Mary Stengel Austen

 Mary Stengel Austen co-founded Tierney Communications in 1989 with three employees and a vision. Today, through careful hiring, measured risk-taking and a positive outlook, Austen and co-founder Brian Tierney have grown the company into the largest full-service marketing communications firm in Philadelphia. That success has taught her to look at challenges as opportunities for growth and to surround herself with employees who share her vision. Smart Business spoke with Austen, president and CEO of Tierney Communications, about how she leads by example and why you need to get employees to buy in to the company.

When things get tough, you should, too.
You have to love what you do; if you don’t love what you do, that passion and drive and enthusiasm does comes from the top [and] if people get a sense that you’re punching your time card, it will absolutely show.

It’s visible, and people really see it when there is a challenge. When you don’t win an account you thought you were going to win, or if you have a business challenge with high stakes, in terms of, ‘If you win this assignment, that could be great; if you don’t … ’ That’s when people see it — when the industry around you is changing and you’re trying to figure out how to go after it and get a piece.

That’s when people see your true colors. When things are fine, and you’re just plugging along, it doesn’t become as evident.

Get employees involved.
You want to make sure people understand where you’re going. You want to make sure you’re clear about what the expectation is for them and for the company, so there’s not either a sense of disconnect, or they don’t understand your passion for direction, or they don’t share it.

That is really important, because people want to feel like they’re in the know. Again, you want them to take ownership. You’re never going to get there on your own. I’ve never met a leader who has gotten there on their own, or sustained their place in the market on their own.

It’s not going to happen. You’re going to burn out, or people underneath you or around you won’t be happy. They have to feel like they are part of it.

You have to be real clear about what your expectations are for them in terms of giving them a sense of what you’re trying to build. Make sure that they are part of that process. They need to feel buy-in, and we want to do the best work in the industry.

You need to give them responsibility and the authority to make some of those things happen. If you have buy-in and they feel as though they’re responsible and they’re empowered to make decisions, that can be a powerful combination. People want to be a part of something they’ve helped build.

Hire people who will challenge you.
I like consensus, I’m very collaborative, and I try to lead by example, but I’m also excited by the opportunity to learn from other people. You’re only as smart and effective as the people around you, and you can only grow if you have those really good people surrounding you.

It’s like playing tennis with someone who’s better than you — you get better. I strongly believe in cultivating people who are really smart and have a passion for the business that energizes and recharges my batteries, as well.

You have to really be invested in that business, you really have to hire, train and cultivate really smart people who share your vision and are willing to step up and be partners with you. Talent is such a critical aspect.

You need partner clients who share that passion and recognize and support your ability to help them with their businesses. You have to be willing to take some risks, too; that goes along with decision-making.

Make a decision, and make it quickly.
A business leader needs to be a quick decision-maker; they need to be problem-solvers. They need to have a curious mind and a relentless sense of spirit; they need to be open to change and all sorts of experiences.

The way the world is now, (change) doesn’t always happen in a straight line, so you really have to be willing to look up periodically, and maybe you need to move in a new direction. What is working today may not necessarily work tomorrow or the next day, and you have to be open to that.

You look at the facts; you weigh your options. You decide based upon what your objective is. Decide what your strategy should be, and your tactical plan falls out from there. If there are other folks who I need information from to make decisions, I would get a download from them on their recommendations or the potential challenges or opportunities for going in a certain direction, and then you’ve got to go.

I’ve heard Jack Welch speak a couple times. His belief is that you have more issues by not making a decision versus making one and altering your course later. People sometimes hold back on decisions they should have made earlier.

For example, if an employee isn’t a fit for the company, or if a client doesn’t have the same expectations or goals you do, you’ve got to move on that quickly because it doesn’t get any better.

Sometimes you have to make hard decisions sooner rather than later. You have to be prepared for change and you have to embrace change. It’s inevitable, and more important than that, it can be inspiring and can lead to growth or opportunity.

Convince your customers that they’re better off with you.
Make sure you’re giving clients new ideas and business-building ideas every day, so they feel really good about your added value and the fact that you are eating, sleeping and drinking their business the same way they are.

We’re focused on what keeps our decision-makers up at night and that we feel as invested in their business as they do. That has resulted in growth, because when you develop a partnership like that, those people are going to want to work with you on future projects.

HOW TO REACH: Tierney Communications, (215) 790-4100 or