Eric Morgenstern, APR, Fellow PRSA, on Adaptability and Empowerment

August 3, 2016

Eric Morgenstern, APR, Fellow PRSA
Eric Morgenstern, APR, Fellow PRSA

Eric Morgenstern, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the CEO of integrated marketing agency Morningstar Communications in Kansas City, Kan.

I first met Morgenstern in 2011 at the PRSA Counselors Academy Spring Conference in San Antonio. The market was not doing well and many attendees were a bit down, but he remained resolutely upbeat. I think his relentless optimism is one of the reasons he is so well-liked in our profession, and that makes him such a magnetic and compelling leader.

At Morningstar Communications, you’re CEO, Sheri Johnson, is president and your wife, Shanny, is COO. How do you divide the leadership responsibilities?

I’ve always surrounded myself with smart people, given them the tools they need to succeed and empowered them to do great work. The same is true for our leadership team and how we divide responsibilities. Each of us knows exactly what we’re responsible for, and accountability is key. We often say Sheri is in charge of everyone who pays us, and Shanny manages everything we pay for.

For years, Sheri led our sales efforts and our client engagements. She promoted herself to president and the recognition followed. As president, she continues to lead these efforts and also takes on the day-to-day operations of our business. She’s an integrator for the firm, ensuring excellence for our employees and the people who pay us.

With Shanny and Sheri in charge of the front and back of the house, so to speak, I can focus on what I love — helping people. I help my leadership team solve big challenges, grow and do excellent work.

You’ve built a reputation as someone who leads your clients particularly well. What’s your approach to doing so?

Leaders must be adaptable to be effective. If I’m guiding a team member, peer or client, I adapt my leadership style to the specific person or situation we’re in. Based on the audience and the moment, I can use a dominant leadership style, servant leadership or a more collaborative approach.

At times, clients need you to take charge, provide strong recommendations and make decisions. Other times, I find a collaborative approach, using the mantra “none of us is as smart as all of us,” works best. My favorite type of leadership style, and one I find works well with many types of followers, is that of servant leadership. Servant leadership is about determining and meeting the needs of the people you serve. You put them first. I find this type of leadership builds the greatest support and buy-in. But in the end, the secret sauce is adaptability.

What was the toughest lesson you’ve learned along the way?

In order to treat everyone fairly, you can’t treat them equally. I learned this the hard way. At my old agency, I wanted to show appreciation to my team for their excellent work. I showed that appreciation with an across-the-board cash bonus. I thought that in order to be fair, I had to bonus everyone equally, in the same way. I learned that all of my teammates had different motivators.

For some, the cash bonus was the best recognition for a job well done. But others would have preferred an afternoon off, or public praise. From that point on, I understood that treating everyone fairly meant looking at everything from a recipient’s point of view and treating everyone in the way that resonated most for them. I also had to learn that as a leader, you must empower your people. And when you empower someone, you have to accept that the task you’ve given them may not be done the way you would do it yourself. If you have a particular way you want the project done, you need to tell the person upfront. Otherwise, let them do great work their way, and be there to help when needed.

Part of leadership is determining where the industry in going, and how to adapt your business for long-term sustainability. How has your business changed over the years to meet the demands of today’s buyers?

It’s the Wayne Gretzky quote: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Much of what is happening in our industry now revolves around content marketing and a push toward marketing automation. In general, B2B companies have lagged consumer companies in this area. Part of leadership is helping our clients see where the puck is going, and it’s going toward omnichannel marketing with marketing automation as a core component.

We’ve always practiced integrated marketing communications at Morningstar Communications. We’ve adapted to add in marketing automation services and changed the way we talk about our public relations, social media and content services to match clients’ omnichannel expectations.

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).

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