A few years ago, I hosted a series of closed-door salons with industry pioneers and our graduate students. In those pre-pandemic days, we met in person, enjoyed some appetizers and communed with visionary leaders from my professional network.
As we pondered how to continue to ignite such high-value connections this past year, my successor and colleague, Comm Lead Director Ekin Yasin invited me to resurrect the salon series. And so it was that the massive constraint of a global pandemic also inspired creative work-arounds. How could we still provide that sense of exclusivity and relational touch, while leveraging an online technology that shrinks distance by design?
We quickly figured out that we could be public-facing with a live conversation, and have our students apply to be part of a select group to engage face-to-face with our industry leader. And as a learning community first and foremost, I could mentor that small cohort of students in how to moderate a public conversation. In November we spoke with National Geographic Photographer Robert Clark (‘The Framer’) and in February our guest was Michele Storms, head of the ACLU of Washington State (‘The Fighter’).
I thought that by closing the series with Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO of WE Communications, we could showcase a true “communication leader:” a highly successful entrepreneur who truly paved her own way in our discipline, while championing best practices around purpose and communications. Call it confluence, but Melissa’s salon coincided with a marked change in how leaders were suddenly called upon to pass judgment on some weighty social issues (see Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and the state of Georgia’s new election legislation). The following week, The Economist’s cover page announced “The Political CEO.”
We addressed all that in a refreshingly candid conversation with Melissa, who happens to advise some of those CEO’s now on the front lines of these high-stakes conversations. She was also generous in sharing her own hard-won lessons as she built WE into a 1,300-person global agency.
But what I enjoyed most from our hour together was how our students helped lead such an inspiring, instructive discussion. The responses they elicited from Melissa were so powerful, I ultimately felt compelled to give those six women the final word, as we closed out one of the best live sessions in which I’ve ever participated. It truly is required viewing.