2023 Legacy Award Recipient, Patrice Tanaka

The Plank Center recognizes and promotes the critical role mentors play in helping to develop leaders and advance the profession and honors leaders throughout the profession who, by word and deed, have demonstrated a superior commitment to mentoring others, and who are committed to accelerating the success of others in the field at its annual Milestones in Mentoring Gala. Our question-and-answer series introduces the 2023 Milestones in Mentoring award recipients.

Patrice Tanaka headshot for Legacy Award recognition.

Meet Patrice Tanaka

Patrice Tanaka is a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded three award-winning PR & marketing firms and, most recently, Joyful Planet, a Business & Life Strategy Consultancy to help people discover and live their life’s purpose and, in so doing, unleash their greatest success, fulfillment and joy.

Read on to learn what mentorship means to Patrice!

What Is Your Mentorship Approach and What Advice Do You Give Your Mentees?

I start by helping mentees discover their life and leadership purpose – so they have “clarity” about what is most important for them to accomplish in their one very brief and precious life. I then work with them to actively live their purpose because I know this is the most efficient and powerful way to UNLEASH their leadership potential and greater success, fulfillment, and joy in their personal life, workplaces, and communities. This is the single, most important way I can support mentees.

What Advice Would You Tell Your Early-Career Self Concerning Finding a Mentor?

If you see someone you want for a mentor, reach out, and ask them for “10 minutes of mentoring.” It’s a small amount of time I think most people would be willing to give. One of my mentees, Sabrina Browne, approached me with this request when I was attending a reception in my honor, waiting to be presented with the PRSA Foundation Paladin Award. I said, “Sure, let’s set up an appointment.” She said, “No, I mean right now.” I was surprised, but since it was only 10 minutes, I sat down with her. We spoke for more than 10 minutes, but I was so impressed by Sabrina’s boldness and courage that I continued to be her mentor four years later.

So, don’t be shy about reaching out to people you admire and want some mentoring from. You never know – you might end up with an ongoing mentor. Or you might learn something in a one-time, 10-minute mentoring session that will help you be more successful in work and life. 

Please Summarize Your Professional Career Including Its High and Low Points. (How Did You Work Your Way up the Ladder? How Has Having a Mentor Influenced Your Career Path? What Have You Learned Along the Way? What Factors Contributed Most to Your Success? How Did You Navigate Challenges To Reach Your Current Position?)

I learned how to be a good mentor and boss by working for a terrible boss and learning what NOT to do and how NOT to treat others. You can learn a lot from a bad boss. I helped that boss build her small, four-person PR agency, which she was able to sell seven years later to Chiat/Day Advertising. She left a year into our acquisition, leaving me to run our PR subsidiary.  

Two years later, I led a management buyback, involving 12 colleagues to start PT&Co., an independent PR agency that was wholly owned by the 13 of us involved in the buyback. The only reason I led the buyback was because it was the only solution I could come up with to avoid having to fire three colleagues when our biggest client told me that they had to terminate our relationship due to fears of an impending recession. 

We started PT&Co. in July 1990, which we later learned was the official start of the recession of 1990-91. Within six months, we lost half our revenues. When that happens, an agency needs to reduce that percentage in staff and other costs. I chose not to lay anyone off. Instead, I asked everyone to focus on rebuilding the lost income. We did and grew 100% between January and December 1991. We were driven by our “business purpose” to create – “Great work, a Great Workplace and Great Communities that Work” (i.e., healthy, sustainable communities within and beyond our workplace”). 

Operationalizing our business purpose helped us to grow from start-up to eight years later being recognized as the “#1 Most Creative” and the #2 Best Workplace” among all PR agencies in the U.S.  

We later sold PT&Co. to Carter Ryley Thomas in Richmond, VA to create CRT/tanaka, We built CRT/tanaka over the next eight years and then sold that agency to Padilla Speer Beardsley in Minneapolis, MN. In doing so, we created one of the “top 10” largest, independent PR firms and the largest, employee-owned PR agency in the U.S.

I am proud of having achieved this and creating the largest, employee-owned PR agency with 240 employee-owners. When I started PT&Co., I devised a way for my colleagues to obtain equity in the company without having to put in any money. Although I was the only person who put money into the venture, it was important to me that everyone had equity in the agency. Because, my mother, my first and most important mentor, drilled into me as a child – “Share your cookies and toys.”  This is why I co-founded PT&Co. as an “employee-owned” PR agency and why I’m proud of having co-founded the largest, “employee-owned” PR agency in the U.S. when we sold CRT/tanaka to Padilla, an ESOP, in 2013.

I believe any success I’ve experienced in my career and life has been the result of “sharing my cookies and toys,” creating a vision and persevering until I achieved it, and actively living my “life purpose,” which is – “To choose joy, be mindful of joy, share joy with others.”  Rinse and repeat every day. I’ve been living my purpose for 21 years now and have created tremendous joy for myself and others.

Now it’s time for some fun and rapid-fire questions!

What’s Your Favorite Way To Spend a Saturday?

Having no plans. Waking up when the spirit moves me. Drinking strong, Spanish coffee. Reading The New York Times. Listening to Sinatra or 70’s soul music and, perhaps, an audiobook (I’m listening to Robert Caro’s, The Powerbroker, now). Going for a walk. Maybe taking a nap. Streaming a film. Perfect Saturday!

Favorite App?

Hmmm. Hard to pick just one. Uber. Spotify. Audible. YouTube. TikTok. Amazon.

If Given the Choice to Trade Places With Anyone (Living or Dead) For One Day, Who Would It Be and Why?

Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire in that long, flowy, and feathery evening gown in the 1935 film “Top Hat.” Growing up in Hawaii, my favorite films starred Ginger and Fred. She always seemed to be dancing in the arms of a debonair Fred Astaire at some swank, Manhattan Supper Club. As a young girl, I believed that if I got myself to New York I, too, could be dancing like Ginger Rogers. This is why, today, I live in New York, and I can dance ballroom, and sometimes I do so in a long, flowy, and feathery evening gown. I wrote a book 12 years ago entitled, Becoming Ginger Rogers…How Ballroom Dance Made Me a Happier Woman, Better Partner and Smarter CEO.  And, yes, ballroom dance taught me all that!

Favorite Place to Vacation and Why?

On a boat in the Greek Islands. I believe I was Greek in my former life. I love the sun, the water, the music (I can hear the sun and water in Greek music), the food, the dancing, the language, everything!

My leadership tip is… always share your cookies and toys. This advice from my mother has served me well from the playground to the boardroom. She knew no one would want to play with me if I didn’t share. And at work, the same holds true!

My mentorship tip is… understand what your mentee believes is most important to accomplish in life and help them achieve that.

Every mentor is… someone who gets fulfillment and joy from helping others succeed.

A lesson that took you the longest to learn… stop worrying. It depletes the energy you have to work towards the outcome you seek. Just work hard and persevere until you achieve your goal. Don’t waste precious energy worrying about failure.

Habits in your daily routine that strengthen your leadership skills… I determine the two or three things I must accomplish every day and make sure I focus on doing those things.

Three things you do to inspire and encourage teamwork… Model being a good team player. Set the expectation that your team will succeed. Celebrate teamwork and success. Rinse and repeat.