My tribute to a one-of-a-kind gaming industry professional.

You probably don’t know Ginny Shanks, unless you are a gaming industry insider or a manager at Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. That’s just the way she is. Ginny recently retired from Harrah’s as its senior vice president of brand management. She was responsible for maximizing the value of Harrah’s key strategic brands. She started at Harrah’s Reno 25 years ago as the most junior of junior executives for Harrah’s in-house advertising agency there. She obviously has broken the glass ceiling for women in the gaming industry, and I don’t believe anyone could hear the sound of the glass breaking when she did it.

Ginny and I were both junior marketing executives together at Harrah’s Las Vegas 20 years ago. Our paths crossed often, even though I was a cub on the casino marketing side of the business, and she was a fledgling on the advertising side.

The true measure of a friend is when you can remain friends and not see each other often. Ginny and I have remained friends for 20 years even though our career paths have swirled in different circles. But when we do see each other in a crowded airport, on a Southwest flight from Las Vegas to Reno (where we both live), for a few brief minutes at a casino marketing conference, or at a too seldom lunch at a local bistro, Ginny is always the same. She is glad to see me, funny, gracious and always tries to share candidly the reality of her world. I always feel that we are back in the employee dining room at Harrah’s Las Vegas, kibitzing about how stupid some of our counterparts could be.

Rugged determination

As someone who likes to understand what makes programs or people, successful, I have thought about how Ginny got to the top of her profession in an industry that, although (slowly) changing, is still very much an “Old Boys Club.” Sure, she is intelligent, witty and personable, but so are many women. OK, Harrah’s is a progressive company that provided Ginny good training and an uncommon early culture of customer and employee focus, but that hardly can explain her trailblazing success (I still don’t think that Harrah’s today would be accused of having too many female senior executives.) Some might say that the marketing side of the casino industry has had more opportunity for women. Maybe she was just lucky. But for Ginny Shanks, I think, the answers to explaining her success lie deeper and are instructive for all of us, not just women, in this wonderful and crazy business called gaming.

First of all, she is persistent. Some were reluctant to give her that first job at Harrah’s Reno 25 years ago, but she knew she could do the job, and she pushed until she had it. And sure, many women executives have had to persist, but not many have been able to do it with Ginny’s style and class and grace.

Ginny has never been afraid to speak bluntly to her superiors, who have usually been hard-headed, hard charging men. I don’t know if it is in her DNA, or it is an acquired skill, or if she just realized that it is just good business to shoot straight, no matter how big one’s title is. But I have never seen Ginny speak other than what she considered to be the “business truth,” not with fangs, but with finesse. I wonder who’s giving Gary Loveman “the straight scoop,” now that Ginny has retired from Harrah’s.

Like most successful female executives, Ginny has had to juggle family with work, the boardroom with the back patio. I know this created many painful choices for her, but somehow, she never sold her family or her company short.

That's just the way she is

And while Ginny Shanks could have blazed her high-profile, senior-level career path all alone, she instead chose to do it with her friends. With Lynn. With Cameron. With Dennis. With countless associates that were not stepping stones, not obstacles, not relationships of convenience, but people. People whose lives she was sure to enrich, whose day she never failed to fill with laughter, whose skills she unfailingly insisted on sharpening, for Ginny was both a mentor and a friend.

I’m not sure where Ginny’s next career turn will take her. I’m sure she doesn’t have to work, but she may want to take on a project, or a challenge or a new role, where she can grow and learn and contribute to some team’s success.

And perhaps if there is one defining virtue and lesson we can learn from this petite marketing giant of the gaming industry, it is that success is a team effort, that it should be shared, it should be open to men and women alike, and that trying to leave a little of yourself with those you meet along the way, well, it’s a hell of a lot better way than just being a bureaucrat, even if it’s a successful one. I think Ginny Shanks knows this. That’s just the way she is.