In her book, “Roots and Wings: Ten Lessons of Motherhood that Helped Me Create and Run a Company,” Margery Kraus writes about the little sign in her house that reads: “The only lasting thing of value you give your children is roots and wings”—the roots being responsibilities and the wings the independence and accountability. That underlying philosophy has guided Kraus throughout her career as the founder and executive chairman of APCO Worldwide, a global advisory and advocacy communications consultancy with more than 800 employees based in more than 30 global markets.
And it guides her now, as she navigates her business through the COVID-19 crisis and toward a future that will undoubtedly look and feel different.
Strong business leadership, like good parenting, requires consistency, perseverance, outstanding listening skills and fearlessness—and understanding what you can and can’t control.
“My life has been about focusing hard on the things I can control,” Kraus shares on a phone call from her home in Virginia. “Navigating a company through this is not easy, but you can’t control how long this is going on. You need to balance your fears with what your clients need now and be flexible.”
Like most agencies during this crisis, APCO is adjusting to a constantly changing hierarchy of needs from clients. And it’s using this time period to innovate, for example creating an online crisis simulator for the virus and guiding clients on how create online conferences in their markets.
“There’s a limit right now to what any company can do,” says Kraus. “Organizations need to be careful not to overstate the value they’re contributing, or they’ll be seen as taking advantage of the situation.”
Clients that have hit pause on their campaigns have converted their work with APCO into more time-sensitive areas related to crisis—stakeholder engagement and scenario planning, for example. The firm has seen an increased interest in producing podcasts. And it was proactive in providing guidance to its U.S. clients on the stimulus bill before they even asked.
The first job of a CEO right now is to focus internally on the employee base, says Kraus. “Employees are wondering if they’ll have a company to come back to. You have to be a steady hand. You need to be honest without being dramatic. The CEO is best placed to do that.”
In addition to town hall meetings and virtual staff check-ins, APCO has been encouraging employees to join the firm’s various affinity groups, including one for parents. “Many of the people on our team with younger kids, this is the first time in their career they’re dealing with parenting and work at same time (in the same place). I think our employees appreciate that we pay attention to that and let them work at their own pace.”
For someone who has traveled for business 60% of the time, Kraus sees this period as “found time” at home with Steve, her husband of 53 years. “That is something very comforting for me to have.”
Kraus, who will be inducted into Ragan’s Top Women in Communications Hall of Fame later this year, anticipates that this crisis will shape how we work and will impact the entire geopolitical system and supply chain. “This crisis will expose what’s no longer relevant,” she says. “We knew the world was changing and we needed to be adaptable…it’s just happening faster” than we imagined.
Kraus describes herself as a “glass half full person.” In her book she talks about believing in the possible. “I hope I have been a role model to my children and to my staff in showing the way that things can be done—how they can be accomplished even though those things may have seemed impossible at the start.”
A prescient thought in these uncertain times.