Posted on September 22, 2011 by Melissa Waggener Zorkin — Comments Off
This is the advice the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) organizer gave us before taking stage to announce a new CGI Commitment to Action. This week I was honored to join NetHope, and a few other partners, on stage at CGI in recognition of the innovative work they drive via their commitment to train (primarily) women and girls to be IT professionals. It was a crowded stage, as our group also included HP, Microsoft, Cisco, Accenture and Voila — all brought together by NetHope as the “unifier” of disparate groups working together with a common goal.
Attending CGI this week has given me many ideas, and I’ve created many new connections. One of the key missions of CGI is to provide a forum where people who are committed to changing the world spend time working on their commitments to tackling the world’s most intractable problems. This got me thinking about partnerships in general, and also specific to WE.
Partnerships should be 1 + 1 = 3.
Client Partnerships: We build long-term PARTNERSHIPS with our clients creating shared expectations, and committing to being “in it” as deep as they are, side by side — good times and challenging times. My business partner, Pam Edstrom (also a long-term PARTNERSHIP), and I regularly check in with clients and client teams to find out the dynamics of the partnership, and if there is a (small fraction) of our clients who view us as “vendors,” we will deliberately build a plan to turn it into a true, sustainable partnership.
Global Partnerships: We may have over 800 people and 16 global offices, but we can always build a deeper bench locally around the world. So we’ve built PARTNERSHIPS with a deliberately chosen set of affiliates in our Global Alliance Network whose values, quality and leadership provide consistent counsel and support for our clients.
Talent Partnerships: We just cannot do it all ourselves. In fact, I would argue, WHY would we do this, ignoring the amazing talent in organizations, who have grown different skillsets? So we have built some very long-term PARTNERSHIPS with advertising agencies and consulting companies, as just two examples. It’s not always easy, but the fact is — why should the client have to sort through all the various agencies? We aggregate for them to make it seamless.
Social Partnerships: WE dedicate up to 1 percent of our revenue to Social Good, which is the sum of our pro bono work, volunteer hours or cash contributions. We are committed to doing this in good times or challenging times (such as in 2009). We have deliberately designed some select agency corporate PARTNERSHIPS, for example Mercy Corps and NetHope. We also give our people a generous amount of time to pursue their own passions (last year WE employees recorded more than 5,000 volunteer hours).
Which brings us back to CGI, and how I am impressed with how many lives have been changed as a result of the PARTNERSHIPS conceived at CGI.
- Nearly 20 million people have increased access to safe drinking water.
- Nearly 5 million people have obtained access to information technology.
- More than 2 million girls have been reached with school enrollment efforts.
- 50 million children have been given access to educational programs.
Yes — I am 100% certain that we can do more TOGETHER, and PARTNERSHIPS can truly be 1 + 1 = 3!!!
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!
New ideas and inventions come from those who see “a different and better way” nearly everywhere they look. These entrepreneurs see a need, and believe fervently that they can make a difference; they take risks, embrace failure, mix it up and find a way to bring their idea to life. As I mentioned in my last post, I was recently in Beijing, speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China. We discussed: Can an entrepreneurial culture of innovation be CREATED?
Being a 27-year-old firm means that we have had our fair share of reinvention cycles; in fact, I would say we are ALWAYS moving through many changes to embrace new ideas and improve. In the past six years, though, we have significantly increased our rate of change, not only to stay on the edge of integrated communications, technologies and social networks but because we are pushing ourselves to create broader, deeper and more highly relevant impact and value for our clients. Here is what we’ve learned so far about how to create a culture of entrepreneurs:
- Break down the silos between groups. With 900 employees, it could get easy to stay within your own team. But often the best ideas come from a diverse set of people working to solve a problem or design an opportunity.
- Find your risk-taking muscle and train it, so that taking smart risks is embraced across the entire organization. Learn from your failures; and share broadly. This starts at the top – leaders need to model risk-taking, admit mistakes, and embrace new ideas vigorously outside of hierarchies.
- Challenge your teams to redesign the way they come up with ideas. Invest in the time to learn new methods of ideating – mix up people (tech can help bridge miles) and even ideate with your clients in new ways.
- Maximize the use of technology for your own collaborative use. Your tech team needs to be a strategic part of your leadership team with the ability to design to a vision that can be inherently global, but intrinsically local.
- Give your people free time, and give them incentives to use it as they want. Daniel H. Pink does a good job of linking this to what motivates people in his book Drive. Ask your people to share, and be truly interested in what they’ve learned. Build peer-to-peer networks within the organization where like-minded people can compare, contrast and ideate.
- Find ways to recognize new ideas that have resulted in powerful impact for clients, or for your organization. And remember having this be peer-to-peer and grassroots, in addition to senior recognition of great work, is extremely significant to your people.
While I was in China, I asked the teams to share what they are working on with their clients (thank you to Carolyn Chen, Rosemary Xu and team) and was impressed with their ingenuity, and their nimble approach to getting things done. My own team can learn from this, and so can our other offices.
In March, I was also with our team in Boston and I heard a fantastic idea from one of our account leads, Brian Bogie, about how his team won a new client. I loved his story and approach, which was based so strongly on building the relationship the right way over time. I asked him to write it all down, knowing I was asking for unplanned workload; he did this energetically, it was shared out, and within minutes people were sharing their own stories and collaborating – and we further honed our best practice within a 24-hour period.
Find those ideas. Embrace them. Share them. Develop them. And teach them.