Ultimate CEO Christine Barney on motivating through engagement, not fear

Many businesses changed their style during the pandemic. Christine Barney would say her public relations, digital marketing and advertising firm, RBB Communications, hardly changed at all.

Where others dove into remote work for the first time, her team spent about half its time working remotely well before the pandemic hit. With no learning curve needed, they excelled. In 2020, the firm won its fifth PR Agency of the Year award.

Still, life challenged Barney hard. Her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and later suffered a heart attack; her mother and stepfather each had strokes. She was unable to visit with her two grandchildren born during the pandemic, and her daughter graduated “virtually” from college.

But Barney offered no excuses.

“You take the good with the bad,” said Barney, whose husband is cancer-free now. “I wouldn’t be in this business if I wasn’t an optimist.”

As a leader, what drives you? Making a difference; helping our clients meet their goals. It’s also about learning so much every day, with so many clients in different sectors. I don’t ever feel like I’m coming to work. I’m never doing the same thing.

When was the first time you were acknowledged for being a leader? It was 1986 and I was an assistant account executive, the bottom of the chain, at the world’s largest PR firm [Burson-Marsteller]. We started using [word processor] DECmate, and there was great frustration in learning how to use it. I created a memo with shortcuts and tips, and I sent it to everyone on my team. The impact was immediate. My boss said, “This is great. Send it to all 1,300 people at the firm.” I did something positive and was recognized for my initiative.

Over the arc of your career, how have you changed as a leader? In several ways. I struggled at the onset with trying too hard to prove myself. I’m short, I’m female and I was the youngest person in the room. My mentor, Bruce Rubin, didn’t see shortcomings. He taught me to be an authentic listener. I learned how to motivate through engagement and not fear. You have to listen, then act on that listening. You have to care more about the results than the process. Too many leaders isolate themselves. It’s about getting off CEO island.

What’s the most recent leadership lesson you’ve learned and implemented? Showing a sense of vulnerability. I would have put a pin in my eye before I’d let people see me cry. With everything that happened during the pandemic, I sent an email to everyone saying what was happening. It’s OK to show some vulnerability, because everyone’s going through it.

What do you like most – and least – about leading? I like the vision process. There’s a blank slate called tomorrow. You can decide where you’re going; that’s like a drug to me. What I like least is that sense of isolation. When you’re at the very top of the house, it’s important to find people to call you out.

Where do you look for your inspiration? I do a lot of reading of other CEOs and leaders. One of my favorites is Gary D. Burnison, the CEO of Korn Ferry. I’m also an avid TikTok user, because my 17-year-old got me juiced on it.

How do you define success? Those of us who are type A are never satisfied with the status quo. We always think there’s more we can do. Success is linked with happiness. Are you doing the things that make you happy and make a difference?

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