Lief specialises in helping business leaders develop effective strategies to improve the reputation of their organisations and to raise their game. Having worked on many global public relations campaigns and with a legal background, she provides senior counsel, fast-moving issues management, and reputation strategy. She has guided a wide range of CEOs, senior executives and other public figures through large-scale thought-leadership campaigns and crisis situations.
She is a regular media commentator on issues surrounding corporate communications and reputation.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m the managing director of City-based corporate reputation consultancy SBC London.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Yes. Without a plan you won’t go far. I have always planned ahead but at the same time I’ve been open to adjusting to circumstances and to taking unexpected opportunities that presented themselves.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Yes. One of the biggest challenges my role brings is a good one to have. It is the challenge of both advising and leading extremely clever people.
Both the clients and the people on the team at SBC tend to be extraordinarily bright, successful, often MENSA-level people. Before I have ever met them, they have inevitably achieved a great deal in their lives.
Dealing with very bright people, whether in a management or consultancy capacity, requires a very particular skill set.
In management, I have learned that trust is key and understanding that you have to give people their legs. It’s about knowing when to let them run with the wind and when to step in when they need guidance.
Similarly our clients tend to be unusually bright people. I couldn’t achieve half of what they have in their fields. The key is to recognising that they are the experts in their fields and we are the experts in ours. Many consultants make the awful mistake of giving advice beyond their remit. I learned early on that this was not the way to go!
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is the perception that as a woman I will be at the fluffy end of PR, rather than the end where millions or even billions of share price can be at stake when a client has a reputation crisis – which can be caused by anything from online rumour to a health scare on premises. However, once people have met me that usually dissipates. There’s nothing fluffy about me. In fact, for some unfathomable reason, I have the reputation for being somewhat fearsome!
On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?
I start my day consuming a latte and emails on the Thames commuter boat. Then I walk from Blackfriars Pier into the City, often on the phone. Then the office day kicks off first with the SBC Morning Briefing, which I or a colleague run, then goes on to client meetings and so on. In our line of work, we can’t plan the week ahead because we need to be reactive sometimes to very fast moving scenarios.
Tell us a little bit about your role and how did that come about?
My role involves heading up a crack team of corporate reputation experts.
My understanding of client situations derives from having worked for a very large number of firms in my 25 plus years as a public relations and reputation advisor. I also have legal training and worked as a journalist. It is my job to see through to the heart of the matter and devise workable strategies that support reputations and increase profits.
SBC London works with the leaders of companies and organisations to build their profiles, to get their voices heard and to protect their reputations. A client said that we look like the people in “Suits”, have the brains of tatty professors and get things done like Special Forces operatives. I like that description.
Have you ever had a mentor or a sponsor or anyone who has helped your career?
I am very lucky to have excellent mentors. People who have relevant experience and act as outside eyes. I believe in learning wherever possible from the experience of others. Why suffer yourself when you can learn from someone else’s suffering? However, advice is not an excuse for the abrogation of responsibility. A business leader needs to take responsibility
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
I’d change the beliefs of the significant minority of people that still have odd ideas about gender.
There are still Neanderthal men who, deep in their hearts, believe that women should be metaphorically barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen and resent women in the workplace. They don’t think that women are truly capable of doing a “man’s job” and resent the intrusion, especially if a woman is senior to them.
Then there are the women who, deep down, want to be cared for and looked after by strong clever men and want special licence to be workplace cry-babies – just because they are women.
A plague on both their houses.
How would you encourage more women into STEM/ the digital industry?
I am sometimes invited to speak to groups of young women about their career planning. I have noticed that unfortunately, they take decisions as to what to study at university at a time when they are most vulnerable to gender stereotyping.
More female role models are needed. There are plenty of young men who want to go into engineering or science because they have the role models. If sexy, strong, interesting women in the tech industry or science were increasingly featured in films and television programmes, we’d see more and more young women signing up.
I have an unfashionable belief in early specialism. A girl, or boy, who has a passion for science at 13, may have become disillusioned or even delinquent by the time they get to 18 if they haven’t had that passion fed. Provide secondary education specifically geared towards STEM for these children.
If you were to look back in five years, what would you see in terms of your achievements?
I’m less interested in personal achievements than those of my team as a whole. In five years’ time the SBC London team will be the global leader in reputation management, will continue to have fabulous clients and will retain its unique culture of humour, intelligence and action.
Tell us about your plans for the future
I will work till I drop. But at some point in the future the team will be entirely running the business and I’m sure to be shuffled off and rolled in only for board meetings, where I will sit vainly spouting nonsensical, pompous nonsense that everyone nods at, then ignores.