As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Barby K. Siegel, chief executive officer of Zeno Group, a global integrated communications agency, born from P.R., that 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 500 staffers, who operate across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Under Barby’s leadership over the last 11 years, Zeno has experienced annual double-digit growth, and an expansion of myriad capabilities to become the award-winning mid-sized agency, representing some of the largest and most influential companies in the world.
In addition to her daily passion for client work, Barby is a staunch supporter of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion for both the agency and the industry at large, recently launching ACT TOGETHER — a series of decisive initiatives and action items she and Zeno’s senior team are leading to more urgently advance a more equitable and inclusive workforce at Zeno and beyond. Further to Barby’s focus on diversity, she sits on the National Board of Year Up and the PRSA Foundation.
Accolades under Barby’s leadership have included the 2019 Agency of the Year and Midsize Agency of the Year Awards from both PRWeek and The Holmes Report. Zeno also earned a Best Place to Work recognition in 2016 and 2017 and received Honorable Commendation at the 2017 PRWeek Global Awards for International Agency of the Year.
The industry has also recognized Barby for her achievements. In 2020, PRWeek US recognized her with an Honorable Mention for Agency Professional of the Year. Barby received the coveted Individual Achievement Award from the Holmes Report in 2018, and in 2017 she was named “Agency Person of the Year” at the PRWeek Global Awards. In 2016, Barby was honored with the “This Woman Means Business” Award from Marketing to Women and the Working Mother of the Year Award by She Runs It. Additionally, for the past eight years, Barby has been included on PRWeek’s ‘Power List’ of the profession’s most influential leaders (2013–2020). Barby is a member of Page and is on the PR Council Board of Directors.
However, the title that Barby is most proud of is “Mommy.” She is the mother to two grown daughters, Matty and Mallory, who embody their own brand of the agency’s famous ‘fearless’ North Star.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my PR career shortly after I graduated from Barnard College. I actually wanted to go into advertising, but I was not able to land an entry-level job. My brother-in-law suggested I meet with the firm he was using at the time. I took the writing test which was to write and produce a press kit for Ivory Snow shampoo (I might be dating myself here). I didn’t get that job either so I decided to undertake a direct mail campaign. Mind you, I did this on an electric typewriter so if I took out the letter and it wasn’t perfect, I had to start all over again. One afternoon, sitting in my parents’ apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, I was typing cover letters. I pulled this particular one out with a typo. As I was crumpling up the paper to throw it out and not re-do it, something told me to re-do it, because this might be the one. And it was. The next week, I began my career as an account executive at McGrath/Power Associates where I stayed for seven years and left as a VP heading to Edelman. After 11 years there, I went to Ogilvy PR to lead the global consumer practice. After a really good 8 year run, I returned to the DJE family to build and lead Zeno Group, where I have been for the last 11 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Not really a mistake, but I remember vividly from the early days of my career having a lot of responsibility quickly even though I was very young. I would rarely speak in a way that would give my clients any sense of how young I was (and I guess inexperienced). I think if this were today, the situation would be very different, and I would proudly wear my ‘youth smarts’ on my sleeve.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have had many good mentors along the way. But for me I would say that my husband has been a huge help in that he has supported every phase of my career: never making me feel guilty, always there to lend a hand with our children while I was busy with work, traveling in the US and abroad. All while he manages his own busy, high-profile career as a divorce lawyer. I would say that we all need help, but support at home should not be underestimated.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Zeno Group has always been purposeful and committed to being an inclusive place where people can bring their whole selves and push themselves in new directions; experiment, and yes even fail, as part of realizing their personal and professional ambition. Interestingly, over the last several months, we embarked as a global firm on a process that we use with our clients — to articulate a more defined purpose and work to embed in all we do internally and externally. It has been a very affirming exercise that has involved everyone at the firm to ensure that our purpose is truly reflective of who are individually and collectively.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The pandemic of 2020 (and now into 2021) certainly qualifies as an uncertain and difficult time. No playbook to pull off the shelf. I drew strength from my heart and my head. I led by with strength and focus as well as empathy and compassion. All at once. I felt it was also a moment to be highly relatable. For people to see a piece of them in me, so that people would put their faith and trust in you. I don’t believe that a leader should hide her human emotions or somehow pretend that you are not impacted by such a catastrophic event. It was important to put our people first. My leadership team and I did that in two important ways — one was to be direct and honest with the facts with frequent communication — and the second was to connect with people in smaller groups and one-to-one, looking them in the eye and listening to what they were going through, validating their feelings and making sure they knew that they were not alone. In early March, I began a nightly global email that I continued until the end of June as a way to connect with people around the Zeno Group world, to share my personal perspectives on the pandemic with an emphasis on acknowledging some dark days and how we can cope and move forward. Nobody is immune from feeling scared and uncertain about what the future holds. Not even the CEO.
My responsibility first and foremost was to our people. Making sure they knew that we cared what was going on in their lives as everyone’s home routines were upended. We began starting every phone call or video session with “how are you?” and we took time to really listen. In my opinion, the best and most effective leaders are human leaders. People want to follow someone who has a vision for the way forward, who leads with strength and a steady hand but is also relatable and not afraid to show emotions and share feelings. Leaders must be human if they expect others to follow, to engage and trust.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Never. Giving up is not in my DNA, personally or professionally. Moreover, a true leader does NOT give up when times are tough. Quite the contrary. Leading in tough times — forging a path forward for the organization — is the most important role for a leader to play. Personally, I am motivated by the deep responsibility I feel toward our employees and the trust they have placed in us as a place where they can forge their career. We have an expression that “Zeno is a place where careers are built and lives are lived.” This remains my motivation.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Calm. Confidence. The facts. A path forward.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I felt responsibility to help keep our team’s spirits up. I felt it was important for the team to hear from me often and see me often. This spring I did a “Zoom tour” of every single Zeno Group office across North America, Europe and Asia. I felt it was important to make that personal connection. For people to see that I was doing well, to see and hear the hope in my voice for the future and provide a virtual hug as we shoulder on together.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Directly, in real time and with confidence. I don’t believe in sugar coating difficult news. People appreciate straight and direct talk. And that should not be to the exclusion of showing your human side. With the difficult news, I always endeavor to offer a path forward, acknowledging that it may be a work in progress.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Whether we are in a pandemic or not, there is always unpredictability in the future. Of course, sometimes more than less. However, nobody has a crystal ball. You make the plan that is right for your business based on what you know, and what you can anticipate. And be prepared to make adjustments as warranted.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There are many aspects to guiding a company through turbulent times, but it must start with the truth in a timely matter. The leader needs to quickly and confidently be out in front with the facts and a view on what moving forward looks like. As turbulent times are dynamic, if a course correction needs to be made, do so transparently. Another key component is ensuring a core leadership team is working together on a daily basis to move the organization forward and making sure needs of various stakeholders are tracked and reflected in all decisions.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A few of the mistakes I have seen include:
- Slow to share news — bad news travels faster than good news
- A lack of empathy and compassion, employees feeling disconnected and not listened to
- Knee-jerk reactions that are not informed by facts or data
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
First and foremost, we put our people first. Making sure they feel safe and supported. We also did what we have always done, but with greater intensity: focusing on adding value to our client partnerships and delivering the best possible work. We were fully in the trenches with our clients especially as they needed more support — both to get the work done and emotionally. And finally, we made sure we continued to make the right moves and investments for our people and our clients and raising our voice on important issues of the day.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be truthful and transparent in real time
- Be able and willing to quickly pivot and course correct as necessary
- Surround yourself with a core leadership team to work through challenges and opportunities
- Stay true to the company’s core values to guide decision making
- Communicate frequently with your employees and other stakeholders in order to control your narrative
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As a young girl, my mother taught me this, “God gave you a mouth, use it.” She meant to not be afraid to speak up and use your voice for good. This has served me very well in terms of my dealings with clients and colleagues.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter and follow Zeno Group at ZenoGroup.com.