In this episode of Taking the Lead, Maher offers her advice to women who want to elevate their leadership and imparts a wealth of valuable insights. Here are excerpts from the full video interview:
You started Marina Maher Communications on your dining room table in 1983. What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing to have. Driving with the rearview mirror. One thing I wish I knew is that at the end of the day, it all works out. My mother used to say that to me and I used to disagree, thinking there were problems and things going wrong. But my mother would calmly respond, saying that in the end it all works out somehow, someway. Maybe not as we expect, but it works out. And 40 years later, it has. So she was right.
Anyone who knows you knows that Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is your song of inspiration. But did you ever wonder if you had made the right decision to create an agency, or if it would succeed? And how did you get through that?
When you know the challenges of starting any company, there are times when you just have to exhale and move on. But the time that it was terrible, I traveled to Europe to pitch a new business, but it didn't go as well as I had hoped. The questions asked weren't what I expected, and I started to worry.
On the plane back to the United States, I was filled with nerves. To distract myself, I reached for the book I had packed in my suitcase. Unfortunately, I had left it behind. Desperate for something to read, I picked up the airline book and randomly opened it to an article titled "Why Most Businesses Fail In Their First Year." As soon as we took off, I ordered a glass of wine and I thought, “Please, God, let me go to sleep. I don't want to deal with this.” Shortly thereafter, it seemed, we were landing at Kennedy Airport. So that was good.
You recently announced you were turning over the reins as CEO of Marina Maher Communications, and founding the Omnicom PR Group’s Institute for Women’s Leadership. What are its goals, and why are you so excited about it?
The number one goal is to help women advance in their careers. What excites me the most is our focus on two specific areas. The first is the development of hard skills needed for climbing the ladder. Can you interpret a financial statement? Do you know how to analyze a client's business? These are the types of skills we’ll be addressing.
Additionally, we’ll be extensively working on soft skills, particularly at senior levels. One challenge some people face is reading the room accurately. It's about being genuine, authentic, honest, and open, but also recognizing subtle cues like a furrowed brow, crossed arms, or distractions. Patterns and preferences in information processing can be observed, allowing us to read the room effectively.
We will delve into this topic and discuss how to deepen client relationships, focusing on soft skills. Trust is fundamental, but how do you take it further? How can you make the relationship more meaningful and personalized? Attending every client's wedding or their children's wedding may not be realistic, but there should be goals and metrics to deepen, personalize, and humanize the relationship with them.
You may not realize this, but everyone who’s ever worked for you talks about how you inspire us to this day, especially with your “Marina-isms” My favorite, which I think of weekly, is “You don’t ask, you don’t get” What’s your favorite?
We started the agency with very little money. I had only $300 in the bank, and I was going through a divorce. Every action we took had to count double and triple. I wasn't worried because I knew that when you lack money, you need to rely on ideas, and I had plenty of them. However, even the best ideas and plans can go off track.
So my favorite expression for managing relationships, a company, client relationship: “Give me the bad news early.” If you do, I can do something. I have a runway to get ahead of it. I can jump in and try to help. Whatever it takes to ameliorate the situation. But if I don't know and it explodes and comes to bite me, then I'm going to be less effective at helping the people and helping the agency.
Speaking of inspiring leaders, who are the top three leaders who inspired you, and why?
I'm going to answer this question in a slightly different way than you might expect. When it comes to female leaders specifically, there are two qualities I look for. Firstly, I admire female pioneers who break ground, like Amelia Earhart, Hillary Clinton, or Michelle Obama. Secondly, I seek out individuals who have thrived despite adversity, overcoming tough childhoods and limited resources to build businesses and relationships.
There is one woman who embodies both qualities: Barbara Walters. She was my idol when I was growing up in the business. I was working as an account supervisor, and I had to pitch a story to her, who was at the Today Show at the time. I put so much effort into crafting the pitch and rehearsed it countless times.
In those days, you had to make phone calls, and amazingly, Walters answered her phone. I pitched my idea, but there was silence on the other end. Then she started asking me a couple of questions and immediately honed in on the angle for the story. She took what I had shared, reshaped it with her insight, and turned it into something wonderful just by actively listening.
Walters told me that someone would call me to discuss details, and that was it. The client was going to be on the show. From that moment on, I was in awe. I was impressed and grateful for the lesson she taught me: Find the angle, find the hook, identify the news. I had buried it in the third paragraph of my pitch, but she brought it to the forefront.
I followed Walters' career closely. She was the first female newscaster and hosted multiple specials with her signature one-on-one interview format. She was bold and courageous, fearlessly asking tough questions during her interviews. I have great respect and admiration for her. Barbara Walters has always been and will always be my role model.
What’s your message to women who want to lead, regardless of industry?
Two words: “Lean In.” Grab every opportunity that's presented to you. When people see that you're open to opportunities, they'll offer you more. Lean in means showing up, being present at the meeting, and starting to lead the meeting when you're in the position to do so. Lean into clients. What are the real business problems you're trying to solve? At the end of the day, if we create campaigns and don't solve clients' business problems, we just become a commodity. We don't want to be that. So I think “Lean In” is a 360-degree effort in all areas of business and relationships.
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.