Welcome to another Going. Ahead. With Gage interview! I had the privilege of interviewing Gary Grates, principal at W2O Group overseeing the Corporate and Strategy offering across our network, who shared insights on being a leader and the key characteristics for being successful in today’s changing environment.

I hope you all gain some valuable insights and enjoy the read!

What are you doing to ensure that W2O Group is at the cutting edge?

I think the biggest thing that I or anyone can do, is to make sure we are differentiated and innovative in how we approach and solve opportunities and challenges.   The key is to constantly question what we are doing in the context of what clients need. Every single day in every single situation we should question whether or not we are truly solving anything – are our models helping our clients see the world in a way they didn’t before, helping them build influence, conveying their story more clearly, helping employees have a stronger line of sight between their job and the market place, and pushing clients to shift mindset and behaviors in order to succeed.  You need to wake up every day and question if these things are happening.  The key question we ask:  “What am I chasing?”

The exciting part of what we do is that we are building business, attracting iconic brands, engaging in challenging assignments and creating a strong position in the market place. In order for us to maintain the momentum we must ensure that our work exceeds expectations.  And to do that, we must comprehend how we got here by looking around and saying that’s not good enough, so we stay here by continuously saying: “that’s not good enough.”

Gary Grates2

How do you notice when it’s working?

It’s actually pretty straightforward.  First and foremost, it begins with establishing a relationship with client based on being a “partner”.  It’s making sure that we are as smart about the situation as possible by understanding the clients business completely, including their strategy, vulnerabilities, and prospects.  This begins with our team which must be a student of business, but also a student of life, and by that I mean that we have to understand human interaction and technology with how we relate to each other.

For example, when I was at General Motors, Cadillac achieved a rebirth after years of languishing.  To begin that process, the CMO stated that the only business goal that year was to get people to “say Cadillac again” when discussing luxury cars.

Why? Because people hadn’t talked about it in 25 years.  To do that, PR, communications and marketing worked together to achieve “brand harmony.”

On a tactical level, the company commissioned the Led Zeppelin song (“Rock and Roll” as in “it’s been  a long time since I rock and rolled…”), to be the anthem for the Cadillac renaissance.  The song, ads and newly designed portfolio all clicked raising the brand’s profile and persona for a new generation of buyer.

The take-away is that the company did not make selling 100,000 Cadillacs that year the goal.  It completely understood that before people bought again they first needed to believe!  Believe in Cadillac as a concept, as a brand, as a lifestyle.

From this example, I realized that as a communications partner our opportunity is to drive relevance for a brand, organization, product or service.  To move people into believing.

The real test is working every day and listening to what works and what doesn’t.  If not, it’s what Jim always says, “Fail Fast” and move on.

In a few words, describe the work your team is involved with?

Everything we work on is essentially around reputation.  How an organization is perceived from an employee, customer, influencer, investor, etc., perspective. .

At its core, reputation is about trust.

From a practical standpoint, we engage in a number of assignments including M&A integration/assimilation; Change Management; Internal Communications; Executive Positioning; Labor-Management Relations; Strategy Dissemination;  Crisis and Issue Management; Corporate Reputation.

Thinking of your most successful current employees, what characteristics do they share?

Number 1: Curiosity is the single most important characteristic for success in any field.  Curiosity means an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

In my own experience, I came to W2O Group to get scared again.  To be challenged.  To seek out new methods and models.  It’s what keeps you motivated and confident.

It’s what makes you invaluable to clients and staff.Be Curious

One of the things I also get involved with is teaching at Syracuse University (the alma mater to Jim, Jenn G, and a host of other firm staff) and as such, what I look for in students is the curiosity quotient. Are they digging deeper?  What are they asking to get smarter?

Number 2:  The other essential characteristic is one’s ability to articulate a Point-of-View including writing, speaking, debating, etc.  You have to be able to articulate, make an argument, stress a point, and tell a story. If not, you can’t succeed.

How do you empower your employees to do their best possible work?

Two things:  Trust and Support.

Trust their judgment, knowledge, intent, etc. to do the right things.

Support them whenever and wherever necessary.

What’s truly valued by a client is perspective and experience.  Ensuring that you capture instinct, with perspective and experience through trust and support is important.

How do you encourage creative/innovative thinking within your organization?

The only things you can do are to encourage it, model it and reinforce it.

This starts with collaboration on the team. We share and engage each other on what people are doing on accounts, and we write numerous articles and blog posts on various topics reflecting our work.   We basically translate real time learnings and lessons into thought leadership as a seamless way of learning, growing, and developing.

Encouragement also means bringing in new thinking and identifying opportunities   for new people within the firm.  For example, Jackie Stahl worked on a change management assignment for GSK in Belgium this year and brought new insights and thinking to the table.  From there, she shared the experience conducting a Break to Educate session and corresponding blog post.

Doing so has motivated others to leverage experiences with colleagues and get involved in different types of work.

What is the most difficult leadership decision you’ve had to make in the recent past?

Probably the most difficult decision was to advise a client that a prospective strategy they were about to embark on was not going to work.  This was after much time and effort by the company to develop the approach and plan and gain buy-in internally.

Fortunately, the client appreciated the candor and manner in which we argued against the decision and accepted our counsel.  The new strategy is being implemented as we speak and is already getting the results expected.

What did you learn from that experience?

To always go with your POV and to be honest in your arguments.  You won’t always win but you will garner your client’s respect.

You’ve got to be very honest with yourself and confident in your judgment.