5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team, With Bryan Kennedy the CEO of Epsilon and Conversant
Every one of our offices encourages community involvement and I’m honored that we are making a difference every day. If we all both personally and corporately gave in sacrificial ways to help our fellow human beings, there would be a lot fewer problems in the world.
I had the pleasure to interview Bryan Kennedy the Chief Executive Officer of Epsilon and Conversant
Thank you so much for doing this with us. What is your “backstory”?
I’m in my 10th year as CEO of Epsilon and Conversant, and prior to that I spent 13 years in other C-level roles, including COO, CTO and president of Epsilon’s largest business division. I joined this company in the mid 90’s because I was intrigued by the idea of meshing technology and marketing together. I knew a fair amount about technology at the time, but very little about marketing. Turns out to have been a prescient choice given how much this space has exploded over the last 20 years. I grew up in New Zealand and Southeast Asia, got a degree in English Literature and later earned a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School in 1996. When I’m not working, I collect and play guitars, run, bike and cheer my kids on through their collegiate and young professional careers.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One thing that’s great about our culture is that we have associates filled with passion and talent and creativity. That includes a number of very talented bands that perform both for the company and outside the company. Every once in a while I get an invitation to make a cameo. Last year I joined the band at the House of Blues in Chicago dressed like Angus Young to play lead guitar on Back in Black. For a guitar player that’s a pretty fun fantasy fulfilled right there.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
I am fortunate to lead Epsilon and Conversant during a particularly transformative era in advertising, one where data, technology IP, analytics and creative are all coming together to drive business for our clients in unique ways. I truly believe that to deliver team performance, it always starts with assembling the best people and marshalling them around a shared vision. In our case that is primarily about pushing the boundaries of data-driven marketing to help clients grow. We’ve seen a lot of growth ourselves: since 2009 Epsilon has grown from 2,200 associates, 22 offices and just over $500 million in revenue to over 8,000 associates, 70 offices and $2.2 billion in revenue in 2017. This massive increase, for us, was due to both strategic acquisitions, including the purchase of Conversant in 2014, and the opening of our India office in 2015. While these were exciting times, there were certainly bumps in the road introducing new processes and new people. It helps to keep goals simple and memorable and to communicate often and with transparency and authenticity.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
Communication. I spent six months in China as part of an intensive language study not long before the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, a very fascinating time to be in the country. I learned there that it’s crucial to communicate up, down and out, particularly when dealing with a large number of people with varied interests. As a personal business example, across much of the world, Epsilon has been recognized as a leader in data-driven marketing for nearly 50 years. When we opened our Bangalore India office in 2015, we discovered that our name had no cache — we were considered a “start-up” to local talent. This brought on interesting go-to-market and recruiting challenges. I’m now pleased to share that our Bangalore office has grown to nearly 2,000 associates.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Humility and picking the best people is essential. I often tell our young managers “don’t be the smartest person in the room.” It’s a bit of a cliché, but gets at the truth that to move forward, leaders need to embrace strong talent, rather than be threatened by it.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
We are in a talent war every day. At Epsilon and Conversant, one of the things we are methodical about is listening to our employees, while measuring their engagement and enablement to do their jobs. This goes beyond pay and benefits: it’s about the vision, culture and the work.
For us, it’s about creating an environment that allows our associates to do really compelling work for leading brands around the world, inspires their best and pushes them beyond their comfort zone. It’s also about getting behind the causes that associates care about and giving back to the community. I believe that when people are engaged with stimulating work in a giving company with people they enjoy, that spawns an infectiously positive culture that people want to be part of and that people can be proud of.
We strive to build a company that people are ultimately proud to work for.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”.
· Run toward the problem, not away from it.
It only gets worse the longer you wait
· Ask good questions.
My first boss out of college was a mortgage investment banker who knew little to nothing about the technology work I was involved in, but she asked penetrating questions. I learned from her that as a manager it is less important to know the answer and more important to know the question to ask. It forced me to clearly and succinctly articulate the priorities, progress and value of the work I was doing.
· Pick up the phone rather than send an email.
This is one of my biggest pet peeves. In a conversation, even over the phone, there is tonality and body language and nuance that enhances communication and condenses the amount of time it takes to get to decision and consensus. Email tends to carry unintended emotional baggage and to be misinterpreted. It is an inefficient way to have a conversation.
We can’t live without it in business communication, but we’d be better off with a lot less of it.·
· Build thinking time into your day.
Early in my career I was an application developer. I discovered that if I tried to sit at a keyboard and program off the top of my head, it would take me 3–4 times longer to complete the job than if I sat for 15 minutes with a blank sheet of paper and mapped out an attack plan ahead of time. The same is true today. Disconnecting and organizing your thoughts is more difficult than ever but it can make a big difference as a manager.
· Pick the best people.
At one time I supposed the sign of a good manager was one that could coax the best performance out of his or her team, regardless of team quality. I’ve discovered that’s not true. The best manager is the one who picks the best people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could in spire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Epsilon and Conversant’s parent company, Alliance Data, has championed a broad corporate social responsibility organization globally. With their support and partnership, over $14M was invested in 2017 to community programs globally, focusing on children, the environment, diversity/inclusion and data for good. Every Epsilon and Conversant office encourages community involvement and I’m honored that we are making a difference every day. If we all both personally and corporately gave in sacrificial ways to help our fellow human beings, there would be a lot fewer problems in the world.