Cheryl Overton Discusses Her Executive Resilience

June-July 2021
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For Cheryl Overton, resilience is the superpower that helped elevate her to the executive suite.

“To become a leader, I — and so many women — have had to endure racism, sexism, bias, harassment,” she said. “We have had to be outstanding in our roles. We have had to fight to be heard and taken seriously.” 

Her resilience has paid off in a career that started with pharma work before she moved to the agency world at Edelman and later served as president of the New York-based multicultural marketing and communications company EGAMI Group. 

In 2018, EGAMI received PRSA’s PR Professional of the Year, which honors an individual or team. PRSA recognized the agency’s work with Procter & Gamble and BBDO Worldwide on “The Talk” — a short film about racial bias and the experience of being a Black woman in America.

Today, she is the founder and chief experience officer of Cheryl Overton Communications. Here, she talks about leading in a post-pandemic world and taking action to improve DE&I within the profession.

We’re beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, but the uncertainty will likely continue for some time. How will you lead your teams, clients and others in the coming months?  

Three things immediately come to mind: Plan, instill confidence and stay grateful. I’m a planner by nature and by trade, and it’s one of the important leadership habits I exhibit. In these uncertain times, planning has provided my teams and me with a base of stability and comfort. 

Circumstances and conditions may change around us, but our purpose and the plans we set for ourselves remain under our control. I enjoy “what if” exercises and brainstorming actionable strategies. In this way, I’m planning against ideas with 30-day, 90-day or even one-year time frames. These exercises help strengthen the decision-making muscle and keep the team focused on facts versus emotion. 

Another leadership strategy I employ is to instill confidence in others. By that I mean sharing space and finding opportunities for others to strut their stuff. By deputizing team members to produce brand work, inviting partners to showcase their talents with my clients or empowering clients to be more conversant with multicultural audience insights, I create opportunities for them to gain confidence or experience new settings, which enables us to build new opportunities for business growth, together.

Gratitude is a practice. In the past year especially, it’s something I have relied on daily to keep life’s challenges in context and to stay focused on what’s truly important — health, safety and peace. Of course, my business is a priority as well. But during this past year, my heart and mind have zeroed in on the necessities of life. 

The DE&I movement seemed to explode in the summer of 2020. How can PR leaders make sure we don’t lose that momentum and that we achieve our profession’s DE&I goals? 

So much more work is needed in terms of DE&I. The events of the past year opened the floodgates of reform; we can’t allow them to close until we see dramatic improvements. 

After years of not recognizing or willfully ignoring the needs of diverse audiences, we now have mass awareness — and for the most part, consensus that things must improve for those who have been undervalued. 

As communications professionals, we can be agents of change within our own organizations, alongside our clients and in our own communities. Let’s hire and nurture Black and brown talent at all levels so they’re armed to lead, mentor and serve as living examples for the next generation. 

Bringing young talent into the profession is very important. We want them to know this is a viable career option that welcomes their unique skills and cultural inspirations.

We must also invest in retention and create environments where they feel they belong and can ascend to leadership. Managers must look at how they’re defining leadership readiness and be willing to confront their own biases if in play.

Brands must recognize and respect the lived experiences of the diverse customers they serve. People of color are influential, media savvy and have spending power. Brands will have to do even more to capitalize on our strengths.

What is your advice for managers who want to become better leaders?

Recognize that leadership isn’t about a title; it’s about motivating people to want to follow you. When considered that way, managers may already be leaders — but they may not be taking full advantage of the privilege. 

Invest in keeping your functional and technical skills updated. One silver lining of the past year, without the traditional commute, is perhaps a found hour or two each week to reinvest in our career development: to attend an online workshop, to take a LinkedIn course, to listen in on a Clubhouse chat, or to read a book that inspires our creativity. Stay in the mode of learning and self-improvement. It will show in your work and in how you influence teams.

Solicit feedback on your leadership style — not just when it’s time for your performance review, but throughout the year. Get better acquainted with the leaders you admire. Learn their stories and draw inspiration from the best practices and tips they share. 

Create your own advisory board and consult your network for leadership advice. The people you know may provide insight into your strengths and areas of opportunity. Invite them to virtual industry events. Ask them to introduce you to people with different skill sets. Listen and learn from their experiences.

And of course, always reciprocate and pay the generosity forward. It is through cultivating a strong network that you may enhance leadership skills that will serve your career over time.

What’s your leadership superpower?

Resilience. To become a leader, I — and so many women — have had to endure racism, sexism, bias, harassment. We have had to be outstanding in our roles. We have had to fight to be heard and taken seriously. We have had to protect those who would watch us fall. We often do this alone, without peers or leaders who look like us. Resilience is the superpower that helped me earn my place in the C-suite.

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