Did you hear the one about the senior account executive?

A good communicator is not necessarily a good manager

A PR agency senior account executive dies and appears before St. Peter, who is astonished to see the AE’s good and bad deeds are in perfect balance. With no clear destination for the AE, St. Peter decides to let him choose for himself after a tour of both Heaven and Hell. Heaven proves to be serene and peaceful, but dull. Hell, on the other hand, is one big party, the best of Vegas and New Orleans rolled into one. The AE reports back to St. Peter that he has opted for Hell, and St. Peter dispatches him there. But upon arrival, the AE sees the Hell now is nothing more than tormented souls writing in fire and brimstone. The AE tracks down Satan and complains that Hell is not at all what he had seen on the tour the day before. “Well, of course,” Satan tells him. “Yesterday you were a prospect. Today you’re a client.”

A lot of PR agency clients will nod knowingly in agreement with this joke. When pitched, the agency sends its superstars, the senior-most people with long track records of great work. Once they have signed on the bottom line, though, they never see those superstars again, as younger, less experienced account managers and writers take over the client work.

This all-too-common scenario is in part the result of promoting the wrong people into leadership positions. This is by no means unique to the PR industry. Companies reward workers for great performance by promoting them. Eventually, the next promotion means managing a staff. Getting promoting into a supervisor or manager position means the employee is doing much less of the work the company so highly valued, if any at all. There also is no guarantee that employee has the makings of a good manager.

When I worked for Mattel in the mid-1980s, anybody promoted into a position that involved managing a staff had to go through a 13-week program called the Mattel Management Excellence Program, a sort of Mattel-specific mini-MBA. The course was started because the company recognized that a great toy designer wouldn’t automatically be a great manager, yet it was the kind of promotion that happened all the time.

In PR, promoting a great communicator into a management position means that great communicator won’t be doing much communication work. She or he will be managing teams, hiring, firing, and selling. Meanwhile so-so communicators who would make great managers are wasting away.

The consequences of this traditional approach to rewarding good work has consequences. The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations (working with executive search firm Heyman Associates) released survey results that found PR leader staffs rated their leaders a yawn-inspiring C+. They rated well when it came to ethics and work engagement, but didn’t do so well when it came to their staff’s job satisfaction, workplace trust, and culture.


Plank Center PR leader scores

The fact is, managing accounts doesn’t do much to build one’s leadership skills. It would behoove agencies (and internal staffs), clients, and individual communicators to devise a promotion track that keeps great communicators communicating while putting great leaders in leadership roles.

EDS—Ross Perot’s data systems company acquired in 1984 by GM and in 2008 by Hewlett-Packard—used to manage this problem exquisitely. For engineers who deserved promotion for doing great engineer work—but who weren’t suited to leadership—EDS established a “Fellows” program. A Fellow earned the pay of a manager and the title came to be coveted. But they got to keep doing engineering work unburdened by the demands of leading a team. There was even a blog written by EDS’ Fellows, one of the company’s most visible expressions of thought leadership.

If PR managed to develop something like the EDS Fellows, the amazing communicators at the pitch meetings could be the same ones working on the account, while well-qualified managers would bring a new dimension of leadership to their agencies or departments, building greater levels of trust and more creative, productive teams.

Then, maybe people would stop telling jokes like the one with which I opened this post.