How Getting Personal is Good Business: Story of Zeno

Zeno Group is an award-winning mid-size public relations firm that helps other organizations define their brand and who they are. Ironically, prior to 2009, Zeno was struggling with its own identity.

This identity crisis didn’t develop overnight. Zeno Group was first formed almost 15 years ago as part of the Daniel J Edelman family of companies. They were quickly pigeonholed as a “conflict shop”. In other words, if Edelman was “conflicted” on an issue or client, they would refer it to Zeno. Zeno had its ups and downs but, over time, it adopted a second-stringer mentality and couldn’t find a way out of Edelman’s shadow.

When Barby Siegel was named CEO of Zeno in 2009, she quickly noted the pervasive lack of self-confidence throughout the entire organization.  “I think some were a little bit resigned to what Zeno was,” recalls Barby, “not a major player, not sure they could compete against the big guys and get the big clients.” Barby was clear that Zeno had a good team of people in place and some big clients when she arrived. But the internal belief that they were a mediocre agency prevailed.

But how do you compete with a belief? First, it’s important to understand Barby. With her close-cropped dark hair, exuberant personality, and bright neon shoes, Barby exudes high-energy, confidence, and the belief that being a little bit different is okay. She doesn’t hesitate to state her opinion, and she’s made it a habit to not let mediocrity impede her pursuit of greatness.

In that spirit, she proceeded to openly challenge the beliefs of her leadership team.   She asked her team the simple question, “What is Zeno going to stand for?” She challenged her team to “address the status quo, both for ourselves and for our clients”.  She took note of the positive aspects of the Zeno culture – the kindness and the collaboration – and she added a dash of daring. “What we really added to the culture was a fearless spirit,” she says, one that would enable them “to disrupt the marketplace and have people really turn their heads and say, ‘Wow! What is Zeno doing?’”

But Barby was far from done. She also noticed a genuine kindness that was present with all members of the organization – she calls it humanity – and she decided to make it a more explicit part of the organization. But this required her to be fearless herself, and reveal a little bit of who she was, something many leaders are hesitant to do. “I take my role as CEO very seriously,” she says, “but I’m also a wife, working mother, I have two elderly parents, I’m a sister, I’m a daughter, and I never wanted anyone to look at me and say, ‘I don’t want to grow up to be her; I don’t want to turn into her.’”

So Barby brought to work aspects of her life that had nothing to do with Zeno. She told her team she was having lunch to celebrate her father’s 87th birthday ; since, she says, it “only happens once.”  She also acknowledges the big life events of Zeno employees, such as the birth of a child, and prominently promotes these events on the twitter feed that streams across the front page of the Zeno website.

Barby’s acknowledgement of her own humanity and the various facets of her life allowed her to be an example for the rest of the agency. “There are a lot of young women and men in the firm who are building their families, and I want them to feel like they could have a really exciting career, and they can have a personal life,” she says. While she’s quick to acknowledge that, “it’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty,” she’s relieved them of the pressure that many employees feel to define themselves through their job.

As Zeno employees began to adopt these values, a new Zeno culture began to form. The Zeno team began to win deals they never thought they could win, and these victories brought with them a newfound confidence that they could, in fact, compete with the industry’s heavy hitters. “We went for it with gusto in a way that we had never gone for it before,” she states with pride. With the wins came broader industry acknowledgement.

In 2010, Zeno won the Stevie Award for the best PR Campaign of the Year (Issues Management category). In 2011, Zeno won PR Week’s prestigious mid-size agency of the year, and won the same award again in 2012. With the success, a sense of identity has crystallized. “Ask anybody in the agency,” she challenges, “there’s no question that each person knows what kind of firm we are and what kind of work we can do.”

While Barby has been sure to celebrate each accomplishment and is satisfied with the internal identity Zeno Group has developed, she continues to look forward. Instead of spending energy on changing her own agency’s identity, she’s now free to focus on expanding into new markets, namely Asia. “I feel in order for (employees) to focus on the task on a given day, they need to see where we’re going, so they see that we’re always going to be an agency on the move.”

Barby Siegel successfully held a mirror up to Zeno, and challenged them to be better than what they saw in their reflection. Fundamentally, leaders like Barby have learned that everyone wants to be a part of something larger than themselves, that everyone wants to experience what it’s like to be on a winning team. Barby has provided the vehicle for this experience for Zeno employees and her story raises a larger question: how can we provide that same experience for others?

Joe Frontiera & Dan Leidl are the managing partners of Meno Consulting, and co-author a regular column in the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Dan and Joe are authors of the newly released, Team Turnarounds, (Jossey-Bass, July, 2012).

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