Virginia Devlin: “Control is possible”

Control is possible — When so much feels out of our control right now, it’s important to focus on what you can control to create lasting positive change. In business, that means leading through crisis with agility, empathy, equality and transparency. On the personal side, I feel in control when it comes to the health and wellness […]

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Control is possible — When so much feels out of our control right now, it’s important to focus on what you can control to create lasting positive change. In business, that means leading through crisis with agility, empathy, equality and transparency. On the personal side, I feel in control when it comes to the health and wellness of my family, ensuring we are making the right choices to stay physically and mentally fit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Virginia Devlin, CEO of Current Global, a global marketing agency with expertise across corporate, consumer, health and technology communications. ​She is an expert at helping brands own the moment by understanding how customer demands, culture and story choreography come together to build hyper-relevant, human connections that influence behavior and drive business results.​ A 2017 PRWeek Champion of PR and 2014 PR News Top Women in PR Award honoree, Virginia is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and serves on the board of PRSA Chicago and Ryan Banks Academy, whose mission is to build Chicago’s first residential boarding school for under-served urban youth.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I have reinvented my career a few times over the years, but always within the industry where I have the most passion — public relations. As a journalism major without internships under my belt, I got my first break by taking a job as a secretary at a Seattle PR agency. I was determined to prove I was as good a writer and creative problem solver as I was a typist. And it worked.

With a few more pivots over a 30-year career, today I serve as the CEO of Current Global, a mid-sized global PR agency that I have built from the ground up over the past 14 years, with a lot of help and inspiration from amazing colleagues and mentors.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

I spent 9 years working at Weber Shandwick, one of the largest PR agencies in the world, before launching Current, then a boutique consumer marketing agency with just one client and a handful of employees. The opportunity to start a new agency happened quickly, and concept to launch took about two months, so it was a whirlwind. It was a thrilling time that required me to stretch and grow my skills. I often joke that naming the agency was harder than naming my daughter, who was just 18 months old at the time. And I was working a 4-day schedule during all of this so I could spend more time with her.

Through the years, we’ve nurtured our talent, grown our client base, expanded the categories we work in, and established a global footprint. Interesting stories are the bedrock of successful PR, and I have too many to count! Counseling the C-suite, curtailing crisis, building brand awareness, launching new products, shaping a client’s purpose…every day is different. One of our clients is Wines of Sicily, so I must admit that a business trip to wine producers in Italy is not a bad assignment!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Current, we are focused on the transformative power of reinvention, especially during these uncertain times. Reinvention is how we stay current both personally and professionally. It’s about understanding changing culture, embracing the art of the pivot, and finding creative solutions to meet evolving needs. I believe that women are particularly adept at reinvention, as our lives evolve in different stages that require us to reevaluate and reinvent.

These days, my team and I have been counseling clients on the art of reinvention and how to redefine their role in the world, recover from the impact of COVID-19, and return to profitability while doing right by society.

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?

I was raised in a single-parent household, and I always count my mom as my first role model. From an early age, she taught me accountability, independence and perseverance. In my career, I’ve been surrounded by strong women leaders, mentors and role models — Cathy Calhoun taught me to be a strategic thinker, Gail Heimann inspires me to articulate my vision and push creative boundaries, and Susan Howe continually reminds me about the importance of empathy and humility. I’m highlighting a trio of women, but there have been plenty of male supporters too over the years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

Beyond my role at Current Global, I take immense pride in being a mother and role model to my 15-year-old daughter. Reimagining our modest apartment as not only a relaxing home but also a 24-hour restaurant, efficient office for two working parents, and stimulating classroom wasn’t easy. My daughter is not only participating in distance-learning academic classes, but also keeping up with training at her performing arts high school.

Leading a company forward in an unprecedented time — all while your daughter is taking voice lessons and dance classes in the background — can be challenging, but I have loved this extra time together and the window it gives all of us into our work and school lives. The hardest part for me is shutting down at the end of the day, especially since my office is in my bedroom, but I’ve found cooking dinner each night to be quite therapeutic.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Key to any business’ success is hiring and nurturing talent you trust to drive meaningful results. To be a place where the right talent wants to work, you must show compassion and appreciation for the lives people live outside of your business. Following those two principles establishes mutual trust and understanding that everyone is doing everything they can to add value to your organization’s bottom line, even while our industry and global economy have slowed.

We have the utmost trust in our team to get the job done on behalf of our clients and our agency while doing it under these unusual circumstances. We’re ok with hearing partners, children, pets and other noise in the background during a call, or with team members taking breaks throughout the day to care for a child or loved one. That flexibility and support system sparked the launch of a virtual babysitting service, where our talented employees will sing, read, draw and do whatever else they can dream up to help give colleagues with young kids a chance to meet a deadline or have some “me time.”

I saw a quote that read, “You’re not working from home during a crisis. You’re dealing with a crisis while trying to work.” We acknowledge that people are doing their best, while also grieving for what the pandemic and civil unrest around racial disparities is doing to our country and the world.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

While the pandemic created business uncertainty, recent civil unrest created perhaps the most uncomfortable time for leaders in recent history. It forced us to evaluate what we are doing to foster diversity and inclusivity in our workplaces. The resulting unease is both warranted and necessary, and likely to drive real change.

Women leaders have long been criticized for being too emotional, but emotional intelligence (EQ) is just what employees’ need right now. Academic studies show that women are more likely to lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose (rather than through carrots and sticks). Navigating the uncertainty of health, home, work, school and social challenges right now requires leaders to step up and stand out in new ways, including empathy.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

My approach to navigating these challenging times with empathy centers on leadership, culture, talent and trust. For me, it was critical to lead by example and with transparency (even with the difficult decisions we had to make and the financial impacts on our business), to inject some fun into the mix (like dying my hair blue for crazy hair day), and to use this time as an opportunity to educate and build skills (from free Ivy League classes to mandatory micro-aggression and unconscious bias training). We have found ways to not only keep our team connected, but also to lead them into the future amid an uncertain present.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

Here are a few things that have worked for me:

  • Everyone and everything in its place — Find a dedicated spot in the house for each person to work and organize those spaces so they are both functional and comfortable. And then try not to get upset if your teenager doesn’t share your ideas around neatness and cleanliness!
  • Give yourself a break — As scheduled as our days can be with Zoom meetings, client deadlines and other tasks, build in flex time so that you can help with school, make a healthy snack for the family or simply stretch your legs. There are meeting-heavy days where I will block “me time” on my calendar so I get a break to go for a walk, fold some laundry or take a power nap.
  • Schedule start and stop times — It’s so easy to keep working into the evening hours when you’re at home, or to pop open your computer the minute the alarm goes off in the morning. Establish a start and stop time for each day based on your and the family’s schedule. If your first meeting isn’t until 9:30, sleep in a little and make pancakes for breakfast. And at the end of the day, shut off your computer. I mean “shut down” mode, so you aren’t tempted to check in on Teams or reply to “just one more email.”

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

One of my strengths is remaining calm and objective under pressure, but I have to admit that’s been difficult at times during COVID-19 and amid the heartbreaking racial unrest our country is experiencing. That said, here are five ways I’m trying to stay sane and serene.

  • Repurpose your commute — I used to spend an hour a day getting to and from work. Use that “found” time to read the news, listen to a podcast, get in a workout, or prep family meals.
  • Focus your mind — Meditating has been on my to do list for a while. We recently offered free Headspace subscriptions to all staff, so now I really have no excuse!
  • Get outside — As much as we are confined to our homes, it’s critical to spend time outdoors. Thankfully my apartment building has communal — yet socially-distanced — outdoor space where I can work or relax. If you don’t have a backyard or balcony, grab a picnic blanket and head to the nearest park.
  • Tune it all out — Between COVID-19, racial injustice, extreme weather events and a pending election, the news of the day can be overwhelming. Give yourself permission to tune out sometimes. Turn off the news and turn on a favorite movie. Lose yourself in a book. Plan a virtual cocktail hour with colleagues or friends. What’s going on in the world will still be there tomorrow.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

You know what can be more contagious than COVID-19? Empathy, kindness, patience, compassion. Hope is a belief that things will get better, so here are five reasons to be hopeful right now:

  • Change is good — Resistance to change is common, but COVID-19 has forced some good change in our work and personal lives. While we’ve always been a collaborative group at Current Global, the pandemic changed how we work overnight, and I think that will have lasting impact on business progress. In the U.S., our six offices now feel like one cohesive team thanks to tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom happy hours and getting to know each other more on a personal level as we “see” each other at home. We have been more patient and vulnerable with each other, and that’s made our bond even stronger.
  • Control is possible — When so much feels out of our control right now, it’s important to focus on what you can control to create lasting positive change. In business, that means leading through crisis with agility, empathy, equality and transparency. On the personal side, I feel in control when it comes to the health and wellness of my family, ensuring we are making the right choices to stay physically and mentally fit.
  • Joy is free — Many of us are evaluating what brings us joy and realizing that material possessions usually aren’t the answer. Focusing on what you need versus what you want can lead to lasting joy, and the good news is that finding joy in the simple things is often free! While quarantining in Florida for a few months, my daughter, who loves to sleep until 11AM, would get up early and skateboard to the beach to watch the sunrise — it brought her joy.
  • Nature can nurture — Remember all of those images of less-polluted lakes, smog-free cities and wildlife everywhere as a result of humans retreating indoors? Those were powerful reminders about the resiliency of nature, our responsibility to the planet, and the physical and mental benefits that the outdoors offers. Find ways to protect Earth long-term and bring more nature into your life — whether that’s a new houseplant addiction (guilty!), watching what you buy and where you buy it from, or reducing your environmental impact at home and work (less travel, less printing, less waste).
  • Share your talent — We all have different talents, interests and passions, and there’s no time like the present to work on things that make you happy and whole. For me, that means trying new recipes for dinner, planning future travel adventures, learning how to be a better ally and volunteering my time to support important causes. I’m on the board of the Ryan Banks Academy, which aims to be Chicago’s first tuition-free boarding school for underserved youth, and our mission feels even more critical right now. Businesses can also examine how they can help their communities by donating time, talent and treasure — at Current Global, we’ve committed to supporting non-profit organizations focused on impacting societal change, specifically those addressing racial inequality and injustice.

It’s important to remind ourselves that this won’t be forever, and that we will get through this as long as we have hope.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Dealing with your own anxiety first — and let’s face it, these are anxious times for everyone — can help family and loved ones feel safer and more secure. Worried parents can pass on anxiety to their children, so be mindful of how you are coping with the stress. That extends to work as well — a calm and grounded leader can set the tone for the rest of the organization.

As much as you want to be prepared for whatever the future holds, avoid dwelling on negative “what if” scenarios since you can’t control what might happen. Instead, help your loved ones focus on what’s happening now and being in the moment.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help — that could involve talking to a family member who is a good listener or seeking support from a psychologist or other mental health provider. At work, I encourage employees to take advantage of free mental health webinars, to tap into resources like our Employee Assistance Program, which has counselors available 24/7 to help with emotional and practical support, and to use their PTO days. A few days off work can do wonders for your mental health.

Finally, consider adopting a pet to help reduce stress, anxiety and loneliness. My daughter has wanted a cat for years, and we finally relented. Our COVID kitty, Florence, has been a wonderful addition to our family.

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

“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” — Oprah Winfrey

When asked for career advice, I always tell women to chart their own path. That’s what I did — and it took courage and asking the right people to support me. Businesses often have a prescribed promotion track, with only so much room at the top, so it is critical that you reinvent what may be a standard job description into one that plays to your strengths, taps into your past successes (and failures), creates new opportunities and offers value to the organization.

If you’re ready to reinvent your career, don’t wait for a profound event or major milestone to serve as a catalyst, and don’t feel like you have to start from scratch. Commit to making a change (big or small), have the courage to do it, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and then watch the positive transformation begin.

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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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