AnnaMaria DeSalva, Global Chairman & CEO, Hill & Knowlton,
April 23, 2024
AnnaMaria DeSalva is the global chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, one of the world’s leading strategic communications firms, with more than 70 offices across nearly 40 markets globally.

Since joining in this role in June 2019, AnnaMaria has led a period of rapid development and renewal as H&K approaches its centennial milestone. She is also a member of the Executive Committee of parent company WPP plc, the world’s largest marketing services company.​

Prior to her tenure at H&K, AnnaMaria served as Chief Communications Officer of DuPont, and subsequently as a senior advisor to Ed Breen, the CEO of DowDuPont, as he advanced the separation and launch of new independent public companies. During her tenure, AnnaMaria restructured the communications function, establishing new standards and protocols to reduce reputation risk and improve performance, while ensuring the company successfully navigated a series of special situations demanding highly sensitive and effective public strategies, including a proxy battle with an activist shareholder; a CEO transition; and the $130 billion merger of equals with Dow leading to the subsequent break-up and creation of three new industry-leading companies.​

It’s an exciting and important time to be alive – to be doing our best and most creative work, to have bold ambition for innovation, to find and elevate transformational leaders, and to double down on the values that make possible vast solutions.

You’ve served as global chairman and chief executive at Hill & Knowlton, one of the world's leading strategic communications firms, since 2019. You’ve seen the communications landscape and the business landscape change. This is a big question but from where you sit, what do you think is going on?

Five years ago, in 2019, I was just preparing to start in my current role – believing that there had never been a more crucial time to be in the business of communication and feeling very energized to get started. Even with all that conviction, I could not have predicted how much the world would change across a few short years and the degree to which business leaders would be required to meet new, extraordinary demands.

To be sure, the relationship between business and society had been resetting for some time, and there were numerous related references to the effects of the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ But then the pandemic pressured our societies along all their major fault lines, deepening disruption and ultimately creating a substantial break with the past. In parallel, the world’s geopolitical order was significantly shifting. Today we are dealing with the new ‘geoeconomics,’ a deteriorating international security order, and the most extraordinary technological transformation of perhaps any time in history, replete with both benefits and risks. Beyond AI and now supported by it, new knowledge is gaining exponentially, especially in the biological and material sciences.

This is an era in which global risk is elevated, but the opportunity for reinvention and transformation keeps expanding rapidly. I think “what’s going on” is one of the greatest resets in history, and one in which the speed of change will eclipse what we have known before. It’s been inspiring to me that many businesses are largely demonstrating they are up to the considerable task of not only navigating change – building supply chain resilience, addressing technology debt, actively mitigating risks, renewing their social license to operate – but harnessing its surge to deliver the innovation the world needs now.

It’s an exciting and important time to be alive – to be doing our best and most creative work, to have bold ambition for innovation, to find and elevate transformational leaders, and to double down on the values that make possible vast solutions.

You’ve sat on numerous boards. What have you learned about scaling your board experience to progressively larger companies?

I consider my board experience as having really started in my executive roles, when working on transformations that had me engaged with the governing boards at two different Fortune 100 companies. I didn’t really plan it this way, but over the course of a decade I ended up working on the largest pharmaceutical merger in history, then the largest industrial merger in history, with rounds of shareholder activism, a proxy battle, a few CEO changes, and several spin-offs of new public companies also in the mix. It was a decade of special situations and related work with those boards.

I share that background because people often ask me how to secure a first corporate board seat, and I believe that the experience of leading business transformation, focused on long-term value creation, can be great preparation for future board members. As a director, you are not conducting the work of the business, but you are helping guide a company through major choices related to leadership, strategy, and risk to ensure the right outcomes for shareholders and other stakeholders. Executive experience with high-stakes transformation helps develop readiness for this role.

My tenure in science-driven companies also made it possible for me to be considered for board service at Argonne National Laboratory, one of the national research laboratories of the U.S. Department of Energy. During my seven years on the Argonne board, we were focused on laboratory leadership transitions and key strategic priorities in discovery science, global security, energy R&D, and advanced computing. That experience helped prepare me for a public company board seat at a $17 billion leader in transportation and supply chain management. Over the course of five years on that board, we ultimately pursued a break-up, creating three public companies and unlocking substantial shareholder value – an effort that drew directly on my earlier experience in an executive role.

There was a flow and a pattern across those 15 years that I did not intend but that is discernable now with the benefit of hindsight. I believe that progression resulted from the depth of the work, the commitment to outcomes, and the rich collaboration with others who brought remarkable knowledge and leadership to the process. I always felt fortunate to be at each of those tables. I always had deep regard for the people with whom I was working. And I always earnestly wanted our teams to succeed.

What do you credit with your success in leading H&K through the past few globally tumultuous years?

Hill & Knowlton will celebrate its centennial in 2027. In many respects, we are the originator of our category. H&K is a smart, resilient organization that attracts accomplished people – both employees and clients.

I think leaning into our purpose as the strategic communications leader for transformation has been powerful. It has resonated with our people, who have chosen careers at Hill & Knowlton because of their sense of purpose and their belief in what’s possible when we work with great clients. It resonates with our clients, because they are on the hook for innovation and value creation in a very complex operating environment. Today, our work has never mattered more, and we’ve pursued a strategy that reflects the substantial role of modern communication in the transformations that the world needs now.

Over the last five years as CEO, I’ve focused on our purpose, our growth strategy, and on building the team who can deliver it. There is so much more to do but I’m proud of our progress and I’m especially proud of the remarkable people of Hill & Knowlton.

Can you share one secret to your success?

I have the passion of someone who believes in their mission and who is inclined to ‘leave everything on the field’ to make a difference. But I’m also a low-drama person with an ability to be patient. A relative once was asked what one word he associated with me, and his answer was “equanimity.” I was surprised, but then I saw the insight in his answer. Having the fire to achieve and win – as well as mental calmness and an ‘even keel’ in challenging situations – has been an important combination in my career, and in my life overall.

What’s one thing you cannot live without?

One of our human superpowers is our adaptability. I think we all might be genuinely surprised by the things we could learn to live without!

Having said that, I think life would be much more difficult and less rewarding without the capacity to be grateful – and to be physically strong! I want to never lose my sense of gratitude for the people, opportunities, and circumstances of my life, which have been by no means perfect, but which have been almost without exception a true gift. I’ve also come to understand that physical strength is a portal to so many other forms of development and vitality. So not just one, but two ‘things’ I dearly hope I can hold onto for a joyful life!

Who is one woman you admire?

Former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Over the last year, she has spoken to governance networks in which I take part, addressing the changes in the international security order, the related considerations for multinationals, the challenges of our federal government, and the changes in our political landscape. With her exceptional depth of knowledge, her balanced and reasonable tone, her constructive insights, and her clear desire to engender understanding, I saw her bring a politically diverse audience to its feet.

On that day, I think Secretary Rice gave us all a very welcome reminder that leadership in today’s America can visibly restore the principles of country before self, country before party, genuine civil discourse, and sacrifice for the greater good. Our democracy relies on these principles.

The fact that she grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s and persisted to develop all of her considerable talents in the subsequent years to rise to become National Security Adviser, Secretary of State, provost of Stanford University, a corporate governance leader, and a concert pianist, is pretty much all the inspiration I need on any given day!

What’s one trend you are excited about in 2024?

I really appreciate the simultaneously modern and classic trend we’re seeing in fashion and home design right now. Some would call it ‘quiet luxury,’ although the meaning is perhaps deeper than what this popular term relays. I like the focus on integrity - materials that are more sustainably sourced with an ethos for greater durability and less consumption overall. I’m inspired by how Wie Suite member Vanessa Barboni Hallik is accomplishing this shift and advancing modern classicism in fashion with her company, Another Tomorrow. It’s wonderful to see. I’m not the first to say it, but simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and quality the ultimate luxury.

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