Christin McClave – Her Leadership Journey from Johnson & Johnson to Cardone Industries and beyond…

“I thrive in an environment where I can take initiative and go after things and be creative and come up with new ideas.”-Christin McClave

[00:00:00] Christin McClave: I think first I would really want to understand the leader’s background. The team, the person, on Shark Tank, they usually have one other person standing with them. And the Sharks are very interested in, where they came from, what their experiences are, how the two or three of them got together and the real dynamic of them working together.

Our guest this week is Christin McClave.  Christin is an accomplished senior executive advisor and board member with more than 20 years of success across the manufacturing, supply chain, consumer products, and automotive industries. She began her corporate career with Johnson & Johnson. Most recently she was Chief Operating Officer for their family business Cardona Industries – a 5,000-employee global sustainable manufacturer of parts for the automotive aftermarket. Kristen led Cardone’s successful exit strategy in 2019. 

Since then, she’s been coaching and consulting with various companies that need transformation and streamlined synergy with their people process and technology strategy. 

I believe people who’ve led successfully in the private sector, have a lot to offer nonprofit leaders. Christin is no exception. Christin, welcome to Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership. 

[00:01:23] Christin McClave: Thank you. I’m happy to be here. 

[00:01:27] Tommy Thomas: It’s good to have you. People a lot of times will ask me, where do you find all these people? And our friend Christine at Talbot at World Vision suggested that I have you as a guest, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

 I like to start back somewhere toward the beginning. What’s your most beloved memory of your childhood? 

[00:01:45] Christin McClave: Oh, wow. I’ll tell you a little bit about my parents and then that’ll give you some context to how I grew up. I grew up in the Philadelphia area. And my father grew up there as well and his family and eventually our family business was headquartered in Philadelphia.

He went to Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and met my mom there. They were both cheerleaders, and my mom is one of 12 who grew up on a farm in Arkansas, so we had a collision of cultures growing up, which was really wonderful. And I do believe it really set me up in a unique way to relate to a lot of different people across the country.

And some of my best memories. every Thanksgiving probably until I was going to college, maybe a little bit before that, we would go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was where my grandparents eventually moved from Arkansas to Oklahoma. And a lot of my aunts and uncles lived there and I, as you can imagine, had, over 50 first cousins and we gathered every single year for Thanksgiving and just grew up together and did all kinds of amazing things with, just learning a whole different kind of way of life from our Philadelphia existence.

My father is Italian, so our Italian American family in Philadelphia was a huge contrast from that. And they were both wonderful, right? The food and the vibrance and the city life that we had in Philadelphia. And then, being able to go and ride horses with my cousins and, collect the eggs from the chicken coop and build forts in the fields and do all kinds of things.

My mom’s family is really musical, so we would put on these shows for all the aunts and uncles and just had a really wonderful time every year, looking forward to that Thanksgiving experience. 

[00:03:56] Tommy Thomas: Maybe aside, or in addition to that, what do you think is the greatest gift your parents gave you?

[00:04:02] Christin McClave: Oh, wow. There are a lot of them. I think the greatest gift they gave me really has to do with understanding my unique nature. I’m the girl in between two boys, so I have an older brother and a younger brother. And I can say that they really gave me a lot of room to explore my unique personality and capabilities.

And I think, in a time where they could have said, you need to go here to college, or you need to do this and that. I think they recognized from a young age that I was pretty mature and pretty driven and focused and allowed me to have some freedom.

In the context of this, I went to a Christian school. We went to church a couple of times a week. Like I definitely had a lot of structure around from a Christian cultural perspective. But there were a lot of my cousins in that big cousin group, and my brothers also went to Oral Roberts University, and I just, I was really challenged and said, I really do think I need to do something different.

And they really could have forced me to do that. And I ended up at the University of Alabama, which was really different and it was the right place for me because I really felt like I needed to make my own way and figure out where I stood with my faith on my own, in, the context of a secular environment.  And God really blessed that experience for me. 

[00:05:41] Tommy Thomas: What was the big challenge maybe of going to a secular school like that? Do you remember your freshman year and what the challenges were? 

[00:05:49] Christin McClave: Yeah, I think the major, I’ll say the shock to my system in the first place was like being in an environment with around people who weren’t all exactly like me, their parents had different ideas of why they were there or they had different ideas of why they were there.

It wasn’t focused on the spiritual aspect. And it was just a huge pool of students, the size compared to my little high school experience of 40 graduating with 45 kids going to, at that point I think, Alabama was probably 18,000. Now it’s much, much bigger.

And I went into the honors college, which kind of gave me a little bit more of a cocoon because it was a smaller group. But you just show up and everybody comes from different worlds, different backgrounds, different spiritual backgrounds. It was certainly in the Bible belt. You could certainly find Christian groups on campus and churches around and, a lot of people who grew up with, a Christian tradition in their family.

So that in and of itself was a good stepping stone to getting out into the real world for me. But at the same time, it was a big shock in a lot of ways. Not only from a spiritual perspective and not having all those guardrails around me being in a Christian school and going to church all the time and youth group and being a leader in my youth group.

But culturally for me, a lot of people are so surprised. I grew up in Philly, in the Northeast, and then heading down to the Deep South for college was a shock to a lot of people. Now it’s very different. In Philly you talk to anybody whose kids are applying to colleges and all the kids, from the northeast are very interested in going to schools in the South, in the Midwest.  And it’s become much more ubiquitous as a college choice. 

[00:07:48] Tommy Thomas: Of all the places that one could have worked when you graduated, how did you pick Johnson & Johnson? 

[00:07:54] Christin McClave: Yeah, that’s a really great story. I had been working at our family business from age 13 to 20 and every summer I would rotate to a different functional area and learn a different part of the business.

Cardone was our family business and we manufactured automotive parts for the aftermarket and we put them through a remanufacturing process.  It was actually recycling that we did in a different sort of way. And so, there was a lot to learn and a lot to be done.

And I had a wonderful experience every summer that I worked there. But there was this inkling inside of me saying, are there women in leadership roles somewhere that I could go learn from and be mentored by and just see how they work in the world? Because we didn’t really have that at our manufacturing automotive parts company, a very male-dominated environment.

Which, I learned a lot through that as well for my future career. That was a really great experience. But I ended up calling my cousin, my third cousin.  She had been at Johnson & Johnson. I needed to find an internship that was close to home.

Going to school in Alabama, I wanted to find something so I could be home for the summer. So, I called her, and I just said, is there any way I could apply for an internship at J&J? I’d love to learn from you, get to know you, and let me know if there’s anything available. So she helped me get an internship that summer.

And she just was thrilled to be helping me with that. And that led to me getting a job offer. That was my junior summer. And I got a job offer about six months later to come back full-time after I graduated. 

[00:09:50] Tommy Thomas:  What do you remember about your first management role when you actually had people reporting to you?

[00:09:57] Christin McClave: Yeah, I was really excited about it, honestly. Some people don’t find it, to be something to look forward to. I think from my observations being at Cardone for many years and seeing some good leaders, some leaders who you can tell, like the mantle was put on them and they didn’t necessarily want to be doing it, but its just, sometimes you just have to do.

So, I was excited to try my hand at managing people. I guess innately I felt like that was going to be one of my strengths.

And I got the interns, that was my first management experience at J&J. They’re all right, your first chance is you get the interns or the, we have co-ops too, up here in Philly, we’ve got kids that come over from a local university, and they come for six months.

So, there’s the three-month interns and the six-month co-ops. I really enjoyed it. I can say, you learn very quickly that you have to build trust with them. You’ve gotta find ways to get them focused and moving in the right direction. And then you start thinking, oh wow, I’ve been getting all these performance reviews myself, and now I’ve gotta figure out how to give them feedback and create measurable goals and find ways to motivate them.

And a really big lesson I learned at J&J, it was one of their values for all of the younger people working there, they always said, 

we need people with can-do attitudes and people who take initiative.

And so that was always something that I learned right away when I was acting in those respects. I got a lot of praise and opportunities and a lot of respect and promotions because that was really something I was like, oh, that’s really important to them.

And that’s something I certainly, thrive in an environment where I can take initiative and go after things and come be creative and come up with new ideas. So that was really something that I really tried to bring to, managing these interns and co-ops and passing that along to them.

[00:12:08] Tommy Thomas: Did you find at J&J, a group of women mentors and people that could take you on down the road? 

[00:12:14] Christin McClave: Yes, I did. My cousin Lisa, who’s still at J&J, she’s in her early sixties now. She’s thinking about retirement in the next few years. But we are regularly having mentor conversations.

And the cool thing is, I’m at the point where I can also give her some advice. It’s almost like a circle, a reversal, a full circle of mentorship and coaching that she and I have. There are times when she calls me and asks me for advice now, which is really exciting. 

I can think of about five other women who were either in manager, director, or VP level roles at J&J back in the late ‘90s – early 2000’s.  They were trailblazers in so many ways. Two of them were sharing a job in a manager role, which was very unique, in the office world and all that we were dealing with. Now we get a lot more flexibility, but there was not a lot of flexibility with how they all had to present themselves.

And a couple of them were having babies and trying to lead and be great mentors for me and I was ended up in the women’s leadership program there and I came up through IT and in the IT leadership program. And it was just a wonderful place for me to learn, to get trained, mentored, and developed.

I got so much really solid manager training when I first started there. And I hope young people today are getting that type of mentoring and training and coaching and development that I did. And I always say that’s 

one huge benefit to going to a big company when you first start your career is to really, suck all of that in, take it all in, and really just be a sponge for what you can learn and grow and see.

Now granted, we were in the office every day, so I’m not so sure how that’s all translating in the same respect that it was when I was in the office versus being on a screen with your managers and leaders.  And I think we have yet to find out, the impact of all of that.

[00:14:33] Tommy Thomas:  You’ve been through a lot of leadership roles, both at J&J and then in your family business. At what point did you begin to know yourself well enough to know what to look for in leadership? 

[00:14:45] Christin McClave: Yeah, I, oh boy. Every leadership role I’ve had has been so different. And I know just from the experience of having challenging roles and other roles where I was very supported as a leader by my either CEO or whatever the team surrounding me.

And knowing that there are varying degrees of whether you can be successful or not, or what kind of support you need. And so I think, if I would choose what my next leadership role would be, the ideal situation for me is really having the trust and support and belief that whoever the leader is, if it’s the CEO, if I’m the CEO, if I’m a C-level executive or just in some other leadership role, that there’s solid support ahead of me in that, from a board perspective. 

Having that trust and relationship with the board is really important regardless of whatever role you’re in a senior leadership role, it’s important to really try to build some bridges and relationships with whatever board is in place. If it’s the ownership in a family business, having that trust and being trusted by the board and the owner is really important.

And them really trusting that you can make the right decisions about deciding who’s on the team and who is giving you the autonomy to make those decisions. That’s one thing in my career. Over time I have become so much better at like really understanding, talent, skillsets, and experience, and really combining all of the assessment of all of the talent, the different pieces of talent for leadership.

And I have a pretty good track record at this point of being able to piece together a leadership team or really understand where the holes and gaps are, if it’s the governance process because of my experience on a variety of boards, if it’s the leadership team inside the company or the organization.

And one of my passions is really around assembling a great leadership team or a great board and finding ways to build that out. That’s one thing I really enjoy doing. So sometimes I come in and I know that things are not perfect, which they never are.


No organization is perfect, but one of my passions and something that I really enjoy doing is seeing where the holes in the gaps are and finding ways to help bolster the organization and help them find the right talent to bring to the table to be successful.

[00:17:40] Tommy Thomas: It’s been said that we probably learned most from our failures. If that’s the case, why are most of us so afraid to fail?

[00:17:47] Christin McClave: I think we have built these structures, and I’ll use an example, these systems in our organizations such as the performance management process, right? I’ve built so many of those and or tweaked so many of those, or I’ve been building the technology to automate those things.

And we’re always striving for this perfect situation where, we have the corporate goals and then we’re going to cascade them and we’re going to have KPIs and everybody’s going to put their goals in and their personal goals. And we’ve got a team goal, and we build these very complex systems and structures, which are extrinsically and intrinsically driving us to some type of perfect state.

It’s an equation, right? Then it’s going to equal perfection. We all know that just has not ever happened one time in the world. We can say that across the board in nonprofit organizations, for-profit organizations, any type, churches, whatever it is, we know it never works.

And so, I think the venture capital space, the entrepreneurial space they’ve done a much better job of highlighting failure and really using failure anecdotes and case studies to really show and normalize that it’s okay to fail. And actually, you learn so much and we talk a lot about growth mindset.

That’s really what triggers the learning and the growing and the changing and it’s our whole system. Even when you even look beyond organizations, you look at our government, and our economy and how much failure isn’t really celebrated or recognized. And it should be.

And I’m happy to see that we see a lot more out there, a lot more experiences and biographies and people interviewed about failure and it’s really tough though. When you come through all of our systems like high school and college and you take the SATs and then you’ve got college and then you’ve got your master’s and you’re driving towards some sort of if I only do this, then that’s going to equal a better outcome and it’s just gonna keep building on it.

And we all know there is failure and imperfectness in this world, and it’s really an impossible thing to strive for and we can learn so much from our failures. 

[00:20:18] Tommy Thomas: So you mentioned the venture capital world. I’m a big fan of Bob Tiede’s blog – Leading with Questions.

Last week, he had a guest guy on there, and the guy talked about what if there was a nonprofit version of Shark Tank? And I thought, then that’d be a good question. What if there was a nonprofit version of something like Shark Tank and you were one of the judges, or you were one of the people that was going to be giving some early-stage investment capital?

What questions would you want to be answered before opening your checkbook? 

[00:20:48] Christin McClave: Oh, that’s a fun question. I think first of all I would really want to understand the leader’s background. The team, the person, on Shark Tank, usually has one other person standing with them. And the Sharks are very interested in, where they came from, their experiences, how the two or the three of them got together and the real dynamic of them working together, and what skills maybe one brings to the table, the other one fills in the gaps. I’d like to really understand that and know that there’s some experience they’re building an organization. I think the other piece to that is really the passion, the drive. What is the problem or the issue founder or those co-founders are trying to solve and what’s driving that?

And is that passion or is that issue really going to still be driving them in five years or 10 years? Is it something, or is it, more of a short-term thing? The other piece, and I think this probably comes from my experience on nonprofit boards that are probably larger than this would be, but really understanding the percentage of the budget that would actually be going to the work, the problem solving, the issue resolution, and what percentage of the budget would really be, going to administration and or SG&A, or overhead, however you want to say it.

And that may not be important for everybody, all investors, but for me it’s the piece that I enjoy digging into from a financial perspective and from an accountability perspective with nonprofits that I either work with or talk to and just understanding, are they managing that equation or that ratio.

And also, as they get larger, they will certainly have donors, investors, and fundraising questions around that in particular. And I think the third thing I would say is who is mentoring them? How do they have support built around them?

If maybe they’re an early-stage company, they probably don’t have a board yet. But I think in the nonprofit context, it’s really important to know those things and to make sure there are people that they’ve built into their feedback process. Maybe it’s just a monthly advisor call if they have, or maybe an advisor or a few advisors meet with them on a regular basis because the challenge with a nonprofit, is really thinking through your revenue source.

If your revenue is not coming from a product or a service, it’s coming from the fundraising donation side of things. You’ve really got to build out some people in your network who can help you strategize about that and become good at that.

And I’ll say just from personal experience, that’s part of why I haven’t taken on a leadership role in a nonprofit yet in my career because I feel like you have to feel called to the issue or the problem at hand. If you’re going to be in a senior role in a not-for-profit organization, you’ve really got to have a drive and a passion for that cause. 

And, number two, you’ve got to really understand the revenue source is very different in the nonprofit space. And you really have to think about okay, we’re raising money for this cause rather than, hey, this product has this gross margin and this and that. It’s a whole different mindset shift.

And maybe someday I will, but for right now I’m in the for-profit space. But I love supporting and being a mentor and advisor in the nonprofit space and supporting them as much as I can. 

[00:24:47] Tommy Thomas:  I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you at least one question about your family business because it has been a part of the American automotive landscape for sure.

And I’ll start, maybe we’ll go into it from a risk perspective. I read a quote from this guy, Frederick Wilcox says progress always involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first. A company didn’t achieve the size that Cardone did without taking some risk along the way.

From your perspective, what’s the biggest risk y’all took and lessons learned from it?

[00:25:16] Christin McClave:  Yeah, lots and lots of risks had to be taken for sure.

The biggest risk that we took as a company and as a family was really moving production to Mexico. In the earlier 2000’s we started that process and we had to make a decision, when you’re going and talking to banks and giving your strategy about financing for different projects.

We were the lone ranger in the space at the size we were and at our height we had about 6,000 employees. If you think about the sheer size of having to build production facilities or distribution facilities and spread that out outside of Philadelphia, we also had to think through our global competition.

And at that time, we might have had one competitor, smaller competitor that was manufacturing in the US but pretty much most of our competition was overseas in Asia, China, and Mexico. And so, anytime we would approach the bank and talk about these projects they would always wonder why we weren’t in Mexico or China.

It was a huge risk when we took it. but over time, we really built a wonderful team in Mexico, and we were able to bring a lot of our cultural elements there. Our company was built on Christian values and the Mexican people are very religious and very devout people to their faith.  God certainly planted that opportunity into our hands. 

Tommy Thomas: Our guest next week will be Lindy Black. Most recently the Associate US Director at The Navigators, her leadership abilities were recognized early by The Navigators. She was the first female on the executive leadership team and has played a significant role in leader development at The Navigators.  Throughout the conversation, you’ll hear the thread of listening and learning. Here she is responding to my question about the first time she led a staff team.

[00:27:17] Lindy Black:  My first team that I led had four men on it, and they were all older than me and they had more experience than me. So, the first tangible emotion that came to mind is I was nervous, and I felt insecure. Now, many years later, I read the best article on leading people who know more than you do.

What I was learning in that early first management was that I needed to lean into the expertise and actually the greater knowledge of my teammates. And in doing that, not only was I learning, but it gave me an opportunity to affirm and encourage their development in what they were bringing.

“One huge benefit to going to a big company when you first start your career is to really take it all in and really just be a sponge for what you can learn and grow and see.” -Christin McClave

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

Family Business Magazine – Christin Cardone McClave

Philadelphia Business Journal – Christin McClave


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