When Marcy McGovern reflects on what she learned in law school, she remembers the Socratic method. From McGovern’s perspective, legal education is more about adopting a style of analytical thinking and problem-solving than understanding specific areas of practice. This methodology has certainly aided McGovern in her career, but her on-the-job experience and human interactions have been just as central to her success.
“You cannot practice law in a vacuum,” explains McGovern, the senior vice president of legal and people and culture at Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates. “You need to remember that it’s affecting real people.” This people-first approach, built at the intersection of law and HR, not only inflects all aspects of McGovern’s work at the Pirates but also distinguishes her from her peers.
McGovern got her start at central Pennsylvania law firm McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC, where she participated in a mix of counseling, training, and litigation. She made the jump to the Pittsburgh office of labor and employment law firm Littler Mendelson in 2009, handling single-plaintiff employment litigation as well as wage and hour class and collective action litigation for a few years as an associate before realizing that her passion lay elsewhere.
Fortunately, Littler facilitated McGovern’s exploration by laterally transitioning her into the knowledge management department, the firm’s in-house entrepreneurial arm. “That transition aligned me with work and opportunities that better fit my propensities and what I preferred to do,” McGovern says.
In knowledge management, McGovern lent her insights to an internal group examining Littler’s single-plaintiff litigation practices. The group’s brainstorming sessions culminated in the development of Littler CaseSmart, a data-driven model that applies technology, enhanced case management processes, and an alternative staffing model to improve legal services.
“Working on that project from ideation to initial execution is something that I’m particularly proud of,” McGovern says. In fact, her contributions to the model’s development resulted in a promotion. “I learned as program director how imperative it is to have empathy and to understand how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” she says of her first leadership role.
McGovern discovered the perfect venue for exercising that empathy upon joining the Pirates as senior director of HR and development in 2015. Although she had always expected to go in-house in a legal capacity, she found her background in labor and employment law very relevant to HR. She drew on this background to build out foundational HR practices at the Pirates as well as to assist with the organization’s risk management program.
In her role as vice president of people and culture, McGovern oversaw all elements of the employee experience, from recruiting and onboarding to performance and compensation. In addition, she collaborated with the organization’s executive team to institute a series of changes, such as remote work opportunities for the majority of Pirates employees and increased scheduling flexibility, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGovern has focused on employee mental health and well-being as well as diversity and inclusion throughout 2020. With respect to mental health and well-being, she cites the availability of curated mental health resources to employees as absolutely critical. “It’s been very important for us to understand what’s keeping our employees up at night and to put together resources to help with those life stressors,” she elaborates.
“You cannot practice law in a vacuum. You need to remember that it’s affecting real people.”
As for D&I, McGovern has translated recommendations from an internal task force into features of the organization’s long- and short-term strategic planning. Examples of those features include restructuring recruiting practices to attract diverse talent, community listening sessions with executive team members, and examining supplier relationships to prioritize working with diverse businesses.
Still, McGovern acknowledges the efforts as works in progress. “When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s a learning journey,” she emphasizes. “We can formulate programs or responses—and the power of being a professional sports team is that our voice gets amplified—but if we don’t stop to listen first, we will have missed the point entirely.”
McGovern will continue to have a hand in D&I moving forward. In January 2021, she was promoted to senior vice president status at the Pirates, with both the legal and the people and culture departments falling within her purview. The dual role will enable her to combine her keen instincts for refining legal and project management practice models with the compassionate leadership that she has brought to the organization’s HR division.
For McGovern, her promotion exemplifies culture at the Pirates, which engenders a mutual respect among employees by recognizing the pull of familial and other outside obligations. This culture places people like McGovern—a woman who is also a mother and a spouse—and her colleague Kim Matthews, who was also promoted in January 2021 as a rising star within the organization and as part of the Pirates’ succession planning efforts to senior director of people and culture, in meaningful leadership roles.
As SVP, McGovern will nurture the same culture to empower the organization’s employees and equip them with the tools that they need to thrive. “At the Pirates, we are continually trying to foster a supportive work environment,” she says. “It’s that supportive work environment that then allows persons, myself included, to succeed.”