I don’t think you can truly be a thought leader if you’re constantly hustling, looking for a way to have it become a lucrative business model for you. True thought leaders become that way because they feel inspired to learn and grow and share. I guess I’m a fan of letting things happen organically and just being really curious and good at what you do. If you do all that, business and opportunities will find you. It’s interesting. One of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell. I think about how you become an expert is you’re just really immersing yourself in something. I think that’s what we’ve done here. So, it’s so funny now when you’ve got that filter on, whether it’s a Wall Street Journal article or you’re traveling and you’re thinking about experiences or reading about experience. It’s all around you. I find inspiration for our business all the time. The opportunities are endless for a company like ours.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Keathley. Sean is president and CEO of Adrenaline, a holistic end-to-end solution provider that specializes in the financial, retail and healthcare industries. Part retail experience design and implementation firm, part branding and creative agency, and part market analytics consultancy, the company crafts multi-sensory consumer experiences. In his leadership role, Sean integrates all of the company’s disciplines into his work, from strategy to implementation. He has partnered with hundreds of recognizable brands to create meaningful experiences including Northwestern Medicine, Capital One, Charles Schwab, Macy’s, E*Trade, Ticketmaster, and more. Sean shares his insights at national and international conferences throughout the year. He is frequently quoted in articles in trade publications like American Banker and the Financial Brand for his financial industry expertise. His most recent submission was a bylined long-form article “Decision Time for Banks and Credit Unions: Optimize or Close Branches” featured in The Financial Brand in June of 2019.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I first worked at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a company founded by Jack Taylor, who believed that if you concentrate two things — employees and customers — the profits would always follow. That had a real impact on me early in my career: a real value the human side of business. In my current role, our company focuses on two things — our clients and our culture. We believe if we take care of those two, the company will thrive.
Started in 1998, Adrenaline began life as a boutique agency specializing in branding, marketing and design. In 2013, I took over as president, and the very next year, we enhanced our service offerings to incorporate all of a brand’s touchpoints, including retail environments. We shifted because we believe in a brand’s ability to create human connections.
As a company, we’d always been focused on branding and environment, but in 2013 we really made this big bet on the human experience side when the whole world was going digital. So, all the big agencies went all in on the digital bandwagon, and we went the other way. We decided we wanted to focus on how humans interact. I think that makes us really unique.
Part of what’s interesting about my 15 year career at Adrenaline is that I started from the ground floor. It really informs my role daily. I think working your way up gives you a different perspective. Because I’ve served at all levels, I don’t ask people to do things I haven’t experienced myself, and I’ve seen the company from a lot of different vantage points. I didn’t come in as an executive.
The last year was our biggest milestone yet. We had so much faith in what do as a team that we bought our company from the previous owner. It has been the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my career. We continued the momentum this year by building from the ground up our own 22,000 square foot headquarters. So, we did for ourselves the experience design work we do for our clients every day. Full circle.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I think to be an effective thought leader of any measure you must first be committed to listening and learning. In the industries we work in — financial, retail, and healthcare — we’re really passionate about what’s happening in them. We listen to our client’s challenges. We pay attention to movements in their markets and we try to help them solve their problems with our insights and distinct set of skills.
Especially in the financial industry, we have really become prognosticators of what’s coming next, and I think that’s because we are so attuned. Right now, there are a lot of tailwinds making people think about the work we do — how brands create authentic connections — which just means that we were right in predicting what was going to happen next. I believe that’s because of our deep knowledge of industries and trends.
Lastly, I want to talk about sharing knowledge. Before we owned and had full control Adrenaline, there was some leadership that had a particular perspective on company assets — that you had to buy them to get them. So, you needed to hire us to get our strategic thinking. Since the buyout, we’ve really flipped that on its ear. We want to be completely transparent about how we think, and we always want to be in a position to educate the market.
Can you share an interesting story that happened to in your career?
Sure. Several years back, I was speaking at a national financial conference. There was a technology provider from Thailand in the audience. He came up to me afterwards and asked me if I’d be interested in speaking to 50 bankers in Thailand. He thought some of what we’d been doing in the previous five or six years is what they were about to face, because of their government situation and the lack of institutional trust.
So, it was a leap of faith to fly to Bangkok and give a speech to 50 banks in Thailand. But the types of questions they were asking me were ones I’d been answering in the U.S. for several years. I’ve never felt so much like an expert in my career. They needed exactly what I could provide. I think that’s fueled me to continue to speak in a lot of environments where we’d have to be more cutting-edge, more forward thinking.
Can you share a story about a funny mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think one of the things that happens when I’m speaking, especially on stage or in key meetings, is that I’m just going with the flow and sometimes I find myself making up words to convey what I mean. Some people get deer in the headlights, I use words that may not exist yet. I figure if they don’t they should! I think that’s why no one uses a dictionary anymore and why Wikipedia is the resource people use, because things are changing so quickly, they can’t even keep up.
That does make me think of some good advice I got from someone the day I became president of Adrenaline. He said, “Congratulations. Just be really careful with your words, because now people are really going to listen.” It didn’t mean that much to me at the time, but there have certainly been moments since that I now know what he meant.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader?
I have a few thoughts on the concept of thought leadership. First, I think our business has grown organically so successfully because we have focused on growing the expertise of our team. We have thought leaders throughout the company. You don’t have to have a certain title or role to be a thought leader. You just have to be passionate about your craft and share that passion. From a leadership perspective, I get my tank filled by seeing other people succeed. There’s nothing more rewarding.
We’ve been fortunate in creating a leadership team for Adrenaline because of our shared ideas about the people inside our company. I think we were attracted to each other because we all feel that same way and think that same way, which comes in handy when you’re scaling a people business as quickly as we are. For me, what’s at the heart of thought leadership is the embrace of risk, and in our company, I think we foster a philosophy that gives people an opportunity to take risks and grow. As we say, “Make mistakes, fail quickly, learn, and pivot.”
How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
In terms of being an influencer, that’s not something I would place a lot of value in. What we’re doing in thought leadership is quite different than the concept of being an influencer. I think influencers work across industries and accumulate lots of data or information that becomes valuable for only people within a small sphere of influence — like their own organizations. They’re breathing their own exhaust, so to speak.
Our intention is to educate and to share learnings from our experiences, but we’re not trying to influence anyone. We write articles, post information, share our expertise, and when asked, we go speak. We’re more evangelizing. We’re not trying to talk someone into something. We’re not in the convincing business. We want clients who understand our expertise and come to us with challenges that we are in a unique position to help them solve.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
I don’t think you can truly be a thought leader if you’re constantly hustling, looking for a way to have it become a lucrative business model for you. True thought leaders become that way because they feel inspired to learn and grow and share. I guess I’m a fan of letting things happen organically and just being really curious and good at what you do. If you do all that, business and opportunities will find you.
It’s interesting. One of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell. I think about how you become an expert is you’re just really immersing yourself in something. I think that’s what we’ve done here. So, it’s so funny now when you’ve got that filter on, whether it’s a Wall Street Journal article or you’re traveling and you’re thinking about experiences or reading about experience. It’s all around you. I find inspiration for our business all the time. The opportunities are endless for a company like ours.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader.
Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Believe in big ideas. Thought leaders must be leaders in all areas, not just content experts.The kind of leader I want to be is someone who inspires people to do their best work and everyone is there, because they love it. I’ve often said that that stretching for something is much more exhilarating than stooping over to pick something up. That’s a way I’m trying to lead this company, and I think it shows in our work. We are always reaching for something.
- Foster an innate curiosity. Most of the opportunities I’ve ever gotten have sprung from this well of curiosity. You can’t be truly successful without it. That’s how we’ve grown our company. I look for that spark of inquisitiveness in the employees we hire. It’s not really a coachable skill. It’s more of a natural inclination. Who I want to surround myself with are people who just naturally want to grow and be the best in the craft of their work.
- Be passionate. You know, I was watching the HBO special on the making of Game of Thrones. At the end of the show, Kit Harington who plays Jon Snow said, “For the last eight years, this never felt like a job.” That just struck me because that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like I go to work. It’s fun. I like the people we work with. I like to learn. I like our clients. I think if someone’s going to be passionate about something and really invest serious amount of time, they better love it.
- Listening is more important than talking. I love to ask questions. It’s the best way to learn. You can’t be the person who is waiting to talk. You’ve got to be truly listening with an intention to learn. I think that’s one of the ways we’ve become such experts — by asking questions and really listening to answers. Another note on listening: It might seem anti-intuitive, but thought leaders don’t really become known for their talking. It’s really their listening that distinguishes them.
- Instincts are more important than aptitude. Skills can be taught, but instincts can’t. In growing my team, I would much rather take someone that’s not ready for a role in the traditional sense, but has all the inclinations, mindset and passion to go try, than get someone that’s overqualified or making a lateral move and won’t take any risks or make any mistakes. I think part of that is a pay it forward for how I got here that belief in investing others’ success.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
I think for me that would be Gary Vaynerchuk. He’s so transparent and he’s so truly himself. That kind of authenticity is inspiring. He once said that he’s got 2 million Twitter followers, but that if he didn’t use bad words, he’d have 10 million. He just doesn’t care. He speaks his mind. His insights are so incisive and spot-on, and his back story is really incredible.
One of the best posts I’ve ever seen from anyone was a cut screen tweet where there are two videos. One was current and one was when Blackberry’s stock was at an all-time high. He was holding a Blackberry and said, “This company will fail. And the reason I know it’s going to fail is because I’m not talking to their executives. I’m not looking at the stock prices. I’m not hearing the experts and the analysts. I’m looking at the customer, and the customer’s behaviors are changing. And it’s not going to be about how fast I can type in the future. It’s going to be about apps and customization.”
It’s just crazy to think that he has literally predicted so many things just by focusing on customer trends and not getting all of the predictions and outside noise you hear get to him. It just shocks me today how companies can be so valuable yet lose money all the time. And yet he’s been right on early investor — with Tesla, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. He has gone from being broke and working in a liquor store to being a legitimate candidate to be the next owner of the Jets. It’s an amazing journey.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
First, you have to love what you’re doing. I think you do lose yourself in things you truly love and you don’t watch the clock, so I think that’s super important. I do think there’s an aspect of success that means that you’ve got to fall out of love with sleep and have to grab it when and where you can. But I thrive on the excitement of my work and that tends to fuel me.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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.
I think would go back to just making those around you successful. There are too many people that climb on people up the ladder or they focus on themselves too much. I don’t know how this happened. It’s just how you’re raised, I guess. But, how I gauge my own success is by helping other people succeed. I think if everyone did that, we would all be in a much better place.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I think it would be Clint Eastwood. His is the first name that popped in my head. He’s had so much success and such a long storied career. He’s a classic.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.