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In an industry known for helping clients solve crises and evolve, Barri Rafferty doesn’t shy away from a challenge—including leading in a rapidly changing world.

She served as CEO of leading public relations agency Ketchum for nearly three years before becoming the EVP, Head of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo in July 2020.

Barri is a champion for diversity and empowering women and is known for her strong but kind leadership style.

I had the chance to interview Barri for my book, The Future Leader. In many ways, Barri already embodies many of the skills and mindsets that will be required for future leaders. Barri’s long career in communications and leadership has provided her great insights into what it will take to stand out as a leader in the future. It’s all about building relationships and strengthening what makes you unique and diverse.

Tap Into Communication And People Skills

Take it from a master communicator—future leaders must know how to represent themselves and communicate well. Instead of relying on hard skills, the future of leadership revolves around soft skills and being able to build relationships and interact with people.

Barri grew up in the South and was taught from an early age to be kind and well-liked. But as she grew in her career and stepped into leadership roles, she had to learn that it’s better to be trusted than to be liked. It’s a challenge that many leaders, especially women, face. Growing up, everyone wants to be liked, but when you come into the workforce and have to make tough calls, it’s more about building trust than making friends.

Barri puts it this way: “Sometimes you’re going to have to make tough calls. People aren’t going to be happy, but if they trust you and they understand why you made that decision, they’ll follow you. But they don’t have to like every decision.”

Barri believes leaders can be both nice and strong. Her former CEO told her that she “throws a punch with a velvet glove”, a trait Barri has always been proud of. In today’s ultra-connected world, some leaders rush to respond to emails, texts, and messages and end up doing it in a way they aren’t proud of that doesn’t truly represent them. But successful leaders, both now and in the future, will know how to communicate in a way that is both kind and firm and showcases who they are.

Barri believes future leaders need to understand their own emotions and the emotions of their employees. Throughout her career, she has worked on what she calls “fearless listening”, or the idea of really listening, probing, and trying to understand the situation before jumping in with a solution. Leaders often feel the need to assert themselves over everything, but future leaders will understand fearless listening and know when to stay quiet and soak in other people’s perspectives.

Encourage And Facilitate Diversity Of All Kinds

When Barri took the helm of Ketchum in 2018, she became the first female CEO of a top five public relations agency. But she wants to ensure she is just the first of many. As a vocal advocate for gender equity and inclusion, Barri helped found a group called Omniwomen, which is aimed at increasing the number of women leaders. She has been a fierce proponent of pay equity and inclusion of all types of under-represented groups, not just women. Through her words and actions, Barri shows that future leaders must step up and facilitate diversity and inclusion in their companies and industries.

Aside from traditional diversity tenants, including bringing together people from different genders, ethnicities, religions, backgrounds, and more, Barri believes in the importance of diversity of mindset.

Barri told me this: “We’re a company where most of our people work in big cities. So we had to think about how well we listened to and understood people who live in rural areas or other parts of the world. What different types of mindsets do we need to bring in to come up with the right solutions? I think that’s something for companies to look at in a different way.”

Embracing diversity allows leaders to better connect with their employees and customers. As they practice fearless listening, they can realize the many opinions and perspectives and find a place for them all at the table.

Attract and Retain Top Talent 

One of the most important skills for future leaders will be the ability to attract and retain top talent. Increasingly, companies aren’t just competing for customers; they’re also competing for talent. Barri believes that to get the best employees, leaders need to be willing to make changes to their model to stand out from the competition.

“If you want to attract and keep top talent, then you need to make sure to invest in their experience,” Barri said. “Employees have more power, and this will only continue to increase. We have to build organizations with our people, not for them. Leaders must understand that they and their organizations are nothing without the people who work there.”

Future leaders will also need to leverage technology and mobility to connect with their workforces. Leaders will need to know how to connect with and manage talent virtually. That mobility, or being able to have freedom in work schedules, will create unique experiences for teams to come together. I talked to Barri before the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re definitely already seeing much of this take place. With more employees working remotely, either temporarily or indefinitely, the ability to connect with and manage talent virtually is becoming increasingly important. That skill will continue to grow in future years and could be the difference between a company that attracts top talent and one that struggles to find the best employees.

“If everyone can work from their home or anywhere, why do they want to work for me? How you make that work culture unique to attract the right talent is going to be a new challenge. Differentiating your culture in a virtual world is going to be much harder,” Barri said.

In the future, leaders will also have to take a different approach to talent retention. It’s one thing to bring in the best employees, but it’s another to keep them engaged and sticking with the organization. Barri believes the key to employee retention is making the employee experience different.

“I think how we rotate talent, how we move people around the world, how we think about job trajectories will change. It might be quicker and leapfrog from side to side versus just going up to build different skill sets. I think there’s going to be some interesting ways to look at talent retention.”

The future of work and leadership is already among us. To lead successful companies, leaders must develop their communication skills, champion diversity and inclusion, and focus on employee experience in a virtual world.

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