"Be impractical about what you can achieve and practical about how you get there," says Olita Mills, president of PR agency LaFORCE. Growing up, Mills learned from her father to dream big, but be realistic about the path. She credits this mantra for her career success.
Here are excerpts from the full Taking the Lead video interview:
You started as a senior AE at LaForce & Stevens and went all the way to President. What were your leadership North Stars that got you there?
I love this question because my career trajectory is unique. I spent the majority of my career in one organization. My father taught me to be impractical about what I can achieve and practical about how I get there. I try to be optimistic but realistic about the work needed. My North Star started in my family with parents who were in education and taught us a hard work ethic. Another North Star was working with James LaForce. I was not directly reporting to him at the start, but being there allowed me to see what the founder was doing and what leadership was doing at the top. These North Stars helped me see my path in a great way.
You lead an all-women leadership team at the agency, and you’re a woman of color. Yet all the statistics indicate we have far to go to reach our industry’s DE&I goals. What gives?!
This is an important question. At my organization, I'm lucky to have a gay founder, a black president, and an all-women leadership team. This example at the top allows for great ideas to be threaded throughout the organization. When I became president, it was an extension of James's vision to continue this path in who we hire and recruit. In Communications and PR, it's important to connect with young people, especially those of color and women, to let them know it's a viable path. We've created partnerships to bring in interns and people of diverse backgrounds, but some don't realize it's an industry for them. We must show it's a good career path for all to see more diversity elsewhere.
You’re a senior leader at a firm where the founder, iconic PR leader James LaForce is very much still there. I imagine that might create some interesting challenges for you as a leader. How do you manage that?
James is an icon, a veteran, and I feel lucky that I was able to learn so much from him. A story that I wanted to share is from when I started here. We had an open floor plan with no offices, and I was a mid-level executive who happened to have a seat next to the founder of the company. I got to sit and listen to him during the day. I got to hear problems that he was solving that sometimes had nothing to do with me but influenced how I was working and the decisions that I would make down the road.
As president, the challenges are that he built such a great organization and I want to help bring even more longevity to it and help it evolve.
He and I usually see eye to eye, and if we don't, we love it and try to challenge each other. We're very respectful in terms of hearing each other's opinions and supporting the way in which it needs to go. He's been incredibly supportive of me and my career. If I want to take a risk and do something, even if he doesn't necessarily always agree to it, he usually supports me in trying it. It's been a great relationship for the last 15 plus years.
Your bio mentions that you’re a world traveler, including cycling tours of Italy and France, and visiting gorillas in Rwanda. How has that informed your leadership approach?
I highly recommend going to Rwanda and seeing the gorillas. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that changed everything for me. I love to travel and try to do so whenever I can, whether alone or with friends. Travel brings creativity and impacts the creative thinking we bring to clients and brands in our industry. Knowing other cultures helps me lead with compassion, which is important to me. Traveling helps me understand people better and connect with them in different ways. So I truly love it and it definitely informs what I do.
You are a single mom in “middlescence.” How does being a single mom at this point in your life affect your leadership?
I'm incredibly proud of my decision to have a child. Having a daughter has made me even more inspired, hardworking, determined, and ambitious. When you have someone else to take care of, you get motivated in a different way. As both a mom and in some cases, the dad, I want to set an example for her to look up to and be proud of. Being a parent has taught me to be more organized and efficient with my time, as I now have other responsibilities to tend to at home.
Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.