Terry Kroeger of Smith Kroeger: “Don’t be afraid to change your mind or admit you were wrong”

Make sure your teams know that you care about them as people, not just employees. Make sure they get the time they need away from the office to decompress and recharge. At our office we have unlimited vacation — which has pros and cons — but the important thing is that we communicate through policy that we want people […]

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Make sure your teams know that you care about them as people, not just employees. Make sure they get the time they need away from the office to decompress and recharge. At our office we have unlimited vacation — which has pros and cons — but the important thing is that we communicate through policy that we want people to take care of themselves and give them the means to do so.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Kroeger.

Terry Kroeger is CEO and President of Smith Kroeger, a nearly 60-year-old Omaha marketing and communications agency. Throughout his career, he has served as CEO at multiple companies and was 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. He also 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 your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My career started out in the newspaper business, and that’s where I spent most of my professional life up until a few years ago, when I decided it was time to pursue a new venture. That’s where Smith Kroeger comes in. Before this role, I held many leadership positions throughout my career in publishing — including being personally tapped by Warren Buffett to serve in the role of president and CEO of BH Media Group and as publisher and CEO of Omaha’s largest newspaper during the tumultuous time of 2008’s financial crisis.

My first decade in the publishing business was defined by opportunities at local newspapers in small Nebraskan towns like Columbus and Kearney. I really began my career in purchasing, during which I gained valuable experience buying newsprint and ink and did everything from purchasing vehicles and equipment to negotiating rates for real estate facilities. It was then that I learned the basics of the business, and I was able to grow from there, thanks to teams and mentors who saw potential and gave me chances. Those roles helped me to rapidly advance into leadership, and eventually led me to where I am today.

After taking the leap into the creative industry and becoming owner and CEO of Smith Kroeger, it didn’t take long before I knew I had chosen the right path. The people here are some of the most passionate, hard-working and fun-loving group of colleagues I’ve ever known.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’ve never been one to be afraid of asking the questions that are on everyone’s mind. If we’re sitting in a meeting and you say something I don’t fully understand, I will be the person to raise my hand and ask for more context, even though some might consider it the ‘dumb’ question. I learned early in my career that failure to sweat and communicate the details of any project can lead to failure, embarrassment or unnecessary costs. Bottom line, if you don’t know, ask.

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?

It would be easy for me to name a person as influential and wise as Warren Buffett, with whom I had the pleasure to work. But really, the man who hired me in 1985, David Stern, taught me countless lessons in common sense, including the value of ownership and long-term wealth accumulation. Dave was the master at cutting to the chase, getting to the point and getting things done. He was a great mentor and I’ll never forget him.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our vision and purpose at Smith Kroeger today is simple — we truly care about the relationships we build, and we build them on trust and understanding. We work hard to ensure we’re speaking the same language and sharing the same goals as our clients and partners. That’s what moves us to create powerful work and what accelerates our clients’ success. As with anything, we’ve grown and shape-shifted throughout the years, but always keeping this core belief in mind. We will outwork and care more than any of our competitors. Always.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

I will say that one area I know I have plenty of experience in is leading a team through uncertain and difficult times. The 2008 financial crisis was not kind to the newspaper business, during which I was serving as CEO of the employee-owned Omaha World-Herald Company. We had to juggle the needs and fears of bankers, customers, board members and employee-shareholders in a terribly unsettling financial crisis. We managed to preserve all of those relationships in a truly high-stakes environment, and I would have to say that it was the most turbulent and stressful time of my life, but exceptionally rewarding when we found our way through it.

One takeaway I learned from the 2008 crisis was that it’s imperative to keep all of the disparate interests informed about what you’re doing, when you’ll do it and how you’ll execute. You lead your team through difficult times by being open, communicative, and making the kinds of decisions that — although not always ideal — you can at least feel good about going to sleep at night.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Absolutely not. Had we given up, we would have financially destroyed the families of hundreds of employee shareholders. Failure or quitting was not an option.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

I’d say the most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to remain both a voice of reason and a pillar of strength for your teams. Keeping your head level and really being that calming resource when things are turbulent is imperative as a leader. And showing strength and persistence is how you lead your teams to weather the storms. Most importantly, a good leader must be as transparent as possible, explaining strategies and actions in jargon-free terms that can be easily understood.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

At Smith Kroeger, boosting morale can include anything from catered lunches from local restaurants in the area to donuts and bagels provided for breakfast or meetings, to prizes and giveaways at our all-staff monthly meetings.

While day-to-day perks are nice, serious methods of boosting morale in somber times are of course more important. In order to truly inspire and engage your teams, you have to listen to them. You need to make sure everyone is feeling heard and remind them that they have a voice and opinions that you truly care about. Then back up your words with action — show them that you consider their feedback and really take it into account when making decisions at that higher level.

Perhaps the best inspiration we can offer our colleagues is our relentless pursuit of growth, then overachieving for our clients. We never waiver from this mission.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Directly and honestly. I think it’s important to make a personal connection with teams and customers when sharing difficult news and remind myself that we’re all still in this together. Even if you’re speaking to a group, you’re still speaking person-to-person. How would you share difficult news with a relative or close friend you care for? Start with that thought, and lead from that place. Sometimes being an authentic communicator comes much more naturally than we’d think. Also, having genuine empathy for those receiving bad news is a key element in processing bad news and then moving forward.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

One of the best things we can do is continue to get up when we’re knocked down by outside circumstances. A leader will continue to plan for the future whether times are tough or not.

With that said, it’s important for plans to include enough flexibility, then an audible can be called when circumstances change. Continue taking steps toward your goals for your business — even if some days they are smaller steps than you would like.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I’d say the number one principle to keep in mind as a business owner to make it through the highs and lows is to remember your purpose. Remember why you started this journey in the first place and focus on the value you’re providing to others. If you keep that in mind, you will continually be thinking of new ways to not only continue improving what you’re already doing, but also find new ways to pivot. Those pivots could lead you to a direction you may never have thought of before, but it could be one that bolsters you onto a new path of success.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen other businesses make during tough times:

  • Ceasing to promote themselves at the very moment when they should accelerate.
  • Taking their eye off of the balance sheet and ultimately running out of money in tough times.
  • Becoming arrogant enough to believe that the C-Suite is somehow more important than the employees who sell, deliver and manufacture your product.
  • Failing to remember that all employees are human beings and that they have important lives outside of your business, too.

The way to avoid these failures is to simply never stop looking over the hill and considering where you’re headed, not just where you are.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Don’t get too distracted by thinking of all the ways things can go wrong. Keeping the right mindset, along with a few specific steps, can make a big difference.

Some of the strategies I’ve always leaned on to continue forging ahead and not lose growth traction:

  • Keep your ears open. Whether you’re at a restaurant, your kids’ school or the golf course, you’ll hear of situations that may become opportunities.
  • Stay in touch. Don’t always just be selling, reach out to people, spend time with them, find out what is on their mind, not just what you want to sell them.
  • Think of ways that you can adapt or change your business to pursue new revenue streams.
  • All businesses, including ours, change at what feels like warp speed. We have to change with it.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Be agile.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind or admit you were wrong. This is where listening to your teams and employees comes in. For example, I’ve had several instances in the past in which people have come to me and told me a certain person was not meeting job expectations. Unfortunately, there are times I’ve rationalized keeping those people around longer than I should, thinking they could improve with better management, they were the only person who could do a certain thing, etc. However, in the end I’ve always learned that it is much better to be agile and make the change for the better.

Consistent communication.

Communication is key in any relationship or partnership. Don’t underestimate what personal check-ins and updates can do for morale within your teams. As our company works through this pandemic, I’ve made it a point to always communicate our flexibility, expectations and evolving policies. For example, at a time when many companies were still figuring out what their work-from-home plans were going to be for the future, we made a decision to create strong safety policies and a phased approach to having people back in the office. Communicating this early on helped lessen the uncertainty people were feeling and let them feel secure knowing there was a plan in place. As the situation continues to change, we are sure to change with it — and keep our employees up to date.

Be realistic.

Be realistic with your expectations and communicate that realism to your team. It’s OK to be enthusiastic, but your colleagues will see through unrealistic assessments from the boss. For example, when I bought the agency a year and a half ago, I had an idea of what I wanted the future revenue stream to look like and the areas I wanted to invest in more to get there. I was definitely excited about the opportunity (and continue to be). As we continue to grow this business, I make sure my management team is always ready to row in the same direction to meet those expectations — now, if I had told them I expected to triple revenue the first year, it would have been very difficult to get people on board, no matter how much you hype it up.

Pay attention.

Stay in tune to what the rest of the world is up to and learn from other companies, both inside your industry and out. We are a full-service advertising agency, but there are many things from the tech world we bring in to evolve and adapt the services we provided to our clients. Additionally, there are many things in the newspaper industry that absolutely apply to what we do here — from creating new revenue streams to standardizing procedures for efficiency.

Be authentic.

Make sure your teams know that you care about them as people, not just employees. Make sure they get the time they need away from the office to decompress and recharge. At our office we have unlimited vacation — which has pros and cons — but the important thing is that we communicate through policy that we want people to take care of themselves and give them the means to do so.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

That’s really tough to narrow down. But it probably comes from my dad, who used to say, “Never fall in love with anything that can’t love you back.”

Often leaders become enamored with their own ideas, pursuing them with blinders on. The great ideas and strategies will indeed “love you back” because they will return results to your company, your employees and your customers.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow me personally on my LinkedIn, read our Omaha team’s marketing insights on our blog, subscribe to our newsletter for all things advertising news and updates, and follow us on social media @SmithKroeger.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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