Suzanne McFarlin

By Romi Carrell Wittman –

2018 Greater Tucson Leadership Alumni Excellence Award

Suzanne McFarlin was admittedly a little curious when her husband asked her to be home at two o’clock in the afternoon. When the doorbell rang and she looked outside, she was surprised to see a bunch of people she recognized. 

“Kasey was so sweet,” McFarlin said of Kasey Hill, executive director of Greater Tucson Leadership. “She told me I’d been selected as GTL Alumni of the Year. It was just so special. I just couldn’t believe it.”

McFarlin’s shock soon gave way to a deep appreciation and an inspiration to do more. “It was just such a wonderful confirmation of the work – I mean, nobody sets out to get acknowledgement,” she said. “You just put your heart and soul into helping your family, helping your friends, helping your community. When you see something that needs to be done, you just step in and do it.”

McFarlin is driven by her desire to be a positive change agent in the community. She has adopted “speak up, step up” as her personal motto, something she shares with her students and clients in her executive coaching and leadership training consultancy. She views her purpose as motivating people to change and see new possibilities for themselves, their families, their organizations and their communities.  

“If you’re going to speak up on something, you must also be willing to step up,” McFarlin said. “This is something I realized as I went through the Greater Tucson Leadership class.” 

McFarlin’s relationship with GTL goes way back – all the way to her time as a student in the Class of 2005 and her later tenure as the organization’s executive director. Upon graduating from GTL, she was honored with the Ronald L. Kurth Merit Award, which is bestowed on the class member who made – and who has the potential to make – the most substantial contribution to the Tucson community. 

After graduation, she served on GTL’s board, becoming board president in 2011. At that time, it became evident that the organization was not financially sustainable. McFarlin, following her own motto, spoke up and stepped up, taking on the role of GTL executive director. Doing so necessitated scaling back her consultant work, but the result was that within four years she’d turned the organization completely around. She identified continuing funding sources, enhanced the core program, increased alumni involvement and brought GTL back into the Tucson Metro Chamber family. She also developed a vision for the organization as well as a mission – Connect. Learn. Lead. Though she handed off executive director duties to Hill in 2016 to return to her business full time, GTL remains near and dear to McFarlin’s heart. 

She says that she realized her voice mattered while she was going through the GTL class. She also realized that it was her responsibility to speak up and help to better her community. “We always think that it’s not our role, not our place. But if not me, then who?” she said. 

In addition to her work with GTL, McFarlin has volunteered with the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Tucson Unified School District and the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona. McFarlin is also an honorary commander at Davis-Monthan AFB, where she has coached the commander of communications and conducted leadership training.

She’s served on the board of the Arizona Town Hall, a statewide organization dedicated to educating, engaging and empowering Arizonans to solve issues through consensus. McFarlin also gives generously of her time to the National Charity League, Kidsfest, Angel Charity for Children, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson and the Emerging Leaders Council of the Tucson Metro Chamber. 

McFarlin says her role model is her 80-year-old mother, Judy, who, as a single mother with five very young children, modeled positivity and hard work for her children. “My father abandoned our family when I was 3,” McFarlin said. “As a single mom with limited resources, my mom taught us how to be generous and kind.”

She took that lesson to heart in every aspect of her life – from her professional work, to her children, to her community. “This honor – it just inspires me to do even more.” 

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