I’ve just had a fantastic day which began with typical Waggener Edstrom work, but then I took off mid-morning to join a dozen or so of my WE Washington colleagues at the YWCA’s Angeline’s Women Center to work in the dining room. Waggener Edstrom was founded with an eye toward what impact we could make in the world, and of course being a communications company a lot of what we deliver is how we help our clients make THEIR impact. We also do this through our Social Innovation practice, specifically partnering with innovators that embrace the practice of doing well in the world as a successful way to run a business. When it comes to our own programs of making an impact, we’ve put our money where our mouth is so to speak, which amounts to 1 percent of our total fee revenue being donated each year. (We beat our 1 percent goal this year.)
While giving and building a business that supports the practice of driving change are important, and something I am proud to say this agency continues to do, in the end the most important thing we do is empower every single WE person to get out into their communities — from South Africa to Munich and from Austin to Singapore — and lend their TIME to helping improve the places where they not only work but live.
I was impressed with Rochelle Calkins and Hollianne Monson the director and volunteer manager for the Angeline’s YWCA. I also enjoyed very much talking to the women who were there. One woman and I discovered we favor the same novelists, and another one compared notes with me about the beauty of the Ethiopian countryside. In addition to meeting new people and being part of a community effort, it makes for such a rewarding day when you get to spend time with your colleagues outside the usual environment, especially when you hear from many of them how great it is to get the chance to spend time pursuing their own Make a Difference goals.
As an aside, the staff at Angeline’s noted our efficiency, but also our sense of humor, which really is one of the WE traits we seem to have in abundance and one that I appreciate daily from my colleagues.
While doing these things in terms of how we run our business is far from a new commitment by Waggener Edstrom, it is part of our core and something that I have heard directly from our people makes this a place they feel proud to work for — and for that I am grateful and inspired by their efforts every year to drive impact right in their own backyards.
Earlier today I learned that Waggener Edstrom received the honor of being named Digital Agency of the year from PR News. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, winning awards is invigorating and rewarding mainly because of the recognition it provides to our people and our client partners for the innovative (not to mention high-quality) work delivered.
But this win brought me a particular satisfaction, given what it meant in a bigger context of encouraging risk-taking within our agency.
The subject of risk-taking has no shortage of pundits and opinions. It’s a topic of this week’s Fortune Most Powerful Women’s conference, and Harvard Business Review has brought us many articles on the topic. So I’m not intending to provide yet another essay on the merits of encouraging risk-taking or how to best instill it in a culture. My point is more inherently linked to our ability and need to take risks when operating as an independent company.
Our future success has always been dependent upon being able to fund our own growth and evolving our profession. Our evolution might take the form of a new office, a new practice or some other type of expansion to better service our client’s needs today, or as was the case several years ago when we decided to vigorously amp up our digital efforts for tomorrow. This, by the way, led to more than a few sleepless nights when we decided to continue our robust investing, in spite of the economic swirl around us.
Running our business this way has proven to be a successful model over the past two and a half decades, but it is not without some great lessons learned. Here are a few I thought I’d share:
There’s risk … and there’s being risky: By this I mean too often “risk” is associated with a huge downside. There may be times when taking a risk to make a big impact is warranted, but generally this should be the exception and not the rule. In the case of expanding our digital efforts all up, there were risks to consider, such as, “What if we didn’t do it right? What if we are too far ahead of the curve?” To be fair, we did have some learnings along the way that have required us to be nimble and adjust to make ourselves better in the process. But, at its core, there was very little risk with the basic premise that we had to do more to help lead our people and our client partners into the new opportunities of engagement that exist with digital. Was there risk associated with the investment required to do it right? Yes. A risky idea? Not at all.
Even in failing, you get it right: There have been times when we’ve tried … and tried … and tried again before getting something “right.” If we had quit after the first try, we wouldn’t have delivered what ultimately was the right solution. Too often the default thinking is, “We’ll try it … and if it doesn’t work, we’ll cut our losses.” Whereas we’ve typically taken an approach of, “We’ll try it … and if it doesn’t work, we’ll fix what isn’t working and try again.” Then, if and when we find out that we were wrong about the opportunity, or if the environment has changed so much that we must really step back, we’ll go in an entirely new direction. Rarely, if ever, has an investment not paid off either directly or indirectly for our business.
People are everything: We can’t make an investment (risk) work without the right team and leadership. I firmly believe I’ve learned as much, if not more, from my failures as a leader as I have from my successes. Sometimes the right leader for a risk changes as the risk evolves and matures. There is absolutely nothing wrong about this … some leaders are better at the entrepreneurial part whereas others are more adept at taking the business into a different phase of maturity. Rewarding these people for their strengths and what they did to help us see the reward of our risk, at any phase in its life cycle, is key to fostering future willingness by these same people to keep pushing on new ventures.
I’m so very proud of not only our WE Studio D team members who have helped lead our efforts in digital since Studio D’s inception several years ago. As well, I am grateful to our clients who give us the privilege of doing great work with them every day … and to every single person at our agency on the front line of delivering the reward of our risks and creating value for our clients. Thank you all.
In traveling to New York this week to attend the Clinton Global Initiative, and in reading some of the coverage, tweets and blogs about the Day 1 sessions on job creation, it made me think about my own approach to jobs as a founder and CEO. Then, when President Obama spoke today, his ask of the CGI membership was uncannily identical to my Dad’s advice. Addressing the business leaders among the group he said: when you grow your business and put people to work, it is good for the world.
There is, of course, a role Waggener Edstrom Worldwide (WE) plays as a company in driving job growth. When we help clients solve business problems or tell the story of their innovation, we are partners in their success, helping them grow their company.
But beyond this, when I think about my direct role in driving growth and jobs for WE, I’m often faced with decisions around how we balance opportunity for our existing employees to grow and develop their careers with the constant need and opportunity to bring in valuable outside perspective.
I have a strong belief that people are invariably capable of typically much more than they may (initially) believe of themselves. Because of this, I follow the approach of hiring great people, giving them training and tools, and then presenting them with the opportunity to deliver — and they will advance and take on more responsibility over time. But, how do you balance growing your own leaders and adding new ones? Here are a few things I have learned:
- Perfection is unattainable: But the pursuit of perfection can deliver great quality. As I spoke about in a recent interview (subscription required) I used to be a die-hard perfectionist. And I probably came perilously close to losing some good people through my focus on the unattainable. Since then I’ve learned, and adjusted my own leadership, so that it is perfectly acceptable to challenge people to do the best they can possibly deliver. They WILL rise to this challenge almost every single time. But don’t demand or expect perfection. Mistakes will happen. Life will go on. We all learn and get better. And our cumulative value should always outweigh any near-term shortcomings in what we do for our clients.
- Outside perspective is invaluable: There will always be a need for leaders or skill sets that are required before you have grown that leadership within your existing people. Or perhaps you don’t have enough of the right kind of leaders at a given time. Talented people who join WE after having started their careers elsewhere bring invaluable perspective, insight and (ideally) just the right mix of collaborative and disruptive tendencies to challenge set approaches, but are still be able to work with the great existing talent to get the best result. If you do a good job of giving your existing people opportunity, they won’t view new additions as threats but as valued contributors to their future success. For me, being able to integrate new talent with our existing people is paramount, and we are always working to get this balance right.
- It starts at the beginning: I love our intern program. We have some of the best interns in the world. Most often, once their internships are completed, they are offered and accept full-time positions with the agency (in fact, we have hired more than 45 interns as full time employees in the last couple years). In some companies interns are looked upon as “free” (or at least cheap) labor. Not here. We challenge them immediately to contribute, and they almost unfailingly deliver. Many key people on various account teams today at WE began their careers in communications as interns.
- Failure is an option: There will be great people who, for a host of reasons, may not live up to their own or others’ expectations when you give them an opportunity. So what do you do as a leader who wants to grow your people? Certainly no one would immediately write someone off for one failure. I’ve had leaders who have failed at something and questioned their future with the agency, even when I had no doubt they would be significant contributors for years to come. In fact, viewing each failure as an opportunity to truly learn, not punish, has been our key to developing people and their careers at WE.
I’m looking forward to the other sessions over the next couple of days at CGI, and hearing more about how sustainable approaches to energy, food, world health and many other things are capable of contributing to the future growth of jobs around the world.
But as my father so wisely told me when I took my first job (at age 14 with Gerber Legendary Blades … stuffing invoices … so glamorous!) many years ago, “Building a well-run company that gives people jobs and contributes to society is good for the world.”
Thus the parallel with one of President Obama’s messages today at CGI (you can watch a replay of his speech when it posts here). Though the work has changed (no more stuffing envelopes), I continue to strive daily to do just that and live up to his words and earn the trust of those whom I’m fortunate enough to call employees and colleagues.
Like Kim Hunter, Lagrant Foundation, guest blogged about last week for PRWeek, I’m a big proponent of empowering our people to “get away.” However, it’s one thing to say you support people being out, and another to model that behavior as a leader.
To that end, for the past 12 years, we had a family reunion at Rathtrevor Beach in Parksville, B.C. The summer week centered on building sand castles, kayaking, cooking dinners (for 24 people) AND wrecking sand castles, overturning kayaks, eating too much. Many of the years, we could build huge bonfires on the beach and roast marshmallows on carved sticks while singing along with the kids on their guitars. I am not sure why my husband and brother-in-law never brought their accordion and fiddle. Go figure. For my part, I would think up elaborate stories in advance and then tell them to the kids — the scarier the better.
After so many years of going to the same place, we decided to change the venue to create new allure for kids getting older, including surfing and being out on the ocean. Our destination of choice: Tofino, B.C., which sits on the west coast of Vancouver Island, on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, in Pacific Rim National Park.
Traveling to and from Tofino is part of the holiday. It includes a two-hour ferry ride and a three-hour drive from Nanaimo, B.C., on a road that takes you past one of the deepest lakes in the world, straight into the wilderness. We visited here before but never with a large family contingency ― 18 people ranging from 10 weeks to 86 years old. Unfortunately, our daughter couldn’t join because she is in summer school studying physics, described by her as “a delightful topic. Not.”
There is no shortage of sand on Long Beach, which is six miles long, and great for long walks AND sand forts. Our sand fort was hexagonal, with two drawbridge openings over the moat. Our seven-year-old nephew yelled to me, “OK, you are the mighty army, and you come steal the castle when we are at lunch. When we come back, we’ll have a battle, and we will totally win.” Thankfully, our four-year-old niece took my hand and says, “It’s all right, we won’t kill you and you aren’t a troll — you can just be a girl.”
There is so much to do in Tofino that you could spend an entire summer biking, hiking, kayaking, boating, surfing, fishing and playing numerous beach games. I also love the First Nations’ stories about the area’s origins. Yesterday, we looked for a keepsake to capture the essence and came upon an original, carved talking stick.
Talking sticks are owned by Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chiefs and used extensively during the many different ceremonies and events that the chief may host. Every Nuu-chah-nulth chief has a speaker, who holds the talking stick when speaking for the chief. This way, if a mistake is made, it is the speaker’s mistake, not the chief.
Telling stories is a huge part of my personal and professional life, and now that I am back at work, I have to say I sure wish I had a talking stick sometimes.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a leader of any communications agency who wouldn’t point to people as being their most valuable asset. In fact, it’s so common that it borders on being a cliché, so as a leader you must go out of your way to put meaning behind those simple (but true) words.
Spending time with the amazing people at Waggener Edstrom always reminds me of how lucky I am to have this job. Here’s a snapshot of just a few of those reminders over two weeks:
- I had dinner with over 50 WE business leads from around the world last week and was once again blown away by the diversity of talent we have in terms of experience, cultures and general perspectives. I asked each of them to send me a short note about the one thing they were going to take away from our two days together problem-solving and planning, and I’m reading every word and responding. As a leader, if you’re EVER feeling worried, unsure or just need a little inspiration, ask your people to tell you what is motivating them. It’s like a supercharged cup of espresso for your soul.
- I hosted an impromptu town hall with my London colleagues, and they brought a few examples of the work they have been doing recently. I love the unique campaigns they’ve been driving with our clients around “Get Fit” with GE Healthcare and elsewhere in the EMEA region.
- I invited a number of our Leadership Forum members into my board meeting to hear their views around a specific and significant topic — the room was overflowing. These are individuals that are nominated and selected each year to participate in a peer-to-peer development and learning course to build their leadership and partnership. It’s one of my favorite groups to interact with as I always learn so much from them, and they came in blazing with their insight, ideas and passion – WOW!
- One of the downsides of traveling as a CEO and working from a virtual office is I don’t get to attend EVERY team meeting. Our Microsoft team met earlier this week and I wanted to be there (but was in new business meetings), yet I still took inspiration from the work they are doing on behalf of Microsoft (disclaimer: our client). Take a look at this clip and tell me what communications person wouldn’t LOVE to be able to tell that story?
So what do I take away from these recent encounters with the exceptional people I get to work with every day? A few things:
- Never forget to let them know how much I appreciate them. All too often leaders can focus on what can be better … what can we improve … how do we do it? All good questions, but we must always stop and say “thank you” and “good job” as often, if not more.
- Stop talking and listen. Just because I am CEO doesn’t mean I have all the answers — far from it. It’s my job to share all I know, yes. But it’s also my job to ask the right questions and then truly listen to understand and embrace new ideas and different points of view.
- I must always show up. I can’t just bring my work self to the party, I must share what I care about. Ask what they care about and acknowledge that we are whole people — not just the part that shows up in a meeting. The triumphs, the tribulations, the successes and failures are ALL a part of who we are. The new twins, a marathon completed, volunteer hours donated, sabbatical destinations … these are just a few things that add up to the total sum of who we are and are reflected in how we show up at work.
That’s it for now … and as a leader, whether you lead one person or 1,000 … never ever forget to remind yourself how lucky you are to have people who are not only inspired to be part of your vision, but who are inspired to build upon it themselves to make it better. I am grateful every single day.
In the past month I met with a number of agency people, including a group of our Senior Account Executives, and the topic of entrepreneurship within the agency came up every time. This got me thinking that we should figure out how to motivate more people to try out their new ideas. So off I go to ideate with colleagues (guess I should include our CFO) about how we can make this more actionable.
Last night, as I was going through trip photos, I found this one of a woman entrepreneur in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Granted her venture is very different from some of what our people want to experiment around — but the qualities are the same: CREATE, MEET A NEED, DESIGN A DELIVERY SYSTEM, TELL THE STORY.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. In fact, I look forward to sharing about it more during the TED University portion of TED Global 2011 in Scotland the week of July 11.
Every year we increase both the number of interns who join us and the scope of our recruiting efforts. In our U.S. offices alone, we have interns from Penn State, Duke University, University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon, CU Boulder and University of Arizona, to just name a few schools. We’ve always had interns, but two years ago we centralized the program to provide a better and more consistent experience.
And because we always want to learn how to improve the program, we surveyed all our intern graduates for their feedback. The good news is that their overall comments were positive, including comments like, “I think the opportunities are amazing at Waggener Edstrom and different than any other internship I have had” — and 100 percent of respondents (with a whopping 86 percent response rate) recommend the program!
Ninety percent of the interns responded that the intern program “completely” or “for the most part” gave them the opportunity to learn entry-level PR and prepared them for full-time roles at the agency. One of them chimed in to say, “It was a perfect preparation to learn the ropes at the agency and helped me understand agency dynamics and how to work with people here.”
We still need to do more to bring in people from diverse universities, but we are gaining recognition for being a good place to learn the communications field — and in fact I find a number of students connecting directly with me about the program. I love it when an inquiry pops up in my inbox or through Twitter.
What do interns value most?
In our recent survey, the interns told us that rotations (exposing them to multiple accounts and pieces of the business) and networking were the most valuable to them, followed respectively by group projects, camaraderie, leadership support, and the combination of independence, training and mentorship.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending many of the final presentations of the intern group projects, which have ranged from “Media Consumption Habits of the Millennial Generation” to “Return on Involvement: Capturing the Hearts and Minds of Youth” to many others. Hands down the interns put these team projects at the top of their list for what they value most, and an increasing number of our people attend and leverage the discussions.
What do we need to improve?
WE runs at a very energetic pace. The minute you walk in the door, genuine responsibility and accountability are yours, which is nearly unanimously applauded, as is the reality of doing real and important work. Our pace, though, has clearly heightened our need to be sure we are putting enough time and focus into day-to-day management support of interns.
Although two-thirds of our interns report feeling well-supported, that means one-third of them feel only “a little” supported, so this is our biggest target for improvement. We need to provide better context for the work they are doing, ensure that they know how their role fits into the broader agency vision, and link them strongly and broadly to other teams in the agency.
These are exactly the areas of improvement we are focusing on across the board, for all of our people, and it was great to get this further reminder of the importance of these strong management principles.
Another area where we could do better is ensuring that all interns feel they can escalate their concerns in a safe and constructive manner, and in a way that engages them in the solution. Some concerns were raised that giving us tough feedback or asking tough questions might jeopardize their chances of full-time employment. Once our interns become full-time employees, 81 percent feel comfortable delivering feedback or escalating concerns “for the most part” or “completely,” while 10 percent feel it “a little” and 7 percent “not at all.”
This is excellent input! It’s up to us to encourage constructive feedback — not just to agency management, but in open peer-to-peer discussions where we can engage people in helping us address any shortcomings and being part of the solution. In short, there should be NO FEAR that our interns — or any of our people — will risk their chances for building their careers at WE because they raise concerns or offer critiques. BRING IT ON!
I’m certainly glad my colleagues in APAC know I am allergic to certain seafood, because when I went to China several weeks ago, I was NOT MADE to eat live octopus. My COO, Michael Bigelow, who celebrates his 18th anniversary with the agency this week, was not so lucky. And to think this was a man who was told by a doctor he had an allergy to all seafood — then discovered he doesn’t really. He is now making up for lost time. Or something.
The first house we bought in Seattle burned down five days after we moved everything into it. Our housekeeper had put a hot log into a plastic garbage bin with paint rags. No one was hurt, but all of our “stuff” was charred, waterlogged or smoked out. It’s hard to not describe this as a Bad Thing. In the midst of making long lists for the insurance company, I came upon this haiku:
Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon
I had a friend write it in calligraphy for me, and it hangs on our wall. Living in an apartment with no furniture in the first few years after the fire, I would notice the little sign and say, oh yeah, sure.
Now, it makes sense.
It is not easy to see the forest for the trees. It is not easy to see the big, great idea when you are surrounded by the tyranny of your “list.” It is not easy to dream at all, really, unless you have taken some freedom from whatever might be surrounding you. Some refer to whatever stuff surrounds them as “clutter.” Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t; that isn’t the point. The point is that until you can find a way to break free from it — whatever you chose to call it — it will be harder to see what might be different, what might be new, what might be radically unusual or even radially obvious.
Take a break, take a walk. Spend time with someone completely different, or spend time with someone you are close to, but talk about something completely different. Make room and see what comes into view.
I have recently asked all our employees to share their ideas, because although I don’t recommend going through something traumatic like losing your home (obviously), it is always refreshing to make room for new and different perspectives.
Because every time I turn around one (or a team) of my colleagues are inventing something so cool.