“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
— Virginia Woolf
I remember the first time I saw the Chartres Cathedral. I was traveling from Paris by car. As we topped a hill, this majestic church climbed out of rolling wheat fields in the French countryside.
When Chartres Cathedral was built in the 13th Century, a medieval maze known as a labyrinth was set into the floor of the church. Since most people could never make it to Jerusalem, the heart of Christiandom, they would go instead to churches in Canterbury, Santiago de Compostella, and Chartres. Once there, the faithful would end their pilgrimage by walking the 40-foot-wide labyrinth to the center. Then they would slowly retrace their steps to regain the “outside world.”
The path of the labyrinth symbolizes the journey of human life leading to ultimate victory over Evil through Jesus Christ. The journey to truth.
In the world of leadership and public relations, the concept of truth can be elusive. It's a realm where perception, action, and ethics intersect, creating situations that can challenge our understanding of what is true and authentic.
Following are three intriguing scenarios that highlight the complexities of truth in these domains:
Scenario 1: Contradictory Statements and Actions
A highly decorated PR professional, known far and wide for his acumen and leadership, harbors a secret disdain for a fellow senior leader. He sees her as a person of questionable ethics, someone who blurs the lines between talent and nepotism, and wields influence with a gloved fist.
Behind closed doors, he doesn't hold back, critiquing her hiring practices, especially those favoring less-talented family members for coveted positions. He scoffs at her strong-arm tactics, the way she bends colleagues and clients to her will, and how she meticulously crafts a mirage of success for the sake of industry recognition and coveted awards.
Yet, here's where the story takes a riveting turn. In a public forum, where reputations are built and shattered, this very executive does the unexpected. He nominates the leader he privately ridicules for a major industry award, lavishing praise upon her leadership and talent. It's a paradoxical move that leaves industry insiders and colleagues bewildered and wondering about his true motivations.
Is this truth?
This true story highlights the complex dynamics that often underlie the world of corporate public relations. It's a world where personal opinions and public image can be at odds, where the line between authenticity and strategic maneuvering blurs, and where individuals must balance their inner thoughts with external expectations.
In the end, it serves as a compelling reminder that in the realm of leadership and reputation management, the truth can be as elusive as the illusions we create, and the choices we make can be as intriguing as the stories we tell.
Scenario 2: The Nepotism Dilemma
In another scenario, an agency CEO hires his wife to work in the firm, despite objections from the global HR leader and other senior executives. “What’s the problem? I can’t understand why people are objecting,” he says in defense of his action. “She’s talented and any agency would be proud to have her.” Never mind the team’s apprehensions about the wife potentially sharing sensitive client information and internal politics with her husband. The decision sparks days of conflict and mounting anxiety. Eventually, a higher-ranking executive intervenes and demands the woman's termination, bringing an end to the conflict.
Is this truth?
Again, factually, these events are true—they occurred. However, truth here is mired in ethical considerations. The CEO's nepotism, resistance to objections, and the intervention from above reveal a lack of adherence to established rules and ethical standards of the organization. The agency and its parent company had a nepotism rule that was clearly disregarded. This scenario emphasizes the importance of upholding organizational values and the potential consequences of deviating from them.
Scenario 3: The Struggle for DEI Communication Leadership
In a world increasingly emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), communications officers find themselves at the forefront of driving these conversations within their organizations. Yet, sometimes, the truth is that these efforts fall short, revealing challenges and complexities that demand attention.
A global company with a well-established DEI initiative proudly promotes its commitment to fostering an inclusive workplace. They have a dedicated team of communications officers responsible for conveying the company's DEI message to both internal and external stakeholders. However, behind the scenes, there are significant hurdles to overcome, including resistance by teams throughout the organization.
Is this truth?
Factually, the company's DEI initiative exists, and the communications officers are actively working on conveying the message. However, the truth here is multifaceted:
Within the company, there is a lack of alignment between the leadership's commitment to DEI and the actual implementation of inclusive practices. Communications officers find themselves in a challenging position, trying to promote a message that isn't fully embraced or practiced at all levels.
While the company outwardly promotes DEI, some departments or individuals resist change and remain resistant to embracing diverse perspectives. This resistance can create tension and make it difficult for communications officers to drive the DEI conversation effectively.
This scenario highlights the nuanced truth that communications officers dedicated to DEI face in their roles. While they may be genuinely committed to driving change and fostering inclusion, they often grapple with organizational challenges that hinder their efforts. The truth here lies in recognizing these complexities, acknowledging the need for systemic change, and persisting in the pursuit of a more inclusive workplace.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In the winding paths of leadership and public relations, the search for truth isn't a straightforward journey. It's like navigating a maze filled with twists, turns, and unexpected challenges. But it's a journey that holds a profound moral calling.
As Virginia Woolf wisely said, "If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people." Our quest for truth begins within us. It requires the courage to confront our own biases, motivations, and actions honestly. Only then can we hope to shed light on the shadows of deception that often cloud the worlds of leadership and public relations.
As leaders and communicators, we shoulder the responsibility of not only shaping our own narratives but also those of the organizations we represent. It's a challenging task, but one that can be guided by unwavering principles of transparency, integrity, and authenticity. The labyrinth may be intricate, but we have the power to navigate it with purpose and conviction.
At the end of the day, the complexities of truth should inspire us rather than deter us. They should motivate us to become better versions of ourselves, to work towards a world where our actions align seamlessly with our words, where authenticity triumphs over manipulation, and where the pursuit of truth is a collective mission.
As you journey through the labyrinth of truth, may you not only find answers but also discover the wisdom to question, the courage to act, and the determination to lead with unwavering integrity. It’s through these intricate twists and turns that we have the opportunity to unearth the most profound truths about ourselves and the world we aim to shape.
Remember always that it's the relentless pursuit of truth that distinguishes remarkable leaders and communicators—those who can guide us through even the most complex of realities.
My father instilled in me a love of the outdoors early on. It started with watching birds. Once I was old enough, it progressed to fishing and hunting on tanks, ponds and lakes in Northeast Texas.
Dad became a marksman while in the Marine Corps. He manned a 50-caliber machine gun as a rear gunner on a Helldiver bomber while stationed on the Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific Theater. On many occasions I saw him down a duck or a Mourning Dove with a single shotgun blast.
It was the pursuit of these activities and the quality time spent together that mattered more than the game or fish harvested.
I can still remember many a morning when he woke me at 4 am to join him on an outing. As we drove to our destination, the headlights of our car knifing through the darkness, I still recall the scent of his Mennan after shave and the Camel cigarette smoke drifting through the car.
Those were special days. Dad was a mystery most of his life, but he was in his element in the outdoors.
When the opportunity came years later to take a course in outdoor survival, I registered immediately. As a part of this work, I was intrigued by the study and interpretation of tracks (footprints) and other signs animals leave behind in the wilderness. Tracking identifies the animal that left behind the footprints, scrapes, chews, digs and scat (animal waste) for us to see, and it grows into an understanding of the intimate details of that animal’s life.
Some, like me, have taken the lessons of animal tracking and applied them to their study of human behavior in the wilds of the corporate world. A favorite Wall Street Journal article many years ago centered on this very topic. Animal tracking offers valuable lessons about people, particularly in the context of leadership, employee engagement, and crisis communication.
Let's delve deeper into how we can identify human behaviors in ways similar to tracking animals, through stories and examples:
Tracking Patterns in the Workplace
Imagine a scenario where an organization is experiencing high turnover among its junior employees. Just as animal trackers look for patterns in footprints and other signs to identify species, leaders can analyze workplace data to identify patterns. They might discover that the turnover is higher among employees in a particular department, or after a specific event, such as a change in leadership or a merger.
Key Takeaway: Similar to tracking animal movements, leaders must track patterns in employee behavior to uncover underlying issues affecting engagement and retention. Once identified, they can take targeted action to address these issues.
Body Language and Non-Verbal Cues
Picture a manager giving a presentation to their team. Some team members are engaged and nodding, while others appear disinterested, with crossed arms and blank expressions. Just as animal trackers observe non-verbal cues like body language to understand an animal's mood or intent, leaders should pay attention to their team's non-verbal cues. These cues can reveal their level of engagement, satisfaction, or discomfort.
Key Learning: Effective leaders use their observational skills to adjust their communication style and address concerns when they notice non-verbal cues signaling potential issues. By doing so, they can maintain a more engaged and cohesive team.
Listening Like a Tracker
Imagine a CEO who regularly holds town hall meetings with employees but always dominates the conversation, rarely allowing employees to speak up. Or they refuse to take any questions but those that have been submitted in advance for which they have a “canned” response.
Similar to how animal trackers listen for the faintest sounds in the wilderness, leaders should actively listen to their employees. Encouraging open dialogue and feedback is essential for understanding their needs, concerns, and ideas.
Key Takeaway: Leaders who truly listen can identify early warning signs of dissatisfaction or discontent among employees. By fostering an environment where employees feel heard, leaders can improve engagement and prevent issues from escalating into crises.
Crisis Communication and Tracking Signals
Consider a company facing a public relations crisis due to a product recall. The initial response is vague and lacks transparency, leading to a wave of negative media coverage.
In crisis communication, like tracking animal behavior during challenging situations, it's essential to monitor signals such as media coverage, social media sentiment, and customer feedback. These signals provide insights into the severity of the crisis and public perception.
Key Takeaway: Just as animal trackers adapt their strategies based on signals in the environment, crisis communication specialists must adjust their approach in real-time. Transparent and timely communication can help mitigate reputational damage and rebuild trust.
Adapting to Change
Imagine a team struggling to adapt to new technology introduced by their organization. Some employees embrace it, while others resist the change.
Similar to how animals adapt to changes in their habitat, employees must adapt to organizational changes. Leaders should identify resistance and offer support and training to facilitate a smoother transition.
Key Takeaway: Effective leadership involves recognizing and addressing resistance to change, ensuring that the team adapts positively to new circumstances. Just as animal trackers help species adapt to evolving environments, leaders guide their teams through transitions. Being able to pivot and adjust strategies in response to challenges is a valuable skill.
In the wilds of nature, I’ve learned that tracking goes beyond footprints and signs; it unveils the intricate details of an animal's life. Likewise, in the corporate jungle, tracking human behavior reveals the subtleties of leadership, engagement, and crisis communication.
The lessons from my father's love for the outdoors and the wisdom of tracking have led me to understand that, just as animals adapt to their changing environments, effective leaders must adapt and guide their teams through transformations. So, whether in the wilds or the boardroom, remember that the pursuit of knowledge and the quality of time spent together matter most. Embrace these insights from nature, and let them guide you in your journey toward successful leadership and engagement.
There were two leaders in public relations seen by others as role models.
One of them, let's call him John, was the epitome of selflessness. He was known for always making time to help his colleagues advance in their careers, developing his subordinates as leaders, and contributing tirelessly to the communities in which he lived and served. John didn't just talk the talk; he walked the walk. He was the first to promote the work of other people, shining a light on their achievements.
Now, let's contrast John with the second leader, who we'll call Mary. Mary was the embodiment of self-absorption. She was always advancing her own reputation and career at the expense of others, constantly shining a spotlight on her achievements. Mary had a knack for promoting other self-absorbed and self-centered leaders in hopes that they would return the favor when industry awards were handed out.
These two leaders provide valuable lessons for leadership:
These stories of John and Mary emphasize that leadership isn't just about actions; it's about the core beliefs and values that underpin those actions. It's about the difference between short-term gains and long-lasting influence. It's about the ethical choices leaders make daily, knowing that their decisions shape not only their careers but the culture and future of their organizations and how they will be remembered by their peers.
"Challenge and adversity are meant to help you know who you are. Storms hit your weakness but unlock your true strength."
- Roy T. Bennett, Author, The Light in the Heart
One fall day, I took the train to Chicago to meet a good friend who served as an executive leader with a prominent public relations firm. After a short walk from the station, I arrived at their new offices in a nearby high-rise. The elevator quickly whisked me to their main floor, and when I walked into the lobby, I noticed how empty it was. Eerily, it reminded me of the mise en scène from the epic Citizen Kane, where a vacuous Susan Alexander complains to Kane of boredom, their empty words echoing off Xanadu’s cavernous walls.
My friend came to escort me to his office. Beyond the lobby, I saw that the inner hallways and offices, too, were empty – a stark contrast to the hundreds of employees I would have encountered in this very agency in earlier days.
As if on cue, my friend said, “I guess you’ve noticed no one is here.” I nodded and asked if people were still working from home, two years on from the pandemic. “They’re at home on Mondays and Fridays. Tuesday through Thursday, they’re expected to work here, at a client location, or from their home office.”
Facts and Figures
According to a survey by Global Workplace Analytics in 2021, approximately 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce was working remotely multiple days a week. PRWeek's 2021 Agency Business Report highlighted that many PR agencies adopted flexible work arrangements, allowing employees to work remotely part of the time.
How is it possible, I wondered, that arguably the largest public relations firm in the world can thrive when its people seldom come into the office to collaborate, co-create, and celebrate who they are as an agency brand?
A CCO of a major client organization asked the same question after a visit to another global agency in New York. “How are they making money? Are they making money?” he wondered.
An emerging leader with a New York boutique agency believes his high-flying firm has foundered post-pandemic. “I think we’re having real financial problems but it’s hard to know how bad it is because we’re not meeting with the senior leaders.” Entitled colleagues at this agency have openly fought to maintain work-from-home as their right rather than a privilege. Executives are now wrestling with staff professionals to regain a sense of equilibrium.
Research from Gallup shows that remote workers often face challenges related to engagement. In 2021, only 31 percent of U.S. remote workers were engaged in their work, compared to 37 percent of on-site workers.
Another friend working in-house in Chicago was downsized by his private equity employer. The bloodletting resulted in the elimination of hundreds employed in U.S. offices.
In the throes of the post-pandemic era, this colleague had worried for months about the potential for a reduction in force, spurring him to return to the office while others languished elsewhere. Most every day, however, he was the only person in the office and found it demoralizing to join Zoom calls from that location with Chicago and California colleagues working from their homes.
“You join a company to learn, to grow, and to interact with leaders,” he said. “How can you progress in your job when no leaders are around; no one to mentor and guide you?”
Impact on Company Culture
An executive leader at another global firm extolled the benefits of WFH during COVID-19: “There was no commuting time, so our people were able to start work earlier, work later, and clock more billable hours. We also found it easier to utilize fewer people on more accounts because clients had no way of knowing who might be working on their account.”
In the end, the firm has paid a heavy price for WFH: The absence of in-person interaction has deeply affected cultural practices. Employees speak of missed team-building events, the lack of face-to-face celebrations, and the challenges in maintaining a sense of camaraderie. Their storied agency culture has diminished as people are unavailable to honor teams and individuals delivering exceptional work, or to celebrate the agency’s values and beliefs, or to brainstorm and ideate together, or to simply be with the men and women who help affirm who they are as professionals.
Hybrid Work: Balancing Benefits and Costs
A significant challenge faced by many agencies during the pandemic and in its aftermath has been the burden of their real estate holdings. As remote work became more prevalent, office spaces were underutilized or largely vacant. Organizations faced major financial challenges, lease agreement constraints, and the need to adapt their real estate strategies to align with evolving work patterns. A survey by PwC found that 87 percent of executives anticipated a shift to remote work, with many planning to reduce their office footprint.
We know that certain agencies have ditched pricey, expansive offices in favor of more basic space near transportation centers (train stations or airports), in industrial parks or in coworking space (WeWork being a well-known example). Or they’ve downsized: One specialty agency with 16 office locations in 2021 today has nine.
What have we learned about the effects of remote work on employee satisfaction and company culture? Studies show the following:
The data points provide insights into the varied experiences and perceptions of the impact of remote work on employee satisfaction, company culture, collaboration, and innovation. These effects may certainly differ from one organization to another and may change over time as companies adapt to new work arrangements.
Where do we go from here?
Few are willing to return to long commutes into New York City or Chicago or Boston, for example, when they can begin work at home at 7 am, log onto Zoom calls from there and work productively for hours. “Dude, why do I want to get on the train and fight my way into Manhattan when I can get coffee here and get to work right away, when I want to work?” asked a close colleague.
Fewer still are willing to sacrifice the work-life balance they’ve now created for themselves. “Now that we’ve opened the door to working from home, you can’t go back,” said another colleague.
How might the landscape continue to evolve, and what challenges or opportunities might arise?
Storms like the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately hit our weaknesses, but they can unlock our true strengths. High on the list must be how we lead and manage others.
It’s essential that we learn new management skills for directing and guiding remote teams. The following list, gathered from our conversations with front-line leaders, captures the core skills and behaviors necessary for effective remote team leadership.
Setting the Example
In September, an aerospace CEO was roasted in major publications for his frequent travel and reported absence from the headquarters office. While the company’s governmental affairs team had largely returned to work in Arlington, Va., its head of communications was reportedly working at his home in Orlando when not traveling to visit distant colleagues on the corporate jet.
During the pandemic, I had the privilege of meeting with and interviewing hundreds of front-line managers and hourly workers in food plants across North America. While COVID-19 posed a constant threat, these dedicated individuals continued working tirelessly, ensuring the uninterrupted production of essential goods. In stark contrast, their colleagues in office roles transitioned to remote work, highlighting the resilience of those who kept our supply chains running.
As leaders, we must recognize the influence we can have as role models for our teams. In times of change, employees look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance. When leaders confidently adopt and advocate for the hybrid model, it can instill confidence in the team that this approach can work effectively.
“We have to show the way,” said my former executive colleague in Chicago. “How can we expect colleagues to come back into the office when we’re not there ourselves?”
In summary, the pandemic has reshaped the way organizations work, with remote and hybrid work becoming more prevalent. The key lessons learned emphasize the importance of adaptability, effective leadership, and the need to balance the benefits and challenges of new work models. Leaders must play a crucial role in modeling and guiding their teams through these changes, fostering resilience and growth along the way.
An old African proverb tells us, "Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors." Adversity like the public relations profession has faced in recent years, is essential for the growth of current and emerging leaders. For it's through challenges that we acquire valuable skills and wisdom that will indeed unlock true strength.