How to be a great leader. Hint: Don’t be a boss

Article also picked up by PR Daily:

In public relations, managing clients, colleagues, media contacts and spokespeople are essential PR functions.   As a fast-paced entrepreneurial industry, motivated young people may get promoted quickly.   While agencies do an excellent job of building staffer knowledge in strategic or skills areas, many companies fail to provide adequate relationship management or leadership training.  Overlooking this critical component of growth is a detriment to staff, clients and may impact individual professional performance or advancement.

Throughout my career at some of the world’s largest and niche boutique firms, I witnessed some of the profession’s best PR pros make significant management errors (I certainly made more than a few mistake over the years).  I also have been inspired to see outstanding leaders, mentors and client relationship management experts.

Following are my 10 management principles that make a successful leader.

1) There is a distinct difference between being a boss and being a leader.  A boss tells people what to do.  Period.  A leader inspires, motivates, instills trust and builds loyalty. Managers should strive to be great leaders, not great bosses. By focusing on leadership, staff will learn from you and want to contribute to your success, the clients’ as well as their own.

2) Encourage participation by involving staff in conference calls, new business presentations, events and client meetings. Even if they aren’t ready to be active participants, they will learn by watching.

By studying the way you interact, they can learn to be problem-solvers who can formulate thoughtful responses in pressure situations.  Young professionals will begin to understand how their work fits into and affects the larger scope of the business. Too often, staffers do research or administrative tasks without seeing how their day-to-day work contributes to the client relationship. They will appreciate being included and having the opportunity to learn from their supervisors.

3) Delegate substantial projects, not just simple tasks. As managers, we too often give task-based assignments without sharing the long-term strategic plan or business implications. At agencies, client pressures and the frantic pace of the workday often make it easier for managers to tackle tough assignments on their own.   It’s hard to let go because you know you will do it right (i.e., your way) the first time.

However, the time and effort it takes to teach someone by allowing him or her to work through the project will pay off. Staffers will appreciate the increasing trust and responsibility and will work harder to prove their value. Be accepting of different work styles or approaches.  You will likely be surprised when presented with insightful new ideas and may learn something from your junior colleagues. By providing more responsibility for your team, you will free yourself to tackle more strategic work and build that long-term growth plan required by C-level executives. Cultivate these junior staffers to become leaders not the masters of tasks.

4) Always guide staff to give you an answer.  When you reward a young professional with substantial work, they will likely come to you with more questions. Build problem-solving skills by asking, “What do you think?  What would you do?”

It is in our nature as skilled PR practitioners to give the answer, solve the problem and move on to the next crisis. However, hand-holding your junior staff does not enable them to become critical or strategic thinkers. Remember, as a manager it is your job to mentor and train the future leaders of your organization.

5. You have successfully delegated higher-level assignments. Newfound empowerment may lead to mistakes. Hold staff accountable for their thinking and actions. Challenge your team to evaluate the implications of their decisions. Do not always rescue them when they make errors along the way. This includes having junior staffers deal with some client issues directly.

There are risks, but pride of ownership is a great motivator. Most clients demand senior leaders be assigned to their business, but often call with questions regarding minor account initiatives that should be handled by more junior staff. Provide clients with more resources and a greater depth of talent to service their accounts. When you show trust in your junior staff, clients will follow suit and begin to reserve calls to you for senior counsel needs.

6. Your staff members have completed some challenging assignments. Don’t forget to reward them for a job well done and advocate for them throughout the organization. To a junior staffer, saying, “I’m proud of you,” may sound condescending. There is nothing a young professional hates more than feeling like a kid. Be specific with praise. Applaud them in front of their peers and senior managers.

While most PR firms are part of public companies with specific raise and bonus restrictions, there are ways to reward the stars on your team. Well-crafted public congratulatory e-mails may be as effective as monetary rewards. Providing your staff with opportunities based on prior work serves as additional encouragement (i.e., including them in client meetings, brainstorm sessions, new business). Certainly, raises, bonuses and recognition outside of the normal promotion cycle are even better. Try to avoid the morale-killing cluster promotions that have become the norm. Individual recognition goes a long way.  A well-crafted promotion email outlining the staffer’s accomplishments should motivate others to strive for that level of excellence.

7. Challenge junior colleagues to take charge of their career success.  Some young professionals have a sense of entitlement. They feel they deserve the raise and promotion now.  After all, they think they do everything, for the accounts they service.   Ask them to outline their accomplishments and contributions in writing. This exercise teaches team members that illustrating concrete business contributions are required to advance in the PR profession. Help staffers become their own advocates, and, in so doing, they give you the information you need to support their growth.  Ask what they really want, rather than telling them promotions and raises are regulated.

What staffers want, financially and professionally, may surprise you. Often the requests are not as outrageous as you may suspect. A few thousand dollars and increased responsibility mean a great deal to young professionals. By listening to your staff, you can create a realistic road map together, and the onus falls on the staffer to advance based on the mutually set parameters for success.

8. Hire only those who illustrate potential to become client leaders.  Agency professionals are often so busy, they fill staff positions with mediocre candidates.  Get involved in the hiring of entry-level staff. Those who cannot illustrate concrete accomplishments do not have a place on your team. Dismiss those who do not show potential to excel, or, better yet, don’t hire them in the first place.

9.  Admit you’re human. Take responsibility for your own errors.  As a manager, you’re a teacher.  Show a sense of humility when you make an error.  Admitting you are wrong and working to rectify the situation in a thoughtful manner builds camaraderie and encourages an honest approach to business.

10.  Conduct yourself and your approach to business, client service and management with high ethical and moral standards. Inspire future leaders by living and working with integrity.

Managers who possess self-awareness, humility and a willingness to adjust their management techniques, build loyal and motivated teams.   Strive to be a leader, not a boss.

A version of this article by Lorra Brown originally appeared in PRSA’s PR Tactics in 2007.


One thought on “How to be a great leader. Hint: Don’t be a boss

  1. Great article Lora. You draw great distinctions between being a boss and a true leader, someone who inspires and mentors along the way. It’s easy in our busy day-to-day to assign tasks without explanation or just do it ourselves to save time delivering instructions, reviewing work, providing feedback, etc. But who does this help? Certainly not the team member, and in the end, not you either. If you don’t give young PR pros the opportunity to try (and yes, sometimes fail), they will never gain the experience and confidence to become leaders and managers themselves.

    This post is a good reminder to remember what we wish our managers had done (or do) to help us grow into our own, and to take time in our days to do this for those we manage. It might take a little longer to get things done now, but in the end, it will help create a group of competent and confident PR pros that will increase your team or company’s efficiency and performance.

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