Plank Legends & Leaders: Mark Harris


Mark Harris recently completed a three-decade career in IBM Communications as vice president of Communications for IBM Global Business Services, the $17 billion unit that provides business consulting and applications management services to clients around the world. In that role, Mark led executive support, analyst relations and communications to a workforce of more than 100,000 across 90 countries.

Mark led the development of IBM’s first integrated position on corporate social responsibility and played leadership roles in crafting the corporation’s positions on globally integrated services delivery. Before joining IBM, Mark worked for the United Press Association as a reporter in Birmingham, Alabama and as the bureau chief in South Carolina.

Mark holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama.

Define leadership in public relations.

>> I think there are some attributes that you’d want to look for in anybody that you’d actually call a leader. And vision has always been a word that’s troubled me a little bit, but at least somebody who’s willing to take a stand and has a point of view or a take on situations, and is then able to build a case, persuasively, for their point of view.

I think any leader is able to do that. I think that a person with passion can inspire people to follow them. Without passion, no one is really going to be convinced they have to work that hard for wherever you’re trying to move them. So I think that ability to inspire people through your personal example is something that I always look for, and someone I would attach myself to as a leader.

What are the most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> If we’re talking about the characteristics that are common to leaders, I think you’ve got to start with values and integrity. People have got to trust their leaders. And without those things in place, I don’t believe the trust is ever going to be complete enough for someone to actually lead people and lead people in very difficult times.

People have to know that there are some things you’re not going to compromise. And that to me is a statement of values and integrity. I think passion for the work. If you’re not willing to work that hard and if you don’t personally believe in what you’re doing, nobody around you is going to believe in it either.

And then I think that the ability to take stands and mount the case persuasively for the position you’re taking if you can’t do that, why would people believe?

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> I think things that I would look back out of my past that may have contributed to the position that I hold today, I think it starts with, you’ve got to assemble a body of work.

If you’re not a valued individual contributor at the early stages of your career, I don’t think most people are going to look to you to lead broader teams or take on more responsibility without that base being established. So I’ve always believed that at some level, it comes down to the work.

I would hope, this is a hope on my part, that a personal brand that says, my approach has always been more about the work than it is about myself. So, you’re going to find people in business or in the public relations profession, or in a non-profit, where it’s pretty easy to tell it’s about them, not the enterprise, not the work, not the project. And I don’t value that in people. I try to present myself and actually work in different ways.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

>> In terms of things that I’ve learned about leadership, one is that people that I find that I’ve respected have been willing to take unpopular positions when they were called for. And by definition you take an unpopular position, you’re swimming against the existing consensus.

And I think that, even if you don’t prevail, the willingness to do it, tells people something about how you think, what you believe, what you stand for. And observing people who’ve been willing to do that even when it was unpopular, I think has told me a lot about the people that I would attach myself to as a leader that I’d be willing to follow.

Name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader? 

>> Name one leader in the field of public relations is easy for me. It’s the guy I work for, actually named Jon Iwata, who’s the Senior Vice President of Communications at IBM. The easiest way for me to say it is he is as good as he is supposed to be.

He works for a company that matters in the world and leads one of the larger public relations, communications, marketing functions in the world. And he is not just the head of public relations, marketing, and communications, he operates as a chief of strategy for IBM, he’s that good at what he does.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in PR are different in any way from those in other professions?

>> Leadership skills in PR versus other professions, I don’t think I would draw huge distinctions because when I think about it, I come back to things like values and integrity, passion for the work, the willingness to take stands even if they’re unpopular. And I think you’re going to do that in public relations, you’re going to have to do that whether you’re working at a bank or whether you’re making sweaters.

At some point, those things have got to be common denominators of people that are going to lead organizations.

Do the requirements of PR leadership vary by type of organization, i.e., corporate vs. agency vs. non-profit?

>> Yeah, again, I would not draw huge distinctions by the type of the organization, simply because I think the common denominators in leadership are not going to be so closely aligned to the craft or the industry or even the type of organization.

I think they’re going to be more transferable, and then I would come back to things like a core set of values, things that you are not going to compromise no matter what.

What can a new PR professional do to begin to develop the kinds of leadership characteristics and skills that you described?  

>> If I were giving advice, I tend to try to avoid giving advice to people, but if I were to someone who was new in the profession, I would say keep your eyes open because you are going to observe many, many different kinds of leadership styles.

And you’ve got to find the one that is going to be natural for you. Early in your career you’re not a leader, by definition you’re not. You may have all the makings of being a leader, but you’re not yet. Find a role model, find the people that you think exemplify the attributes that you would like to follow and mold yourself to the degree you can in their image. Pick wisely.

What can university educators do to help PR students develop important leadership skills and values?

>> I definitely think that the university system can play an important role. I’m not positive that leadership can be taught in terms of curriculum teaching, but I think the ability of the university system to expose people to role models, to examples, and to create well-rounded graduates. I think that leaders in our field, especially as I look forward into a world that is operating really in fundamentally different ways, are not going to be people that are just good at the craft.

They’re going to be people that have a world view that could actually operate as global citizens. And I think the university system has a lot to do with building people that can operate in those ways.

Some have argued that there is a shortage of outstanding leaders in PR today. What can the profession do to help new practitioners, or those with experience in the field, develop greater leadership skills? How can we address this leadership deficit if, indeed, it exists? 

>> Yeah, I think that if there’s a perceived shortage, I think that’s probably less a function of great people, more a function of an environment that looks a little bit different than what we’ve experienced traditionally.

And I think that comes back to a world that is more immediate, change happens faster, people have more information available to them. The idea that we’re going to talk to people through traditional channels is passé. So the requirement now is for a different set of leadership competencies. I don’t think that people became less proficient in leading organizations.

But there’s going to be a layer of leadership competency required for this world that is not the same as the world that most of us grew up in.

What’s the one best book on leadership you would recommend to young professionals?

>> I thought about this for a second, and there is one. I would suggest to people to read a book by the former CEO of IBM, a man named Lou Gerstner.

The book’s title is, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? And not only was he the right man at the right time for IBM, which was a failing company when he arrived and is now one of the most successful enterprises on Earth. That book gives you tremendous insight into Lou Gerstner as a leader, not Lou Gerstner lecturing people on leadership.

The insight into the way that man thought about what was required to turn around this gigantic company, i.e., the elephant that once could not dance. To turn that organization around, to shift culture, to position the brand, reposition the brand and then push it to leadership, I think it’s a tremendous book on leadership without being a book on leadership.

What are the 2-3 most crucial issues confronting the PR profession today?

>> I think that it’s hard to say that there is a set of two or three issues, but I think in terms of trends in the industry or in the world, we’re facing enterprises or practitioners. I think we’ve entered a world in which immediacy to me is going to be something that we’ve got to pay very close attention to. Because the nature of change, once defined by even something as rapid as a new cycle, is not the cycle any longer that we operate in.

Now opinions can shift, and change, and cascade virally in ways that we’ve just never experienced before. I think that is an issue for public relations, probably beyond most professions in the world. If we can’t adapt to that and lead the people that are entrusting us to position their brands, to manage issues for them, to prevent crisis, mitigate, then we are going to have real issues as a profession.

That to me, as an issue facing public relations, I start with that.

Does the profession have greater legitimacy (or credibility) today than it did 20 years ago? Why or why not?

>> I don’t think there’s any question about it, for the reasons that we just spoke about, Karla. The immediacy of a world that is going to operate now and in the future in fundamentally different ways, only places a premium on the kind of expertise and skill and advice and counsel that the PR profession brings to the people that pay us.

What’s your best advice about a career in PR to students who are just entering the work world?

>> After the first two, three, four, five years of your employment at an agency, or a non-profit, or a fortune ten company, your value to that organization is really not going to be as grounded in the craft of public relations as it will be your ability to engage at the level of business, whatever that business is.

So my recommendation to people starting out are: start early. It’s not going to ever just ultimately be about the way you practice the craft of public relations. Your advice, the value of your counsel, is always going to be much more valuable in terms of a business perspective, a global perspective, and ability to anticipate change in the world, then you transfer back into that, a lot of the practice of public relations.

But the advice itself is never going to be based on a few messages delivered to targeted audience with a consistent drumbeat, I mean forget it, right? That is not what we get paid to do.

If you were hiring an entry-level PR professional in your organization today, what factors would weigh most heavily in your decision making?

>> When I hire people today, it’s almost, always on the basis of intangible things. It’s things I did not know about them before they walked in into my office, right?

I’ve read about them, I’ve checked them out on Facebook, I’ve seen their resume, I’ve acquired their clips, I’ve seen their college portfolios. And they’re all good, right? I mean they don’t get into the interview without having crossed that threshold. It’s always the things that I can learn in the course of conversation, what they can demonstrate to be about their level of curiosity, their world view.

Have they traveled? Do they own a passport? I check for things like this. I think they matter, actually. I want people with as broad of perspective coming into my organization as I can possibly acquire. And then the second thing I always, today try to gauge is, and it’s not that hard.

But how comfortable are they as a person, a practitioner, who can help lead my organization in this era of social business or social media. Kids coming out of school grew up with it. But if I’m making a professional hire, someone who’s been out of school for 10 or 15 or 20 years, I do try to gauge how comfortable are they with social media and the tools that are not they’re not even tools, they’re just the wallpaper that we’re going to walk around in for the rest of our lives. And if we don’t know how to exploit them effectively, on behalf of the organizations we work for, we’re operating at too big a deficit, and I just don’t think we can afford that.

Can you think of an instance where someone’s leadership made a difference in resolving an issue?

>> The example I’d give you is not one from straight up PR as we would think about it, issues, management, product launch, brand positioning. This actually had to do more with workforce communications and a culture change that had to take place at IBM in a period where we were very, very close although, many people didn’t know it at the time, to actually going out of business.

And the communications leadership at the time at IBM had their first briefing with the new chairman, Lou Gerstner. And they went through a series of keynote addresses and product’s launches that were coming up in the first half of the year, and international tours, and employee town halls, and the routine things that you would expect to be in a communications plan.

And he looked at them and said something like this, I assume we’re going to do all that. How are you, as my communications advisers going to help me change this place? The bar for communications at IBM was instantaneously transformed in that moment. We worked to a different set of standards from that day on.

And it was good for us as professionals, it was good for IBM. But that was leadership at its essence in my opinion, which is understanding the value that a function could bring to an enterprise. But forcing them to actually aspire to something that they really at the time, didn’t even know they could do.

Recorded: December 2012

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