Handling challenges, responsibilities when entering CEO post

The first few months of work for a new CEO can be like being trapped in a pressure cooker. But by staying humble and asking for help, new execs can make a smooth transition.

The first few months of work for a new CEO can be like being trapped in a pressure cooker. But by staying humble and asking for help, new execs can make a smooth transition.

As Burson-Marsteller continues its search for a new CEO to replace Thomas Nides, who left less than a year after taking the job, many are reminded that those first few months of work can be challenging. (Not that the pressure of the job sent Nides packing - he left for a post at Morgan Stanley.)

But even for the most seasoned PR professional, taking on the role of CEO can be equally daunting and rewarding.

Aaron Kwittken says he wasn't initially interested in taking over as CEO of Euro RSCG Magnet.

"The only reason I had reservations is I wondered how much time would it take away from working with clients," explains Kwittken, who was promoted from president and COO in October last year. "For CEOs who love the craft, they still want to make sure they can practice PR. I try to spend 50% of my time with clients. It demonstrates to your people that you still value the craft and the work, and you do that by working alongside them in the trenches."

When Mark Hass took over as CEO of MS&L in April, after overseeing much of the Midwest region, he spent considerable time thinking about how to handle the transition and what his management team would like. But he says he had the benefit of more than a couple of weeks to prepare.

"When you get an opportunity like this, it's easy to think only about yourself - how you'll do, what's your plan, how will people perceive you," adds Hass. "But that's the worst thing an executive can do. It's about the organization and the clients, not the CEO."

Lisa Hempel didn't have the luxury of time when she joined Spark PR as CEO two years ago. She was brought in to help manage the firm when her sister-in-law, one of Spark's cofounders, left to care for her newborn twins.

"I just jumped into it," says Hempel, previously VP of corporate communications at MyCFO. "I'm not risk-averse. But I wanted to respect and absorb the culture. At the same time, the minute you have the label 'CEO,' the expectations grow exponentially, and everyone looks to you for everything."

Hempel admits that she didn't anticipate the learning curve being so large and that she reached out to mentors when to cope with challenges she had not faced previously in PR, including 401Ks, lawyers, and accountants.

But it's the ability to juggle client service and management responsibilities that's the mark of a successful agency CEO, says Jim Allman, CEO of DeVries PR, who was promoted from president to that position in February.

Allman says many management books urge leaders to "do something big and make a mark." But he was more focused on motivating staff and working with clients to foster loyalty.

And much like Hempel, he paid particular attention to the firm's culture. He made sure not to make any drastic changes that would alter what made the firm special to begin with, he said.

Hass says he spent a great deal of time getting to know the firm's largest clients, as well as their industries and the intricacies of their relationships with MS&L. He also spent time learning more about the PR industry itself, "as there is an expectation you'll have
a point of view about the industry."

He traveled to all of MS&L's office, so he could better understand the culture, clients, and staff.

What Hass wishes he'd done was leave more time to deal with the unexpected. "You and your schedule need to be flexible so you can deal with important unexpected events - because they will happen. I went in with a very ambitious 24/7 schedule and had to make some mid-course adjustments.

Kwittken advises that new CEOs enter a firm with a great deal of humility. And that is key in earning the trust and faith of your employees.

"You must communicate with your staff face to face, not just in e-mail," adds Kwittken. "You must show that the work they do today is just as valuable as the work they pitch tomorrow. You need your staff to believe in what you're doing, and the organization. Because all we have to sell are people. Otherwise, we're just four walls."

Looking back, Hass is glad he identified those managers early on who could help make the transition as smooth as possible, allowing him to meet with employees and clients. He just wishes he had spent more time during those first months meeting with clients and building those relationships.

Hempel agrees that the demands of managing can get in the way of getting to know clients and staff as quickly as she'd have liked. But she also advises not beating yourself up for not being able to do everything as expected.

"There's always a learning curve," she says. "There's always the unexpected. I've been here for two years, and I'm still on the learning curve. The world of opportunity is almost endless, and you can't take it all on at once."

Advice for new CEOs

Expect the unexpected.
Be flexible.
Invest in a good management team.
If you love the craft of PR, keep doing it.

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