Grace Zuncic on Board Readiness and People Management
May 8, 2024
Grace Zuncic is Cotopaxi’s first Chief People and Impact Officer. She brings to Cotopaxi a passion for creating transformational experiences at inclusive, purpose and mission- driven organizations and in ensuring organizational impact in the areas of sustainability, impact, culture, and corporate strategy.

Grace joins Cotopaxi from Chobani, where she served for ten years in various executive positions, most recently as Chief People and Culture Officer. Grace resides in Larchmont, NY with her husband and two children. She is an active hiker, runner, skier, and community volunteer.

"Ask questions that help you understand if you want to be in a room with those same people asking more questions – and doing that for years to come."

What have you learned from your board roles?

In my career, I’ve been fortunate to be in front of Board members to cover a range of people and strategy topics. Preparing the management deck is our chance to showcase the remarkable work of our employees who drive the business - its financial performance, sales, manufacturing, products, distribution, supply chain, and beyond.

In this past year, I received some outreach to join corporate boards, mostly from family offices looking for greater diversity or private companies in need of culture support. Although initially shocked, to be frank, I reflected and realized how prepared I was to become a board director - and that’s in huge thanks because of my career experiences at high growth companies.

Idea #1: Networking starts now.

Out of the blue, Women on Boards (WOB) Project reached out to me last year about an open seat at King Arthur Baking Company, a 100% employee owned company that has been a leader in its industry for 250+ years. The outreach happened because of the late Kara Cissell Roell, who graciously reached out to me in my early 30s and took an interest in my career. Truly, all thanks to her believing in me and taking some notes in a database did WOB consider calling me. You can never underestimate the importance of each encounter in your life and the difference that it can make.  

Idea #2: Don’t take a Board seat just because.

“This is a marriage”, someone told me. I also received advice that any seat is a stepping stone to more board work down the road. Remember that every meeting, all the hours required to review management decks to prepare, and every single non-scheduled request requires your time – and your time is precious. So focus more on loving the business model and admiring the management team, and look for strong personal values alignment.

Idea #3: Ask questions, early!

Ensure you understand the top three issues that the board has focused on in the past year. Ask questions that help you understand if you want to be in a room with those same people, asking more questions – and doing that for the years to come in service of the organization.

What’s your secret to leadership?

Someone once told me, “You care too much.” Our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. Heart-centered leadership has been my secret to high-impact leadership. I take a genuine interest in people because I love people. I want to be someone who can remind a person of their greatness- and that person can be anyone from an hourly associate to the CEO.

My leadership intention is to connect my heart and energy with high-performance, progress, and, when required, change. I believe that each person has infinite potential to achieve what they want in life; but we all want different things, which is why understanding people at their core, and creating pathways for people who have felt limited in achieving their dreams (often due to socioeconomic or societal barriers) has always been important to me.

Cotopaxi is all-remote which feels the opposite of what we are seeing. Do you expect other brands will follow your continued lead?

There’s a lot happening! HR leaders have more voice than ever before in the C-suite. While some companies shift away from the nurturing cultures of the pandemic, great companies are building on strong foundations of purpose and mission to drive the performance that a post-COVID market unquestionably expects, even when decisions are hard. CEOs now look to their HR leaders as confidants, who can challenge their thinking and be at the forefront of the modern workplace. Being exceptional in HR requires much more today than just being exceptional in HR. We have to deeply understand financial drivers, business strategy, generational expectations, AI and more - and we must bring our teams along in the journey.

People leaders carry the flame of the issues of our times– from providing flexible work to offering work that actually matters and adds value to peoples’ lives. We can be the voice in the business to drive initiatives that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, which we at Cotopaxi borrow from the U.N. as the definition of Human Sustainability. Here, of course, are the core issues of belonging, mental health, environmental sustainability, service, and diversity. This is where I hope to see more CHROs taking on impact as part of their job description, and linking it to the employee experience.

What does it mean to be an impact leader?

Impact organizations have a clear understanding of who they are meant to serve and are very capable of measuring their long-term, sustained commitments. Measuring impact has become far better defined because of certification bodies like B-Corp. But being an impact-focused leader doesn’t simply mean that you report on each positive or adverse consequence of your company’s impact on people, planet, and society. It starts by embracing your fundamental call to be a human-focused leader - even when times get tough. From there, it’s about ensuring that your business is doing “the least harm” and “the most good”, both profitably and within its means, for its stakeholders. If this cultural norm is showing up in your company’s decision-making, then you’ve probably got an impact-business.

How important has community been in your ability to scale your career?

My hometown in Central New York shaped me more than any. Being in nature in all the seasons, volunteering with local nonprofits, responsibly working an hourly barista job, understanding the values of friendship and caring leadership from a very young age - these are all things that happened because of that community. Small-town character traits have been vital in scaling my career and in strengthening my resiliency and faith. Any community - school, job, non-profit - that I’ve been lucky to be a part of, I’m often still there, trying to support and do good.

What’s one thing you cannot live without?

My family – Eric, Charlie, and Ellie.

Who is one woman you admire?

Simone Biles, among thousands. I love what she represents to generations of people who are owning their mental health and trying to do something proactive and courageous about it while also achieving their own definition of personal excellence. She represents a resiliency and drive that I think is extraordinary and important for this generation to see.  I’m also a big fan of Caitlin Clark and the Angel City FC. Needless to say, I’m loving the rise of women’s sports!

What’s one trend you are excited about in 2024?

Expanding the outdoors industry to include more people who want to see the world and make it better. Nature is such a gift in our lives, and seeing more and more people prioritizing time outdoors to support their mental and physical health is so encouraging and inspiring.

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