Wednesday, July 11, 2012

You're never too senior to carry boxes in PR

 Your first job promotion is a mixed blessing.  When you hear the news that you're moving up the ladder, you feel great.  You've proven yourself worthy of more responsibility, you have a more important-sounding title and hopefully, a pay increase. But the initial elation wears off when you realize that colleagues who were friends last week now report to you, HR has been added to your job description and you don't actually get to ditch all the things you disliked about your former role.  In fact, a promotion often means you will do your former job, as well as a new one.

In 20 years experiencing my own, often stumbling, movements through the management ranks and witnessing the behaviour of my own team members once they've been promoted, I've noticed one constant - delegation is not what it's cracked up to be.  In fact, it's much less fun than anyone ever imagines.

While a junior role requires you to draft a news release and submit it for review, your shiny new senior role has a lot more steps.  You have to receive the assignment from your manager, choose a team member to handle it, meet with them to discuss it, set expectations and deadlines, follow up if the deadline is looming and you haven't seen anything, review the draft, meet with the staff member to share your feedback and provide suggestions for improvement, set another deadline for the revised draft, and then go through the process all over again.  And when you do finally have a workable document, you must resist the urge to rewrite the whole thing and accept that just because it's not "the way you would do it" doesn't mean it isn't good quality.  

In a management role, even if you only have one direct report, this scenario repeats itself all day everyday and due to the frantic, often last-minute nature of public relations, many assignments don't have the luxury of time for training and mentorship so you do them yourself anyway and at events, you'll often find yourself carrying boxes, fetching water for speakers, tracking down A/V people and other tasks you thought you had left behind when you were promoted. No such luck.

When I finally became a vice president at a PR agency, I thought, "This is it.  I've arrived.  No more schlepping boxes for me."  Only, it didn't work out that way.  While there was certainly a delineation between my role, the most junior person in the office, and everyone in between, I still found myself carrying boxes of press kits, straightening signage, picking up lunch for demanding celebrity spokespersons and, on one occasion, doing a midnight Wal-Mart run because, after setting up for an early morning event, a client was unsatisfied with the particular shade of purple on the tablecloths. I could have delegated the task but I was the only person who owned a car, I lived closest to the store and my staff, who had been on their feet for 18 hours, were exhausted.  It was not the time for a power play.

When I kvetched about this to a mentor of mine who is president of a large global agency based in Atlanta, he said, "You have to realize that, in PR, no matter how high up the chain you are, you will never stop carrying boxes."  While I was immediately gratified to find out I wasn't alone, I was distressed to realize that if even he was admitting this, then it must be true.

He went on to explain that while everyone in an agency has a different role and each step involves the shedding of old duties and the responsibility for new ones, everyone on a team is responsible for the final product whether it's a perfectly executed communications plan, a spectacular launch event or successfully shepherding the organization through a crisis.  He also reminded me that event management is a big part of PR agency life and no matter how far ahead you plan and how many times you confirm the details, things will go wrong.  Speakers cancel, planes are delayed, product is stopped at the border, A/V systems malfunction, taxi drivers get lost, flowers wilt, employees get ill, there aren't enough coat hangers, client approval is late, and so on.  But the show must go on and at that point, it's all hands on deck to make it happen. While someone has to take charge and direct traffic, there's no reason that person can't also carry boxes, if that's what's required to make it happen.  

In his book, The 48 Laws of Power, which I recommend as a fascinating insight into how people operate, author Robert Greene suggests that to attain true power, you must "Keep Your Hands Clean" and avoid doing the dirty work.  He would suggest that, at a big business event, the true leader arrives at the last minute looking fresh and professional wearing a clean suit and carrying nothing.  This will set him or her apart from the "workers" who have only a few minutes to wipe the dust off their clothes, throw on their event shoes, slick on some lip gloss and squirt Visine into tired eyes before the lights go up.  

I'm sure Greene would disagree with my mentor's assertion that you'll always carry boxes in PR, at least in the sense of establishing your credibility as a powerful leader.  Others leadership gurus would say you need to roll up your sleeves to gain the support of your team. 

What do you think about carrying boxes?  Good or bad leadership strategy?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Louise, You're spot on with your assessment of PR leaders who are carrying boxes. I'm in the camp that believes it's a good leadership strategy. Of course, you don't want to show up at an important conference of meeting looking haggard from lugging boxes up the stairs. But on a day to day basis we all have to pitch in and make things happen. If that means carrying boxes, so be it.