As a part of my interview series with leaders in healthcare, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert L. Dilenschneider. Robert has hired more than 3,000 successful professionals and advised thousands more. He is the founder of The Dilenschneider Group, a corporate strategic counseling and public relations firm based in New York City. Formerly president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, he is the author of the bestselling books The Critical First Years of Your Professional Life, Power and Influence, A Briefing for Leaders, On Power, and 50 Plus!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have worked in communications for over 45 years. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where my father worked in the newspaper industry, and I learned a lot about communications from him.
I graduated from Notre Dame and went to Ohio State for my master’s. One night, I left school and went home uncertain about my future. I decided to talk with my dad.
“Dad, what should I do?” I asked. “What’s my next step in life?”
He said, “You have three choices. I can get you a job downtown. You can go to Vietnam, or you can go to New York,” and he reached in his pocket and pulled out a ticket and gave it to me. It was a bus ticket to New York City Trailways bus.
I took the last option. I took the bus to New York City, got off at Port Authority, and met a man named Bill Dahl. Bill Dahl was the kind of person who wore black shirts and white ties, and he took me to Broadway. I quickly figured out that Broadway was not a place for me, so I got an interview at Ogilvy Mather. At Ogilvy, a man named Sam Fry offered me a job for $11,000 a year.
I said yes immediately. However, Fry said, “Before you take it, I want you to go over and meet people at Hill & Knowlton. They might be more like you.”
Who knows what that meant. However, I did as Fry suggested. I met with Hill & Knowlton, and they offered me a job for $10,000 a year. I went back to Fry and said: “I’m taking the Hill & Knowlton job.”
I ended up running Hill & Knowlton and expanded the firm nationally and globally. I had the chance to work with some of the very best and most prominent corporations in the country, some of the top entertainers and artists. It’s been quite an experience and an incredible run. And it’s allowed me to see leaders in action or in-action, to learn what actions leaders take that lead to the right decisions.
Thank you! This provides an excellent transition to your newest book, Decisions. What is your book about, and why did you write the book?
The book is about making decisions. We make decisions every day, and some of these decisions are incredibly critical to our life and the lives of those around us. The book features historical leaders who made very tough decisions—from Harry Truman on the atomic bomb to Caesar crossing the Rubicon, to Margaret Thatcher invading the Falkland Islands—and the book highlights what we can learn from them.
The book provides multiple frameworks for effective decision making. It will give us insights on how to make the decisions that will not only shape our future but the future and lives of those around us.
How did you choose the historical figures in your book?
I chose 23 men and women for the book. The way I decided who to include is by first asking myself, “who has made a decision that has a significant impact on life?”
Everyone makes decisions, and the decisions impact our organizations, our communities, and our families. The men and women chosen for the book have made decisions that have affected millions of people and shaped our history. For example, Abraham Lincoln changed the very nature of our country. Martin Luther changed the fabric of the Catholic Church and developed an entirely new branch of the Church.
Do you have a favorite pioneer?
The leader I like the most is Amadeo Pietro (A.P.) Giannini, who founded the Bank of Italy, which later became the Bank of America. Before Giannini, banks were reserved only for the wealthy and the affluent. Giannini is one of the first bankers to offer banking services to the middle class, creating opportunities for families, communities, and the country. He is credited as the inventor of the modern banking practices.
I like him because he went against the grains of “what was” and reached out to the average family. He gave us a chance to create homes, build wealth, and create opportunities.
When you read the chapter, you will see that he shares several pillars that grounded his decision. The first is to stick to your guns. The second is to be brave. Have the courage to stand behind your choice. If you think it’s the right decision, go for it.
He did just that. And many of us are better off because of him.
We all have personal heroes in our lives. Who are yours?
3 people have marked my life.
The first is Andy Chancellor. Andy is now gone, but before he passed, he studied Sanskrit and other forms of the Greek language and culture. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and he taught me how to be a decent writer. Every time I write a book or an article, it is a homage to Andy .
The second is my wife, Jan. She is my hero. She raised two boys, she tolerates me, and she has no hesitation to let me know when I am wrong. She is an accomplished painter and has sold art all over the world. I am always amazed by her.
The third is Dick Darrow. Dick was a former President of Hill & Knowlton. He understood public relations, was capable of doing everything from A to Z and moving things and making an impact. I learned so much from him.
What would you advise the next generation of leaders and decision-makers?
The first thing we should do is look within ourselves and ask, “do we want to have an impact? What kind of impact do we want?”
And then go out there and do it. Find out where you can have the most impact. Find out who you want to have an effect. Do you want to run the Girl Scouts? Run the Chicago Bears? To work in government?
The second thing is to have the ability to make 1 + 1 = 3. That’s the real payoff.
What is the funniest mistake you have ever made?
Mistakes happen all the time. One of the biggest mistakes I made was when I worked as an account executive with Sear’s Roebuck. I gave the Sear’s contact a $100 gift card for Christmas.
However, Sear’s has a policy where the account team cannot accept a gift of over $25. He returned the gift to me, and then he had to fire me. It was devastating.
However, it taught me that I better know everything I can possibly find about every client, every person that I ever meet so that it doesn’t happen again. And I’ve tried very very hard to do that.
Great! How can we keep in touch or buy your book?
You can find out more about www.decisionsthebook.com.