionate about the work. I wish somebody had told me that initially, that I needed to look for that rather than looking for a specific skill set when hiring people.
Number five is that if you can’t communicate your vision for an organization, then no one knows where they’re headed. It’s important that your teams know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Gender equity — that all girls and young women have power in a just and equitable society. Nationally, internationally, globally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always liked the quote, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain,” because it rains a lot no matter what field or business you’re in. It’s figuring out how to make the most of the moment and actually enjoy it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Do I have to just pick one?
I would love to meet Warren Buffet because I think his vision of the business world, not only on how to build wealth but also how to use it for good, is incredible. I did get to see him speak, but I haven’t met him in person. At my table I would also like to have Gloria Steinem, who I got to meet — virtually — at our All About Girls Summit. She is a trailblazer and led a movement that changed the world for women, but she also is very funny and very humble. She doesn’t consider herself the leader of a movement, she considers herself a facilitator. And the third person I would want at my table is someone I’ve never met or seen speak, except through Ted Talks, is Brene Brown. I love her message about the importance and the power of vulnerability in leadership. I think if I could have all three of them together, that would be a very powerful conversation.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.