Michelle Egan on Helping People Stretch Their Limits

June 1, 2018

Michelle Egan, APR, Fellow PRSA, Highlights

Current job title: Chief Communications Officer, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company

Previous executive role: Corporate Communications Director, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company; Communications Director, Anchorage School District

Other leadership positions: Board Member, North Pacific District, PRSA


You were a communications leader for one of the nation’s largest school districts and now you direct communications for a corporation with 800 employees. How have your leadership styles been the same or differed?

Many people ask why and how I made the shift from public education to the oil industry, perhaps assuming the roles were very different. But they’re not. Every sector — whether nonprofit, government or private — and every organization has its own culture and subject matter. But the strategic thinking, leadership and engagement skills of communications professionals transcend sectors and industries.

The biggest shift hasn’t been changing my leadership style, but growing it. Through a wide range of professional experiences, I’ve learned to read situations, find my voice and build my confidence. 

What are three leadership tenets that have driven your greatest successes?

1. Model hard work and strong ethics. It’s critical for others to see that I am willing to roll up my sleeves, do what is needed and stand up for what I believe. 

2. Empower others to take chances and grow. Leadership is about harnessing the talents of a group and helping them reach their potential and experience success.

3. Stand by the people you lead. When I ask someone to take on challenges or make decisions, I’m asking them to take risks to grow and maximize the effectiveness of our team. They will make mistakes and I’m going to stand by them. Their mistakes are my mistakes, too.

Who are the greatest leaders you’ve worked for, and what have you learned from them?

I’ve been lucky to work with respected leaders who are committed to the mission and to their own values. Carol Comeau, the superintendent I worked for, and Tom Barrett, my current boss, have both led very large organizations and are admired by their communities. Both always put people first, seek a broad range of opinions and know they don’t have all the answers themselves.

When you work closely with an executive, you get to see him or her lead the business. But you also share moments when their sheer humanity shines through — during a crisis, when they’re under fire, or when they must deliver painful news. It’s in those raw moments that you really meet your leaders.

How do you groom your second-tier managers to become leaders?

I like to give people challenges that stretch their limits as managers and leaders and give them exposure to more senior people. There’s a sweet spot between giving support and advice, and stepping out of the way so they can grow. When you find the right balance, it’s exciting.

What was your worst leadership error, and what did you learn from it?

I’ve made my share and believe in quickly owning up to them, finding solutions and learning from the experience so I avoid repeating the same error.

Early in my career I hired someone whose skill set and style differed greatly from other team members; I did it to diversify and grow the team. The choice resulted in conflict and reduced productivity. It was unfair to everyone, especially the new hire. I addressed the conflict directly and brought in a mediator to assist, but it was painful. I learned the hard way that changing an organization takes planning and support and can’t be done with one hiring decision.

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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