Her story: Kathy Waller ’80, ’83S (MBA)

Her story: Kathy Waller ’80, ’83S (MBA)

University trustee and new Women’s Network cochair talks about life, leadership, and lessons learned along the way

Kathy Waller headshot

Kathy Waller ’80, ’83S (MBA)

In March 2019, Kathy Waller ’80, ’83S (MBA), retired from her position as chief financial officer at Coca-Cola, following a successful, 32-year career. As a little girl, Waller never dreamed of becoming a corporate finance trailblazer. Instead, she imagined a future that looked a lot like that of her favorite TV character Perry Mason, the fictional crime-fighting lawyer of the 1960s.

“There weren’t any accounting superheroes out there when I was a kid,” says Waller. “But, every week, Perry Mason was on the screen, preventing the miscarriage of justice, and that’s what I thought I wanted to do when I grew up.”

At the time, studying history was a natural progression for would-be lawyers, so Waller chose that as her major. After graduating from Rochester, she took a year off to study for the law school entrance exams. She also took a job at the City of Rochester working in its budget bureau. One of her last assignments there was managing the city’s summer youth employment program. This gave her an opportunity to hire and train 300 young people, putting much-needed money in their pockets. She loved the job—so much so that she decided on a new career path in finance. She then enrolled at the Simon Business School, where she earned her MBA. Later, she became a certified public accountant.

While Waller may have retired from corporate life, she maintains a full schedule as a volunteer leader, coach, and mentor. She sits on four corporate and five non-profit Atlanta-based boards. She is a member of Simon Advisory Council, and since 2019, has been a University trustee. Waller was also just named cochair of the University’s Women’s Network and will succeed its inaugural chair, Gail Lione ’71, in July.

“The first person I called when I was recruiting our inaugural leadership team was Kathy Waller and the first person I thought about to succeed me as cochair was Kathy Waller,” says Lione. “She is a thoughtful leader who offers intelligence and empathy, and she delivers both with direct grace. I am confident the Women’s Network will be in good hands when we transition and I am so grateful she agreed to serve in this role.”

Here, Waller provides insight into her life, leadership, and lessons learned along the way.

Why are you such an active volunteer?

When I retired from the Coca-Cola Company, I went on a listening tour across Atlanta to visit organizations that support the Atlanta community. I am a native of Atlanta and most of my family is in Atlanta. I knew there were lots of great things going on in the city, but I wanted to know and understand more so that I could spend my time giving back to the city I love and the people in it. My tour led me to join the boards of Achieve Atlanta, the Woodruff Arts Center, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta. I was already on the boards of Delta Airlines, Spelman College, CGI, and Beyond Meat.

I rejoined the University of Rochester board around that same time as I wanted to make a difference, especially around diversity and inclusion. I believed I could do that because I had strong relationships with people who were still on the board. I had a great conversation with the chair at the time–Rich Handler–about his philosophy in running the board, and the University was about to inaugurate President Manglesdorf. I very much wanted to lend my support to her.

What drew you to your board positions?

All of the organizations I am involved in align with my values. The University certainly does with its mission to make the world ever better. Spelman does, too, with its dedication to supporting and educating young Black women. Delta is a major employer and economic driver in Atlanta that takes amazing care of its customers and employees. It focuses on people, which absolutely aligns with my values as does CGI. And, although I have not made the conversion to 100 percent plant-based, I believe in the mission of Beyond Meat—I don’t think we have enough good protein sources to feed the world. Addressing food insecurity with good sources of protein and other nutrients is an imperative.

Why are you so engaged with your alma mater?

When I was a student here, only about five percent or slightly less were Black—it was a very different place than it is now. I came from an all-Black high school, so coming here, where it was basically all white at the time, was challenging. As an undergraduate, I had to learn how to manage through adversity. So, now I want to lend my voice and show my support to women and underserved students within the University community. I also want to do my part to make sure that others have positive experiences.

You are involved in mentoring and coaching—why and what’s the difference between the two?

Mentors may not have our same professional experiences or aspirations, but they have significant experiences that they use to help us think about our lives, careers, and goals. Coaches, to me, have a more specific role. They help us advance in professional roles and work through specific situations, challenges, and opportunities. I mentor a number of people, informally and formally, and I coach C-suite executives, including up-and-coming CFOs and finance executives.

What advice do you have for those who want to move up the corporate ladder?

Be curious and adaptable. Grow your professional network as you focus on continuous learning and development. Seek feedback. If you do not feel like you are progressing or that you are valued, think about what you need to do differently and act on it. Also, be objective and ask yourself if your current work situation is the best place for you. Sometimes, it isn’t. Sometimes, the best decision is the hardest one as it may mean moving on.

Do you have a favorite quote?

I have two. One is from Maya Angelou. She said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” That means a lot to me, especially now, during the pandemic and when social and racial unrest is at a tipping point. We all learn what we learn, when we learn it. If you are acting out of a lack of knowledge, you owe it to yourself and others to seek education, understanding, and facts. And, once we know something, we cannot ignore what we’ve learned even if it is contrary to what we want to believe.

John Maxwell—the New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker—penned my other favorite quote. He said, “People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude.” It reminds me that people know when you are just going through the motions versus when you are engaged. If you are interacting with others, they deserve your complete attention.

What are you reading right now?

In my book club, we just read Nine Lies about Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. It’s about how we are all taught to believe certain things about work, but that not all of them are true. For instance, many of us think that our company is the priority, but we should be thinking about the team we are on within that company. It’s important to remember that work is actually getting done at the team level—and so is our growth and development as employees.

Join the Women’s Network

Be part of a vibrant community focused on connecting and supporting alumnae through dynamic programming and engaging conversations. Learn more about the University’s Women’s Network.

—Kristine Thompson, February 2022