Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Krista Webster.
Krista Webster is currently the President & CEO of Veritas Communications and Vice-Chair of an MDC Network Alliance that includes North American agencies from advertising, shopper marketing, digital as well as Veritas. With more than 20 years of public relations working with blue chip clients in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia, Webster has been named as one of PR Weeks Top 40 Under 40 & Top Women In PR, PRovoke’s Innovator 25 in 2017, an Adweek Brand Star in 2018. She joined the 2021 PR jury at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier this year.
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?
After graduating with a Master’s in Journalism, I was determined to be a fashion magazine editor, but quickly took on television and freelance writing right out of school. A professor recommended me for a PR job at a Global agency and I really had no idea what that meant, but I wanted the ‘security’ of a real job and took it. I learned a lot by watching and listening and 20+ years later in agency, I have never looked back.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I was always very young looking for my age, so when I started in the PR business and was giving presentations, I felt very intimidated by the experience around the table. So, I concocted my ‘presentation’ persona; hair back, glasses that I didn’t need, and a suit that was far too ‘mature’ for me. After starting to feel like I was finding my stride and getting good feedback from my bosses, one of them eventually pulled me aside and told me to “lose the look, be who you are.” Even though I was mortified at first, I felt very grateful for the vote of confidence. We laughed it off and from that day forward, I literally and figuratively let me hair down and lost the ‘goggles.’
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 incredible role models, both male and female, that saw something in me at every juncture of my career and allowed me to take on responsibility at an age well beyond my years. They always gave me enough rope to excel; but never enough to hang myself either. Today, you would call them mentors. In my generation, they were just great leaders who appreciated a hard-working woman trying to make it on her own, which was definitely not easy to find.
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?
The vision was to ‘influence the influencers’ to help brands create grassroots advocacy and activism for ideas and trends that change minds. While this might sound a bit manipulative, it really boiled down to the power of transforming lives by leveraging the stories and experiences of others that consumers trusted and could emulate/look to for guidance.
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?
I always say that it is easy to lead in good times, but your true inside as a leader comes out when it’s squeezed. I try to live by this mantra, though it’s never a perfect process. We are human after all and in the ‘people’ biz. But being as proactive and honest as possible with your team and clients eliminates worry or surprise. At the same time, as a leader, it is your responsibility to weather more of the stress and worry, so being ‘edited’ in what you also share with your team and when is equally important.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have yet to give up, ever. Don’t get me wrong; there have been tears, exhaustion and emotions behind the scenes for sure. But I stay motivated knowing that I have a unique responsibility to protect and support my clients and team. That is enough to get me through anything. I also think my perseverance is a reflection of how I was raised by parents who were both working and good role models for ‘hard work.’
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Knowing when to ask for help or the opinions of others.
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 am not a huge fan of falsely ‘cheerleading’ teams through uncertainty. But I do think there is an art and science in how you inspire others by including them in the process. Morale is set by a team, not an individual, so asking for feedback and empowering action as a group is more difficult to organize in the upfront, but more lasting, satisfying and authentic for all.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Don’t wait for the right moment. You need to create that moment and set the tone in a genuine, calm, factual but compassionate way. And then speak to the forward-looking actions you believe will help and ask for immediate input. In my opinion, avoiding bad news is the most irresponsible thing anyone can do.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans are important to help set milestones and focus teams on bite sized moments that ‘feel’ manageable; but being adaptable and allowing those plans to change shape under your watch is just as critical, if not more.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Go in knowing there will always be turbulent times so surround yourself with people who trust that you will help them ride the wave, and course correct without apology — but with everyone’s best interests at heart.
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?
- Seeing the car crash months or even years in advance, but not changing the course until it is too late.
- Assuming the way you have always done things still works. Pivot is the new buzzword because it is actually necessary and works.
- Taking things personally when business isn’t going well and reveling in it versus rising above it.
- Making things more complicated than they need to be. Reinvention doesn’t have to mean a complete overhaul. Sometimes just a few tweaks will make a profound difference.
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?
- Stay top-of-mind with clients by showcasing your team’s work without asking for new business.
- Managing expenses so that any investment can be in the people you employ and the tools and technology that will actually help you be more efficient but also differentiate.
- Make tough calls on what is no longer relevant/obsolete, and what fresh thinking and approaches you need to bring in quickly.
- Hire slow, fire fast. Be choiceful about who you need on your team to ride the wave, and if you make a wrong decision, make sure you humanely action it right away.
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.
- Do not take things personally when things seem to go downhill in your business. Life is full of ups and downs, that includes work. So, it’s important to rise above it.
- Stay connected with and surrounded by reliable and trustworthy people, especially during times that are difficult for everyone — like this pandemic.
- Communication is very important in the midst of uncertainty. For any uncomfortable/bad news, do not wait for the “perfect” opportunity to present itself, create it for yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help or get a second/third/fourth opinion. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you have to have answers for everything during a period of crisis.
- Learn to be more lenient and flexible. It’s likely things might not go according to plan during unforeseen times, and riding the wave is the best way to navigate through it all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
How someone treats frontline in a business — receptionists, assistants, cleaning staff, interns — will determine their character as a future hire and employee. In my world, everyone should be treated with the same level of importance and professionalism. I often purposely set it up so that frontline team members meet potential new hires before I do and take their feedback as gospel. I worked as a server and retail sales associate to pay my way through school. I appreciate hard work and never judge a book by it’s cover.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on Instagram at @krista.webster or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/kristawebster.