The Future is Bright: A Conversation about DH's CEO Transition
Senior Account Executive
DH: First off, how did you two meet?
Michelle: For my Master’s thesis, I was interviewing communicators and decision makers in organizations, and Cher was the Vice President of Communications for MSC (now Premera Blue Cross) and a leader in the Spokane communications industry, so I interviewed her. I thought she was amazing.
Cher: I was impressed with Michelle’s intellect and kindness. She was alert, effective, energetic. And if you know her, you know she’s just the friendliest person.
Michelle: When there was an opening at MSC, I applied. I worked for Cher for two years before she left the company.
Cher: Jim and I started Desautel Communications out of our basement. Michelle was our first employee. There were only three of us for six months. Then we hired Sara J
DH: How has the company changed in the last 15 years?
Michelle: In the beginning, we only had three clients. Our growth, I would say, has been pretty organic. We continued to attract more clients. We hired, on average, about one person a year. Now, we have 18 people!
DH: How long has the transition to Michelle as CEO been planned?
Cher: Even from the early days, when we first started thinking about starting a PR business, Jim and I had a vision for building a company with strong succession planning.
Michelle: (laughs) A lot of agency owners wait until, “Oh no! I’m going to retire in five years. What’s my plan?”
Cher: We knew as we got older and had grandkids, we would hand over the company to the great team we were assembling.
Michelle: I bought into the company after two years. I think Jim decided that whoever he hired, that he was growing them into the firm’s future leaders. In fact, the first three employees are all partners now.
DH: What was it like when Cher became CEO?
Michelle: After Jim retired in 2003, Cher helped our company grow and retain the founding values that mattered to her and Jim. Those of us who have been with the company for years and years, grew up with those values, and now they’re our values. She also grew and maintained the family feeling of our firm. Cher cares deeply for people, and she has a deep understanding of how to nurture talent, how to get us to be our best selves.
Cher: I just love working with the team. And I love the work: figuring out problems, everyone stretching, teaching each other, learning.
Michelle: Cher has been a tremendous mentor and shaped me so much as a professional. I’ve worked with her for almost my entire professional career—almost 20 years. She is passionate about the industries with which we work and the great things communications can achieve in organizations. From her, I’ve learned how to be a great communicator.
Cher: When I served as CEO, it was always with the partner group, so I never felt alone or unsupported in a decision. When we weren’t on the same page, we hammered it out. We are all strong individuals with strong opinions. But always what triumphs is our belief in the team. We always leave a meeting or a conversation able to move forward. We’ve never had to take a vote, even though we have that structure in place—which I think speaks to the respect and care we have for one another. We have a spirit of collaboration, which is how the best work happens.
DH: Michelle, what’s it been like assuming the role of CEO?
Michelle: It was a natural progression. I see myself as a point person—the steward of the strategic plan. It’s almost like being a facilitator. It’s not a dramatically different role from the other partners. We all love client work. We all feel strongly about staying connected. So we all share in managing the business. We’re like family: Andrei, Sara J, and I have worked together for most of our careers.
Cher: It’s so gratifying to see the caliber of leadership under Michelle. We’ve never seen a practitioner with her skillset, logic, creativity, intelligence. She could run any firm anywhere.
DH: What do you foresee for the future of DHC?
Cher: Jim and I will continue to be involved and help as we can with the new team, but we’re confident the firm will grow in the direction we hoped because the partner team has a solid foundation in the values we share.
Michelle: I think the future of our firm is bright. We’ve assembled a tremendous team of talented people with heart—people who care about doing great work, going the extra mile. We continue to grow in how we serve clients, the way we fuse public affairs and marketing and help companies grow their brand and market share. Our future’s unlimited.
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