Uncovering Leadership Truths With Mike McDougall, APR, Fellow PRSA

January 4, 2016

Mike McDougall, APR, Fellow PRSA
Mike McDougall, APR, Fellow PRSA

PRSA recently inducted Michael McDougall, APR, into the College of Fellows. McDougall, who has more than two decades of agency and corporate experience, has been the president of McDougall Communications since 2011.

What are some leadership “truths” that you’ve found to be untrue?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “lead from the front.” But I’m a student of military history, and when you look at some of its greatest strategists, they weren’t always on the front lines. If you lead too far in front, you look back and sometimes people aren’t there. I had a mentor who told me: “Mike, you’re so far ahead, by the time you look back to see who’s following you, they’re lost.”

Another leadership truism is plan the work and work the plan. But I believe you must be adaptable. I see some leaders who have three- and five-year plans, and they lead according to them, but they seem to have blinders on to key environmental factors that are affecting their success. We must be adaptable by client, by industry and by individual if we’re to succeed.

What are the worst leadership faux pas you’ve ever made?

The first was in the midst of a CEO transition. I’d served two CEOs whose leadership style mirrored mine. [They] provided guidance and offered suggestions in a consigliere style. Both gentlemen were leading the organization, and I was there at their call, to provide counsel.

The new CEO came in, and asked for opinions and direction. He wanted in-your-face, highly directive instruction, not gentle guidance. I tried to give counsel like I’d given to his predecessors. I wasn’t adjusting to his style. In fact, I was trying to get him to adapt to the organization’s style. That was a recipe for disaster, which led to abject failure. I didn’t see that I wasn’t adapting. And I didn’t have anyone telling me that, because all the people who would have been there to counsel me had been dismissed. In that type of situation, some would say “Great, you were one of the survivors,” but if you’re a survivor, you’re in a POW camp!

My second was when I was working in-house and managing agency teams. I had a reputation of running hard, fast, not sleeping and assuming my team was eager to do the same. After one massive push, a number of the agency team members complained. They thought my expectations of them were unfair.

Instead of listening and trying to understand them, I made my point that they needed to adapt to the industry. I was vocal and unprofessional, and it damaged the relationship. We recovered, but looking back, I was hearing what they were saying, but not really listening, and not understanding that the problem wasn’t them — it was me.

Now that you’re running your own agency, who calls you on your leadership sh*t?

My entire team, because I make them. There’s nothing written, just an understanding that we’re going to be honest with one another. If it doesn’t look right or feel right, they’re going to tell me. Don’t talk about me, just tell me directly. That’s everyone from our vice president to a 23-year-old associate counselor.

I don’t have a formal board of advisers, but I have a few well-placed friends in the industry, who listen actively and then tell me exactly what they’re thinking. Because we’re friends, they know they can tell me I’m full of it and it won’t disrupt our friendship. And I do the same for them.

Please complete the sentence: “If I had it to do all over again….”

I’d take considerably more risks. The reason is I hadn’t understood how much runway there is to recover from mistakes. My thought, in my 22-year-old view, was that if I risked something, and it didn’t pan out, my career would have been sunk. The same was true at 30. I’m now willing to take far more risks.

Who was the greatest leader for whom you ever worked? Why?

As a mentor, it would be Paul Sartori, chief HR officer at Bausch & Lomb. He was a gentleman, a very good leader and a great mentor. He was very insightful. He took the time to really understand a situation. He’d ask me the tough questions, and ask me to figure it out.

From a leadership perspective, it’d be Willy Shih, president of Kodak’s digital division, back in the early to mid-2000s. Here’s a guy who took on the challenge of coming into one of the world’s greatest brands with the assignment to disrupt it, to cannibalize a $9 billion consumer film business. We had to sell digital cameras, and for each, there would be that many fewer rolls of film sold. We were destroying the very company we worked for, in order to create a future. He understood the sheer absurdity of the challenge and built a team around that by envisioning a narrative about what that future could be.

He had an almost cult-like following, with people across all divisions wanting to work for him, because he did two things really well. First, he was dismissive of entitlement and privilege. Just after a press conference where Willy presented, we were all packing up boxes of cameras, and there he was on his hands and knees, with us. The CEO came in and extended his hand and said, “Thanks for doing such a great job.” Willy replied, “If you really want to show your thanks, get down here on your hands and knees with the rest of us!” This was when the CEO was fond of private jets and white linen restaurants, and Willy was all about Cokes and Snickers bars! These kinds of stories made their ways through the ranks quickly.

Second, he spoke in a simple manner, and made very complex challenges easy to understand. When you’re trying to rally thousands behind you, that’s a powerful quality to have. For example, we had a four-page newsletter, and Willy wrote it himself, including editorial cartoons mocking the old Kodak. He could write in a way that everyone understood, because he had taken the time to understand what mattered to his followers.

We had 1,500 to 2,000 people in that division, and if he called any of us today, we’d quit our jobs and go to work for him again. That’s leadership!

Ken Jacobs

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


Rick Clancy says:

Nicely done Ken! You successfully provided a comfortable platform where Mike shared several very human insights. And Mike, thank you for your candor, offering solid learnings for young pros and seasoned PR folks alike.

Jan. 10, 2016

Ken Jacobs says:

Hi Rick, Apologies for my late reply to your very nice comment. Trust me, this one was easy to write!

Jan. 16, 2016

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of five circles) + (image of nine circles) + (image of nine circles) =



Digital Edition