Emerging Voices: Leah Seay

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Leah Seay is a communications professional at General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. She works on the Buick and GMC brands.

Please summarize your professional career and its high and low points. (How did you work your way up the ladder? What have you learned along the way? What factors most contributed to your success?)

While I’m a young professional and would by no means say that I’ve worked my way up the ladder yet, I can say that I’ve learned a ton of valuable lessons over the last few years. Some have been behavioral and some are related to hard-skills, but each has helped me become a better person and professional. 1) Build relationships early and often. 2) Be proactive and find creative ways to solve problems. 3) Listen and reflect before judging others. 4) Find ways to motivate yourself. 5) Stay up-to-date on current events and industry competitors – your team and bosses will thank you for it.

According to The Holmes Report, women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, but they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry. Why do you think there is a shortage of women leaders in PR? What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

I wish there was one answer to this question or an easy solution, but there seem to be a variety of challenges that women encounter on their journey to becoming leaders. And unfortunately, a lot of those challenges aren’t limited to the public relations profession. One barrier a lot of women I know have encountered is the need to overcompensate to prove they are just as capable as male their male counterparts. They feel overwhelming pressure to come in earlier, stay later and speak louder just to prove they have what it takes to get the job done. To help combat that, it is increasingly important for women to understand their worth and for organizations to actively create cultures that are inclusive and eliminate unconscious bias.

What can organizations (and the industry as a whole) do to prepare women for top leadership positions? What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in leadership?

As with any challenge an organization or industry might face, having crucial conversations is invaluable. However, there will come a time when conversations aren’t enough and actions need to reflect words. Organizations can prepare women to succeed in the workplace by providing rigorous job opportunities, avenues for mentorship and sponsorship and allowing for work-life balance.

As a role model for women, what advice do you have for women interested in a career in public relations?

Build – Your – Network. I would shout this one from the rooftops if I could! Meaningful relationships with professors, former classmates and industry professionals have helped me tremendously. These folks don’t have to be around just to help you land your next big gig. For me, they are individuals who I call just to brainstorm or bounce ideas off of. They continuously challenge me to see things from a different lens and encourage me to take risks, when appropriate.

What has been the hardest thing about being a woman in PR?

Establishing my professional voice as a woman was something I struggled with when initially starting my career. If you’ve met me, you know that I’m extraverted, full of energy and make it a point to be kinder than necessary, even if I don’t feel like doing so at the time. However, as a young woman in the workplace, no matter the organization, it can sometimes be challenging initially to assert yourself as credible and professional if it’s also easy to be placed into the “fun girl” category. Seriously – I used to be paranoid about whether using two exclamation points in an email was okay or If I would be viewed as the former intern without much professional grit, especially as a woman.

Now, I am SO much more confident with who I am in the workplace and have helped others understand exactly who they’re going to encounter each time they work with me – Someone who is passionate, thoughtful, gonna’ get things done and have a heck of a lot of fun along the way.

What are the three ways you inspire and encourage teamwork among your team?

The ability for a team to work cohesively and efficiently is largely dependent on organizational culture and a team’s dynamic. To help foster a culture where individuals successfully work together, I create environments where employees feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, present ideas (even if they seem too large or outlandish at first) and actively listen to others, helping them understand that their opinions are important and heard.

How did you manage the transition from the classroom to the boardroom? What was the biggest shock or surprise during that transition about the profession?

My transition from the classroom to the workforce was a smooth one, thanks numerous mentors and internships during college that provided insight into what life as a young professional would look like. The largest adjustment I had entering the workforce was learning how quickly work is done. In college, students are prepared for large projects, tests and homework, but aren’t often required to produce work within hours, even on topics they have no familiarity with. However, the workplace the pace is much swifter and requires PR pros to think on their feet and learn on the fly.

My first job in Washington, D.C. was incredible with helping me learn this skill. I was a corporate spokeswoman on state and local politics (mind you I didn’t go to school for policy) and had to learn technical topics quickly. There weren’t many weeks that went by where we didn’t have an issue or small crisis that I was drafting holding statements or answering media inquiries for. I’m so grateful for that experience, because it taught me how to think quickly, go with my gut and distill complex topics to make them understandable for the everyday person.

What’s something you wish you had learned in college but didn’t? What do you do to be an eternal student?

Conflict management is crucial. And sometimes conflicts aren’t huge blow-ups. Sometimes they’re as simple as two teams not seeing eye to eye or wanting to accomplish different goals. In college, often times there are professionals or leaders who step in and help dissolve problems. In the workplace, there can be a bit more gray area. Taking the time to hear others’ perspectives, listening and finding creative ways reach common goals is an important skill.

With the myriad of industry changes, what inspires you to stay motivated and encouraged?

The beauty of our industry is that it continuously changes. There are always new advancements, new technologies and new stories to tell. Because of that, my core values and beliefs continue to serve as a compass and guiding light. Each day when I wake up, I am motivated to serve others, learn something new and tell stories that help move humanity forward.

The Plank Center created the Millennials in PR series for rising public relations professionals to detail their experiences and share messages of counsel with students and other professionals.

Published: March 25, 2019