Kathy Mazzarella, chairman, president & CEO of Graybar, joins the Defining Moments speaker series to share how she rose through the ranks of a Fortune 500 company starting out without a college degree. Mazzarella—who completed an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and MBA while working at Graybar—breaks down her success story into the following two life lessons.
Always aim for No. 1
Mazzarella shared advice from her greatest inspiration, her father, “Your only failure in life is if you don’t shoot high enough. If you shoot for the No. 1 position and don’t get it, you haven’t failed, you’ve learned. If you shoot for the No. 2 position and get it, you’ve failed.”
This lesson stuck with Mazzarella throughout her many defining moments. The first was her high school class president election. She ran and lost. Instead of giving up, the following year, Mazzarella didn’t just run for class president, but school president—the No. 1 position.
Acknowledging that it was a popularity contest, she had to strategize how to win using her connections, through sisters, in order to compensate for votes among her own classmates she knew she couldn’t win.
Mazzarella won class president.
The same lesson that initially applied to her class president election carried with her when just a few years later, she dropped out of college. Mazzarella initially went to school with aspirations of becoming a doctor. Realizing this path wasn’t for her landed her back home with two devastated parents.
Mazzarella, hoping to make her own path, went out for a job interview. On her way to the interview, she stepped into a building on the way to ask for directions. The building held the Graybar offices. They were hiring. This was fate.
The interviewer asked, “What role would you like to have?” Mazzarella, recalling her father’s advice, replied, “president.”
Use setbacks to learn, grow and become stronger
This lesson was one Mazzarella had to learn the hard way. She was up for a senior vice president position. As the first female vice president in the company—with an incredible professional track record—she was up against a male candidate who was always one step behind her.
Mazzarella frankly believed she was a shoe-in. Mazzarella worked hard, stayed late every night, worked every weekend, got every award available, and yet her competition got the job.
Mazzarella’s initial reaction? “I’m done.”
However a quick call to her father changed her mind.
“This is your defining moment,” he said. “How you handle this will determine your future career. Everyone’s watching.”
Mazzarella swallowed her pride and called the winning candidate to congratulate him.
This blow steered her career toward HR and strategic planning, which ultimately made her a better leader. When Mazzarella was running for the CEO position, a board member recalled that she handled the SVP loss incredibly gracefully, proving that she cared about the company over herself.
Mazzarella truly used this setback to grow and become ultimately stronger, as she now hold the positions of chairman, president & CEO.