Bill Kurtis | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Bill Kurtis

Aug 10, 2015

Fast Facts

Number of employees at Kurtis Productions:

35 based in Chicago, Illinois

Number of employees at Tallgrass Beef Company:

74 based in Sedan, Kansas

First Job:

When I was 16 years old, I worked as an announcer for KIND-AM, a radio station in Independence, Kansas.

How it all started:

During the broadcast of the 1966 Topeka, Kansas, tornado, “For God’s sake, take cover!” were the first words I said on air with WIBW-TV.

Major awards:

Bill is the recipient of numerous humanitarian, journalism and broadcasting awards, including Emmy’s, CableACE Awards, and The Thurgood Marshall Journalism Awards for his Investigative Reports installment on the death penalty.

Most admired leader:

Walter Cronkite, a national anchorman for CBS news. He was my boss and taught me a very valuable lesson: Never apologize twice for a mistake you’ve made. Anybody can make a mistake once, but do not ever make that mistake a second time.

Questions & Answers

What does it mean to you to be an effective leader?:

Experience, being successful at what you do, and being aware of your demeanor and how you carry yourself are all key. In my case, I like to be nice to people and build a good reputation. As a journalist, however, there are a number of instances where stubborn persistence was required, not niceness. You have to show you are up for the challenge of taking on a tough assignment.

What does being a leader of character mean to you?:

Character is grace under pressure. It is close quarters, down in the trenches, and not losing your cool. Being a leader of character means when the going gets tough, I’ll be yours forever, I will have your back. If you show me you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn and to get better at your job, I will reciprocate that effort to do whatever I can to help you succeed.

What leadership style do you use? What sort of leader would others say you are?:

I like to think I lead by example. For production, I can shoot, edit, and write well. Laying the bricks of the product you sell, I can do those things. If I lost a crew or money to afford a crew, I can do the work myself. Proving my worth as a leader with action is very important to me.

What is one characteristic/value that you believe every leader should possess?:

Remaining calm, because you don’t want to create problems that you then have to solve. There are going to be crises in every business almost every day. If you remain calm, you can solve the problem more effectively if you are able to think clearly. If you allow your emotions to boil up, then you are going to be heading down the wrong road.

What is the greatest mistake that you have made as a leader and what have you learned from it?:

I will answer this question by first mentioning three important behaviors that you should keep in mind when working in a corporation:

  1. Keep your mouth shut; you have no business engaging in rumors.
  2. Do not speak ill of your boss; it will come back to get you.
  3. Do not use your inside knowledge to try and enhance your own position.

I have made some mistakes along those lines. Everybody wants loyalty and to be able to trust somebody. If they think you’re on the other side, then that trust is broken and you will pay the price.

What do you think has been the biggest challenge for you as a leader and what challenges do you think many leaders face today?:

The biggest challenge has always been being able to raise money to create a certain quality or standard of product. What do you do when you face the reality of not having the money to maintain that standard of quality you desire? Do you go out and get a loan? Or do you diminish the quality? That is the constant challenge that leaders face. You want to find people who have the same commitment and passion as you have and are as dedicated as you.

How do you measure success as a leader?:

We make investments for different reasons. Some we make for money, and some we invest knowing we’re not going to get any money back, but we do it because it is the right thing to do, and we want to play a role at generating change that we feel is needed.

Ultimately you just have to measure success by staying in business and being able to sustain what you are doing.

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

It goes back to high school. I was somewhat of an athlete and I ran track, although not very well. Once when I was running someone told me, “Always finish the race.” You can fall down but you better get up and finish. As a metaphor for your life, you can apply it pretty easily: don’t give up, continue striving, because you never know when the other guy is going to fall, and you can wind up first.

What insights can you share about becoming a better leader?:

Be open to all experiences. Everything that you do contributes to your character, to your ability to handle other people. How you deal with other people is very important. Successful leaders care more for their team and their employees than they do for themselves. Love, as trite as it is, is the basis of all leadership. As you go from different jobs and different experiences, you gain a worldly knowledge that can be brought to bear. Every day that you wake up and you are lucky enough to breathe, you are going to be gaining experience.

What advice would you give to us as aspiring leaders?:

Try to get experience that relates to your career path. Do everything you can to get involved and play smart, ask questions. You should be the one that is driving your life. If you just appreciate the fact that every day is a blank slate and at the end of the day you reflect: what have I learned today? At the end of your life you will have amassed volumes of great experiences.

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