With today’s current political and social climate, we have seen leaders who regularly avoid answering direct questions, fail to back up claims with facts, and, in some instances, downright lie. In a culture where dishonesty is just part of doing business, how do communications professionals maintain their authenticity, honesty, and values?
Kathy Beiser’s answer: “You just do.”
Beiser, who currently serves as Chief Communications Officer at Kaiser Permanente, is one of the world’s top leaders in communications. She attributes her unintended path to leadership to her adherence to developing communications plans based on data and evidence, coupled with her steadfast commitment to honesty and authenticity.
A Courageous Leader
Following a lecture at Northwestern University, where she was working toward her master’s in journalism and corporate communications at the time, Beiser approached the guest speaker and boldly asked for an internship.
“I take no credit for having the hutzpah to do that at the time,” she laughed. “It was probably more out of fear than practicality as I needed a job so I didn’t have to move back home.”
In any case, Beiser asked for the internship and got it. That internship led to a job, and that job has led to a stimulating, fulfilling, and expansive career. She has served as a communications leader at Hilton Worldwide, Discover, Edelman, Burson-Marsteller, and, more recently, APCO Worldwide.
Beiser’s courage—or hutzpah—has been one of the driving forces in her path to leadership. Her grandmother, whom she credits as being one of her first mentors, displayed that same level of courage as a law school graduate in the 1930s. She insists that it takes big thinkers, team players, and other-centered people to truly make lasting, positive change in the world.
It takes courage to rise up the ranks in any given profession—and it takes a bit of honesty, too. Beiser calls these honest (and sometimes uncomfortable) moments of courage a “Kathy Gets Fired Moment.” She recalled a time when she was told by other staff members that there were a series of negative Tweets about a company executive following a television appearance.
“We had several pages of unflattering comments. IT came down to show me and asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘We tell him!’”
So Beiser walked into the executive’s office, Tweets in hand, and delivered the news, taking care, however, to put the comments in context and to put forth some constructive recommendations for the next on-camera interview.
“I never lie,” she added. “I’m kind when delivering tough truths, but I never lie or obfuscate—that’s the only way to build trust and deliver value to the organization and its people.”
To Beiser, sometimes having courage is telling someone the truth. Other times it’s about calling out business practices that are out of line with society’s expectations. No matter the task, Beiser firmly believes in bringing her authenticity and honesty into any situation. “Our job involves having courage. But it’s not about being ‘Chicken Little’ and just pointing out problems. As trusted advisors, we have to bring insights and potential solutions that facilitate successful outcomes for our organizations.”
Data and Leadership
Honesty and courage are an integral part of the way Beiser leads. Another main tenet of her approach to leadership is using data to inform what she does. Using specific units of measurement to support or redirect business plans has a two-fold benefit: it depersonalizes the work and it builds trust.
“Data drives everything,” Beiser said. “There’s too much money at stake. Whether it’s third-party data, original research, or even best-practices gleaned from observing other organizations, facts and insights are critical to our work as communicators.”
To Beiser, data doesn’t just mean the standard numbers and figures of company profit margins or the amount of “likes” the CEO got on LinkedIn last week. She argues that data can be employee sentiment about the company or new bills that are passing in Congress. Everything going on, both inside and outside the company, should be synthesized and processed when working toward bridging the gap between where the organization is and where it aims to be.
“You have to have a high EQ and IQ to be a communications leader. And, really importantly, you have to know the business of your business,” Beiser says.
Beiser is one of those people who certainly knows what’s going on, but knows it because she genuinely loves to learn and loves to feel like she’s doing good work.
“Learning is my key driver. I get up every day because I know something will be different. To me, it’s about growth.”