It’s Never Too Early in Your Career to Lead

Many of us view our PR careers in four phases: entry-level, practitioner, manager and then leader. Some seem to think we don’t need to lead — or can’t, or won’t be given the opportunity — until we reach that ultimate title.

But it’s never too soon to develop leadership skills. The earlier we start, the better prepared we are to lead when the time comes.

At any level in your career, it helps to observe people who are effective leaders, regardless of their job titles. Here are some qualities to look for in them, which you can then start to cultivate within yourself.

Use influence to achieve organizational outcomes.

Decades ago, when we worked at the same agency together, Annie Heckenberger, who — at the time as a senior account executive in our media group — personified the idea of exerting your influence to achieve results in your organization. One way she did this was by sharing trend data and insights, which we would then use to craft client programs. She did her homework and knew her stuff, giving her credibility beyond her years.

As a result, people followed her. It didn’t matter that she was still in the practitioner phase of her PR career. And having followers is a hallmark of leadership. The approach served her well: Annie is now senior vice president, creative director, at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness in Philadelphia.

Ask questions; listen more than speak.

To become a leader at any stage of your PR career, listen to others. When they finish speaking, ask a question and then listen to their answer. As the late PR leader Harold Burson said, “You have two eyes, two ears and only one mouth. If you look and listen twice as much as you speak, you will learn more.”

Be passionate.

Many leadership experts believe that, rather than trying to motivate team members, we should inspire them to motivate themselves. To do this, be passionate about your organization’s vision, clients and employees.

Learn to manage challenges.

PR professionals have always had to manage crises, and never more so than during the past nine months, as the pandemic and civic unrest have wreaked havoc on the American economy. The ability to stay calm, gather data, hear all sides, weigh pros and cons, and then make the best decision possible will help you lead teams, clients and yourself through the most challenging storms.

Take risks; be willing to fail.

In my career of coaching PR leaders, I’ve noticed that they sometimes arrive in leadership positions conditioned to fear failure. What a shame! Great leaders throughout history and in varied fields — from Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton — have celebrated their failures as steps on their paths to success.

Jennifer Thompson, president of Thompson & Co. PR in Anchorage, Alaska, and chair of the Counselors Academy 2019 Spring Conference, said: “Leaders must take strategic risks. There is no shame in failure. Leaders fail and that can lead to success.”

For PR leaders-in-training at any level, Brenda Barwick, CEO of Jones PR in Oklahoma City and a Counselors Academy leader, offers this advice: “Don’t be shy about asking to take leadership courses. Devote 30 minutes a day to reading one of the wide variety of available books on leadership. And finally, let your company leader know you want to be mentored, so you can offer greater value to the organization.”

Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Contact him by email ( or Twitter (@KensViews). He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC).

[Illustration credit: palto]

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