Have a positive vision for your company and yourself. Repeat often…I mean all the time. People do better work — work more collaboratively and efficiently — when they know why they’re doing something, and when they know that success will have a positive outcome. I learned the “repeat often” part of that equation the hard way. Early on at Double Forte, I thought that people just knew why we did things the way we did because it made sense to me and I’m sure I said it at least once before, and I could not understand why people were asking “why?” questions so much. Finally, when one of my employees wasn’t getting it and just doing everything wrong, I said to him with way too much frustration and emotion in my voice, “Why would you do that? Of course we need to do it this way — we are trying to help people understand they should choose foods with real ingredients.” He looked at me and said with as much emotion in his voice, “Well why didn’t you say so? Of course I would have done it differently if I’d known that!” Then, I realized I was assuming way too much and frankly that people could not read my mind. I just looked at him for what felt like an hour but was probably only a minute or two and said, “You are right, let’s start from the top.” From then on I’ve worked to articulate a vision for the company and for the work we’re doing and reinforce it so that everyone knows why we’re making the choices we make, and now they are equipped and good at making sure everyone understands the why before we start anything. It’s much easier!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee McEnany Caraher. Lee is the President and CEO of Double Forte, a national public relations and influencer marketing agency, based in San Francisco and New York, that works with beloved consumer, technology, and wine brands. Lee is a highly sought after communications expert known for her business building acumen and practical solutions to problems. Lee is also an acclaimed author, speaker and recognized expert on creating and leading high performing, positive, intergenerational workplaces.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I graduated from Carleton College with my Medieval History Degree I knew that I didn’t want to pursue an academic career. My friend Ramona Advani was working for a marketing agency and suggested that I go into PR — I didn’t know what that was. I went to the career center and took A Career in PR off the bookshelf and what it described seemed to match my personality more than anything else. I decided to move to Boston (where I had grown up) because I didn’t want to move back home with my parents in San Francisco and there were a lot of agencies there — and agencies are really built to train people. My father’s best friend — a well known business lawyer in Boston agreed to help me (after I wrote and rewrote [twice] a letter outlining why he should make an effort for me) and through his connections I got 11 informational interviews in one week. From those, I got five internship offers and I took the one that paid me the most — in High Tech PR (really at the start of that specialty), which of course made loads of sense given my degree. I found I really liked the work and am good at it — and here I am three decades later, still super interested in what I do every day. I feel very lucky for that and grateful for Ramona steering me in the right direction so many years ago.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A few things come to mind. On September 13, 2008 (Saturday) I was sitting at my son’s horseback riding lesson and thought, “I think I can work four days a week — I want to start riding again, I’ve been working my butt off, I have a great team, I can reduce my work schedule.” Sunday I figured out how to do that, and then on Monday, September 15 when the market was tanking faster than the Titanic, I realized that I’d be lucky to make it working 24 hours a day, 8 days a week since we had four clients in NY that day fundraising, and two of our retail clients had already started seeing some softness in their numbers. My CFO was part time then and I called him at his contract job in San Jose and said I needed him to get to San Francisco by noon. That afternoon we went through everything — every contract, every budget line, every salary — in between frantic calls with different clients talking them off their own ledges. Tuesday, I cut everything except salaries, healthcare, 401K, and water and we ran the numbers over and over again in between more serious calls with clients helping them understand the implications of the market. Wednesday we had a staff meeting and I laid out our plan — freeze all salaries, cut all expenses (snacks, parking, meals, travel, nice-to-have subscriptions, etc.) and stop saying “No” as the first response even if No is the right answer, and do what’s right for each client even if it meant losing them because “people we treat well during this crisis will remember it and come back.” Also, “We have to be the easiest agency to work with. If our clients hear no — even when no is the answer — they will find someone else to say yes. We need to get to no through yes.” We lost three of the four clients that were fundraising, scaled back two others and then actually won three new clients who moved from more expensive and bigger firms to ours. In the end we had to lay off three people in January 2009 and I didn’t unlock salaries for 12 months. But the idea of being the easiest agency to work with has stuck with us and is foundational to our business today.
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?
When we first started out, my partner took the infrastructure tasks — computers, accounting, facilities, etc. and I took the business and marketing tasks. He hired people he knew to do these things and one after another of the computer “experts” kept screwing up. Things came to a head and it’s then I found out that he had dated all of them! The only one of those guys who really knew what they were doing was the accountant — and then I hired some people who were actually qualified. What did I learn? Just because your friends say they can do something doesn’t mean they can.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our special sauce is made up of a few things. We are pragmatic and business-goal focused based on our experience of having run comms and marketing teams from the inside. That means we don’t recommend activities just to recommend activities, even if that means we leave revenue (sometimes a lot of revenue) on the table.
For instance, in Silicon Valley we find a lot of startups who want to do “branding events” to drive buzz and get the media’s attention — high profile, stand out, insider events — that, done well, absorb a large percentage of the available budget. We usually don’t recommend these type of events early on in a company’s life cycle unless the founders are well known. We have had many clients for which we are the second agency because we stuck to our philosophy and withdrew from their first call for agency because they were determined to do things that we felt wouldn’t achieve the business goal we’d be measured against (even if we did throw an awesome party, which we do do when it makes sense). For these companies — more than a dozen now — they come back to us and say “you were right, we should have listened to you” — that’s when we know we can actually have a chance to do the work that will move the business needle.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working with a couple of clients on reshaping their org charts to organize efficiently to be able to address dramatic change that social media, the news landscape, and the evolved consumer and customer expectations mean for companies. Too many marketing departments are wed to the conventional structure that, because the landscape is so different today than even five years ago, basically focuses subpar performance. It’s challenging for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s hard for people to give up the notion of where they thought their career would “get” them. It’s exciting because organizations organized against the purpose of communicating and being in relationship with customers and consumers are so much more efficient and successful that most people end up being super excited about their work, which makes the work even more successful. For me it’s exciting to combine the functional part of Double Forte’s work as an agency and my work as an author and speaker about productive and positive work into the same task — it all works together.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t underestimate the impact of how you conduct yourselves or the people around you — people are looking at you to understand how they should act and react. So take care of yourself first — if you’re not well, rested, fed — body, heart and soul, then you can’t take care of the people around you. There’s a reason you’re supposed to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. Second, believe in yourself, your ability, your potential and your ability to correct mistakes. You will make mistakes — it’s important that you know that and that your teams know that you know that — and that you will acknowledge and learn from them and chart a new path forward. And don’t be afraid to be vulnerable — to show your humanness. I think being vulnerable is often seen as a weakness. I see it as a strength because it helps us recognize reality faster so we can chart and lead a new path, not keep hitting our heads against the wall. Your teams can’t thrive unless you do.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
First, surround yourselves with great people who share your values. Second, spend the time, regularly, required to build good relationships with and among those great people. Third, let those great people do their jobs — hold them to high standards and support them.
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 about that?
So many people! If I have to choose just one, it would be Chip Morse. Chip, who died a few years ago, was one of my father’s best friends; he was a big figure in the Boston business and legal world. When I decided to pursue a PR career after college, I focused on moving to Boston for the opportunities there. I asked Chip if he could help me. He said, “Maybe. Write me a letter telling me why you want to move to Boston and get into PR and why I should help you, and we’ll see.” I wrote him a letter…which he promptly sent back to me covered in red ink with the note scribbled on top, “Not good enough — rewrite this if you want my help.” Wow. So, I did, and he did. In one week one had 11 informational interviews that he helped set up; of them I got five internship offers; of those I took the one that paid me the most — in high tech PR. He was a mentor and a confidant from then until he died, and I regularly channel him and his sense of humor and irony when faced with challenging issues.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As the CEO, I set the parameters of who Double Forte will work for — and we are here to work for good people at good companies doing positive things in their industries, and we don’t work for people or companies that don’t meet this test. Personally, I serve on the board of directors for a few amazing non-profits and my role is to help them achieve more, to make more positive impact in the world — I will never be the biggest donor, but I can always do the work that amplifies impact exponentially not just incrementally.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Have a positive vision for your company and yourself. Repeat often…I mean all the time. People do better work — work more collaboratively and efficiently — when they know why they’re doing something, and when they know that success will have a positive outcome. I learned the “repeat often” part of that equation the hard way. Early on at Double Forte, I thought that people just knew why we did things the way we did because it made sense to me and I’m sure I said it at least once before, and I could not understand why people were asking “why?” questions so much. Finally, when one of my employees wasn’t getting it and just doing everything wrong, I said to him with way too much frustration and emotion in my voice, “Why would you do that? Of course we need to do it this way — we are trying to help people understand they should choose foods with real ingredients.” He looked at me and said with as much emotion in his voice, “Well why didn’t you say so? Of course I would have done it differently if I’d known that!” Then, I realized I was assuming way too much and frankly that people could not read my mind. I just looked at him for what felt like an hour but was probably only a minute or two and said, “You are right, let’s start from the top.” From then on I’ve worked to articulate a vision for the company and for the work we’re doing and reinforce it so that everyone knows why we’re making the choices we make, and now they are equipped and good at making sure everyone understands the why before we start anything. It’s much easier!
- Assume everyone is doing their best. So much conflict happens in the workplace because we assume the other person is purposely doing something wrong and we look for fault. When we change our mindset to assume everyone is trying their best, we look for ways to support people in their work and relationships instead of finding fault which drives down conflict, which is inherently inefficient, and is so much more positive and rewarding. This is the most important thing I help companies with challenging cultures understand, and the transformation is amazing. People go from sitting in meetings with their arms crossed and a semi-scowl seemingly etched into their faces, to a looser more open posture and an open and friendly expression — everything shifts, people do better work, make less mistakes and start having fun.
- Listen loudly. I don’t just mean talk less, listen more (which is a great start). I mean listen for intent, for motivation — not to just what people say. Most of us are not great communicators. It’s up to leaders to be great listeners to understand not just the words but the motivation, so that we can respond fully and well. The CEO of one of the boards I’m on called late last week, clearly flustered and agitated. His staff had been working on a huge project that involves the Chair of a larger organization this CEO works with — and the Chair had just thrown a big wrench into the CEO’s staff’s plans, and done so by proxy through a relatively new senior person who had turned super aggressive in the process, and with whom the CEO’s organization will need to work with for the foreseeable future. Kerfuffle doesn’t capture the drama this had created. I helped the CEO peel the onion on why senior person may have turned so aggro, and once we figured out where that could be coming from and assumed that everyone had good intentions, he was able to approach the Chair in an open and rational way and get the result his staff needed.
- You shouldn’t be the smartest person in the room. Ever. Your job is to provide leadership — vision, support, decision making and encouragement — to the people around you — not to be the best at everything, which is an impossibility. You will be most effective if you have smarter people than you, expert in their fields, around you. period.
- Don’t do other people’s work. We are all tempted to say, “It’ll just be faster if I do it myself.” That’s not your job. Your job is to be the most valuable you can be as much of the time as possible — and unless it’s an emergency, that is seldom by doing other people’s work. Learning is in the process not in the outcome and no one can achieve mastery without doing. Be a coach not a micromanager. And yes, that means that sometimes I sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut when I see something I know I could just get done.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. :-)
We all matter equally. Every one of us has gifts that can make the world a better place. And when people are confident that they matter and spread that confidence, and use their power for good, great things happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Define Your Own Success. Define your own success and then focus on that instead of anyone else’s version. For me the epiphany came after 9/11 when I was in a job I really detested but making lots of money by doing the things other people wanted me to do to achieve their definition of success. 9/11 put it all in perspective for me — I had flown from Newark to San Francisco one week earlier — I could have been on that plane. And I imagined being on that plane regretting my choice to stay in the job I was in. So I quit on 9/13 and left the company on 10/31 not knowing what I was going to do, but knowing that I was going to define my own success and work towards that from then on. And that’s what I do every day.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Facebook @LeeCaraher1, Twitter at @LeeCaraher and Instagram @leecaraher, my blog is at www.leecaraher.com. You can also read my books Millennials & Management: The Essential Guide to Making it Work at Work and The Boomerang Principle: Inspire Lifetime Loyalty From Your Employees.