I had the pleasure of hearing Major General Mari K. Eder speak at the 2018 WIN Summit: Women’s Insights on The Art of Negotiation in May of this year. To say she is a woman who has mastered the art of commanding a room, is an understatement. Emerging from the crowd to stand center stage, following her introduction, Mari K. asked attendees, “What were you expecting?” This question came after she made a few jokes that resulted in immense laughter and echoed throughout the room of the New York Athletic Club.
As a result of her thought-provoking words, women left the summit inspired to not only think about what factors create perceptions, but also how to utilize an understanding of these factors to effectively communicate during everyday interactions.
There are few people with the ability to be likeable and convey such a profound message. For the Major General, this seems to come as second nature. With over 36 years of service in the U.S. Army, Mari K. has become an expert in communications and leadership authoring a number of case studies and articles on strategic communications. It comes as no surprise then that she has reached her level of success.
Retiring in 2013, Maj. Gen. Eder continues to use her skill, charisma, and grandeur to invest in others especially women who wish to follow her legacy in the U.S. Army as well as other career paths. To the Major General, owning your power means understanding how you need to communicate in order for others to understand you. Read on to learn more about Mari K’s experience as a leader in the U.S. army, how she owns her authentic self, and her insight into how to cultivate effective communication.
Her Agenda: As someone who has led/commanded at every level in the Army, from platoon through division level, what are some key characteristics that have contributed to your success in these roles?
Mari K. Eder: Success to me looks like making your vision reach the distributed parts of a large organization. When I reached senior level of command my headquarters was located in Salt Lake City. I made a list of the top 10 goals I wanted to achieve in my role so that whether you were in Omaha, Nebraska or Florida, a poster listing these goals was on the wall. As a result, everyone could see their individual milestones were towards reaching the overall goals. There was an understanding that no matter what your job was there was a clear way to contribute towards what we were all working to achieve. In leadership it is important to bring everyone back into the fold so they have a grasp on where we are going as an organization.
Her Agenda: What was your reason for writing, Leading the Narrative: The Case for Strategic Communication?
Mari K. Eder: My book is a basic primer on what strategic communication is and means. When I started to write it I was unable to find any other books like it around the topic. I decided to write a couple articles that helped to explain how I viewed strategic communication given most of my background is in public relations and journalism. Being able to be strategic about what we say and when we say it is pivotal but I could not find good references so I decided to make my own.
Her Agenda: Was there a time you saw your gender influence the way you were treated in your career? If so, how did you overcome it?
Mari K. Eder: I think if you see things that are wrong, or biased, you have a duty to call them out. It always helps to have a little bit of humor of course. I was sitting in a conference with twelve other generals where we were selecting people for senior level of command. We had made all of the selections and the person who was number one on the list was going to get the best offering. I made a suggestion to let the individual pick where he wanted to go. No one in the room said anything in response. Another General made the same suggestion a few minutes later. Suddenly it was a great idea and everyone in the room loved it. I said, ‘Woah, let’s wait a minute here. If the woman makes a recommendation, we don’t think it is a good idea but two seconds later when a man says it it is suddenly a grand idea?’ You have to call it out when you see it. You can’t let things go by in silence. Once I called it out I knew they were never going to do it again.
Her Agenda: What is your biggest hope for all the women who come after you in the Army?
Mari K. Eder: One of the reasons you’re starting to see a greater focus on recruiting more women to the military is the fact that there are not enough men who are eligible/able to physically join. Additionally, they are not as driven as women are. There is a realization that it makes no sense to waste half of the talent in our population. During my time in the Army I worked with incredibly diverse groups of individuals and learned so much about the differences of people in this country by being in other places and working with them. This is something I am very grateful for. In the future I want to see larger numbers. So many times I was the only woman in the room. There are more women now, which is evident in the fact that the Naval Academy recently started a mentorship program because there are finally enough women on the staff and faculty to carry out something like this. It is amazing to see this after all this time. I’m looking forward to a greater increase in the number of women in the Army and seeing women help each other more.
Her Agenda: Who is your role model and why?
Mari K. Eder: When I was a kid my hero was Carol Burnett because she was funny, had her own show which she managed and ran, and came across as humble. I could tell she had a lot of fun doing what she did and this was what I always wanted for myself. Many women think they have to be tough especially in the Army which translates into being mean. I believe you can be tough without being mean. You can have fun. I have kept this with me throughout my career.
Her Agenda: When was a time you felt someone doubted you and how did you respond?
Mari K. Eder: I was recently at my high school for the High School Wall of Fame, which the school recently started. During my time in high school I had a hard time getting into college. I ended up at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Before there were procedures about how you accessed certain files, university students were able to see their personnel file. I went in to see my file with my Dean at Edinboro and in that file I saw the letter from my guidance counselor stating ‘I do not recommend Mari K. admittance into a college or university because she is not smart enough to complete it.’ I returned to my high school and confronted that guidance counselor. I wanted to make it clear to him that he could have cut off every option and opportunity I had at the age of 17. I believe that knowing this has always pushed me do more than people expect of me. When I returned to receive my honor I shared this story about being motivated because of someone’s lack of belief in me. I turned this into my own encouragement and a way to profess I can and I will.
Her Agenda: What is something you do on a day-to-day or routine basis that you believe contributes to your success?
Mari K. Eder: I am a list maker and I prioritize. I think about the one thing that I can do each day that can get me to my long-term goal. This method keeps you focused on your vision and where you want to go. Organizing in this way is more strategic than simply completing a task.
Her Agenda: Where does your humor come from?
Mari K. Eder: I think you have to laugh at yourself. I know so many people who take themselves too seriously. If I tried that it would not work for me. Life has a way of keeping you humble. If you can laugh at yourself and if you are approachable people are drawn to you. I decided I don’t want to be one way at home, and one way with subordinates. I want to be me all time. If you are authentic people recognize it and see that you are genuine.
[Editor’s note: This interview was published on July 16th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]