“Too often, women undercut their own value by being overly apologetic. In brainstorms, I often hear them qualifying their own thoughts by starting with “This may not be a good idea but…” Why is it that women apologize for being late to a meeting, but when men arrive, they are more likely to say, “OK, the meeting can start now”? My advice to women is — know your value and lead with that, not an assumption that you are not living up to others’ expectations.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Barri Rafferty, President and Chief Executive Officer of Ketchum, one of the world’s leading communications consultancies. She was the first woman appointed to lead a top-five global public relations firm when she assumed the position in January of 2018. Barri is an advocate of women’s leadership, serving as a founding member of Omnicom Group’s Omniwomen board and having spoken on the topic of gender parity on global stages, including TEDxEast and the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. She also is chair of the national executive board of StepUp, an organization with the mission of empowering girls from under-resourced communities to become confident, college-bound and career-focused.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I grew up in Atlanta and was lucky enough to live in one of my favorite cities — New Orleans — for my undergrad years at Tulane. I got my start in communications at a small PR agency while getting my master’s degree at Boston University. After graduate school I moved to New York and experimented in the big agency world, on the corporate side and at a small beauty boutique firm. When I was considering starting a family, I realized that a big agency would provide more support, and thus my career at Ketchum began in our brand marketing practice. Since then, I have held numerous roles at the agency, leading accounts, practices, offices and regions, and on Jan. 1 I became the global CEO. It was never my personal goal to “break the glass ceiling,” but I was quite surprised — and humbled — by the thousands of well-wishes I received after becoming the first female to lead a top-five global PR agency.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s no secret that women have a lot of obstacles to overcome to get to the top of the career ladder. As just one example, the latest data from the World Economic Forum shows that it will take 217 years to close the salary gap. I personally experienced bias one of the first times I went to the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when countless people approached me asking “Whose wife are you?” This understandably frustrated me, as I attended the event as the leader of a successful business, not accompanying my spouse. It did, however, inspire me to do something. I started making small changes within my own company, some of which expanded to our entire holding company. In time, women’s issues became a true passion of mine. I have since given a TEDx talk about how my passion — which I call my life minor — has helped to make my life more fulfilling, and I now encourage others to consider declaring their own life minors.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” And at Ketchum, we have a lot of fun! What makes Ketchum different is our culture, which is known for embracing and fostering creativity. One of our trade publications recently named us Creative Agency of the Year in North America, and it’s the first time a large firm like Ketchum has ever won that designation. It makes me incredibly proud that my colleagues’ hard work has been recognized in this way ― they put their hearts and souls into what they do, and it shows in the amazing work we deliver for our clients.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We always have something new and exciting going on at Ketchum. I personally am focused on evolving our agency business model. I can’t share the details right now but I am excited about aligning the company to best serve our clients with borderless teams and boundless creativity.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Respect your people. Empower your people. Trust your people. And always, always have their back. My approach is to create a vision and then give others the freedom to bring their own approach and style to delivering on that vision. I often talk about bringing your whole self to the role. I see my job as bringing out the best in people that work for me, not having them conform to my way of doing things.
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?
I’m lucky to have two sisters who are amazingly successful in their own careers. We share in our success, commiserate on the tough days, and make time to laugh and celebrate life together. I also could not do what I do without my wonderful husband, who shares life daily with me and has always supported my career aspirations, and together we have two children who bring us joy as they create their own paths.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I mentioned earlier the experience that prompted me to find my passion for women’s issues and gender parity. That “life minor” has helped me to focus much of my energy on making a real difference in one area, but one that has the potential to impact really the whole world. As such, as I’ve really tried to align myself with causes that support the uplifting of women, the move toward real gender equality, and for diversity and inclusion as a whole. One organization that I’ve really fallen in love with is StepUp, which helps girls from under-resourced communities to fulfill their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound, career-focused, and ready to join the next generation of professional women. I first got involved several years ago after some of our Chicago employees introduced me to the organization, and I now serve as chair of its national board of directors.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Leave the apologies behind. Too often, women undercut their own value by being overly apologetic. In brainstorms, I often hear them qualifying their own thoughts by starting with “This may not be a good idea but…” Why is it that women apologize for being late to a meeting, but when men arrive, they are more likely to say, “OK, the meeting can start now”? My advice to women is — know your value and lead with that, not an assumption that you are not living up to others’ expectations.
Be true to who you are, be bold in your ideas and always act with resolve. I think men are appreciated for being bold, but when women act the same way, they are often criticized for being aggressive. This happened to me earlier in my career, and my response to my bosses was that they are benefitting from my aggressive approach to growing the business and by how motivated and transparent I was about my personal goals. So I recommend that women, or really any young leader, take a similarly firm stance and don’t let people intimidate you from being true to who you are and what you want.
It is better to be trusted than to be liked. My father was from Brooklyn and my mother was from Atlanta, and that combination has served me well. I was raised to have Southern etiquette and I think I come across as very nice, but I also can pull out the New York toughness when needed. As a leader, you have to be firm and determined in your resolve, but I always remember to have good manners and generosity of spirit. Our former chairman once said to me that I “throw a punch with a velvet glove,” which I think is the ultimate compliment. What that said to me is that, yes, I can be tough, but I do it in a way that leaves people still feeling respected and valued.
Take care of your whole self, not just your working self. Earlier in my career, I made the very difficult decision to leave my position as head of the Ketchum’s global brand marketing practice, a job I had coveted for a long time and worked hard to get. I had two young children, and the intense travel and frequent need to be in the office late at night for overseas conference calls wasn’t aligning with my personal needs. Even though Ketchum tried to scale the job and make it work for me, I ended up leaving New York to take a new role leading the Atlanta office. Many questioned my decision — they thought it was a step backwards, or at least sideways, that would affect my ability to move upward in the long term. In fact, I am so happy to have made that change. The decision to alter my career trajectory to make it work both for my personal life and my career also allowed me to broaden my skills — including learning to run a P&L on my own, which then catapulted me back to New York to run the New York headquarters when the time was right. This decision taught me about the importance of understanding your whole self and admitting what’s working and what’s not working. You only live once, so make sure you are enjoying it!
Finally, have more fun! Do what you love to do, and find opportunities to follow your passions in your career. And never leave vacation days on the table — you need energy to be generous with others, so make sure to take care of yourself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
One I have been leaning on lately is “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself,” from “The Wizard of Oz.” We all have power within us that we can draw from, and we are capable of building confidence in others to bring out their power. I sleep well if I can be my best self everyday.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I would love to drop in on dinner at the Benioff extended family occasions to see how their mom and dad raised two successful right- and left-brained children. I am fascinated by their success innovating in technology and entertainment and how they stand by their own personal values. Marc is a male leader driving gender equality and environmental causes. Both he and his sister are extremely articulate and use their success for good. I think better understanding the family dynamic and spending time with them would be exhilarating.
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.