Q&A: Myreete Stanforth, 2021 Emerging Leader 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 Myreete Stanforth

Myreete is a core member of Ketchum’s global Growth Network supporting a multi-million dollar pipeline. During her tenure at one of the largest communications consultancies in the world, Myreete has brought in 95+ new clients for Ketchum, operationalized the business development function, established pipeline reporting, lead development, and professional trainings for her team.

Myreete co-created the Emerging Leaders Committee within The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations to develop resources for lower- to mid-level PR practitioners. Within six years, the committee has developed five resource guides, participated in virtual panel content and Plank programming, counseled on behalf of GenZ and millennial voices, mentored 600+ students and recent graduates, and began to pave paths for the future professionals of our industry.

What makes a successful mentorship?

Successful mentorship requires a two-way street. It requires two people who are mentoring each other, while also bringing in a sponsorship element to push toward future goals. Mentorship is not transactional, it’s relational. A successful mentorship means both parties have to have equal respect, engagement, and understanding of the goals and tenure of the mentorship relationship. Structured or not, being on the same page is key!

How do both parties set goals for that professional improvement?

In every mentor relationship, I start with asking “what are your three passions?” Personal or professional, these passions help me as a mentor know what fills their cup, and what they might be interested in should an opportunity arise to move their career forward. On the mentee’s end, I expect that they’ll work hard, ask questions, learn perpetually, and be prepared for anything. Preparation allows you to take on opportunities as soon as they arrive and accelerate their career rather than put opportunities on hold until preparation.

Do you prefer the relationship to be more structured or do you prefer it to be more casual?

My favorite mentorship relationships are those who I can nerd-out with and talk about what’s energizing us and stimulating our minds – within our industry and outside of it. I love casual because it tends to drive authenticity. It allows the mentor to be mentored.

Example: My direct report is Franny, the woman who’s introducing me at the gala. She loves structure, I like casual, so we meet in the middle. After we nerd out together about our pitches and the industry, we structure the ends of our check-ins by asking how our heart and our head is doing. We end with action items of “What are the lessons learned from this situation? What was the internal win? Who are you going to send a thank-you note to?” 

How can mentors be most effective in this relationship with their mentees?

Mentorship has a lot to do with psychology and understanding the type of working styles of the mentor and the mentee. For the mentor, assuming they’re senior, they’ve seen more and been around different people. They’re able to identify what works best for their mentee and what works best for the relationship. This is a superpower. 

The ability to meet people where they’re at is a superpower. When mentees feel they are in a safe space with you, that you understand them, and are listening, they can be their best selves. They come to work in their best capacity. They respond to you in the best way – in a partnership or teamwork way. Tailor your communication style to best ease them to have the best relationship.

What advice would you give to those interested in having a mentor-mentee relationship?

Look five years in the future and ask yourself where you want to be. When you’re looking for a mentor, find one who’s in the place you want to be. Ask about their path, but pave your own when you’re ready. Figure out if you want a structured relationship or one more casual. Be clear on who owns what in the relationship — who’s in charge of getting the next call on the books, and so forth. If your goal or outcome is getting a job, I’d challenge you to understand the difference between mentorship and professional networking.

What have you learned personally from a mentorship experience?

Mentorship comes in all shapes and sizes — structured and casual, long-term and short, more Jr. and more Sr., within your industry and outside of it, some really positive and others where you learn what not to do! I’ve learned that you will have mentors in every year of your career and I come with serious gratitude for each of them — in all shapes and sizes.

My boss, Kelly Sauter, who’s a mentor to everyone, gave me two pieces of advice: 

One, ask about passions: “What do you care about the most so that I can help you navigate the rest of your career knowing what you care about?” Two, choose empathy and gratitude.

What inspired you to start mentoring others?

When I graduated from The University of Alabama, I went from a strong resource and instruction on how to get a job to no resources on what happens after you have the job. In seeing this gap, I knew I needed to give back. That’s why Brian, Jacquie, Taylor and I formed the Emerging Leaders Group within The Plank Center. Now, I do all I can to ensure students and young professionals have an outlet to ask questions and check their thinking with an unbiased party — someone who only wants to see them succeed. I also love to learn from them.

Why is it so important to have mentorships in this industry?

Our future professionals come with the ability to make major impact and influence — in our industry and in our world. Just as Betsy Plank did for me, it’s my job to pave a path for the next generation and allow them to bust through even more ceilings because of it. If I can offer mentorship and direction on their path to their goals, then I’ve done what I’m called to do.

Mentorship encourages a level of industry networking, supports future job searches, and brings together diverse perspectives. Because the industry is so small, you have to understand how to navigate this world and what you want to do with it. If you don’t have a person helping you through scenarios and situations, it’s tough to do that by yourself. 

Can you 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 and what factors most contributed to your personal success?

I don’t like to look backward on anything. I know that the past has made me who I am, but it’s the future of where I’m going that matters. Any low points are actually highs since they brought me here. Any low would be a step in my career ladder. As lows come, I learn. I ask questions. I apply that all to my future. The lows humbled and enabled me to give back. 

If I’m being honest, this award is my high point. I’ve been working with Plank for 10+ years — in all different capacities, and this award is such an honor on top of the gift I’ve already been given to work with this Board, Capstone Agency, and my Emerging Leaders Group.

Leadership in any field seems crucial to success and the future of that field. But “leadership” is a broad term with many dimensions and connotations. Please define what leadership in PR means to you.

Leadership to me is empathy, intelligence, and ethics. It’s always learning. It’s a humble honor. It’s understanding your people and knowing what drives them. 

In the last two years, communications has become more important than ever. Our jobs as PR professionals have also never mattered more. It’s really hard to do work that is ethical and factual and empathetic … if you’re not that yourself. Our mentors and leaders can be a light and can create a better version of our world for our future professionals. Leadership trickles down.

Do you think that leadership can be taught or are you born with it?

100% taught. Some lucky individuals can be born with the gift of strong public speaking, or the innate ability to connect with everyone, but empathy, perpetual learning, collaboration, ethics… those are all learnt, adopted, and practiced daily to be a strong leader. Why else would there be so many leadership books if you couldn’t learn it?

What’s the most powerful learning experience you have encountered with leadership?

My mentor and boss Kelly Sauter taught me empathy. She taught me how to care for others, because she knows that you cannot be your best professional self if your personal self isn’t cared for and filled up at the same time. Her honest love for those she mentors is why she’s so impactful as a leader. 

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

Ron Culp. I have never met a man with such industry influence. You name it, he’s impacted it. His connections are strong, but the way he keeps up relationships is what inspires me. I don’t know how he has the capacity to be so all-encompassing, but he does and it seems like with ease. He is an outstanding leader – authentic and honest. He’s a thank you note writer. He lifts others up. You see him and just know that you’re going to be well cared for. As a mentor to our future generation, I just want to give him back the world that he has created for us. 

In your view, is there a historical figure who exemplified outstanding leadership in the field? Why?

Betsy Plank. She is the reason I’m able to be where I am today — a public relations professional… woman… in Chicago… at the Union League Club… being honored in her name.

She is a pioneer for why I get to do so much in our industry. Her teachings stand the test of time.

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

Keep giving back, keep building relationships, and keep asking questions. A transparent mentorship relationship removes barriers and allows informed movement forward.

Can you think of an instance where someone’s leadership made a difference in resolving an issue, or causing a significant change to be made, or inspiring a group, or introducing a new program? That is, can you give a concrete example or illustration of leadership at work in practice?

If you can watch an issues and crisis expert in action, you’ll watch leadership in action. 

An example: Bill Zucker is an issues and crisis and media expert at Ketchum and he also used to lead the Chicago marketplace. Years ago, the Chicago office was given tough news that really impacted our workforce. With empathy, understanding, personal investment, and leadership, Bill not only got us through that moment, but did so with a standing ovation after his speech. That’s leadership to follow. Leadership I am proud to follow.

What’s one book recommendation that you have for leadership?

First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. It’s important to understand your company’s culture right away, but after being tenured in a role, it’s also important to remember what it feels like to be new. In the Great Resignation and virtual onboarding, supporting newcomers is a strong form of leadership, which is why I think that book is important at all stages of our career.

What is your best advice for PR students who are entering the work world?

Put your nose down, put the work in, ask the questions, and learn EVERYTHING. When an opportunity arrives for you, you best be prepared to seize it. In tandem, have a sponsor inside your organization or inside the networking groups you’re a part of. Tell your mentors and sponsors the three things you’re most passionate about — professionally or personally — and ask them to keep an eye out for opportunities like those for you. This could be your manager or someone more senior who wants to see junior people succeed. Finally, keep those personal passions outside of work. Discover what energizes you when the emails are off and refill your cup.

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

Grit. Business understanding. A perpetual learner — there’s nothing more powerful than a nerd! 

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

Put students in the real world as much as humanly possible. We all learn better — more deeply — with context and background as to why things matter.

Discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion in the profession, including the best practices you and your team use to develop and implement strategic programs to grow, mentor and retain diverse populations within the field.

Gen Z is nearly 50% non-white. We must prepare our professional space for our future leaders. DE&I should be table stakes in our industry — and then pushed even further, especially as professionals reaching diverse audiences.

It’s the year 2025. What top three expectations will CEOs have of the public relations profession? 

Betsy Plank’s lessons have stood the test of time, and they’ll remain relevant in 2025: Ethics and Integrity; Mentorship; Always Learning the Business.

There are a myriad of changes around us. What issues have or will become a “wake-up call” to the PR profession?

I’ve watched it change over the years … Now, more and more companies are remaining and proactively being accountable to their purview and the actions that impact their customers. Rather than an issue, I believe this “myriad of change” is weeding out old politics and making ethics imperative to leadership. We can all use higher standards and expectations.

My leadership tip is…

Listen and think about what you just learned.

My mentorship tip is…

Know each other’s passions and sponsor them in it.

My networking tip is…

Be real and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

My go-to news source is…

CNN or BBC. My creative source is Fast Company.

Every leader is…

Learning and in progress.

The lesson that took you the longest to learn is…

It doesn’t make you weak to ask questions.

Habits in your daily routine that strengthen your leadership skills…

To be totally honest and my bible. There’s a ton of leadership examples in those pages — the good and the very bad. It’s humbling because we remember we can’t do this world — we can’t lead — alone.