Jennifer Maxson credited her mentor, the late Fred Chapman, for helping her make good decisions as she navigated her career path. Photo by Michael Buck
Jennifer Maxson felt an early fascination with how humans send and receive messages, and it’s never quite left her.
While studying public relations at Grand Valley State University, she mastered the modes of communication available in the 1990s: in person, on paper, on TV or over the airwaves.
With the rise of the digital age, opportunities in the communications field — as well as a web of potential pitfalls — have grown exponentially, making it imperative for organizations and leaders to understand that messaging can be an asset and a liability.
After college, Maxson worked at what was then called the Downtown Management Board in Grand Rapids, doing event planning, communications and marketing for the former Monroe Mall — now Rosa Parks Circle. She spent her time observing other leaders and building a visibility of her own.
In 1996, she went to work at Nancy Skinner & Associates, where she stayed on through Varnum Consulting’s acquisition of the firm in 2003.
After spending 14 years at Varnum Consulting, including 11 as its coaching practice group leader, Maxson started her own spinoff firm, Jennifer Maxson & Associates, on Sept. 1, 2017.
The new firm, based out of Maxson’s Rockford office, provides leadership development, executive coaching and presentation skills training to clients throughout Michigan and beyond. It also offers private and public group programming such as workshops and networking at Calvin College’s Prince Conference Center.
In her daily work, Maxson applies the skills she gained in her first few jobs — initiative, research, professionalism and persistence.
The first two skills were honed during her time with Nancy Skinner.
“When I was with Nancy, my role was a mix of communications and lots of other responsibilities, and whenever we would receive publications, whether the Business Journal or trade magazines, one day I decided instead of just handing them to Nancy to go, ‘Here you go,’ I would go through those and start to flag them and write notes for opportunities for new clients or opportunities for new programs or ideas — that way, it gave her a sense of where to look first.”
Through forming this habit on her own, she learned about the power of research — a tool she still uses heavily in her client work.
“Before I work with a client now, I am always looking at, are they in the news? What are they being recognized for? What are their plans? So I can come in with the information and ideas and bring value,” she said.
Maxson said the job at the Downtown Management Board taught her “the core basics of professionalism” — how to treat others, how to conduct yourself, punctuality and assertiveness.
In her individual coaching relationships, she highlights those same basics.
“Presence continues to be big for both men and women at all levels,” she said. “That’s, ‘How do we show up, how do we sit at the table, how do we communicate and how do we manage those emotions when we’re passionate about our business service?’”
Managing emotions in a measured way is a skill Maxson has gained through years of public speaking and business experience. At Varnum, Steve Bentz, who was a controller in the finance department at the time, showed Maxson how to make decisions based on data and not on whims.
“It was knowing your numbers, knowing how to forecast and knowing the right information to look at to make really good business decisions,” she said.
The fourth skill Maxson learned early on was persistence, which was reinforced to her not only by her hardworking parents — her mom was a teacher and her dad a private-practice podiatrist — but from a GVSU mentor and communications professor, the late Fred Chapman.
“Fred knew my path of communications and business, so whenever I thought I wanted to stray or wander, he was always my sounding board and helped me make some really good decisions to set myself up for success,” she said. Chapman continued to follow her career and show up at her speaking engagements long after she had graduated college.
With so many experiences under her belt from her two-plus decades in business, Maxson’s decision to branch off on her own wasn’t a hard one, she said.
“For me, there was this whisper in my heart that said I was ready to fly and do something different. I was really happy at Varnum. Varnum is fantastic, and we’re still really good friends. It was just time for me to try something new, and I knew if I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it down the road,” she said.
“I wanted to continue doing what I loved to do but under my own brand.”
At her new firm, things are humming along. She is looking to gain more coaching accreditations for herself without slowing the pace of growth and while supporting her team of eight — who are a mix of in-house employees and consultants/contractors.
The firm is seeing several common themes in the types of questions and issues businesses and executives are bringing through the door, including how to build momentum for initiatives by communicating in the right way to gain buy-in from stakeholders; understanding the relationship between the role of the manager and the role of a leader and how to morph from the former to the latter; and how to set direction for an organization.
“When we have so many messages and so many competing priorities, as a leader, how do I set the direction for my team, my department or my organization up at the top that is really clear and compelling and simple enough that you could outline it on one piece of paper and individuals understand where you’re going in your priorities and how do you work with them?” she said.
Maxson said her firm helps with direction setting in facilitated brainstorming sessions that start with a “SWOT analysis” — delineating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a given objective or entity — designed to give every stakeholder a voice.
The distinct yet related services Jennifer Maxson & Associates offers are underpinned by a common requirement: They have to drive results for the clients, or they are no good.
“We’re really focused on the results piece, so when folks leave a program or service, they know how to use the tools so they can get the performance improvement on the job,” Maxson said.
“The super special fact about my team is that they balance getting results with the business side of it. It’s not just theory. They understand how businesses work and understand our clients to help coach folks in the right way.”
Maxson said her volunteer experiences are primarily an outgrowth of her work in communications. To students from the Cook Leadership Academy in GVSU’s Hauenstein Center, she offers a chance to attend some of her firm’s public programs that focus on skills development and provide networking opportunities.
“The leadership academy, those are our future leaders. So I want us to support, help, coach and mentor — do whatever I can to make sure that they’re successful.”
At Michigan Women Forward, formerly known as the Michigan Women’s Foundation until a rebrand in August, Maxson helps women entrepreneurs make sure they are ready to communicate about their product or business to the judges during pitch competitions.
“For me, it’s about that sisterhood of supporting other women, and whether it’s through the program or through networking, making connections and supporting women that way, it’s an organization that I’m proud to be part of,” she said.