‘Finance Geek Girl’ to Communications Leader

By Monica Thomas

Valerie Barker Waller, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing & Communications Officer for the YMCA of the USA, came to communications in a roundabout way. As a self-proclaimed “finance major geek girl,” she was finishing her MBA at the University of Michigan and considering where to go from there.   She sat through and analyzed each corporate recruitment presentation from potential employers. “I was thinking, ‘What’s the work I would do in this role and what’s the culture of this company?’” Waller says.

Waller was considering a role in Brand Management when she saw a presentation from the Leo Burnett advertising agency.  “Every presenter from brand management focused companies would put in a reel of advertising and say, ‘…and this is the best part of our job.’ I thought, ‘So why don’t I just go do that!’”

Waller’s path to the Y included a variety of roles in different industries and sectors, from Leo Burnett to Ameritech to the Museum of Science and Industry, to name a few.  She was deeply involved with the Chicago 2016 Olympics bid, a project she sees as a highlight of her career.  In each progressive position, communications strategy and execution became an even more critical part of an overall portfolio of job responsibilities.

Waller goes on to describe the unique communication challenges facing the Y given the recent divisiveness in American society.  “We’re in red states.  We’re in blue states.  We’re in purples states,” she says.  “We are America. We serve everyone.  We have to think about the full view and perspective of people in communities all over the country and find the common ground where these days it is often hard to find.”

As a senior leader of the Y, Waller believes the organization is uniquely positioned as it relates to Diversity & Inclusion.  “The Y has a very ingrained philosophy about diversity and inclusion,” she says. “There is a thoughtfulness and intentionality that comes directly from the organization’s mission.”

Waller points to three best practices that the Y exemplifies in their Diversity & Inclusion efforts:

  • Consider all aspects of diversity: “The Y has a tool affectionately called “the diversity wheel”. It starts with the core set of attributes that may differentiate you and its rings go out broader and broader from there.  For example, I am diverse because I am a woman.  I am African American. I have young children.  All of the aspects of your professional and personal life create your unique profile of diversity.  The Y’s thinking about inclusion focuses on being super intentional about making sure that all the right voices are at the table for conversations and decisions and that all perspectives included and considered.”
  • Leaders who care: “I think a leader who really, truly believes that diversity is a business priority is key. It has to be a business priority because it is how you best serve the consumers and the stakeholders of the organization.  In order to be able to think about all the aspects of every decision and all components of the business, having diverse thought and diverse opinion on your team is critical.”
  • Don’t just have a “diversity figure-head”: “Do you have a leader who you have tasked with this work, but who’s task is not just to own that work in a silo? Are you ensuring that this work is happening across the organization? It is critical to have a person who is tasked with making sure the organization functions with this lens and is at its best through this lens.  That’s a piece of organizational success.“

As for Diversity & Inclusion within the field of communications, Waller thinks there is a lot left to do.  While she does think that communicators are more inclusive and open to many more dimensions of diversity than many in other industries and sectors, she believes that upward mobility is still a challenge, especially for women. However, she sees trailblazers like Maril MacDonald of Gagen MacDonald and her personal mentor Joan Walker, former Executive Vice President of Allstate and Ameritech, as “beacons of light.” Waller says, “They are leaders and mentors for people to see that ‘You can do this, too.’”

Monica Thomas is an arts administrator, video director/producer, and recovering performing artist. She is a PR & Advertising graduate student at DePaul University and pursuing a career in communications.

2 thoughts on “‘Finance Geek Girl’ to Communications Leader

  1. Hello, my name is Delaney Deal and I am a student at Southeast Missouri State University. I really enjoyed reading this and agree with many points being made here. I especially like the part about how “we have to think about the full view and perspective of people in communities all over the country and find the common ground where these days it is often hard to find”, I agree that work needs to be done to achieve this even though it has gotten better over time. Do you have any advice for a younger white woman who wants to embrace diversity when it may not be as big of a priority for the business she’s working with?

    1. Thanks for your feedback and question, Delaney. As a white woman you can play a huge role in diversity and inclusion. If you and others are discussing a project, ask yourselves how might the game plan be viewed by others who are not represented in your group. In the workplace, be the person who invites others into your discussion or encourage the hiring of talent that is representative of your customers or client base.

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