Own it: What leaders in the making can learn from Joni Madison’s HRC gala speech - McKinney

Own it: What leaders in the making can learn from Joni Madison’s HRC gala speech

April 13, 2015

As the chief operating officer for a national ad agency, Joni Madison knows what it’s like to expect the unexpected. On Saturday afternoon, February 21, leaving her wife of four months behind to deal with frozen water pipes, Joni was intent on driving an icy route from Hillsborough to Charlotte for the 20th Annual Human Rights Campaign’s North Carolina Gala.

This would be the 16th time she’d attended it and the first time in many years she wouldn’t be involved in planning it. Instead, she would enjoy the evening and even be honored with an award for her HRC leadership.

As the organization’s largest fundraising event, the gala draws over 1,000 paying guests. It takes a year to plan, and its crux is the keynote speech. When HRC President Chad Griffin makes a heartfelt pitch to donors dressed in their black-tie finest, it’s an energizing celebration of all that’s been done for LGBT equality in the past year and a giant kickoff into the year ahead. But because it had rained ice in much of North Carolina the day before, the crux of the 2015 HRC gala became a crisis.

At 1:00 p.m., HRC Development Director Chris Speron called Joni in the car with bad news: Chad’s flight to Charlotte had been canceled in a snowy Washington, D.C. Would she do the keynote address instead?

Joni’s first reaction was, “Me? You’ve got to be kidding.” But as a former producer for McKinney, she empathized with Chris. He just needed a plan. “If I’m one of your plans, I hope I’m plan C,” she replied before hanging up. Chris called back when Joni arrived at the hotel: “You’re now plan A.”

Everyone who is asked to help solve a problem can learn at least four things from Joni’s response.

1. Admit your worries.

Joni had to get over how daunting it was — that in just five hours she would be giving the most important speech of the year for HRC in North Carolina. “Once I allowed myself to be nervous, I could start making plans,” she remembered.

Also, though Joni would be using teleprompters, the stage was open on all sides with no podium for her to stand behind. Theater-in-the-round is intimidating even for some of the best public speakers. She asked for Chad’s speech and time to practice onstage before the guests arrived.

2. Own it.

The only thing worse than having to speak in front of 1,300 people is having to give someone else’s speech. For Joni, that was not an option. “I have the privilege of working every day with some of the most gifted storytellers in the business at McKinney,” Joni said. “I had to take what Chad had started and make it my own.”

Normally, Joni goes to the gala with her wife, Gina Kilpatrick, but Gina had stayed behind to keep the home fires burning, literally. Joni knew that to make Chad’s speech her own, she had to tell her own story through it. Hers and Gina’s.

3. Recognize your advantages.

It’s easy for Joni to talk about HRC. She’d been on the board for 13 years and was the Board of Directors co-chair from 2012–2014. She’d introduced Chad dozens of times. There is nothing she’s more passionate about than equal rights for the LGBT community. And she and Gina had lived their own LGBT equality story long enough to fill hours, much less 20 minutes.

As a minister’s daughter, Joni also knows good public speaking when she hears it and when she delivers it. And she can deliver. But it wasn’t until after she began rehearsing onstage that she realized, “I don’t understand the arc of this speech.” So she headed back to her hotel room, held a banana for a mic and practiced for another three hours. “The blessing was that I couldn’t overthink it too much. I would have been more nervous if I’d had more time,” she explained.

4. Be vulnerable.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to this dinner,” she began. And right away, the audience was in the car with her on I-85. From there, she took them to her backyard, where she and Gina were legally married on their 20th anniversary last October. “I never thought that day would come — getting married in my home state,” Joni recalled. “When Gina and I walked in to the Orange County Register of Deeds to apply for a marriage license, we were treated with respect. I felt like the Velveteen Rabbit — like I was real,” she told the audience.

The flow was good; she’d found the arc. “In some states, same-sex couples can get married at noon, post a wedding photo on Facebook at 1 p.m. and be fired from their jobs before 2 p.m. In some states, we’re still asking for tolerance.” Joni also talked about the global mission of HRC, with particular focus on countries with vile anti-gay laws. “It’s time to look beyond marriage,” she challenged the guests all around her. “There’s so much yet to be done.”

True leaders are not afraid to admit their fears, know how to best use their strengths, find ways to take down walls and be real with those they work with. These tactics work just as well in day-to-day managing as they do in crisis situations. “It’s less about the opportunities you’re given and more about what you do with them,” Joni advised.