Women in Business Q&A: Nancy Behrman, Founder and President, Behrman Communications

08/19/2016 06:26 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2017

Nancy Behrman is a founder and leader in the world of beauty and lifestyle brand publicity. Nancy began Behrman Communications out of her studio apartment thirty years ago with one supercool brand, Kiehl's Since 1851, and no red tape. At the time, a handful of large public relations firms and a dull corporate mindset dominated the landscape. Disenchanted by these lackluster options, Nancy discarded the outdated PR tactics of yesteryear and embraced the unconventional.

Nancy has earned the trust and respect of premier influencers, including celebrity makeup artists, stylists, aestheticians, physicians in dermatology and plastic surgery, and the top public relations players in the field ‐ many of whom trained under her tutelage.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Going out on my own at 25 years old was definitely one of the most influential factors. From a young age, I had to be very self-taught and highly motivated, and failure simply wasn't an option. Because I had started my own business, I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders from the get-go, and I immediately had to take on the role of a serious owner and leader. I grew into the leadership role more and more, gracefully, intensely, awkwardly, all at the same time, but always landing on my feet. This mentality has followed me throughout my career.

I have also enjoyed working with some of the greatest PR talent that I've ever seen in the industry, many of whom I've trained and are now my competitors. They were integral to my success.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Behrman?
The only other job I've had in the industry was as an assistant at a small boutique firm, where I learned the ins and outs of the business. My work ethic was tenacious; I was a sponge who wanted to hear every single story and I never said no.

I also made it a point to get to know people in the media, even while in my junior position. I was only 22, but you're never too young to start. I befriended the magazine assistants and we got to be friends, going out for drinks after work and renting a beach house together in the summer. The industry quickly became my lifestyle, which gave me the connections and wherewithal to leave and start out on my own.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Behrman?
A highlight that certainly stands out was working on the Kiehl's Since 1851 business, because the CEO, Jami Heidegger, and I were the same age and shared a special, symbiotic relationship. Jami really let me try anything, and it was a very unconventional, but highly successful way of doing PR. We never sent out a press release or sat around a table discussing ROI, instead the philosophy was simple: the more you try the product, the more you'll talk about it. We worked on the brand in the most inventive ways possible, until Kiehl's was no longer a funky, underground skincare company, but every beauty editors' cult favorite brand.

I also enjoyed a great partnership with an industry friend, who is now actually the owner of her own boutique agency. Our business relationship was one of the best career moves I ever made. We were wonderful together; we had an unspoken bond and a lot of trust in each other, which was crucial to our success.

One of my greatest challenges, and one of my worst career mistakes, was actually ending that partnership. Certain key staff and clients stayed with me, and others went with her, and it took a while to rebound after that loss. However, this challenge also taught me one of the most important lessons of my career, and that is that it's very difficult to put one person in charge of handling everything. I have found that the best way to run a business is with a super staff, and key senior people in place that will nurture and develop the staff as a whole. It is unwise to have one person holding the bag on all aspects of the business, virtually anyone else who has played that role at this agency has failed, and the business has hurt because of it.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
I would say it is very important to be whole heartedly committed; ambivalence is no good in this industry, or in any aspect of life for that matter. While I am a big advocate for work / life balance, working hard, staying late and going the extra mile is almost always necessary, as well as owning and learning from your mistakes.

That said, it is undeniable that no matter how hard you work, there is a certain "it" quality to PR veterans; you tend to either have it or you don't, there's not a lot of use forcing it. By this point in my career I can tell when an assistant walks into the office for the first time if they really want to make this a career, or if it is a springboard for something different. They have a unique drive and fire in their belly that can be hard to find. They quickly become friends with the media and their clients, they nurture those relationships and the job inevitably becomes a part of their personal lives as well. Those are the ones to watch out for.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The importance of achieving a balance between my professional and my personal lives has been one of the biggest lessons I have learned throughout my thirty years in business, and it is still a work in progress. There were many times throughout my career when my priorities were misaligned, and I put myself on the backburner time and time again. Because I was so committed to the agency, my personal life did suffer. My children are the one exception, I have always put them first, but I am still learning to throw myself into the equation. I have started exercising, taking vacations and working remotely from home; even managing to eat lunch can still be a victory. Making these small changes over time does bring a greater sense of balance to my life, and that makes me a better a boss as well.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
As I said, it is a constant work in progress. I have a home in the Berkshires where I have been spending more time relaxing and working remotely from, which helps. I have also begun to alter my daily rituals to accommodate my needs. For instance, I now choose the conference call to be an earlier time in the afternoon rather than later when I am exhausted, and I check my messages every twenty minutes, instead of every five.

I also now have the luxury of having grown children and working with a really great staff. Their capability and professionalism allows me the flexibility to cultivate greater balance, and it starts from the bottom up. I have a stellar senior staff, but it's also contingent on hiring and keeping great assistants and account executives. Everyone in the agency is a highly valued member of the team, and I wouldn't be able to do it without any of them.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Having it all. It is possible, but raising children, maintaining a healthy marriage and building a successful career, I think, is only possible if you're okay with getting four hours of sleep a night. I have found that eventually something's got to give, because you cannot be all things to all people. When my daughters were young, they would sometimes look up and be sadder to see their babysitter leaving than they were happy that their mother was finally home. To avoid that, I would constantly find myself in unhealthy situations, like taking a 7 AM flight to LA for lunch and an early business dinner, and catching the red eye home to make sure I wasn't gone for longer than a day.

There are big sacrifices, but women can do it, and I do believe it's easier now than ever before within this industry. With cell service and a WiFi, we can work from almost anywhere, we're not married to our corded office phones like we once were. The open conversation surrounding this topic has also made untraditional tactics like I used to pull, like bringing the baby to the office, more acceptable...not that I've seen anyone actually have the nerve to do that yet, but it didn't go over so well in the early 90s.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
To be honest, it hasn't really. I enjoy wonderful relationships and close friendships with many people in the industry. There are so many experts in this field who I look up to and who inspire me, but my greatest mentor over the past thirty years has really been my own gut.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Nicky Kinnaird, founder of Space NK, Jami Heidegger, founder of Kiehl's Since 1851 and Retrouve, Gwynne Thomas, television producer, and Tina Brown, the journalist who needs no introduction. They're all wonderful business women, who have given so much to their fields. Each has really transformed their respective spaces by introducing new ideas, methods and ways of looking at things. They are all integral parts of their industry's evolutions.

What do you want Behrman to accomplish in the next year?
First and foremost, I would like every single person that is ready to be promoted to be promoted, new title and salary. It's so important to value and reward hard work.

I also would like my team to start seeking out new business more on their own. We have the good fortune of attaining much of our new business through referrals from clients, current and past. However, I think it's crucial that the teams work on brands that really excite and inspire them. I would love for the team to go after the kind of clients that they want to work on, whether they see them online or in a store, and say, I love that, what could we do with that? That would be a natural extension of where the agency is going already, which is a place where everyone is more and more independent, proactive, and most importantly, having fun.