Creative to CEO with Marian Goodell


How did Marian Goodell go from studying photography and creative writing to becoming the CEO of Burning Man, one of the biggest sociocultural experiments of our time? The link is fascinating, especially for those who are both creative and analytical and who aren’t following a straight and predictable path. Find out how Marian deals with criticism (i.e., she is too impatient and her tone is too “demanding”) and how she filters feedback.

Highlighted Excerpt:

Majo: You get a lot of feedback as a leader, a lot of criticism. “Hey, you’re not doing this right.” Or, “You’re too this… you’re too that…” How do you filter? How do you decide what to take in and what to ignore?

Marian: Well, when it comes to personality characteristics and leadership issues, I definitely take the ones that my instincts say are right. Someone the other day told me that I tended to sort of shut him down, and yeah I sometimes do that, for sure. There’s a fine line between being patient and knowing when it’s time to move on. I’ve got to keep that in check. Do I mean to shut people down? No, but it definitely comes out.

The other kind of feedback I get is from the outside world, and that, honestly, is easier to deal with.

Majo: Easier to filter out?

Marian: Yes. But then it’s the same thing, if someone says, “The Burning Man organization is not doing this…” The first thing I’ll do is go and look at whether our decisions really aren’t doing that, and then I ask if it’s a value that we’ve been trying to actually improve upon, and whether it’s worth the work that we’re doing in the community and the work that we’re doing with the culture.

Majo: So, exploring and becoming curious, not defensive…

Marian: Just figure it out and get to the bottom of it, yeah.

Majo: Do you look at who gives the feedback before you decide whether to take it in or not? Does the ‘who’ matter for you?

Marian: The ‘who’ matters, sure. For me, at the top of the pile at the moment is feedback from anybody in the organization. It matters 100%. And it’s the same, no matter who you are at the organization. If you came and told me that I shut you down, I want to hear that. Now if someone says that I’m unapproachable and they can’t get time with me, things like that– I have a desk in the middle of the office. It’s an open floor plan and people come up to me all the time, so to say that I’m unapproachable, that’s ‘you’ stuff.

Majo: Good, so you’re able to identify in those kinds of situations that that’s something they have to own and take responsibility for. Then there’s some feedback you get where you’re able to say, “It sounds like there’s some truth to that” or “Okay, I see what you’re saying…”

I think this is a really good filtering mechanism that we women leaders need.

Listen to full episode here.

Show Notes:

  • Marian as a little girl: Learning self-acceptance, how to embrace differences, and enjoying the perks of being a fiery redhead. [2:34]
  • The role of Marian’s family in shaping her to become a strong, confident woman. [8:47]
  • On attending an all-girls college, running for student body, and the first time she decided to be a leader. [13:16]
  • “My role as a CEO is very much that of a storyteller”: How Marian’s creative, analytical side made her the right woman for the job. [16:37]
  • On being a “cat herder” and what that means to her as a leader, and other leadership qualities. [21:47]
  • Why Marian cares about providing opportunities, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and sharing differing perspectives. [27:04]
  • Stories of her father and his participation in Burning Man 2008 (a year before he passed away). [30:32]
  • Marian and Maria discuss failure and the fear of rejection, the importance of creative confidence, and the challenges (and benefits) of collaboration. [35:14]
  • On feminism and fathers, and finding the balance between feminine and masculine leadership traits. [40:30]
  • Looking beyond gender: Taking a hard look at qualities like patience, aggression, compassion. [47:26]
  • How Marian filters and utilizes criticism/feedback. [52:38]
  • Have you ever felt like an imposter? The inner critic vs empowering voice. [57:44]
  • Burning Man: Marian’s vision for the project’s future, her favorite principles (Leave No Trace and Radical Self-Expression), and being poised in the world as a catalyst for social change. [1:01:53]

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