Marilyn Tam on the Power of Relational Leadership

Marilyn Tam

23 March 2020


Fear can keep us from asking questions that will guide us on our journey to self-improvement. Fear can also keep us from listening to the wisdom others have to share. Leaders who are able to overcome this fear can unlock the power of relational leadership, says Marilyn Tam—speaker, author, and founder and CEO of Marilyn Tam & Company—on this episode of the Leadercast Podcast. Joining us on the show for a second time, Marilyn dives into some of the content she delivered at Leadercast Women 2018. 

Leaders who are able to overcome this fear can unlock the power of relational leadership.

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After immigrating to the United States, Marilyn worked her way up to became a lead executive at Nike, Reebok and Aveda, as well as a successful entrepreneur. “Every person who has any achievement is because they learn from other people who have gone before them, who helped show them the way,” Marilyn says. “I give credit to everybody I've ever met in my life.”

Learning From Everyone

Moving from Hong Kong to Oregon at a young age, Marilyn needed to find people who could help her. “Who has wisdom, knowledge, experience that I can learn from and how can I access that? What can I offer them?” she asked herself.

Most people don’t think about what they can give back to a mentor but, at the time, Marilyn understood that everything goes two ways. “Everybody around me became a possibility for me to learn from, a potential teacher for me,” she shares. Going through her life thinking that she can learn from others generated an attitude that helped her pave the path to where she is today and eased her transition into a new environment.

In a new company, career or role, this perspective on learning is essential. At one of her first jobs as an executive trainee at what is now Macy’s Inc., Marilyn’s supervisor always said to be hungry. “What advice was he giving me? I have to be persistent. I have to be curious. I have to learn, ask for help and always try to do better.”

Asking for Help

A key lesson Marilyn learned was to ask for help. It seems simple, but for many leaders, doing so is much harder than it sounds. People think that if they ask a question they’ll reveal their ignorance or inexperience; they’ll suffer embarrassment or they’ll be taken advantage of.

“Would you rather them find out now that you’re eager to learn, or do you want to do something wrong and then try to figure out how to fix it?” asks Marilyn.

Asking a question indicates that you are eager to learn and trying to do better. If you view everyone as someone to learn from, you will be able to conquer your fear of asking for help because you are so hungry to improve yourself.

Marilyn credited an early mentor, Marty Bloom, with trusting her with responsibility. He saw that she was someone who was excited and motivated to gain authority. “The fact that he gave me the opportunity to grow much more than even I thought I was able to do at that time gave me that encouragement and faith and confidence in myself to take those leaps,” she says. His trust in her helped her trust herself.

How Leaders Improve

Marilyn mentioned four ways she has helped leaders improve their leadership traits. “I always lay out what the rules of the game are,” she says.


  1. Tell the truth. “You can never move forward with all knowledge if you're not getting all the truth,” Marilyn notes.
  2. Secure buy-in. “I make sure my team and myself have the same mission and [that we] understand how our particular areas align with that overall company organization mission,” she says.
  3. Get feedback. “I have regular meetings with both sides so that they understand what I wish to see from them and I understand from them what they wish to see from me,” she shares.
  4. Support others. Marilyn does this by giving her team the authority to make their own decisions and by leading by example. “We have to do as we say or else the whole thing falls apart,” she explains.


Marilyn shares a story that exemplifies all of these leadership traits. During her time at Reebok, she implemented skip-level meetings—or “Breakfast With Marilyn,” as she called it—where she ate breakfast with an employee who was at least two levels down from her direct reports. While meeting with an entry-level woman who worked in a call center, Marilyn listened to the employee’s idea to redesign the size of the shoebox. “It was a slight modification,” she recalls. “We were able to save over $10 million a year in PR and shipping and packaging in the first year.”

But the best outcome wasn’t in the savings, she says. It was that employees knew they were being heard and were excited when executives came to visit.

“More important than money, more important than anything else, is the recognition and the relevancy to what the employees are doing,” she says. “It's exciting for me; it's exciting for them. I learned so much more than I would ever learn [when] I just stayed talking to my direct reports.”

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Connect with Marilyn on her website.

To hear this interview and more episodes like it, subscribe to the Leadercast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or Stitcher.

Marilyn Tam

A speaker, best-selling author, consultant, board-certified executive and corporate coach, CEO of Marilyn Tam & Co., and the founder and executive director of Us Foundation. She formerly served as CEO of Aveda Corp., president of Reebok Apparel and Retail Group, and vice president of Nike Inc.

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