From PR Pro to Fortune 1000 CEO: Steve Lesnik, APR, on Leadership and Communications

April 2, 2012

Steve Lesnik,  APR, joined PRSA in July 1967 and obtained his APR certification in 1973. Lesnik’s now the CEO of Career Education Corporation, a Fortune 1000 post-secondary education company as well as the founder and chairman of KemperLesnik and KemperSports in Chicago.

He founded KemperLesnik (formerly Lesnik Public Relations) with his wife in 1979 after working in the insurance industry. The companies now have more than 6,000 employees between them. He attributes his successes to education, work experience, PRSA membership and the Accreditation process.

“I became more of a leader than I did a PR practitioner, which I had been for the first half of my business career,” Lesnik says, adding that he’s always been involved in education on a civic basis. “I have as deep an interest and belief in education as in communications.”

How did you get your start in public relations?

I was a newspaperman for three years in Connecticut. I worked for the Stamford Advocate. I had my first child and decided I needed to make more money. I also decided that I’d like to go back to New York City and get more excitement and a faster pace. So, I went to work for a man by the name of  J. Carroll Bateman, who was the CEO of the Insurance Information Institute. He became the national president of PRSA [and] drafted me to help him. So that was my first job, and how I got exposed to PRSA.

Why did you decide to take the APR examination?

I got transferred to Chicago. In those days, it wasn’t as easy to meet people as it is today.  So, you would join professional organizations for social reasons — and I met a lot of people.  A couple of us decided to sit for the APR exam.

[One of those people was] Ray Ewing, who later started the Integrated Marketing program at [Northwestern University’s] Medill School of Journalism in Chicago. Ray and I were young members of PRSA and we decided it was worth it to get the APR designation.  We had a bet that we’d both pass the first time, and we both did! So, we took it partly for social and partly for professional reasons.

How would you describe your personal leadership style?

I’m an extremely candid person, and people are never at sea about what I’m saying or what I mean. But above all, I’m collaborative — that’s another skill that is honed in the PR profession.  The most effective leaders, not only in business, but also throughout history, have been great communicators — at least effective communicators — who are communicating things in a clear, comprehensible way.

I’m surprised that more people who are trained in communications from our profession don’t become CEOs of public companies.

How have your APR skills helped you become a leader?

Communication is at the core of leadership — your communication skills and style.  When you’re in the PR business, you spend your career honing communication skills, thinking about communications, and thinking about the impact of what you say, communicate, write and transmit.  That gives any leader real assets.

My ability to communicate is what enables me to lead organizations. These big companies require teams to run them.  And no one person runs organizations of these sizes anymore.  Your communication skills help you form the team and keep it operating as one.

How did you transition from public relations to the C-suite?

When I left the insurance industry in 1979 and started my first company — which was then called Lesnik Public Relations — the lines between traditional public relations and marketing were beginning to blur. Corporate reputation, communicating with employees and communicating with investors was a strict definition of what public relations was.  We were beginning to use those techniques in marketing as well.

When I started the company with my wife, I became the chief executive.  We were the only two people. But we started to grow, and we began to have more employees.  And before you know it, we had 100 employees and [I became] more of an executive than a PR practitioner. That was a decision that confronted me in the 1980s. I had to ask myself the question, “You love public relations so much. It’s what you do.  You enjoy it.  Are you going to continue to be purely a PR practitioner? Or, are you going to become the leader of a business organization — or can you do both?”

What role does family play in your life?

Family plays an enormous role in my life. My wife and I founded the business. We’ve been married for [almost] 49 years. My son is the president of the company and will be the principal shareholder. Family is everything to me.

Balance in life is more of a modern phenomenon than it was when I was coming up. Maybe I haven’t always done the best job of finding the right balance — but I’ve found it now. Our view of what was the right balance between work and personal life 25-30 years ago was a different equation than it is today.

What skill sets do you look for in new professionals?

Strong personal values, integrity, a willingness to be a team player and understanding this collaborative environment that I try to create. People understand that they’re joining a family company with family values.

Why is continuing education important for PR professionals?

Everyone ought to commit themselves to continue to learn.  When you stop learning and stop growing, that’s the time to retire. Until then, you have to keep learning — particularly in our industry where the technology changes so rapidly.

When I was making the conversion from journalism to public relations, I relied on PRSA and the Publicity Club of Chicago for my education. One of the things that you get from an organization like PRSA is mentorship.  That’s one of the best things about the organization: the relationships and the mentorships.

I’m better at coaching others on what to do and say — that’s one of the interesting things about going from being a PR practitioner to becoming a leader. During the first [part] of my career, my training was to put others in the spotlight in a positive way and be thinking about how they were going to come across. That’s a much different skill set than saying, “Holy moly, I’m the one.”

News editor Amy Jacques interviewed Steve Lesnik, APR,  for this month’s member profile.

Getting to Know . . . Steve Lesnik, APR

Any 3 dinner guests, past or present?
My three oldest grandchildren:  Jake, Sofie and Henry.  The youngest doesn’t talk yet.

Favorite place to travel?
Hawaii — I’ve been to all the islands

Best career advice ever received?
“Do the best you can at the job at hand. The future will take care of itself.”

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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