Women in Business Q&A: Sharon Napier, Founder and CEO, Partners + Napier

Named one of Advertising Age's most influential women in the industry, Sharon Napier is a lifelong entrepreneur, business expert, and marketing visionary. With more than 30 years of experience and no intention of slowing down, Sharon has built her career and reputation as one of the most recognizable and trusted voices in advertising.

As founder and CEO of Partners + Napier, Sharon has built a nationally recognized agency whose ever-expanding team is entrusted with guiding some of the world's most iconic brands. Born with a challenger mindset, the scrappy creative shop is the David to many industry Goliaths, with a long track record of winning national and global relationships including Capital One, BMW Financial Services, Constellation Brands, AT&T, Delta Private Jets, ConAgra Foods, and Lufthansa Airlines. The agency recently launched a new creative boutique in New York City.

After less than a decade of growth at Partners + Napier, Sharon became one of the few women leaders who have built and sold an agency. She led its acquisition by global independent agency network Project: WorldWide in 2011. In addition to her responsibilities at Partners + Napier, Sharon has served as a member of Project: WorldWide's Global Strategic Leadership Team since the acquisition, helping to guide the new model as it continues to make waves and headlines.

Sharon is a frequent speaker at industry events, including Advertising Week, the 4A's Transformation Conference, and the American Marketing Association. She was also the keynote speaker at Advertising Age's inaugural Small Agency Conference.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm the youngest of five children born to hardworking, no-nonsense parents who owned and operated a family hair care distribution business in Western New York. I worked with them from a very early age - helping out with customers, stocking supplies and so on. So I grew up with great role models and a privileged view of what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

My father, an Italian immigrant, was definitely one of my biggest influencers. I grew up watching him lead by example with words of wisdom like: "Your handshake is your word," and, "No one is successful on their own." More than anything, he set a high threshold for handling life's pressures and pains. He'd say, "So, someone beat you. Someone took advantage of you. Whoever said life was going to be fair?" He gave me a mental toughness and a determination to make it that has definitely influenced my career and my leadership style.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Partners + Napier?
I actually started out in social work, working with families and kids. But after a year I decided it wasn't for me. So I did a total 180 and started working on a campaign for a local politician. Working in politics taught me how to network, how to nurture valuable contacts, and how to exist in a high-stakes environment. On the campaign trail, the campaign manager told me, "You'd be great in advertising." That sparked a passion in me. Years later, after holding every account management position on the ladder, I became president and CEO of the Rochester-based agency, The Wolf Group, a regional agency network.

There came a point when my partners and I saw that the network was really struggling and we were going to go under. So we put everything we had into a buyout (I'm not kidding - I used my house as collateral). We saved our two offices and 40 jobs, and we started Partners + Napier. Our team (I call them "The Brave 40") pitched in and bought the sign over the door with their own money. And I get to walk under that sign every day. When I look back on the buyout it feels like a bold, scary decision, but at the time it just felt like the right thing to do.

These early career experiences showed me that everything can change in an instant. As a leader, you have to be able to make tough decisions quickly - and whether they're the right ones or the wrong ones, you learn from them and move forward.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Partners + Napier?
Wow, that's a big question. The highs have definitely been earning our clients' trust, building a wonderful team, opening our office in NYC, acquiring our first company, and of course, a key milestone was celebrating 10 years in business this past spring. And I'd say joining Project: WorldWide in 2011 ranks up there with the best. Joining a global agency network was a big step. We kept our autonomy, and we've had opportunities to partner with other Project: WorldWide agencies to do amazing work for Pepsi, AT&T, Lipton, Salesforce.com, and others.

Building a nationally recognized agency outside of a major market has been a challenge. The recession was tough, as it was for many agencies, and we once had three senior executives leave without notice (talk about agency craziness!). But as I think back on all we've been through, the challenges have come hand in hand with highlights. When our largest client filed for bankruptcy, for instance, it was a real come-to-Jesus moment for all of us. Because we'd been proactive we made adjustments that made us a stronger, more stable agency. We got through it. Our team showed grit and resilience, and I couldn't be prouder of that. So I know we can make it through anything.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
In every way possible, make sure you're ready for it. Make sure you're ready for all the stereotypes and labels that people will put on you. Know that you won't always be liked. Know that your workday will never begin and end predictably.

Make sure you're really passionate about what you're getting into. And be ready for it to succeed or fail - and if you fail, be ready to learn from it and get back up. Make sure you're ready for your whole family to be a part of it. You'll find that you'll be closer for it, though it means sacrifice. And if you have kids, they'll have a leg up in life, because you'll teach them invaluable lessons by example.

Make sure you know what you don't know. Be very aware of what you're good at and not good at, and be honest with yourself about what you can personally handle and not handle. And get some allies, quickly. In organizing the buyout, I needed to get smart in a hurry about talking to banks and securing their confidence. So I asked advice from a highly successful businessman in our area. I recommend you reach out to your allies and get them passionate about what you're building, and get their help.

At the end of the day, you'd better be pretty damn tough. You can't imagine how much work it's going to take, but if you're truly passionate about what you're doing, it's going to be one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned that my job is a series of compromises. When you're trying to build something on a national and global level, it's definitely about give and take. For example, we always thought we'd stay an independent agency, but to get the national scale we wanted, we needed a bigger footprint, more financial backing, and the ability to recruit and retain top talent. So we joined an independent holding company, and we've made huge strides toward that goal. I've learned that getting to my vision as I build our business is a series of carefully chosen, strategic compromises.

And, I'd say that when it comes to making big decisions, like deciding whether to be acquired or to launch a new office, your decision has to be part heart and part rational. Being a good leader means being able to recognize which is which, and lead with what you know is right.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I get asked this question a lot. Work/life balance is a subjective thing. There's no formula or magic solution to being happy with your situation. For me, when I'm at the agency, I'm completely focused on work. And when I'm with my family, I try to live in the moment.

It's tough when you're part of the advertising industry and you live an agency life, because sometimes you just can't ignore the work. It can be hard to break away entirely. I know I won't ever fully remove myself from my work - partly because my name's on the door, but mostly because that's just who I am. So work/life balance isn't really a balance, it's a blend.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Overall, I think women lack confidence. And that's partly because women are under a microscope more than men, but much of it is self-imposed. Women tend to overthink things and dwell on the negative. We spend too much energy trying to be perfect and not enough energy networking and creating allies. And when we succeed, we don't really own it. We'll say, "Oh, I was just in the right place at the right time," or, "Oh, I had a ton of help with that project."

Confidence is a muscle. And just like any other muscle, you have to exercise it - otherwise it will atrophy. I think women need to exercise their confidence more, whether it's by taking on a new project, leading a new team, or opening a new office. Whatever it is, women need to go for it! Think less and do more. Be courageous enough to lead the pack and take on new experiences.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
While I've had a few mentors, I've taken a less traditional route to picking up lessons along the way. I always come out of difficult situations and ask, "How could I have done that better?" I'm a voracious reader and I pick up pointers and ideas from everywhere. My mindset has always been to try everything. If it works, great - if not, shift course. I love meeting new people and understanding how they've become successful and what drives them.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Shelly Lazarus has been a longtime role model for me. She's one of the originals, and she's still shaping the industry. I saw her speak at Advertising Week a couple years ago with Lauren Crampsie, and she told some great stories about being the only woman at the table in a room full of men. She has an unmistakable presence that has served as inspiration for a lot of women.

And I have to say Marissa Mayer. She's bold. She takes no prisoners. I admire that she stands for something and she's getting results - tough to do no matter what industry you're in. She basically said, "I don't want a flex workforce. I don't think it works. And my numbers prove it now." She always leads with conviction, and in her own style. Now that's confidence!

What do you want Partners + Napier to accomplish in the next year?
I want to see Partners + Napier on Advertising Age's Agencies to Watch, because we're definitely there. The momentum we've built in the past couple years is just incredible, and I really hope the industry recognizes how far we've come and how far we're prepared to go.

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