Following her appointment as Global Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, AnnaMaria DeSalva sat down with Ken Jacobs, author of the monthly PRSA column Taking the Lead, to discuss her new role, her leadership journey – including her experience in both management and governance –   and how the industry can better advocate for diversity in its future leaders. Jacobs, principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, is a PRSA contributor and published an abbreviated version of this interview in the October issue of Strategies and Tactics.

1. In June of this year, you became Global Chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a company with over 2,000 employees in more than 80 offices worldwide. Where do you even begin?

Well, I begin with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to lead this great company, and with a lot of respect for all that has come before. H+K is a storied firm, almost synonymous with our field during the decades in which the industry was developing. To this day, I believe it attracts a certain caliber of person who is deeply dedicated to applying the knowledge of our field to make a major difference for clients. I led global healthcare at H+K from 2006-2009, and that experience played a large role in my own development. So I have a lot of heart for the firm and appreciation for the opportunity.

The role of the chief executive in many respects is to unlock the potential of the organization. As I get started, we are renewing H+K for its next era. For us, that means choosing where to compete over the next five years, how to win, and how to cultivate the growth of both the organization and the individuals who comprise it. It’s not lost on me that we are doing this work as we embark on a new decade. It’s an exciting time of step-changes for many industries, when technology is the tip of the spear of transformation, but communication is the essential agent of success. That’s an exciting nexus, for which I have an enormous sense of purpose and commitment.

My priorities for my first 100 days are focused on discovery and listening, connection, and the 2020 strategic roadmap. This framework has naturally led to six activity streams involving leader input, listening tours and site visits, client engagement, employee communications, strategic planning, and engagement with our parent company – WPP – and outside influencers and partners. It’s been a full but fascinating schedule. All of this activity is rooted in some excellent onboarding designed by our global co-presidents Richard Millar and Lars Erik Grønntun, who are my daily partners in this work. They have established the strategic and operational foundation for the firm upon which we are building.

2. With a company of that size, how do you create a sense of connection with your “followers”?

In our case, I think our size is an advantage. We have global scale and we can apply the principles and methods used very effectively by many larger companies to create a sense of connection and community, but with a comparably smaller and easier to reach employee population. That’s our opportunity, and we are going to make the most of it as we grow.

I’m a big believer that listening is the start of all effective business and communications strategy, and it comes naturally to me to want to listen and learn from others. I don’t know how to get started any other way. The act of listening well is actually one of our human superpowers and has the potential to form deep connections. Thankfully, today we can deploy many channels for listening. One-to-one is very powerful, but it’s not the only way.

My aspiration is for a truly connected enterprise at H+K, with vibrant leadership at every level, a sense of trust and transparency, and a culture of One H+K, where individuals can easily draw on the assets of the firm and also see themselves in our purpose and strategy.

3. We knew one another during your pre-leadership days at Ogilvy & Mather PR, and it was clear even then you were destined to lead. And you took on the mantle of leadership rather early in your career. What special challenges did that present, and how did you overcome them?

I remember those days at Ogilvy & Mather PR very well, including my college internship. That’s truly when I discovered my career. Many of you at O&M gave me great opportunities and guidance, even at that early stage.

I suppose the challenges in being a young leader had a lot to do with experience, or the lack of it, and perhaps the occasional skepticism I might have run into.

I recall relying a lot on good old-fashioned respect for others, my commitment to a good outcome, trust, and humor to make it work, even when it seemed like maybe it wasn’t. Looking back, I also realize I was pretty resilient. If I made a misstep, I usually was acutely aware of it – sometimes uncomfortably so – but I also didn’t lose a lot of emotional energy. I took the lesson to heart, and I kept moving.

I remember when Lenore Cooney, then CEO of O&M PR, first offered me a full-time position, she told me she valued my judgment most of all. That really made an impression on me. It was a big step forward for me as a young leader when I eventually came to trust my own judgment.

4. You’ve led in both agencies and corporations. In what ways are leading in those organizations the same? And in what ways did you need to apply different leadership styles?

I recently did the math, and my career skews almost exactly 50/50 – just about half of it has been on the agency side, and half of it in corporate roles.

I think there are a lot of similarities when you are leading in either environment. The leadership principles are the same – you’re accountable for strategy and execution; for inspiring and engaging teams; for developing talent; and for advising business leaders to help them preserve and grow value. Given the diversity of the issues we face and the pace of change, we always need to set a tone of open-mindedness and agility; an orientation to quality solutions and to the big picture; and a growth mindset. Because our work in communications so directly shapes reputation and corporate character, we also have to set a standard for integrity.

However, each setting demands that we over-index on certain traits and skills.

On the corporate side, business strategy and external pressures can be very dynamic, and so I have found that leading well in that environment requires even more fluidity, and resilience. You need to maintain your center and be a source of calm and quality thinking for many people inside and outside the organization, especially during episodes of radical change. In a corporate role, it’s also essential to be able to lead through influence – you’re done before you’ve started if you can’t. I also think that corporate affairs leaders who are constant advisors to CEOs and boards need to be vigilant that they are allocating sufficient time to their teams.

In an agency environment, there needs to be an even more profound talent orientation. People are the product, and so leaders need to ‘eat and sleep’ talent strategy – developing a strong pipeline of talent, creating a constructive culture, and ensuring the strength and sustainability of the client service model and the growth strategy. On the agency side, leaders also must prioritize innovation and ensure that clients are able to tap solutions that create the most value for their business at any given time. Finally, as a client, you always know when your external partners truly understand your issues and care deeply about your success. Those are values that must be closely held by agency leaders.  I assure you they are at H+K!

5. You’re on one board and the vice-chair of another board. How do you approach leading in a governance role versus a management role, guiding peers who are respected leaders in their own right?

Board service is always an interesting transition for people who have worked hard to perform well in management roles their whole careers. A great board member is focused on value creation and is applying her experience and judgment to help ensure the management team is making choices and executing in ways that optimize value for the company’s owners. The board also plays the key role in selecting and evaluating the CEO.

There is a frequent expression intended to describe the dynamics of board service: “Nose in, fingers out,” meaning the board must be very knowledgeable and involved, but not in day to day activity, except rarely in special situations.

In my case, I’ve learned to grow my knowledge of the business and the people, participate meaningfully in key forums, bring my expertise actively to the table, dial my engagement with management up or down according to the need that I see or the requests that they make, and sometimes just focus on asking the right questions. The key balance to strike is to be very constructively engaged in a way that supports the efforts of management to create value, without unnecessarily disrupting the team.

Another very key consideration when leading at the board level is the culture of the board itself. As an operating executive, I often make decisions as an individual, seeking input from numerous stakeholders. As a director, you make decisions only as a group, and that’s why board dynamics, communication and collaboration are so important.

6. Who are the one or two most effective leaders you’ve worked with, and why?

Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time working with two public company CEOs, Ed Breen, now executive chairman of DuPont, where I was the CCO, and Brad Jacobs, chairman and CEO of XPO Logistics, where I am vice chairman of the board.

Ed and Brad are both intently focused on long term value creation. They are both career CEOs. And each has demonstrated a uniquely productive combination of strategic vision and rigorous execution.

Ed has a gift for quickly seeing the essence of strategic choices, solving for risks in a very creative way, balancing the need to drive shareholder return with the equal imperative to invest for the future, and focusing the organization on disciplined performance. He also has a gift for assessing talent well and taking some risks to put the right players on the field. Over time, he has created quite a cohort of C-level leaders.

Brad has an exciting vision of a technology-enabled future, with the strategic and operating ability to make it happen. He sees clearly that scale is a key means to the necessary end of investment in innovation that will increase customer engagement and profitability. Brad has a strong desire to surround himself with the best and brightest and is not interested in being the smartest person in the room. He has developed and inspired an accomplished group of leaders with diverse backgrounds, and they are focused and moving fast. For all of the technical strength in the business, there is also a supportive and enabling culture.

Both Ed and Brad lead openly and transparently. At XPO, I see how this approach extends to the board’s unfiltered access to both management and data, which enables active oversight and helps to set a great tone at the top. Brad, our lead independent director and I are also directly engaged with shareholders, so that we have a finger on the pulse of what is important to them, both near and long-term.

I’ve been lucky to work with a number of CEOs whose ability to create a better future for their stakeholders ultimately inspired me to step out of a senior functional or advisory role, and step into an operating role myself.

7. What can the PR industry do to create an environment where it’s no longer news when a woman is selected as the CEO of a global agency? And how do we accelerate opportunities for leaders of diverse backgrounds?

On the topic of gender parity and diversity of all kinds in management and governance, I am both an optimist and a realist.

I’m optimistic because I see outstanding women achieving in many industries, with both women and men supporting them. I also think the business case for parity is increasingly visible and understood. The data are clear – companies that have diverse leadership teams outperform their competitors and create greater shareholder value.

I’m realistic because I know the rest of the fact set – change is not happening quickly enough, and it won’t occur organically on its own. We need to confront the reasons why we lose qualified women across the leadership pipeline, and we need to take the proven steps to reduce that attrition. Paradigm for Parity is a business coalition doing an outstanding job helping companies close the corporate leadership gender gap, and their action plan is a useful roadmap for any company. I think many of the same principles help support greater ethnic and cultural diversity at senior levels as well. At H+K, we are evaluating each of these measures as we double down on our talent strategy and prepare the company for its next growth phase.

Fortunately, women are making quite visible progress in the agency leadership ranks. I’m excited to get to better know my peers, including the outstanding women now leading some of the major firms.