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Three Leadership Lessons from Bryan Stockton

It’s been less than a week since I learned of Bryan Stockton’s passing. I’m still processing this loss and trying to clarify why knowing Bryan mattered to me.

Bryan was well-known within the business community. He was an accomplished executive at Kraft, a globally recognized leader and eventually CEO at Mattel, an active nonprofit board member, and someone who gave his time and talent to places of higher learning including Indiana University and UCLA Anderson. Most recently, Bryan had served as a role model of career reinvention while pursuing his passion for travel photography.

While all of these accomplishments are worthy of accolades, I particularly want to share three leadership lessons I learned from Bryan.

Listen Deeply: In 2006, I joined the international marketing team for the Barbie brand. In this role, I served as a link between the global brand team and the local markets, helping balance consistency with local sensitivity and flexibility. My boss had a dotted line to Bryan and would regularly bring me into meetings with him (thank you, Andres!). I remember the nervous feeling of riding the elevator to the 15th floor for the first time, wanting to make a good impression. Bryan quickly put me at ease, asking my opinion on a strategic decision. I don’t remember the recommendation, but I remember feeling valued. Knowing that he appreciated my on-the-ground perspective on market needs motivated me and connected my contributions to the organization’s bigger goals.

Bryan’s genuine interest was not limited to business matters. In 2008, we shared dinner with a small group while on a business trip in Amsterdam. As Bryan knew, I had just gone through a difficult breakup. Bryan asked how I was doing and empathized with me about the split. I was moved by his thoughtfulness, and it reinforced that he didn’t just care about me as a team member; he cared about me as a person.

Expand Your Perspective: When I founded Mattel’s employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees and their allies, I needed to identify an executive sponsor. Graciela, then the head of Diversity & Inclusion and the person who had encouraged me to start the group, suggested Bryan. If I’m being honest, I was reluctant. I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of allies. I worried that he’d see the group as just a special project to demonstrate his personal growth.

Bryan proved me wrong. When we approached him about creating an It Gets Better video, he wasn’t ready to say yes. As a c-suite leader within Mattel, it was his responsibility to consider the company in every decision. He had concerns that the positive message of the video could get overshadowed, but he resisted making a quick decision. He remained open to continuing the conversation and receiving perspectives and data points that could change his mind. In time, Bryan offered his support in releasing the video, which was well-received. In the end, his support mattered more to me because I knew that he did his own work to get there.

There’s Strength in Vulnerability for Male Leaders Too: Brené Brown’s bestselling books and her TedTalk—The Power of Vulnerability—espouse the value of taking off our armor to go after something that matters. I’ve witnessed countless examples of women demonstrating this in business, but examples from male colleagues have been rare. This weighed on me for some time, as I felt insecure in moments when my emotions came forward at work: resigning to a boss I deeply respected; pulling the plug on a beloved brand that had run its course; receiving wedding shower love from my team.

In 2013, Mattel organized an offsite meeting for directors and above within the El Segundo headquarters. After a full day of presentations, Bryan closed with a few words about what it meant to him to lead a company that played a pivotal role in the lives of kids around the world. He choked up as he shared that one of his stepchildren had called him “Dad” for the first time in a recent Father’s Day message. In that moment, I felt inspiration and gratitude to be working for a CEO who cared so deeply and was willing to share those emotions. Bryan cemented a belief I hold to this day: that my role as a father makes me a more effective business leader.

I hadn’t spoken with Bryan since I left Mattel six years ago, but these lessons have endured. Bryan, thank you for your leadership, your ear, and your support.