Follow your gut. — If your instinct is telling you that you should part ways with an employee whom you don’t believe is key to your organization, don’t have a fear of making those tough choices. It will be better for your business in the long run.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Kroeger.
Terry Kroeger, CEO and President of Smith Kroeger, a nearly 60-year-old marketing communication agency, is based in Omaha, Nebraska. Throughout his career, he has held the position as CEO at multiple companies, has been personally selected by Warren Buffett to serve as the president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media Group, ushering the media company into the ever-evolving digital age, and guided Omaha’s largest newspaper through the 2008 financial crisis as publisher and CEO, handling high-stakes, high-net-worth clients and shareholders. Today, Terry serves on multiple boards, including recent contributions to the Associated Press Board of Directors and as chairman of the board for the News Media Alliance. Terry’s mission for his agency is to maintain the unpretentious and hardworking culture while working to write a new and exciting chapter for the agency’s future.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career before agency life was defined by my time in the publishing business. It began in work at various local newspapers where I held positions in accounting, human resources and administration throughout my first decade in the working world. These are the experiences that shaped my path for growth into the leadership positions I would begin carrying out in the publishing business throughout the years.
Fast forward to my time at the Omaha World-Herald, and you’ll find me taking on the role of CEO the same year as the 2008 financial crisis. At a time when the markets were crashing, I was now responsible for $200 million in sales, 1,500 employees and multiple newspapers under the flagship Omaha World-Herald corporate team. Getting through that time led us to 2011 when the paper was acquired by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which led to the formation of BH Media Group. Being personally selected by Warren Buffett was a turning point in my career. After six years in that role however, I was beginning to feel called to a new venture.
That’s where Smith Kroeger comes in. When considering my next move, I knew I wanted to make the shift to an organization where I could incorporate my experience in business leadership, consulting and crisis management to align with B2B and B2C marketing efforts. While I didn’t foresee this pivot into the advertising agency business when my career began, I saw the opportunity to build something. After I met with the teams here, I knew it was a partnership worth pursuing. Their passion, integrity and talent were palpable. I ended up investing in this business and its people because I truly believed in their story and promise. In the last two years, we’ve enjoyed 25% growth in employees, excellent employee retention and an expanded client base that we’re truly excited about.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When I first became CEO of Smith Kroeger, one of the challenges we were going through at the time was the loss of a significant client that was acquired by a larger corporation. Though it had nothing to do with the work our team was doing, it impacted morale, and it was my goal to find a way to revitalize that growth and self-belief of the team within itself. That’s one of the biggest roles you can play as CEO, reminding your team that sometimes they’re capable of far more than they’ll admit to themselves.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Two factors stick out to me that I believe helped lead to my success, and they are valuable pieces of advice that I learned early on. One, outwork everybody. Show up, work hard and stay consistent. Two — never be afraid of being the person in the room asking questions and learning along the way. You can learn something from everybody. Being humble enough to ask the question and have the ability to learn more is valuable. You don’t need to be the expert on everything — that’s why you surround yourself with an amazing team that excels in their fields while you continue to grow.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the ‘silly’ questions.
Again, give yourself permission to continue to grow and learn. Don’t be afraid to question why you are doing things the way you’re doing them. Sometimes the strict rules we hold ourselves to aren’t actually rules — and it can pay off tenfold to try something new and outside the norm.
- Don’t ever run out of cash.
If an economic crisis hits, you want to know you have been responsible and are able to lead the company to weather the storm.
- Don’t design your company’s policies for the fringe.
As in, don’t base your company culture on fear or create policies for the 2% who may deviate or take advantage of it. Base the employee guidelines and measures for your ideal, trustworthy employees — because they will make up your majority. You can’t design a policy like unlimited vacation for a fringe person who would take advantage of it — most people won’t.
- You will be criticized no matter what you do and that’s okay.
In the newspaper business, you can imagine how often I was criticized as publisher and CEO. At some point, you get better at not taking it personally. Follow your values so that at the end of the day, you’ll sleep at night knowing that you did what was best for your company.
- Follow your gut.
If your instinct is telling you that you should part ways with an employee whom you don’t believe is key to your organization, don’t have a fear of making those tough choices. It will be better for your business in the long run.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When it comes to avoiding burnout, I make sure my teams know that there is never shame in asking for help or advice. It’s okay to find a balance that works for you. If that means taking an afternoon off to take a long weekend for a camping trip, then get that change of scenery in. Things like your mental well-being and your family shouldn’t take a back seat to your work. As in any partnership — whether that’s romantic, friendship or business — if one side is taking advantage of the other, it won’t last or thrive. It’s a give and take. If you have good, honest and hardworking people, it all works out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many people who have inspired me in countless ways over the years and who I truly believe have contributed to the success I’ve seen in my career. One person who stands out is the late Paul Jessen. He’s very highly regarded in the Omaha community, and rightly so. I learned a lot from him — not just about business, but also about how to treat people. He taught me the importance of thinking critically about problems and finding meaningful solutions to those problems. He was truly one of my heroes and helped me through many tough times.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My professional goal has always been to challenge the status quo. Look at things from a different perspective and you might surprise yourself with what you find. My professional goals are fully vested in the success of Smith Kroeger and growing our agency to be the best we can possibly be. What is something in my personal life that I’m still working to accomplish? I’d love to get my golf game to shooting in the seventies.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I would like to leave my family and my Nebraska community both better off for me having been a part of it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
A movement I’m passionate about and that I’d love to see grow is investing in our youths. Working to get through to young people who encounter challenges (whether economic, racial, gender, anything) and encourage them to accomplish whatever they set their minds to. One of the boards I serve on — the Aksarben Foundation — takes this mission to heart and bolsters young people to help them realize that there are resources out there; people willing to help them achieve their goals. Money should not be an impediment to education. If we solve that problem, I believe we can solve the larger issues we face today.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me personally on my LinkedIn page here and follow along with Smith Kroeger at @SmithKroeger on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.