Public Relations Tactics

From Manager to Leader: Growing into a New Role

May 30, 2014

I spoke with nine communications leaders about how PR professionals, who are currently managers, can make the leap to leadership.

Here are the four key themes that emerged, along with some valuable counsel:

1. Leadership is not for everyone.

Steve Cody, co-founder and managing partner, Peppercomm: Whatever leader you want to become, it’s got to be natural and in sync with your beliefs. It can’t be a force fit. If you think you should be tough, but that doesn’t come naturally, then people will see that. If you know you should be nice, but you’re really not empathetic, then you won’t be able to lead.

Make sure your values align with the organization’s values and culture.

C. Renzi Stone, chairman and CEO, Saxum: This is tricky, because I believe leaders are born. There’s a little bit of “you either have it or you don’t.” Managers trying to make the leap up need a personal leadership vision, aligned with the organizational vision.

And it’s hard to be a leader if the organization’s vision doesn’t match your own. If you’re just following someone else’s vision, then it’s incomplete, and you won’t be able to lead. There is a very admirable quality in a manager who says, “I am a No. 2, and I love it.”

Chris Atkins, managing director, public relations and internal communications, PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP: This touches on a sensitive issue for me, because not everyone is cut out to be a leader. I don’t think it’s something you can inject into someone. A lot of people aspire to positions of leadership, because they want what goes along with it, often not realizing the awesome responsibility that it presents.

It’s about being the kind of leader people want to be led by — someone who is willing to share credit, and to take the blame, to go the extra step to get the job done, to share the burden, to help others, to watch out for the other guy. I would start by looking in the mirror and saying “Do I have these attributes? Do I truly enjoy this? Do I want to have that kind of impact on people’s lives?” And if not, then maybe think about doing something else.

2. It’s not about you; it’s about the team.

Todd Defren, CEO, SHIFT Communications: First and foremost, be humble. Remember how much luck played a role in your rise. If you’re being promoted to leadership, then clearly, you’re doing something right. However, don’t think that you’re the only one doing it right, or that you’re doing it that much better than anyone else.

Your future success, which will be much more spectacular even now, is tied to how motivated your team is. So keep them motivated, and remember, every word counts!

Barri Rafferty, senior partner and CEO, North America, Ketchum: In our profession, you get promoted often because you’ve got great skills. Build them and get to the next level. The shift is being more of the conductor of the orchestra, or the coach. You need to be sure that you’re enhancing the skills of others.

For example, my goal, when going into a new business pitch, isn’t to get the prospect to fall in love with me, but with the team. So focusing on others and ensuring that everyone knows their role becomes a critical part of leadership. You’ve got to paint the big picture, and make sure that each person knows how he or she contributes to those results.

3. You must be willing to act.

Renee Wilson, chief client officer, North America, MSLGroup: You’ve got to acknowledge that not everyone will understand why you need to do what you need to do, but if you’re being true to the company values and are acting with integrity, then you have the right to do it.

It’s lonely when you’re a leader. Managers have to recognize that there is a leap that you make where you can’t always explain everything. The lesson in that, for me, is that whenever I make decisions, I use the company values as my North Star. Do that, and even in the toughest decisions, you’ll be fine.

Atkins: Does a leader need to be a charismatic speaker? I say, no. It helps. But your actions are far more important, and you’ll be far more successful at leading if you can act.

4. Learn everything you can about leadership, and then learn some more.

Elise Mitchell, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO, Mitchell Communications Group and Dentsu’s Global PR Network: It’s critical to focus on what you need to learn to grow into that new role. Ask people for good reads that broaden you. You must feed your soul and your mind with new ideas. When I got my new job at Dentsu’s Global PR Network, someone recommended [reading Michael Watkins’ book] “The First 90 Days.” And you must be a lifelong learner. You should never know it all. If you do, then you stop growing.

Andy Polansky, CEO, Weber Shandwick: Continue to be intellectually curious, always. Take lots of initiative. Ask lots of questions. Listen. Don’t be assumptive. And always understand the context.

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior manager, communications, ITT Corporation: You’re not going to invent leadership, and that’s good news. A lot of effective leaders have committed their philosophies and strategies to paper, where you can read about them. I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors. I tried to be astute in learning whom to watch.

I think you should read John Wooden, Vince Lombardi and Jack Welch. John Wooden got to be John Wooden for a reason. He articulated his approach in intricate detail. He honed that over decades and has the hardware to show for it.

Cody: Look at the leaders you admire and make a composite of them. Find the various aspects of leadership that you want to adopt. Who’s the most creative person in the room? Who stays coolest under pressure? Who can make the tough decisions, like firing people or firing clients? It’s easy to be nice, but you need to gain your followers’ respect.

Rafferty: There’s a difference between people who enjoy leading, who want to lead, who embrace intentional leadership. If you care about leading, then you have to invest in learning about it, like in any skill you want to learn. Don’t just assume that because you got promoted, you know how to lead. Seek out all opportunities to learn to lead better, to lead more.

Mitchell: Make sure that you get good mentors — people in your life, personally and professionally, whom you can ask for advice and guidance. They’ll help you think through opportunities and challenges. Perhaps they’ll be good role models for you. I’m so grateful for the mentors I’ve had. And you can never pay mentors back, so all you can do is pay it forward.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which helps PR and communications leaders empower themselves to breakthrough results, and helps communications organizations achieve their goals. It does so via consulting, training and executive coaching. You can find him at,, @KensViews or on LinkedIn.


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