Looking at Leadership Today: Amy Lyons, SHIFT President

amyIn honor of Presidents’ Day, we sat down with SHIFT’s President, Amy Lyons, to get her thoughts on leadership and management in public relations and beyond.

What are your main focuses as SHIFT’s President? How do your day-to-day responsibilities factor into this?

Internally, my primary focus is on fostering the culture through how we communicate to our employees, the programs and benefits we provide, the feedback we gather, and the initiatives we develop to make this a great place to work and grow.

Externally, I want to ensure that we remain nimble and forward-thinking enough to provide the services and counsel that our clients need in a rapidly evolving industry.

And I need to do this with an eye to the financial realities of running a business – particularly an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), to make sure we are acting in the best interest of SHIFT and our employees.

There are a growing number of women taking on leadership positions in marketing and PR, including here at SHIFT. Would you speak to this trend?

I don’t necessarily see it as a trend as much as a natural evolution. I have always found PR to be an industry that’s very supportive of women in management and leadership roles – I had a number of female role models when I started out, which certainly helped. I could see myself in a leadership role because there were examples around me to learn from and emulate.

That said, I recognize that the statistics are still disproportionate when you look at women in leadership positions across corporate America. As a leader, and a woman, I do feel a responsibility to make sure that we are creating a culture, internally and as an industry, where women see a compelling career path – one that supports a life outside of work as well, whatever that looks like for each person.

I am proud to be part of an Agency and industry that has women emerging in leadership roles – you look across SHIFT and our industry – and there are a number of great examples of women in leadership. I want to see that continue and I think we all have a responsibility to make that happen regardless of gender.

Leaders aren’t born overnight. Would you describe your management style and how it’s evolved?

Those who work with me have heard this before. I equate my management style to the duck analogy. The best leaders are like ducks, calm and confident at the surface, paddling like hell underneath. I wasn’t always that way. Early in my career, I probably paddled furiously at the surface a bit more than I should have, but confidence, composure and balance are important attributes for managers and leaders to demonstrate and that comes with time and experience.

Who has been your greatest mentor? How have they impacted you as a leader?

This might not be a popular answer, but I never really had one mentor who I relied on. I’ve always looked for inspiration and support from the people around me – over the course of my career it’s been managers, peers, junior staff, industry peers. You can find inspiration and support from many people at different points in your career if you are open to it. If you can find that in one person, great, but be open to the less obvious sources of mentorship around you.

What characteristics do you believe are most important in leaders?

I distinguish leadership and management this way: Leaders identify the path we should go down; managers figure out how to get down the path. So in the case of leadership, I think you need to possess:

  1. A strong intuition
  2. An ability to inspire people to see the potential in that intuition
  3. Commitment to a cause or direction – or as I like to call it, “no shiny object syndrome”
  4. Ability to delegate because it takes a team to realize a vision
  5. A sense of humor because things will go awry and you need to be able to find balance in the challenging moments

What do you see as the best ways to develop your leadership skills? Are there specific resources you would recommend for growing this skill set?

Practice, practice, practice. You don’t become a leader overnight. It takes time, mistakes, lessons learned. I also encourage folks to look outside their industry. Sometimes it’s the seemingly unrelated that creates a space that you can be inspired by. If you’re in PR, look at examples of leadership in non-profit, academia or business management. Or any other area you are passionate about.

SHIFT has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, opening a new Austin office in January and being named among America’s 10 fastest-growing agencies in 2014. How have you adapted with this growth?

  1. We’ve employed a “bullets before cannonballs” approach to exploring opportunities.
  2. We’ve had to be open to taking chances and weighing the benefits and risks of doing so – we’re also willing to make mistakes and own them.
  3. We’ve worked hard to stay true to our values and let them guide the decisions we make. An endeavor or investment might seem risky, but if it’s smart and ballsy, we’ll go for it. Making an unpopular choice might have consequences, but if it’s the honorable decision to make we do it.

What do you consider are the greatest challenges for leaders today, both in our industry and beyond?

Our industry has become much more complex. The rise of social media has infinitely expanded the forums for people to share opinions and engage with brands. Smartphone growth has leveled the playing field for anyone to create and self-publish content – not to mention the data fire-hose this creates. As an industry, responding to these developments has been challenging and I only expect the complexity to grow.

So the challenge for industry leaders today is how to position themselves to not only anticipate and respond to innovation, but also execute effectively against it.

This is where the connection of leadership and management is so vital. Leadership without strong management in place to execute will result in big ideas left unfulfilled. Management without strong leadership in place to “dream big” will result in tactical maneuvering without the foresight to explore new opportunities.

Really, I think this is a challenge for any industry looking to grow today.

What advice do you have for others who are just stepping into leadership positions?

  1. Don’t forget where you came from. You likely came up through the ranks and did the jobs of those you are now managing. Don’t get so focused on where you are now that you forget living the challenges of the people you are now managing.
  2. Listen more and talk less. You won’t have all the answers but you can make the right decision based on input and context from others.
  3. Surround yourself with people who challenge you and bring different voices and experiences to the table.
  4. Focus on removing obstacles that prevent those around you from achieving their goals. Then empower them and trust them to do their jobs.
  5. Be human. Admit mistakes, own your challenges and be genuine in your communications with your team.

Given your ability to balance your position here at SHIFT with being a wife and mother of two young kids, you’re already well on your way to superhero status. If you could have one actual superpower, though, what would it be? Why?

While it does take a lot of dexterity to pack a lunch, wipe a toddler’s nose and check email at the same time, it rarely leaves you feeling like a superhero!

Not sure if it qualifies as a superpower, but I’d love to have the Time Turner necklace from Harry Potter. Ask any working parent – the ability to bend time so you can be at multiple places at the same time would be amazing! I swear I’d use the power for good… and my own sanity!

Finally, with this being Presidents’ Day, which president do you find particularly influential? Why?

I won’t speak to influence on a global sale, but for me, Bill Clinton was influential. In college, I got the opportunity to work with his primary campaign in New Hampshire and it was an amazing experience. It introduced me to the world of politics, where I started my career, and gave me a crash course in influence and debate, public speaking, team dynamics, and the power of listening – all qualities of strong leadership and management.

Zach Burrus
Marketing Analyst

Keep in Touch

Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.

Ready to shift ahead?

Let's talk