As CEO of AMA, Russ Klein carries on the organization’s original mission—to serve as a trusted resource for marketing education, training, information, and tools that help advance marketing practice and thought leadership and facilitate sharing of knowledge and networking by connecting like-minded individuals. The AMA has grown into one of the largest marketing associations in the world. It is the trusted go-to resource for more than 1.1 million marketers and academics with some 30,000 members in 118 countries across 74 professional chapters and 345 collegiate chapters throughout North America. AMA publishes several handbooks and research monographs including the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, and Marketing News. The Journal of Marketing and Journal of Marketing Research are the number one publications in their respective segments in terms of impact and influence on marketing best practices around the world.
I spoke to Russ about rising above adversity, the serendipity of crossing paths, and knowing how the sliding doors closing and opening at any time in our life provide opportunity we may never have dreamed we were destined to seize.
John Mattone: Thank you for your contribution to the book, Russ. You’re such a humble, introspective, loyal leader. Congratulations on all your success. I imagine it all led to your current position as CEO of the American Marketing Association.
Russ Klein: Yes, it did. It’s a busy time at the American Marketing Association, but it’s a good busy! We’re having lot of fun and going through tremendous change at a very rapid rate—it’s been a great adventure. I have a very supportive board and that’s made for a pleasurable experience, albeit very busy all the way around.
JM: I read the blog post you wrote about curiosity. Essentially, you said that without curiosity, there will be no success.
I love that post, because you are so correct that you know the curiosity factor. You are not going to be successful without the curiosity factor. You have an interesting combination of being self-reflective but also other oriented, which seems to be the secret to your success in your current role.
RK: Yes—it’s a highly stakeholder-driven position. The American Marketing Association is complex in terms of all the various constituencies to which we are committed to extending our service and thought leadership. It’s part of our strategic platform, of which the first plank is service leadership.
We also operate on what we call a “be-do” basis. That means it is more critical to be grateful and joyful, curious and courageous, customer-centric and stakeholder-sensitive than it is to do anything! Of course people have work to do and they need the skills and competencies to perform those duties, but you cannot be part of the “Next AMA” if you don’t first project the be values.
I know some leaders will differ on this, but I have never met somebody so smart that they could be exempt from living the values of an organization. I would rather take a ragtag group of bad news bears who all shared in a vision in which they saw themselves playing an epic role and viewed themselves as but one part of a team on which our relationships were more important than our decisions over any so-called all-star team of intellectually superior but self-centered talent.
JM: There are legacy aspects of the AMA that are powerful and positive that you want to sustain, but I'm sure that there are elements of the culture you want to change. How are you tackling that?
RK: It started with a vision in which people could see themselves as having a starring role. To me, that was an important foundation piece to lay out. So we went through a process of what I call a "stakeholder-built strategic plan." It was the function of lots of listening, lots of input, and ultimately, allowed us to articulate a vision in which people could see their own ideas and their own inputs reflected in it, and they could see how they fit into that vision.
That was job number one.
JM: If you've got alignment, in which people feel connected with the mission and the vision and the purpose, magic can happen. So clearly, that's where you started—pillar number one. What was next?
RK: That was pillar number one and right next to it were two concepts that I told our story about over and over and over again to my internal staff and to our external stakeholders. The AMA culture is hinged on community.
So while we are a big organization, we need to also make sure that we're all pulling in the same direction. And I used this story to try to bring to stark relief how difficult it is to be a leader of change. One story I tell is the Genovese syndrome, and I'm sure you've heard of it. Maybe by other terms, it's called the "bystander effect."
JM: Of course, yes. How have you applied it?
RK: Kitty Genovese is the woman who was murdered in the '60s in New York City when 37 people listened or watched without calling the police. And social scientists who studied that event concluded that the more people present during that murder, the less likely she was to get help because of the human nature to assume that the person next to them is going call for help so they don’t need to. As horrific as that story is, I loved it because if someone can lose their life over apathy, you can certainly lose a business over apathy.
JM: I think that's very, very well said, very powerful.
RK: So that's number one. The other story I tell is something I learned in our business school from Michael Beers from HBS. In his algebraic equation, Change = a vision X a process X D, the D stands for dissatisfaction. His point was unless there is universal dissatisfaction, there can be little or no change. The multiplication sign means if dissatisfaction is less than whole, change will be suboptimized. And if a group of people is not universally dissatisfied at all, it means anything times zero is zero. I find that equation irrefutable.
I held a town hall meeting in my first 30 days at AMA, and I asked my leadership team to stand up in front of the balance of the staff and share with them, what it was, they were dissatisfied with about the current AMA.
RK: And then we held workshops from that point on to keep the concept alive as part of our ongoing change management.
JM: I find that so powerful. For cultural change to occur within an organization, two things must be present. One is dissatisfaction. The other is compelling vision.
This is a basic wisdom that young leaders must incorporate if they want to survive the ever-changing climate. You have a lot of young talent at the AMA. What message would you want to deliver to those upcoming leaders, and all leaders?
RK: That’s a big question! I might say that leadership is an opportunity to see your principles and values advanced in the world. Therefor, the legacy of your own values and your own principles has a chance to survive and go another generation.
I would also encourage young people to embrace the belief that you're not going to inspire without taking stands. That does not mean being argumentative or combative but that your values and principles are not divisible, to be cut up and split in half or filed off around the edges. You can compromise on lots of other aspects in the business world, but values and principles are not divisible. Leadership is also the opportunity and the responsibility to make sure that those values and principles survive into the next generation.
JM: This has been powerful, Russ. I have some final questions. What aspects of your culture are you most proud of? Why?
RK: Curiosity and gratefulness. All of our values are what we call “be” goals. They are all more important than any “do” goal anyone has. What’s unique about curiosity and gratefulness is that they will serve anyone who passes through the American Marketing Association for life. Additionally, they are gateway competencies that open you up to positive possibilities because they are outer-directed.
JM: What aspects of your culture are the ones you need to transform? Why?
RK: The Next AMA culture is freshly minted. There was only a default culture of careerism, individualism, and I would describe the enterprise as rudderless, uninspired, and running at an unhealthy normal of mediocrity. Yet not everyone in the organization wanted this—they were simply unable to change it, because such change has to start at the top.
In fairness, my predecessor, aside from sitting on the selection committee that hired me, had led the organization through the Great Recession and achieved other noteworthy milestones in the 75-plus year history of the AMA. But it was time to move from professional management to inspired leadership if the AMA was going to rise again as the preeminent, knowledge-based enterprise devoted to marketing in the world.
The one cornerstone that seemed rock solid both inside and around the AMA was a genuine sense of earnestness. I took note of this early on, and my observation has proved correct time and time again. The AMA staff and our thousands of volunteers across the country are involved with the AMA for the right reasons and the positive intent is palpable. And quite directly, I believed then and now it represents an uncommon earnestness among such a large group of individuals. With that to build on, the cultural tenets of the Next AMA are curiosity, courage, gratefulness, joyfulness, customer-centric, and stakeholder-sensitive. Why those and not the full list of Boy Scouts values?
Simply, because in my 35 years of experience, 28 of it in the C-suite, they represent the invisible forces that drive a high performance/feedback organization. As CEO, it was my first chance to build a culture on the basis of empirical proof from past cultures: great cultures, default cultures, toxic cultures, all of which I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand from multiple vantage points. I have chronicled a case for why each of these be goals are fundamental to a high functioning organization, and the message to the team is clear; if you can’t be, you can’t do.
To read the full interview with Russ Klein along with conversations with 13 other top CEOs about leadership and cultural change, order a copy of Cultural Transformations today.