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Spring 2012 | By Linda Thomas Terhune. Photo by Sue McNab at Hood Canal, Washington.

Sue McNab made a radical decision in 1985. It propelled her to the crest of new discoveries, put the wind in her sails, and forever changed her life.

McNab, an executive in human resources, homeowner, and community leader, opted to leave life as she knew it and sail around the world. Her sabbatical at sea lasted six years.

The trip, undertaken with two other women aboard a 38-foot boat, put them in the record book as the first all-female crew to circumnavigate the globe. The tight living quarters and the challenges they faced gave her a priceless education in human behavior that continues to feed her corporate work today as vice president and chief human resources officer for PEMCO Financial Services in Seattle.

At PEMCO, McNab, who earned a sociology degree from Purdue in 1971, continues to put her people skills to work. She oversees the company's call directors (live humans who answer company phones); manages corporate facilities, including a cafeteria; and directs community outreach and community funding. She also manages the Human Resource, Training, and Learning functions. McNab ensures that the PEMCO environment is true to its values and that each of its 1,500 employees is shown respect. Her responsibilities require agility and flexibility.

"In today's business environment you have to be agile and make decisions using all the factors and information available quickly," she says. "I learned that I could come up top (on the boat) at any moment and have to make a decision quickly, because my life, and the lives of my crewmates, depended on it."

Around the World in 2,190 Days

McNab grew up in Chicago. When she moved to Seattle in 1976 to take a job with Monsanto, her love of sailing took hold. There, she also reconnected with a childhood Girl Scout friend and sailing enthusiast, Nancy Erley.

With encouragement from the Seattle sailing community, McNab purchased a boat. Every Wednesday, she put the call out around work: anyone who wanted to go for a sail need only show up at the dock. Some days she had two guests; some days as many as 10.

Then came the fateful day: Erley pointed out that no all-female crew had ever sailed around the world. McNab — self-described as adventurous, optimistic, and loyal — rallied to the challenge. The first task was to buy a boat they christened Tethys, the Titan goddess of the oceans. Next came finding other women to round the crew. They set sail with four women in 1991, but one crew member abandoned ship at the first port in Hawaii and a second fell in love in Australia. With an added New Zealander, the crew pressed on.

"I was a human resources vice president when the trip began," McNab recalls, "and Nancy said it was the best skill possible, because I was so used to drama. Here were three women living on 38 feet of fiberglass," McNab says of the trip. "We loved each other and our lives were in each other's hands. We had to have that commitment that we would be truthful and take care of each other."

This became the high-seas credo and McNab's corporate philosophy.

The epic journey took McNab and her mates around a world that she now describes as "really small at 5 miles an hour." The sailors carried a scrapbook with them full of photos of Seattle, family, and home. When language failed, they used the scrapbook to communicate and found that home and hearth are universal languages. So, too, were cookies, which the women baked aboard and shared with new friends in villages and anchorages where ovens did not exist.

"People are connected in a lot of different ways," McNab says.

Commitment and Passion

All told, McNab was on the water with the female crew from 1989 to 1994; the two following years were spent aboard a yacht attempting to transit the Northwest Passage. Like her former crewmate, who fell in love on the trip around the world, McNab met her match on the high seas. In 1996, she married Rob Anderson, an Australian customs official she met during her adventure. Upon McNab's return to Seattle, she worked at the ABC affiliate, KOMO TV; launched the Pokémon cards with Wizards of the Coast; and helped initiate the sale of Seattle's Best Coffee to Starbucks.

In her free time, McNab is active in the Northwest community. Her encounters with world citizens fostered a love of all things ethnic, which she translated into work as president of Seattle's Ethnic Heritage Council. She also developed a Rotary program to educate community leadership about homelessness, is a board member of the Humanities Council of Washington State, and has remained in national leadership positions with the Girl Scouts. And, of course, she still sails.

In a keynote address recently on the importance of maintaining flexibility in the modern workplace, McNab discussed PEMCO's corporate mission, which she is charged with managing. She could well have been describing her own approaches to sailing and life: "Everyone’s headed in the same direction. Everyone knows what it takes to win. And everyone is committed and passionate and bringing their whole self to the adventure of work."

Comments

Great analogy between life on the water and life and work. Your memories of that fateful decision that changed your life gives credence to the abilities of women to take on challenges wherever they are. Great read. Thanks!

Julie Connerley

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