Advice from the Coach: How to Ethically Build Your Business – Ken Jacobs

Joining me on this week’s episode is Ken Jacobs, ACC, CPC, an experienced consultant and certified coach and the principal of Jacobs’ Consulting and Executive Coaching, which serves agencies, companies, senior leaders, executives and managers in corporate communications, public relations, advertising and marketing. I’ve known Ken for more than 10 years now and we’ve gotten into lots of trouble together at Counselors Academy meetings and he is always willing to share advice on how to ethically build your business.

Ken discusses a number of ethics topics including:


Tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career.

I was in the PR business, mostly consumer marketing PR for more than 25 years. I was very fortunate, though some days it didn’t feel fortunate. I went into management early in my career and was a VP at 26. Then in full candor, after those 25 plus years, things weren’t working out. I was not having the level of success towards what was going to be the end of that career that I had had earlier on and I needed to figure out another career.

I wanted to both be of service to agencies in PR and marketing, so twelve years ago, I created a company where I would help agencies grow and manage business, drive Biz Dev, manage businesses for profitability, improve client service, client relationships and enhance team performance and communication skills and leadership skills.

I do that through consulting and training. And at the same time, we’re helping agency owners, leaders, corporate communications leaders, executives, senior managers to become more compelling, more inspired leaders through executive coaching.

Thinking back over your career, both on the PR side as well as the coaching side, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Either my eyes were closed or I just been very lucky. I don’t recall a major, major ethical challenge. Actually no, I don’t think it’s because my eyes were closed. I think it’s because I’ve kept ethics front and center throughout my career, at least I hope I have.

I did have one situation where I was a number two (well, there was a 2A and a 2B in an agency I worked at) and we had a situation where the client president had muddled into a few things in the PR programming and hadn’t handled it well and we had a real potential crisis and reputational issue.

And so we had to decide, “Do I tell the president of the firm that truth? That he needed to back away from PR execution and our PR programs.” He loved getting involved in them and if we told him that my boss knew it was a risk that we’d be fired. You don’t tell the president what to do. “Hey, it’s my PR budget, I’m the president.”

I literally saw her just take this breath and she said the quote from Me and Bobby McGee, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

And it did it for her. She just called and said, “This is what we need to do going forward and we feel very strongly about it and we hope you agree and if you disagree, well we can find you another partner.” And they said, “You’re right.”

That was a very powerful moment for me doing the right thing.

I remember that transformative moment and the look on her face and that quote, which I just remember when I was thinking about this, I had forgotten till just now.

Beyond your career and thinking about your coaching – you’re talking to senior agency leaders, what are some of the key ethics challenges they’re facing or you’re helping them with?

It’s so often gets down to dealing with difficult or even abusive clients. They’re not abusive to the agency owner or even the leader under them. But in the interactions with the team, they’re just horrible. And I’m not talking about the clients who aren’t good with time management, who fall off the schedule and don’t return stuff in time.

Agency leaders are torn between the dilemma of do I tell them the truth and they’ve got to stop acting this way, or put it more positively, that there’s a certain way we treat people and we need to have our people treated this way and your behavior needs to change. But there’s often the fear of pissing off the client and losing the business.

And like all ethical things, it’s not that black and white, there’s a lot of gray. Because if we say that to the client and they say goodbye or they say, “Well we’re not going to change.” Now you’ve got an economic impact on potentially many people. So I think like many ethical decisions, it’s multifaceted. It’s like a diamond. My feeling is, go within, you know what the right thing is to do. First try to work with the client, try to change the behavior, try to point out the benefits to all of treating your agency personnel a certain way as respected partners and even if you disagree with them. If that’s not happening then it is often better to part ways.

Now, oddly enough, this is where the business development comes in because I tell my clients, “You should always know the clients that you would want to fire.” If you are actively pursuing the right kind of new business, the right kind of clients that allows you to be true to that ethical North star and say, “We’re only going to work with clients who treat our people a certain way and we will certainly treat our clients that way and we will treat one another that way and we will treat our vendors that way.”

It’s so important to articulate those kinds of standards. How we will treat one another, that we will put ethics first because when you articulate it, you live it. Then you attract staff who want to work in that kind of environment and want to work that way. You also attract clients who want that as well.

When agency owners take the tough stand, and have to lay off how do you recommend they educate their staff about the reasons behind the decision?

If you are actively pursuing the right kind of business and the partners that you want to work with, it gives you more freedom to act in an ethical way. You need an ethical dimension to keep your business growing. I think that always being very clear about the agency’s values, including ethics is so important and agency owners and corporate communications. You have your credo, you live it, you talk about it, you live it. And when you make decisions, you point out how it goes back to those values, nothing is done in a vacuum.

So if ethics are high on the list, you talk about that a lot. If taking care of one another is high on the list, you talk about that a lot and it’s really important that this all be in sync. Employees and staff members’ ability to sniff out corporate BS is very, very high. If you say employees come first and you’re not living it, it creates a dissonance and they will sniff that out and people don’t follow that. People follow consistency and consistent leaders. So if you say employees come first, you got to live it. If you say clients come first, but for you it’s all about the money and the billings. There’s dissonance there. Your team will sniff that out. Being consistent is absolutely critical. Look for every opportunity to articulate and repeat those values, including your ethics.

Let’s discuss conflicts of interest. You’re advising senior agency executives that may very well be competing with each other, so you’re helping one company compete against another one of your clients and some could see that as a perceived conflict of interest. How do you address that or how do you recommend people handle most conflicts of interest?

I’ve been fortunate in how we’ve created the business and who we serve. When you’re doing leadership coaching, executive coaching, that’s very one-on-one, that’s helping the leader align their actions with their values. That’s helping the leader remove what we call energy blocks, things getting in the way of their success. Because as coaches, we believe that our clients have that wisdom within, have the knowledge with them. It is our job to work with them, to use a coaching methodology to ask empowering questions to get rid of what’s getting in the way of that success. So that’s one of the big differences between coaching and consulting. Consulting, you’re telling them what to do, with coaching you’re using empowering questions to light up their brain and help them remove what’s getting in the way of that success and to figure out what would ultimately be the most fulfilling for them.

So if there are two agencies, and even if they were top competitors and I’m helping CEO or owner or senior VP at one agency deal with their issues and get the most from their opportunities, the things they’re dealing with can be very, very different than the ones that the agency next door. I’m helping them become more compelling leaders to increase the followership, to increase their influence. So to me, that’s not a conflict of interest.

I might be working with two agencies that compete, but I’m working with one agency on profitability, how to maximize the profit from the income they’re making. I could be working with two competitive agencies in fact on enhancing their profitability, but things getting in the way of their profitability might be very, very different things. For one, their expenses may be too high or not delivering value, for the other one, the ratio of salary and benefits is just out of whack. So if I help both of them concurrently, not competitive.

I think the only possible time where I have a conflict and it hasn’t happened yet is if I have two agencies who are highly competitive and if they were both wanting to hire me for business development. That hasn’t happened yet, but the thing I grew up believing in the agency business was, it’s about your current client. It’s about the ones that have already selected you and honored you by hiring you and saying, “We want to work together.” If I’m working with agency A on business development and agency B comes along and they’re clearly competitors and agency B says, “We’d like to work with you on business development.” I turn it down without a thought, not even a heartbeat.

Because agency A, we’re already partners who are working together. I would refer agency B to another consultant because if they want help, there’s help out there. There’s a lot of us out there and I know the good ones. I don’t start by mentioning their names… but if I’m not going to take the assignment, let’s spread that all around.

Are there other ethical challenges you’re seeing executives face?

It is a challenge to have to make the decision that we have to part ways with someone for financial reasons, not for performance, but sometimes you just have to do that. If sometimes when you look at the skills you need going forward or the practice areas going forward or the industry knowledge going forward that you need to grow and sustain your business and where the marketplace is going and who knows what we’re going to be looking at in the weeks and months ahead with what’s going on out there with the coronavirus. Sometimes you have to part ways and that’s just a very difficult decision.

From an ethical point of view, just be as supportive as you can financially to this person so they can get back on their feet. Especially in a smaller agency. If you don’t make that decision and you keep them on and there’s no work to do, that’s going to have an impact ultimately on how you can compensate others on the benefits you can provide and your ability to bring in the people who have the skills that your clients need.

The same goes for future prospects. Do you have the right skill set experience, industrial category, background, et cetera? Know that you are doing the right thing, do the right thing by the person with whom you’re partying ways and know and embrace that you’re also doing the right thing for the people who remain behind. That’s a tough one.

Explain to the team that sometimes in the business of business we have to make very difficult heart wrenching decisions. Certainly, on the agency side, agency ownership is not for the faint of heart and generally we do face something every seven or 11 years because we’re tied to the marketplace.

Now sometime there are other options. For a few years I worked at Maloney and Fox.

The agency is no longer with us. But I remember after 9/11 they made a group decision to not have layoffs. Their ethical approach was everybody took a major salary hit, but they didn’t do layoffs. That was their decision. It went very much back to their culture and their values and their ethics. So there are other ways to get through tough situations and that was their choice and that was absolutely right for them.

One question that sometimes confuses people. What’s the difference between being a coach and being a consultant?

Yeah, and there are many, and I think I can answer it because I’m both. I view consulting as advising, counseling, telling my client what I would recommend doing. It comes from my experience. It comes from my expertise. This is what I would do if I were you. And there’s a benefit to that in many ways in some areas.

Coaching, at least the coaching that certified coaches do, is with a real methodology and it is all a real coaching process and it is so much about asking empowering questions. I can say, “Mark, I think you should do…” “Okay, yes I think I should. Good advice, whatever.” But have I really engaged you? Have I really engaged your brain? Are you really committed to that action? Maybe, but maybe not. But if I use empowering questions, I am lighting up a different part of your brain. We’re connecting much more emotionally and your level of true engagement has just gone up exponentially. And you can see this on MRIs when you ask an empowering question. It lights up a different part of the brain.

So, for me as a consultant going into coaching, and being trained and certified, I had to learn the difference and I had to trust the process. They say, “Trust the process.” And so for me, my mantra became, don’t tell, ask. And my visualization is it doesn’t come from my brain and my mouth because there’s only a certain level of engagement and action on the coaching client side if it comes through my brain and my mouth. But if I can ask a question, an empowering question and open ended question, it now comes from their brain and their mouth and guess what, they are so much more likely to take the action they’ve articulated. And that’s what creates the change to get the outcome they want.

So, for me, in many, many situations, coaching is actually more powerful because. There are many times that I’ll meet when I speak at conferences and things like Counselors Academy and people will come up and say, “Can you consult with me or advise me on Biz Dev or profitability?” And I say yes, but I sense something’s going on. I can sense something’s going on in their lives, in their approach. And I really want to start coaching instead. Sometimes I’ll suggest, “Well, have you thought about this?” And other times I’ll say, “I think coaching might be more valuable to you now, but let’s start with a consulting project and see where it goes.”

And so sometimes the consulting project starts off and they’re trying to do the things that I tell them to do that we agree to do – But things keep getting in the way. And that’s why I say, “You know what? What if we shift, let’s do four months of coaching. Let’s get to the heart of what’s getting in the way of your success and fulfillment.” Because if you can get to that better place as a leader, how you lead others, how you lead your boss, if you have a boss, how you lead your clients and how you lead your teams and how you lead yourself. If you can improve that, enhance that, then anything we’re talking about profitability, Biz Dev, you name it, you’re going to do a better job. And I’ve seen it happen a number of times, and my clients have thanked me for gently pushing them, very gently into a coaching modality.

Well, thank you for clarifying. I appreciate that.

Oh, I love spreading the word. I have a lot of friends, who call themselves coaches, who are great consultants and trainers. They’re brilliant. They’re the best. And when they use the word coaching, I gently call them out on it. cut.

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

I’m going to mangle it a bit and it’s from our mutual friend Patrice Tanaka and it is something like, “Know the right thing to do and always do it no matter the consequences.” Now she presented that to me as a description of how someone builds trust with one’s followers and with everyone in one’s life, but I think it’s a good approach to ethics. Know the right thing to do and always do it no matter the consequences.

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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