How to Hire Ethical People – Patrice Tanaka

Joining me on this week’s episode is Patrice Tanaka, co-founder of three award winning PR and marketing agencies and currently, the Chief Joy Officer at Joyful Planet.

Patrice discusses number of key topics including:

I was hoping you could tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I was born and raised in Hawaii, but my whole life, I wanted to move to New York City. This was my dream and I eventually did move here in my early 20s. My background was journalism degree from the University of Hawaii. I worked at a small newspaper in Hawaii and then, worked as a PR Director for the Wailea Resort on the island of Maui. At that time, it was a very hot resort and one of the best ones in the world.

I came to New York and I immediately started looking for a job at a travel PR agency because that’s who I thought would hire someone from Hawaii. I was able to land a job at a very small travel PR agency. There were five people and I was thrilled.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the woman who hired me was one of the most difficult bosses in New York. Within three months of my having arrived there, three of the five people left and I found myself the senior most person after my boss. But because we were so different, we worked well together because we never got in each other’s way. Over the next seven years, I helped her to build her agency to a point that it was an attractive acquisition by Chiat/Day Advertising. So they acquired us in ’87 and we were part of Chiat/Day for about three years, until I led a group of colleagues in a management buyback to spin off our subsidiary and setup as an independent agency that was wholly owned by the 13 of us involved.

Now, it was never my dream to have my own PR agency. The only reason that I led the management buyback to start a new PR agency, was that it was the only solution I could come up with when our biggest client came to us one day and said, “We love you guys, but we’re going to have to terminate our relationship with you because our senior management feels that there’s going be a recession in the US.”

I knew that if I told my boss at Chiat/Day that we were losing our biggest client, he would make me terminate the three people I had working on that account. That was a horrifying prospect. So, because I pride myself on being able to come up with a solution to any problem, I didn’t tell him because I had 90-day termination clause. I figured I could come up with some way to avoid having to terminate three dear and very talented colleagues.

At the end of the day, the only solution I could come up with was that I was going to have to spin off our subsidiary, setup as an independent agency where I was a CEO and I could decide not to terminate those three colleagues. So that’s what I did. I convinced 12 of my colleagues to follow me in a management buyback and we spun off and setup as PT&Company.

What we didn’t know at the time was a recession was coming. Within six months, we lost half of our billings. Rather than lay off employees, we decided that we should all stay together, take a pay cut equally and focus on rebuilding the lost business. We focused so hard our rebuilding the lost billings that we actually grew 100%, in 18 months, with all of us intact. We didn’t lay anyone off.

We still had a big challenge of trying to distinguish PT&Company from every other agency in New York City and the tens of thousands of agencies across the country. One of our assets was how we weathered the storm of the recession and our business purpose – creating great work, a great workplace and great communities that work.

Our promise to the most talented conscious people was, come to PT&Company and help us to create great communities that work within and beyond our workplace. Within eight years we were recognized as a number one most creative PR agency in the country. At the same time, the number two best place to work among all PR agencies. We had a living room, a meditation room, but our policies and practices were also designed to make it a great workplace, a comfortable workplace, inviting workplace. Also, I didn’t want people to have this sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach Sunday night at the prospect of coming to work on Monday morning. So we had flex time, casual dress. So we really tried to make it as workable as possible.

This also informed the kind of clients that we took on. When you have a purpose that says that we’re all about creating great communities within and beyond our workplace, i.e. healthy, sustainable communities, you cannot accept certain clients. It’s the reason that we turned down four different tobacco manufacturers because there’s no way that we could have justified taking on that kind of plan given our business purpose.

It’s the same reason that we actually found ourselves having to resign three of our biggest clients at different times for different reasons. When you have an abusive client, you can’t just reassign the account because the next account team, the new account team, is still dealing with an abusive client, so you have to walk away. That one really hurt. That was like a $2 million account.

Finally, another client who we had been working for, we had to help them through a crisis, which involved them taking an anti-gay position. We realized once we helped them through the crisis, “Oh my God, if we continue working with these people, then we’ll be complicit in helping them to perpetrate policy that we ethically did not agree with.” So, we resigned them/

Were those the most difficult ethical challenges you ever confronted at work?

For me personally, the most difficult position is when you have to terminate a colleague, for whatever reason. Over the years, I’ve done it badly and I’ve done it better. My position is, if I am responsible for what is in the best interest of the agency as a whole, then I must do what is necessary to protect the interests and the agency as a whole.

One of the things that I’m probably proudest, of my PR career is that, the managing director of my last agency called me in because they were terminating someone who as talented as they were, were not the right fit for us.

I said to her, “You are extremely talented and you deserve to shine in the brightest way possible. However, you will not be able to do it at our agency.”

At the end of that conversation, she knew that I was a big fan of hers, but it was not the right fit. So then, we hugged and cried. I cried, she cried, and my colleague said, “Gosh, the only thing better than being hired by Patrice is being fired by her.” Which made me laugh.

I want to circle back to the two abusive clients that you mentioned. When you were dealing with that situation, how did you come to the decision to fire the client?

Well, I think you have to talk to everybody on the team and see evidence of client behavior and also participate in those meetings so you get a sense of what those interactions are like. the unhappiness of a team is huge factor because unhappy employees can easily go across the street for more money, right? At times employees do leave because there’s no way they’re going to be able to get out of working on that account team. That’s a big problem if you don’t honor the needs of employees to work for reasonable clients.

Not every client is the most reasonable client, but abuse, I think goes beyond the limit of what anyone should have to deal with, especially for an agency that puts it out there that we’re all about trying to create a great workplace environment. We set the bar pretty high. So, the last thing we wanted to do was to be guilty of not living up to the standard that we set.

I think that every time we lived up to that, the standard that we set, it gave us greater capability to our own people, which was important because everyone at your agency is an ambassador, good or bad. So, you better make sure that the people closest to the company, our own employees, are feeling supported and can do great work. If they feel that they are not supported to be able to do great work at your agency or your company, they can easily go across the street and work for someone else where they can do great work.

I never wanted to be the highest paying employer in the PR agency. Because then people will leave because somebody’s going to pay them more. I wanted to be the highest quality of life employer and make it easy, comfortable, a great working environment for people to do their best work because I felt that that would be our strongest guarantee, that we weren’t going to have a revolving door, which is the death of client satisfaction.

Taking a step beyond your own agencies, what do you personally see as some of the key ethical challenges facing the industry today and tomorrow?

I think it all comes down to people making the right decision for the right reasons. At the end of the day, I think that the ethics is something that each of us – from the most junior person on a PR account team or in-house PR department team to the most senior person – is responsible and accountable to speaking up and saying what they think is in the best interest of their company, the agency, their colleagues, the community at large.

That’s why I always thought that it really matters, the people that you hire. It’s just not bodies that you need to fill positions at a certain level or within a certain salary range. That’s why one of my favorite questions to ask prospective hires was, “Tell me about yourself and what is your purpose in life?”

Now, there were several different responses to that question. One was, deer in the headlights. I never thought you were going to ask me that, right? If that was the case, I would just move.

The second response would be, they would be very clear about what their purpose in life was. But it was, I think limited to, helping only those that they knew – friends and family.

Which is lovely. We need to do that, but what about everyone else who doesn’t have friends or a family, right are they SOL.

Then the third group would be where people would tell you what their purpose was and embedded in that purpose, was how they served others, whether they were family, friends, colleagues, clients, the community at large. That’s what I was looking for because if you have people like that, making the everyday decisions on which programs are built, they have the right thinking and the right approach.

Everybody involved in the enterprise has to understand that first and foremost, they need to do the right thing by themselves, their colleagues, their clients and also the community at large. It can’t just be the right thing for their company and their clients. So, I’m a big believer in, you have to hire the right people who understand the importance of doing the right thing. Then, of course they have to have all of the other requisite talent and skills, so that they know how to develop and implement a program to enable them to do the right thing for their clients or companies.

The bottom line to the secret to the success is the Golden Rule.  

Are there other questions you tended to ask during interviews to really get below the surface and understand if you’re hiring somebody who does tend to do the right thing?

Yeah. I like to ask questions like, “Tell me what your proudest accomplishment in life is.” Sometimes people will ask personal or professional?  I always say “you pick.” I just want to see what they’ll say.

Then I’ll ask them questions about, the most difficult challenge they’ve ever had to deal with at work and at home, as well to see what their solution was and what their thought process was. Because that gives you a lot more insight into them. I also like seeing evidence of a discipline and perseverance over time on resumes. I am a big believer that you don’t have to be the smartest, the most creative, talented person to be successful. But you have to have perseverance such that you will keep trying longer than most people are willing to do. If you do that, oftentimes you can end up walking away with a prize or with a successful result.

I look for also, examples of them having played as part of a team. If I see on their resume that their high school team was the champions of whatever region or nationally, that says a lot, right? You have to work with other people, practice and over time, get better and improve, learn how to work together as a team, in order to win, right?

Then, just your own intuitive sense of, do I like this person when I’m talking to them? Do I think that our clients or my colleagues would like this person? Then of course, having other people speak to and have their own experience of that person. So when we come together we can share what we’ve observed and ask one another, who might be the best hire.

Do you believe you should only hire people that know ballroom dancing?  

No, absolutely not. That was my passion and I think that people should pursue their passion because it will only lead to more of what they want in life.

That’s why I wrote a book called Becoming Ginger Rogers: How Ballroom Dancing Made Me a Happier Woman, Better Partner, and Smarter CEO. I had that long of a subtitle because I wanted to convey all the things that I learned from ballroom dancing after I articulated my own life purpose and shared it with a coach. I told her that my purpose in life is to choose joy in my life every day, to be mindful of that joy and to share that joy with others.

Choose joy, be mindful of it and share it with others. The next thing I knew, I was taking ballroom dance lessons because I blurted out that one of the things that brought me joy was dancing because I grew up on all those Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films from the 30s and 40s. This is the reason that I live in New York City, because watching those old black and white films as an eight year old growing up in Hawaii, I thought, “Oh my God, if I got myself to New York City, then I too could be dancing at swing supper clubs every night, dressed in a flowy evening gown and dancing with Fred Astaire.

So my whole life was about getting myself to New York. Of course, as soon as I got to New York, I totally forgot about Ginger Rogers. It was 42 years later when I was in an executive coach’s office because my life was falling apart. I was so depressed that I could barely get out of bed that I rediscovered her.

This was five months after 9/11 and a lot of other things that were going on in my life, including 12 years of building my first agency. There was a lot of wonderful things that happened, but it was very exhausting at the same time. So I share this life purpose to choose joy. The next thing I know, I’m taking ballroom dance lessons and of course, I’m getting hooked. I’m taking more lessons. I can feel joy come flooding back into my life. So then, I start competing in ballroom competitions, winning some championships.

Then one day I said, “Wait a second, my purpose is three part. I have to share my joy. So how am I going to do that? I’ll write a book.” Ballroom dancing did help me to grow my business 800% by close partnering with other mid-size national agencies and co-founding successfully, a larger PR agency.

That’s why we sold PT&Company, to my friend Thomas down in Richmond, Virginia to form CRT/Tanaka and we did that for eight years. Then sold CRT/Tanaka to Minneapolis based Padilla Speer Beardsley, to form CRT and today, it’s Padilla. But I would never have done that before ballroom dancing.

It was one of my partners who pointed that out to me. He said, “If you had not taken ballroom dancing, you could never have sold the agency and not be the CEO.” And he was so right because what I learned in ballroom dancing is that the importance of a leader and follower are equal. You cannot win a championship if both are not equal, strong, skillful and adept on the ballroom floor.

So I just took that lesson beyond the ballroom floor and realized, “Well, maybe I won’t be the CEO, but I’ll be a senior executive helping to shape this new agency that will be bigger and allow us greater capabilities and allow all of our employees career opportunities. Because that’s the whole reason I think, to keep growing as an agency because that’s the only way to keep and motivate really talented people.

Beyond hiring good people how do you train them and coach them once they’re in the door to make sure they continue to make the right decisions or the ethical decisions?

I think we have to set the example. Senior leadership must do the right thing like resigning an abusive client. If fact it’s the only way that we can resolve the situation. And by modeling the behavior that you want, that’s how you do it. By recognizing behavior that you want to encourage, that’s another way to do it. Of course, if people aren’t behaving in the way that is acceptable or accepted within our culture, then we have to speak with them one on one and it might not be the right fit. It does require some vigilance to walk the talk and then, monitor whether people are adhering to what it is that you’re trying to do at the agency.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

My ethical training was first delivered by my parents and specifically, my mother who was much more vocal than my dad in terms of our upbringing. She would always say two things:

  • “Always do your best.”

I don’t care what the final grade is, I just want to know you did your very best. For example, I read this ad in a comic book that you as a child, could can make hundreds of dollars selling greeting cards. Of course, I got in way over my head and she said, “All right, you got yourself in this how, what is a very best you can do if you want to get out of this business?”

  • Then the other refrain that still rattles in my head all the time is “Share your cookies and toys.” It’s not just all about you and yours. Whatever you’re given, you have to share with others.

That’s why one of the proudest things I am about starting co-founding PR agencies over my career is that, we ultimately co-founded the largest employee owned PR agency in the country when we sold CRT/Tanaka to create Padilla/CRT. That to me, was one of my proudest accomplishments because it really does speak to the, share your cookies and toys.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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