Communicating Character and Values for ‘True North of Leadership’

October 31, 2014

I recently spoke with Dale Bornstein, CEO of M Booth & Associates, a communications agency in New York, about her leadership style and how it has helped drive recent success at the firm, which she joined in October 2013.

“More than ever, I believe that leadership is about your character and your values, and what you stand for as a leader,” she said. “It’s what many others and I call the ‘True North of leadership.’”

Here are the components that Bornstein said create this “True North”:

• Have a clear set of values.

It’s critical that you’re crystal clear about your values as a leader, and about your organization’s values.

“As the leader, you must articulate both of these,” Bornstein said, and they “must never waver.” She strives to be transparent with agency employees about “what I stand for, and what our organization stands for.”

• Don’t just say it; live it.

“Leaders must not only articulate these values, but live them, every day, in both good times and bad,” she said. “You build followership when there is alignment between your words and your actions.”

• Build it together.

Not long after joining M Booth, Bornstein met with the firm’s senior leadership team, comprising executives who had worked there for many years, even decades, as well as newcomers.  Her goal was to gather their collective input in codifying a clear set of the organization’s values.

Working with this group and agency founder and chairman Margi Booth helped ensure that the values would preserve the best of what was, while also keeping an eye to the future. “It didn’t have to be revolutionary or completely new, but clear, and shared,” Bornstein said.

• Drive success through consistency.

Team members shouldn’t have to guess how to navigate in their organization. When its values are strongly rooted, staffers gain a clearer understanding of what defines an organization’s success, and what they should do to achieve it. They will then know how they’re being measured, and how their goals are tied to the organization’s values.

• Communicate.

“People should never have to question where they stand, or where I stand,” Bornstein said. To that end, the agency created shorthand “for how we live and operate at M Booth, the kinds of initiatives we undertake, and how we approach our business. We tell stories of how we live our values every day.”

• Listen.

Listening is a critical skill. “If you get a sense of confusion” from your staff, “then you can clarify quickly, in real time,” she said.

• Seek feedback.

Successful leadership can’t be a one-way street. Bornstein recommended creating informal moments to have conversations and elicit feedback and input.

“Formal feedback during evaluations is helpful, but real-time feedback is critical,” she said. “It becomes a teachable moment for both of us.”

Is this “True North” approach working at her firm?  Bornstein said that surveys indicate the agency’s clients are happy with its work — a direct result, she said, of having happy employees, who feel they’re supporting a mission. Colleagues at all levels of the organization are talking about a renewed spirit in its culture, she said.

“For the communications-agency business, we have a very low regrettable-turnover rate,” she said — a “motivating factor for current team members and a magnet for future talent.”

Bornstein said the agency has had an 80 percent win rate in new-business pitches, and that “prospects comment that there is a palpable, positive chemistry between our team members.”

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website ( and contact him by email ( or Twitter (@KensViews).


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