My visit to Indianapolis yesterday confirmed why I’m still enjoying the profession of public relations after 35 years.
Humbled by the lofty promise of the Hoosier PRSA luncheon program title, “An Industry Thought Leader Comes Home,” I was peppered with questions by a future leader of the profession, chapter president Jamaison Schuler.
It was a homecoming on many levels, beginning with the fact that the hundred or so PRSA and PRSSA members were trying out a new venue–the Farm Bureau Building at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, which was the same place 45 years ago where I proudly displayed reserve grand champion vegetables from my 4-H garden. I returned to the the State Capitol four years later to intern for House Speaker Otis R. Bowen during my junior year of college, before eventually moving to Indianapolis to work in city government after graduating from Indiana State. Following two years as a newspaper reporter and six years at the New York State Assembly, I returned to the Hoosier capital in 1977 to begin my corporate public relations career at Eli Lilly.
Although long ago, here are seven leadership lessons I learned from my Lilly experience that have remained career guideposts ever since:
Listen More/Talk Less. Surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, I realized I had more to learn from listening than trying to impress with my young words of wisdom. Over time, it became easy to engage and I was more readily engaged in discussions.
Identify Mentors. I had the benefit of entering the job with two mentors who recommended me for the job–Bob Rhodehamel, a retired public affairs executive, and Al Mercuri, a former sales executive who was the company’s lobbyist on the East Coast. They and others provided invaluable advice and helped me avoid many career-ending pot holes that exist in high profile corporate jobs.
Treat Your Team Well. Early on, I observed that the company’s most admired managers were those who treated their staffs well. Their teams would work late, come in early and never complain because their bosses did the same–and were advocates for their teams.
Think Like a Reporter. Since my first job was department head of media relations, I worked daily with reporters. In that job and every job since, I have made it a point to know the reporters who cover my businesses. My prior experience as a reporter also made me understand their on-deadline demands and I always attempt to give them honest, prompt responses.
Don’t Surprise the Boss. Keep your boss informed about developments that have the potential of affecting the company. If there’s a chance that an issue will make the news, be sure to engage the boss before things hit the fan. I only recall being yelled at twice by a boss, and both instances stemmed from not keeping my boss in the loop.
Don’t Back a Rat into a Corner. Faced with a senior executive who clearly made a mistake to which he wouldn’t admit, I contradicted him in front of his boss and others. Our relationship was strained for the rest of my career at the company. Today, I would have more diplomatically talked with him one-on-one in hopes of avoiding a confrontation. If that didn’t work, I would discuss the situation one-on-one with my boss and/or his boss.
Remain Calm and Good Humored. Due to several crises during my Lilly tenure, I quickly understood the meaning of stress. While I’m sure I internalized much of the stress, I learned the importance of keeping a team motivated by not letting them get “down”. My bosses remained calm and always showed good humor no matter what the crisis of the day. These leadership qualities got us through product recalls and Congressional hearings.