014: Chris Kast – Employee Engagement With Creative Professionals

My guest this week is Chris Kast who tells us how 30, Type A+ brand media strategists and creative professionals find time to connect and engage at work.  Chris shares insight on employee empowerment with one of the busiest creative teams in Maine.

Their work includes Maine Magazine, Old Port Magazine, Maine Home & Design, Kennebunkport Festival, Love Maine Radio, and Maine Live, just to name a few.  Yet this group manages to connect with each other and their community; they support over 140 non-profits each year.

Chris Kast has lived in Portland since 1988 and has been in marketing and advertising his entire career. His “work philosophy” is quite simple, treat people like grown ups who know their roles and responsibilities and it will pay you back in spades. He and his husband Byron are quasi-empty nesters and share their home with an energetic Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Stella Blue.

Learn more about Chris at The Brand Company   Maine Media Collective, or Creative Portland.

See below for show transcript.

ERH:  Today we are speaking Chris Kast. He is the brand strategist of The Brand Company, which is owned by Maine Media Collective. We were talking recently at a dinner and Chris was telling me about some great practices he has to keep his employees connected and energized. I immediately asked if he would speak to us about those philosophies and how he keeps a team of very busy people connected and motivated. Chris, thank you for coming and welcome.

Chris Kast:  Thank you for having me. I appreciate being asked and I appreciate the fact that we ran into each other after all those years at the restaurant.

ERH:  It was wonderful. We were at Isa Bistro, which is a great little restaurant here in Portland. Chris, can you talk just a bit about what you do, because that’s a long title and I know it also encompasses a lot of things.

Chris Kast:  The Brand Company is part of Maine Media Collective. Maine Media Collective is the organization that owns and publishes Maine Magazine, Maine Home and Design Magazine, Old Port Magazine, is the home to the Kennebunkport Festival, Art Collector Maine, Love Maine Radio, the Portland Art Gallery, the Gallery at the Grand, and we have a number of different Facebook pages, and we support over 140 different nonprofit organizations in the state of Maine. It’s a pretty dynamic organization.

There are 30 people in the organization working very hard because we’re a type A+ organization. Not type A, we’re a type A+. The Brand Company is a marketing firm that’s a separate LLC inside the Maine Media Collective, and we work on Maine Media Collective properties. We do promotion for the events that we sponsor. We’re working on Maine Restaurant Week right now and we are at the Kennebunkport Festival.

ERH:  That is so interesting. I had no idea that all of that was folded under you and your team. To just give you a sense for those listening, that really encompasses most of my favorite magazines and a couple of my absolute favorite things to do in terms of Restaurant Week and the Kennebunk Festival, so fantastic.

Chris Kast:  Never a dull moment, as they say.

ERH:  To get us started in terms of what The Art of The Break is about, can you talk a bit about your own philosophies around work and balance and the importance of that in your mind?

Chris Kast:  Interestingly enough, my perspective on employee and employee empowerment started when I had my own advertising agency called Crank back in the ’90s and early 2000s. My business partner and I at that point [decided] let’s just treat each other like humans and as responsible adults, knowing that people have lives. You know, they need to get their hair cut or have a dentist appointment or what have you. Sometimes you have to leave work. If you treat people as responsible human beings who know what their deadlines are and will take care of it, then things do get done. That is empowering. If you skip out a few minutes early, that’s okay because I trust that you know what your responsibilities are and that you’ll get them done.

That translates here with my team at The Brand Company. We talk about work/life balance and we’ve had conversations here among the entire group. We talked about it at our staff meetings, the myth that is work/life balance. Really it’s just having a life perspective.

When people say, “Let’s have lunch,” or, “Let’s have coffee,” I’m that guy that would love to have lunch, but if it means sitting at my desk and having lunch so I can get into the office at 8:00 and leave at 5:30 knowing I’ve had a full and complete day of work and gotten everything done that I needed to get done without sacrificing any personal space, I’ll do that, and I’ll have my evenings and weekends to myself.

I think that that’s important. There are people in this organization and other organizations, and you always see them on their phone or checking email, always doing these things. I mean it’s advertising and marketing and it can wait a couple of hours. No one is going to die, okay? Let’s get that on the table. If something gets missed, this is not life or death, I’m not doing open heart surgery.

If someone needs to reach me, everybody that knows me or is a client or colleague has my cell phone number. They can call or text me and know that I’m on the other end of the line and will responsible and respond to their request. I can give myself the permission to just turn it off and have my life and not be tethered to work 24/7 because that’s not healthy. It’s not healthy for me.

ERH:  It’s better for people when we behave that way, right?

Chris Kast:  Exactly, because people get resentful, they get burned out, and they don’t feel empowered to be themselves.

ERH: Yes. I love what you were saying about the work/life balance myth. I have been reading a lot about that this year.  Many articles speak to empowerment and work-life integration. It’s about knowing that we’re human beings.  Because of technology, we are able to do things in places that we never have before and at hours that sometimes appear as not balanced, yet we have the freedom to go get a haircut or be there for our children or friends because we know that it’s important to unplug at certain times and not be tethered. I love that word too.

Chris Kast:  Yeah, absolutely, we are tethered to technology.  I’m as guilty of it as the next person. The other day I was home sick in bed. I could not … Literally, could not move, but I knew that things were going on, things were busy here, and I would check in via text with my team or just check email, knowing that things were under control. It made me feel more relaxed and able to just do what I needed to do without being overwhelmed. You know, you turn on your computer and you turn on your email and you just kind of duck, because you’re just going to get pummeled with your inbox.

ERH:  Exactly. Can you talk about some of the things do you do as a team to stay connected?

Chris Kast:  Well, first we have weekly meetings that include each division of the organization. Every Friday the entire organization has a weekly staff meeting where every division head … Whether it’s the editor of Old Port Magazine, me running The Brand Company, our CFO, or Art Collector Maine …Each person gives their report as to what’s going on, highlights, and projects.

Another great benefit of working at Maine Media Collective is we sponsor and host so many events; ours is a very social agenda. For example, I’m sitting here looking out my window at the Portland Art Gallery, which is also owned in the Collective. Every first Thursday, and not first Friday, every first Thursday we have an opening at the Portland Art Gallery. At 5:00 the entire staff just walks across the street and we have our community. We meet, and we meet people and we just talk and have a drink and everybody goes home.

ERH:  That sounds like fun.

Chris Kast:  It’s really great. It’s open to the public. It’s on Middle Street, and just first Thursday from 5:00 till 7:00. Another thing that we have with Maine Media Collective is the community, of which we’re a part. We are really into connections and community, building community, and helping our community connect with other like-minded people. On the second Thursday of every month, we have something called Cinq A Sept, which literally is 5:00 to 7:00, and it is not a business after hours, it’s a cocktail party.

We have them all over the state of Maine. Staff attends, and sometimes they’re in Portland. Our next one is in Camden. Then we are having one at Thompson’s Point. It’s a cocktail party where we have food and a specialty cocktail and wine. There’s no admission charge. There’s no hidden agenda. We bring clients, friends, the staff goes, and it’s just a meet and mingle; getting to know people on a human level so that you can really build and forge relationships that matter. It has more than just transactional value, it has personal and emotional connection value.

ERH:  That’s a wonderful idea. I’m going to have to share that with people, although you just did.

Chris Kast:  Well, you should come to the next one.

ERH:  I will. Thank you.

Chris Kast:  You’re welcome.

ERH:  In terms of some of the best practices that you’ve seen, it sounds like you’ve adopted some of them and developed some of your own, but what are some your experiences that have influenced you? Can you think of a manager or an experience that you still draw upon?

Chris Kast:   Absolutely. I had a creative director when I was a copywriter who was a micromanager, and it drove me insane. It taught me that if I ever get to be like that or get to be in a position where I am a creative director or associate creative director, I won’t be like that. I’ll be the opposite, because I really believe that if you give people the opportunity to push themselves to make mistakes and you’re able to guide them and say, “Maybe you should have gone left instead of right here,” they’ll see that and they’ll learn. It’s the adage, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.” I know that sounds cliché, but it’s the truth.

ERH: It really is the truth.

Chris Kast:  That’s what I learned. That was the biggest influence, the biggest influence I’ve had on how I manage, by having the world’s worst boss.

ERH:  A lot of people that I’ve talked with have had similar experiences. They’ve had decent managers over time, but the ones that really shape how they do something that might be extraordinary are the ones that they absolutely don’t want to emulate because it felt so bad. I hope never to be one of those examples, but I’m sure in my past life I have been, so hopefully we grow.

Chris Kast: We all have. We all do grow. The CEO of our company, Kevin Thomas, who is an entrepreneur, he’s run multi-million dollar companies, he’s a very smart strategist, but he’s also smart enough to know how to ask uncomfortable questions.

ERH: What’s a tough question he’s asked you?

Chris Kast: When we formed The Brand Company I was trying to explain the agency process, and he says, “Well, why? Why do you do it that way?” I said, “That’s the way it is.” “Well, does it have to be that way?” I thought for a second and it was the only thing I knew. The only process I knew was that process, and no, it doesn’t have to be that way, so let’s just turn it on its ear and let’s do it our way.

ERH: That’s a great one.

Chris Kast: It’s a great idea.

ERH:  That’s what I love about bringing in new people. We used to have a process with one of the teams that I worked on … Whenever someone new joined the team we tried to let them spend as much time with different people within the department as possible. Then we asked them for feedback or observations about things that we might be doing that just didn’t make sense to them, or that they’ve learned from another experience and we could be doing differently. It was always eye-opening. It was just a good philosophy.

Chris Kast:  Yeah. It’s amazing. One of those things I learned is how not to use jargon. In advertising, as in any industry … In banking, bankers are good with acronyms and ad people are good with jargon.

ERH: Yes, the acronyms. We create them just to make things simpler, but they’re not.

Chris Kast:  They’re jargon.

ERH:  Yes.

Chris Kast: It’s like a jargon alert.

ERH: Before we close, what else on this topic would you like to share with other managers?

Chris Kast:  The only thing that I think of … A lot of times people think that because you may be a manager that you have to manage people, but really you’re not. You’re a guide. You’re a facilitator. You’re a mentor. If you realize that we’re humans and we need to do that with respect and care, and if the person is good at what they do, they’ll be able to not only thrive, they’ll prosper under that guidance.

If they’re not good at what they do, that will reveal that about themselves, which doesn’t mean they’re not vital and contributing members of the organization. It just means that they may need to be moved to a different spot.

ERH: That is great. It’s true.

Chris Kast:  I think that’s the magic.

ERH:  Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today.

Chris Kast:  Thanks for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.

ERH: You can learn more about Chris Kast at The Brand Company   Maine Media Collective, or Creative Portland.