Claire Koeneman: ‘Built to do Business Deals’

Claire Koeneman, EVP & GM of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Chicago
Claire Koeneman, EVP & GM of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Chicago

By Brooke Lichtman

Claire Koeneman brings almost 20 years of experience with her to H&K, advising public and private companies to achieve their strategic, financial and business goals. As a leader at H&K she has helped shape the strong corporate culture of her office into what it is today. During our interview Claire shared some of her leadership tactics, secrets to success and insights she’s learned along the way.

Q: How did you make your way into the world of communications? 

A: It’s interesting to study what you love. I went to a Liberal Arts school and studied French literature and international business. After that, I got my M.B.A. at University of Chicago and went to work on Wall Street. After a little while, I just couldn’t see myself doing this for the rest of my career so I transferred that knowledge of finance into communications and went to work for a financial communications agency called the Financial Relations Board (FRB).

Q: You were at FRB for 17 years, seven of which you were President. How did you work your way into a leadership role there? 

A:  It was a flat organization, which I liked, and try to instill here (H&K), and they allowed people at any level to get involved in things. So, I kept volunteering for projects. I said “yes” to a lot of things and just put myself out there. I think that if you can go into a room, hold the room, pitch business, close business, that it will differentiate you. It did for me at least!

Q: What are some skills you think make you an effective leader?

A:  Some are soft skills and some are hard. I’ll start with the hard skills and something I’ve tried to instill here. I am adamant about teaching everyone who works here about the business of the business. I think it’s important that they understand how their role fits into the bigger picture. Our clients love it, but then also our staff feels like they’re a part of something and they get the direction we’re working towards.

For soft skills, I think always remembering that your people come first is so important. I learned that from one of my managers at FRB and he always use to say “always people first” and now it’s something I say here over and over again. Even over clients. Your people are most important.

Q: Culturally, what was different when you made the move from FRB to H&K that took some getting used to? 

A: When I made the move to H&K, I also made a lot of changes to their culture. When I joined about five years ago I was the only woman on the Executive Committee and I just couldn’t believe it. I mean I ran an agency as a woman and worked with a lot of senior women, so I was just like “how is this even possible?” and thought, “this is ridiculous”. So now I am happy to report that not only do we have a female CEO, most of our Executive Committee now is also women.

Q. What’s something you’ve learned from a previous boss that you apply as a leader today? 

A.  Well besides people first always, I’d say celebrate success. I think it’s important to acknowledge successes and celebrate them. People often forget to do that and just move on to the next thing, but we like to celebrate here.

Q: What is some advice you’d give to people just starting in their PR careers? 

A:  Work hard but don’t make work your entire life. I was a gunner, and just plowed through and worked hard to get to where I am today. But, I think people should be interesting and not just work. You should entertain socially, establish your own network, take vacations, have a family if you want to. Don’t forget to go out and be engaged in your real life because that actually makes you a better agency person. Who wants to work with someone who has nothing to say? I mean, we are in PR right? Having these varied interests outside of work makes you better at your job in the long run. Finding that balance of hard work and having a real life outside of work can be difficult, but it’s so important and at some point, you have to decide to just go for it.

brooke-lichtman  Brooke Lichtman is a public relations professional who is completing her final year in the graduate public relations and advertising program at DePaul University. This is the fifth in a series of Career Capsule interviews with agency leaders.


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