You’re 14 years old. Your mom owns a 72 horse stable, and your dad is a decorated World War II vet with his own auto and tire business. Every morning, you and your 4 brothers and sisters wake up at 5am, because if you want to be able to eat breakfast at 7, you better know those horses waiting outside come first. If mom says go clean the stalls and it’s 20 degrees or below, you don’t question it, you just do it.
When your parents own their own businesses, if there’s any question of how to get the job done, you figure it out. It doesn’t cross your mind how good it needs to be either, you just get it done, and get it done right.
If you ask Jean, it was this early exposure to hard work that put her on the path to achieve as much as she has thus far.
From her early beginnings as the managing editor for the American Automobile Association (AAA) travel magazines, to the launch of her own marketing consultancy, Jean Kennedy has been nothing short of fearless in her career. She’s someone who can seamlessly connect a hundred dots, sift through the symptoms, identify the problem, craft a plan of attack, and execute with deadly accurate precision.
Now it might be true that who you know will help get your foot in the door, but if you want them to come to you, it starts with a genuine work ethic and push to put your best foot forward. You don’t wait for someone to tell you how much effort you should put in or how good your work needs to be, you just do it to the best of your ability.
You can see this trait consistently throughout Jean’s career.
After she put in about six years with AAA, she received a phone call from a senior level marketing contact at the The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. They wanted her to come on as the Director of Public Relations, and manage the opening of the new Downtown St. Louis location. The ability to leave a digital footprint didn’t exist yet, so to be called out of the blue without ever applying surprised her at first. However, it turns out that work ethic I mentioned earlier stood out to a fellow writer she had worked with at AAA, which in turn led to a referral and her next success as a stand out public relations professional for a major hotel chain.
Her next big win would take her to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her husband had just landed a new job out that way, and wanting to explore new opportunities herself, she followed suit. She picked up a role she would later describe as the job that taught her everything about the inner-workings of a non-profit organization. From raising capital for her own budgets, to formulating communication strategies that moved the mission of the organization forward, she learned it all.
This new venture as the Head of Marketing and Communications for the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts led to promoting and entertaining world renowned artists like Itzhak Perlman the American-Israeli violinist and the famous American singer Tony Bennett. Beyond the artists she worked with, she also partnered with local celebrities and professional athletes like the Green Bay Packers. Having worked with multiple professional athletes, the one that stands out the most is the deal she landed with Mike Holmgren, the NFL coach who would later go on to lead the Packers to two Super Bowls. Coach Holmgren was about to do his first ever nationally televised interview with NBC. As anyone would rightfully be nervous for such an event, he needed some media training and coaching. In exchange for preparing him to go on live, she received a full one hour special via NBC for the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, a priceless win for her organization.
A few more years pass, and Jean decides she wants to move back home to St. Louis. With an abundance of experience in the travel and entertainment space, she landed a job with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. Her primary role was to address a $6M marketing and advertising expense that had been sourced to other agencies, and bring the work in-house. Without a doubt, she followed through and saved the Commission millions. Some more time passes, and one day she gets a call to come to a meeting where city officials would be discussing the pitch to bring the LA Rams to St. Louis. She thinks she’s there just to take notes and report back, but in reality she’s there for the same reason she’s been everywhere else. At one point during the meeting everyone gets quiet, and a voice turns to Jean and says: “So we’re going to need you to put together the proposal and prepare us for our pitch for when we go to LA.”
She can’t and doesn’t take full credit, but as she tells it, her Mom would always brag and tell people that she’s the one that got the Rams to come to St. Louis.
For some this might be a pinnacle in their career. For Jean, this was just a push for what came next. After enough experience to do just about whatever she wanted, she did just that and set out to start her own marketing and communications consultancy. Yet another successful venture, she worked with clients like Scottrade and the St. Louis Art Museum, managed and wrote content for a few major magazines, and would occasionally take on a small to medium size business and craft their entire go-to-market strategy. Running a virtual agency, she did the account work, the strategy, the writing, and when needed, would work with the network of creative partners she had built over the years.
After 15 years of running a successful business, she decided to take another step in her career and started pursuing work with other St. Louis based advertising agencies. By 2010 she had transitioned to a full-time position. She currently works with Paradowski Creative, but how she ended up there is a story in and of itself. She had worked with two other agencies, Henning Communications and Bigwidesky. When she was at Bigwidesky, she worked on two award winning projects. The first was Forward Through Ferguson, a campaign that was picked up by the New York Times and soon after went viral, and the next was an Emmy she won for a campaign she did for the United Soybean Board. She forwarded the two achievements on to Paradowski’s leadership, and next you know it she gets brought on as a Senior Account Director for some of their top accounts.
When asked how she was able to go from humble beginnings as a Journalism grad from the University of Missouri to all of this, she recalled something her mom would often tell her.
"You make your own luck, but at the end of the day, luck is really just preparedness meeting opportunity."
Whether you’re holding the reins running your own business, or an employee of a cause other than your own, your accountability to deliver results remains the same. Always put your best foot forward, always strive for that next step, and never give up.
If you’re tired of cliché success quotes, do some groundwork, get out there, and meet someone like Chuck Vollman for coffee. Everything about this man makes you want to ask what’s the secret? How do you get to your 80s and still have the swag of a young gun in his 30s?
As soon as he was old enough to work, Chuck got his sign-painter card to work as a journeyman for his father. Yes, sign-painters are exactly what they sounds like. They paint signs. However, sign-painting as a profession had a bit of a negative connotation, one where the general consensus was that you were a drunk and your work was only worth what was needed to get the job done and nothing further. There was no premium service to be offered, no real skill or art perceived by the average business man when hiring a sign-painter, and thus the ceiling for success in such a profession was quite low.
This didn’t sit well with Chuck. He knew the value in his work and wanted to be recognized for it. So he did what all great pirates, dreamers, and innovators do. He changed the game. By rebranding himself as a lettering artist, he was able to enhance the perception of his work in the eyes of prospective clients, adding a more intimate sense of meaning to his work. He didn’t just paint signs or sell billboards, he looked to understand your company, the needs of your audience, and connect the two through design. This outlook on advertising and design was a key element in the foundation that made his company, Vollman Advertising, such a success.
What follow are the answers to that question I asked earlier; how do you get to your 80s and still walk around kicking ass and taking names like a day hasn’t even gone by?
Be the brand, but don’t forget to have fun.
Everything Chuck has done in his career and personal life has been anchored in the philosophy that whatever you do, make sure you’d be willing to sign your name to it. With your reputation on the line, you’ll be pushed to put your best foot forward. So be the brand, and make it a great brand. Hold yourself accountable and push for a better you, but in that pursuit, don’t forget that child-like wonderment and fun of being alive. As Sixto Rodriguez would say, “You’re either alive or you’re not.” Don’t forget that. Find the things that bring the most joy and happiness in your life, and make time for them. It’s not a race, it’s a journey, and there’s no real sense in making money if you can’t enjoy the things that truly make you happy.
Stop asking why me, and start asking Why Not Me?
I asked Chuck where he got it, or where that hunger to always push the boundaries of his own capabilities came from. He didn’t answer right away, as realizing your own origin story isn’t always the easiest thing to nail down. However, after a short reflection, he came to understand it was all about the experience he had growing up. He saw others who had achieved success financially, socially, and in life in general, and started asking how he could achieve the same. He didn’t bother with the thought that it was unattainable or that only select people, families, or professions were meant to make it out on top. He just kept pushing forward till he made it, setting bigger, more hairy and audacious goals time and time again.
Every stranger comes with a new opportunity.
Chuck’s drug of choice is people. This drug isn’t reserved for the extroverts of the world either. Instead, all you need is an ounce of curiosity and the courage to act on it. If you see someone sitting alone at the bar, or the guy playing solitaire at that new board-game café, give them the opportunity to join your group or start up a great conversation. Think about it as leaving each place you walk into better than when you arrived. Even little gestures like getting to know your baristas at your local coffee shop or sharing a smile with your bank’s tellers can make all the difference in your day and theirs.
Do what works, fight for what’s right, and never give up.
It’s scary as all hell, but when you are faced with a problem that has no obvious solution, you have to create one from scratch. For some of you, this will prompt you to retreat back to a more comfortable place where you can lean on the rules and follow an already paved path. However, if you ever expect to be better, you have to trail blaze. The thing that separates the ones who do and the one’s who do not, is an overwhelming will to never give up. You might starve for a few years, but the choice to tough it out, fight, and never give up until you have what you know to be yours, is all on you.
"Make everyday an adventure."
There are two types of innovation. The first is the kind where someone identifies a need that has yet to be fulfilled and develops a product or service to fill that market gap. In this case, you have nothing to base your path forward on because you’re a first mover. The rule book for the new industry you just created doesn’t exist yet, leaving you with very little if anyone to look to reassure you that anything you are doing will actually work.
If you think that’s difficult, try challenging an established industry, one with a stone tablet of a rule book on how to be successful. This brings into light the second brand of innovators, the ones pushing to disrupt the status quo. These movers and shakers face all the same obstacles as first movers, but to go one step further, they now have opposition, armed with results and case studies, to back up their reasoning to keep things the way they’ve always been done.
This brings up my main question, and the conversation I had with TG Livak. How the heck do you break path dependence and push for initiatives that redefine the way you do everything?
Know the Business
When your proposals aim to disrupt the status quo, your dots need to seamlessly connect. For that to happen, you first need to know the territory. Alignment is key to introducing new ideas. If you want to bring change, you need to know your business inside and out. If you can’t articulate what it is you do, why it matters, and a general idea of how to get from point-A to point-B beforehand, your idea will fall flat.
Know Your Audience
Next comes the challenge of identifying those within your organization that can make your idea a reality. Assuming the key decision makers, or the people who have the power to say yes to your ideas, are easy enough to identify, your next objective should be to isolate the social influencers. These individuals are not always management level, but can best be described as the ones that employees turn to for a final opinion to influence their own actions. Once you have these two groups identified, look to understand their motivations to buy in, as well as what might prevent them from investing in your idea.
Know How to Pitch
In today’s digitally connected world, the average person has about an 8-12 second attention span. This means that extra time you put in to thinking about how you will craft your message, where and when you will deliver it, and the tone and voice you will use to resonate with your audience is no longer an option, but rather essential for success.
Still want to challenge the status quo?
It turns out none of that even comes close to phasing TG. You see, TG’s the type of person who’s obsessed with finding better and faster ways of doing just about everything. Whether it’s finding a way to cut the time it takes to get ready in the morning in half, or how to re-engineer internal processes to maximize efficiency and effectiveness for the organizations she works for, she has an intuitive knack for elevating just about anything to its full potential. Add to that her 7+ years of marketing experience, TG understands how to engage and guide audiences to a desired action, thus bringing a unique set of skills to the table that help make ideas happen, inspire change, and drive organizations forward.
If you’d like to connect with TG, you can find her on LinkedIn here (click here) and Twitter here (click here).
To learn more about overcoming path dependence and bringing new and innovative ideas to the table for your organization, I highly recommend the following two books.
- Illuminate, by Nancy Duarte
- A Beautiful Constraint, by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden