Dolly Parton once said, “If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are an excellent leader.” I believe no one embodies this better than Grace Leong, my fearless leader and CEO of Hunter Public Relations.
As someone who is constantly benefiting from Grace’s leadership, advice and savvy, I was inspired to interview her and share her wisdom. I met with her in our Madison Avenue office to hear about her journey, female mentors and, of course, Barbara Hunter.
Grace is the CEO of Hunter Public Relations and a founding employee. Hunter PR was founded by Barbara Hunter in 1989 with three employees — the first women to run a PR firm in the U.S. It has since grown to include over 100 employees, a sister agency and a portfolio of impressive clients.
Can you walk me through your career journey and how you got to the position you are in today?
The very beginning, of course, starts at The University of Delaware. I took one class in PR and loved it. I knew right away. I loved the whole aspect of writing, communicating with people, and presenting point of views that may not be popular. Anything I could do to do with PR, I was going to do it. I had four internships at that time. I really wanted to go into this field so I was powering myself.
When I graduated I won the Hal Kierce Award. Hal Kierce worked at a big New York City agency. He would always invite students up from the University of Delaware, even though he didn’t go there, to visit and tour the agency. When he died, his family knew he a special heart for Delaware, and they set up this award for the top PR graduating student. He worked at DAY, Ogilvy & Mather, of which Barbara Hunter was the chairwoman. Upon graduation, I wrote her a letter thanking her for the award.
In the summer, when I was just about to accept another job from a firm in Jersey, I got a call from Barbara Hunter. They had an opening on the Tabasco account. So I went in to interview, I was so nervous. I’ll never forget the day. I took the writing test, and I got the job. I was working with her on Tabasco for just about a year, when I received a call from her at home. She said she was leaving the firm and taking one client, Tabasco, and would I want to come work for her. I left and I had to tell my boss, and they said “Barbara Hunter has one account, she’ll never be successful. You have a great future here!” I said “Yeah, but I kind of feel like I have a great future with her. She knows everything, I read about her in my textbooks, and I’d really like to learn from her”.
So I left and we started the firm in her living room. She made us dress up every day. She said we were going to act like an agency. Very soon after that we got Kraft as a client because she knew a connection over there and then we moved into this space at 41 Madison, in a tiny little section in the middle. I worked alongside her on Tabasco and Kraft, and then we got other food clients, and kept building the practice.
Was your eye always set on being in a senior leadership position or was this something you realized you wanted as you continued in your career?
I never thought I’d run an agency, own an agency, and have teams and clients. I never really thought about that, it just continued to happen. At one point in my career, I was going to leave PR. I went back and got my MBA because I thought that I was tipping in my career. Kind of learned it, kind of bored with it, what else can I do? So I thought maybe I’ll go into brand management. I like the marketing side. And what my marketing MBA showed me is that marketing and PR combined is a powerful combination. So that was really helpful, and I’m really glad I did that. Not only did it teach me more about PR and how it fits in, but I also learned the business side. And now that I run the company having that knowledge is important.
What has it meant to you to have a strong female mentor like Barbara Hunter? Do you feel it is important for young women to have mentors and how do you suggest they find one?
I’ve had two really strong mentors in my life. My mother, was the first. She was a single mom; she worked every day of her life outside the home, raised four kids, had multiple jobs and was very well educated. She taught me all of that good love. She gave me my work ethic. But then came Barbara, and Barbara was the compliment. Barbara was a different side, she wasn’t my mother, but she was my work mother. She had the same sensibility that my mother did. She didn’t make it easy for me, but she did show me the way, primarily through her example. I would learn from watching her. I had the benefit of spending a ton of time with her, on pitches, on airplanes, on the bus. You hear it all the time, when you’re building a career, you want to look to people who you want to be, and I wanted to be her. I felt like she was not a phony, everything she got, she earned. She was just a hard, dedicated worker, and that is what I wanted to be.
You always want to have a circle you trust and have a group of people that inspire you to be your best. In that group can be somebody you don’t want to be like either. I think that is also helpful. It’s good to have that foil to remind you to stay away from the dark side. I still also count my college professor who opened up that book and said to me “PR is the practice of building trust and relationships”. I don’t think it’s just one person who inspires you because young women are called upon to be so many different things at so many different times in their lives. You’ll know when you met those people. You also might never meet them, you might just read about them and follow their story.
What are some of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?
I think the one that I always remember is “not everything is a crisis”. In my early days, everything was a crisis, but then someone said to me “when you’re all done and it’s the end of the journey, you’re only going to remember 5 crises. Everything else that happens, you’ll deal with it, you’ll recover.” Crises are death, divorce, tragedy. When someone comes in and its bad news, I’m like okay, we’ll deal with it. You just have to learn it’s part of the journey. Crises are put in front of you to make you better. So know that they are coming, be open to them, lean in to them, and get out. You learn more from your mistakes than your successes, that is the second piece. I want that written on my headstone.
What do you think is the best way for women to be assertive and lead without some of the negative connotations that can go along with that?
I think women have a specific challenge. Because of our gender, we are expected to act a certain way. Whether it’s a stereotype or not, we are expected to be nicer, friendlier, kinder and more nurturing [than men]. So when we can’t exhibit those qualities, we worry about people calling us the ‘b’ word or saying ‘she’s not nice’. We have to remind ourselves, it’s not about me, it’s about the message I need to convey and the responsibility I have as a leader to say things frankly and honestly. Being mean is different than being honest and frank. You have to learn to separate those two. So, when I have to have an honest conversation with somebody about a performance issue or bad news, I have to remove myself from it. I have to say just because I’m a woman delivering this news, that shouldn’t advise me to deliver it any way differently than the facts.
Julie Hochheiser Ilkovich is a career empowerment expert, as well as a digital content, marketing and social media specialist, and she is the host of NYWICI’s podcast Coffee Break w/ NYWICI. Julie honed her career expertise by developing a successful business: she is currently the co-founder, managing partner and president of editorial operations at Masthead Media Company and navigating the corporate ladder at Warner Bros. (as editorial director of Alloy Entertainment, creators of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries), Hearst (as site director for the Hearst Teen Network, which includes seventeen.com), and AOL (as editor and on-air personality at AOL RED, AOL’s teen channel). Julie’s career advice can be heard regularly on SiriusXM’s Wake Up! withTaylor and has been featured in outlets including USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Day, Crain's New York, TheStreet.com, Good Day New York and Great Day Washington. She is a graduate of the Boston University College of Communication and a proud recipient of a New York Women in Communications WiCi Award, which celebrates the career achievements of rising stars in communications. You can follower her daily career advice on Twitter @JulieinNYC.
Why she does what she does… “For me, everything I do is all about helping! I absolutely love helping people figure out their career paths. We all spend so much time at our jobs (probably more time than we do with our families!), so I want to empower everyone to feel like they can take control of their careers — and create something they are truly happy with. Hosting Coffee Break w/ NYWICI has been an incredible dream because we’re able to help many people with their careers through this powerful outlet. And through my day job I am given the opportunity to help freelancers make their dreams come true by supporting their careers and providing them with the tools and training they need to become their own business owners. And I also get to help my amazing clients and partners create engaging and exciting content that, well, helps their brands!”
Drawn to NYWICI… “Networking, networking, networking! I think networking (and not even necessarily what we think of as traditional networking but more like maintaining relationships) is the key to success in so many parts of our lives. NYWICI is just full of amazing, passionate women who want to connect, learn and help each other. I have made some of my greatest friends and most valuable job connections through this organization. And many of these connections have led to so many exciting career adventures!”
My favorite social media platform… “Instagram! I’m obsessed. (Although I am not always great at keeping up with posting my own pictures!) I just love following along with people’s adventures in such a visual way. I also love how it forces you to choose just one picture to post that really represents an experience, emotion, or thought. It really encourages creativity and I have so much fun consuming the content on there!”
Today’s biggest challenge in my field of communications… “While not unique to what I do, all fields of communications are just rapidly changing! It’s a lot of work to keep up and it requires making sure you’re constantly reading and researching; we just can’t sit back and let things happen! I have fun keeping up with the news and learning new things, but it’s all changing so much that an idea that feels like it will be your biggest project one day can be completely outdated the next! I think this is why organizations like NYWICI are so important. They keep us connected, updated, and in the loop.”
Off the clock, really… “I am excellent at completely unplugging and I love it! I do spend a lot of hours working, and I also really work hard at making sure I have time to focus on friends, family and myself. I spend my free time trying new restaurants (or trying to cook. I’m not very good, but I am learning), traveling near and far (I try to make it to Maryland frequently to visit my family and my husband and I also love to travel the world. We recently spent 10 days exploring Japan!, continuing my search for the best chocolate chip cookie in New York City, exercising (I am a SoulCycle addict) and binge watching my favorite TV shows when I have a nice chunk of time. I’m also a member of the New York Times Film Club, so you can often find me checking out the next big film hitting theaters.”
Did you know… “I’m extremely close with my two sisters and I make sure to connect with them every day.”
Day to relive… “My wedding day! The feeling of having everyone we love in the same room was just something I wish I could replicate every single day.”
Words to live by… “Communication is Key. These are words that really apply to every aspect of my life. I think the most important thing anyone can do is really focus on how people like to be communicated to and make sure you are communicating with them in that way. I have found this to be a key to success in both my personal and professional life. If your client does not respond to emails, maybe they prefer phone meetings? If your loved one never answers their phone, maybe they just prefer text messages? Miscommunication can often happen just because people are not really paying attention to how we each prefer to communicate, so I think that really paying attention to and respecting how people like to communicate/be communicated to can be the key to success in all areas of your life.”