“When I think back to when I first acquired a leadership role, I thought being a leader was going to be exciting, scary and fulfilling. My experience as a leader has been all those things and more,” says Debbie McGriff, marketing strategy and communications director for Freddie Mac’s Single-Family division.
McGriff has been working with Freddie Mac for nearly three years. In her current role, she leads a team of marketing and communication professionals who partner with the company’s core business areas to help drive Freddie Mac’s mission forward to make home possible for everyone.
Prior to her role with the company, she worked for a national mortgage company where she led a team of marketers who focused on loan origination, servicing and business development. The entirety of her career has been in financial services and housing, serving in a mission-based role helping people, including the underserved, build wealth and achieve sustainable homeownership.
Freddie Mac aligns perfectly with her experiences and career goals, McGriff explained. Freddie Mac drives innovation that makes home buying and renting possible for people across the country. And that’s in large part thanks to the diverse and responsive leadership team, which includes women like McGriff.
We caught up with McGriff to learn about her experience as a leader at Freddie Mac — how she manages her day-to-day responsibilities, motivates and supports her team, and achieves success in her own career. Here’s what she had to say.
How has your day-to-day work changed since you went into leadership at Freddie Mac?
When I started at Freddie Mac as an individual contributor, I only needed to be concerned with my work, but as a leader, my daily responsibilities have become less about me and more about my team’s ability to meet the business’ needs. I need to ensure that my team has what they need to be as successful as possible. I do my best to lead by example and make good decisions, but I make mistakes along the way. I’m still learning new things and that’s the beauty of leadership.
What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?
Have a plan and know where you want to go. Set up time with those who are in leadership positions like the one you desire to move into — perhaps over coffee. Ask lots of questions and then do the work. If you need additional training, take the courses. And, if you need management experience, ask your manager if you can supervise an intern or lead a project. If you need coaching, ask for a mentor or leverage your network to find one.
Being a leader doesn’t happen overnight, it should be a consistent progression with several support mechanisms in place to help you along your journey to leadership and beyond.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style is perceptive and open. I believe there is no “one-size fits all” leadership style. Great leaders are teachers: they know how to get employees to repeat certain behaviors and stop what isn’t productive. I’m managing different personalities, aspirations and motivators, so I need to understand how/when to adjust my leadership style accordingly. My role as a leader at Freddie Mac is to set the vision, clear obstacles, offer coaching/guidance and recognize the success of my team when it’s deserved.
How do you think about making sure your direct report(s) feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office?
Having work-life balance is incredibly important and Freddie Mac prioritizes this for its employees. As a leader, it is key that my direct reports and their teams feel supported in this. We are in unprecedented times and need to make provisions that we could have never anticipated pre-COVID-19. I also understand that work-life balance looks different for each of us and that’s okay.
While at this company, you’ve built a team that you’re now leading. How did you approach this?
Someone once gave me the advice that when hiring employees, look for those with different viewpoints than your own. Sure, you want to have synergy with your employees, but I look for employees who have the courage to think differently than me and are comfortable expressing those thoughts and ideas to help move our vision and goals forward.
While building your team, what did you learn that surprised you most?
I think that I was most surprised at how important regular feedback and formal training are to employees. I see first-hand how my team seeks out feedback and almost craves development opportunities. I am always pleasantly surprised when my staff expressed their interest in learning and growing. They trust me to help them grow professionally, and I accept that challenge as a leader.
What’s been your most valuable career mistake?
I used to plan regular team building activities or “forced fun” office events to try and build connections across the team. But I didn’t realize that these types of events can be a stress builder for some employees and were having the reverse effect. I needed to take another approach and understand what motivates each person as an individual.
After some conversations and a few small working groups, I realized that I was trying too hard to build camaraderie and needed to recalibrate. I began focusing on what motivated each employee individually, rather than the team. In many cases, a verbal “way to go,” simple certificates of appreciation or just a sincere thank you made them feel valued beyond what I could have expected. I quickly learned that recognition is the best form of motivation and I never forgot it.
Also, early in my career, I relied heavily on the advice of those who were in higher positions than myself because I thought all managers were looking out for the best interest of their employees. But I had to learn that not all managers are good leaders and putting my career in the hands of others was hindering my career growth and well-being.
Over time, I found the courage to confidently ask for roles that would challenge me and help define my path forward. It felt liberating to rise through the ranks on my terms.
Can you identify anything you said or did that earmarked you as someone ready for advancement?
In my current role, there was one situation that I believe helped my leaders to see me as a leader. We were in the middle of a crisis, and, although the crisis did not impact my team, I could see that those responsible were floundering. I saw a solution and immediately stepped into action without needing guidance or direction.
I feel that being in the right place, speaking up and taking action clearly showed my ability to effectively execute during a crisis. That was a defining moment that demonstrated my ability to lead. This set the tone because my manager knew I could be counted on to lead in other scenarios.
Managing people — especially if you’re new to it — is not easy. How has Freddie Mac and your own manager helped set you up for success?
My manager has been very supportive and requires me to have an active leadership development plan that I’m measured against. Freddie Mac has an abundance of tools, resources and training in place to help leaders like myself thrive and succeed.
What about outside of work?
I am especially good at just being present with my family. They are my everything!
What are you trying to improve on?
There is a quote that says, “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”
Inspiring my team in this way is something that I’d like to improve upon. I want to inspire my team to achieve beyond what they ever thought possible.
Ultimately, what has led you to stay at Freddie Mac?
Freddie Mac allows me to participate in a mission of providing affordable and sustainable homeownership, which fulfills my purpose.
What is your favorite perk about working at Freddie Mac?
When it comes to making home possible, Freddie Mac walks the talk. They offer a very generous down payment assistance program for first-time homebuyers that I’ve not seen at any other company. Since I can’t take advantage of that perk, I’d have to say the onsite Starbucks café has been an invaluable perk.
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