Q&A: Barby K. Siegel, 2021 Agency Honoree

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 2021 Milestones in Mentoring award recipients.

Meet Barby K. Siegel

Barby Siegel is chief executive officer of Zeno Group, a global integrated communications agency, born from P.R. The agency works with leading companies at the intersection of brand and corporate reputation, helping clients realize their purpose and business goals, while providing seasoned counsel on the business and cultural issues of the day.

Barby oversees a global organization of more than 700 staffers with operations across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Outside of the firm’s six primary U.S. offices, Zeno international hubs include Canada, the UK, France, China, Singapore, India and Australia. Under Barby’s leadership over the last 12 years, Zeno has experienced annual double-digit growth with expanded capabilities and offerings to become an award-winning agency with more than $100 million in revenue, representing some of the largest and most influential companies in the world.

What do you think makes a successful mentorship relationship?

I think a successful mentorship relationship is based on trust and transparency and a feeling like I can say anything, I can ask anything, and I’m always going to get a brutally honest response.

So, at its core mentoring is really about advancing the learning and development of the mentee. So, how can both parties set goals for this professional improvement?

Well, I think you hit on something that is an important point I want to make, and that is that in the mentor-mentee relationship, it’s two-way. It’s not just that the mentee is going to learn or be inspired. Especially in today’s world, I think the mentor gets as much out of the relationship, not only the joy of imparting experience and maybe even wisdom, but we have a lot we can learn from each other. I think more than ever, particularly in our field of communications, it’s not really the years of work experience, it’s life experience. And given this world we live in where information flows so freely and there’s so much content and so much opportunity to learn, I think the goal from the outset should very much be mutual learning.

Many people want to get involved in a mentor-mentee relationship and they’re not quite sure where to start. So, what advice would you recommend for someone interested in this relationship, but they just don’t know how to get it started?

The answer to this question is good for this, but it really is at the core of my philosophy for anybody building their career at any stage. Ask. If there’s somebody that you say, ‘Ah, I would love for so and so to be my mentor.’ Just ask. I don’t think people realize how much other people want to be asked, and how flattered they are. And if they don’t have the time, they will make the time. Don’t assume. Don’t say to yourself ‘Oh, he or she would never have the time or the interest.’ Don’t assume that. People make time for what’s important. You know, the busier a person is the more time they can find.

What inspired you to mentor others?

I have a slightly different view of mentoring in my role. I think there are people I mentor because we have a regular one-on-one because we work together closely, but I also feel in my role that I’m sort of mentoring all the time. When I’m in the middle of a situation, or in a client conversation, or working on a project, I know people around me are looking at how I handle a situation or how I answer a question. So, I feel like there’s active mentoring going on all the time. Look, I love what I do. I appreciate at Zeno how incredibly hard people work. Everybody says they want to give back, and yes, it’s part of that. But it’s also just this idea that everybody should lend a hand and help each other. In one of the groups I’m a part of, we have two expressions I love. One is to send the elevator down, helping others climb up, and why not? I’m the mother of two daughters. I hope others would give my daughters the same. And there was another really fun quote, which is ‘queens fix each other’s crowns.’ I’m a very, very competitive person. I want to win. But what I’ve learned is that there’s a place for that, but you don’t always have to be competing. In our field, communications, we should be helping each other for the good of the industry. Certainly, our industry has a lot of issues that we need to tackle together, whether it’s diversity, equity and inclusion or mental well-being. So, that inspires me and this career has been very good to me. I want to see others — our next generation of leaders — thrive. So, it’s very joyful for me.

Please sum up your professional career in any high points or low points. How did you work your way up the ladder? Please note if there’s anything that stood out that you’ve learned along the way.

I have worked in four places. I started my career at a small agency, then I went to Edelman, I went to Ogilvy, and now I’m at Zeno. In all four places, I had long stints, from seven years in my first role, 11 years at Edelman, eight years at Ogilvy, and now 12 years at Zeno. I think the thread between all of that was not being afraid to make a big leap, a big change, and to take on a role that you may not on the surface know how to do. When I went to Ogilvy, I joined to restart their global consumer marketing practice. I had never done anything like that. When I came to Zeno, it was to be CEO and I had never been a CEO before. So, this idea of embracing change and the fear and the unknown, and realizing that you don’t fully appreciate your capability and capacity until you are out there on the line having to make it happen. So, I would say that sort of sums up the red thread, if you will, or green thread I should say, through my career that got me from place to place. I’ve not jumped around. I’ve had very long stints at a small number of places. All of my experiences have been wonderful. They have all contributed to the next. Had I not left Edelman to go to Ogilvy, I never could have come back to lead Zeno and I’ve told Richard that. But by far the high point has been leading Zeno.

Leadership in any field is crucial to success for the future of that field. But leadership is a really broad term. What does leadership in PR mean to you?

I think it’s about giving teams the confidence and the belief that they can achieve whatever it is they want. Trusting that leader to take them to the next place in a way that enables them to thrive. You know, when I arrived at Zeno 12 years ago, we had 55 people and we were known as Edelman’s conflict shop. The job was to get them to trust me, that we were going to be something more, and to hop on the train, go with me and believe that I knew how to navigate the road ahead. Even today, 12 years later, when we have almost 750 people and we’re a global agency in our own right — no longer described as a conflict shop. I do think every day it is about making sure that the people who are coming into work have a safe and inclusive environment in which to work, a place where they can be themselves, do their best work, and take some chances. But as important, they know where we are going. They understand the part they play in the bigger picture. I think it’s really hard to come to work every day and be like, ‘Why am I doing this? Where are we heading?’ But if you ask anybody at Zeno, I think they have a pretty good idea of who we are, what matters to us as a company and where we are heading. To me, that is a big part of being a leader. Also, bringing in new experiences and opportunities and even surprising people every now and again with what we’re going to do or achieve.

What would you say are three or three or four of the most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders? 

Listen, be kind and be decisive.

Do you think that leadership can be taught, or do you think it’s something that you’re born with?

I think it’s a little bit of both. You know, I never woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a CEO.’ I didn’t. But here I am. I have always been a leader, so I would like to believe that it’s both because I have learned a lot in being a CEO and I didn’t know everything that I know now when I walked in the door. There are things I’ve learned that I have incorporated into my leadership style. So, I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, in this day and age, it’s really hard to say something is impossible. There’s always a way. If somebody out there wants to be a leader or wants to be a CEO, then go for it and figure out what you don’t have and go find it.

What can the profession of public relations do to help new professionals or those with experience in the field develop greater leadership skills?

I think what we can do to develop more leadership skills is give people the opportunity, at all levels, to take on more to become a leader of a team or project. Something we talk about at Zeno is that it is important to identify the leaders of the future. Not every leader is going to be a CEO. There are leaders of different types. You could lead a client, you can lead a capability or an office/region. So, helping people understand the possibilities that lie within being a leader. Today, leadership is so different in the world in which we’re living; it’s not just leading the business and making sure that the revenue is where it needs to be. I do think it’s about helping leaders understand the importance of having empathy, and focusing on the human side of an organization, which we’ve always done, and putting individuals in places where they can observe other leaders. Giving people opportunities to be exposed to and observe different types of leaders is really important. At Zeno, for example, when we have meetings and such, it’s not just the senior people. At those junior levels, seeing leaders in action is really important.

Can you think of an instance where someone’s leadership made a difference in resolving an issue, or caused a significant change to be made, or maybe inspired a group or introduced a new program? Basically, the question is, can you give a concrete example or an illustration of leadership at work in practice?

Well, let’s talk about the pandemic. There was absolutely no playbook when the pandemic hit, and all of the sudden, we turned the agency into a virtual agency. I remember sitting and thinking, ‘My God, nobody has ever been taught this.’ I was very worried about all of the people around the world, our Zeno people, and what this would mean to them. Leading the agency through the pandemic, with grit and empathy, I think is really an example. I’ll tell you something that happened at Zeno that is a very concrete example. So, it was early March when we decided that everybody was going to work from home and, of course, many of us thought this would be short lived. Early on, I was emailing the global agency explaining what we were doing. I don’t know how this came into my mind, but I said, ‘I will email you every night until this is done.’ I was so worried about everybody. Of course, I’m in my home with my husband and my daughters. I know that there were a lot of people alone in apartments all over the world. 

So, I ended up writing 87 consecutive emails Monday through Friday, from March to the end of June, which was the end of that fiscal. I wrote every single night. I don’t mean small emails. I mean long emails that were about all kinds of things. Every night, I would sit down after dinner at about 8 p.m. and spend three hours writing my emails. My daughters were home at the time, and they would say, ‘What’s your topic tonight, mom?’ Every day I woke up and I had to think of a topic. I remember one night my husband said to me — I think he saw that it was a bit of a grind — ‘Can you just take a break for tonight?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t. Everybody is expecting that email.’

The feedback I got was absolutely incredible. People either woke up to the email if they were in Asia, let’s say, or they went to bed with the email if they were in New York. So many people wrote to me about the strength that gave them and the connectivity it gave them. It made them feel like we really cared, which we do, and that I was thinking about them. So, those were 87 consecutive and then at the beginning of our next fiscal, which was a year ago, July, I switched to weekly because I wanted to draw a line that said, we had hoped that we were moving into another phase that wasn’t quite as dire. Little did we know that it would continue to have its ups and downs. But I did switch it to once a week every Thursday night. I did that from last July all the way to this June and I’m still doing it. 

What is your best advice for PR students who are just entering the work world or preparing to enter the working world?

Say yes. Raise your hand. There has never been a better time to do what we do. The world of public relations now is so broad. It’s so expansive. It is so strategic. And what is most exciting is that we are operating at the highest levels of our clients. We are absolutely at the table, helping them make decisions that are impacting not only their business, but society. So, I would say go for it and find a company or an agency that you believe in, that has a culture you can really be part of; go in and absorb it all and take every opportunity they present. Don’t be shy. Raise your hand when you see something you want and go for it.

If you’re hiring an entry level PR professional in your organization today, what factors do you think would weigh most heavily in your decision making?

I don’t really care much where people went to school, honestly. If I’m interviewing, it’s about the person and the person’s curiosity, the person’s drive and attention to detail. I want somebody who really wants the job and is passionate and wants to work. I want somebody who is interesting. When I interview candidates, I always ask them to tell me what they do when they’re not working. Because in our business, yes, we need to be good thinkers and tacticians. We need to have the skills to write, to pitch the media and to create content. But as important is what we bring to that work; that we have interests, that we go to the movies, that we like to cook or that we might exercise. I think outside passions are just as important. So, I want to see an entry-level individual who has a view on the world; who’s interesting. We want diversity in every sense of the word. Thinkers, visionaries and writers. The skills can be taught; we can teach somebody how to write copy or how to pitch the media. But what are you bringing from your mind and your spirit to the job? I think that’s what’s really important.

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

I think the professors do a great job. I think we need to make sure students are as well rounded as possible. Again, urging the students to get out into the world, to know that an idea comes from anywhere. Many years ago, someone I worked with really impressed me because he would come to a brainstorm and he would always have an idea. He would say, you know, ‘I saw this movie, or I saw this play, or I went to this exhibit,’ and from that came these incredible ideas. 

So, actually, the advice to the professors is to make sure those students are getting out of the classroom, that they are getting out into the world and that they are having real life experiences. Maybe it’s an internship in a communications capacity, but just as important is volunteering. It’s about finding those interests that might be a little bit unexpected so that they broaden their minds. I think reading is so important. For me, I don’t read a lot of business books because that’s what I do all day long. I’m reading articles and there’s so much content out there. But enjoying a book that has nothing to do with work, I think is important. I read fiction and nonfiction, but that should not be underestimated. I think that is just so good for your muscles and your creativity. 

By the same token, I hope the professors are urging the students to read the news daily, to understand the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, USA Today. All of those really influential news sources remain critical to our business. You know, every client still wants to get into the Wall Street Journal. It’s interesting and you need to come to work every day really understanding what’s happening in the world because again, our clients are living and operating in real time, and it is our job to bring the outside in. When you’re in the agency world, a lot of clients get so caught up in their work, and that is part of our job to make sure that they are seeing something that’s going on or that we think might be coming down the road.

Can you discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion within the profession, including any best practices that you and your team use to develop and implement strategies or strategic programs to grow, mentor and retain diverse populations within the field?

Zeno, as an agency, and me personally, we are staunch advocates of diversity, equity and inclusion. Our teams need to reflect the world in which we’re living. Long before the current focus on DE+I, we would often talk at Zeno that there’s a whole country out there that is not New York City or San Francisco or Chicago, where we have, you know, some of our offices. It is so important to understand the diversity of this country: racial, socioeconomic and so forth. Certainly, after the killing of George Floyd, there was even more attention on the industry and the agencies. So, we as a firm, have doubled down, like others have. We have been very transparent with our progress over the last several years, progress that I describe with a small “p”, because I think we are making progress but not where we need to be. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion and the focus on it needs to be a daily part of our work. It’s not, ‘We’ll get to that at a monthly meeting with the DEI Council.’ It has to be daily in terms of both recruiting and retaining diverse talent. This is an absolute forever commitment whether the spotlight is on it or not. There’s been a lot of talk about the numbers: how many people of color are in the organization. While it is important to bring people in, what is as important is making sure they stay and feel like they have a career to build at Zeno. What happens in between once they get through the door is extremely important to be sure that there is an environment that is equitable and inclusive, and that they are able to pursue their career. About a month and a half ago, Zeno announced a strategic investment in EGAMI Group, which is an award-winning multicultural firm. It is what we hope will be a new model of change and collaboration, that together we can attract more people of color to the industry, that we can help our clients have a much more multicultural view given the census data and that we are moving toward a minority-majority country. But as important, we are fueling the growth of a minority-owned business with our capital investment, which is part of our overall commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It is embedded in everything we do. It is something I think about every single day. 

I think, for a lot of us who are used to having things happen quickly, we set our sights on something and we go make it happen. This one takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. A lot of the important work about diversifying our industry starts with students, probably in high school. I’ve heard through various conversations and through research that there are many students — Black, Hispanic, and so on — who aren’t even aware of communications as a career. That’s how much work has to be done. And that’s how long it’s going to take. 

The last thing I will say is that we want a diverse, equitable and inclusive agency because it is absolutely the right thing to do, first and foremost. We owe it to our clients to give them work that reflects the viewpoints of all different kinds of people. One of the things we’re working on is this idea of challenging the briefs. When we get a brief from a client and they say, ‘We want to reach mothers 25-to-54,’ that can no longer be acceptable. Do you want to reach white moms, Black moms, and/or Latina moms? So, it’s about really understanding the audiences and making sure that our clients have a way to connect with people of all races, genders, ethnicities and so on. So, there’s a big education effort underway that is going to take time. We need to keep the focus, but it unfortunately will not change overnight.

Another thing is that this work can’t just be because that’s the thing to do now, and then when it falls off the radar, we move on to the next thing. That’s certainly not how we think about it. 

We can’t allow ourselves to be frustrated by setbacks. We just really have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, doing our best and progress will come, probably more slowly than many of us want it to. We’re talking about years and years of systemic racism that we’re trying to undo, but hopefully the actions we take as an industry can inspire others to do the same.

Fast-forward to 2025. But what are the top three expectations that you think CEOs like yourself should have of the public relations profession?

That we’ve made progress in diversity, equity and inclusion. That everything we’ve learned about mental health remains.  Even when the pandemic is in the rear-view window, we cannot forget the lessons and silver linings of the pandemic. That is, the openness with which we talk about mental health and the way we treat and listen to our employees. That absolutely needs to be embedded in our industry. It’s having a tangible impact on how companies do business, how they behave and are making societal change. 

My leadership tip is…

Be yourself.

My mentorship tip is…


My networking tip is…

Get out there.

What is your go-to news source?

New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I also watch Good Morning America. I love that.

Every leader is [blank].


What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn?

I guess it’s that I don’t have to always have the answer. Or I don’t have to be first with the answer. There are sometimes when something comes through on the email, and you’re like, ‘I know the answer to this, and I can figure it out faster than anyone.’ But it does take some discipline to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to let the team figure it out.’

What are some habits in your daily routine that help you strengthen your leadership skills?

Well, I start my day four times a week lifting weights. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years, if not longer, probably longer than before I came to Zeno. I lift weights. What I love about it is that it requires 100% of my focus. I love that for that one hour, no matter what is worrying me when I wake up in the morning about work, or a meeting, or conversation, I go into the gym and I forget about it. And then when I walk out, it’s not as bad; it’s sort of melted away. I do believe that in business it’s incumbent upon leaders to be strong, not only in their minds but also in their bodies. They have to have the strength to be calm in the storm.