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How She Got There: Marian Heard’s Path to Becoming the CEO and President of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the CEO of United Ways of New England

Marian HeardIf you know Marian Heard or ever meet her, please ask her to write her autobiography. Future readers inspired by the community leader who has worked with the last six presidents will be thankful, of course. But even more grateful will be future historians and biographers. Retracing her steps is tough work!

It’d be one thing if Heard had taken on one endeavor after another. She would probably need to work until she’s 150 to accomplish everything she has accomplished, but at least the rest of us would be able to wrap our brains around her career path. Instead, she is a true multi-tasker—that is, if running several businesses simultaneously or leading a couple of organizations while attending school are considered tasks.

“As I told my children and grandchildren, it’s all about having a timetable, a plan and a backup plan,” Heard says. “I learned early on the importance of scheduling your priorities and managing your schedule.”

She makes the impossible sound easy—and doable. That must be part of the secret to her success. Here, Heard’s route to becoming CEO and president of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and CEO of United Ways of New England, vastly abridged.

Initial Dream Career

“When I was in high school, ambitious women aimed to be nurses or secretaries—and I wanted to be a secretary. I was #1 in my class for shorthand, and I could type 88 to 90 words a minute. My senior year, I won an internship in the town manager’s office, the plum position in my town, Stratford, CT, and I knew I was on the right track.”

First Job Out of High School  

“After my internship, I secured a job at a local company called Mitchell Brothers, the largest catalog supplier of women’s sleepwear, selling to Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Alden’s. I was the secretary to seven people—five brothers, an uncle and a brother-in-law—and I loved it…. But after three years, the office manager announced that a woman who had been there for a few months was being promoted to project manager. I asked what she had that I didn’t have. The answer: a college degree…I had my associate’s degree from the University of Bridgeport two years later.”

First Job after College

“The Christmas before graduation, I got engaged, and I ‘retired’ in August when I got married. But in November, I took a job as the secretary to the head of marketing at Warner Brothers, which later became Warner Company, one of the biggest manufacturers of women’s undergarments in the world. Three weeks in, the head of personnel called me: There was an opening in the office of the president. There was also someone who had worked there for nine years and wanted the job, so I thought this was a courtesy call. But an hour into my interview with the president, where we talked about the art in his office, which I had studied in college, he called HR and said, ‘I found my woman.’ That’s how they talked back then. My boss was the late Henry Pierson Coogan. He taught me to fight for what I believe in. He was a great mentor. I worked there for over three years.”

Working from Home

“I decided to stay home until our two sons went to school, but I still worked. I had four employees and a typing service primarily for graduate students’ theses. Also, I was a division manager of 28 people for a home party business called Coppercraft Guild, similar to Tupperware. Additionally, I was really active at church, president of a woman’s group at the Y, president of the Jaycee Wives, active in the NAACP, and on the planning committee when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to speak. Then a friend who was on the board of Head Start asked me to help them reorganize the program as a consultant. I said yes.”

The Proverbial Fork in the Road

“At Head Start, after winning a regional and national award, they hired a director who was discovered several months later to have a criminal record in Texas. They fired him and asked me to be the director. I had to really think about it. I was earning things like all-expense-paid trips to Spain from Coppercraft, which Head Start could never offer. But they agreed to my specific requirements, so I accepted. If you don’t count my time as an entrepreneur and consultant, yes, I went from being a secretary to the director of a program who reported only to a board of directors.

United Way Comes Calling   

“I was at Head Start for four and a half years, during which time, I earned my bachelor’s degree in business at the University of MA at Amherst. Then United Way recruited me to be their daycare project director. I was ready for a new challenge. Over the next 17.5 years at UW in CT, I had a succession of leadership positions, moving on to human resources planning director, then finally president. Also, during this period, I completed my master’s at Springfield College—and hosted an award-winning, three-hour call-in radio show called ‘What’s Happening with Marian Heard.’ Working with my board and other CEOs, I learned that the best way to connect with anyone is to be a great listener.”

Joining Her First Corporate Board

“One morning my mother, who organized programs at different churches, called me. Her speaker had cancelled and she needed me to fill in. I went, of course, and coincidentally, one of my board members was there. Three weeks later he called me. He wanted me to be on his board at Mechanics and Farmers Savings Bank. He was another great mentor to me—and I would later join the corporate boards of Fortune 100 companies, among others.”

Moving to Boston and the UW of Massachusetts Bay

“During my time there, we went from #87 for raising gifts $10k and higher to #1; I thought it would take 10 years, but we did it in only nine. I also took on being CEO of United Ways of New England, which has 22 partners from Maine to Rhode Island, and commuted to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor on the weekends to do post-grad work in economics and social policy.  At one point, I also commuted from Boston to Washington D.C., to lead the launch of President Bush’s Points of Light effort. The planning meeting took place at Camp David, and that was a real career high point.”

Retiring with a Bang

“Most places, when you retire after 30 years, you get a diamond pin or watch. I asked for a scholarship fund for college-bound youth. In one night, we raised $3.4 million for a scholar’s program that has helped over 100 students go to college. That is something I am especially proud of.”

Last Advice for Managers

“In the end, people just want their skills and contributions to be acknowledged. That is the secret to leading—and helping others to succeed.”


Marian Heard has toured the country speaking on the topic of leadership. The recipient of 21 honorary doctorate degrees, she is the author of The Complete Leader and Take Time. She is currently working on her third book, which will focus on motivation as well as relationships.

▶ Read more from the June 2016 newsletter.

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