Women In Business Q&A: Kate Ryan, Managing Director US, Diffusion

Kate Ryan

Kate Ryan is the Managing Director, US at Diffusion, where she oversees the agency's US operations. She has managed and executed award-winning PR and social media campaigns for a wide variety of B2B and B2C brands in the U.S. - whether they're the next big start-up or a major listed brand. Her specialty lies in helping her clients hone in on the messages and storylines that will resonate with press - leading her teams to win industry recognition for excellence in PR time and time again, for everything from Best Product Launch to Best New Media Campaign.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was really lucky to grow up in three different countries - Singapore, Australia and the U.S. Living overseas had a huge impact on me in so many ways - completely opening up the way I think and learn and the different perspectives that I automatically consider. I was able to soak up all kinds of different unique experiences and angles that guide how I approach any opportunity or challenge. I was also really fortunate to be afforded incredible leadership opportunities both in school and in my early career that set the foundation for the job I do today managing and overseeing Diffusion's U.S. presence.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Diffusion?
I've always purposely selected to work at mid-sized PR agencies - that has been a decision that has really afforded me incredible opportunities to punch above my weight class, without the restrictions and hierarchy you might typically find somewhere bigger. I've been lucky to be included and "in the room" for the big discussions early on, so it feels like second nature now!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Diffusion?
The highlight has been being a part of something from the early days and getting to witness explosive growth firsthand. I can't emphasize enough how much pride it brings me to have watched Diffusion grow in the U.S. from a brand new office to the success we've enjoyed today. It has really bonded the team members who have been here since the early days because they "get" what it is to work hard and how that pays off.

The challenge has been hiring fast enough to keep up with our growth. At the end of the day I firmly believe successful companies are all about the people, so I lay awake at night thinking about how to offer the people who work for us fulfilling careers and how to find more rockstars to join us. That's no easy feat.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Ask more questions. I'm often surprised when I happen to be seated next to an entry-level PR pro at an event or am by serendipity in line to get coffee at the same place as a junior team member and they don't take every single opportunity to pick my brain. My advice and feedback are free, and I'm always willing. I've never turned down coffee with a team member but I'm surprised at how many people who are struggling or who want an opportunity but never ask. Personally, I was the annoying person asking a million questions of everyone above me at every chance I had. And also - say thank you.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Listening. In past roles, I've seen what happens when no one is actually listening to the employees or the client. Placating doesn't count. If you're really listening, you have the chance to make changes or fix broken processes early on. I always tell the story about how when I was quite junior I was required to do a 10-hour report that was basically copying and pasting, painstakingly, a report into another format. It was a huge waste of the client's fee, and because I was the only person on the account in the trenches actually doing the report, no one really understood how much of the client's time we were wasting. That's why I tell even our most junior staff to speak up and suggest new ways of doing things if they don't think something makes sense. I'm always going to at the very least hear out a new idea, if you can make the case for it, because it could make something better.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am extremely lucky to have a supportive boss, husband and well, an incredible nanny. I won't even begin to pretend I do it all on my own, without paid help, and I don't take that for granted. But I'm creative about how I maximize work/life balance - I'm often that person furiously typing on the subway. I make the most of every single second when I'm in the office and I set really clear boundaries at home. I'll always pick up the phone if there's an emergency but my son's bedtime is sacred.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It blows my mind that the U.S. is so astronomically behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to paid family leave. As Diffusion's headquarters is in London, I've seen the kind of government-supported family leave that my female AND male counterparts have enjoyed. I think the biggest issue women face is choosing to accelerate a career while also choosing to have children. I'm lucky that I was able to take time off work to recover and to be with my son when he was born; I know not all women are afforded that "luxury" with many women forced to return to work just six weeks after giving birth.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My boss, Diffusion CEO Ivan Ristic, was laughing at me the other day because I was repeating some of his advice back to him. Professionally, it has been the difference between suffering in silence and making progress; being able to spitball even the craziest of ideas and strategically analyze how we'll approach a challenge together might be the only way I could have survived the intensity of the growth we've experienced. Personally, I couldn't maintain my schedule and be home to put my son to bed if I didn't have amazing mentors who push me to envision the work/life balance I want and then to make it happen.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I dig Sheryl Sandberg. Her book "Lean In" came to me at a time in my career where I was considering what my professional future would look like if I decided to have kids. One of the pieces of advice in her book is to actively seek a job that you're obsessed with and lean into it - the idea is that women who do so are much more likely to return to work following any kind of maternity leave. I took the leap to join Diffusion shortly after reading that book, and my excitement for what we're doing at Diffusion is what made coming back from maternity leave a no-brainer.

What do you want Diffusion to accomplish in the next year?
We have really aggressive plans to further expand our office - we've enjoyed really incredible growth in the past year and we're not planning on stopping any time soon.