Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for tuning in to a brand new episode of The Leader Show with Lou Carter. We are joined by Grace Leong, CEO of Hunter. Hunter is an award-winning consumer marketing communications firm with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and London.
The 250+ employee firm combines strategic planning, media relations, social/digital media, influencer engagement, experiential marketing, multicultural outreach, and content creation to promote renowned brands. Founded in 1989, Hunter has grown into one of the country’s most respected mid-size marketing communications firms, proudly serving a broad range of esteemed companies and brands.
With that said, let’s find out what makes Hunter a Most Loved Workplace®.
Firstly, Lou explores how Hunter maintains its status as a Most Loved Workplace, focusing on the culture, people, and retention strategies contributing to the firm’s success and growth.
Grace responds by highlighting a core principle of earning every relationship, whether with clients, consumers, or staff, based on the foundational public relations practice of earning attention rather than buying it. This ethos translates into focusing on nurturing ‘inputs’—the people and ideas that fuel the company—rather than the ‘outputs’ or end results.
Grace further argues that by concentrating on inputs, outputs naturally follow and become successful. Thus, it fosters an environment where employees are inspired to innovate, ultimately benefiting the company’s service quality and client relationships.
Next, Grace discusses Hunter’s longstanding commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), which has been a core part of the company’s culture long before it recently became a widespread focus. Hunter was established as a woman-owned agency in 1989, highlighting its foundation in diversity and inclusion, particularly in promoting women in leadership roles during a time when this was uncommon.
Over the years, Hunter has expanded its focus to include a range of communities, such as LGBTQ and disabled individuals, aiming to ensure that its team reflects the broader community.
According to Grace, Hunter’s commitment to DE&I has been crucial to its success as an inclusive environment mirrors the real world, benefiting both the clients and the company. Hunter uses industry benchmarks, like those set by PWC, to measure its DE&I efforts and strives to exceed these standards. The agency has published DE&I statements, works with a diverse roster of partners, and engages with communities outside of Hunter.
Furthermore, Hunter has action groups and employee resource groups for various communities, including a newly established Jewish resource group. Thus, it demonstrates its commitment to not only advocating for these communities but also being allies.
Grace highlights that these initiatives are driven by staff needs and are not merely top-down directives.
The speakers also discuss how businesses adapt as societal values shift and trust in traditional institutions like religion and government wanes. These changes, accelerated by the pandemic, have led to a scenario where many people find a sense of belonging, community, and even a form of civic leadership within their workplaces. Businesses are increasingly seen as safe havens and are expected to fill roles that other institutions traditionally occupy.
Grace notes the results of a Wall Street Journal study indicating a decline in traditional values and institutions in the US. It emphasizes how businesses have become the remaining trusted entities for many people.
Employers are now expected to provide not just a workspace but also community and sometimes even stand in for family or civic engagement. This new role requires businesses to adopt practices that ensure psychological safety, emotional connectedness, and a stance on important social issues.
Lou agrees with this perspective, highlighting the importance of training, development, and fostering a culture that supports the overall well-being of employees. Grace acknowledges the challenges this new role presents, involving more work and deeper engagement with employees’ lives beyond the traditional employer-employee relationship.
She views these expectations as an opportunity to elevate the role of businesses in society and to meet the evolving needs of the workforce.
Moving on, Grace highlights the challenges and strategies related to balancing remote work and in-person collaboration within a company culture, particularly in the context of the pandemic. After the pandemic hit in March 2020, Hunter transitioned to remote work and then gradually implemented a hybrid model. The change required employees to be in the office three days a week, with many exceptions to accommodate new lifestyles.
Despite financial success from remote work, Grace stresses the value of face-to-face communication in fostering relationships and collaboration in a field focused on connecting people. She argues that while technology enables remote communication, the value of face-to-face interactions cannot be fully replicated online.
Leadership visibility is also crucial; seeing leaders lead in person is believed to enhance the overall effectiveness and development of the team. Interestingly, Grace notes that younger employees, having spent much time in isolation during their education, were eager to return to the office for in-person mentorship and collaboration.
Towards the end of the episode, Grace talks about Hunter’s approach to professional development and community building through an initiative known as Hunter Community College. It started when Grace took over the company from its founder, Barbara Hunter, and is designed as a continuing education resource for communicators at Hunter.
Despite its name, Hunter Community College is not an actual community college but a clever play on words to emphasize its role within Hunter’s community. The program involves annual training sessions focused on various aspects of the communication craft, ranging from public speaking to creativity. These sessions are highly valued by employees, contributing significantly to Hunter’s culture and staff retention.
Furthermore, Grace highlights the importance of these educational initiatives in response to employee demands for training and development. Hunter conducts regular employee surveys and “stay interviews” to understand why employees remain with the company, and training and development opportunities consistently emerge as key factors. It is a part of Hunter’s broader strategy to attract and retain talent, especially younger staff who prioritize professional growth.
Hunter’s investment in its employees extends beyond competitive salaries and compensation packages, with professional development being a critical component of its value proposition. It has led to a high rate of staff retention and a notable “boomerang” phenomenon, where former employees return to Hunter, attracted by its culture and opportunities for growth.
Thank you for your time!
Lou Carter : Hey, it's great to see you, Grace Leong here today from Hunter PR. It is wonderful to have you here today. The thing is, Grace is a wonderful person besides being a CEO of Hunter PR, which is an awesome company and one of the top Most Loved Workplaces and really learning about her personal values and how they also are a part of what everybody is about at Hunter PR. And it really was very moving to know about not just her work in the military, how much she really loves this country and believes in this country and believes in all that what we're doing and how that kind of love of humanity and for employees manifests with her customers as well.
This belief that if our lives are better as a result of having our customers in it and their lives are better as a result of having us in it, you can tell that she cares deeply about people and it just comes through in spades. Grace Leong, coming from the World Trade Center Tower, beautiful new building at Hunter PR. Welcome to the Newsweek Leader Show.
Grace Leong : I'm so happy to be here and thank you for that introduction. It's wonderful to be with you here. Yes, from the Freedom Tower here in New York City, I get to look over the horizon every single day, which is one of the biggest job perks I have, and it inspires me every day when you can look out and see that beautiful harbor and the Veno Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean. I know. Yes, we can get it done.
LC : Absolutely, we can. And you do. That's what I want to know we're going to talk about today is how you do get it done so well as a Most Loved Workplace at Hunter PR to learn about your people, your culture, how you make that happen, and all of that heart and positive emotion that everybody has at Hunter PR and how you're able really to retain and enhance your culture because you do a fantastic job of that in keeping this sort of year over year agency growth that a lot of people can't achieve, right?
So I want to hear more about that today. How do you do this with retention and enhancing your culture? You have a higher than industry average retention rate and a really strong boomerang culture. So people coming back, so tell me what's happening there at Hunter PR, what's this magic sauce around having this loved workplace?
GL : Well, that's very kind of you and I'll first say that our company name is actually Hunter. We are Proudly Hunter. We started as Hunter PR, but we've changed our name to just plain Hunter simply because we do a lot more than just PR. We're founded in PR, but we are now solidly in all sorts of manifestations of communications. But how do we do it? Since the beginning, since we are founded in the practice of public relations where you have to earn attention, you can't buy it or own it.
Our manifesto has always been you got to earn it because you can't pay for it, you can't own it, you got to earn it. And with that type of ethos fueling our work, we know that every relationship we have, whether we're building it for a client, whether we're building it between consumers and our clients or we're building it with our staff, we have to earn it and we have to earn it every single day.
And that ethos drives how we interact with our staff. And unlike manufacturing companies or producing companies, we don't produce widgets or cars or belt buckles or shoes. We produce ideas and service and in order to energize what we output, we really have to focus on the inputs. So what does all that mean? What we do is we earn it with our staff really at Hunter by focusing on inputs, not outputs.
And I'll say it again, we focus on inputs, not outputs because I believe and our company believes that when you focus on the input, the thing that is making the product or the service or the money, if you focus on those inputs 100% of your time, guess what? Your outputs will always be there and they'll be successful. Inputs not outputs. That is what I tell my management team. We are all about nurturing inputs. The outputs take care of themselves.
And I know there's a very simplified way of saying it, and any business textbook would be like, oh, that's silly, tell us more. But really that's the headline. In a service business like mine, focus on your inputs. They'll take care of the outputs. So many companies will look at their balance sheets. The numbers sell C47, sell D22, uhuh. Those are outputs. I spend my time and my management team spends their time focusing on Luisi or Susan or Rj. How can we make that input better? How can we nurture him? How can we take care of him? How can we inspire him? He will take care of the outputs.
LC : Absolutely. And to have that kind of employee customer centricity, we put so much time and effort and energy into having anxiety about the future. What are we going to do? How are we? Well, if we focus on how to be our best selves with our clients and we put all of our energy into that and not so much in the metrics will take care of themselves, we'll have awesome metrics.
GL : I believe it.
LC : Then we get those great metrics and we can look at those later. And what matters is the input.
GL : No, they'll show up, right? They'll show up. They are a natural product of a healthy input. So if I'm nurturing and inspiring a young practitioner or even a seasoned practitioner and I'm nurturing and inspiring them to bring their very best to the workplace and innovate in their own space or in their team, then guess what?
Those outputs are going to come. But if you focus on outputs and go backwards to the input, you're missing the ball game. Your job as a leader, I'm a leader of an organization, 275 people, three offices, creative people, young people. What is my remit? My remit is making sure that I provide the context, the opportunity, the learning, the compensation and the benefits so they can be the best contributors they can be or even better than they think they can be. That's my job as the leader.
LC : I love that. I love that.
GL : Other people can count the money. Other people can count Excel spreadsheets, and I can do that too, but that's not where my talent's best lie. My talent's best lie in writing the plan, breaking down the barriers and inspiring people to be their best selves.
LC : I love that, Grace. It shows your strengths. And as a CEO, it's often important to realize that we're honored with our title. This is a wonderful title and that we have so many people doing this work that is so important for our clients and so many people around the world. It's really a humbling experience and it's great to hear you have this perspective. I know your new book will be Inputs Not Outputs by Grace Leong.
GL : Yeah, don't let anyone take that. I'm patent pending there or registered trademark pending, I should say.
LC : We'll put it up right now. It'll be a service rark, right? Trademark. So this is great. So we talked about having sort of a younger new generation workforce, right? Well, that's sometimes challenging and it could be a huge opportunity and people see the huge opportunity for growth. You've written, there's a lot about your active DEI and cultural efforts that makes Hunter and environment where everyone can thrive. How is that important to folks at Hunter and how does it manifest in what you do and what others really value in your company?
GL : Yeah, and I should say DE&I has been a mainstay of our culture many years before it came into fashion in the last three or four years where everyone's turning on the guns and the engines to get up to speed. Hunter, way back in the late 1990s, early two thousands, we established ourselves as a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we're taking steps way back then.
In fact, we were founded as a woman owned agency way back in 1989 when we started only women owned. And back at that point, obviously women in the workforce, especially in the c-suite was very unusual. So we were founded in diversity women in this business. And since that time, adding more cohorts, more communities has really been a sharp focus and a deliberate intent of our agency beyond just gender culture backgrounds, LGBTQ, disabled, we are all about making sure our community here at Hunter is reflective of the community at large.
And that's been an initiative and part of our growth pillars for quite some time. And obviously in the last three or four years we've wanted to do even more. So we benchmark ourselves against the latest industry standards. We are well above what even like PWC, that's the standard we use. PWC has a diversity self benchmarking for companies to how well they're actually doing and building diverse and accessible and inclusive communities.
So, we use that as our benchmark. But because we've been at that for a long time, the challenge is how do we get better even then the norms. So publishing DE&I statements, making sure that we have a diverse roster of even partners that we engage with, showcasing communities that we work with outside of Hunter that we're engaged with. We're always looking for the next kind of rung on the ladder to really truly be a diverse and inclusive community because it matters so much to us.
We know when we are a diverse and inclusive and accessible community, the work we produce is the best work because it's reflective of the real world. And that's what we owe our clients and that's what we owe ourselves. And who doesn't benefit from diverse perspectives. I challenge anybody to say when you have five different people in the room, the work is definitely going to be better. You just see it and you know it. So really, really proud of that work. This year we have an action group that advises on what we should do.
We also have employee resource groups for our black community. And this year we started a Jewish resource group so that we can really be not only just advocates for those communities, but allies to those community as well. And that all bubbles up from our staff as well. It's not just top down, it comes from all sides at Hunter. So we're really, really proud of it and not because it's in vogue and especially now that you're seeing a lot of headlines where people are kind of retreating from it a bit, which really troubles me. We're not retreating at all. In fact, we're getting even stronger and we will continue to do that.
LC : And for you to see that, that people do require, they need this, right? I mean they do. They need Jewish resource groups. It's really needed.
GL : And I can tell you, we listen to the staff when they say, we need this from you. We need to create communities within our own community for, and we're like, yep, whatever we can do to support and hear you and provide allyship, we are here for you. And to your point, my company, 275 people, three offices and then people all over the country, the other thing is the big part of our population is under the age of 35. And we recognize that that population, the values of that population are slightly different and then sometimes wildly different than say my generation.
And we have to be reflective of what they want from the workforce and the workplace, how they understand their employer to be in their lives. And as you know, I mean it's published, they expect employers to do a lot more than say maybe you and I expected from our employers back in the day, which you could see as a challenge in today's business world, I don't want to do that. That's hard. Or you could say, wow, new opportunity to lead or to inspire in different ways. And frankly, I prefer the latter case, it keeps it interesting for me.
LC : And inspiring goes to the inputs as well because you're bringing people to a place where they feel safe, they belong and they're protected. They feel protected from really a world that has gone mad
GL : Nuts. Absolutely nuts. And I had this thing, and you probably saw, right, so the Wall Street Journal does this study about the values of the United States, and I think they do it every couple of years. And they've seen such massive value shifts in the United States of what people are valuing. So like the values of religion, community, patriotism, and I can't remember the other one, but I will have declined precipitously and belief in government.
So those values have decreased precipitously since right before COVID. And as a result of that, we don't believe in our politicians, we don't believe in our religious institutions. We're not joining civic organizations, we're not getting invested in communities and even family relationships have broken apart because of all of this. So what's left standing in a world where religion is gone, politics you can't trust, families are broken up and community organizations are not as hardy or what's left standing, guess what? Businesses, employers.
So the employer has become in this world, in this crazy world, we talk about the safe haven for all of those things where you used to go to your church for religion, you used to go to your community center for community, or if you're a part of the VFW or the Lions Club or Girl Scouts, you used to go there for community. You used to go to your family for family and so on. And patriotism, country and politics, none of that is there anymore. The business is now expected to pay off on all of those.
We have to be your community center, sometimes your religion, sometimes your big sister, your politician making laws and governance. It's a whole new remit for businesses. If you really think about, this is my philosophy on how I have to change with the times and what my folks expect their workplace to be. So I have to go into politics, I have to go into religion, I have to stand up for community togetherness and giving and serving others because that's what my employees expect from it. They don't have that anymore outside the workplace.
LC : I totally agree with you. I love that perspective. We are the leaders of our time in our companies. We do training and development, we have perspectives on how people get along. We discover and allow for psychological safety and emotional connectedness between and among each other. And for that we have to take stances on important issues that require the safety and high performance of our employees as if they're part of our own organizational nation, if you will, or government system.
GL : Because the other organizations or populations that were formally responsible for that are not doing it or they're not trusted anymore for whatever reasons. And we could go on forever and ever about that. But what is still trusted and what is now the expectation is that I'm more than your employer. And I take that very seriously and it's a challenge because it involves a lot more work, a lot more time. You come in and you're out, you're employee, I pay you. That's our transaction. It's not like that anymore.
So it involves a lot more work, a lot more thinking. But again, it's important work. It's what our workforce is demanding of it. And you have to respond. You can't just assume we're just going to be your employer anymore. We're not. We're more than that. And isn't that a wonderful thing? You think of your company as more than that or should be holding us to higher standards? Alright, game on. Let's do it.
LC : This brings us to in-house versus remote, how do you bring these two together and create that one social system? And somebody has a question for that and maybe you could help us with this, Grace. Your strategies, experiences in maintaining a strong cohesive company culture, particularly in the dynamics between in-office and virtual staff. I get that question all the time. People are even concerned about that. So tell me more about your perspectives and thoughts on this area.
GL : Yeah, and that is probably the single biggest challenge and the most unpopular decisions that leaders have to make these days of that literally calling people back into the office, pulling them out of their homes, enforcing the commute back on them. It's not a popular POV, it definitely isn't. So through the whole, after COVID hit in March of 2020, we did the remote and then we did gradual steps to bring people back.
And now we are a three day a week in the office kind of organization with dozens and dozens of exceptions based on people's new lifestyles and that type of thing. But I think what you have to do is, and the challenge with my story is that of course we were super successful financially and we grew so much during the COVID period and it wasn't because we were remote and found a better way of working, it's just that our services in communications were so much in demand during that period of both when companies didn't know what to say and the social unrest communication services were the number one demand behind the vaccine, right?
Everybody wanted to know how to talk about those things. So our business dramatically grew at that time and we delivered. But again, as the leader of an organization that is, as I mentioned, founded in public relations, communicating with publics, that's what we do. We connect people through communication. We have a very strong argument that communication has to be delivered in many different ways.
Yes, through technology it can be done and yes, through writing it can be done. But when you really want to build bridges between people and that's your job, face-to-face communication, people in a room talking one-to-one, it just is magical. We're social scientists. We know that when people are together, good things happen. So even though the trends of our business show that we can continue to remote and be as successful, I do not believe that. And so we express that we need to be back together in person.
And the second thing is leaders need to lead and they need to be visible. You can pull out any business textbook from the beginning of time when you see a leader lead, literally see them lead, you become better. So I want my leaders in the office demonstrating behavior and they responded. They believe that because fundamentally, the people I lead are communicators and they understand the value of people being together. And it is interesting, the young people came running back. They have been in their bedrooms for so long through school. They wanted to be here. They want to see and be led and be taught in person.
So, don't have much problem there. I think that to answer Scott's question in the text or in the questions, it's like you kind of do it gradually. It's like when you give something to somebody and you got to pull it back, you got to do it gradually. You got to do a lot of listening, you got to do some accommodation. But at the end of the day, sometimes, as my mother used to say, that's my answer. And because the leader, because I'm your mother, that's why.
And I kind of do know what's best for people sometimes. Sometimes I have to pull that card, that deck of cards. Sometimes it's just because I said so. Sometimes it works that way.
LC : And you know what? That resonance that you have, that belief that you have, it exudes throughout your company and the people come to you because they want to be communicators, they want to be in this field. And it does require, just as you said, to hear where you're coming from. Your thought leadership in this space is essential. And so I do believe that it sounds clearly that do you want to come stay in the ship, right?
GL : As an expert communicator to suggest that we can do everything from behind screens and we never have to be together. That would be absolutely hypocritical. So it's easy for me because I'm a communicator. If I were in banking or something else like that, well, you could argue that banking needs to be in person as well. I might not have as strong of an argument, but because I lead professional communicators, they have to see the wisdom in that and they do.
LC : Absolutely. Absolutely. I love that stance. And the final question is really going about your approach to continuing professional education and training, the Annual Hunter Community College. Are you in the Hunter community? Is that real?
GL : Oh, that's so funny. So 23 years ago when I took over the company from Barbara Hunter, who is my still mentor and spirit, CEO, she's still alive. She's 96, amazing woman. She gave me my first job and then 10 years later I bought her firm and I continue to run it for her. But when she started the firm, her idea was just to kind of have a firm that she would run for a few years. But when I took it over, I wanted to invest in the firm and grow the firm bigger.
And in order to do that, I wanted to make our work product way better. And what we sell in a nutshell is ideas and communication strategies. And some of our ideas were kind of flat. So years ago I said, okay, let's establish a college within Hunter that would allow us to learn more about our craft, kind of being a continuing education resource for communicators, and particularly ones that work at Hunter.
So we coined it, Hunter Community College because it's our community's college. It's not an actual community college, but you see the play on words, you get it, clever, right? So our community of Hunter has its own college and we call it Hunter Community College. So for 23 years, we have invested in sending people to our college and it's training throughout the year, but on a two or three day stint. And usually in the Q2 of each year, we bring the entire firm together.
And when we started it, there were like 15 of us. Now there's 275. So you can imagine it's a much bigger show than it used to be. But we come together for three days and we study a particular part of our craft. Every year it changes. Sometimes it's public speaking, sometimes it's creativity. And it's a magical time for us because not only are we together all together learning together and building relationships amongst ourselves, but we're learning from experts about how to PRogress our own craft, our own selves, our own professionalism.
And when I do employee surveys, which we do often at Hunter, if not once a year, twice a year, about what do you value the most about being at Hunter besides the snacks in our kitchen and our wonderful tradition of bringing cupcakes and cocktails out every Wednesday they say Hunter Community College because that is an anomaly in the business that a company would stop create this training system all throughout the year. And then this culmination of this magical three day kind of extravaganza of learning and living together. And literally, it's kind of like a retreat. You go and you're like, oh my gosh, I got to go to the New York headquarter. I got to walk on the door. It's three days. They come out transformed. It's like when you go to Sedona and go to a spawn and you come out and you're like, I'm transformed. That's what we hear.
So we continue to do it every single year as a hallmark of our culture and our dedication of earning it with our staff.
LC : That's what I was saying. They say transformation happens in three days, those two nights in that final third morning, right?
GL : That what they say in Sedona? And those marketing materials for all those spas, I got to try.
LC : At least three days in our spa.
GL : I love it. I love it.
LC : Yeah, it's great. You guys really, that hunter values that kind of transformation and development and growth so much that you invest in your people for that amount of time. It says a lot about you and your community and your college.
GL : They've asked us for that. The number one thing that our younger staff asks for is training and development. And I referenced those employee surveys. We do them quite a bit. We also do these things called stay interviews, which are why do you stay at Hunter? Not why are you leaving, but why do you stay? So once a year we gather together kind of a random sample, and we interview them and we say, why do you stay?
And they say the training and the development and the access to senior leaders and the opportunity to learn from them is one of the huge reasons they stay. They want to develop, they want to get better, and I will pay that off in as much training and development as they're willing to sit through.
LC : Absolutely. Because people aren't just motivated by bonus compensation or salary. Two out of 10 in our study. So, yeah, go ahead, please.
GL : It's development, it's evolution. Everybody wants to evolve and get better. I mean, if you don't, you're not at Hunter. I can tell right away if you don't want to be an evolving type of practitioner during an interview. But when they come here, they want to keep growing and our responsibility is feed that growth in any way they tell us. They will accept it. And to your point, it's not just salary. We have very competitive salaries and compensation packages. We absolutely do.
But I think when you put the whole mix together, and it is still a mix that you have to offer, we're more than competitive. And that's why we have such an amazing tenure of staff sticking here and boomerangs people who leave me and then come back. In the last two years, I've had close to 20 people leave and come back, which is one of those metrics I love because I'm like, yeah, go see if it's better. And they come back
LC : Out of the nest and back to you.
GL : I welcome it. I'm like, yeah, okay, sure. Go check it out. Let me know how it goes. I had one woman who's been gone for almost 17 years, and she came back. It was amazing. She called me and she asked me if I would serve as a reference for a new company that she was applying for. I said, no, I won't do it. Nope, I won't do it. And she goes, well, why? I thought you loved me and we were great. I said, no, but I want you to come back here. So if you want a reference to come back to Hunter, I'll give it to you. Guess what? She's sitting right there, right outside my [inaudible]. She's back.
LC : That's awesome. Good reference.
GL : Yeah.
LC : Grace, it was awesome to have you on the show. Grace Leong, CEO of Hunter, what a wonderful learning experience with you today and what great things you're doing to establish and maintain, sustain such an open, honest, vibrant, most loved workplace culture. Thank you so much for joining us today, Grace.
GL : Thank you for recognizing us as such. It's an honor to talk to you and to be on your list and your radar and keep doing what you're doing because we're motivated by folks like you. So thank you.
LC : Thank you, Grace.