Unexpected career pivots can raise some eyebrows, but Jonathan Rosen, Principal and Co-Founder of BerlinRosen, has proven that taking a leap of faith can lead to remarkable success. Only two years after graduating from law school, Rosen made the bold decision to launch a PR firm.
In this episode of Taking the Lead, Rosen shares his learnings from this experience and more leadership insights.
Here are excerpts from the full video interview:
You started BerlinRosen as a two-person start-up at age 26, just two years after getting your JD from NYU School of Law. What were you thinking?!
We weren't thinking. Our business plan was to pay our rent for some time, utilizing our expertise in dealing with the New York City tabloids and working in New York City politics during the pre-digital era of media. It was a time when legacy media held significant influence, just before the invention of Facebook. We believed we could transition from politics to the media industry and pass the torch to non-political individuals. In one of our early meetings, someone asked if we were starting a PR firm. We exchanged glances and replied, "Yeah, I guess." And that's how we ended up here.
Tell me about how you and Valerie Berlin complement one another, not as PR pros and agency managers, but as leaders of your people. And how do you manage when the two of you disagree?
Valerie and I have worked together for 23 years. She took a chance on me during the Mark Green for Mayor campaign in New York City in 2001. We started the firm in 2005 and became close colleagues and friends. She introduced me to my wife, so I owe her a lot. Our differences are complementary: Val is empathetic, deliberate, and thoughtful about processes, while I am action-oriented and driven. We always work things out and have confronted numerous challenges together.
Disagreements happen, but as 50-50 partners, we come to a consensus and align our perspectives. We respect each other's strengths and weaknesses and find ways to reach agreement. We rarely need formal rules because we value alignment and can discuss and resolve issues through walks or dinners outside the office. We know each other well and understand our sensitivities and priorities.
We empower each other to make decisions in different areas of the business. As we've scaled and brought on more team members, respecting and delegating to capable individuals has been crucial. We play to our strengths and embrace delegation and championing to effectively scale our operations.
BerlinRosen was recently named PR Week’s Outstanding Large Agency 2023, and you’ve been on an acquisition streak. As such, you’re clearly not just leading individuals and teams, but true leaders. What’s your approach to leading those who might be as or more talented, and as or more experienced than you?
Always seek people who are more talented than you; it's a key to success. When partnering with agencies, we prioritize those with a track record of building winning and high-performance cultures. Cohesive leadership teams that have been together for a long time are essential.
I’m grateful to have partners who surpass my knowledge in many areas, and it's a two-way street. I love seeking their opinions and perspectives, enriching my understanding. This is the essence of our offer – collaborating and collectively building something significant.
Who are the top three leaders who inspired you, and why?
The first person is Dan Doctoroff, a long-time client and friend. He has an inspiring leadership style, known for his forceful optimism. Despite being diagnosed with ALS, he started Target ALS to advance research and raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Dan's relentless positivity and dedication are truly inspiring.
The second person is Jay Kriegel, who was the youngest chief of staff to John Lindsay when he was in his twenties. He had a remarkable career in PR and civic engagement. He was known for his ability to inspire people to do good for New York City. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked ourselves, "What would Jay do?" and initiated a pro-bono communications effort. Jay's passion for the city influenced our civic-minded approach.
The third person is Thaly Germain, a partner of BerlinRosen who led Onward. She was our DE&I consultant and in a lot of ways became a leadership coach to me and still is. Thaly fosters a culture of honesty and transparency, and she continues to teach me to be direct and non-defensive. Her work is transformative for our organization, partner agencies, and clients.
These three individuals bring unique perspectives and have made a significant impact on my professional journey.
Please share your worst leadership faux pas, and please be honest.
Taking leadership criticism personally has been my Achilles heel, but I've made significant progress. Learning that leadership is about what you do for others, not their perception of you, has been a difficult lesson but important lesson. Seeking feedback actively and seeing it as an opportunity is crucial for leaders. I believe in being a servant leader, prioritizing serving and supporting others to foster their success. It requires setting ego aside. I strive to keep improving and bring greatness to my team and organization. It's an ongoing journey, and I continue to work on it.
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.