Moving into the top circle isn't all glitz and glamour - or a hefty pay raise. New leaders must navigate a number of common challenges, such as managing former colleagues, avoiding micromanaging, and focusing too much on account work. They also must make tough decisions and break bad news to company leaders, convincing them to consider options they often are not immediately fond of, says Gary Sheffer, executive director of communications and public affairs at GE.
"The difference between a mid-level person and a senior strategist, and really a senior adviser to an EVP or a public official, is the difference between providing them with information and strategic advice," he explains. "Too often, communicators become information conduits, and certainly that is a part of the job. At the end of that, however, you have to [convey] the context of how the information [is important] to an organization and what we are going to do about it... That's where senior communications officers make their money - in providing a strategic blueprint for what comes next in a crisis."
Other than cohesive and analytical advice, communications professionals moving into the top spots must also adjust their schedules and priorities according to their new roles. Often this means new managers will spend less time on activities where they've cut their teeth and succeeded, and more hours ensuring that others perform adequately in their roles, says Kent Hollenbeck, Waggener Edstrom SVP of marketing and corporate communications.
"[It's like] trying to boil the ocean," he says. "You come into a new role and want to immediately drive results, [but] you need to have the right priorities and the right focus up front. You also must learn to be comfortable with delegation and empowering people to make decisions. That gives them the understanding of accountability, as well."
New members of a senior management team must also grow accustomed to other individuals - many times the employees working below them on the company's management chart - getting the credit or criticism that they used to experience.
A common pitfall is that new members of the senior management team, noticing that more junior members of their team face a steeper learning curve than they once did, tend to micromanage their work, therefore unintentionally limiting the growth of other employees, says Rob Flaherty, president of Ketchum.
"[New managers have been] rewarded for being great at what they do, and they want to continue to be great at it," he adds. "It can be frustrating when those coming up behind them are not as great as they are. So they [may] micromanage. Everyone must keep doing the things they are responsible for and there's seemingly never enough time to relinquish that control to the people that report to you. It can take a while to settle into that, and hopefully you do get some training and advisement into the strategy for leading the team."
However, new managers don't completely abandon their roles when they move up the corporate ladder. Although they can no longer afford to work on every little account detail or monitor every single thing being done by employees, senior management officials must hire quality staffers to work in mid-level positions and still keep up on the accounts that they used to closely manage, says Sheffer.
"It's really hard for people to step up into leadership and let go of the day-to-day things. [It's] really becoming a leader and a strategist and trusting your team to handle the execution of the strategy you've discussed with your leadership," he explains. "You must learn to trust the people who work for you, and that means getting good people. Yet on the other hand, I'm also a big believer in keeping your hand in the day-to-day stuff. It keeps you fresh and sharp. It allows you to give better advice to the people you work for."
The benefits of broad experience
Those with a diverse background at an agency - or on a corporate communications team - are often in the best position to make decisions at a senior level. Therefore, it helps for PR middle-managers to have broad previous experience before taking on a senior post, says Andy Polansky, Weber Shandwick president.
"To become a senior client leader or a senior practice leader, it's still recommend that one [is familiar with] all different facets of a business," he adds. "We look for folks who are dynamic, charismatic, and thoughtful, as well as people who are good listeners."
Mid-level managers who have their eyes on an office with a view should be cognizant of their own skills, knowing that members of the senior leadership team are looking for specific attributes when they decide who gets a promotion. One characteristic that agency leaders often look for when promoting a mid-level manager is the ability to listen to other members of the team and combine that advice with personal experience, says Lisa Sepulveda, CEO, North America, of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, whose stint at her present firm was preceded by 20 years at Edelman.
"When I made my move, I spent a lot of time listening and learning," she says. "While you have to jump in to a degree, you should take with you everything you've learned along the way. A common pitfall is [being] so gung ho and excited that you go in a little too confident and a little too fast. I had an idea for my vision and I wanted it to be a collective vision, so I met with everyone and I listened about what had and what hadn't been working. I think that helped.
"As we make the move the top management, we must give the next tier the chance to do our job," adds Sepulveda. "That's how we groom our future leaders."
Senior PR executives must also do more than effectively be good managers of other employees' activities and work, says Flaherty. They should also hone their skills as "top-level self-evaluators, serving as the biggest critics of their own work.
"Something that is really important is a heightened sense of self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses," he adds. "It's not only about your weaknesses; it's also about realizing what you're good at and playing to that while you improve your own weaknesses. [New high-level managers] should [also] focus on the people as individuals. People bring their whole selves to the workplace. They have good days and bad days, and they bring their personal lives. You have to build equity with them by realizing that."