Margery Kraus has little time to spare. Between meeting with world leaders planning their outings on the world stage, brain-parenting the growth of her $100-million-plus global advisory and communications consultancy firm, Apco Worldwide, to mentoring a staff of more than 800 people spread over 25-plus offices across the globe – not to mention nine grandkids – this 73-year-old is on her perfectly pedicured toes 24x7.

As she walks down the Le Meridien Mina Seyahi’s lobby in Dubai where we are meeting for an interview, I notice she has a slight limp in her left leg and is using a walking stick. ‘Snowmobiling accident in Iceland,’ she says, noticing the questioning look on my face. ‘But I’m getting better.’ Margery’s tone is matter-of-fact; she clearly wants to move on from pleasantries and get on with the task at hand.

[Three generations of women, one household]

The fire to defy stereotypes – age and gender-related – and prove the naysayers wrong is still blazing strong for the woman who admits ‘there’s no such thing as a 24-hour day for me’.

An early riser, the first thing Margery does is check her phone, keen to tackle her inbox and messages straightaway. ‘It gives people a chance to take care of things rather than wait for me to get back,’ she explains. ‘It helps me set the pace of the day.’

And for this jetsetter – she makes on average 40 trips a year, clocking in half a million air miles – that pace is showing no signs of slowing down. On a brief visit to Dubai (where Apco has an office) last week to launch her autobiography Roots and Wings: Ten lessons of Motherhood That Helped Me Create and Run a Company, Margery was scheduled to fly out the next day to Saudi Arabia to recce the country’s business potential before returning to her company’s home base in Washington DC.

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Spending so many hours in the air on business trips, does she regret missing out on her family’s big and small milestones, I ask.

‘I don’t think there’s anything like a work-life balance,’ says the award-winning PR professional. The unabashed ambition to attain sustained growth is clearly evident in her voice.

At 20 she married Steve Kraus, a lawyer from Brooklyn, and had her first child at 21. By the time she hit her 30s, she had three growing kids and a fledgling business, each demanding unwavering attention.

‘In many ways, my professional success has been a function of a supportive and engaged family, and my ability to be fully engaged with my family has been a function of a fulfilled professional career. It hasn’t been easy, but it has worked for me,’ she says.

Instead of trying for a work-life balance, Margery believes in ‘blending the two’. It’s a piece of advice she would like to offer all women who are constantly juggling aspirations, priorities and responsibilities, and feeling ‘less than’ in the process.

‘I have always been a sucker for a good opportunity and get easily seduced by things that I believe make a difference,’ she says in her book. And to pursue opportunities ‘I had to have a true partnership with my husband.’

If that advice is not liberating enough, Roots and Wings is a treasure trove of wisdom for any young woman who is afraid to dream right now. Here are some:

Praise in public, criticise in private

As a parent and a leader at work, Margery says one of her most important roles has been to build character and self-esteem. ‘Public criticism and attacks are the fastest way to tear people down,’ she writes. ‘One of the guiding principles in raising my children and developing people at work has been to help them grow and learn by teaching them to deal with and overcome their mistakes. I have made it a practice to never publicly humiliate others. Do not criticise in public and embarrass those who have erred.

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How much does she depend on her team to execute her vision?

‘You cannot do everything alone, you cannot be a leader if no one is following you,’ says Margery.

Who would she choose for her dream team? ‘You want someone who is smart, but someone who is smart and humble. Attitude is everything. I would want someone who loves being part of a team, with whom I can share success, who is self-confident but not arrogant. I work with a lot of young people, who bring a lot of energy to the workplace. We do some reverse mentoring. They see things I don’t.’

In Apco, there are five generations of employees working under the same roof. ‘The way you work with someone who is your peer age wise is completely different from how you would work with younger people. They are better and smarter, they are open to doing things differently and have more of a wonder about the world, which I love.’

A leader who believes in always giving credit for success to those who deserve it, she feels that principle ‘holds true for parenting too, as you should give all the credit to your kids when they do something wonderful’.

Be fearless and never underestimate yourself

For Margery, building Apco and taking it from strength to strength has been a case of a dogged persistence. ‘It takes commitment and hard work, along with the courage to take risks,’ she says.

‘I made mistakes of working with the people whose interests were not aligned with mine or who did not share the same values as I did.’

Nevertheless, she persisted and took risks. ‘For instance, early in Apco’s history there were several people that I hired who had a lot more experience than I did. They made me question the way I was running the company. For a while I questioned my own ability to lead and manage but thankfully realised this was more about my insecurity than about doing the right thing. It was a good lesson and helped me be a much stronger leader going forward.’

It was her confidence that helped her take important decisions in life early on. Her first few life lessons came from working at her father’s store. Then it was her decision to skip high school and go straight to college (an unusual practice, but Margery’s grades meant she could make the transition) and much later when she worked at the Close up Foundation, she found the courage to pick up the phone to call up key people, encouraging them to speak at the small non-profit she worked in. 

From former US President Harry Truman to former Vice-President and longtime senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey Jr, it was Margery’s fearlessness and professionalism that helped nurture her relationships with prominent personalities in the field of business and politics.   

‘I have always tried to surround myself at work with people who share the same commitment and passion to get things done, to find the way to achieve goals despite obstacles,’ says Margery.

Did she at any time entertain feelings of self-doubt?

There have been moments when one might feel underestimated by others, she says, but quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  

‘When we dreamed of being a $10 million business, people thought it was crazy, but we met and passed our goal way ahead of schedule. In forming and building a new enterprise you need to have passionate people around you who believe in your mission and are willing to pitch in the time and effort to make your company a success, despite roadblocks,’ she says.

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So, what advice would she have for those who are starting off on a business venture?

‘Be fearless, be confident and don’t be afraid to fail, because that is exactly how you ultimately win professionally and personally,’ she says. Margery takes that advice not just on a professional level, but on a personal one as well. As a mother, she encourages her children to be fearless and not allow anyone or anything to come between them and their goals.

She admits that while she offers her kids a lot of advice, she too has benefited a lot from some insights her children shared with her. She is unstinting in giving credit to her family, especially her children, for keeping her focused.

‘I am grateful that I have my family to make sure that I keep a healthy and balanced perspective. It is the one constant that has grounded me. It is hard to take yourself seriously if you are baking brownies with your 12-year-old grandchild, making smiley-face pancakes on the weekend, carving the Thanksgiving turkey or doing household chores, for that matter. For a while you forget the seriousness of life and the responsibilities you hold. I think it is called perspective….’

Her enthusiasm to learn and grow and connect the dots is infectious. ‘I am a glass-half-full person. That is just who I am. I always believe that something can be accomplished even if it takes all night to do it.’

Learning on the job has been an integral part of Margery’s leadership goals. She is visibly excited about her trip to Saudi where ‘the world is changing so fast and we now have the chance to be part of that change’

Margery with the team behind Unite to Prevent Cancer, an adolescent intervention programme being supported by Apco to bridge the gap between 'knowing and doing' in preventing cancer

She also talks about the Unite to Prevent Cancer initiative where Apco will be working with a leading expert on cancer to create a movement to get adolescents to learn what actions can be taken when they are young that will prevent 50 per cent of cancers when they are adults. ‘This opportunity to bridge the gap between “knowing and doing” can help save lives and lots of resources, especially in developing countries.’

Expanding horizons: lessons from the 10-year trips

Early in life, Margery introduced something she calls the “10-year-trips” for her children, which she has now extended to her grandkids. ‘I have seen the world differently through them,’ she admits.

‘When my kids were growing up, I thought it would be great to have them see what I did and why I was gone [on business trips]. And so every time a kid of mine turned 10, I took that child on a trip to an Apco office of their choice. On these trips, the kids not only understand the nitty-gritties of business, but get to spend some quality time with me. Each of these trips meant a lot to me and I learned later how influential they were in the lives of each of my children.’

Much later, when her grandchildren reached their 10th birthdays, Margery would take them on an experience of their choosing, often in other parts of the world. ‘The trips,’ Margery says, ‘encourage learning, discipline, manners and good behaviour, and teach them about planning for and achieving goals. These trips are planned by the kids and are part of the experience in finding their interests.’

Career development has been a carrot for staff at the workplace as well, but for young people she has especially been keen to introduce several mentoring and internship programmes around the world. ‘One of my greatest professional joys has been to mentor the most fantastic young professionals and see them grow and spread their wings. Many have advanced within our company and are today’s leaders.’

She says during the travels the lessons her kids learnt from different cultures were invaluable experiences of life.

But the best lessons were her grandkids appreciating the one-on-one time with her, learning and experiencing something new, enjoying taking risks and challenging themselves... things she has tried to pass on to her teams around the world through career development programmes. 

‘It is important to share life’s experiences with your fellow workers and your work experience with your family,’ she says.

Margery with Malala Yousafzai at the World Economic Forum in Davos

Young people continue to inspire her, she admits. Margery remembers hosting the young Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai at the World Economic Forum two years ago. ‘Malala is a young woman of quiet strength and great passion, which is obvious when you meet her. At the same time, as a mother and grandmother, I could not help feeling a little protective of her and the tremendous job she has undertaken. She earned my total respect in a very short time but I also wanted to wrap my motherly arms around her!’  

A final wish

Is there anything else she would still like to do? A box that hasn’t been ticked?

‘I would love to meet Her Highness Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, wife of the late President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He was so instrumental in shaping the country and creating a set of values that lives on. I know that his wife was an important, but quiet, partner in this amazing story and impacted education, the role of women and many other aspects of society. I think it would be fascinating to talk to her about the history she has witnessed and in which she has participated.’