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Jeff Ketner of Ketner Group Communications: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive

Differentiate yourself. What makes your agency different from others, and why should a particular client choose you? For the past 20 years our agency has developed a growing specialization in B2B technology, particularly retail technology. The more we’ve narrowed our focus, the more we’ve grown, as we’ve carved out an area of specialization that’s hard for other agencies to replicate. We’ve had some successful clients in other areas along the way, but by and large we’ve stuck to retail tech, and as we’ve done that, we’ve grown.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Ketner.

Jeff Ketner is CEO of Ketner Group Communications, a PR agency that specializes in retail technology. Ketner Group was founded in 1990 by Jeff Ketner and has offices in Austin, New York and Nashville.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’ve been telling stories my whole life. I started writing and illustrating poems, silly stories and comic books in elementary school and never really stopped. After college, where I majored in English, I ended up writing and editing several magazines, then went to work for Austin’s first B2B technology PR and advertising agency, where I became vice president.

From there I’d like to say my next moves were well thought out, but that’s not the case. The agency owner abruptly decided to retire and shut down the agency after seven years, and I needed to do something quickly, as I had a family to support. So I started Ketner Group Communications and took on the clients I’d been working with in my previous role and made them part of Ketner Groups first set of clients. Public Relations is all about storytelling, really, and it’s interesting that the seeds of my career were planted early. I’ve been fortunate that it’s worked out, too; we celebrated our 30th anniversary earlier this year and we continue to grow.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In the early years of Ketner Group, I issued a press announcement for our largest client, a division of a publicly traded company, only to get a phone call several hours later from a company executive who asked me, “Who approved that release?” I told him one of his managers had given me the green light, but turns out he didn’t know about it — and neither did the legal department. My heart sank when the executive said, “I need to meet with you — now”. On the long drive to his office, I had a sense of impending doom; I thought my career was over. Instead, we had a cordial meeting; as I left he said, “Son, don’t do that again,” and shook my hand.

Several years later that same executive called me to help out with a new company he’d started, and that grew into one of the most formative client relationships of my career. We had lunch a couple of years ago, and I finally had the chance to tell him how important he’d been. You can never know how the people you encounter will influence your professional or personal life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Gregg Popovich, legendary coach of the San Antonio Spurs, inspires me with his “team first” approach to coaching. Pop’s focus on building a cohesive team is the main reason the Spurs have won five NBA championships and hold the record for consecutive 50-win seasons. Pop tells young players to check their egos at the door, and he sums up his philosophy by saying, “You’ve got to get over yourself and realize that it takes a group to get this thing done.” That’s the way we try to operate at Ketner Group. My name may be on the door, and I certainly help set the tone and direction, but it’s the group that makes this business run, day in and day out.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

I read a small book many years ago on servant leadership when I served on the board of an Episcopal school. The focus was on a leadership style that focused on listening to your team, empathizing with them, empowering them to grow and building community. I realized these were the same attributes I wanted for my company and team, and we’ve tried hard to model them.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As a business, we have a very defined focus in B2B technology, with deep expertise in retail tech. That’s fundamental to our success. But beyond that, we’ve developed a people-first culture where we’ve given our employees a good deal of flexibility. As an example, one of our senior leadership team has worked remote for the past year, much of it from an RV, as her husband’s job has taken them to different parts of the U.S. for months at a time. She hasn’t missed a beat. We allow employees to work from home as needed, too, as long as they get their work done. Our employees know we trust them, and it’s led to a higher-than-average employee retention rate for a PR agency. This is unique given that the world of PR, especially on the agency side is sometimes known for being a high-demand, burn and churn work environment where burnout tends to be prevalent.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Work hard, be passionate about what you do, but remember that life isn’t all about work. One of my former employers reminds young PR professionals to “live life.” Pay attention to your life; 10 years from now, you won’t easily remember the things at work that may be stressing you out, but you won’t forget the time you spent with your family and friends. Try to live a balanced life. It’ll ensure you stay refreshed, and it will help you be more creative and productive at work.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Humility, resilience and kindness are essential character traits. You have to be humble. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not about you; it’s about serving your clients and helping your employees develop their full potential. Resilience is also important, because it helps you overcome obstacles and take a fresh approach to solving problems. Ketner Group quickly launched a number of new initiatives when the pandemic hit, and we worked hard to help our clients overcome their own challenges.

Finally, you have to be kind: to your employees, clients and others in your professional and personal life. One of my heroes, the leader of my kids’ school, always told her students to remember three things: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” Being kind doesn’t mean you’re a pushover; she was a tough leader who stood her ground when needed, and I hope I’m the same way. Kindness means you respect and value the people in your life, and you always have their best interests at heart.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Well, there are the obvious things. Being a leader isn’t easy, and it may cause you to sometimes wake up at 3 a.m., wrestling with a tough business challenge. But it’s rewarding, too, which is why I’ve stuck with it for so many years. As I mentioned earlier, I started my own business out of necessity, but these are some of the principles that have guided me.

Differentiate yourself. What makes your agency different from others, and why should a particular client choose you? For the past 20 years our agency has developed a growing specialization in B2B technology, particularly retail technology. The more we’ve narrowed our focus, the more we’ve grown, as we’ve carved out an area of specialization that’s hard for other agencies to replicate. We’ve had some successful clients in other areas along the way, but by and large we’ve stuck to retail tech, and as we’ve done that, we’ve grown.

Trust your team. Do you have a good team? Then trust them. Over the years, I’ve done a better job of learning to let go and listen to my team, particularly our leadership team. They all have different perspectives, and by the time we reach consensus on a particular issue, we’ve looked at it from several different angles and figured out the best solution.

Don’t take clients for granted. PR and communications is a service business, and you have to continually earn your clients’ business by being responsive, strategic and consistent about producing high-quality work. Clients need to know that you and your team truly care about their success, and you must consistently bring fresh thinking and new ideas to the table. It can be hard sometimes when you’ve worked with a client for many years, but you can never take a client for granted, and you can’t let your thinking go stale.

Remember that clients don’t last forever. Client turnover is a fact of life. You must work hard to minimize it, but in the B2B tech world companies get acquired, marketing execs move on and budgets are volatile. This means that business owners must be disciplined about new business. My role has shifted from being a “doer” on client accounts to focusing heavily on sales while also helping to ensure client success as needed. Our emphasis on new business was critical during COVID-19, as some of our clients made significant cuts to their marketing budgets. We brought in a record number of new clients and finished in the black during a very challenging year.

Learn from your mistakes. Richard Rohr wrote a book called “Falling Upwards,” in which he contends that “the way down is the way up.” In other words, you learn from your mistakes, and if you embrace that, you can grow to become a better person and a better leader. In a business, you’ll get some things right and some wrong. However, you can learn from both your successes and your failures.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Well, it’s a tall order, but I’d love to help people learn how to listen to one another and respect their differences, especially during a time of extreme partisanship. It’s critical for people to understand their shared values and find common ground, even when they may disagree on important issues. I love to have meaningful conversations with people that hold different opinions; we all have to be willing to listen, understand and maybe even change our minds. I just ordered a book called “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” which deals with this topic. I can’t wait to read it. Valuing diverse opinions can help build a better business, and it can help build a better world, too.

How can our readers further follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeff-ketner-7b297a/

Twitter: @JeffKetner

https://ketnergroup.com/

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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