Steve served as President & CEO of Mercedes Benz USA, and now oversees the parent company for the Falcons and other iconic brands. We talk about the rejection that Steve faced on his way to these incredible accomplishments, and how persistence, taking advice from wherever you can get it, and creating purpose in the workplace made all the difference. Having served in such high-level leadership positions, Steve and I talk about the differences between leadership in and out of the military, as well as a common misconception about work-life balance. And we talk about the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone, because this is precisely the area where all growth comes from.
Steve Cannon is the CEO of AMB Group, which is comprised of Arthur Blank's for-profit businesses, including the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and PGA TOUR Superstore. He started out at West Point, after which he served as an Army Airborne Ranger and served as First Lieutenant in West Germany during the fall of the Iron Curtain. He worked as a Principal at The Richards Group, which is the largest independent branding agency in the nation, with a staff of over 700 and annual billings above $1 billion. He worked at Mercedes Benz USA, first as Vice President of Marketing, and then as President and CEO.
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Joining me today from Atlanta is Steve Cannon. Steve Cannon is the CEO of AMB Group, which is comprised of Arthur Blank's for-profit businesses, including the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and PGA TOUR Superstore.
He started out at West Point, after which he served as an Army Airborne Ranger and served as a First Lieutenant in West Germany during the fall of the Iron Curtain. He worked as a Principal at The Richards Group, which is the largest independent branding agency in the nation, with a staff of over 700 and annual billings above $1 billion. He worked at Mercedes Benz USA, first as Vice President of Marketing, and then as President and CEO.
What was your transition out of the Army like?
It was the end of the Cold War and before the Gulf War. The Army was going through a significant reduction in force and I made the decision to transition out. At the time, I had a young son so there was some pressure to find a good job offer. I worked with various junior officer recruiting agency and they exposed me to various positions available. One job that really intrigued was Chief of Staff to the President and CEO of Mercedes Benz North America. It turned out to be a really neat opportunity.
What allowed you to be so successful at Mercedes Benz?
I got a lucky break in my first job. I was working for a guy that gave me the time to learn the automotive business. He really took a leap of faith on me when he brought me in. Through that job I was exposed to what the CEO did on a day-to-day basis. It was really extraordinary. He took the time to teach and coach me. That really made a difference. One part of the job was writing speeches for the CEO. I was a good writer and that allowed me to demonstrate value to the CEO. He also used me as a force multiplier. When he didn’t have time for an event or appearance, he would send me. That allowed me to get tremendous exposure to various facets of the organization.
What was your day-to-day life like as CEO of Mercedes Benz North America?
I left Mercedes Benz for about six years to take a different position. While I was in that position, I heard that the Chief Marketing Officer had come open. I applied to the job and originally got a rejection later. But I reached out to many people I still knew within the company. They were able to convince the CEO to take an interview with me. After the interview, I ended up getting the job. I was thrilled that that all worked out because it eventually lead me to the CEO role.
My path to the CEO position was helped with some luck along the way. When I was the Chief Marketing Officer, the CEO was terminated. Soon after that, the global CEO offered me the position. It was a job I had really wanted for a long time. So pretty much overnight, I went from the CMO to the CEO.
When I took over as CEO, one of the challenges we faced was that vehicle owners were reporting poor customer satisfaction. As an organization, we went all in on improving the customer experience. We re-organized the company around positive customer interactions. It was not an easy task but it was a fun and exciting challenge.
What experiences from the military did you bring to this position?
I consider myself a student of leadership. I was very fortunate to hone and build that leadership at West Point and in my various Army assignments. I continued to grow my leadership skills after my transition. But the whole time, I’ve considered myself a learner. I’ve seen both positive and negative leadership experiences and used that to shape my own leadership style.
I tried to take some of the best leadership practices I learned in the military and apply them to the civilian sector. I’ve seen so many examples of bad leadership in the civilian sector that I’ve come to realize how lucky I was to have the opportunity to grow as a leader at West Point and in the military.
You wrote an article titled The Best Way to Plan for a Successful Career? Forget the Plan. Can you talk a little bit more about the ideas in that article?
Take advice wherever you can from veterans that have made the transition and find mentors when you can. My advice to transitioning military members is to try to have 50 coffee chats or conversations with people working in industries that you might be interested. Those experiences will allow you start packaging and delivering your experience in a way that will be compelling to civilian hiring managers.
Get beyond your resume. There isn’t much compelling information in a resume. Think more about your elevator pitch. How would you describe yourself and your experience in 60 seconds in a way that people will find compelling and interesting? Practice delivering your elevator pitch - this will get hiring managers interested in hearing more and I can guarantee that will eventually lead to a job offer.
Corporate America is desperately in need of veterans and what they bring to the table. So it’s up to you to figure out how to share your background and experience in a compelling way.
Where should someone start if they’re not sure what industry or job functions they might be interested in?
Don’t just go straight to operations. It’s a natural choice for military veterans. Instead, try to find something that you love. What appealed to me about marketing was that it was part art and part science. That was intriguing to me.
I would again encourage veterans to get out and talk to people that are working in industries they are interested in. Those conversations will allow you to begin to see industries and jobs where you might be a good fit. There really is no set career path. All you can do is put your best foot forward when navigating from point to point. The question I ask myself when I’m making a career decision is ‘Will this add or detract from my career portfolio?’ Considering that question is a good litmus test for me before making a big career decision.
Find a job that you’re passionate about. For me the law of inertia apply. Get out and get the body in motion. Get a job that you’re interested in and that will propel you forward to your next career steps. Even if you’re not in a job that is a lifelong passion, you’ll be able to build skills in that position that will eventually lead you toward that dream job.
Today, the job market has changed significantly. It’s no longer about working for one company throughout an entire career. It’s much more of a two-way exchange between the employer and employee in which the employee expects to be given opportunities to grow and build skills. If you’re consistently growing, you’re going to build yourself a very compelling professional profile.
You’re now that CEO of AMB Group. What is that like?
It’s a challenge juggling all my responsibilities but it’s a challenge I love. I tell people that we’re not in the sports business but rather the hospitality business. When the Atlanta Falcons are playing at home, we bring all kinds of different people together at Mercedes Benz Stadium to cheer for the same team. We’re in the community building business. We try to inspire that same passion in our employees as well. We show them that what they do makes a difference. We’re not interested in chasing sales or profit numbers. If you create a business where employees and customers feel cared for, the business will take care of itself.
What are your thoughts on work/life balance?
At the end of the day we’re only one person. So to me, there’s not a hard line delineation between personal and work lives. For me, it’s more about creating a work environment where people feel appreciated and cared for. That creates an environment where people are able to find their life purpose. At that point it really doesn’t become work. In my family life, I try to do the same thing. I have nine kids and I make an effort to always make sure my kids feel cared for. It’s not easy to balance everything - it’s a challenge. Hard work is a prerequisite to succeeding in the workplace. At the same time, I make a point to take vacations with my kids and spend time with my wife. Pay attention to the things that bring you joy. As a leader, my goal is to make the workplace one of those places where people find joy.
You do a tremendous amount of philanthropic work, particularly in the military community. Can you talk about what role that has played in your life?
I believe we all have the obligation to make the world a better place. It’s not just about us but about the people around us. Once I became connected with Arthur Blank, I saw the incredible philanthropic work he was doing. As a business person, he believed that building a business isn’t only about creating money for yourself but also about sharing those profits with the community.
I’m particularly passionate about veteran organizations because I believe we should be doing everything we can to shine a spotlight on military service and the sacrifices members of our military community make for our country. Some of my West Point classmates and I set up a philanthropic organization to support the family of one of our classmates that had died in Afghanistan. We ended up expanding the support of that organization to provide scholarships for children of many fallen soldiers.
I hung up my uniform 35 years ago but the drive to serve is still there. I encourage all service members to seek an opportunity to give back once you’ve transitioned. The more I’ve given back, the more I’ve grown as a human being. As military members, we are naturally wired to serve. So find a way to continue that service after you leave the military.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The advice that I give to my kids is that something good happens every time you take a leap of faith. As you transition out of the military, you’re going to be getting outside your comfort zone. But growth happens when you’re uncomfortable. So embrace the discomfort - it’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s part of the growth process.