Plank Legends & Leaders: Bill Heyman

Bill Heyman is the founder, president and CEO of Heyman Associates. He manages senior level searches for blue chip and emerging companies, leading public relation firms, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Heyman recently served as chairman of the school’s marketing committee of the National Campaign Steering committee and was a member of the Board of Fellows.

He received the Gettysburg Meritorious Service Award in 2005. He earned an MBA from Adelphi University. Heyman is active in several industry organizations, including trustee of the Institute for Public Relations, a frequent judge in public relations awards programs. And often serves as panelist and speaker for the Public Relations Society of America.

The International Association of Business Communications and the National Investor Relations Institute. PRWeek recognized Heyman as a supporting power player in its 2007 PR Power List. He is an inaugural member of the Advisory Board for The Plank Center for leadership and public relations at the College of Communications and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama.

In conjunction with the university, he initiated a groundbreaking study that reveals the factors of success in the field of communications. He coauthored a paper based on this study, which was published in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Strategic Communications. The paper was honored with the Robert L Heath Top Paper Award in 2005.

Define what leadership in public relations means to you.

>> I guess the easiest way for us to think about leadership in public relations or the first thing we think about is a person’s ability to manage others. But then I think that it also has to do with building of relationships when inside an organization. So the management piece is both managing the people but also managing a function that has a certain amount of creativity to it. And so, therefore, leading by example or managing by example. Being able to do the things that you’re leading, having been in the field helps and also relationships across the organization, the critical area.

What are the important characteristics of leadership in public relations?

>> I believe that a person’s ability to develop relationships inside an organization so they have the support that they need to do the things that they want to do are important.

Probably, though, before that, is a person’s integrity or oftentimes we call also their courage, which is, we’re big on how good are people at pushing back when they’re asked things? How good are they at delivering bad news? So I think the integrity and the courage piece than their relationship piece. And probably as much as anything is their ability to support the people that work for them so that it’s not a big ego thing. They’re not taking a lot of the, they know how to share the spotlight if you will.

What factors contributed to your personal success?

>> I think, at the risk of sounding boastful, sort of practicing what I preach. What we just said. I have terrific people that work for me. So the fact that over the course of the time that we’ve had, the 20 years that we’ve been in business, that I’ve not only let go, but we have a hiring philosophy which is to hire people that we think will push back. So when you have a 24-year-old that pushes back somebody who’s been in the business for 25 years. That’s kind of a refreshing dynamic and I think it’s what’s allowed us to be successful in the field of recruiting and public relations.

What’s the most powerful learning experience in leadership you’ve encountered?

>> When I think about that, it’s one pretty specific experience. And I’ll try to be brief about it, but I got a phone call from a client, asking me if I would help them recruit a new head of spokesperson training. And I said, we’ve done a lot of work for you, but the one person I happen to have a personal relationship inside your organization, happens to be this individual that you want to replace. And I’m a little unsettled by that because obviously there must be a breakdown in the relationship between the two of you. My client said to me, are you doing anything for breakfast tomorrow morning? I said no. Would you please come over? I’d rather talk about this in person than over the phone. I went over there, it turns out that this person who was the head of spokesperson training for this organization was gravely ill with AIDS. Was in the very early stages of the AIDS epidemic. And my client was saying, what we want you to do is, because of the relationship you have with this individual, we want you to go to his apartment. We want you to sit down with him, talk about what kind of press release we’re going to send out for the transition. We want you to sit down and talk with him about the job description. We want you to talk about anything else we can do to be supportive. Now they had already spent some time with him. But they felt that because we had such a close relationship, and independently of that, the things that he did inside his organization to educate the people in the community about what AIDS was. It was just one of those moments where they totally forgot about business. If it was an agency, they forgot about billable hours. They totally focused on whatever they could do to be as supportive of this particular individual as they could be.

Name one individual whom you feel is most outstanding in the field today.

>> I happen to be a huge fan of a gentleman by the name of Bob Feldman, who most recently ran Communications at Dreamworks Animation. Had also been at GCI, Gray Advertising’s PR company had also worked at Burson-Marsteller and Ketchum. And I think Bob is a focused leader. I think he is a great manager. I think he is empowering. And probably most of all, he’s got a sense of humor in that he doesn’t take these things so seriously. Which means that when people have sort of personal needs inside their jobs, he’s one of those people that’s very approachable to come to and be supportive and helpful. So I would say that’s Bob Felden.

Name a historical figure you feel is most outstanding in the field.

>> It would have to be Harold Burson to me. Harold Burson and I get together for lunch probably every six months and I typically go. Harold is in his mid to late 80’s at this point. I typically go to a restaurant near where he works, he still works at Burson-Marsteller, he still hasn’t taken a day off. And I go to his office, and my standard line about my experience with that is I always when I’m walking back to the subway, I call my wife, and I say, never let me retire. Harold hasn’t forgotten a name, he hasn’t forgotten a campaign. But if you were to ask him what the most important thing about being the founder of Burson-Marsteller, it’s all the opportunities that he’s provided for people. And all the people that have left Burson-Marsteller have gone on to do other things. So I think he’s a pretty inspirational leader in our business.

Do the requirements of public relations vary by organizations?

>> In general, no, but in subtle ways, yes. For instance, I would argue that in agencies, the bias toward action is at the height of what you need to do in this business. I would say at corporations you have to have that bias toward action, but perhaps be a little bit more sensitive to relationships inside organizations. How what you’re doing is going to affect others. And then in the not for profit side, that probably gets even more accentuated. That’s almost that your ability to counsel a leader Is most critical and then building those relationships inside the organizations become second most even before there’s any sort of bias action or getting things done.

What can young public relations professionals do to develop their leadership skills?

>> I think the best thing that young leaders can do is work in challenging environments that are gonna push them to, first and foremost I think the one thing they need to do is really stretch themselves in their work and in doing that, recognize that they don’t know all there is to know. And not develop any sense of arrogance cuz that’s really one the greatest problems in this business. We’ll interview people, I don’t get as involved in this as much myself anymore, my colleagues will interview people that have been out of work maybe two or three years that will say I don’t wanna get involved in compiling media lists anymore or writing press releases. I’m a strategist. And it takes a long time to develop those skills so I think having some level of humility, being willing to take on challenging tasks that others might not want to, and being a really good listener would be the things I would recommend to the young people.

What can university educators do to develop leadership skills in their students?

>> I think, clearly, probably the most important thing is while the theory in communication is important. Give them real world experience, let them meet successful people in profession, let them meet people who have been significantly challenged by public relations, circumstances that were whether be a crisis, that kind of thing. And then I also think really reminding them that there is an anatomical aspect of this business that’s very important. And that you were given two ears and one mouth. And if you use them in those proportions you’re going to be a whole lot more successful than if you flip flop it.

Can leadership be taught?

>> I think there are some people that are probably more natural leaders than others, but I think it can be taught. Because, what I think about, I hope it can be taught because, I think about how many people that I meet early on in their careers who try to do it all themselves, that are not terribly empowering to others, that have a level of arrogance or ego that gets them in trouble.

And those people who are willing to listen, whether it be through formal performance evaluations at a company when somebody says to them hey, we think you’re a first-rate writer. You’ve done a great job in media relations, but you’ve ticked off a whole bunch of people. I think people learn from those kinds of things, so I like to think that it can be learned.

Or, as I said, there are some people who are instinctively better natural leaders, but I’m not convinced that there are things that can be learned in the leadership area.

What can the profession do to help young professionals?

>> I think that probably one of the areas where I think leadership becomes problematic in public relations is the notion that so much of what you do early in your career in public relations are individual contributions. They’re tactics, they’re skill sets. I’m a good writer, I’m good with the media I’ve done a good job at putting together an intranet for the employees. And so, therefore, it’s they’re promoted, often times, on the basis of having some real fine work in a tactical area, but they haven’t necessarily learned how to manage. So, I think that part of it is, can be the educational process. In fact, one of the things that I become a little frustrated with his business with sometimes is the lack of interaction. And I know that’s not the case of the University of Alabama, interestingly enough, but the lack of interaction between schools of communications and schools of business. Because schools of business talk more about management and management skills are core, are critical for leadership skills, so I think that taking people who have real talent. Because basically what happens is there are people who eventually will say to themselves, you know what I was a great writer. I was promoted to be a manager and ten years into this I’m finding that I’m just not getting any traction as a manager. I’ve just never been very good at it. I’ve lost jobs because of whatever. I’m really a great writer. Or those people learn to listen to what it takes to become a good manager and therefore a good leader. And that is their ability to counsel others, their ability to support the people that work for them, and not take all the work for themselves.

Name and instance where you saw leadership in action.

>> For me, that’s a fairly easy one because over I don’t know I think this is in proprietary immense over the course of my career and our company done a lot of work for General Electric. So Beth Comstock who is now the President of NBC Universal Digital media part, iVillage and things of that nature, was the head of Corporate Communications when Jack Welch was retiring and Jeff Immelt was becoming the new CEO of GE. And during that transition, they were moving from a company that was very focused on innovation and growth and digitalization of their businesses. So Beth actually, I would argue, had the courage to create a communications forum inside of General Electric to say we’re going to go from this tagline of GE brings good things to life which is there for years to imagination at work which of course is their focus on innovation, the eco-imagination, advertisements with the dancing elephants and the like. I think that was an example of courageous leadership on the part of the communications person on both her part and the new CEO, Jeff Immelt.

What’s the best book on leadership you can recommend?

>> The one best book on leadership was the one that was recommended to me by you and Bruce Berger, The Leadership Challenge. I want to say by Kouzes and Posner and it was one particular part of it that I really enjoyed because it talks a lot about the notion of how important building relationships. I already talked about the fact that we all love to say, hiring managers have, we try to hire the smartest people on the planet. We’re always looking for, and that everybody in our organization is brilliant and that’s important. But one of the things it said about in this book, which I thought was very, very Insightful was that brains today, in 2008, what brawn was when the country was founded. We still need to have the right kind of managers, supporters, leaders if you will, to harness that. And that’s one of the things that said in this book, and I thought it was brilliant because I got so many tons of our clients will talk to us about how smart they need the people we put in there to be. But yet, you wonder whether or not, are they really compelling members of the corporate community or the not for profit community or the agency community where we’re placing them? So I thought that was a terrific book.

What are a few crucial issues facing the industry today?

>> We hear over and over again that there is a gap in the profession, and that the people that have like six to nine years of experience, there aren’t a lot of them out there. And that as a result, the profession is looking to go to other places other than public relations to find those kinds of people. And then also we have, always bears commenting on is the lack of ethnic minorities in the business is a real problem. And I have a little bit of a contrarian point of view about that is when our clients will ask us about that. We actually have a good track record in that area. I think last year close to 20% of the people we placed were ethnic minorities. And there’s only probably from the like 4% in the profession. But one of the things that I typically say to our clients is, okay I understand that you want us to do this and I understand and you need to understand that we’re going to do everything we can to do it. But I also want to know why, if you’ve been around for 100 plus years as a corporation, this all of a sudden becomes our problem. This is a problem that should have been solved ongoing, you should have been thinking about this and how to do this well for a long time. So those two areas I think there are gaps in the profession.

Do you think the profession has greater respectability than it did in the past?

>> Absolutely, I meet with more CEOs today. Now, part of it could be my getting on in years. But I meet with more CEOs today when the function is being when they’re looking to recruit for a chief communications officer than certainly, I did even ten years ago. Meaning, that whether it be the CEO of a corporation, the president of a college, or the executive director of a not-for-profit organization because they realize how critical the communications piece of delivering their message is and how important it is for them to find the right ally. They want to be involved in the recruitment process. So I think the profession is, from a credibility standpoint, has grown significantly. Certainly in the last 20 years, but even in the last ten years, more so.

What is your best advice for students entering the workforce?

>> Well, my best advice is go to a place, if you’re just getting out of school and you’re looking for that first job, go to a place where basically three things will happen. Number one you’ll have to do a lot of writing. Number two you’ll have to deal with a lot of people who are more your senior. And the third thing would probably be that you need to understand how to meet deadlines. So the natural places to do that would be obviously in a newspaper, being a journalist. Obviously, that would meet the requirement. I would argue that an agency, starting your career in an agency environment would meet that requirement. And probably at the top of my list just because I’ve seen, if there’s an area where I’ve seen people really successful, it’s those people who’ve started their communications careers on Capitol Hill, or in politics in some way. Capitol Hill probably being the best place to do it because of the fact they’re obviously dealing with people who are chronologically their senior. There’s a lot of writing involved in those jobs. And they constantly have to meet deadlines.

If hiring an entry-level public relations professional, what factors weigh most heavily in your decision making?

>> We look for people who exude integrity and have those intangibles those kinds of interpersonal skills that make you want to gravitate towards trying to help that person. I also think in our organization and it’s a fine line between that arrogance piece to what I’m about to say but I really relish the people. I know I said this earlier on, I really relish the fact that people at my organization can come in and tell me when I’m wrong. And I like when I’m interviewing somebody who can tactfully tell me that, or deliver the message to me. Not that this will not just be sort of a, well here’s the old guy who’s been doing this for a long time. I’m the young person I’m going to take everything they say as gospel because it’s got to be a give and take. One plus one has to equal three and I think hiring people that have those intangibles is really what makes organizations successful whether its public relation firms or executive search firms.

Recorded: April 2008

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