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.