Why is it so stressful being a leader in PR?

Chris Wood, executive coach and mentor at Wood Not Trees Coaching, talks to Ben Smith this week about the stresses and strains of being a leader in PR and how he helps PR leaders to deal with these stresses.

Ben Smith: Why are senior positions in PR firms so stressful?

Chris Wood: Many of the pressures faced by senior PR people – like profitable growth, client satisfaction and staff retention and development – are typical of professional service environments.

But two particular factors combine to ramp up the stress levels in PR. Firstly, successful PR firms rely above all else on the quality of the value judgements made by their senior people, who stand or fall by the power of their reasoning and intuition. Whether you’re deciding which ideas make the pitch or if it’s worth breaking the salary guidelines to try and keep hold of a restless talent, there’s no place for auto-pilot leadership in PR. Secondly, the pressure to get decisions right is exacerbated by the fact that agencies are in control of campaign outputs, but not outcomes, and those ever-changing outcomes require constant real-time responses.

BS: What sort of issues do CEOs tend to come to you with?

CW: Very often, they come with a sense that they still have potential that’s yet to be tapped. Even at their lofty level. They might want to evolve their leadership style as professional and personal circumstances change and the pressure of the job might be denying them the opportunity to bring out that elusive ‘something extra’.

Others might come with issues that rattle around their head late at night or are annoyingly front-of-mind at their child’s birthday party. Issues that are rarely about campaign or client management, and much more about how they think and feel. There might be concerns around imposter syndrome, resilience, purpose and meaning, positive working relationships. All of these, and none of these!

BS: Do people spend a lot of their careers aiming for a position and then when they get there find it's not quite what they expected?

CW: It’s not unusual for people to find that the kudos, power and prestige of high office in PR have some unexpected bedfellows. Such as loneliness and self-doubt. And, sometimes, an absence of the positive drive that propelled them up the career ladder. Which isn’t to say there’s a lack of motivation, but the motivation can be around holding and maintaining rather than growing and developing.

BS: How long do PR agency CEOs tend to last in their positions? (not including founders and business owners)

CW: If they keep winning, for as long as they want to! When they hit an inevitable fallow period, they might find that shareholder tolerance can be correlated against the strength of previous winning streaks.

BS: How can senior PR people organise themselves to make their jobs less stressful?

CW: Senior PR people are incredibly bright and resourceful, with outstanding organisational skills. Everyone’s experience of stress will be different, but I sometimes find it helps for a small fraction of their devotion to clients to be diverted towards self-care. When people become more self-compassionate, they’re better able to bring those organisational skills to the fore to manage the intense demands of the job.

BS: What tends to be the most difficult part of senior PR agency positions? Dealing with staff, owners or clients?

CW: Each one can be tricky, but they’re usually manageable. In isolation. The hard part can be in keeping the emotional and cognitive agility to change gear smoothly and play the right card at the right time. The empathetic appraiser of a struggling colleague might not cut much ice in the boardroom, and the visionary creative might not gel with the new, risk-averse brand manager. It’s no easy thing to maintain focus and energy as you morph from one role to another at a moment’s notice.

BS: How do you help senior people in PR firms deal with the stress of the position?

CW: By helping them to be at their best more of time – clear and confident about what lies ahead, and adopting authentic behaviours that chime with their values and beliefs. This usually happens by working together in a trusting creative partnership, and using evidence-based interventions to ease aside a little clutter so that their best self can show up on a more consistent basis.

Chris Wood is founder of Wood Not Trees Coaching. He mentors a number of senior PR people, particularly on the agency side. Previously he was MD at Cake and a Director at Burson Marsteller.