Eric Yaverbaum of Ericho Communications: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
You’re going to have good days and bad days. So you can’t ride the highs and lows, or the rollercoaster as I like to say. Don’t place too much value on your big wins or big losses; instead appreciate your moments of victory and learn from your mistakes and losses, while knowing those moments will pass. Every situation you encounter as an entrepreneur has the opportunity to teach and enrich you, so keep yourself grounded and be open to new things.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Yaverbaum.
Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communications, media, and public relations expert with over 35-years in the industry, having co-founded Jericho Communications and served as President from 1985 until its successful merger in 2006 with LIME Public Relations & Promotions. Eric has worked with a wide-range of top-of-their-industry clients including Sony, IKEA, Progressive Insurance, Domino’s, Beachbody, H&M, and fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Eric is also a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations — the industry-standard bestseller PR for Dummies — as well as six other titles including Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs (over a million copies sold). His expert commentary has been featured on Forbes, The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPost, CNBC, Fox Business, and PR Week, among others.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
To be completely candid, I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, and I needed a job that actually paid me. When I first enrolled at American University, I majored in Accounting — I didn’t even know what marketing, let alone PR was. However, shortly after turning 19, I met a friend of a friend and an aspiring author at the time, Matthew Lesko — who gave me the “break” of a lifetime by asking me to promote his first book. Matthew was fully aware that I had no experience or any idea what to do as it pertained to conventional practices. For the first time in my career, an adult embraced what became the hallmark of my career — “out of the box thinking.” Truth be told, I had no idea about any box at all! I developed my own unique strategy and PR plan for the book, flying by the seat of my gut instincts and literally tossing my textbooks aside.
There was one class that really made a deeper impression and basically solidified my career path though. A professor who fascinated me gave an assignment to develop a strategic marketing document for real-world applications. Unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t choose a Sony or General Mills sort of company; since I was already in the middle of implementing my own strategy in the real world, I simply wrote a document based on what I was already doing for Matthew’s book.
My professor, whom I respected greatly, didn’t think so highly of my not-so-theoretical strategy, giving me a C and saying that what I wrote wasn’t realistic. It both baffled and thrilled me in equal ways as the practices I outlined had in actuality worked. The end result was that what was essentially a cut-and-paste of a federal document written by my now life-long friend took off and became his first New York Times Bestseller. Many years later, we ran into each other at the Washington Post retirement dinner for Katharine Graham. I couldn’t wait to tell her! She already knew and felt the very same. Her enthusiastic congratulations were such a great compliment to me both personally and professionally. And never forgotten.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One of my biggest challenges was the learning curve I faced when I first gave corporate America (or Canada as it were) a spin. I moved to Toronto at 21 to be the head of the PR department for a large technology company. It was my first time in any sort of managerial role, my first time having people reporting to me, and the first time I really had to earn respect in a professional environment. I had colleagues some thirty years my senior who did not take kindly to my youthful energy and “hot shot” attitude. In retrospect, I would have not liked it one bit myself! I had to learn that respect is something that must be earned, not simply given with a title. For the first time in my life, I had perspective and realized earning respect meant working hard, being humble, and always learning along the way. To this day, I still have so much more to learn, but this difference is I’m always aware of and excited by that fact — the first 50 years, when you’re still figuring that out, are the hardest!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Honestly, I was often driven by people telling me, “that’s not possible,” or that I couldn’t do something because it hadn’t been done before. A lack of precedent was something I gravitated towards — I feel like I’ve spent my life racing into the eye of the hurricane, figuring out what and how to do what I do best in the heat of the moment. I like the heat. It suits me well. In my youth, I pushed hard to break barriers and while many observed me as being on the cutting edge, I truthfully just didn’t realize that there was an “edge.” Though I like to think that I’m used to challenges and living outside of my comfort zone, like hundreds of thousands of other people, the pandemic took a personal toll on me, confining me to bed and lingering for 90 days. I did find that in the midst of all of these crazy times, my old habits have come in very handy! I have sought out positivity and always kept moving forward. If your lungs are ever compromised, they will forever remind you how much of a blessing it is to simply breathe, how audacious it is to find a silver lining even when absolutely nothing is guaranteed. Not that it ever was — that age old illusion of control is just that: an illusion. My own personal experience even inspired me to write my eighth book, The Audacity of Silver Linings, due to be released in January 2022. While I’m waist deep in writing the book I said I would never write, I’m also learning something about why they say, “never say never!”
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I’ve had a few “lives,” to say the very least, in my industry and in life. We all do. In the 40 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve been wealthy, and I’ve been flat broke. Today, business is going extremely well, and I truly feel that Ericho is the culmination of all the tough lessons I’ve had to learn — and am still learning — through the decades. I believe resilience is the key to running a successful business under any circumstances but especially in the context of 2020. My COVID diagnosis showed me just how effective my team is and how much I can rely on them to keep the engine moving even while I’m forced to stand still. Thanks to them (and my friends, family, and doctors) I never lost one iota of hope in the notion that I would be just fine. This learned optimism, which I’ve been practicing since I was 12, might be something akin to a secret weapon in difficult times. But the truth is, it’s not a secret and absolutely anyone can hone it; all it takes is an open mind and a ton of practice. It certainly wasn’t something that came naturally to me. The hardest part about thinking this way for just about anyone who thinks they can’t is to simply start. It’s really that simple. Crossing the threshold is the hardest part. Practicing it is a lifelong adventure. At least it has been for me. So I’m going to keep practicing!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In 1985, I had my first real brush with what I thought was “fame.” I started a widely-covered and influential citizen’s action organization — which my partner and I called “Strike Back” — during the Major League Baseball threatened strike of that year. We went viral before there was such a term! The commissioner of Major League Baseball even cited Strike Back as one of the three reasons that the strike ended so quickly. I did Nightline and Good Morning America. We were covered by the New York Times and papers from coast to coast. We ended up on the cover of USA Today the day the strike ended — a huge feat for me at the time and one for which I was certain I’d be recognized and applauded. But no one noticed. I spent the entire day in anticipation waiting to be recognized. Finally, after last call at the bar that night, a random stranger on the street looked at me as I waited for a cab and said, “Hey, I saw you on the cover of USA Today!” That day taught me humility, and I learned to manage my own expectations from then on. I realized that the relative “fame” my career provides doesn’t change who I am fundamentally, not in the least bit. Basically and as I counsel my own clients, I don’t get too wrapped up in believing my own press. I am who I am. Accomplishments, awards, magazine covers, they’re wonderful to remind me of all the hard work and be proud of in retrospect, but that night I learned my sense of value and worth has absolutely nothing to do with recognition.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes Ericho unique is the fact that we really try to have our values and practices carry through the entire organization. The work we do for our clients mirrors the work we do for ourselves (Google me and you’ll see what I mean), and that makes a big difference. We practice what we preach, and the level of personal commitment, focus, and care that our team puts in really makes the difference to our clients. I know what I don’t know which is plenty. My people are all smarter than me. You know how lucky it is to be the dumbest one in the room? That’s the room you should want to be in. That’s a great place to learn. And that in a sentence defines and describes the company I run today. We’re not successful because of me. We’re successful because of everyone else.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One mantra that has really helped me make adjustments as I’ve grown up with the hectic nature of this industry is, “if you love what you do, it’ll never feel like work.” And I really love what I do, not only because I enjoy storytelling, but because I believe in the work that I’m doing. I’d tell others in the industry to be motivated by working on projects and with people you truly believe in. That personal connection makes it easy to devote my time to it and not feel drained. We get to make a difference and we get paid for that! That’s not working to me.
The other side of that though is to find some balance in your life. I know far too many people who search for this their entire professional lives. Work hard for sure. Do it with integrity and consistently and you’ll be successful regardless. And if you’re reading these words thinking that’s not working for me, there’s plenty of time left. But you have to have more than just work. Don’t miss a piano recital. Don’t miss one little league baseball game. Don’t forget your friends or your family ever. Make your hobbies as important as your career. Balance is uniquely yours. I found mine a long time ago. Like everything, that took some work and still takes practice!
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 so many mentors. So many influential people in my life. When you sit at what I call the “winners table” the conversation is different there. Try to get a seat at that table. You don’t need to ask for permission.
The very first person (besides my parents) that I really credit for influencing my professional philosophy is Henry Kissinger. My Uncle Abe (also a huge influence on me) introduced us in my youth, and of all the wise things he said, this phrase stuck with me the most: “Does anybody have any questions for the answers I’m already giving?” That was the match that lit the fire for me. I spent four decades teaching exactly that. My associates have come to know this as “messaging.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think our client roster is indicative of what matters to us as an agency — work that tries to help the world become a better place. When I started Ericho, it was important to me that we only work with clients that we really believe in and were doing good in the world, and we’ve firmly stuck to that. We have clients using technology to help patients with dementia and traumatic brain injuries, bridging gaps for underserved communities, making strides in health and fitness, and even making investing more accessible for everyone. We have a diversified portfolio of clients, each of which we’ve consciously selected to work with. And when I say “we,” I mean my entire agency. Our clients all have one thing strikingly in common, they make the world a better place. Getting to facilitate the work of our clients and help carry their messages is why I love what I do. We get to help them, help the world.
After my personal battle with COVID-19 and a very uniquely challenging year (like so many others have and are still facing), I’m excited to get to use my forty years of experience to help spread a message of positivity, optimism, and perseverance in the face of adversity. My upcoming book, The Audacity of Silver Linings, will explore exactly how I’ve incorporated these necessary lessons in learned optimism into my life to be able to continue to grow and move forward (but definitely don’t wait on the book to start practicing it yourself).
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You can’t ignore finances. I was the guy who never kept a checkbook or a handle on my finances. After years of struggling with yo-yo budgeting, I finally realized how important it is to understand the ins-and-outs of cash flow and what healthy margins mean (what they mean is a lot if security is something you like in life).
- You’re going to work long days. So make sure you’re doing what you love because long hours are longer if you don’t like the work. You have to believe in what you’re doing.
- You’re going to have good days and bad days. So you can’t ride the highs and lows, or the rollercoaster as I like to say. Don’t place too much value on your big wins or big losses; instead appreciate your moments of victory and learn from your mistakes and losses, while knowing those moments will pass. Every situation you encounter as an entrepreneur has the opportunity to teach and enrich you, so keep yourself grounded and be open to new things.
- Respect is earned. No amount of money, status, or influence will replace respect earned genuinely through a strong work ethic and developing meaningful connections. Be open to learning from any and everyone and give people the respect you would want for yourself.
- You need balance in life. It’s about loving those closest to you, loving yourself, and loving what you do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I wish I could teach everyone that the goal in life is to have inner peace. Being happy with yourself will empower you to seek and cultivate the good in others. While having some money in the bank is certainly easier than not, it won’t buy you love, happiness, or good health. Don’t get too old before you realize what I just said. Life will teach you that lesson one way or another. What matters most is just not for sale. The goal is inner peace. Now you know. Work on that single piece of advice and my entire career will have been more worthwhile than I could have ever hoped. And I’m a hopeful guy.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!