Agency leadership: PR’s perennial people problem

6 years, 8 months ago

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It’s still commonplace for agency bosses not to understand what attracts and motivates employees in terms of company culture and personal development. By Jonathan Simnett.



I was recently privileged to be a judge of `Employer of the Year` category of the UK National Business Awards.  That involved me spending a long day hearing ten successive presentations from a shortlist of firms as to why they deserved the prestigious award.  
 
By the evening I could not be anything other than hugely impressed with the way all the business were being run. Particularly the way that they demonstrated that engaging and enthusing their employees was central to their business success.  
 
How different, then, a few days later, to find myself chairing a seminar to discuss research conducted in the UK by recruitment consultancy Zenopa. It had identified that tech PR agencies are facing a mass exit of executive talent in the coming years unless they start listening to what really matters to their employees and act upon it. 
 
Lest any of you are thinking `that doesn’t apply to me’, then, trust me, it’s worth reading on.  I’ve been around PR long enough to know that things most likely aren’t currently much different for other disciplines of agency PR and in other geographies too. 
 
Culture and personal development
 
The study which surveyed 158 young tech PR professionals working in agencies highlights that PR employers are still failing to understand, and act on, what employees are seeking both in terms of company culture and personal development.
 
Of those surveyed, just 25 per cent stated that they saw themselves in agency tech PR in five years’ time. The remaining 75 per cent were either unsure (50 per cent) or said that they will leave (25 per cent). Only a third predict themselves being employed in an agency in five years’ time, although 63 per cent believe they will still be in PR.
 
Facing a talent drought
 
The fact that three quarters of their employees either won’t commit or don’t see themselves working for a tech agency in five years’ time should be of great concern to agency management and investors - imagine the clients tearing their hair out at the revolving roster of faces appearing at client reviews.  
 
A culture that people want to work in isn’t a `nice-to-have`, it is a business fundamental that allows any firm to attract and retain the best people. After all, an agency is simply a management framework for good people to do great work. Unsurprisingly, for candidates looking to move, the survey revealed it is culture that is the number one on the list of things that they’re looking for in a new employer, yet 41 per cent admitted to working currently in a culture that doesn’t fulfil them.
 
In this respect, 46 per cent of those surveyed craved a `family feel` to their workplace environment with a further 39 per cent preferring working in a `creative environment` with just 12 per cent wanting to work in a `results-driven` firm.  
 
Mind the gap
 
In what should be a high value consulting business, it’s not just in creating a satisfactory working environment where agencies are falling short, but in personal development of employees too. 
 
89 per cent saw value in a structured competency and appraisal system, but just 64 per cent stated that such an approach is a reality in their agency.  This is something I find particularly amazing having implemented such a system successfully over twenty years ago and more many times since.
 
The survey also found that 85 per cent of respondents felt it is important that they are included in formulating their agency’s business plan and strategy, yet only 67 per cent claimed that this is actually happening. 96 per cent stated that it was important to them that they worked in a company where their business ideas were listened to and taken into consideration, but just 79 per cent feel this happens in practice.
 
The wastage of potential talent is breath-taking. 82 per cent of those surveyed would like to be given additional responsibilities outside of their ‘normal’ role in order to gain new skills, but one in five (18 per cent) state that this isn’t happening at their current agency
 
Wake up call
 
Getting employee buy-in to the company strategy and direction is fundamental and yet as an industry, tech PR is failing to engage staff per se, never mind in the bigger picture. This is not a new problem, but should anyone be surprised that people want to work in an agency where they are clearly valued, a career path is mapped out for them and where they are exposed to new challenges and opportunities?   Business 101, really.
 
But the best PR leaders don’t forget the soft stuff that helps their team advance and perform to the best of their ability.  So how might you start to ensure that you’re getting the best out of your team day-in, day out?  What do you need to have top of mind at all times?  It’s actually a very big list, but being aware of a few particular leadership behaviours can start to make a lot of difference.  
 
It all begins with the realisation that people like to feel valued.  They need to know that their skills, knowledge and contribution matter. And that means everyone in the firm. All deserve attention, no matter how fleeting the acknowledgement of their efforts, because in a successful company everyone knows that they are part of the team. 
 
The power of your own demeanour
 
For agency leaders that means you need to be constantly aware of the impact your often unconscious actions can have. You should never underestimate to the power of your own demeanour to influence not just the atmosphere on a day-to-day basis, but culture in the longer term.  People will judge you from the moment they walk in the door and will take their cue from your attitude and behaviour, for good or bad.  
 
Keep a sense of proportion
 
Remember, as well, to keep a sense of proportion.  This may be a heretical thing to say here but it’s unlikely that anything you are doing in PR is the equivalent in importance as `the cure for cancer`. So, show a sense of humour, even if it’s pitch black.
 
Honesty too is key.  Everyone wants to know where they really stand. Dealing with uncomfortable situations by retreating into disingenuous weasel-worded civility or face-saving brazen lying is in no one’s interests. 
 
No one likes to be the harbinger of bad news but great leaders know how to deliver truth in an objective, straightforward and blame-free way that helps people move forward. At all times remember to separate the `business` from the `personal`.
 
Roll up your sleeves
 
Never is this more important than when the going gets tough. And when the going gets tough, of course, the tough get going. But don’t be a threatening, goal-directed bulldozer.  You will need to say it how it is, demonstrate belief, carry - but don’t take away - the burden and show the way forward. 
 
Always `walk the talk’. If words and strategy aren’t enough, and they seldom are, roll up your sleeves and show commitment by working directly with the team and discovering at first-hand what is really going on.  
 
 
Author’s Details
Jonathan Simnett has won dozens of awards, building businesses and helping public/private sector organisations and their investors in fast-growth tech-based B2B and B2C segments to: grow; manage change; reposition; enter markets; acquire; sell; IPO and report through the delivery of more effective management, marketing, positioning, content creation and communications strategies. 
 
Leader of the team named Global Communications Department of the Year at the 2009 International Business Awards, New York, he was a founder of Brodeur Worldwide, a global public relations consultancy and part of the team that built a company of 650 people and $95 million turnover worldwide over 15 years, before selling to Omnicom
 

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Jonathan Simnett

Jonathan Simnett has won dozens of awards, building businesses and helping public/private sector organisations and their investors in fast-growth tech-based B2B and B2C segments to: grow; manage change; reposition; enter markets; acquire; sell; IPO and report through the delivery of more effective management, marketing, positioning, content creation and communications strategies.

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