Building Rock Star Teams

One of the most interesting things that I encounter in public relations is team building. Not the touchy-feely stuff that you go on goofy retreats for, the team camaraderie building stuff, but on how you build a great team. While I get more and more resumes – and think about moving beyond freelancers to hiring people – it makes me wonder how someone puts together a great team.

I always look at the first two teams I was on, and try to replicate those in any situation I am in. While I realize that might be impossible, there are certain things that made those two teams great, that it would be stupid to not try to replicate those. And, it makes me wonder what the people saw in me that made me part of those teams.

Well, actually, a good friend put in into perspective. Before I founded POP! Public Relations, I was out on the interview circuit. I was flying myself out to New York and sometimes San Francisco to interview with firms. Since we were in the economic doldrums, I wouldn’t fly out unless I had interviews set-up, but I was always able to set-up at least 3 interviews a day, a testament to my pugnacity and my portfolio/resume.

But, as my friend pointed out – I’m a so-so interviewee, the exact opposite of him. He’s the ultimate interview, the perfect combination of suck-up and professionalism. But, he notes that when I do get into the job, I am the ultimate employee who works hard, and works for the team doing whatever it takes to get the project / work done, while he is the middling employee that does just what it takes, only takes on projects that will further his career and sloughs off projects that he does not see long term value (for himself).

So, from my experiences as entry-level, I worked with some great people (nicknames only, which some still hate): Tony the Tiger, Skippy, Super Punk Ass, Genius Boy Wonder. Tony the Tiger was the one that hired me, and saw something when I was an intern in Mountain View, where I worked with a great group of people, most who went on to found Voce Communications as well as one of the greatest legends in PR, Fred Hoar.

Tony the Tiger ran the team, but treated the team as if he were the client. It was a great learning experience, and the one thing that I will always love/hate Tony the Tiger for was that he was the penultimate boss that spoiled me for jobs thereafter; he took the blame for any mistakes we made, and pass the credit down for the great work we did. Let me reiterate that: when we done good, he made sure the client knew it was US. When we screwed up, he protected us from the client (as he noted to me one day, you’re junior level and don’t need to deal with being yelled at yet). That's a rarity and the sign of a good boss.

SPA was my senior level mentor, the AS whom I reported to – remember, the VP was the client. The AS was, and still is, someone I could bounce ideas off of, ping for feedback on pitches and press releases, go into the office if I was having a problem and work it out. The epitome of the type of supervisor you want, as pulling no punches and let you know where you stood with her and the account. It was a put up or shut-up type of work, where you either succeeded and were rewarded, or failed and asked off the account – the way PR really is.

Skippy was the head intern, as he called himself, but was the lead on the full account. Based in NY, he was and is the smoothest PR person I have worked with, and has great stories that made me cry with laughter. He’s just a great story teller, which is what is needed in PR. It’s amazing the inability to pitch a story, to tell the full story that is the basic tenet of PR. And, let’s not forget the inability to write, that I hear from every PR executive and reporters. Skippy was just great, though. He knew how to work the team, knew how to work with the client, and helped deliver great results with the budget at hand.

One of the things about public relations is – as noted by Edelman’s Pam Talbot in her PR Face2Face interview – is that it is a meritocracy. If you work hard, you likely will do well. Public relations is very results oriented, but there are exceptions – we can all name a 6 year dotcom PR Vice President, or a 4 year dotcom PR account directors, or even more senior level people who are merely senior in title, but junior in experience. These people weren’t promoted due to meritocracy, but were promoted due to fill basic need of a senior title or due to the non-stop title inflation of the dotcom era that still exists (along with the entitlement mentality, unfortunately). Or, just the special PR people that are favorites of VPs and GMs that get cushy assignments, but are less than rock star quality. Unfortunately, that IS part of working well, working hard. Working hard is not just about client work, but smart and good office politicking.

How do you empower everyone to perfect their work, so they can train junior staff and move up the chain of command? How do you prepare people to grow, helping clients and demonstrate to all constituents that the work done is to facilitate growth? How, in a catchphrase, do you build a team of rock stars? I have my ideas, but wanted to hit up other PR professionals and get their view points – below you will read those persons’ views.

Rock star teams, like the Warriors, take down anything in their way to get it right.... Posted by Hello

It pretty much boils down to two things...chemistry and leadership. Chemistry will ensure the effectiveness of the team leader in not only managing the team, but creating a comfortable atmosphere. Everyone on the team needs to have the same goals and ethics, both moral and work, for both the company they work at and/or the client they work for. The team leader is in charge of creating this environment. He/she is in charge of both emotional and physical well-being, being both encouraging for good work or frustrating situations, but also knowing where to draw the line and making sure everyone is focused on the short and long-term goals. You can have the best PR people in the world on your team, but if there's no leadership, that will lead to poor chemistry among team members, and you cannot and will not be effective.

-Joey Lee, Director, Corporate Communications, Optoma Technology

Great people make a great company and we believe in hiring the best. Bite has a thorough interview process where candidates are interviewed by a variety of employees at different levels so that the candidate gets a deep understanding of the actual position and where it fits into the organization. We have maintained very high standards in our interview process and make hiring decisions on a consensus basis to ensure that the interview team believes the candidate would be a good fit for the company and the culture. Once hired the senior management team manages the team resourcing process and ensures that each account team is staffed appropriately for the client's needs. Bite also ensures that the team members' expertise and experience is relevant to the clients' industry and product. For specific client projects we also have invited the whole company to participate and contribute in creative brainstorming sessions. This has proven to be successful, since recently our "wacky IT guy" was quoted by the Wall Street Journal for coming up with a creative media campaign idea for one of our clients.

-Burghardt Tenderich, GM and Marisa Ramans, HR Director and the brain behind Bite's recruiting success, Bite Communications

Sometimes the difficulty in building "rock star teams" comes not finding great talent, but in avoiding ending up with four lead singers and a trombone player. Regardless of talent, the output won't sound right. And, the best PR people sometimes seem to be the ones who have Axl Rose tendencies. Relatively few do the quiet, but studiously reflective Bill Wyman-thing well. Therefore, instead of making rash hiring decisions the minute you land a big account or find yourself on the rebound from a departure (and perhaps 75 percent of PR hires are done this way according to my unscientific, but experienced guess), management needs to refer to any already established profile of an effective team that perhaps includes a wildly creative-type, a bottom-line focused person, a team-builder, and a charismatic leader.

Those who complement each other, play well together. That is, unless they have too many Sunset-Strip-Brazillian-models-in-the-hot-tub- and-haymaker-punches-at-the-wind parties resulting in stomach-pumpings and missed recording deadlines. Wait. Were we talking about PR?

- Sean Garrett, Partner, 463 Communications

The team doesn't matter as much as the strategy and project-management processes. Rock-star teams grow out of a shared sense of mission (What's the client's business goal? How does that translate into our strategy? How do we turn that strategy into a series of objectives and executable steps?), as well as a clear set of "house rules" for getting the job done (How do we track success? How do we handle intra-team and team-client communications? What's the process for resolving uncertainty or disputes?).

The world is full of C students; management's challenge isn't just to cherry-pick the best people for our teams, but to provide a framework that gets the best from everyone whether they’re a born rock star or not.

- Greg Brooks, Principal, West Third Group

To have the best teams you have to scout for talent constantly. I interviewed someone I first met on a ski lift last week, and recruited another consultant who I met at a show. It's often best to look beyond the industry to get a more rounded team of people with a variety of backgrounds. But strong teams aren't just about selection, they also need consistency, so each member learns about the others' capabilities and builds an innate level of trust. The coordination needs to become second-nature. Really good teams are familiar with each other, surpassing the professional to become personal friends. That's why the best teams are the ones found in the agencies with consistent growth and the best staff retention rates. Building 'rock star' teams is as much about retention as it is selection.

- Morgan McLintic, Vice President, Lewis Public Relations

I had also reached out to other PR people, but some passed due to lack of time and others I am still waiting on. But, this has been on my mind for awhile, and I wanted to post it finally.

But, to me this is a living post – if you have your own views and ideas about team building, please add them to the comments. It will be interesting to see the different views out there.

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1 comment
  1. Jeremy:

    Great idea for a topic ... and one that has a great deal of personal meaning for me, as I've spent much of my career building teams.

    Here are two points not previously mentioned -- and both learned the hard way.

    1) If you want your team to be successful, you have to make sure that you operate each day -- and in every way -- as a team. You cannot have a culture or recognition program or compensation structure that rewards prima donnas ... if you do, your team players will leave.

    I always told new employees from day one that we valued teamwork over individual success, and that any attempt to backstab, criticize or circumvent the team would be looked down on.

    Then, we tried hard to create an environment where people felt involved, empowered and free to act on behalf of clients and the agency.

    2) You have to be willing to sever ties with employees who don't fit your culture and your team. This was the toughest lesson I learned ... I always gave people too many second chances. But a person who isn't working out can kill a team faster than you can say "bad attitude." Make the decision, stay strong, and find an upgrade in talent.

    Finally, to build a great team, a leader needs to listen, communicate, be visible, be accessible, answer the tough questions and stand up for his/her staff whenever challenged. PR people are experts at recognizing spin and BS. You've gotta be real or you've lost 'em.


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