Rick French on Attracting and Retaining Top Talent

January 3, 2017

Rick French is the chairman and CEO of French/West/Vaughan, one of the country’s most respected independent PR agencies. Here, he shares some leadership advice and best practices that have helped the Raleigh, N.C.-based powerhouse grow into a national firm.

Your agency has achieved substantial growth in recent years. What in your leadership style helped drive that?

I try not to look over anyone’s shoulder and I’m OK with people making mistakes, as long as they aren’t egregious and the individual learns something from it.

My philosophy is to imagine big but be pragmatic as far as how those ideas can be executed. I encourage my team to think and act the same way.

How have you grown your bench of second-tier leaders?

We are fortunate that many of our middle- to second-tier leaders have been with us for many years, so they have learned how we operate our business and know what is expected of them. So I guess that speaks to our success in attracting and retaining talent.

When was the moment when you realized that you were a leader?

The moment I opened the doors of the agency nearly 20 years ago, after having put together a business plan that successfully attracted venture capital backing.

When I bought my investor out 10 years later at a 30x multiple of his initial investment, I realized we were doing something right.

Please share your worst leadership faux pas.

I am extremely loyal to my employees and as such, have a very difficult time firing anyone, even if they are underperforming. While I think loyalty is an admirable trait, retaining underperforming people is a leadership weakness.

How does your agency spot future leaders/leaders in training?

Our high-potential employees are easy to spot. They’re the ones who clients gravitate toward, who can grow accounts and who embrace the latest industry trends. We promote based on merit, rather than experience, so fast-tracking someone is organic in our organization. If you do great work and gain the trust of our clients, then we will recognize you. It’s pretty simple.

What programs do you have at your agency to develop and train them?

We run twice-monthly lunch-and-learn programs in which department heads make presentations about the work of their departments or the latest trends in the sectors or disciplines they specialize in. This cross-training program exposes associates to other disciplines and aids in their professional development.

For those associates rising toward management, we get them involved in outside leadership-development programs such as “Leadership Raleigh,” IPREX’s rising stars program, and send them to workshops and conferences that nurture their leadership skills.

What’s your best counsel for someone who wants to make the leap from manager to leader?

Build the best possible team under yourself. Nurture them. Support them. And don’t be afraid of them taking your job. If they do, it will likely be because you’ve been moved into a position of greater authority.

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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