Gary Sheffer on What Leaders Need Today

January 5, 2018

Current job title:
Senior Corporate Strategist, Weber Shandwick

Previous executive role:
Chief Communications Officer, GE

Other leadership positions:
Chair, Arthur W. Page Society

What are three leadership tenets that have seen you through the toughest times?

Be empathetic. Recognize the stresses your team is under and help them navigate the storm.

Be disciplined and don’t get distracted. I led GE’s response during the Fukushima nuclear-reactor failures in Japan in 2011. That meant keeping a group of 20 or 30 people focused on ensuring that the public understood GE’s technology and what had happened after the earthquake and tsunami.

And something I learned from GE CEO Jeff Immelt — is that being resilient is the most underrated quality in a leader. During the global financial crisis that started in 2008, every day was hand-to-hand fighting for GE. Jeff was positive and mission-focused throughout. His resilience helped keep the team working on solutions.

You’ve been a communications leader on both the client and agency sides. How is leading in these two environments the same and different? 

I’m still learning how to lead in an agency. It’s much different than an in-house role, where there are clear organizational rules and structures. I’ve found that agency leadership is more about ideas and influence than structure. In corporate, you navigate a matrix. In an agency, you navigate people. I’m not saying that either model is superior. A good leader clears away all the nonsense so the team can focus on doing excellent work.

How can we make sure the PR profession is grooming leaders for the future?

This is an important question for our profession. When professional communicators fail, it isn’t because they lack communications skills, but because they are not good leaders.

I sometimes see communicators who backbench themselves in meetings with other members of the C-suite because they don’t have the business acumen or executive presence to participate. Our industry must focus on what it means to be a leader as a communicator. CEOs, CFOs and other executives want a trusted partner who can counsel them on a wide range of issues, run teams, tell them what’s next and provide perspective on the world. The job has grown. So must we.

PR is battling for dollars and influence with ad, marketing and consulting firms. What can we do about this?

That competition is clearly true. I think those other firms are winning, which results in tone-deaf campaigns that are not integrated with business goals or are detached from political, social and business realities.

Communicators have the broadest views of anyone in an organization, except maybe for the CEO. In a business environment of pervasive risk, communicators should be at the center of any campaign aimed at influencing key audiences. The only way to make that happen is to continually get better at our jobs.

You were a vice president at GE for 13 years. How did you achieve such a long run?

Sometimes you’re just the right person at the right time for a role. I happened to have the skills that GE needed during a tumultuous decade. My journalism and political background prepared me for the give-and-take of the new reputation environment. 

I was lucky to work at a company that takes leadership development seriously. GE taught me how to recruit, develop and retain talent. When you go from doing business in 80 countries when I joined to 180 when I left, you must build a global communications capability and grow a team.

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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