Tips From The Top: One On One With Peter Horst

I spoke to Peter Horst, former CMO of Hershey and TD Ameritrade, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Peter: Well, this isn’t something I brag about in biker bars, but I was a professional boy soprano in my youth. I got to perform at places like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Juilliard. Not the most bad-ass thing in the world, perhaps, but a great way for a kid to earn pizza and movie money.

Adam: ​How did you get here? ​What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Peter: My career has been a bit of a magical mystery tour. Up until the middle of college, I thought I was headed towards a career as a professional French horn player. Then my summer jobs in college were working as a medical news radio reporter (yes, there was such a thing) and I next aspired to be a network news anchor. After graduating college, I went to work at a large talent agency, starting in the mail room and then “graduating” to be an assistant in the TV and book departments. Next up was paralegal, then magazine editor. Clearly, I was in need of some direction and focus. So that was when I went to graduate school for an MBA and immediately discovered marketing. It was the whole-brain profession I had been seeking without having that concept in mind: a job where you have to do the tough wrestling with strategy and analytics, and then pivot to do the creative work to generate concepts and craft magic language.

The winding career path continued to twist and turn, though, as I moved from classic brand management at General Mills, to digital convergence at US WEST, to online brokerage at Ameritrade, to cybersecurity, to banking at Capital One and back to CPG at Hershey. So if there’s a theme to my career, it’s been variety and breadth—I’ve always been energized by the challenge of learning a new business, figuring out the 80/20 of what really matters, and getting traction to drive the business. For a while I felt kind of sheepish about the seemingly random walk across industries, but then a recruiter said, “Oh, great—you have the mosaic background!” And I thought, “Yeah, I like ‘mosaic’ way better than random or schizophrenic.” But the reality is that I think it’s served me well to have to flex to so many different environments, and develop the agility to adapt to large and small companies, B2B and B2C, product, service and technology.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Peter: I think one important quality is the seemingly contradictory blend of humble confidence. To be a good leader, you need to the humility to believe you don’t have all the answers, to be open to input and challenge, to always seek to elevate the people around you rather than putting yourself on the pedestal. At the same time, it takes confidence to do that—and insecure leader will need to reinforce their position, their authority and expertise. You also need the confidence to make decisions in ambiguity, to leverage judgment where the data stops, and to stay the course even in rough waters. Those two traits need to be in balance, because if humility or confidence gets out of whack, then you start getting dysfunctional leadership.

Another role of the leader that I’ve only appreciated more and more over time is the task of creating a compelling identity for a team. Yes, it’s critical to have goals, strategies, KPIs, etc. But to get a team really passionate and energized, you have to define a role, a purpose, a reason for being that matters to the organization and generates magnetic pull to the team.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Peter: 1) Re-watch Simon Sinek’s video on starting with “why”—always be clear about why you do what you do, why it matters to the world. 2) Be audacious. Nobody wants to be part of playing it safe—a bold vision and an improbably goal are much more likely to attract the followership you seek. 3) Don’t breathe your own exhaust—make sure you have people around you who will challenge your thinking, pop your balloons, and keep you honest.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Peter: This is one I’ve passed on to most of the people who reported to me over the years: always have an agenda. Always know what you would tell the boss/CEO if you bumped into her on the elevator and she asked, “So what would you do if you were me?” This does a few things: forces you to always think bigger picture than your daily grind; makes you incorporate the concerns of the broader organization; shows your readiness for next level responsibility; and enables you to be more effective at influencing in the moment, because you’ll always be ready to seize an opportunity to weigh in.

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Peter: Make time to mentor and support people in their development. It means more to them than you probably realize.

Adam: ​What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Peter: I’ve been an avid scuba diver for many years. My most recent trip was to the Galapagos, which was incredible. About five years ago I took up boxing, for reasons that still escape me and mystify my wife. But it’s been a lot of fun to learn something new and it’s a great workout. It’s certainly helped with my humility factor too, as most of the other guys at my gym are Golden Gloves or pro boxers half my age.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Peter: My latest project was writing the book I just launched, Marketing in the #FakeNews Era. I look at the challenging environment facing brands these days, where consumers expect companies to take a stand on the big social/political issues of the day—and yet they’re also ready to call them out with a #boycott. I got to speak to a lot of great marketing and PR leaders to develop a gameplan for how brands can be surefooted and authentic in finding their way through this difficult terrain.

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