From manager to leader: The nine action steps to get you to a leadership role

November 20, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Ken Jacobs

The following article appears in the fall issue of The Strategist.

For those of us who have toiled under ineffective managers, it’s safe to say that managing and leading are two very different things.  

While managers have many of the responsibilities of leaders — executing processes, supervising teams and achieving goals — their purview is more nuts and bolts. “It’s about being on top of projects, having the right people on the right jobs and keeping the tactical work flowing in and out,” says Brian McPeak, vice president, communications and public relations for Rohm & Haas Company, a Philadelphia-based global supplier to the specialty materials industry. This isn’t to denigrate the critical importance of management excellence. Leaders’ visions can’t come to life unless they have talented managers on staff with the proven ability to make things happen.

And leading is exactly that — having a vision and inspiring others to execute that vision. Our profession must develop these abilities among the current and next generation in order to secure our proper place in the C-suite and at the forefront of a communications industry that’s changing with unprecedented speed. 

For this reason, making the leap from manager to leader may be the most important move in one’s PR career. Experts agree on nine actions people moving into leadership positions can take to become true leaders: articulate the values, create a vision, build trust, provide inspiration, act courageously, share the credit, establish empathy, be open and empower the team.

Articulate the values
To effectively lead a communications organization—be it a corporate communications department or a PR firm — it’s critical to articulate its values. What’s most important to you? By what standards does your organization live? What are the fundamental beliefs that define who you are and inform everything you do?

Followers only follow when they sense an alignment between the organization’s values and their own. So you must answer those questions honestly. Nothing’s more transparent to a group of potential followers than claiming to hold values that don’t match the reality of your organization.

Commit these values to writing and seize every opportunity to reinforce them—in memos, newsletters, large meetings and informal one-on-ones, as well as via e-mails, blogs, your Web site and your company intranet.  

More important than stating the words is living by them daily. When it comes to values, what you do always trumps what you say.

Tom Coyne, president and CEO of Coyne PR, says that his company’s mission statement, which includes being the best place to work, “gets me to do the right thing . . . every day.”

Create a vision
Leaders wake up every morning wondering, “What comes after what comes next?” according to Joel Curran, APR, senior vice president of Manning, Selvage & Lee and managing director of its Midwest region. They constantly look outside the current framework to see where their organization is going and what it can be. 

To lead, you must have the “broad, far-reaching vision that takes into account the macroenvironment and anticipates where the organization should be in the future,” says McPeak. “It’s your job to help potential followers see your vision and understand their part in making it happen.” 

According to Kim Sample, founder and CEO of New York-based Emanate PR, getting others to make your vision their own is the true test of your leadership. “You know you’re leading when it goes from ‘my’ vision to ‘ours,’” she says.

To achieve this, leaders must strike a balance between being loyal to their values and having enough flexibility to modify their vision so that followers can have a stake in it and embrace it. “If you commit to a joint vision, you must be willing to let people follow their passion, experiment and take risks,” says Sample.
To that end, Sample recommends setting big goals for the agency and for individuals. “Taking things a step higher galvanizes people behind the vision,” she says.  

Build trust
Followers don’t follow a title; they follow someone who has earned their trust and inspired them to action. Effective leaders recognize that they derive their power from their followers, and with that comes enormous responsibility. Abuse that power or fail to live up to that responsibility and you erode trust. Without trust, your potential followers won’t even consider your vision, let alone embrace it. 

For potential followers to trust you, they must believe what you say and see you take consistent action.  

Says Curran: “Building trust is the first step. Once you’ve done that you can say, ‘Here’s what I think is best, here’s why, here are the milestones and here’s how I’m willing to be measured. I can’t promise you this approach will work, but here’s why I believe it will.’ ”

Patrice Tanaka, co-chair and chief creative officer of CRT/tanaka, says the best way to build trust with your followers is to “know what’s right and act on it, no matter the consequences.”

Trust is a critical part of the leadership equation. It’s important to remember that while it can take months or years to establish, it can be lost in a moment and is enormously difficult to rebuild.

Provide inspiration
The ability to inspire followers may be the most important of the leadership skills, because “you don’t choose to have followers. People choose to follow those they find inspiring, who present a vision of a better world,” says Tanaka.

It’s really about “head, hearts and feet,” adds Sample. “First, can I get them to imagine the possibilities? Next, can I reach people in their hearts so that they embrace my vision and make it their own? Finally, can I inspire them to follow me?”   

To inspire others, Sample says you “must believe that you can do anything you set your mind to.” Ultimately, this type of thinking will permeate your team. “You know you’re a leader when you’ve inspired your team to do something it didn’t know it could do,” she adds.

Act courageously
All the leaders interviewed reinforced that leading isn’t for the fearful.  If the ability to inspire is the most important leadership attribute, acting with courage is a close second.

It’s one thing to have the vision, but the test of true leadership is “having the courage of one’s convictions to act on it,” says Tanaka. At these moments, “it’s act or perish.”

Tanaka has acted on her convictions a number of times during her career. This includes assembling a group of co-workers to purchase the firm where they worked to create Patrice Tanaka & Co. Inc., in 1990; risking a newly won client by telling them that their longtime strategy wouldn’t work; and eliminating two clients that Tanaka felt were abusive to staff members. “I never regretted any of it,” she says. 

In 2005, when Tanaka was looking for a buyer for the agency, rather than focusing merely on purchase price, she sought a company that shared her firm’s values. Tanaka felt that doing so was the best way to fulfill her obligation to those who had followed her for so many years.  

She ultimately sold the firm to regional agency Carter Ryley Thomas, which, like PT & Co., had won multiple workplace awards.   

Sample says it’s the tough times that “get you to flex your leadership muscles.” In 2006, she left Ketchum, which is known for its supportive network of senior leaders who’ve worked together for years, to found Emanate PR.

“It’s exhilarating when you can make things happen on your own, without the safety net,” says Sample.

Share the credit
Coyne encourages leaders to remember that “although the credit may come to you, that’s only because credit naturally is given to the top. So don’t believe your own hype.”  

Instead, he recommends that when you get credit, respond “with a tennis racket, not a catcher’s mitt,” and spread the credit around the organization. “That’s where it’s deserved,” he says. Coyne also recommends giving praise in writing, publicly and often.

McPeak feels that one of the most important leadership tests is “the ability to let others get the spotlight.” This builds the confidence of future leaders.

Establish empathy and listen
Leadership isn’t a monologue. In order to ensure that the organization’s vision remains relevant and shared, leaders must understand their teams’ values and motivations, their worldviews, and their dreams for the organization and themselves.

To do so, leaders must regularly engage in dialogue with their followers and heed what they hear.

Establishing empathy is more than an auditory skill. According to Curran, leaders must be skilled in reading nonverbal cues, which tell you far more than words and indicate if listeners believe in and align with what you’re saying.

Through empathetic listening, leaders can successfully explain to their followers their importance to the organization’s success and inspire them to even greater heights.

Be open
There are at least three ways to demonstrate openness. First, be approachable and let your followers know you want their input, suggestions and ideas. Next, acknowledge when you haven’t succeeded.

“Leadership is a messy business,” says Tanaka. “Everyone thinks you have all the answers, but no one possibly can. Admit when you don’t know the answer, need help or have made a mistake. Articulating what you’ve learned from your failures will encourage your followers to take risks,” she adds.

Finally, stay open to new ideas, knowledge and learning. “In addition to having your moral compass as your guide, you must be a fully informed leader in order to make the best decisions,” says Tanaka. 

Empower your followers
One of the most important things for a leader to learn is when to let go. “Whether your team is three [people] or 300, articulate the vision, create the strategy, show the direction and get out of the way,” says Curran.

“If you don’t empower others, it’s impossible to achieve a vision that’s truly shared,” says Tanaka. “Letting go is essential to leadership. Otherwise, you’re leading an organization of one.”  

And while you should set the bar high, Curran cautions against judging your team’s performance too harshly. “Even if a team fails in achieving a particular goal, if you’ve inspired them and they’ve collaborated and functioned as a team, they haven’t failed, and you haven’t failed as a leader,” he says. “You’ve increased the odds that they’ll succeed the next time.”

You’re the leader: Now what?
When McPeak was promoted to his current position, he employed a two-part strategy for leadership success that others who have recently made the jump from manager to leader may well consider.

First, articulate the two or three most critical areas that must be addressed in order for the organization to achieve its strategic goals two to three years hence.

Next, take a long, hard look at your management structure. “Maintain what’s working, but now’s the time to consider getting some of your senior managers into new roles that will facilitate achieving your organization’s longer-term strategic goals,” McPeak says. “Doing so tends to encourage everyone to think more broadly while keeping the trains running on time.”   

Developing your leadership potential
All agreed that one doesn’t need a senior title to act like a leader. In fact, leaders start to demonstrate these skills early on in their careers.

Sample encourages potential leaders to move out of the “complete the to-do list” mode as soon as possible and instead ask themselves such questions as, “What can I do to ensure that we’re heading in the right direction?” and “How can I make this project better?”

Curran suggests finding mentors within your company and “rather than graze, do a deep dive. Consistency is critical. So finding one or two who are willing to spend real time with you six times a year is far more valuable than having many who won’t devote time on a regular basis,” he says.

He recommends finding mentors who are outside your direct reporting line. This allows the mentor to be objective and the person being mentored to be candid. “It’s hard to tell your boss you’re having boss issues,” Curran says.

Also, it’s not necessary to seek mentors from your specific category of expertise, Curran says. “In fact, it’s preferable to find someone from a somewhat different function or practice area because that person can better help you look from the outside in,” he says.

To find the best mentor, particularly in organizations that don’t have formal mentoring programs, Curran advises observing company leaders and reaching out to those who appear to be natural coaches — who are compassionate listeners and who have a passion for, and are successful in, business. Likewise, they should have some seniority yet be interested in the careers of those below them.  

McPeak recommends that future leaders seek seasoned “supermentors” from within the communications field but outside their organization, to provide an objective perspective.

Curran also recommends maintaining an insatiable appetite for knowledge and to “never be a passive learner. Ask questions and propose your own ideas to get reactions from your organization’s leaders.”

Says Coyne: “Success leaves clues. Observe those in your company who are the best leaders. Get to know them and ask what they feel makes them a good leader. [In addition], devour leadership books. There’s a lot of great thinking on leadership that’s out there for the price of a library card.”

McPeak cites three critical competencies he sees as valuable for any PR professional but essential for leaders in communications organizations: “A singularly important need for communications pros is to develop problem-solving skills. Next, understand business and build fluency in articulating a communications strategy that will enable business success. Finally, be extraordinarily adaptive and open to new ways of doing things.”

Remember that leadership isn’t bestowed. Like John Houseman said in those long-ago Smith Barney commercials, you have to earn it.  What Houseman left out is that you must re-earn it daily. You’ll know if you’ve done so by turning around and seeing how many people are following you.

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting, LLC, which, among other services, helps PR agencies and corporate communications departments enhance staff performance and retention via training. He can be reached at ken@jacobscomm.com.


Trabar Communications LLC says:

This article was right on time! I am a part of an organization that is creating a Leadership Academy and this information is very valuable. Thank You

Nov. 21, 2008

Ken Jacobs says:

Hi Trabar Communications LLC I'm delighted that you found the article not only timely but valuable. Hope it's helpful in your Leadership Academy kj

Nov. 25, 2008

Norman Sherman says:

Very insightful, Ken. It's very apparent that marketing services companies do a much better job of teaching management, rather than leadership. It makes sense, since these companies are outwardly focused, and committed to building the client's business. So, more often than not, people who are successful managers get promoted, and eventually find themselves in a leadership position...one that they are often ill equipped to handle. There's a big difference between leading a group to define and execute a Scope of Work and leading an organization to operate at peak performance. Your article does an excellent job of highlighting the kinds of things that leaders should focus on to enhance their (and their organization's) chance of being successful. Keep up the good work!! Norm Sherman

Dec. 24, 2008

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