HomeSocial Impact HeroesHow Katrina McGhee and the American Heart Association Are Helping Millions Of...

How Katrina McGhee and the American Heart Association Are Helping Millions Of People To Prevent A Heart Attack Or Stroke

Make self-care a must do. As a person who has suffered burnout before I can tell you, you never deliver your best when you don’t get rest. Self-care is in the little things. It’s the everyday act of intentionally learning to love yourself enough to make the best decisions for you. We think we have to run ourselves into the ground in order to be respected more, but the reality is you’re never delivering your best in that model.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katrina McGhee.

Katrina McGhee, executive vice president of marketing and communications for the American Heart Association, is a global marketing executive with more than two decades of experience in leading brand-building for world-class social purpose organizations. She began her career with the American Heart Association as marketing director, where she created national social marketing programs, launched several multicultural marketing programs and developed public-private partnerships that generated millions of dollars in annual revenue.

McGhee later served as the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. Most recently, she worked as an independent consultant and launched the Loving on Me Career Success Academy, helping empower women to take charge of their health, lives and careers. She has also served as a business adviser to corporate executives in the areas of strategic planning, brand building, fundraising and career development, with an emphasis on transforming underserved communities and impacting the lives of women, children and minorities. McGhee is a noted speaker and the author of two books: “Loving on Me!: Lessons Learned on the Journey from MESS to MESSAGE” and “BE BOLD BE BRILLIANT BE YOU: Lessons from the C-Suite to Accelerate Your Career.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I first went to college, I majored in accounting because I was good at bookkeeping, but after I got into accounting, I realized I didn’t love it. I could do it and I was good at it, but I didn’t love it. What I realized I really loved was working with people and figuring out how to package and position products and market things, so I went back and got my MBA in marketing. I really found my place in cause marketing, and that I was great at it and it was what I loved. Had somebody challenged me from the beginning to say, “think carefully about what you enjoy and do that”, I would not have spent years doing something that I wasn’t passionate about.

I’m what they call a “boomerang” at the American Heart Association, meaning I worked here, then I left, and now I’ve come back. It was my very first introduction to cause marketing and leadership. Now, to be back after continuing those at other NGOs and running my own business, bringing that experience back with me is really a unique and special opportunity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I came back to the Association in February during American Heart Month, which is kind of like awards season mixed with the holiday season for our organization — so, right in the thick of everything. I thought I was really going to get to take my time and re-learn the business, and then the pandemic happened. It was like a crash course in the Association while the world was in chaos. What has impressed me so much about the Association in the pandemic is our ability to rapidly pivot and meet the need now. That, and our ability to create a clear path forward to say “we’ve got you, we’re going to help you”.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Since I’m a boomerang, I walked in thinking I had this awesome baseline knowledge of being here before. One day early on, I went to a colleague’s desk and I was given a multiple-page, double-sided, single-spaced list of acronyms for the Association, and she said I was seriously going to need it. I was just laughing and thinking “what in the world is this?”! Every time I think about it now, I laugh because (sadly) I lost the document and I totally wish I had it back. It reminds me of Einstein’s saying: “true genius is making the complex simple”.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

As a direct response to the pandemic, the American Heart Association launched Don’t Die of Doubt™, a public awareness campaign reminding people that for medical emergencies like heart attack and stroke, the hospital is still the safest place to be. Even though trends were showing that 9–1–1 calls and ER visits were down across the country, we knew heart attacks and strokes hadn’t stopped. In fact, a consumer insights poll conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the Association found more than 1 in 4 adults experiencing a heart attack or stroke would rather stay at home than risk getting infected with COVID-19 at the hospital. The poll also showed that these concerns are higher in Black and Hispanic populations. We know people in Black and Hispanic communities are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, as they’re more likely to have underlying health conditions, are more likely to work unstable or frontline jobs and are less likely to have access to quality healthcare. The Don’t Die of Doubt campaign was strategically built to meet all Americans where they are to deliver the critical message, and has been rolling out throughout the course of the pandemic online and on social media through a suite PSAs, media interviews, graphics, video content, digital ads, and more in both English and Spanish.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I recently heard a story about a man whose life was literally saved by our Don’t Die of Doubt campaign. In July, Jerry Chiaverini from Duluth, MN was out riding his bike when he started feeling what he thought was indigestion. His wife, LoraLee, a registered nurse, couldn’t stop thinking about a new campaign she had seen in a work email and on Facebook, and convinced Jerry to go to the hospital. Jerry would soon have a triple bypass surgery. The campaign she saw was our Don’t Die of Doubt campaign. How amazing is that? As communicators and marketers at the American Heart Association, we know that the work we do helps people every day, but rarely do we truly get to feel the effects. I’m so happy that Jerry is recovering well and that our campaign played a part in his story.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Follow the American Heart Association on social media and visit for the latest information and resources available in both English and Spanish. Share the information with your network, friends, and families — it could save the life of someone you know and love, like Jerry’s.
  2. Learn the signs of a heart attack and stroke. If you or a loved one starts to experience signs, you’ll know what to do — call 9–1–1 and get to the ER as soon as possible. Heart attack symptoms can include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, and/or arm, jaw, or back pain. For stroke signs, think of the acronym F.A.S.T (Face drooping on one side or numb, Arm weakness, Speech that’s slurred or speech difficulty, Time to call 9–1–1). Remember that health care professionals know what to do even when things seem chaotic, and emergency departments have made plans behind the scenes to keep patients and healthcare workers safe even during a pandemic.
  3. We are urging governors and state legislatures to take immediate steps to provide access to the more than 4.4 million more Americans that could have health coverage if their state expanded Medicaid, support state investments in healthy foods under SNAP, reject efforts to preempt local governments from policymaking that promotes public health, and more.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

President Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” This resonates with me deeply as my 20+ years of leading teams has taught me that success is rooted in influence and persuasion, not edicts. As leaders, when we learn to inspire our teams with vision, equip them with the tools they need, and ignite them to take action with authority we can be infinitely more impactful.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Figure out what you are great at and do more of it. One of the things I challenge young people to do in their careers is to find their space for greatness. That’s where they’re going to be happiest, achieve the most success, and really feel like they made a difference in the world.
  2. Define success for yourself. — In chapter 2 of my book, “BE BOLD BE BRILLIANT BE YOU: Lessons from the C-Suite to Accelerate Your Career”, I talk about how authenticity is your unstoppable superpower, because there’s no one who can beat you at being you. There are so many false narratives that tell us who we have to be to be successful, but when we take a moment to step back and define success for ourselves, it frees us from this notion of living up to someone else’s standards and you get to peace — and success — much quicker.
  3. Listen to the “whispers of the spirit”. You have to trust your gut. Listen to that voice inside of you that guides your way. Trust it. Believe it. Confidence that comes from knowing that who you are and what you have been given is enough for making the best decision.
  4. Be unapologetic in prioritizing your priorities. Get in the driver’s seat of your own life! You are not less professional because you are courageous enough to prioritize the things that are important to you.
  5. Make self-care a must do. As a person who has suffered burnout before I can tell you, you never deliver your best when you don’t get rest. Self-care is in the little things. It’s the everyday act of intentionally learning to love yourself enough to make the best decisions for you. We think we have to run ourselves into the ground in order to be respected more, but the reality is you’re never delivering your best in that model.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For people to love themselves and each other more. I think that love is the solution to a lot of what the world is facing. Love yourself enough to take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Tony Robbins says, “where focus goes, energy flows.” As a person who has a thousand ideas a day, I often have to bring myself back to the priority of the moment. What should I be doing today? It’s a question that forces me to focus so I can deliver my best.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to spend time with Michelle Obama. Her wisdom and heart for people inspire me.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Join me on Instagram @KatrinaMcGhee. Every Tuesday I drop a career nugget to help you accelerate your career!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!