09/22/2015 10:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Women Leaders Speak: Q&A with Sharon Napier, CEO, Partners + Napier

It's all about stamina. You have to have incredible stamina - the ability to pick yourself up when things get tough, to accept decisions and move on, to find that last shred of energy when you're bone tired.


Named one of Ad Age's most influential women in industry history, Sharon Napier is a lifelong entrepreneur, business expert, and marketing visionary with more than 30 years of experience leading creative agencies. As CEO of Partners + Napier for over a decade, Sharon helms a nationally recognized agency whose team is entrusted with guiding iconic brands. Born with a challenger mindset in Upstate New York, the scrappy creative ideas agency is the David to many industry Goliaths. Its long track record of winning national and global relationships including Constellation Brands, BMW Financial Services, Delta Private Jets, ConAgra Foods and Lufthansa Airlines set the perfect stage for the agency to launch a full-service creative boutique in New York City, PNYC, in 2012 - with a leadership team pulled from Ogilvy & Mather, Droga5, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and other top shops.

Sharon is also one of few women advertising leaders to build and sell an agency. In 2011, she led Partners + Napier's acquisition by global independent agency network Project: WorldWide. Sharon has served on the network's Global Strategic Leadership Team since the acquisition, helping to guide the global organization as it continues to make waves and headlines.

There's a lot said about how to 'getting to the next level' as a professional. Can you explain a little about how you initially broke through in your career to become CEO?

This question takes me back to a phone call I received 11 years ago. I was sitting in the bleachers at my daughter's basketball game, and my lawyer called me and told me the deal was done - I'd just bought my agency's independence from a struggling holding company. My business partners and I put everything on the line - our savings, our 401(k)s, even our houses - to quickly organize a buyout and save 40 jobs. So this moment was equal parts terrifying and thrilling, because we were embarking on something completely new without a safety net. It was an incredibly important moment in my growth as a leader. In that moment, I really understood for the first time what having "skin in the game" meant. I was all in. That's what being a CEO is. You're all in for your employees, your clients, your business, every single day.

What achievement are you most proud of to date?

I have two proudest achievements: my two daughters, who are both grown now and have great jobs in our industry. We're very close. Close relationships with family are so important to me. I call my sisters every single day. To me, that's the mark of a full life.

If we're talking about work, I'd have to say my proudest achievement is building a nationally recognized agency in Upstate New York. When we hit 100 employees, another agency CEO called and sang me that line from Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" - if we could make it there, we'd make it anywhere. It's so true. It takes a lot more effort than building a great agency in a major metro market like NYC. When we started Partners + Napier in Rochester, I was 36 and no one knew me. We were a total surprise to the industry. I think we've earned a lot of respect for what we've been able to build here. We never let our location curb our aspirations.

In your opinion, what is the key to your success?

I've never imposed limits on myself. I was the youngest of five kids, so not a lot of expectations were placed on me. So I just did whatever I wanted to do, whatever I set my mind to. I believed if I worked hard enough, I could do whatever I wanted. Not to sound like life was a cakewalk, there were certainly bumps along the way that knocked me back. But being willing to get back up and learn from those mistakes makes the difference between failure and success.

If you could perfect one new personal quality, what would that be?

I'd choose to grow as a leader. I don't want to be a good leader, I want to be a great one. If I'm inspiring, I want to inspire more. I'm a good public speaker, but I want to be a great storyteller. As CEO, I'm never done. I haven't "made it." If anything, I'm hungrier for that personal growth.

Have you ever been 'professionally stuck'? How did you become 'unstuck'?

Everyone has faced moments of uncertainty in their careers. When I'm stuck on a decision, I need to think differently, come up with new options and be open to them. To do this, I try to stop thinking and settle my mind by removing myself from the situation. I can't sit and stew about it. I'll go for a bike ride or a run, or go for a walk with my husband. I focus more on my breath and my physical movement. When I start moving, I usually arrive at my best plan on how to move forward. I think getting stuck happens to everyone, but remaining there is a choice.

Tell us a little about why you were drawn to this as a career and what has kept you there.

The people in this industry are smart, interesting, creative, and open-minded. I've always been attracted to the people. Why would you ever stay in an industry that's so tough, so demanding, and so 24/7 if the people weren't fantastic? And agencies are such dynamic environments. They're totally unique to any other business in the world. It's a tremendous draw.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don't fall into the trap of believing that the person next to you is smarter than you because they're not asking questions. Silence does not equal intelligence. It's actually the most vocal people who learn the most and stand out. So I'd tell my younger self to channel my inner toddler - question everything constantly. Don't be afraid to speak up. And always trust your gut.

What would you like to achieve in the next 2 years? How about the next 5?

I'm pretty focused on what matters right now, which is growing our agency and making sure it has relevance to our clients, our industry and our people. Staying relevant is a full-time job.

What qualities do you believe are most important to be a leader? If not all these qualities came naturally, any tips on how to cultivate them?

It's all about stamina. You have to have incredible stamina - the ability to pick yourself up when things get tough, to accept decisions and move on, to find that last shred of energy when you're bone tired. Yesterday, I was on from 6am to 11pm. A run in the morning, calls, caught a plane, meetings, emails, met a client, dinner with my daughter, and on and on. There's a ton of gear shifting, which can be mentally exhausting. And it's like that for days and weeks at a time. My tip for cultivating stamina would be to get in good shape, because it starts with personal health.

What are three key words you would use to describe yourself?

Tenacious. Open. Straight-shooter.