MWW’s Michael Kempner on Putting Leadership Skills to the Test

January 1, 2015

Michael Kempner
Michael Kempner

I recently spoke with Michael Kempner, CEO of global PR agency MWW, about the challenges of leadership. Here are his thoughts:

Was there a particular a time when your leadership skills were put to the test?

For me, you have to go back more than 25 years. At that point, I didn’t believe that Emotional IQ was a leading indicator of the kinds of people I wanted in my organization. It was all about “Are they good at their craft?” — whatever the craft of public relations was 20 years ago.

We were a driven organization, with tremendous growth and success, but not a fun place to come to work. I didn’t even love coming to work every day, and I was the boss. If I didn’t enjoy it, how could my employees?

At that point, I began to understand that many of the techniques my managers and I used to manage people were neither appropriate nor effective. I realized that if we could offer a positive work environment — with people looking forward, rather than over their shoulders — then people would not only enjoy themselves more, but [would] do a better job.

So I changed overnight. I started focusing first on potential employees’ maturity, Emotional IQ and brand fit, and then worried about skill set.

How does this affect how you hire today?

Today, I ask our hiring managers to look for the same thing — to ask, “Is this person our brand?” If the answer is “no,” then don’t bother going to the second question, which is “do they have the potential to someday take my job?” If the answer to that question is “yes,” then we can talk about skill set.

The key is to hire people that want to be great — not for me, but for themselves and their teams. And one of the biggest challenges is helping managers to let go, to get out of the way of their egos. As Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

It’s my job to give them the tools to be great, and then get out of their way.

What are some other critical leadership lessons you’ve learned, and how have they benefited the organization?

Twenty years ago, we had a senior executive who was a screamer, who made people cry. I tried to get him to stop. We sat down, and I said, “Let’s pretend screaming is OK. Are you getting the outcomes you want from this management style?” Of course, the answer was: “No.”

I share that story to point out that we’re all guilty, throughout our careers, of exercising less than perfect management skills. The issue is: How do you learn from that? Today, no one screams at MWW. No one asks whose fault it is. No one gets thrown under the bus. I never ask whose fault it is. I don’t care. I just want to know who’s responsible and how we are going to fix it and learn from it.

The question is: How do you create an environment where people aren’t afraid to take risks, aren’t afraid to share an opinion and aren’t afraid to fail? You can do everything right and sometimes still fail in this business. As long as you learn from that failure, it’s OK.

Sometimes we talk ourselves into hiring the wrong employee. If you have to talk yourself into doing it — if it feels wrong in your gut — don’t do it! And if you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge and act on it. If someone’s not right in the first 60 days, they’re not going to be right on the 61st day.

The worst failures were pitching and accepting clients that we shouldn’t have because of client culture or personality. With that said, I believe that clients have the right to be demanding — but not demeaning.

I like to say I’m smart because I’ve had the luxury of 25 years of mistakes to learn from. But I’m also a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. That may be my biggest mistake.

Leaders: Nature or nurture?

Both — I think that you have to have an innate nature. Without the nature, it may not matter how much nurturing you have. If you have the nature, then you need to bring it out through nurturing.

How do you identify, train, nurture and test leaders-in-training?

It starts with the hiring process. As mentioned previously, we check if they’re our brand, and if they have the potential, someday, to take my job.

I’m a very active CEO, so I focus a great deal of attention speaking with management about their teams, even down to the associate [intern] level. That’s because I want to identify the next generation of leaders — the potential A players and the B players, who, with some help, can turn themselves into A players. Then, I look for ways my management team and I can give them a significant bear hug, to make sure they’re learning, that they’ve got great mentors and that they’re getting appropriate training.

I personally mentor 10 to 15 leaders-in-training at all levels. Nothing upsets me more than if we lose an A player — a potential strong leader — because we didn’t do enough to keep them, didn’t allow them to be great, didn’t provide a path to greatness or didn’t allow them to pursue their career goals. My philosophy is that we only want rock stars. They may start in the chorus, but it’s our job to help turn them into lead singers.

Not everyone has major leadership potential. Some will never be great leaders. That’s OK. There’s a role for all of them, and we want them all to do extraordinarily well.

How does training help prepare future leaders?

Management training is critical. Public relations is guilty of promoting people because of their PR skills, but not focusing enough on leadership skills. So we have and continue to invest in a significant MWW Leadership Track, with specific leadership training by level.

I’m particularly proud of our “Matter More” program, where we bring in interesting people like poets, dancers, architects and chefs, who do highly creative work that has nothing to do with public relations, to help our people think beyond the narrow band of our profession. These sessions are incredibly popular. We recently hosted the actor who plays Red's husband on “Orange Is the New Black.”

We also do one-on-one executive coaching for great employees who may still need to improve in a particular part of their professional and managerial performance.

What’s the most important thing you do to keep your leadership style honed in a rapidly changing communications world?

I’m a continuous learner. I never stop. I have found you can learn something every day, often from the most unlikely of sources. That’s the key. I enjoy it, and it’s critical to do so to become a better counselor to my clients and teams, and to continue to grow our company. I often speak to my junior employees about the future of the business. I spend a great deal of time understanding our newer tools of our businesses. I hire great people, and then let them teach me, and the rest of the team. I’ve always hired people who were better than me.

My job is to mostly be an orchestra conductor. How do I take all these great personalities and skill sets and blend them into something that sounds like music? But today, I couldn’t lead our orchestra without the knowledge that public relations is using a combination of traditional, brand new and constantly evolving instruments.

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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