North Bay Leadership Council’s Cynthia Murray is a business advocacy powerhouse with a heart

Inside the C-suite

The Business Journal regularly talks in depth with North Bay business leaders to find out how they manage their companies and adapt to changing conditions. Read more interviews here.

The “C” in the North Bay Business Journal’s “C-Suite” series of in-depth interviews with local leaders could have been named after Cynthia Murray, North Bay Leadership Council president and CEO.

Beyond a collective 15 years as a 5th District supervisor for Marin County and on the Novato City Council, this straight shooter from Petaluma has led the council, which formed 15 years ago.

But that’s only half her story.

Cynthia Murray, 71, is nothing less than a force for business. With the sharp intensity of Annie Oakley and the nurturing spirit of a mother, the first thing you notice about Murray is the twinkle in her eyes. That means an idea is being harvested.

Murray can command a room like she can command a solution to an issue. She’s learned to hold her own with the big boys of business by tapping into practical street smarts gained from being born in Brooklyn and growing up in New Jersey and an unrivaled on-the-job education.

Murray relocated to the North Bay in 1978 starting in Marin County.

When Murray talks about who has meant the most to her in her past, she thinks of her mother, who died two weeks after she was elected to the Novato City Council, of which she served two terms starting in 1991.

“I couldn’t celebrate. I was devastated,” she said, while glancing up at the artwork her mother sculpted shelved in the hutch of the dining room. Her mother was the person who instilled a maternal instinct in her.

“She would keep the family together,” she said.

Now as a mother herself, Murray sees the best in a future generation — beginning with her daughter Katie, who works with Murray at the leadership council.

When asked what it’s like to work with her daughter, Murray, without hesitation, answered: “It’s great. I like it. She knows me and what I like.”

Her ideas come into fruition when Katie not only knows what her mother wants from her, she takes the initiative to follow through with the desired outcome.

“She’d say: ‘I already did it,’” Murray said.

The North Bay Leadership Council’s fearless leader has made many impressions outside the family.

San Rafael Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joanne Webster said the first “thing” that comes to mind when she thinks of Cynthia Murray is “a big heart.”

Webster, who has known Murray for at least 10 years and sees her as a powerhouse with an unparalleled authenticity, has come to respect Murray’s steadfast commitment and support of her efforts through the years.

“She leads with her heart, and that’s what I love about her. If she had to, she would march alone in a parade,” Webster said. “I admire her. She’s a true leader.”

When Murray spoke at a chamber’s Women of Industry event in 2019, she shared her philosophy in a quote by Winston Churchill that resonates with her: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

The following is the Business Journal’s conversation with Murray, edited for clarity.

What did you want to do (when you grew up)?

I was a history major in college, always interested in public service and running for elected office. (I) went into sales, as there was no glass ceiling in pay for women versus men, had kids and stayed home a few years and then ran for City Council of Novato.

Why was the North Bay Leadership Council formed (in your eyes)?

(The) North Bay Council was formed in 1990 to be the voice of employers who were being stymied in their attempts to grow and prosper.  They thought that pooling their voices would help get the support of the elected officials and communities they served.

Did you always have a penchant for being a resource to people?

Yes, I like being of service. That is why I chose to be a public servant. I also like problem solving and being able to help people make their lives better.

Do you see yourself that way (as a resource)?

I see myself as a leader who deploys my leadership skills when needed. I often feel that there are leadership vacuums, and (I) step in when I don’t see anyone else leading.

When are those times the leadership council shines under your leadership?

I just celebrated my 15th year as CEO of NBLC. I am proud of how the organization has grown in stature and effectiveness to be the voice of employers and (helps to) lead on public policy issues of concern for employers and their employees. (In) one example, I was the co-chair of the campaign in 2008 to pass the first sales tax measure to initiate the SMART rail service.

What skills have you carried over to the leadership council that have helped you in the top spot?

One thing I love about my work at NBLC is that I am able to cumulatively apply all of my past experience as a public official and my business experience in sales and marketing of tech products. The other is that as a “leadership” council, my leadership skills are useful in leading the members to reach consensus and working with elected officials and community members to move public policy issues forward to positive conclusions.

What advice would you give a young person wanting to enter the workforce and have you mentor them?

My advice to young people is twofold: Do self-exploration to figure out who you are and what you want so you pursue your passion, and don’t be afraid of failure. It is a great learning tool.

Who's your mentor?

I have had many mentors throughout my life for different careers and life situations. Like most people, my parents were my first mentors and each gave me a strong foundation to believe in myself and fight for what’s right. One of my first bosses was great at helping me learn people skills and how to meet a customer’s needs. As an elected official, Gary Giacomini was a great mentor. And at NBLC, Steve Page was a terrific mentor for me.

What does it take to be a leader?

Leaders need to be collaborative and build good teams that they trust to think for themselves. They have to be good listeners and facilitators.

In this time of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), a leader needs to be able to make decisions based on what is known now and be able to hold opposing thoughts at the same time. Leaders need to have a vision for the future and how to get there, (so) they communicate well to their teams (in order for) people (to) share the goals and fight for that future.

What is the biggest challenge facing the North Bay and why?

The pandemic and economic shock exacerbated some of the challenges we were already facing in the North Bay.

From the employer point-of-view, top concerns are the housing crisis, which continues to make it difficult to hire and retain employees. Coupled with that are education, training and workforce issues such as being unable to fill job openings due to skills mismatch; not competing with other areas with less expensive housing; (the) cost of and lack of childcare, which is keeping women out of the workforce; and the increasing retirements of workers in the North Bay (with a) workforce (that) skews older.

Also on the radar is the economy’s recovery and how to build (it) back better, along with adapting to climate change and mitigating the fire risks and drought. (Another consideration is) transportation, in particular, and (with that) helping commuters — especially those who need to commute long distances due to the lack of workforce housing.

What does the future hold for the North Bay post pandemic?

There are indicators of what the future holds, and some of it depends on what we do to shape that future. The North Bay has recovered, (with) some of its economic vitality faster than the rest of the (San Francisco) Bay Area.

But those gains can be stymied by the continuing problems with the lack of workforce housing, lack of a right-skilled workforce to fill job openings, lack of child care slots and its rising costs and the continuing fires, power shutoffs and now severe drought. Each of these challenges is daunting, but there is much we can do to improve the situation if we put the resources and effort into the solutions. We know what needs to be done — but do we have the political will to do it?

Inside the C-suite

The Business Journal regularly talks in depth with North Bay business leaders to find out how they manage their companies and adapt to changing conditions. Read more interviews here.

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