Rob Gaedtke of KPS3: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Be confident. When we had the worst revenue month in my five years as CEO, it was imperative that I deliver the numbers straight up and with confidence that if we focused on doing good work, we will be just fine.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Gaedtke.
Rob Gaedtke leads the direction and operations of KPS3. With more than 20 years of leadership and marketing experience, his in-depth knowledge and understanding of emerging technologies amplifies the strategic marketing and communication services that KPS3 offers. Throughout his career, Rob has held the title of designer, project manager, technical and creative director, vice president of travel and tourism and just about every position in-between. He has extensive B2B, government, tourism and economic development experience.
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 mom thinks that I went to the University of Nevada, Reno to study journalism, but I really moved from Stockton to Reno to shred the slopes of Lake Tahoe. I began my marketing career as a photographer’s assistant, where I got to know all of the players in the industry and leaders in the community.
KPS3 was my first agency gig. I started as a production assistant, working on the creative side. Then I spent a few years at a digital marketing agency called Twelve Horses, which became One To One Interactive, where I led the travel and tourism practice.
I returned to KPS3 as VP of creative services. At that time, founder Stephanie Kruse wanted KPS3 to level up its game in the digital space. In less than three years, we became a well-respected competitor, and our revenues grew from less than 5% to nearly 75% digital work. The rapid success and growth led to me becoming president & CEO in 2015, and I have been at the helm ever since. Today, we are an agency of 63 people and $8.5 million in revenue, partnering with clients across the globe and industries, including B2B SaaS, financial, real estate, travel and tourism, healthcare, and government.
After college, I had always set my sights on owning and running a marketing agency. In fact, I planned to start one with two colleagues and friends that I still work with today; we were going to call it 3Point. We had a logo and everything. But I found a home at KPS3… so three must be my magic number.
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?
Early in my career, I mistakenly sent an email to the CEO of one of our most important clients with a bad word in it. I thought I was going to be fired. To this day, I delete the person’s email address when replying, write my response and re-enter the person’s email address before I send it. It’s a precautionary tale that I share with all.
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?
I was at a conference and raised my hand to ask a question to the speaker. A guy named Martin Gastanaga came over and asked me if I wanted to take on the role of project manager at a digital agency known then as Twelve Horses. I accepted the offer on the spot. Martin was the type of manager who worked extremely hard, but also infused fun into every day.
It was my first week on the job. As I arrived at the buzzing office, it started to snow pretty heavily. Martin popped into my office and said, “Come on.” We went outside, and he proceeded to tie a rope to the back of my car. We skied around the parking lot that morning (it felt like something that would happen on The Office.) Afterwards, we went back into the office and finished our workday. That level of balance proved I was in the right place.
Martin was also a leader that helped me expand my skill set and crossover. I transitioned from creative and production to strategy and project management because of him. I think I am a better CEO of an integrated marketing agency because I have expertise in both roles.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The first thing I wanted to do as KPS3’s CEO was set the vision and purpose. Our vision is to bring insights to life, and our purpose is to change the way marketing is measured. But, more than that, we want to change the way our team measures employment; we want to focus on the people. Many hate agency life — and we want to change that. This philosophy about our people has defined our culture, and it hasn’t changed since we put these principles in place.
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?
2020 was a challenging year for us in a few ways. Of course, COVID-19 greatly affected our business, but it was also the same year there was civil unrest. Add to that, we tragically lost a teammate during that time. When there is uncertainty around a situation and nerves are high, I think we all inherently seek stability.
I’ve learned that showing confidence and a plan forward — even when having to address things we don’t know — provides relief to the team. I reflect on the pandemic, and that is exactly what happened. We met virtually with staff twice a week for a year to walk through updates as a group. We also expanded our team due to the nature of our work. We were neck-deep in assignments for healthcare clients, government projects and crisis communications. It’s that confidence again and knowing we could actually grow during this time. I found that it’s best to keep the team focused on doing good work, so they aren’t consumed by external factors.
Losing a teammate was hard. I mean, really hard. It was the first time I bawled in front of my entire team. This comes back to my leadership style; I prefer to be an open book. Being real about situations — even raw at times — has helped get me through.
I love seeking new challenges and imagining what’s up ahead. There’s no point in feeling timid or scared; being definitive is far more effective.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
It isn’t in my DNA to give up. Back in Stockton, it was known by the entire neighborhood that the Gaedktes weren’t going to stop until something was done — and done well. I think back to high school when I hated playing football, but wanted to finish the season before deciding to move onto something more fulfilling. That was just the way my family rolled.
There’s 63 livelihoods at stake at KPS3, so giving up isn’t an option to me. I get my motivation from reminding myself why I’m doing this: I’m here to change an industry and do that by having fun with innovative, smart people.
I stay driven by switching things up and focusing on different parts of the job. I have a saying that “movement is sticky,” meaning the more you move, the more you want to stay.
For example, I enjoy writing, so I leave reviews on tents and sunglasses. I also spent about a year in the weeds of finances, honing in on our dashboards and how the numbers work. Sometimes, I’ll jump in and manage a client project if the team is swamped. This ability to pivot helps me stay knowledgeable, add value and not get stuck.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
The book, “Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose,” is a good one. It helped me set the people-centered focus of KPS3. It’s essentially about companies who balance their employees, owners, clients and partners in a stakeholder model. This approach brings good to everybody and also is financially stable. The book instilled even more confidence in me to be more resolute. We are, in fact, rebranding KPS3 this year, and our tagline is “Human. On Purpose.”
Many leaders read and love the book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.” Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated this book too, but in some ways, it counteracts the principles of “Firms of Endearment,” which emphasizes that purpose-driven organizations perform better in the long run.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
This goes back to being confident and steadfast. During challenging times, people don’t want a waffler. I can, at times, be the perfect example of an overthinker — but having conviction in what you believe in when times are tough outweighs that doubt in my head. That sureness is mandatory in a crisis.
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?
Getting the team to focus on doing good work strips out a lot of the time and energy it takes to spiral. If we get people onboard with doing and celebrating good work, this approach motivates all.
At times, little things can feel bigger to people. When we were in the thick of the pandemic, we pushed everyone to take time off to get their COVID-19 shots should they choose. We also gave people the freedom to bill time to personal time off if they felt under the weather, wanted to support a cause or needed to destress. Little things such as this just alleviates stress and supports our crew.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Just like a glass of bourbon, delivering difficult news should be done straight up. Too many times, people have tried to dance around the issue. I think some underestimate the power of speed, which is why it’s best to put it on the table and talk about it soon. If you’re confident in your stance about an issue, then it’s the best way to communicate efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s important to build an organizational culture that is agile, especially in our business. I say this by also cautioning that fundamental, yet important factors — such as a company’s mission, vision and strategic plan — should be planned ahead of time. Nothing should really change an organization’s vision. When in uncertain times, it’s far better to spend your energy being in the moment rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
We call them table stakes. For example, one of our table stakes is us not putting all of our eggs in one basket financially. We have a diversified client base across industries, where no client takes up more than 8% of our revenue. We also have diversified our marketing communications service offerings. This is us thinking ahead and planning for any kind of future. It’s akin to the training an athlete puts in every day to exert muscle memory on game day.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
People get you through it, not numbers and spreadsheets.
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?
- Through my Vistage Leadership Group, I have learned from other businesses who have admittedly failed to talk about the issues or do so too late. Plan ahead. For example, at KPS3, we’ve had a plan for a recession for years — it’s based on a sliding scale of cuts. In the moment, it’s difficult to discuss a plan like this. But, in getting ahead of a crisis, we have time to strategize with clear minds, giving it the thought it deserves.
- Some businesses let their processes hinder them in times of crisis, crippling them from adjusting. It’s vital to have the right plans in place, but it is equally important to be flexible enough to work on-the-fly to meet the challenge at hand.
- People, by nature, focus too much on the problem and not enough on executing good work. With core values in place, they can be used as reminders of what you stand for as a company.
- Don’t estimate your current client base. If you treat them well in good times and in difficult times, they will be allies all the time. That trust and loyalty is irreplaceable.
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 confident. When we had the worst revenue month in my five years as CEO, it was imperative that I deliver the numbers straight up and with confidence that if we focused on doing good work, we will be just fine.
- Be real. When one of our teammates passed away, I was genuinely grieving in front of my entire crew. It’s okay to be human and communicate authentically.
- Have your fundamentals dialed in place. With crisis plans, a mission, vision and values in place ahead of time, the upfront training will make things so much easier and better for everyone involved. Take any company who doesn’t have these and see if they weathered bad storms.
- Be agile. Like everybody else during COVID-19, we had to think and move fast. Even though we had just bought our own building, we asked everyone to work from home. To this day, we’ve implemented a very flexible work-from-home culture.
- Trust your team. This is simply table stakes. If you cannot trust your team to get the work done, then you don’t have a people-centered culture.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.”
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Rob Gaedtke of KPS3: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.