These Tampa Bay women want to develop corporate America’s next female CEOs

Audrey McGuckin and Mary Key talk glass ceilings, #MeToo and merging their leadership development firms.
Audrey McGuckin, left, and Mary Key officially debuted their business partnership at the Key Women's Leadership Forum in Tampa on Aug. 25. McGuckin's St. Petersburg leadership development company, the McGuckin Group, purchased Key's Tampa company, Key Associates Inc., in August.
Audrey McGuckin, left, and Mary Key officially debuted their business partnership at the Key Women's Leadership Forum in Tampa on Aug. 25. McGuckin's St. Petersburg leadership development company, the McGuckin Group, purchased Key's Tampa company, Key Associates Inc., in August. [ Bay Stage Live ]
Published Sept. 8, 2022

Audrey McGuckin and Mary Key met five years ago at a networking event for women in business. That’s fitting, because networking women in business is a big part of what McGuckin and Key are all about.

McGuckin is the founder and CEO of the McGuckin Group, a St. Petersburg leadership development company that last month acquired Key Associates Inc., Key’s Tampa firm aimed at developing executive talent, especially among women.

The combined company will place an emphasis on leadership training and acceleration for women. Key runs a long-running leadership networking, support and collaboration forum that’ll be folded into McGuckin’s peer-learning development program Women On Their Way.

“What I’m most excited about is that Tampa Bay women and organizations get access to this incredible organization that’s being formed,” McGuckin said. “I don’t know that there’s any other local area that has access to such incredible thought leadership, grit and access to some incredible women as peers. That’s pretty special.”

Related: Tampa, St. Petersburg leadership development firms to merge

McGuckin founded her firm after a long career at Jabil; Key formed hers after years in consulting. Their combined client list spans the Fortune 500, including Amazon, Nissan, Intel, Citi and BayCare Health System. McGuckin’s had former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on her podcast, and Key has worked with Inc. magazine to set up CEO roundtables around the country.

Over a recent Zoom, McGuckin and Key talked about how the executive track has changed for women in the workplace, from the start of their careers through the pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you started your careers, how were companies developing C-suite talent, and how has that changed since?

Key: When I started out, there was a real systematic approach. Large companies were investing a lot of money in terms of succession planning, so there was more of a commitment that people were making to a career within a company. What happens now is companies hire people to be in management roles, and they don’t always provide the training. Oftentimes, we in leadership development are called when something blows up. It’s kind of like, “We’re losing all these people, we can’t retain them, help!” It’s like a plumbing problem in a complex apartment house. Somebody wants you to fix the faucet, and all the pipes have gone bad.

McGuckin: There’s no shortage of really smart women, unquestionably. What there is a shortage of is organizations that will allow them to be successful. A lot of the work we do with women leaders is teach them how to navigate the system. If you can name the plumbing issues, you’re more likely to be able to navigate your way through them.

Related: Remembering Tampa Bay's female trailblazers on International Women's Day

How has the idea of a glass ceiling changed?

McGuckin: In a lot of ways, the glass ceiling is much more obvious. Organizations are really committing to taking steps to shattering that glass ceiling. One thing that’s interesting is what’s now being referred to as the glass cliff. What that means is, sometimes very senior women will be given a job, and the organization knows that it’s going to be a really tough job to be successful in. They take the job because of the credibility of getting the job — and yet they fail, and they were oftentimes set up to fail.

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Key: It’s still there, and you can see it in people’s response to some women in leadership roles. If I were to ask you what makes a successful leader, you might say they’re decisive, they go first, they’re assertive. All those characteristics line up well with what we expect in a male, culturally. For women, we’re supposed to be harmonizing, collaborative, making sure things move well. So when a woman behaves like a man, there’s a disconnect, and that’s when the B-word comes into play.

Have you seen that change since #MeToo?

McGuckin: One of the things that really helps women leaders progress is direct feedback. And we’ve seen a reluctance to give women feedback, either because of fear of discrimination, or fear of the #MeToo movement, or something else. That’s become very paradoxical, where women sometimes don’t get the feedback they need.

Related: From 'me days' to paid sabbaticals, this Tampa office is all about time off

Women were more likely to see their careers interrupted as a result of the pandemic. How has that reset expectations for companies looking to develop women leaders?

Key: Many of the women that participate in our forums kind of adjusted to pandemic life. They got into walking their dogs, and having more time to do stuff. Now the world has woken up. For women, it’s harder, because the management of the household — whether you have kids or not — still falls on the shoulders of women. It doesn’t mean that their partners don’t want to participate. But they’re the ones that look at what needs to be done this year, when do we get our shots, when do we go to the doctors, all those different things. I’m seeing women more stressed now than they were with the pandemic, because they’re trying to do it all again. It’s a confusing time, and it’s also a time of higher stress.

McGuckin: One of the things that we have doubled down on for our women leaders is helping them navigate burnout, and helping them navigate the stress of dealing with family life and work life and the pandemic. By far, it’s the number one thing we’re looking at. It’s big and it’s vast and it’s far-reaching.

Most leadership in the tech sector is male. Are you seeing any change in that?

Key: I’m seeing more women, but at the same time, there’s an exodus of women in leadership that has happened — the great resignation since the pandemic. Even though you’re seeing more women across the board in terms of leadership, they’re leaving their positions.

McGuckin: I’ll often say to CEOs, “Tell me about the women leaders in your organization.” And they’ll say it’s about 50% women and 50% men. When I dig in, it might be 50-50 at the analyst level or the more junior level, and very rarely it’s 50-50 at the executive level or the senior level. When women are in positions that what I would call power positions, either profit and loss or business development, that’s when we can create the pipeline to CEO. When women are in more ancillary roles, those are not pipelines to executive positions. Getting organizations to face some of the cold, hard facts is step one of the journey.