• Kate Wilhelm

Practicing People-First Leadership in an Era of Zoom


Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy was off to a strong start at the beginning of 2020 when I became Chief Operating Officer. Our team was working hard – and with unity.

And then, of course, COVID-19 hit in March. Everything changed.

I’m proud to say Ceisler Media changed – or rather, quickly adapted, when the pandemic began affecting everyone’s life. And while we’re all still in uncertain times, our team and our clients continue to operate effectively.

Adaptation is the key to leadership, especially in times of crisis. Here are five strategies we’ve used to make sure our mission and values are fulfilled at Ceisler Media – for our employees and our clients.

1. Authenticity is Consistency

Leadership experts often speak of authenticity. It is important to be our true selves in the workplace and when representing our clients. Authenticity makes us relatable.

But in challenging times, being consistent is as important as being authentic. You can’t be one without the other – whether you’re dealing with an employee who regularly turns in quality work or a client campaign centered on messaging. To be authentic is to be consistent.

2. How You Show Up Still Matters

Most of us live behind our screens these days. Yet “showing up” still matters. Throw on the button-down with a pair of comfortable pants (save that beloved T-shirt displaying your campaign promise for internal team calls). Always make sure you present yourself, your company, and your ideas in the same style you did when you sat at a conference room table before March 2020.

We carry that same principle to our clients during these unique times – regularly crafting ideas of how they can creatively “show up,” be seen, breakthrough, and align their goals with entirely new tactics built on the same models. Town halls and grassroots organizing might be a little different than it was in February, but that does not mean it cannot still happen


3. What’s Your Office Culture When There’s No Office?

Lunchtime conversations. Sidebars in the hall. Overhearing a colleague’s challenge and lending advice. Huddling in a graphic designer’s cubicle with a whiteboard, sketching out an infographic.

These office moments aren’t able to happen when no one is in the office. So how can we create them without them feeling manufactured?

Ceisler Media formed an employee committee three years ago as a way to provide feedback to leadership. Changes in our time-off structure, firm-wide retreats, and annual reviews all grew out of feedback from leaders not listed at the top of the org chart. When COVID hit, we leaned on that committee and it continues to help us adapt – through surveys, focused subcommittees, and employee engagement.

Nothing can replace in-person interaction, but we’re working every day to create meaningful connections with our employees – as a group, as small teams, and one-on-one. We want them to know how important they are to Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy’s success during tumultuous times.

4. Leading Requires Knowing Yourself and Owning Your Truth

We are all going through this moment together, yet every one of us faces our own distinct challenges. As a single mother, I am fortunate to have a lot of support in place. But I still have moments where I am engulfed in work and have to step back to tell myself, “Stop. You need to pause because you are not doing yourself or anyone any good.”

It’s especially important to stay connected to friends and family. I recently listened to Michelle Obama’s podcast on Spotify and was struck by this episode, where she discussed how President Obama always made sure to share dinnertime with his family when he was in Washington. Hearing that, I decided it would have to be an extraordinary circumstance for me to miss dinner with my daughter when she is home with me.

Recognize yourself in this moment – who you need to be and who you want to be. Own that and walk forward.

5. Empathy Remains the X-Factor

To lead in these times requires empathy – the kind that cannot be taught but is innately part of you. We are all human and can all only take so much – so much work, so much news, so much of anything.

A personal connection to employees is critical to your business right now. You need to recognize when the look on someone’s face on the screen says, “I need a hand, but I don’t even know it.” Do not fall into the comfort of staying behind a screen. Instead, consider what your team members face every day, from all angles. Call people on your team, stay in touch, ask questions. Because the most efficient and productive structures are built around an empathic culture where people lean on each other – and never has that been more important.

Kate Wilhelm is the Chief Operating Officer in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia Office.


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