Why a Well-Honed Gut Instinct is so Important for Leaders

When Marianne Radley decided to leave Anheuser-Busch after a wonderful 15-year career, her colleagues and friends were stunned.

She had risen to become the senior brand manager of the iconic Budweiser brand and worked at a company with a global footprint and a huge marketing budget. She was leaving for a job with a family-owned manufacturer of restaurant equipment that most people in its hometown of St. Louis had never even heard of.

“My friends said: ‘You’re going to work for an oven company?’” Marianne remembers, chuckling.

But she saw something in the new job that others didn’t: a chance to get global leadership experience and manage P&Ls in different overseas markets. As she expected, it turned out to be a rich education for her. Instead of working with creatives and brewers, she was suddenly alongside engineers—and learning a whole new industry and language. She had a hunger to master this new environment and master it quickly.

When Marianne talks with students and people early on in their careers, she often tells them to focus on the experience and not the paycheck. The experiences, she firmly believes, give you a wider-angle lens later in your career. To paraphrase the Farmers Insurance commercial, leaders who have had a broader set of experiences know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two.

Marianne has never been afraid to take a gamble when her heart leads her in a particular direction. One early example: She attended Fordham University and ran on the university’s cross-country and track teams. Midway through her freshman year, she suffered a career-ending injury.

Unable to compete, she found her passion for being at the school waned, so she decided to leave at the end of that year. This did not go over well with her parents—particularly her father, himself a Fordham graduate. He insisted that Marianne stay in school and get her degree.

“I knew that it was not the right time in my life to be sitting in a classroom; my heart was just not in it,” she remembers. She got a job at the Gap. Eighteen months later, she was the manager of a Gap Kids store managing $5.3 million in annual sales—all before she was old enough to buy a beer.

After having saved some money, she re-enrolled in college, this time at Clemson University. When she graduated, she made another counterintuitive decision: She had been planning to go to graduate school. But her older sister wanted to move to Montana and didn’t want to move alone. So Marianne agreed to join her.

Marianne had no plan, but when she arrived, she immediately found work in the beer industry in Bozeman. Her experience proved invaluable, as she was hired by Anheuser-Busch eight months later and moved to Philadelphia to begin her long journey with the brewery.

Marianne’s first job at Anheuser-Busch was in field marketing. She took the job even though the pay was just $12,380 a year. Though her father was excited about the prestige of the company, he was less than enthusiastic about the meager pay she was settling for, and he tried to talk her out of it. But she knew getting her foot in the door and proving herself could lead to greater opportunities.

Ten years later, after many different roles and moves with the company, Marianne became the first female Budweiser Brand Manager in the company’s history. “To lead the flagship brand for the world’s largest brewery, well, even my dad could be proud of that,” Marianne says.

Experience helps executives shape their gut instincts about people and business problems—and that can set them apart from their peers.

Leaders rely heavily on data, as they should. Data is extremely powerful because it helps tell stories that can inform smart strategy. Data is also (often) commoditized. That’s why gut instinct is so important—and in our data-centric world, it’s often underappreciated.

Two years ago, as the social justice conversation in the U.S. was picking up steam, Marianne decided she needed to get more attuned to what was happening in local communities. “I have been very fortunate in my career, and seeing what was going on around our country as it relates to social injustice and continual inequities, I felt that I needed to do more to help underserved communities aside from making a social post or a donation,” Marianne explains.

She made another career switch that caused some peers and friends (and her dad!) to scratch their heads. She took a job running the Boys & Girls Club in Collin County, Texas. She went from overseeing a multibillion-dollar business to overseeing a $3 million non-profit organization. 

When she joined, the organization had roughly 27 days of operating cash left on the balance sheet and was struggling to keep its doors open in the middle of a pandemic. Marianne immediately dug into the organization’s finances with a big business lens and moved to diversify their revenue streams, implement new monthly giving programs, and improve the organization’s messaging and reach. 

As the school year began with schools implementing virtual learning, Marianne and her team made the bold decision to open their clubs all day to provide a safe place for children to do their virtual schooling with adult supervision. 

“The families we serve were having to make tough decisions about whether they could stay home with their kids to supervise their online learning or whether they should go to work. ‘Does my child learn or does my child eat?’ No one should have to make that decision, so we needed to do something to support them,” she says.  

They implemented a virtual support program, which provided the adult supervision, engagement, and guidance to help with the children’s virtual learning, and also meals to the children who no longer had access to them because the schools had closed. About 64% of the youth they serve qualify for the federal free meal program, so the school closure meant that a lot of children suddenly no longer had access to the two meals each day they were getting at school.

Despite joining the organization at the most difficult time in its 52-year history, Marianne was able to expand their services and grow their cash reserves to 180 days within her first year, a number they had not seen in over 14 years. She says it’s been one of the most moving and rewarding experiences of her professional life.

“Empathetic leadership is a rarity,” she says. “Being able to understand all levels of an organization—and improving your understanding of the struggles and challenges that your team or your community faces—makes you a better leader.”

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