Margery Kraus: “As a leader, every action you take is amplified”

I wish someone told me how difficult it is to raise money as a woman, even with a successful business. When I first tried to move forward on my management buyout, the investment banker involved was so condescending that aside from the negative remarks he made, he never took my interest or bid seriously. He […]

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I wish someone told me how difficult it is to raise money as a woman, even with a successful business. When I first tried to move forward on my management buyout, the investment banker involved was so condescending that aside from the negative remarks he made, he never took my interest or bid seriously. He also didn’t bother to read my contract — figuring I wasn’t that important to his work, instead of trying to be helpful. In the end the bank got fired when I stopped the deal they put forward because I had blocking rights in my contract, a fact he would have known if he took me seriously. That was a decade ago but I was reminded of the unpleasant experience when I went out to raise new capital and recapitalize my company just a couple of years ago, when only one of the dozen bankers that showed up had a women on the team. And just six months ago, exploring banking relationships, one of the big banks that has just made a big deal out of supporting women owned businesses, asked me for a personal guarantee on a loan for the business, requiring my husband’s pledge as well — even after 35 years of successful operation and never missing a payment.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Margery Kraus. Margery is the founder and executive chairman of APCO Worldwide, a global consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., specializes in public affairs, communication and business consulting for major multinationals. Ms. Kraus founded APCO in 1984 and transformed it from a company with one small Washington office to a multinational consulting firm in major cities throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In September 2004, Ms. Kraus led a management buyout of her firm, making APCO one of the largest privately owned communication and public affairs firms in the world. Throughout the years, her approach has been to fuse the best local experience with a global perspective, resulting in an international agency with a unique culture based on seamless teamwork. Ms. Kraus specializes in providing strategic counsel on issue-based communication, crisis management, market entry and corporate reputation across diverse industry groups. Prior to starting APCO, Ms. Kraus assisted in the creation and development of the Close Up Foundation, a multi-million-dollar educational foundation sponsored in part by the United States Congress. Ms. Kraus continues to be involved with the foundation by serving on its board of directors. Ms. Kraus is active on other institutional and corporate boards and committees. She is chairman of the board of the Women Presidents’ Organization; serves on the international advisory board of Tikehau Capital, the social responsibility advisory board of Univision Communications Corporate, and the advisory board of Enterprising Women magazine; is a trustee of the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, the Institute for Public Relations and American University; and sits on the advisory board of the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. In addition, she is a past chairman of the Public Affairs Council and the board of directors of the PR Council. She also served as a trustee for Northwestern Mutual for more than a decade. Ms. Kraus is the author of numerous articles in the fields of public affairs management and corporate reputation and has been a guest lecturer throughout the world. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in political science and public law from the American University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up Franklin, New Jersey — a small mining town of 3,000 people — where my family had a general store. From the time we could remember, we all worked at the general store — which was open 12 hours a day, six days week — and did our part to help our parents. My mother worked in the store as well, leaving when she can to go home to cook dinner, make sure we did our homework and take care of the house. I never really thought of her as a working mother, although in retrospect, she really had to balance a lot of things.

I decided to go to college early, leaving high school after my junior year to enroll at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. My first job out of college was as a high school civics teacher. My time in the classroom made me believe, more than ever, in the importance of personal experience in shaping education and self-esteem, which led me down the path to my role in the formation of the Close Up Foundation, which put me — a girl from a small mining town in New Jersey — in front of some of the most important leaders of this country and also introduced me to the law firm Arnold & Porter (A&P). After a group of A&P partners got to know me and see what I had done with the Close Up Foundation, they were convinced that it was time to start an affiliate of the law firm and that I should run it!

After months of turning down the offer, I decided to try and test my ability to convert the skills I had developed at Close Up into something new and different. Here I was, often the only woman in the room, with these highly-educated, high-powered men, and I was the daughter of immigrants. In the middle of the ensuing self-questioning, I was helping my then-sixteen-year-old son with his homework and came across a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that served a guidepost for the next 34 years: “no one can make you feel inferior without your own consent.” That was the last day of my self-doubt; I came to work the next day and never looked back. The next big career milestone for me was the breakaway from A&P and the birth of my independent company, APCO Worldwide.

What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

An executive must an effective problem-solver, and this requires a naturally optimistic disposition. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” a saying they say that originates from 1640, is not an archaic phrase to me; it is a way of life and, wherever possible, a business and life promise. I believe this stubborn persistence to pursue my dreams has demonstrated to my family and colleagues at work that I embrace this in a way that has inspired them to persist in achieving their own goals, personally and professionally.

I am a glass-half-full person. That is just who I am. I always believe that something can be accomplished, even if it takes all night to do it. I believe in the possible, and I always will. In starting my own company, I wanted to become 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.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Unlike other leaders, a CEO or an executive must not only establish and accomplish a set of goals, but also shape the company’s visions and values, inspire staff, build the company’s brand, secure new business, and meet clients’ expectations and needs, among other responsibilities. The CEO really stands for the “Chief Everything Officer!” It is the executive’s responsibility to ensure that the company is stable internally and externally. I have always felt that there are three legs to a stable organization — happy clients, fulfilled staff and profitable company — and it is up to the company’s top executive to ensure that these legs are balanced and in good shape.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I love the joy of watching people grow in their jobs. I try very hard to give our staff durable roots by establishing our culture with a strong set of values, clear goals, and an inspiring mission. And as leaders, I realize that we are watched for cues and we have to be authentic and walk the talk so employees believe that we exemplify the values every day. We need to demonstrate that we are committed to our goals and mission. Our employees understand that with the flexibility comes responsibility; they have to get the job done.

The rest is up to our employees. We offer a culture that promotes continual learning and curiosity with plenty of opportunities to grow and develop and “grow their wings”. There is nothing as rewarding as watching them take flight in their jobs and their profession.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

One downside of being an executive is the nonstop demand for my time and attention, that can make me feel rushed, and try to stay fully in the present. My day to day is very hectic and no two days are ever the same! I spend time helping to build my company’s brand, work closely with key clients, secure new business and work with the management team to advance our performance and generally to provide a strategic direction for the future. This requires being on the road quite a bit and I travel often to fulfill these responsibilities. As a result, people ask me how I handle jet lag and adjust to time zones. It’s simple: I’ve learned to live in my own time zone. In client services, you eat and sleep when you can, and get done what needs to be done. That’s why work-life integration is so important: it keeps everything fluid and flexible across the board.

Another downside of being an executive is how difficult it is to convince people to take certain business risks with you. Starting a business is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it can be very lonely.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

It’s not true that CEOs or executives just care about the bottom line. My own activism to make a difference made me want to instill that value in my company. I have always tried to emphasize purpose beyond profits. This philosophy drives us as a company. While being profitable is essential to rewarding staff, creating a sustainable business, and recompensing shareholders, a business also needs a soul. The “why” of being in business needs to also be about significance and making a difference. It’s about adding value to your clients beyond the obvious, and it’s also about giving back in various ways as you can. This is not just about money, which for many small or medium-size enterprises is at a premium, but it is also about how you conduct business and what you do with the platform you have created to give something back to society through actions, ideas, and volunteering. I hope this emphasis is much more inspiring for staff as well, as they see that our company can and does make an impact every day.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Perhaps it is a women’s issue when people with some power over your future treat you with such disrespect, but it happens — not just to me, but to many other women, as I have learned over time. It is challenging when you work so hard to build something that you think is pretty special to then have to put up with and be subject to condescending and prejudicial behaviors.

I learned a lot over the years. I learned that there are times when you really need to dig deep, especially when others are counting on you. I also learned that there is real power in being underestimated. I have spoken with other women who have experienced the same aggressive and condescending behavior. It is important at times to speak up not just for yourself but for the sake of the women who follow. But, there are times it pays to bite your tongue, put your head down, and plow your way through. Women have to develop a thicker skin than most men!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

From the time that I was quite young, I have felt like a citizen of the world; traveling around the globe for work and pleasure is my lifeblood. When my children were young, I thought it would be great to have them see what I did and why I was gone when I had to travel. So, I created the “Ten-Year-Old-Trip,” first for my kids and now for my grandchildren. The age, although originally arbitrary, provided a fixed time when the kids knew they had a chance to join their mother on a business trip. In the beginning, all of the kids had an identical trip — to Denver, Colorado, for meeting and then into the mountains to experience the majesty of the Rockies and see some of the American West.

Each of these trips meant a lot to me, but it wasn’t until 31 years later that I fully understood how much these trips meant to my children. When my oldest daughter participated in the trip, she never really talked a lot about it. It wasn’t until her daughter was nine that I came to appreciate that it must have made an impression because my granddaughter called me just before her tenth birthday to announce to me that she was going to be ten on her next birthday (as if a grandmother is not tracking this!). When I told her that it was natural to turn ten after being nine, she immediately got impatient with me and said, “I know that, Grandma, but it is time for my ten-year-old trip!” This was something we had never discussed, and there could only have been one source for this — her mother. So 31 years later, I learned that it had indeed had the intended consequences.

These trips were not about where we went, but rather, it was about having an experience shaped by each of my children and now, grandchildren. As we went along, each of the kids did a lot of research in advance, and it was great fun both to spend the quality time and to have this unique experience. The ten-year-old-trip has been a crucial part of work-life integration for me, exposing the kids to a world beyond home while giving them a window into my life at work — it’s important to share life’s experiences with your fellow workers and your work experience with your family.

It is not just these high-profile moments that highlight the importance of quality than quantity. On a daily basis, our home was always a center of activity for our kids and their friends. So while I was probably one of the only mothers that had a full-time job at that time, our kids always knew that while my time was limited, they could count on me to plan things for them and their friends and be an active participant in their activities.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure this was a mistake but in hindsight it was really funny. When I first started at Arnold & Porter, I was neither fish nor fowl: a non-lawyer who was to be treated as a partner in a law firm that is very structured around these important categories. I was to be in charge of a company that never existed before and was not accounted for in the structure of the firm and there was no one else in this category. When I arrived, there was no procedure to get me furniture. I was entitled to partner furniture but I had an office the size of an associate. So to correct the situation, I had to get a special permission slip to get the partner’s furniture. I was very naïve about these kind of things, since I was never in a similar situation!

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

The most striking difference in my actual job is how much of an impact you can have on people’s lives. I realized that over time I have learned a lot of things about a lot of things. It is the nature of consulting. By sharing the benefits of this experience, you can often save people from big mistakes that could impact their business, their lives and help them set a more successful course. I have been surprised by how much I have learned and how valuable this experience has been for other people.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

In today’s world, successful executives should need to balance the power of caring with the clarity of being a leader who lets people know what is expected of them. It is about mutuality.. I learned early on from my parents and from my experience in my father’s store that if you go out of your way for people, then they will likely do the same for you. Besides, it is the right thing to do. And I have always done that in my personal and professional life. In this high-tech electronic age, relationships can be lost, but I have to admit that I don’t understand why more people don’t go out of their way for each other personally and professionally. It’s so rewarding and makes work — and life — more fun.

I think you have to be a people person. Successful executives cannot be aloof from their organizations. They are the corporate cheerleader. They bring optimism to their staff and their company.

If you are a person who is uncomfortable with being highly visible and spending time with lots of other people, you likely will be miserable in this kind of job. It is also highly stressful to be responsible for the well-being of your employees and to do a good job for your clients.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I have learned that women are more natural at leading in an inclusive way. Therefore institutionalizing your mission, vision, values, ethics and your business goals and sharing them is essential. Adding to that the “why” we are doing things is much easier. This leads to teamwork, shared values and inclusiveness that will advance your success.

I know of a company CEO who consistently and frequently spoke of the company mission and values in just about everything, internally and externally. It was meaningful to staff, and they took the mission and values very seriously, incorporating them into their own goals and work. Making expectations known also helps align staff with mission and let employees know what is expected of them. It creates a nurturing environment where everyone feels a part. Play to your strength!

Give feedback: help staff grow and learn by teaching them to deal with and overcome their mistakes. Praise really good work broadly. Communicate often and make sure everyone knows the path for moving the company forward and how they can contribute. Be a “we” company, not a “me” company. No one runs a great company alone.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As part of Close Up, I had the good fortune to work with Dr. Howard Mehlinger, who was, at the time, a guru in social studies education. He became a good friend and mentor to me as I was building Close Up and wanted to ensure it had the educational rigor to make a difference. Howard was a professor at Indiana University and was appointed to head a task force on the bicentennial of the constitution and, as part of that effort, took on a project to update the European textbooks and their treatment of teaching about the United States. He appointed a small group to spend part of the summer of 1983 with him in Hamburg, Germany, where the master teachers assembled. While the small group of Americans asked to participate were all noted academics, Howard thought my participation, both as the only woman and as a non-academic with lots of practical experience and stories from my Close Up experience, would add something to the group.

It was a remarkable experience in many ways and left me with life lessons about prejudice, friendships, the unique role women play at times, and a love for the experience of living someone else’s culture. It also introduced me to Arnold & Porter (A&P), as the law firm was counsel to this commission. If it wasn’t for Howard’s belief in me and his introduction to A&P through this project, I would never have had the opportunity to start APCO.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

From the inception, APCO has always been deeply involved in projects that center around the advancement of women and their economic independence. Given that APCO is a majority women-owned business — and the largest one globally in its field — championing the progress of women and girls globally is a part of APCO’s DNA. According to the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, if the current rates of progress were to be maintained in the future, the global gender pay gap will close in 61 to 165 years, depending on the region. For me, and as it should be for everyone, this is simply unacceptable. As a founder of a majority-owned business and a grandmother of nine school-aged grandchildren, achieving gender equity for current and future generations has been a personal and professional passion for a very long time.

I created and promoted a number of programs around the world that advance the education of girls and women, focus on economic inclusion and gender equity, and encourage others to contribute to the effort. I have helped to develop and strengthen a signature partnership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, which helps more than 10 million girls and young women in 145 countries realize their full potential as responsible citizens of the world. I have also worked directly with the UN Foundation to develop a “Road-map” report that analyzes existing women’s economic empowerment programs and showcases the most effective interventions. Furthermore, as the chair of the Women Presidents’ Organization, I had the opportunity to work with more than two thousand women-owned enterprises globally as they scale their businesses.

In recent years, APCO partnered with the Graça Machel Trust (GMT) — led by former first lady and wife of the late President Nelson Mandela — to help launch the Women Advancing Africa initiative: a first-of-a-kind program seeking to “multiply the faces and amplify the voices of African women to drive inclusive, sustainable growth across the continent.” Years of partnership with the GMT culminated in the 2017 launch of the Women Advancing Africa Forum, focused on empowering women to better participate and benefit from Africa’s growing economy. In 2018, APCO also partnered with the Malala Fund to support Malala Yousafzai during her first participation in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Founded in 2013, the Malala Fund is an international non-profit organization that fights for girls’ education.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. As a leader, every action you take is amplified. I once worked with my office door closed to keep warm, but staff members outside were worried, wondering if something was wrong.
  2. How difficult it is to raise money as a woman, even with a successful business. When I first tried to move forward on my management buyout, the investment banker involved was so condescending that aside from the negative remarks he made, he never took my interest or bid seriously. He also didn’t bother to read my contract — figuring I wasn’t that important to his work, instead of trying to be helpful. In the end the bank got fired when I stopped the deal they put forward because I had blocking rights in my contract, a fact he would have known if he took me seriously. That was a decade ago but I was reminded of the unpleasant experience when I went out to raise new capital and recapitalize my company just a couple of years ago, when only one of the dozen bankers that showed up had a women on the team. And just six months ago, exploring banking relationships, one of the big banks that has just made a big deal out of supporting women owned businesses, asked me for a personal guarantee on a loan for the business, requiring my husband’s pledge as well — even after 35 years of successful operation and never missing a payment.
  3. How much of an impact you can have on people’s lives and society. Thirty-five years since I founded APCO as a single-person operation, it has grown into a global advisory and advocacy communications consultancy with nearly 800 employees in more than 30 global markets.
  4. That it is possible to have a great career and a great family life at the same time. Being torn between the demands of work and the pull of family obligations leaves many frustrated and exhausted. How can you do the best job at both? It is a question I have been asked hundreds of times over my career as each new generation tries to find the right answer. I can only tell you what I have done. The answer for me has been blending the two.
  5. That there is no such thing as a 24-hour day. I was once flying back from China after a full day of work. Instead of resting, I continued to work through the whole flight back, and what ended up being a 36-hour day was very productive.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Thirty-five years ago, I started a movement to have a place where really smart and nice people can come together, have a fulfilled career while creating important opportunities or solving important problems through creative collaboration for our clients and whenever possible find solutions that contribute to a better world. I hope this continues for generations to come and people can use their life’s work to make the world a better place and not shy away from challenges or obstacles that get in the way. So in a way, the movement has already started — purpose — finding meaning beyond profits for a business and learning that we all have a responsibility and opportunity to contribute to a better world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never underestimate the value of being underestimated.” I am proud of the many successes we have had over the years but that ladder of success is never straight and I have tried to learn from all the mistakes along the way. Most of all, I have learned that as a woman entrepreneur, there is sometimes real power in being underestimated! My hope for the future is that I have developed a company that is built to last and that the generations that follow operate with the same sense of purpose I have tried to instill in the work we do and the impact we have.

What I learned was that if people are prejudiced or biased, use it to your advantage, because they will never see you coming. I can give you scores of examples of how I was able to come away with deals done and challenges accomplished just because I was able to outmaneuver those who underestimated me in some way. If people are blind to confidence and success, I am going to use it in a way that is helpful to what I want to accomplish.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I think I would like to meet Mackenzie Bezos, as a novelist and someone I have come to respect — at a distance of course. As I understand it, she helped her husband with an idea that was transformed into arguably the most disruptive business in the world today. She chose to have a low profile and the quiet dignity she showed during their recent divorce was admirable. As someone who raised four kids while all this was going on is very much in the spirit of my book on work-life integration and, while one could argue that it is easier when you are the wealthiest people in the world, it wasn’t always that way and learning more about her journey and her choices along the way would be very interesting to me. She seems really down to earth and someone with whom you could have an interesting conversation.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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