Paula Davis | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Paula Davis

Aug 11, 2015

Fast Facts


Greater New York City Area

Number of employees:

25,000 people across the Americas, Europe, and Asia

Time in current role:

1 year, 9 months

Previous experience:

• President, Alcoa Foundation • Vice President, Corporate Communications, The Pepsi Bottling Group • Senior Director, Corporate Communications, Siemens USA • Director, Communications, • Director, Internal Communications, Arthur Andersen • Director, Media Relations, Sears, Roebuck and Co.

First communications job:

Coordinator, Sara Lee

Questions & Answers

How do you define a leader? We often hear “Leaders should serve and not be served.”:

I think the best U.S. presidents had that orientation. It’s the same for CEOs who see the interests of their stakeholders – customers, employees and shareholders – as the source of their primary motivation and concern. I subscribe to that philosophy, too. The most effective leaders inspire people to progress.

How do you empower your staff?:

There’s a big difference between leading and managing, and it is important to distinguish between the two. It reminds me of a story about an executive who was retiring from a former company where I worked. I asked him what changed when the Internet and email were introduced. He observed that people who reported to him immediately started to delegate up for even simple decisions. Before email, people would set up meetings with their boss to ask for input on something. They were more inclined to do the heavy lifting on their own. When I get a question from someone, I make it a habit to push back and ask, “What do you think?” I encourage my team to discover the solution rather than deferring to me.

Who were your role models early in life, and how did they affect your development?:

My grandparents and parents were my early role models. They lived honorably and worked hard. They didn’t make excuses about why they couldn’t achieve certain things or complain about the obstacles in front of them. They just got it done, and that has informed my personal philosophy, political orientation, and work ethic.

Another role model of mine is Ron Culp, my first supervisor. I was inspired by how magnanimous he was, his sense of humor, and how he brought people along with him. The leadership skills I try to emulate come from observing and working with him.

What are you doing to ensure your growth and development continues as a leader?:

I read a lot about leadership and try and find different approaches. I always go back to Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Today it may seem basic but when you re-read it, it stands the test of time. I’m constantly learning how to improve my own leadership skills from all sides – from the people I report to, work with and manage as well as friends and family members. I have many great sources to learn from!

Do you have a mentor? What traits do you look for in a mentor and why?:

I have what I call a “personal board of directors.” My brothers, brothers-in-law, and sisters and a couple of other people I’ve worked for are part of the group. I call them when I’m contemplating a job change, face a work dilemma, or am struggling with a personal matter. I know these people and trust their opinions. I respect the way they live, and I trust they have my best interest at heart. I’m very fortunate to have built such an incredible personal network. I consider Ron [Culp] the Chairman of the Board. His advice has never failed me.

What would you describe as your biggest fear as a leader?:

I don’t know if it’s a fear as much as something I try to moderate: I get emotionally invested in the people on my team. I sincerely want them to achieve their potential and their dreams. When we have performance reviews I ask them, “What do you want to accomplish? What are you setting out to do? How can I help you get there?” I’ve worked with all kinds of people including some who aren’t thinking big and have more simple goals. I sometimes ascribe too much of what I want for them because I see so much potential in them.

However, there are pitfalls to this tendency. Becoming emotionally invested can cause you to take things personally and can make it difficult to make tough organizational changes. Like everything in life, it’s important to strike a balance.

How does leadership fit into corporate communications?:

Communications is a huge component of leadership. To educate, engage and inspire, you have to be an effective communicator. First and foremost, it’s important to keep in mind the “what’s in it for me” factor. Why should people listen to you? How are you going to make their lives easier or better? How will you help them do their jobs? I’m always focused on the value I can add to an interaction.

Are you reading any interesting books or have a favorite you’d like to share?:

One of my favorite books is BossyPants by Tina Fey, where I was introduced to the improv-comedy concept of ‘Yes. And?’. It centers on the idea of building on what somebody else has contributed. When I started as a temp at Sara Lee, my approach was always ‘Yes. And?’. Whenever I was given a task, I always tried to do it better than what was expected. It’s taking a task and building on it to the benefit of all. It’s about adding value.

What is the most important characteristic a leader should possess?:

Curiosity. The most successful CEOs I’ve worked for constantly learn and listen. They know what questions to ask to build relationships, get smarter and earn new business. The greatest leaders are on a constant quest to learn, whether it’s about themselves or other people, or a new way of doing things. Optimism and humor are also important attributes. All of the leaders I admire in history and in my life have great senses of humor.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with future leaders in the communications field?:

Be positive, maintain perspective, and foster and protect the culture you want. Negativity is the enemy. It’s always challenging when an employee has a negative attitude but is a good producer. How do you address those who are competent but negative, or those who are not as strong but have a positive attitude? We all have objectives to hit but it’s critical to recognize the importance of building a strong, healthy culture in the long run.

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