Oral Histories

Bill Margaritis

Full Interview

Bill Margaritis Biography

Bill Margaritis is the executive VP of corporpate affairs at Hilton Worldwide. Previously, he was corporate vice president for global communications and investor relations for FedEx Corporation.


BILL MARGARITIS, former corporate vice president for global communications and investor relations for FedEx Corporation

December 7, 2012

Memphis, Tennessee


INTERVIEWER: The first question we wanted to ask is about your career path.  You graduated from Michigan State University and moved from there to the position you’re in now.  Can you tell us about how you got here?

MARGARITIS: Well, I’m an immigrant.  Born in Greece and came to the U.S. at the age of eight-and-a-half.  And I was always inspired from a very young age about philosophers and Aristotle’s view of the world and being a global citizen and really taking on adventures; travelling and that kind of thing.  After I graduated from Michigan State, I worked in the Michigan senate as a legislative assistant.  I was the deputy director of the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign, which was a fascinating experience.  And then I moved to Washington and worked for the secretary of commerce and learned a lot about working with governors and state legislatures and mayors.  That was kind of my role. I was in charge of governmental affairs at a time when there was a lot of interaction with the states and localities.  It really was a phenomenal experience to be able to travel at such a young age, all over the country and stay in great hotels and eat fine food and meet all these amazing, smart people.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  And then after that I went to work for Armand Hammer at Occidental Petroleum and got deep into legislative regulations and policies at the state level with environmental (issues).  It was a big environmental movement back at that time, in the late ‘80s.  That was exciting; a lot of action going on.  We had to work with a lot of veterans in the industry across oil companies and plastics companies and consumer goods companies and build coalitions on how to deal with very intrusive and draconian environmental policies.  Then after that I went to work with Bechtel, as a VP overseas, based in London and Athens, running their marketing and communications and had a chance to travel and see the world.  Places like India and Russia and the Middle East and so forth. And then I got recruited by FedEx and have been here 16 years.

INTERVIEWER: Two follow-up questions.  The first one is, can you talk a little bit about your political campaign experience and how that has informed or helped your work in the corporate sector?

MARGARITIS: I think political experience is very profound and valuable in the corporate communications world.  And here’s why: first of all you have an outcome that takes place.  You have a defined time frame by which to operate.  You have multiple stakeholders with issues and agendas at play.  You have a competitor.  And you have to apply a lot of research rigor to understand the makeup of the population you’re dealing with, whether it be at a local, state level, or a national level.  So it forces you to move quickly, to have a strategy, to have a very clear execution plan, to be able to manage multiple aspects of a campaign—like a project management program would.  And to use analytics to target messages, target-positioning statements.  Understand the use of polling and research—much like you would in business between two corporations whether it’s Pepsi/Coke or FedEx/UPS.  And also the importance—and perhaps this may be the most important—is the power of volunteers, of really collaborating and inspiring and leading volunteers.  People who aren’t getting paid but they believe in the cause.  That’s so important when you become a manager, an executive in the business world because it trains you in how to really motivate people when they frankly don’t even have to be there.  So I think in short that’s why political experience is very important.  Plus, by the way, I think every executive from the CEO on down needs to understand how public policy and how legislation and how coalitions get developed.  Because every company is exposed to some regulatory or political issue, whether it be in the U.S. or abroad.  So if you understand politics at the grass roots level and how decisions get made and how coalitions develop, you can then understand how the elected official or appointed official is going to think through their position.  And then what’s it going to take for you to connect with that person or persuade that person?  So you have to find something politically palatable.  It’s an art and a science.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything that doesn’t transfer?  You’ve made a very good case about a lot of things that do.  Anything that you can think of that doesn’t really transfer?

MARGARITIS: The one thing about politics that I have seen over the years that I don’t believe translates well in the corporate world is this all or nothing mentality.  What I would call the polarized political animal who lives or breathes by a certain point of view, on either side of the spectrum.  Whether it’s far to the right or far to the left.  Because you alienate people that way.  And you can’t succeed in a corporation if you’re alienating people or if you’re taking extreme positions.  I think the lesson learned is to try to find a middle ground in politics and in business so that you can survive, so that you can be a consensus builder and negotiate, bring disparate views towards a common goal.  But if you’re a hardliner on either side of the spectrum, I don’t think that particularly bodes well in a corporate environment.

INTERVIEWER: Another key part of your career development obviously, is your international experience from early on.  I wanted to ask you to talk about that and how that’s influenced your work in your present position.

MARGARITIS: International experience is becoming very, very important now for corporate communications executives and frankly any executive.  Because everything is global and the Internet has democratized decision-making.  In my mind, the most important lesson of an international experience is that it teaches you how to adjust to change.  If you follow the axiom: ‘success is how well one adjusts to change,’ you can apply that in life to relationships, to economic cycles, to moving (to different) towns or cities or schools or jobs.  Success in life is determined by how well one adjusts to change.  So when you go from an American dominated system to a UK or a China or a German culture; what works here and what brought you success here, may or may not translate well there.  And what I notice is some people, when they deal with a challenge or adversity—and we all do because there’s always an element of surprise when you go into a foreign land—what they tend to do is fall back on their comfort zone.  They tend to double down on what they have here in the U.S., thinking that they would prevail or overcome that challenge.  That doesn’t work.  I saw that first hand; rather than thinking through the situation, stepping back and finding an end around or coming up with a creative way.  So it forces you and compels you to adapt and change your thought process, your behavior, your judgment, your tactics, your approach; depending on what’s appropriate in any particular culture.  And if you can convey that in a very authentic way, people will work with you more.  So I think you can be more effective that way.  It’s certainly relationships in most of these countries that are really the most critical aspect of business.  And if you don’t understand, let’s say, the nuances of how those relationships work or the etiquette or the norms and morals; then you will fail.  So in essence, in life, we always have to reinvent ourselves.  We always have to learn something new.  And when you’re working internationally, you’re doing that constantly and it’s exciting.

INTERVIEWER: It does sound really exciting.  Cultural gaffes, you were just talking about those.  Can you talk a little bit more about how you deal with cultural gaffes that you’ve come across?

MARGARITIS: Well at FedEx we operate in 220 countries and territories and we’re part of the social fabric of these societies.  We have to deal with so many issues; regulatory issues, customs issues, consumer issues, security issues, tax issues.  So we feel it’s important to hire indigenous executives, people from that country to be the leaders, to be the ambassadors and the face of FedEx.  Now what we do is we translate and replicate our culture, our values, our quality, principles, our service principles, the brand and identity, standards.  We strive for consistency at the cultural level and how we function as a corporation as it relates to customers in the marketplace and governance issues and legal issues and regulatory compliance.  But in terms of the executives who are running those businesses, we put in local folks.  And that has been an incredibly successful formula.  In fact, you might be surprised to know that of 300,000 total team members in our company worldwide, there are only about 120 expats that we have at FedEx.  It’s pretty phenomenal.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, yeah. Something else I want to ask you about, talking about your career development.  What person has had the most significant influence on your career and why?

MARGARITIS: Well, without question the person who’s had the most significant influence in my career is Fred Smith, the founder and current chairman and CEO of FedEx.  First of all, Fred is just an unbelievable leader and cares so much about people and his family.  He has taught me to really be true to yourself; that you have to be at the core principle and understand what you’re trying to achieve, how you deal with people.  And to pay attention to things in life other than just money or title, your family, your friends.  To have fun.  He is a man of extraordinary intellectual capacity, and he believes in balance.  And by that I mean a combination of being really good at strategic thinking and being great at organizational and executional capabilities.  Building a culture that has discretionary efforts and strong values and teamwork and collaboration.  I think he got that from his military experience where there is such a co-dependency for survival by people on the frontlines.  So Fred’s view, I think, is that to be a successful executive you have to be as great as you can be in your particular subject.  You need to use kaleidoscope thinking and solving problems and dealing with situations outside of your comfort zone.   And that’s how you innovate.  You have to be honest with a lot of integrity.  You have to be respectful to people, empower people.  And then I think you have to be—as I said earlier, true to yourself.

INTERVIEWER: Can you clarify the term kaleidoscope thinking?

MARGARITIS: Kaleidoscope thinking is, from what I understand, an idea that was born through a Harvard professor years ago.  The idea is that when you face a problem and you hit a wall on something, most people tend to go back to their repository of knowledge and try to find a way through that wall.  It could be a process issue or what have you.  And what it means, what it says, is if you change the kaleidoscope, you’ll note the colors in the light will vary depending on how you change the lens.  So it’s important to try to draw upon maybe a lesson learned in a whole different industry.  In our case it could be maybe something in the biotech world that happened or in the software world that happened that we can apply to a problem or a challenge that we’re facing here.   And it may be kind of related when Steven Colby says his, ‘step back and sharpen the saw’ as well.  To take a clean, fresh sheet approach to a problem or an opportunity.

INTERVIEWER: What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

MARGARITIS: I think the biggest challenge is maintaining a healthy balance between your work, your health and your family.  And I know that might sound a little corny because I probably could come up with endless crises or challenges in the workplace.  But that’s not really the way I think about challenge.  I think in life, we as adults and executives have to be very mindful of the responsibilities and obligations we have.  And mine are at work, they’re at home and they’re within my soul and spirit in my value systems.  Sometimes we get a little out of whack.  We overdo this.  I always find that it’s a work in progress constantly to be mindful of this perpetual challenge of being balanced and taking care of your body and health, paying attention to your loved ones and friends.  And making sure that you’re being as great a leader with your people as you possibly could.

INTERVIEWER: The balance makes you better as a leader, right?

MARGARITIS: Absolutely.  And I think that there’s some of that in being true to yourself as I mentioned earlier about Fred Smith.  He clearly is a living example of someone who leads a balanced life; never ceases to take an opportunity to call one of his kids, or even if he’s in the middle of a very important meeting.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about corporate culture.  I wanted to find out from you, what is your role in shaping and reinforcing the corporate culture in FedEx?

MARGARITIS: I think corporate culture is arguably the most important asset that a company has.  It is the connective tissue to reputation and brand.  And if you have a strong culture, you will invariably have a strong reputation.  The two are complementary and intertwined.  Our philosophy is, you start inside before you can win outside.  And particularly today in culture it’s so important because as businesses become more and more commoditized, and there is a race for intellectual capital—particularly because we’re dealing in free agent societies—people and workers are so mobile now.  They’re not as loyal as they used to be.  Employees can be either your best ally or advocate, or your worst enemy.  All of these reasons--recruiting retention, discretionary effort, the ability to engage people and empower them to be your advocates over the Internet--to me demonstrate the fact that culture now is more important than it’s ever been.  And if you can put that front and center as an executive—and we’re fortunate enough to do that here so it’s a real pleasure to work in a company that really shares this philosophy—corporate communications people can find immense opportunity to add value.

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned the idea of corporate culture and reputation being linked.  I wanted to follow up on that by asking you to talk a little bit about the ethical considerations that you keep in mind when you’re thinking about communicating to the folks inside and to the external stakeholders.

MARGARITIS: Communicating inside and outside, I think you have to use the same principles and guidelines because the line of demarcation between a workplace and a marketplace is now blurred largely because of the Internet.  So, what we send internally and how we communicate internally and how we inspire our folks internally, has to meet a litmus test of someone on the outside seeing that and making a judgment call on that.

INTERVIEWER: Is that a change?  I wanted to ask you to talk about the changes you’ve observed in the public relations practice over the decades, is that one of them?

MARGARITIS: The most profound change I think, in the world of communications is that the old model of command and control has been turned upside down.  The pyramid has been inverted.  The power curve now is with people, consumers, and your employees.  And certainly you factor in the historic levels of distrust that people have now in corporations; which is unfortunate, I think, because it’s only been the bad actions of a few that have kind of colored a lot of really good companies.  You have to really change the way you think through your language, your actions; how transparent, candid and authentic you are.  And really try to find a way to engender loyalty and pride among your people.  Because if the world knows that you’re treating people with respect and you’re treating them fairly and you have a strong culture or ethos, they will give you the benefit of the doubt in a crisis.  And every company faces them.  They will also be more likely to purchase your product.  They will also be more likely to trust you, to invest in you, to want to work there and buy your product or service.  So to me, culture has both tangible and intangible benefits. The tangible benefits are that you’re able to incent people to do the absolute best they can do in whatever job they have; whether it’s a customer service agent, a pilot, or a courier in our case.  So you’re trying to get optimal performance because they believe in what you’re doing.  They are proud and loyal.  Then the ultimate payoff really--and this is I think the Holy Grail with respect to culture--is finding the sweet spot of discretionary effort.  That comes from the heart.  That can’t be legislated.  Finding a way to get to people’s hearts is a very interesting issue.  You have things like reputation, the conduct of the executives, how you’re treating people.  When we have cases of couriers going into burning homes to rescue babies, all these heroic efforts—that’s not something that’s in their manager guide or their job scope.  It’s because they want to live up to that ideal they have of what a FedEx person should do.  We have this interesting saying here.  It’s actually a rallying cry.  It’s called the purple promise and everyone in the company, whether you’re in Hong Kong or Boston, or any operating environment, can recite to you.  The purple promise is that ‘I will make every FedEx experience outstanding whether I’m dealing with a peer to peer, or with a customer.’  And that is the rallying cry.  It really is celebrated, rewarded, incented.  So when you come into this company and you’re a new employee and you hear about these heroic stories; you hear about discretionary effort, you hear about the value system, you hear about the purple promise.  You want to emulate that because if you don’t, then you’re likely not to fit in.  And humans, really, are motivated by peer pressure and legends.  I think story telling also now is really important as it relates to both communications internally and externally.  Humans love stories, because you can bring a lot of emotion and meaning to something in stories.  We’re now starting this amazing campaign here called ‘I am FedEx.’  It’s real people and real places telling their story about so many different aspects of their job.  They’re volunteering time in a community, what they think about the company, some innovation.  And it’s authentic, it’s stories, it’s something we can put over the Internet.  It’s cool stuff like that; that you can do now, that you couldn’t do before.  And by the way, if you think of yourself as a modern media company, rather than just as a PR machine, you start to look at the world completely differently.  You start to look at managing and creating content differently, the distribution of content and what that content does.  In our case we look for productivity, knowledge workers, collaborative opportunities, putting campaigns over the Internet.  So being a modern media company, I think transcends the traditional role of PR in corporate communications into a whole different space.

INTERVIEWER: How have social media and the Internet impacted your work on a pragmatic level?

MARGARITIS: Well social media has had a profound impact on our business and how we communicate.  It’s still a work in progress.  I think we’re all learning.  It’s sort of like the wild, wild west.  There are tremendous benefits to it but there are also a lot of vagaries and pit falls.  Clearly the most important part of social media is the importance of relationships and understanding and being sympathetic towards what people expect of you as a corporation and for you to know them at a deeper level and communicate and serve them in ways that you wouldn’t know and have done before.  That means that you’ve got to change your whole customer service approach, your service levels; the kinds of choices and features that you’re giving them.  The more customized you make your value proposition or your product to a consumer, the more likely you are to engender that loyalty and trust, and develop advocacy.  So it’s understanding the emotive part or dealing with consumers in social media space, as well as their transactional part.  I think before social media, companies tended to put more emphasis on their transactional part—the price, the quality of the product, why my soap is better or different than yours.  But now, not only do you have to get your transactional parts right, you also have to have equally compelling—what I would call emotional intelligence capabilities of the corporation; and dealing on a one to one level rather than one to masses.

INTERVIEWER: Ethical challenges.  Have new media and social media changed the ethical challenges you face or exacerbated them or simply taken the same old ethical challenges and made them much more intense?  Or are they different now?

MARGARITIS: Well, for FedEx, I don’t think social media has changed the ethical standards at all.  Because we’ve always, I think, been incredibly ethical and buttoned up with respect to governance.  I think what it has done is to make us much more alert to engaging and engaging very quickly.  To speak up when there is some story out there or some rumor that’s not true; and defending ourselves.  I do think though, it has had an impact on some companies that may have not had the standard of governance and ethics that they should have.  Because now people can understand and know and research more about that company and apply pressure, in that regard.  Where I see some of the challenges proliferating for corporate communications people is that the same standards of ethics and protocol that used to exist, and still exist in traditional media--let’s say like editorial quality--it’s kind of a mish-mash out there.  There are some people who masquerade as journalists or bloggers on the Internet but in fact, they do not apply the same level of quality or fairness to their story telling.  And they can quickly create communities based on rumors or misperceptions against you.  We had one specific example.  Let me share it with you.  Someone called.  It was one of these Internet journalists and they said, ‘we’re writing this story and we’d like your point of view on this story.’  Of course we took offense to the story.  We did not think the facts were correct.  So we gave them some facts and our statement.  Well, the story runs and we’re nowhere to be found in the story.  There’s an uprising in a certain part of the U.S. within this social community.  Of course we’re unfairly represented.  We’re feeling the pressure from this community.  So you look at that situation and you say, ‘what happened?’ So we called the person up, and they had the gall and audacity to say, ‘Oh you know, I really didn’t think that your points really fit my story so I chose not to include the company’s statements in the story.’  Now, we eventually got over the hump and cleared our good name.  It was not easy.  But those are the kinds of things that happen.  And I think people rush to get something out because they’re paid by the word or paragraphs or length of story. So I think quality has been degraded here in this new wild, wild, west.  I think people rush to judgment.  They’re too quick to hit the button without trying to find objectivity and fairness in what they’re saying.  And I do think that it has had an amazing influence on the political space.  I think one of the reasons we have gridlock now in Washington is because our politicians are more worried about the real-time sound bite and their constituencies and what they’re hearing on various, biased networks that are out there, rather than focusing on the business of America.  Whereas in the old days, they would certainly do that, they would debate, they would certainly use the news media—at the time much smaller of course.  But they had a lot more time to focus on consensus building and getting the job done. But now, if you’re consumed by the message of the minute or the show of the hour--whether it’s traditional broadcast or online--you’re not focusing enough on getting results and getting consensus.  So they’ve become almost obsessed with the media machinery, as we know it today, and making sure they’re not missing a beat.  I could be wrong.  That’s just my point of view, I didn’t mean to get into that sort of political avenue here but it is a phenomenon of social media.

INTERVIEWER: And you did say earlier—that made a very good case that the two are related.  Political and corporate culture.


INTERVIEWER: The recent ethical lapses in business, CEO missteps.  Failure to pay attention to perhaps safety of employees, safety of the public, etc. across the corporate landscape in the U.S.  How has that impacted the public relations profession in the modern media company?

MARGARITIS: The corporate malfeasance that we have witnessed in this past decade or so and the sort of flashpoints of executive largess, whether it’s incredible packages that people get—parachutes to leave companies or a lack of integrity around pay for performance and the meltdowns of some of the companies—has created a level of distrust.  That certainly has, I think, had a downstream effect on a lot of really good corporations that are doing the right thing.  And what it has done is, is it has made it more difficult for companies to be effective in advocating.  Whether it be policies to create and stimulate jobs or growth, or to improve our competitiveness—and you’re seeing that right now.  The corporate voice in Washington, I think, is inhibited and stymied a bit by the fact that there is a populist sentiment out there that corporations can’t be trusted as much as they used to be; that executives are living large and that there is this unfair divide between them and the frontline worker.  And these flashpoints, these sort of egregious examples if you will; because of the visibility and transparency that people have, because the way the news media operates now, I think have had a downstream effect on us.  It has diluted the power of the voice in policy making.  And history has shown that business is the locomotive for job creation and growth.  So right now you have this tax reform debate.  Should rates go up, should they go down?  Well business is up there saying if you bring the rates down to competitive levels, vis-à-vis other countries around the world and you incent businesses to spend their capitol on equipment and software and things that create jobs and durable goods and stimulate activity, then we will find a better way out of this.  Well guess what, that’s a tough sell these days.  Because the political folks are trying to read the sentiment of their constituents.  And if you look at the research, a lot of these constituents are saying, I don’t know if we trust corporate America anymore.  They’re already living large, don’t give them any breaks.  This creates a significant problem.

INTERVIEWER: And a big challenge for corporate communications.


INTERVIEWER: There’s a sense that the counseling role of public relations is not as vigorous or important in the corporate world as it once was and I wanted to get your feelings about that.

MARGARITIS: With all due respect, I do not agree that counseling as part of the profession has gone backwards.  Let me answer that a different way.  I respectfully disagree that counseling is not an important attribute of a communications executive these days.  In fact, I think it’s the opposite.  Best I can tell, the executives I speak with—not only at FedEx but at many other companies around the world—are expecting their communications people to be more strategic counselors.  They want them to be problem solvers, to build consensus, to see around the corner, to ascertain what the vulnerabilities of the corporation are; to build a consensus between HR, legal, marketing, and other folks, and IT; to put systems in place so that you can attract and retain the millennial generation.  You know, advanced communication systems, for example.  All of this gives us an opportunity to add more value as counselors as opposed to being order takers.  And I think the profession has transcended itself from being a message machine or a spin machine or doing slick annual reports and producing wonderful press releases to one that really deals with complex problems, interesting opportunities on a global scale, navigating the Internet landscape and this kind of, very fractious stake-holder environment we live in now.  And to have not only a seat at the table but to be able to lead the discussion at the table.  And if you think about why that is, in my opinion, it’s because things are moving so fast in the world.  Things are now so much more complex.  Companies, everyone, are trying to be more efficient, more productive.  They’re trying to innovate.  This is bringing about enormous change in sales forces and IT departments, in pricing, in operations.  And so, in the effort to become more productive and efficient, there’s enormous change going on, on one hand.  With respect to the outside world, consumer expectations have changed dramatically.  Competitive dynamics have changed dramatically.  Technology can make you obsolete overnight.  So with all this complexity, all this speed, all this dynamic, turbulent kind of environment we live in, our clients are coming to us and saying, ‘Help.  Help us figure this out.  My job is on the line, the success of my team is on the line, we need someone with your skill set, with your antenna, with your judgment, with your capability to read nuances and build consensus.  Help people understand why we need to change, why we need to make these adjustments and get buy-in.’ And buy-in is one of the most important things you can have in a corporation.  If people don’t buy what you’re trying to do, you will have a disconnect.  And that’s not a pretty picture.  So I’m excited about where we are.  I’m really excited about where we’re going.  I’m so happy that it’s really kind of come around, sort of a back to the future.  This is what Arthur Page, I think, articulated very well and embodied so well back in his hay day.  He was a counselor.  He understood the power of adding value to the business.  He understood that our license to operate was predicated upon whether the public gave us approval or not.  He knew that there were complex issues out there that required a 360 degree view of the world and not some linear view of only the customer or the investor or the employee.  So it’s kind of like now I feel like we’re back to the future.  And the things that Page articulated are now becoming so important for all of us.

INTERVIEWER: That is really exciting the way you put that. Marketing communications, is that redefining the practice of public relations?  Is there a line anymore?  Or have they really been integrated?

MARGARITIS: Marketing communications certainly is a term that in my mind has changed dramatically.  I think that there is certainly a fusion between the two disciplines, between marketing and corporate communications.  That’s, I think, primarily because everything is now being adjudicated on one playing field.  So all the stakeholders, customers, NGOs, politicians, they all can see everything.  The channels are available to all of us now.  The notion of controlling the message is no longer important.  You’ve also got to look at workplace and marketplace more holistically.  So the days are over of taking linear views of the customer through the marketing lines and all the budgets, and all the programs and all the channels that they avail themselves to versus corp. com. or PR who would look at the media or maybe employees and occasionally put out a fire and have its own budgets and consultants and channels.  All that now has just converged.  The two disciplines need to work collaboratively and in an integrated manner at the planning phase, to the execution phase, also in the analytics phase.  And then find a way to optimize all of your resources, your channels, your budgets.  Take a common view of all stake holders, looking at both offense and defense requirements of the corporation.  So, there really should be an opt-in or opt-out.  If the corporation is facing some adversarial situation, well that ought to be of as much interest to the marketing team as it is to the corporate communications team.  Because clearly there’s a lot at stake there.  So, I think we’re in a world where there is collaboration, integration, and a common view of the diagnostic tools and research; the positioning, the language.  How we go to market.  Paying joint attention to cultural activities, understanding that there is a distinct difference between brand and reputation—that the two are complementary.  That it’s not an either/or.  And recognizing as I said earlier that culture is at the heart of everything we do.  So there is tremendous change in the world of marketing communications as you put it earlier.

INTERVIEWER: My question for you is quite simply, of all your career accomplishments, of which are you most proud?

MARGARITIS: I am most proud of the team that we have put together here at FedEx in corporate communications and investor relations.  For the reputation the team has as adding meaningful value to the business; for helping the business through significant change in the past 15-16 years; and for earning the respect and trust of our executives.

INTERVIEWER: When you go to hire someone for your team, what are the qualities that are highest on your list?

MARGARITIS: Hiring decisions really are the most important decisions that an executive can make, because they can make or break a culture.  We look at our team as being a subculture of the FedEx culture.  At the heart of success here is the ability to adapt to that particular culture.  Number one is to be a team player, is to be able to collaborate, to be able to listen and be empathetic.  To be passionate about what you do.  To really understand all of the basic requirements of the job, because reliability is central to the value proposition of FedEx.  Each employee needs to mirror, at a minimum, what this company stands for; and that’s reliability, a very strong customer orientation.  And customer does not necessarily have to be an external customer.  It’s in our case a lot of internal customers.  I think discretionary effort and going above and beyond and having that kind of trait or attribute—and I know it’s hard to spot on the front end—is a big deal here.  And the other is to care about each other.  On this team I think you will see that people trust each other.  They care about each other.  When you build that kind of trust, you can do anything.  You can accomplish anything because people will go through walls, they’ll go into a bunker together and know they’ve got each other’s back.  And the other is to make sure that you’re rewarding and celebrating the people who know that if they work hard there’s going to be opportunities.  So training and development and celebrating and rewarding them is really important too.

INTERVIEWER: A lot of what you mentioned I think is—you could use the word ethics to think about some of the qualities and I guess my question for you is, a strong ethical compass—can that be taught or is that innate do you think?

MARGARITIS: I think a strong ethical compass goes back to your upbringing.  I don’t know if it can be taught, and that’s just my personal view.  I think it really is part of your value system.  I think people can certainly make changes along the way.  And those that do, I have seen use a tremendous amount of discipline to do that and to change.  But it’s really, I believe, goes deep into the roots of your upbringing.

INTERVIEWER: So it makes that hiring decision even that much more important, right?

MARGARITIS: Yes, I think you have to dig deep in the interview process to really understand what makes a person’s moral compass tick.

INTERVIEWER: We’ve covered a lot of ground.  Is there anything that you want to talk about or add that we haven’t covered in terms of thinking about ethics and integrity in corporate communication?

MARGARITIS: One area that I worry about a little bit for our profession is whether we have a strong enough training and education curriculum through the school systems.  Because, of all the profound changes we’ve talked about in the profession, it’s really important that the academic programs, in either undergraduate or graduate school systems are commensurate with what companies or agencies or nonprofits are looking for in their communications executives.  Many professions like IT and the medical community and the legal community have done a fantastic job of building seed programs in the school system in order to better prepare them when they come into the ‘real world,’ so to speak.  I think we have gaps.  We have an opportunity to close those gaps by forging a stronger partnership between the corporate practitioners and organizations like Arthur Page (Society) and the (Arthur W.) Page Center, and our academic institutions.  Because we have a lot of very smart people who are professors in a lot of great universities and they want to do the right thing.  They understand.  But it’s going to take, I think, a lot of work to build a stronger foundation.  The worst thing we can do is to have people come in who are interested and all of a sudden not succeed or have a huge gap between what we expect and what they’re capable of doing.  That causes a lot of issues.  So that’s the one area that I think about our industry that needs some attention going forward.

INTERVIEWER: Is there anything in particular when you think about the way students are being prepared now to go into the profession that perhaps educators need to pay more attention to?

MARGARITIS: The traditional communications curriculum in schools is built around writing, understanding the media, how to get your message out, how people consume information.  It’s important, basic stuff.  But if the world has moved so far beyond those basic requirements, those are just tickets into the party, if you will.  Now you have to have strong business acumen.  You need good project management skills, you need diplomacy and negotiation and persuasive skills and how to build consensus. Because nothing’s ever very clear and dry and linear.  It’s almost like in our world we have to deal with multilateral negotiations.  And understanding technology and understanding, even psychology and leadership and team building and culture are all-important.  All these are really areas that I don’t know if we pay enough attention to them in the so-called traditional PR curriculum.  But they certainly are very important if you take a day in the life of one of us, working for a big company or an agency.

INTERVIEWER: That’s a tall order for those of us in the academy.

MARGARITIS: Yes, but it’s a great opportunity.  You can’t succeed by sitting still.  The only constant in life is change.  If you don’t change, you perish so, we have to change.  It’s not an option.

INTERVIEWER: All right, anything else that you want to add?

MARGARITIS: No, it’s just great having you here; really appreciate it.

INTERVIEWER: Thanks, it’s been a terrific interview, thank you.