In the late 1980s, when Susan Stern was learning what it's like to run a company, one of her first employees delivered some unsettling news: An important client thought Stern was a snob.

Stern never turned around when the client had called her name. Little did the client know: Stern didn't turn around because she suffers from hearing loss. 

Misunderstandings like this helped Stern realize she "needed to be much more out with [my hearing loss], so I could explain to people what I needed from them in a particular situation." It took her a few years, but she grew comfortable telling new contacts or prospects about the situation. Today she has cochlear implants in each ear. But she still relies on lip and facial cues and--more important--the trust and support of others.

In other words, Stern learned early what many founders take entire careers to grasp: She couldn't do it by herself. And this lesson would become even more important down the road.

A new perspective on work.

It would be one thing if Stern's hearing loss were the only hurdle of personal adversity she'd handled in her 30 years as a founder. Today, Stern is at the helm of Stern Strategy Group, the 30-employee company based in Iselin, NJ, which she founded as Stern+Associates in 1985, when she was 32. But nearly 10 years into the business, she also confronted breast cancer--one bout plus a recurrence in 1993-94, and a second recurrence in 2001. "Thankfully I've been cancer-free since then," she says. "But they were disruptive years for me in terms of the business."

In some ways, the cancer compelled Stern to act like more of an old-school executive. From 1993 to 1996, she was briefed on key issues in weekly lunches by her top team. She attended the annual holiday party, but she did not work in the office. "I was trusting of others to make decisions," she says. 

Her perspective about work understandably shifted, given her three years of wrestling with life-and-death matters. Her heart was at home with her young kids. She went on a spiritual journey, adopting yoga and meditation practices. "Things that might've rattled me more in those early years, when I came back to work didn't seem too important," she says. "Life becomes precious when you hear the 'C' word and you have it right in front of your nose."

While she was gone from the office, she realized that her teams were doing just fine with client management. 

But some things did change. It was the dawn of the era when companies were building and establishing web presences. PR was morphing into a more expansive marketing strategy. With the addition of Stern's husband, Danny, Stern+Associates began to represent individuals looking for book promotion and speaking gigs. Before joining the company, Danny was employed by a leading speakers bureau where he ultimately served as president. At Stern+Associates, he focused on new business development, expanding the company's PR client base in the thought-leadership realm.

What was more, the company needed to reassess what kind of team it needed. Stern added people with web design, SEO and social media talents. The company exposed and trained its media relations and writing experts to broaden their skills to adapt to the new world. 


Back to health.

Throughout these changes, the immediacy of Stern's cancer bouts remained with her, daily reminding her of the need to be flexible and maintain a perspective about life's larger questions. "You start to wonder, Am I going to be here?" she says. "It makes every day a gift and it makes you stop and notice things and appreciate them in a different way."

But for all of that perspective, one of her cherished moments during this window in her life was a conversation she had with her sister in 2003, when she was just beginning to feel that she was past the 2001 recurrence. She was angry about something that had happened at work. And her sister said, "It's a good thing. You're getting back to living and feeling all of those emotions." In other words, getting mad about petty things again was a sign of health. 

Last year, PR News honored Stern as one of its Top Women in PR. In addition to honoring her for having overcoming personal adversity, the award acknowledged her company's work with the Washington, D.C., based non-profit the Leapfrog Group, which compiles safety data on hospitals. "Virtually unknown when it partnered with Stern+Associates in 2012, Leapfrog today is a leading force for change within the hospital quality and safety movement," notes the write-up. Stern helped Leapfrog CEO Leah Binder brand herself as a thought leader with contributions to the Wall Street Journal and commentary on National Public Radio.

Stories like this are the reason Stern rebranded her company as Stern Strategy Group, despite nearly 30 years in business as Stern+Associates. The new name, she says, reflects the company's high-concept approach to brand positioning and its 30-year history of strategy-driven service, as opposed to just presenting clients with piecemeal tactics designed to create some exposure here, some buzz there.

So far in 2015, Stern Strategy Group has signed on 29 new clients to its already impressive roster of customers that include several businesses within GE and Nielsen, as well as Herman Miller, London Business School, and Harvard Business School all-star professors Clay Christensen and Michael Porter.

As an employee who has been with the company since 1998, vice president Joan Bosisio says she feels especially confident in Stern's leadership during these times, "because of all of the bigger challenges she's had." If the company stumbles during a project or a key transition, it's OK. Everything happens for a reason. "And so, I feel, as an employee, like it's OK--I can go ahead and take a risk," says Bosisio.

"In the grand scheme of things, a work mistake's not a big deal."