Jun 5th 2020

Women in leadership: a six-point plan for professional development in PR

Seventy-eight per cent of CEOs in the top 30 PR agencies are men, despite the fact that women represent two thirds of the global PR industry. What’s holding women back from landing the top jobs? Or, looking at it from a different perspective: why are women prevented from landing the top jobs? According to a survey by international networking group GWPR (Global Women in PR), twice as many women than men say they are ‘not confident’ asking for a promotion or pay rise, and only 18% of women believe they’ll reach the top of the career ladder compared to almost a third of men.

Underrepresentation is not just a PR problem: only 24.3% of all national parliamentarians are women (February 2019), and as of June 2019, only 11 women were serving as Head of State and 12 as Head of Government.

The reasons for this are complex and varied, and impacted by cultural and social factors. In many cases though, it’s not a lack of experience, ability, and intellect that are holding women back from leadership positions.

Women in positions of power are still (comparatively) thin on the ground, and the PR sector is no exception. Those initial stats formed the opener to a webinar I attended recently, on Women in Senior Leadership. Presenter Emma Ewing drew on findings from the GWPR survey, including the insights and experiences shared during interviews with three (female) leading lights in PR and communications: Michelle Hutton, COO, Edelman Europe; Denise Kaufmann, CEO, Ketchum (UK); and Elise Mitchell, CEO, Mitchell, and CEO, Dentsu Aegis PR Network.

The result was a kind of six-point plan for successful leadership. Each point marked a common area highlighted by interviewees as having been critical to their success. By adopting a certain mindset and implementing certain actions associated with each, it was suggested, other women too can develop strengths conducive to effective leadership. Here’s a very brief overview of those six points, with advice on how to build your skills in each of these areas:

  1. The developing leader

  • Whether commercial or non-profit, build a deep-level understanding of how your agency makes and spends money.
  • Think less like a traditional PR and more like an MBA. You need to be grounded in the fundamentals of finance, so meet with your finance director; understand how money flows in your agency; understand your agency’s business plan and its biggest competitors and key stakeholders.
  • Prioritise learning. Define the skills you need – not just to enable you to move into your next role, but to upskill your team and those around you.
  • Do a SWOT analysis of your agency and each of your clients; this will allow you to offer more value to your agency and extend your role beyond basic comms.
  1. The confident leader

  • Many women will hold themselves back when opportunities arrive. Although some of us may never lose that ‘fear’, confident action can be taught – and learnt.
  • In GWPR’s interviews, Ketchum’s Denise Kaufmann commented that, in her experience, men tend to say ‘yes’ to things and then figure how to do them afterwards, whereas women want to be sure of the how’s, where’s, and why’s of things before they put themselves forward. It’s important to remember that we can’t know everything, so we have to be prepared for anything, said Ewing.
  • Stretch where you can and think about your tolerance to risk: what questions do you need to ask yourself and what would your answers be?
  • Identify confidence-sapping habits and work towards addressing and breaking these. Common behaviours Ewing pinpointed include:
    • Apologising for asking a question
    • Being frightened of pauses in conversation
    • Trying to please: think instead of how you can add value
    • Saying, ‘I’m not sure if this is right’ before making your point
    • Talking quickly
  1. The visible leader

  • Leaders at your organisation need to be aware that you’re open to opportunity and actively seeking it. So, keep mentioning it! Be clear, concise, and open about where you can add value in your organisation.
  • Ambition is not a dirty word. Don’t shy away from structuring conversation around your ambition for how you can further the organisation, contribute to the team and help to grow the business.
  • Being a visible leader is about making the most of your achievements. Ensure you recognise your own good work. Allow it to build your confidence and infuse your career planning.
  • Don’t always wait for recognition – but at the same time acknowledge the parts others played too (if relevant). Ensure you review your own achievements and deconstruct what worked well and why.
  1. The team-building leader

  • It’s important not to draw generalisations, said Ewing, but evidence suggests that women shy away from giving feedback. Prioritise giving effective feedback and use this as a tool for getting members of your team to the next level.
  • When thinking about how to bring out the best in your team members, don’t let the fear that they’ll be better than you – and outperform you – influence your actions. Your attitude has an impact on your team: create an environment that encourages people to perform at their best.
  • Encourage team members to pursue professional interests and to work in the way that’s best-suited to them and enables them to perform at the best (even if these interests and ways of working are different from your own).
  • Reflect on your behaviour as a leader and take time out of your day to diarise what’s working/not working. Ewing used the example of Edelmann’s Michelle Hutton, who carries two notebooks with her: one for notes from meetings and a second for self-development, in which she records observations on her day, questions for herself, and conversations she’s had.
  1. The authentic leader

  • Leaders don’t tell their teams what to do; they ask the right questions, listen to answers and enable their people to get the right results themselves.
  • Ask yourself if you behave differently at work, and think of the energy involved in playing a role versus being yourself.
  • Many women play multiple different roles and feel under pressure to play roles that others approve of. This can prevent trusted relationships forming.
  • Think of which situations force you to play a certain role that’s not beneficial to you (or your team) and which holds you back.
  1. The listening leader

  • Building relationships, gaining/building trust, and being an authentic and confident leader all starts with listening to others.
  • Think of who you should be listening to more. This should include not only senior managers in your organisation, but also those who might have different ways of working and different perspectives for yourself, which you can learn from. Also, think outside the boundaries of the company you work for.
  • Leaders don’t tell teams what to do. Instead, they ask questions and listen to responses. They help team members to find answers, discover new ways of working and get results themselves.
  • Being a leader isn’t only about giving feedback, it’s about taking feedback and, yes, taking criticism. Listen carefully to feedback given, ask questions, be open to suggestions, and build trust with those providing it.

Finally, the importance of women helping women was mentioned during the session: we should all support others in taking risks and in taking on new responsibilities. At Babel – as at many other agencies – that ‘we’ involves every member of the team, regardless of gender, experience or position in the PR hierarchy. In addition to their line manager, every team member also has a mentor, with whom they meet to discuss personal professional development. This is an approach advocated during the webinar, with Ewing highlighting the importance of having a mentor as a guide and coach, a sounding board for advice and someone to advocate for you.

We’re in an unusual and unpredictable period at present, as Ewing admitted during the webinar. Some women may have been listening to the webinar whilst overseeing their children, or crammed into a makeshift office in their bedroom, said Ewing – situations not conducive to effective or productive work. However, she also suggested that working remotely (and often working alone), gives us a chance for reflective thinking that’s not always possible in a busy office environment. Use this time wisely, take action where needed, and support others to do so.


Holly Ashford
Holly Ashford SENIOR CONTENT MANAGER