My eureka moment came as I was literally rolling through a war zone. I was a well-coifed and powdered “talking head,” a member of the White House press corps who transitioned to embedded reporter with the Army’s 535th Engineering Division unit in Iraq. I stayed with the unit from a staging ground in the Kuwait desert until we were almost in Baghdad.
There’s a popular saying in the military: “Hurry up and wait.” The Army is a massively mechanical organization, and moving 200,000 troops across a desert is an incredible task. It takes an extremely regimented process to make that happen with any speed. It’s the toughest lesson for any entrepreneur to learn, but process does matter, especially as you try to scale.
Massive and minute at the same time.
At various times in war, the overwhelming size of the iceberg that needs to move is daunting. But you also have moments when you’re all alone with a very small group of people in the desert in the middle of the night and you can see mortar bursts and artillery fire in the distance while hiding under an armored vehicle, suddenly the Army doesn’t feel quite so big. There’s a dichotomy between this vastly protected feeling at certain moments and other moments when you are forced to remember there is war very close by.
Our unit ate together, slept together, saw destruction and death together, and throughout spent countless hours talking. The soldiers told me their deeply personal stories. Until then, like most of the talking heads, I had reported on the play-by-play of the events of the war.
From press corps to focus groups.
In the early days of the war, the press was taken on glorified sightseeing tours. A colonel would shuttle us out to see the aftermath of a battle while delivering the official narrative about what happened. It was while hunkered down with my unit in the middle of the desert that I got the real scuttlebutt, and I had my epiphany. These people were the story of the war, not the events.
By the time I came back home, I realized that some of my fellow talking heads, with their hair and makeup kits and their perky chatter, really had no idea what they were talking about, which had a significantly depressing effect on my desire to continue in that kind of work.
I started to explore other career opportunities and stumbled on market research. I discovered that the job required the ability to understand people, to dive deep into their lives, to hunker down with them and then tell their stories but to do it from a business building perspective. I was intrigued enough to quit my job and dive into the business. It was a challenge. I went from sitting in White House press briefings and being on television to the glamorous work of pouring taste tests of Mike’s Hard Lemonade in the back of focus-group rooms.
Building a business.
With my business partner Tom Bernthal, another journalism expat, we launched Kelton Global, an independent marketing insights and strategy consultancy. We built Kelton literally from scratch, and now our company has offices in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and London, and we’ve worked with more than 100 of the Fortune 500 companies and thousands of other familiar brands from Dollar Shave Club to Harley Davidson.
There’s no question that my time as a journalist — and my time as an embedded reporter — helped me in business. Behind every good journalist I think there has to be a significant degree of empathy; it’s what makes you pursue the story and look for the new angle, driven by a real care for what makes people tick.
The empathy gene.
That ‘empathy gene’ really matters in my relationship with my clients, and my colleagues. When I was in Iraq, I was dropped into a battalion of soldiers that didn’t know me, and had good reason to be skeptical of a journalist who was firing away quite personal questions about their decisions to sign up, life in the army, their biggest hopes and dreams. I’m a big believer that human beings can feel the intent behind questions. If they believe there’s a degree of altruism, as well as actual, genuine care about the answer behind it, they’ll tell you everything about themselves. I try to remind myself that empathy isn’t about agreement; it’s about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, and trying to feel what they feel.
Empathy is what builds trust in any relationship. Work is no different. You also have to be able to give up something of yourself that’s honest, and not superficial, to get something in return. I think too often managers see that sharing of information as a one way street. And that attitude comes at the expense of trusting, enduring relationships with your colleagues, and creating in them a desire to go the extra mile for your business. Both are lost.