Burson is chairman and founder of Burson-Marsteller, the largest PR company in the world. With 2,200 employees in 35 countries, the firm has grown into an international powerhouse thanks in part to Burson’s forward-looking .
In this interview with Working Smart, Burson talks about what he’s learned successfully managing people for over half a century.
WS: Do you think there is one skill that ensures career success?
Burson: The No. 1 skill anyone needs is the ability to get along with people. And I’m not just talking about your co-workers. It’s equally important that you learn to get along with those under you as well as those above you.
WS: If you can work well with others, will you rise higher than someone who’s just as capable as you but who lacks ?
Burson: You have to have an inborn will to move ahead. You cannot be content to stay where you are. In our business, creativity is very important. The people who do best are never content to rest on their creative laurels. They keep pushing themselves to be better.
WS: How can you tell if someone has that will to succeed?
Burson: We can spot a winner after two or three weeks on the job. These are the people who immediately start producing great work. And then they find the next thing to do rather than being told what to do.
WS: But if they don’t wait to be told what to do, how can they tell what needs to get done?
Burson: If the person is a hustler—and I mean that in a good sense—he’ll figure it out. Workers are either hunters or preservers. The hunters go out and look for ways to make themselves useful and bag a prize. The preservers sit back and ride the status quo.
WS: What’s the ideal ratio of hunters to preservers within an organization?
Burson: You want 90 percent hunters, 10 percent preservers. That way, 90 percent of your people will not only do the job but also build business and continually look for ways to help the company grow.
WS: As you say, you’re in a creative business. You provide ideas to your clients. Can you teach people to be creative?
Burson: Creativity is really a matter of judgment. And you can’t teach judgment. Some people tap into a great deal of knowledge quickly and think two or three steps ahead of everyone else. They’re smart, but you can’t correlate it with GPAs or test scores. Just because some guy graduated from Harvard magna cum laude doesn’t mean he has good judgment.
WS: What advice would you give someone who’s promoted into a people- role for the first time?
Burson: Beware of people who are insecure. Perhaps they’re bullies. Or they claim a lot of credit that’s not theirs. It’s better to focus on managing those who have a good sense of themselves.
WS: Why do certain people become CEOs while others who may be equally talented never make it that far?
Burson: I’ve found that certain individuals are identified early in their careers as people who can handle pressure. What often happens is that someone is thrown a big assignment and they do a good job. Higher-ups take notice and become mentors. I’m sure there are people in any organization who are smarter than the people in charge, but they just never got noticed. They never broke out. So when you get a chance to perform, really showcase what you can do.
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