Play the PR long game – be loyal!

I recently caught up with Matt Neale, President, International at Golin to discuss how, in his career, loyalty to his employer has paid off.

Matt started at Golin’s sister agency, Weber Shandwick, in 1997 and moved to Golin in 2005. So he’s had the same PR employer for 17 years – an eternity in this business.

This length of employment got me thinking – when I look around the best jobs in PR, very often – not always – the people at the top have been at their agency or part of their in house team for a long time. But most people in PR move around every two to three years.

I talked to Matt about why loyalty gets its rewards, his personal experience about why he stayed and also what, as a PR employer, he looks for in new recruits.

Ben Smith: What is it that has made you stay at Golin for a long period of time?

Matt Neale: I’ve always had very transparent bosses who said if you do this, this is what you’re next job could look like. I try and do that with my people as well, as opposed to having a game of poker where you never know where you stand.

BS: As an employer, what is it that you like about a long term employee?

MN: Not just talking about me, but anyone who has managed it, I think it’s the ultimate test of success, proven success. It shows that you are repeatedly trusted by the people you work with – your clients, the management team and your bosses – year after year.

As an employer, in that circumstance you get such a good look at that person and when you see someone moving around every two to three years, I automatically think – have they got the job done? Because it’s so easy to move, it’s such a transient business we’re in.

When we see a CV of 5 years plus it goes straight to the top of the pile. I saw a candidate the other day with 8 years in the same place – and I said I want to see this guy tomorrow.

This (the trend of moving jobs every two/three years) is true particularly at the junior end of the scale but maybe that’s to do with the generational thing – to do with Generation Y. How can we persuade this group of people that the grass isn’t always greener?

BS: Why do they leave – is it money?

MN: Yes I think it is but we can all, given 6 months, find someone who will pay us more money. So if you can park that it becomes a more interesting question. Because everyone can leave for more money. But actually 70% of people don’t.

BS: It’s such an individual thing isn’t it? One element of the generation Y mind-set might be that they are buying houses later and having children later. The game changes once you have children and get a mortgage. Up to that point there is so much less risk – once those two things happen – if you move you’ve got to be very confident it’s going to work out. If you don’t have a mortgage and you don’t have kids, in that immediate moment it is not such a risk?

MN: Yes, you’re right in the short term you have nothing to lose. The issue is the long term effect on your career.

BS: But just coming back to my question, why have you stayed at Golin for so long?

MN: A big part is the leadership of the agency. This kind of thing gets set from the top town – you can’t pay yourself out of the loyalty challenge.

BS: Agreed, you might get another 6 months?

MN: Right, if the underlying issues are unresolved loyalty is not affected by more money, other than in the short term. From a positive perspective, if the reasons to be loyal are not money related they are far more likely to work.

That’s at the heart of why I stayed. We’re over 60 years old and we’re on our third CEO. That behaviour trickles down through the organisation. My deputy knows she will run the agency one day. She knows that because, one she’s earned it but she has an absolutely clear career path.

BS: Good point, but can you do that for everyone, or just your top people, maybe your best people?

MN: You need to start with the premise that you employ people who are better than you are. If you employ people because they are easy to manage, they might go – because they don’t have a north star to guide their career. 

For your people to step into your job it should be a matter of pride – you shouldn’t hold on and on, making someone’s career path so opaque that they don’t know where they stand.

BS: Yes, but that relies on you being good enough to get out of the way?

MN: Yes, absolutely. And in order for that to happen your organisation must be successful so that there is growth. With growth everything is possible. Either agency side or as an in house department. But the main thing is transparency, showing how exceptional people can progress their careers.

BS: So loyalty is a two way gig?

MN: Yes but loyalty can’t be forced. It can’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process. It requires empathy. You’re basically saying that I have a shared understanding that you did a good job or that you had a tough time and I empathise with you. It’s about trusting and respecting the person you work with.

BS: Just turning this around, why have most (by no means all) of people who have the top jobs in PR been promoted internally, rather than externally?

MN: It shouldn’t be automatic. There’s a competitive agency to us who has parachuted a person into the top job. That’s bold. It will have an effect on other senior players who work there. It’s a big risk. I think publically owned businesses are more likely to be meritocracies, because of the process they have to go through when they recruit. I think you see more stable transitions in publically owned businesses.

BS: I think it does come down to growth doesn’t it? If your struggling and need a turnaround job you are more likely to look at an external candidate, if the business is growing and your management team is working, you promote the best one to head the business up. So there are business circumstances that influence that decision. 

MN: Yes I think that’s right. But it ties into my point about long term transparency of your career – if your staff buy into that, very often when the vacancy becomes available, or there is a change to be made, the decision is clear. That long term planning benefits everyone.

BS: What would you say to someone who is early in their career and who is thinking of changing jobs?

MN: So often in your career it’s better to stick, train and build rather than cut and run. The reason is that there are so few CV’s out there where someone has a track record of being given more and more responsibility. That’s worth more than any pay rise and it will pay off for you in the long run.

Maybe short term you might be giving up a very small rise to go somewhere else.

You need to be paid what your worth, that’s a given, but earning the most you possibly can probably isn’t going to make you happy.

BS: As an employer, do you think the best agencies pay the most?

MN: How are you defining best?

BS: How can you define best, it’s a matter of opinion isn’t it? But the agencies that do the best work, have the best clients…

MN: Well we’ve won a number of agency of the year awards and a best agency to work for award and we pay in the top quartile relative to other PR firms. And if we want someone we’ll pay what it takes.

BS: OK, so actually probably yes.

MN: I think so. And it’s definitely true in America.

BS: That’s interesting, sometimes you see a business that makes a big hire in an effort to turn things around and they throw money at it. Sometimes it works, very often it doesn’t. So I’m wary of the approach that we’re going to pay you “top dollar” which, from a candidate’s perspective, six months down the line can get messy if you haven’t done what the company wanted you to do.

MN: Exactly, so it’s about creating that shared exciting picture of what success looks like and how everyone in the company from the MD, to the directors, to the latest interns can play their part in that. You can throw all the money that you want at it but creating that shared objective that everyone can get behind is far more likely to engender loyalty than giving a bonus.

Once you’ve had your pay rise, or you’ve got your bonus, if your boss is still a wanker, or the company has no direction, you are still going to leave. The easy thing is to write a cheque, the difficult thing is to build a shared exciting plan for the company and for your career.

BS: What about the soft stuff – cereal in the morning, massages, leave early Fridays? Do they have any impact on loyalty?

MN:  I think they have kind of become a cost on business in our sector. It’s difficult to know how much they work or whether people just expect them. I think these things are important but not as important as bigger stuff. People are grown-ups, they want to know they are part of a successful organisation that has a clear strategy and they want to know what role they will play in that strategy growth, but also see how they will benefit in their career. So I think learning, development and the opportunity to do more are more important than a free breakfast.

BS: What about pensions? Does that come up much? Do PR people take pensions seriously?

MN: I don’t think they take it seriously enough. We’ve had company pension schemes for well before it was a legal right and I was surprised when people didn’t take advantage of the matched funding, because it is essentially free money for them that they are leaving on the table.

BS: I’m always amazed at that. It’s not like you’re going to miss the 3% at the end of the month or whatever the match funding might be. I guess that’s a young person’s outlook.

MN: It’s another example of people taking a short termism approach to their careers.

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