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Building on Experience

Posted Sep. 9, 2009

Mary Sue Butler Clyne brings unique experiences to nonresident fellows program
Mary Sue Butler Clyne
Mary Sue Butler Clyne
Mary Sue Butler Clyne meets with other Agricultural Division nonresident fellows.
  • What is a NRF?

The nonresident fellows (NRFs) program brings together an exceptional group of scientists, researchers and industry leaders from around the country to perform a candid review of the programs within each of the Noble Research Institute's three operating divisions.

"It is easy to be lulled into complacency when you experience success; everything is going well, and you simply become content with the status quo," said Michael A. Cawley, president and chief executive officer. "The NRFs help maintain our momentum and set even higher standards to reach. They offer objective advice and insight while providing counsel to our scientists, agricultural consultants and the Board of Trustees."

Mary Sue Butler Clyne spent three decades skipping rungs on the way to the top of the IBM corporate ladder. Her steely resolve and knack for problem solving made her a dream employee. Her affinity for all people made her a natural leader and a customer favorite.

She quickly became a company utility player, a fixer, a go-anywhere-and-succeed leader. IBM sent her into underperforming business units, and she consistently turned them into top performing teams They provided her resources, authority and a goal, and she built bridges into unexplored markets.

Through it all, Clyne had only one career constant - change. It became her hallmark, her badge of honor. She helped change a company's culture. She helped change minds about women and working mothers in upper management. And she certainly changed locations. But spend five minutes with her today, and it's easy to see that retirement has not changed her. "I'm the same woman I've always been," she said, flashing a quick smile and running her hands through her auburn hair. "I just have more flexibility in how I spend my time and energy now."

Indeed, retirement has afforded Clyne the opportunity to use her unique business and interpersonal skills to serve others. When she retired, she formed a consulting business focused on assisting nonprofits in developing their business strategy and operational plans.

When her good friend Karen Hughes, once a special counselor to President George W. Bush, founded a ministry to help educate Afghani women and children, Clyne was asked to be a board member. The ministry's work funded the construction of two schools in northern Afghanistan, as well as provided for teacher training to increase qualified female teachers.

"Organizations are made up of individuals who want to be successful," Clyne said. "The key is finding how to galvanize all the unique personalities and abilities into a productive team that advances the institution's mission."

The 57-year-old has now brought her talents to the Noble Research Institute, signing on last year as a nonresident fellow (NRF, see sidebar) for the Agricultural Division, a group that was nearing its own significant change. (Billy Cook, Ph.D., would become division director for the retiring Wadell Altom just months after Clyne signed on as a NRF).

"We were looking for an intelligent, insightful individual with the ability to approach our entire platform of services - from research to consultation - with a completely fresh perspective," said Cook, senior vice president and director of the Agricultural Division. "We wanted someone with real-world marketing experience and the knowledge to help us enhance our division's impact. Mary Sue was a perfect fit."

A career in motion
Clyne's expertise was not so much learned, but forged through the fire of personal experience. She graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in marketing. Spurred by her father, she immediately went to work for IBM as a systems engineer in Tulsa. She worked with a sales representative to understand a client's business environment and challenges. "I was the technical conscience of the team," she said. "I was responsible for the successful implementation of the solution. This job taught me the value of building strong business relationships based upon trust and confidence in delivering what was promised."

Clyne knew that being a systems engineer was a temporary stop on the way to the sales superhighway. Her superiors were not so sure as all sales reps at the time were men. In the early 1970s, women flooded the workplace, and the culture shock was still reverberating. Undeterred, Clyne "earned her spurs" and soon moved into sales. "I was a pioneer for the Tulsa branch office," she says. "I dealt with large oil and natural gas companies, which put me in with the big boys. I was an anomaly, which I always thought was an advantage. I knew I was under the magnifying glass, so I over-prepared. When you prepare, and you do a good job, it will be noticed."

By 1980, Clyne's work and potential had been recognized. She was offered a promotion to the regional staff in St. Louis. Instead of relocating for this two- to three- year assignment, she asked IBM to allow her to be based out of Tulsa. It was a successful experiment, and IBM began changing its policy of requiring employees to continually relocate to advance their careers. It was during this year-and-a-half assignment that she married. The pair eventually moved to Kansas City where she earned two new titles: marketing manager and mom as her daughter, Mary Beth, joined the family.

The next three years saw three more promotions and three more moves. Clyne helped build and lead a new independent business unit that focused on increasing IBM's market share in top research universities across the United States. A return to Oklahoma brought her oversight of IBM's sales and support of all public sector clients across the state. More importantly, Clyne's son, John, was born. Soon the family of four was headed to White Plains, N Y., where Mary Sue reported directly to the division president for 10 months.

The constant willingness to move paid dividends as Clyne was awarded a senior management position in Austin. "I wanted to get the moves behind us so we could settle in and provide our children some continuity growing up," Clyne said. "My daughter was 4½ years old, and we had lived in four different states, but we remained in Austin until she graduated." While she was in the Lone Star State, Clyne and her husband divorced, but Clyne once again adapted, finding harmony between work and children. She recalls her time in Austin not from a work perspective, but as a mother. "Austin will always be where I raised my family and watched them grow into adults," she said. "I coached their youth athletics, and later I cheered them on from the stands. I am their biggest fan. Even though they are grown, they are the center of my world."

While Clyne's home became stationary in Austin, her position within the company did not. She continued to rise within the organization, finally landing as global director in IBM's Global Services Division. Her international travel was extensive as she hopped from Paris and London to Singapore and Tokyo. At each stop, she brought people together from around the world to work through cultural barriers and become a highly functioning team. "It was like getting OU and OSU fans to work together the week before Bedlam," she says. "We worked through everything from cultural barriers to tangible aspects - like international labor law. Every project brought its own unique challenges. It was a lot of fun."

Clyne retired in 2004 after three decades. "Many people asked why I retired at the height of my career," she said. "I realized my adult life had been focused on the pursuit of success, and I wanted the second half of my life to be focused on significance. I didn't know exactly how to get to significance, but began by forming my consulting company to assist nonprofits."

From Stillwater with love
On a sunny spring day soon after she retired, she traveled to her alma mater for a campus visit with her college-bound son. The stop in Stillwater would change her life.

During the visit, Clyne looked up a friend, Kirk Jewell, who had become CEO of the Oklahoma State University Foundation (OSUF). During their conversation, Jewell expressed an interest in Clyne consulting with the foundation during the annual fund process.

Jewell introduced Clyne to his new vice president of development, Bob Clyne, a retired AT&T executive, who asked her to provide recommendations to improve the annual fund process. OSUF implemented her recommendations, and the annual fund set records in the first two years. After her consulting engagement, Bob and Mary Sue became a matched set and soon married. Today, they spend their time doting on their four grown children, traveling and providing consultation in their specific areas of expertise to nonprofit organizations.

Mary Sue's success with the OSUF also caught the attention of one of its trustees, Dennis White, Ph.D., who happens to serve as a nonresident fellow for the Noble Research Institute. White suggested Clyne to the management team. After a few phone interviews and a campus visit, she was quickly asked to be a NRF. In the last year and a half, Clyne and the division's other NRFs have provided insight and guidance as the division continues to foster its agricultural research group, alter its no-cost consultation services to meet the changing clientele and expand its educational and outreach efforts. "You could not ask for a better team of NRFs," Cook said. "We've brought together agricultural experts and complemented their capabilities with Mary Sue's skills in marketing and organizational change. It has been highly productive, and Mary Sue has played an instrumental role. The Noble Research Institute's Agricultural Division is stronger because of her."

As for Clyne, the Noble Research Institute has become a passion. "This is an amazing organization and an amazing resource for farmers and ranchers," she said. "Change is inevitable but this organization remains true to its mission and the vision of its founder while embracing the possibilities of tomorrow."