Life Lessons and Leadership From USA Women’s Field Hockey Athlete and Legal Marketing Leader, Kelly MacKinnon
In this episode of On Record PR, we go on record with Kelly MacKinnon, the director of business development at Fried Frank and president-elect of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) International Board of Directors. Kelly shares her story from being a Division 1 athlete to working in business development and legal marketing. She shares the life lessons and leadership skills she developed along the way.
This episode was recorded on April 3, 2020, during the fourth week of the stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Both Kelly MacKinnon and host, Gina Rubel, were working from home, managing everyday life in quarantine.
More About Kelly MacKinnon
Kelly MacKinnon is the director of business development at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, where she oversees the firm’s business development and visibility initiatives. Previously, she held senior positions on the B.D. teams at Cleary Gottlieb and at Paul Weiss. Preceding her legal marketing career, Kelly worked for in the broadcast department for the National Hockey League, in marketing at Bon Appétit magazine, and she coached women’s ice hockey internationally. Kelly has been an active member of LMA since 2008, holding various board positions at both the international and local levels. She is the incoming 2021 international president. She received her BA from Brown University in American history and business, and was a four-year Division 1 athlete playing both field hockey and ice hockey. In 2018, she was a member of the U.S. over 40 Women’s field hockey team that competed in the Masters World Cup in Spain, and will be once again competing in the Masters World Cup in England in 2021.
Where are you from, Kelly?
I am in downtown Brooklyn, so I am in the heart of the pandemic right now. It has been an interesting shift from looking at the Statue of Liberty to being at home. I love my shorter commute. It is tough. You hear the ambulances. I live near a hospital, so it’s very real. However, the thing we do in New York is come together. That happened after 9/11. You see the people, first responders and doctors going through so much every day, and they still have a smile on their face. I was at the grocery store the other day, and I brought somebody this little hand sanitizer. I said, “I have a prize for you.” She said, “You have a prize for me?” I responded, “Yes.” I gave her this small, promotional hand sanitizer that I had for my apartment, and her eyes lit up. That’s what New York does. We come together in a time of crisis.
Tell me about your journey of being a woman in a traditionally men’s sport like hockey?
It’s always funny when people look at my resume, and they see that I worked at the NHL. They see that I played field hockey at Brown University, but it is more so the ice hockey. When I coached overseas, I was the head coach of the Chinese Women’s National Ice Hockey Team. They see that, and they pause, and they go, “How does a woman who loves to wear blazers, high heels and red dresses get into this?”
When I was a younger athlete, they had started an ice hockey team at my local skating club. My dad was supportive and said, “Okay girls, do you want to try something new?”
I said, “Absolutely,” and so, he let me play. We used to rotate in terms of being a goalie. I’ve said to my dad, “If I’m a goalie, that means I don’t have to come off the ice, right?” And he said, “Yes, Kelly, you get to play the whole game.” So, that’s where I started.
Fast forward a couple years, and my dad said, “You’ve got something here. You’re really good at it.” I had the goalie mentality, which is a special mentality, and I was outpacing the girls. At that point, we’re talking in the late ‘80s, and my dad was said, “I think you should start playing with the boys.” I went out, and I played. It turns out that I was just as good as the boys, if not better, which did not make a lot of people happy. There are only two goalies. That’s it. It’s not like the rest of the team where you have 16 skaters. When I would beat people out, and I would beat out sons, there were people who weren’t happy.
High school sports was a true formative time in my life in terms of learning that work ethic and working super hard pays off. If you make a mistake as a goalie, you’re always chastised for that mistake because it goes on the board. It really was a time where you had to dig deep. You had to perform to be at the top, and you had to have thick skin.
In 1993, I was the first female playing hockey in New York state, and I believe I was asked to play in a high school boys’ championship. We talked about the toughness you need to have. I would come in, and I would be dressed in cute clothes and dressed right, with the bag, and people would think that I was the manager. I would go into the locker room, I’d drop my bag off, I’d put my hair up, and I’d put the uniform on. Kelly can be a boy’s name or a girl’s name, so nobody would ever know that I was a girl until the end of the game when I took my helmet off.
We talk a little bit about holding onto your femininity and who you are, and still wanting to be that dichotomy of this amazing athlete who wanted to be judged as an athlete and still wearing cute dresses and being this strong, fabulous female. I learned so much. It was such a life learning lesson, that I am so thankful for my dad. I think my mom hated it at the moment. She’d rather see me play field hockey, which I did as well. It was more traditionally a girl’s sport at that point. I thank my dad every single day for giving me that life lesson in knowing that you can be really good at something that might not traditionally be in the lane that you’re supposed to be in.
Gina Rubel: There’s something special there that brings me to two points. Women in business today, and women leaders such as yourself, need to learn things like leadership and competition, but we also need people, both men and women, who lift us up.
What skills did you learn in terms of leadership?
It taught me resilience and having to develop thick skin. You’ve got to get the job done. In terms of just hard work, I had to perform better. I had to be quicker. I had to be faster. At that age too, you’ve got boys physically getting stronger. That physical difference becomes apparent when you become 13 years old and up. I also had to be smarter. I see now, as I have a team, that sometimes people want quick fixes, but you’ve got to put the work in because there are no quick fixes. I also learned ownership. As a female goaltender, it was kind of putting it all on my back and owning the situation. It taught me how to bounce back. It taught me many other things, and it made me who I am.
Did the U.S. Hockey Team have to fight for equal pay like the Women’s U.S. soccer team?
Yes. The U.S. hockey team did too, and they actually got it. The other interesting aspect is the mindset of a goalie. I’m a goalie both in ice hockey and now in field hockey. If I don’t touch the ball, I’ve done my job right as a goaltender. My job is to see the whole entire field, help organize people, and encourage them to do their job. We talk about leadership and the lessons that I learned from being the only female on a boys’ team. I then look at this from a goaltender perspective. Being back there, making the calls, encouraging and pushing people to work together, being part of a team, and pushing them to excel: that’s what it takes to lead.
At the end of the day, I love being a leader. I love being a team. It’s great to get recognition, but I would rather my team shine. To me, I’ve done a good job lifting them up as a goalie, if I’ve never touched that ball. I’m a happy camper because I get the win with a shutout. That looks good on me too, but as a team we work together.
Tell me a little bit about you as a legal marketing professional. What you do and how your prior jobs at Bon Appétit and the NHL shaped you?
A big part of me is relationships and connecting with people. I got the opportunity to go to a Bon Appétit, and I learned so much. I learned my love of red wine and good food, but sports has always been intrinsic to who I am. When I got the opportunity to go to the NHL that was amazing. I got to see all of these amazing players that I have looked up to my whole entire life. There you are, front and center, and you have the opportunity to tour the country and Canada, working with the local and national TV rights holders. I got to meet Barry Melrose, and I got behind the scenes to be in the locker room with a Stanley Cup. Those are things you grow up wanting to do. It was an amazing five years of my life. Again, I learned how to get people to do stuff, how to meet people, and how to work together.
Then, we had the lockout that happened after the 2004 season. I had to reinvent myself. I got the opportunity to move over to China to go to the Women’s National Team for a short fit, and then I came home.
I look inward and I think about women these days, and where we are right now. There is an opportunity for all of us to take the core values and the lessons we’ve learned and pivot our careers. I looked at it and I thought, “What do I love to do, and what am I good at?” I enjoyed bringing people together, coaching, marketing, and strategy. My dad said, “I think you need to come to the dark side. How about you go into professional services?”. I got a phone call from a recruiter, and I went to Deloitte for a stint. That’s where I fell into professional service marketing.
I am not your normal legal marketer. I do my job, and I do it with passion and creativity. I get the pleasure of working with legal athletes. They are some of the smartest men and women in our business industry. I love the coaching aspect of it. I think not only about my team, but when we have a partner who goes out and pitches new business, their eyes light up. I get to give them high fives. And I’m in a suit, heels and pearls.
That’s how I approach what I do from a legal marketing standpoint. I’m thinking about being strategic, but being human. It’s all about being real. We both know this is a relationship game from what we do internally with our internal constituents, as well as what our partners do.
Gina Rubel: You mentioned how you had to reinvent yourself after the lockout. I remember the lockout and what you said, as I had to reinvent myself as well. Again, we’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The unemployment rate has skyrocketed. There are businesses that will close. There are businesses that will change, and law firms may need to reinvent themselves in many ways. Some of the practice areas will go away for a while. Others will gain strength, unfortunately, like bankruptcy and family law.
People listening need to understand that it’s okay to reinvent yourself. It’s something that I did. I was a communicator and undergraduate, and I worked in various jobs, including litigation. I took those passions and brought them into the legal communications field because like you, I love building relationships and the proactive communicating.
In the professional realm, my dad said, “Do it while you can, because once you’re too entrenched, you can’t do it.” We all have to be resilient now and in the future. When you reinvent yourself, you have to be resilient. You might have to take a pay cut. You might have to do things differently. I certainly took a huge pay cut from practicing law to practicing corporate communications. Eighteen years later, our company is fortunately doing well. I have a great team. I get to be that goalie every day in my own way and it is incredible. If it weren’t for them, I couldn’t do what I do.
You have to be willing to take your punches. As a crisis communicator, I handle the pandemic matters that we’ve been dealing with for the last month, which has been unbelievable. Everybody is in crisis dealing with the pandemic. You do have to be resilient, and you have to breathe.
For those interested, I also recommend On Record PR Episode 5: Resilience in Times of Crisis and Calm with Renee Branson, Certified Resilience Coach.
What do you do in your role today to find resilience and continue to breathe?
I keep a sense of community and do physical activities like CrossFit. I would go back to the team aspect of it. I really draw strength from my team through their hard work, openness and honesty. That gives me strength to do what I do and to continue to. When they make a mistake and they fall forward, there are going to be some angry phone calls, but I know that they’re trying their hardest. We have created a family, and we can lean on each other.
It’s about having created that team and having that energy around me that fills my cup. We talked a little bit about LMA. I have the most amazing network within LMA. They really are my family, and while I get other fulfillment, whether it be at work or in my community outside like my CrossFit community, my family or my hockey girls, the LMA family enables me to bounce back or see around corners. That’s where I draw so much energy.
What draws you to the Legal Marketing Association?
Lifting people up. That’s ultimately what we do as a community. I truly subscribe to the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” We just get better and smarter as an industry in terms of the voice of our client. It builds you up, and it makes you a stronger and more complete person. I’m forever a student. I’m a complete dork like that, but I love getting those snippets from different people. The other thing too, is we would’ve never met, and we would’ve never been friends if it wasn’t for LMA. That’s what I love about this association or even CrossFit. There are people that I’m lifting with, and I believe like you do that we never would have come across one another, but we have a love of something and a desire to get better and grow. That’s what connects us. It’s this special feeling of being part of a community like CrossFit or LMA.
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