Deirdre Breakenridge on Modern Leadership Strategies

October 2, 2017

Deirdre Breakenridge is a leader and an expert on leadership practices. She’s CEO of Pure Performance Communications in Marlboro, N.J., as well as a published author, speaker, podcaster, LinkedIn Learning instructor, and adjunct professor and online instructor at UMass Amherst and Rutgers. I spoke with her about digital communication, the gig economy and embracing feedback.

You own a small firm, and you’re also leading clients, collaborators and other influencers. What advice do you have?

It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or 10,000 people working with you. Leaders must believe in a vision, and their passion has to be loud and clear. If you’re not excited about what you’re doing, then why should anyone want to be a part of your company’s mission or initiatives?

I learn as much as I can about those on my teams, including outsourced staff, clients, media and academic institutions I work with. I strive to understand what inspires them, and what their goals and rewards are.

What leadership skills are necessary to succeed in the gig economy?

One of the most important skills is the ability to build relationships through new media. Leaders must be able to reach their constituents through many channels. Those who embrace digital and social to listen, learn, and add value to a noisy landscape are poised to connect and build more meaningful relationships.

Transparency and trust also play a critical part. Those who understand they’re operating in a fishbowl realize social media offers them an opportunity to receive the gift of feedback. Open communication, authenticity and owning up to mistakes are the best ways to keep your reputation intact and build stronger bonds.

What do you know about leadership now that you wish you knew when starting out in public relations in 1988?

If I were advising my younger self, then I would say: “Don’t take anything too personally.” Sometimes that’s a hard pill to swallow. When you build a business your heart is full of passion. Everything you create is personal. However, for self-preservation and the ability to move forward swiftly, you have to take everything with a grain of salt.

Embrace feedback. As you grow in your career, people will have opinions about your work. That’s OK. If you come across naysayers, then you’re making your mark.

What leadership techniques are valuable for leaders today?

From the start of my career, I’ve relied on two leadership techniques: Listen carefully to solve problems and strengthen relationships, and give others credit.

As a young professional working in an agency, I would raise my hand to volunteer for many assignments and was invited to attend different client meetings. I would listen and observe the dynamics. My ears perked up whenever the executives shared information. I paid close attention.

I discovered that listening helps to foster better relationships. If you listen, then you’ll identify issues or obstacles more quickly, which helps you share information that has more meaning and value.

The second technique is to give your colleagues credit for their hard work. When you’re leading a team, you should recognize the professionals who go above and beyond. Leaders don’t have to be in the spotlight. Instead, they should always give credit where credit is due. When you acknowledge others, the appreciation rises and so does the team motivation and momentum.


How has the meaning of leadership changed over the years?

Leadership in a brave new world means curiosity and deeper exploration. I would always say to my teams, “Don’t worry, you won’t break anything.” When you’re in unfamiliar territory, you have to roll up your sleeves, experiment, and experience new opportunities.

If you make mistakes along the way, you also have to be accountable for them. I’ve always found that [offering] a “buy in,” and letting others discover and take chances, more often than not, leads to their success. Regardless of success or failure, you’ll learn, grow, and move forward together.

When you’re in unfamiliar territory, leadership means inspiring others to be a part of the change; you’re the change agent. However, you can’t just talk about new ways to do business or tackle challenges. Leaders have to be the role models for change by setting a clear vision. Educating, involving, and making people feel they’re part of the change can go a long way.

What leaders in your life have inspired you?

I’ve been fortunate to work with several inspiring leaders. My first boss encouraged me to move out of my comfort zone. He knew when to advance younger professionals, helping them to take on new and challenging projects. But, he also had a keen sense of when to step in to offer more direction and guidance. Thankfully, the words, “micro” and “manager” thankfully didn’t exist in his vocabulary.

Later in my career, I worked with an executive who empowered his people to take action. He wanted to see forward motion and decisions made. His explanation of the “80 percent ready rule” always resonated for me: He’d rather get work done at 80 percent and start the wheels in motion, instead of waiting for 100 percent perfection.

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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