By Siona Chibber
Five established women leaders of the communication field recently shared their candid views on careers and tips for successful leadership with DePaul University communication students from PR and advertising courses of Nina Abnee and Ron Culp as well as several DePaul PRSSA leaders.
Now in its sixth year, this year’s panel was moderated by Ellen Ryan Mardiks, Chairman of Golin. Four women, each from varying areas of expertise in the industry, came to give PR, students insight into the field they will one day lead.
With thoughtful questions for each panelist, as well as personal anecdotes and advice, the panel was dynamic from start to finish. Through introductions by Mr. Culp, we learned that Ms. Mardiks had a connection to each woman on the panel. This positively impacted the candid conversation for everyone watching as one could witness the support, excitement and compassion for each other as the leaders took turns sharing their thoughts. The atmosphere in the room felt safe and personal. These women did not shy away from sharing the good (or the bad) of their respective roles.
The panel began with Susan Howe the President of Weber Shandwick sitting next to Ms. Mardiks who conducted the discussion between the leaders.
“[A] restless and relentless desire to change the industry is key,” Howe sharedDuring the discussion, she focused on the mental health aspect of her career journey. She expressed the importance of finding success through your work in climbing the ladder while also taking time to check in with yourself periodically. “Always embrace the beginner’s mindset,” Howe said. Her points focused on preparation, confidence and staying mindful.
“The best leaders are the ones who serve the people. Stay hungry!” Cheryll Forsatz, Vice President of Corporate Communications & PR at Ferrero USA said.
As a woman in the business who also mothers children, she spoke about balancing both aspects of her life and making time for her job alongside her family. Ms. Forsatz reminded us that imposter syndrome is very real and remains present throughout your entire life and career. The best advice she gave, which she ended the panel with, was to “date your jobs!” She emphasized that being open to traveling and relocating to gain work experience in different aspects of PR, business and communications will open the doors to a plethora of possibilities.
“Even when you get into positions of leadership, it is not about you!” Kelly Graves, President of Foote, Cone, & Belding (FCB) Chicago, said.
Ms. Graves stressed that the constant change associated with working in creative agencies is something to adapt to (and appreciate) in the communications and advertising fields. In a fast-paced workforce, decisiveness and patience are two huge aspects of working in advertising and communication settings. She reminded student attendees that sticking up for yourself and setting clear boundaries with higher-ups and co-workers is vital to success.
“As you take on leadership roles, it is important to remember that you are leading the entire system, which means you need to understand and connect with each individual player,” Stacy Sharpe, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations at Allstate, said.
Ms. Sharpe stressed the importance of collaboration and group consensus when working in public relations teams. She also shared the importance of taking any and every job opportunity that is “within your capabilities.” Along with corporate work, it is crucial to find support from teammates as well as friends and family outside of your career to help push you forward. “Support always matters.”
While there were many plus-sides to working in communication fields, these women shared some troubling moments as well. Each panelist discussed the struggles they face as women (and women of color) working alongside male co-workers or higher-ups. They shared how they were perceived as “overly emotional,” “incapable” or were simply given looks of disapproval. Despite the lack of support from some members throughout their careers, they did not let those incidents get in the way of their climb to success. These resilient women continuously overcame misogyny from workers, clients and bosses. Nowadays, they proudly and publicly hold established leadership positions in their respective organizations.
The important takeaways from this forum involved advocacy for meritocracy, remembering that we as women do not need to overcompensate in any way in our work simply for being women and ensuring that we support other women in this industry so we can all succeed together. Women deserve leadership positions, and while it is necessary for aspects of the corporate world to change fundamentally and internally to allow space for women to grow, it is equally important that we speak up for ourselves.
Having opportunities to hear women of various identities and work backgrounds share their perspectives in the communication world was inspiring and motivating. Creating spaces within communities and joining existing groups in your school/organization can be the best ways to meet professionals and hear their stories.
We DePaul students are fortunate and grateful to have Ron Culp, a powerful force in the PR and communication world, to help create these opportunities for us.