Women in Business Q&A: Erika Kauffman, General Manager and Executive Vice President, 5W Public Relations

Erika Kauffman is the General Manager & Executive Vice President at 5W Public Relations. With over a decade of experience in communications and management at 5W, Erika is an integral part of the firm's leadership team and oversees a number of industry practices at the agency.

How has your life experience and career made you the leader you are today?
5W today has come a long way from the agency it was when I first walked through its doors, and so have I. When I began my career at 5W as an Account Executive, 5W had less than 10 employees. Today I serve as General Manager and Executive Vice President for an agency of over 120 employees ranked in the top 25 in the nation-wide.

At a growing agency, you're fighting for business and you're up against bigger players with more resources and an established reputation. Winning against those odds requires you to outpace and outperform the competition. The creativity you bring to the table needs to be unequalled. You learn to identify and solve problems using limited resources; you learn to be flexible as you transition from preparing client strategies to picking out new office spaces because you've rapidly grown out of your current location. The lessons I've learned along the way: to welcome challenges, to not be afraid of making tough decisions, to think outside the box -- on behalf of my clients, the business and my own career -- are ones I hope I never finish learning. There's always room to learn and to grow in this business.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at 5W PR?
Starting a career in PR as a young professional, you are working alongside and learning from many talented women. At an early stage in my career I worked for a mid-sized woman-owned agency. The experience was invaluable and I realized I wanted a major focus of my career to be creating mentorship and growth opportunities for women in the workplace.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at 5W PR?
The past decade has been a whirlwind. It has been stressful, exciting and rewarding. I think one of the most important take-aways for me is that I have always seen challenges as an opportunity to drive my growth as a PR practitioner and as a leader at the agency.

One highlight for me has been building the health and beauty department at 5W. These are two practice areas which have grown from single clients to award winning divisions - our beauty team is ranked among the top 5 in the industry and our health division has won multiple industry awards for campaigns in 2014.

Was it challenging? Absolutely. Growing an industry practice, like growing an agency, requires dedication, resourcefulness, smart decision making and above all, incredibly hard work and persistence. Fortunately for 5W, we have incredibly talented leaders in these areas - women who are passionate about their clients and who possess a depth of knowledge and creativity that is just unparalleled. Together we have worked hard to captivate brands and build our department on the successes of our own work. In the agency world, growth isn't necessarily a direct goal. At the end of the day, the best way to grow is to work incredibly hard for your clients. Results speak for themselves, and that is a powerful thing.

What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in public relations?
Work and work hard. Public Relations is a career where you have to be updated on everything that is going on in the world around you. Even when you aren't working you are reading, staying informed and thinking of what is trending in the world around you. Make sure you are checking all the top dailies, industry websites and blogs, both in and out of the industries in which you work. I find that the best practitioners I know are those that are genuinely interested in everything. They are sponges for information, giving them the ability to see opportunities for stories in real time and allowing them to dictate trends, rather than react to them.

And don't be afraid to take chances. I'm reading Amy Poehler's book Yes Please right now and there's a line in it that really struck me. She says, "I believe great people do things before they are ready." I couldn't agree more - I think the most valuable lessons we learn in any career, and in our lives, are those we learn when we step outside of our comfort zone and take a risk we believe in.

In today's world, and especially in PR, things are changing faster than ever -- the media landscape today is completely different than it was just three years ago and likely a world away from where it will be a year from now. To succeed in this industry is going to require a combination of expertise and conviction, of knowing your stuff backwards and forwards and the guts to see an opportunity and just go for it.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Remember to take a breath! Life at 5W is exciting - it's fast paced, it's creative, you're working with individuals who are incredibly passionate about PR and their fields of practice. There are always new challenges to solve, ground to break and ways to improve the value we generate for our clients. Which, looked at another way, can sometimes make it feel like the work is never done. It's not! And that's exciting, but it can also be overwhelming at times. Over the years (and potentially with the help of several yoga teachers) I've learned that it's best to acknowledge this. I think often times our instinct is to ignore it and push through when a better strategy is to recognize it, take a breath and move forward. It's something we often discuss at the agency; how can we support our staff and help them find ways in their day to take a moment to "breathe" and re-invigorate their creativity? Solutions can be as small as encouraging our staff to go out for weekly coffee with a person from a different department to speaker seminars where media and industry experts host conversations with our staff, presenting breaking trends and insights from their field of expertise and creating a dialogue internally.

My philosophy is that it's all about the big picture - more often than not, solving challenges requires perspective, and perspective comes from looking at problems holistically. I constantly draw upon experiences and advice I've received in my personal life at work, whether that be for creative inspiration, to source better processes for measurement and strategy, or as a mentor to my staff.

For me, it's about prioritizing personal tasks the same way I do with projects at work. During the week, we can get so focused on our work life that it's easy to think of personal tasks as "extra-curriculars." This is a slippery slope, because those little things that make you a happy individual and the relationships you have outside of work are keys to making you who you are.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
First off, I'd like to say that I think that right now is an incredible time to be a woman in business. This is clearly a hot topic at the moment and that is so inspiring to me. We have great minds out there who are not just making strides in their fields, but who have taken the dialogue about what it means to be a woman in the workplace to a new level. We're pushing the envelope on this conversation every day; it's about creating gender equality in pay and in job creation at all levels, especially upper management, it's about internal communication and growth, recognizing that women inherently possess skills that give them the propensity to be excellent negotiators and deal makers, it's about breaking down the old stigma that math isn't a subject for girls, pushing more girls to break into these subject areas and leaving the door wide open for this next generation of women to make their mark in previously male-dominated fields. These are all conversations that are happening on a national level right now, and I think that is an incredible thing.

That said, competition can be a great motivator and a great challenge for women in business. Instead of being so quick to criticize female figures for their approach, we need to support each other and to respect what we bring to the table as individuals. Everybody, man or woman, is going to have a different approach and I'd love to see the dialogue around women in leadership positions embrace that, rather than just serving as a round table for criticism.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It has made all the difference! I would not be where I am today without the sage advice of many a mentor I have met along the way. My personal mentors are my professional mentors and vice versa. Who hasn't had a day that hasn't been saved by a friend sending you a funny YouTube video when you needed it most? Mentorship comes in many forms. It's about offering advice and helping you troubleshoot situations, but, as my mentors have taught me, it's also about surrounding yourself with people you trust and enjoy... and having fun along the way.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
My team at 5W - they inspire me every day with their tenacity, their passion and their creativity.

Diane Von Furstenberg - here is a fashion icon who is also an entrepreneur and an incredibly savvy businesswoman. She practically wrote the book on being a woman in business. I'd love to pick her brain someday.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler - two women who aren't afraid to have an opinion and make it known, and who remind us that you can be incredibly smart and talented, and still have a ton of fun doing what you love.

What do you want 5W PR to accomplish in the next year?
Better question is what don't I want 5W to accomplish in the next year? At 5W we believe that being adaptable is necessary. Just as we grow our PR plans as our clients businesses grow from successful campaigns, our goals for our agency grow as we steadfastly reach them. Measurement, expanding our services to meet clients' digital needs and mentorship internally have been big areas of focus for the agency in 2014 and I'm excited to say that we have even more programs that we plan to launch in 2015.