Oct. 1, 2020

My Inadvertent Career with Greg Stern

When Greg Stern graduated from college with a degree in Political Science, he certainly did not expect to eventually co-found and co-chair the award-winning creative advertising agency BSSP. He also didn't anticipate that he would eventually be named CEO of the renowned performing arts organization SFJAZZ. He calls his career inadvertent, but the steps he took along the way prepared him for the extraordinarily fulfilling career he has enjoyed. He also continually nourished his love of music and ultimately turned his passion into a vocation.

Greg is an excellent example of someone who leveraged all of his unique experiences, including overseas assignments, to build a successful, rewarding and inspiring career.   

Meet the Guest

Greg Stern was recently appointed CEO of the non-profit performing arts organization SFJAZZ. Long a supporter, and previously a 3-term board member of SFJAZZ, Greg has been fortunate to be able to turn a passion into a vocation.

He built his career in advertising and marketing services, and is co-founder and co-chairman of BSSP, an independent creative advertising agency. For over 25 years, BSSP has developed award-winning marketing solutions for clients including Blue Shield, Mitsubishi, Priceline, MINI Cooper and others.

He served as Board Chair of the industry trade organization, the 4A’s from 2017-2020.

Greg’s experience also includes multinational agencies, where he was based in New York, Hong Kong and Indonesia, working with clients including American Express, Unilever and Nestle. Greg has been featured in major media including CNN, CBS, ABC and NBC News, the New York Times, and the Wall St. Journal, and has guest lectured at many universities and graduate schools.

Greg is an active angel investor and advisor to start-up companies. 


To learn more about SFJAZZ or BSSP, follow these links:


Beth Davies, host: Welcome to Career Curves, where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host Beth Davies.

My guest on this episode, Greg Stern, recently took a big swooping career curve when he was appointed CEO of the nonprofit performing arts organization, SFJAZZ.

For years, supporting SFJAZZ was Greg's avocation. He served as a volunteer on the board for three terms while working full-time as co-founder and co-chairman of BSSP, an independent creative advertising agency that has developed award-winning marketing solutions for clients, including BlueShield, Mitsubishi, Priceline, MINI Cooper, and more.

With his new role, Greg is doing what many of us dream of doing: flipping things around and turning this passion into his vocation.

I'm happy to be here with Greg to find out how he built his career in advertising, how he got involved in SFJAZZ, and how he made his recent transition.

Welcome, Greg. It is wonderful to have you as a guest.

Greg Stern, guest: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

Beth: The place to begin is probably with your recent move to CEO of SFJAZZ. First though, what is SFJAZZ?

Greg: SFJAZZ is a jewel of San Francisco, really. A 37-year institution, performing arts organization. We've had our own home for about seven years. We built a building that is said to be one of the only, if not the only, free-standing building dedicated to jazz in the United States. So for 37 years, Randall Kline founded and has led as artistic director and founder this institution that is a leader in the creation, the presentation, and the education of jazz. And really explores all forms of jazz from early African American roots through the blues to contemporary and international expressions of jazz. Very significant education department, which involves everything from outreach in schools to a year-round presentation on two stages at the SFJAZZ Center, as well as other venues across the city.

Beth: That's amazing. As you step into this role of CEO, what will you be doing? What's role?

Greg: What I thought I would be doing when I was recruited some six months ago – actually when I tossed my hat in the ring for the job, which I'll tell you about in a bit – and what I'm doing now are two different things because COVID has put the brakes on the presentation of performing arts.

We have quickly pivoted to digital. Very, very quickly. It was a long ramp up to digital. The organization before I arrived, had been working on it in a very significant way, so that once Shelter in Place happened, they were ready. They very quickly launched the first product called Fridays at Five, which is a weekly stream of archived concerts that have been incredibly well-received. We're averaging well over 2000 viewers each week, presented each week, Friday at 5:00 Pacific time. And it's from the archive. Some shows as recent as six months, some shows that might be five years old.

They're incredibly relevant. They bring the artists into the live chat so that the viewers have the chance to engage in a live chat with the artists each week. And they're also raising money, both through digital memberships, money which is helping SFJAZZ stay alive, but also 50% of the tip jar, which we are giving to the artists themselves. So we're really looking at the whole digital model as a revenue share for artists, which couldn't be more relevant in these times now.

So anyway, my responsibility has shifted from leadership of a very stable, ongoing organization, financially healthy, putting on 450 shows a year and so on, to survival and pivot to digital, to expand the digital product offering, and really to ensure that both from a philanthropic perspective, everything from foundation, grants, donors, but also to earned revenue through our digital offering that we can wait out while we do not have the ability to sell tickets to a live audience and be ready to pick up when we can.

Beth: You started this role in early June...

Greg: Mid June.

Beth: Mid June. Which means COVID was actually already in full force when you started. Did you think at that point, "Maybe I shouldn't take this role since it is in fact so different than what I was planning"?

Greg: The timing is even more interesting in that I threw my hat in the ring, as I said. I got a call from a Trustee who I had stayed in touch with. I'd been on the Board for about nine years, three different terms. I termed off three years ago and this Trustee and I have stayed in touch. He called me from New York and he was talking about a search that he was doing in the business world and he said, "By the way, we're doing a search for the next CEO."

And I was sitting in my office as co-chair of BSSP, my advertising agency. I was just sitting back not doing a whole lot because I had recruited my successor already. So the thought crossed my mind when he asked me if I knew of any candidates, "Well maybe I should throw my hat in the ring."

Fast forward six months. It was a long search process involving a recruitment firm. An international search, 200 candidates. And in the end, for a variety of reasons, it came down to me.

I got the offer roughly March 1st. I think it was approved by the Board March 15th, right when Shelter in Place happened. I started working really before my official day of June 15th, so I was aware of what was on. I had a nice opportunity for transition, a very generous transition with my predecessor, Don Derheim, and that made for a graceful entry into the role.

Did I have second thoughts given the situation and the fact that we weren't presenting? I wouldn't say I had second thoughts. This is not what I anticipated when I tossed my hat into the ring, but it's a whole other set of challenges that is really calling upon skills that I've developed over the years. So I am enjoying it, but it's different.

Beth: You mentioned that you were a board member for nine years, so three terms, and that there were 200 candidates that they were looking at for this role. But clearly, you were an insider. You knew the organization. They knew you. Sometimes people in that situation can get resentful that they have to go through a whole process when an organization actually knows them and they've even contributed and given so much. How did you manage the messaging inside yourself, knowing that you were one of 200 candidates even though you already given so much to the organization?

Greg: Quite the opposite than resentment. I was grateful that it was a legitimate search. Had they bypassed a proper search with an outside firm and starting with that wide funnel at the top, I wouldn't have had legitimacy. Even now I feel that I have to remind staff who were wondering that, "No, this was a very legitimate search and here are some of the types of candidates that they uncovered along the way from the nonprofit world, from the music world, the diverse slate of candidates as well. And I got the job, not because I was an insider, but because of a set of skills in brand extension and digital product building, a passion for the music, being local, knowing the organization, at least as a trustee." So, I think it was skillset, not insider track. I needed that legitimacy both myself and for credibility.

Beth: That's a great point. Where does your passion for jazz come from?

Greg: Comes from my parents. No question. I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents were from San Francisco Bay Area and my father was a musician. Then he went on to promote music acts, primarily jazz. When they moved down to LA and had me, my father remained in the entertainment industry as a talent agent, but also very active in the music business as a contractor, hiring session musicians for gigs, everything from commercial jingles to movie soundtracks to TV themes. And I would tag along and go to the studios and see this amazing array of musicians as well as go to clubs with them. They were on friendly terms with some leading jazz musicians and there was always vinyl being played and all of that.

So, I always loved it. When I was in college, I hosted a radio show called Jazz After Hours. Music was always a really important component in my life. I started taking piano lessons when I was very young. I've always been playing in bands. In fact, I'm currently playing in bands, dad bands, doing classic rock covers. It's always been an outlet for me.

The ability to actually turn that into a job, I just feel incredibly privileged to be able to do. It was not an opportunity that I sought out. As I say, it was just opportunistic. I saw the opportunity. I raised my hand. We went through the whole process. Now, as I said, it's not what I expected, but it's a whole other set of challenges that I am relishing. But, the one thing that's missing now is the performance. I did hope and think that, "Well, I'll be at the SFJAZZ Center several nights a week, enjoying the finest music that's a part of my life," and that part is delayed unfortunately. We still have the digital performances and that's great. And soon enough, hopefully, we'll be back to live performance.

Beth: I'm going to hold onto your word "delayed." It's going to come back. It's just delayed.

You mentioned growing up you saw your father involved in the business of music and the business of jazz. Did you think as a child that that was a field that you wanted to pursue and why didn't you if it was?

Greg: No, I never saw myself in music as a vocation, especially as a performer. I didn't have the talent or the dedication to get there, and probably not the music business either although I didn't think about it that much.

The reason I went into the advertising business is I was raised kind of a kid of media because my dad was in that industry. I grew up in LA, a lot of stuff was about the entertainment industry. I used to work for him some summers and he would be pitching his talent to advertising agencies around LA, basically saying, "Hire this person for a commercial and as an actor or whatever." My job would be schlepping the books of headshots to agency after agency. So I knew what the inside of an agency looked like.

Graduating from school, when I heard that an agency was coming to my college to recruit – there were a couple, in fact, that I signed up for interviews with – in the middle of a recession, in need of a job, I said, "Well, I'm familiar with that. I'll do that."

And I always figured that I would do that for a couple of years and then take over my dad's business. He was an agent, he had his own talent agency, and I realized within a year or two, that from my perception, in terms of the hierarchy, you have the client who hires the agency, the agency who hires the talent, and then the agent who represents the talent. And I remember on more than one occasion, my dad having to fly off in the middle of night to bail out a client of his – Talent – who was somehow arrested for misbehavior or kicked off the set or whatever, and I didn't want that.

So, within a couple of years of my advertising career, I realized, "Hey, you know, this isn't bad. I can do this. I enjoy it. I like solving business problems with creativity." That really is the essence for me. I always thought if I were going to write a book about my career, it would be called, "My Inadvertent Career" because I never intended to do it. It was not what I went to school for. I didn't expect to do that. Even when I got the job.

But, because of taking advantage of opportunities, after five years in New York, raising my hand to say, "I want to go overseas." I thought I would go to Hong Kong for two years and that turned into three. I never thought I would go to Indonesia, but being offered the chance to run an office of about 70 people before I turned 30 in a pretty interesting part of the world on the corporate dime – it was a training program for me, meaning on the job training – leading an office at that age, I took advantage of that.

So, a series of kind of well-timed opportunities. I feel very privileged throughout to have been recruited at my school, to have been able to raise my hand and say, "You have an office over there. I'd like to go there," and do that repeatedly. And then there was kind of a brake – B R A K E – and that was, I raised my hand and said, "It be nice to go back to the United States now," and they couldn't do it.

Beth: So there's a couple of seeds that you dropped that I want to go back and pick up. One was the accidental part of getting even into advertising. It wasn't what your major was. What was your major in college and how, and why did you pick that?

Greg: I went into college studying political science, and I declared that major early on thinking I would be pre-law. After my second pre-law course, I said, "This is not for me, but I really enjoy the political science part," so I kept going with Poly Sci. They didn't have minors where I was at school, but, if I had one, it was music. That was what I took the most number of courses in and specifically music production. So I was scoring friends films, their final projects. We made a music video before MTV ever existed. I was doing a lot of music production for the radio station. I had my own show, as I mentioned, and this was a commercial radio station. I made all the commercials for the radio station because I was the head of production.

So, I figured that I would actually go into production, whether music production or advertising production, and that Ogilvy was an open door to get there as an ad agency. Then, within a year of account management, I realized this is more about creative problem solving, business problem solving, and that's why I stayed on the account management track.

But, for me, political science was very interesting. It continues to be very interesting. Law was not.

Beth: You mentioned that a few agencies were coming to your college campus and you took advantage of that to get the opportunity you got with Ogilvy & Mather. Did you have to spend any time explaining away the Poly Sci major or was that just not an issue?

Greg: I had four recruitment interviews while I was still in college, spring semester of my senior year. Two were with advertising agencies; one was with a bank. They flew me, or I guess took the train, down to New York to interview with all three. The bank: I don't even think they ever turned me down. I think I just never heard from them again. And I got the job with Ogilvy and I had a whole spiel and the spiel was, "The political science is the analytical part, the music, which was essentially a minor, is the creative part, account management within advertising is the marrying of an analytical business, strategic approach with the creative approach." And they bought it.

Beth: What I think you did there, which is so important, is for us when we're interviewing to stitch together what we're doing and to create a harmonious story and not expect the person who's hiring us to stitch that together for us. And so I think it was like super smart to have that kind of a story.

Greg: I don't know that it was even that calculated, but what you say is right, and that is, if you can create a narrative of the various data points in your experience or that are listed on your resume, rather than having the recruiter or interviewer do that. If you can create the story, how this led to that, and maybe you weren't interested in this, but that opened up this whole other door, then it actually begins to make sense.

Beth: So the other seed that you dropped that I want to pick up has to do with the international assignments. So I think you mentioned you'd been at Ogilvy for about five years developing your account management and then had the opportunity. How did you let them know that you were interested? So I think sometimes people hear, "I raised my hand," but they wonder, "What does that actually look like? How do I actually express myself when I'm raising my hand?" Do you remember what you did?

Greg: I was always an avid international traveler. I was an exchange student the summer after ninth grade to Japan. I lived there for about six weeks and then an exchange student, an AFS student, the summer after junior year in Israel. So I always loved that and my parents never understood where it came from. My father never left the country until he was about 50, but this was something I always wanted.

In fact, I remember sort of fantasizing in high school, the coolest job would be to be a National Geographic photographer and well, that didn't happen, but I always had the bug. I remember at Ogilvy, they would have a directory of US offices and a red notebook of a directory of international offices. And I would literally just flip through and think, "That's cool. That would be neat. Perth? Maybe I'll go to Perth." And I remember very much wanting to go to Australia, not Perth probably so much as Sydney.

I remember being at a party in New York and talking to this guy, to this day because this was a pivotal moment. I don't even remember who the person was, but he was an architect who worked for I. M. PEI in Singapore. And he said, "You're from California. Why do you want to go to Australia? It's like California, only on the other side of the world. Go to Singapore. Go to Hong Kong. Go to Southeast Asia." And it was that moment that I began looking into, "Well, that's actually a pretty big office in Hong Kong," and I don't remember how I raised my hand so much as big companies like that have international HR operations that you can raise your hand.

And it happened that the guy who I needed to meet for that opportunity was coming into town and next thing I know I had an offer. It all happened probably within three or four months.

Beth: What did you learn about yourself through the international assignments?

Greg: Self-sufficiency. It's good to get a perspective as a foreigner, as a minority, as, in some cases, an outcast. And again, I'll use the word, I was a privileged outcast. I was, in Hong Kong, a mid- to senior-level manager, but I was an expat, but certainly not living such a high life. Jakarta, I was running the office. Young, but there were all the accoutrements of being in Indonesia on an expat package, and that was fun.

But, you also learn about listening more because you're dealing with different languages. You're dealing with different levels of fluency, whether my own or my colleagues, you're dealing with cultural nuance as well. And you're alone a lot. I didn't have a family when I was there. It was before I was married and had kids.

So, I was having fun. I had the opportunity to travel to Kashmir, to trek in Nepal, to spend weekends in Bali. I mean, I took advantage of all of that and really, really enjoyed the adventure side of it.

I continued to make music. I got myself sort of a little studio set up, rig, kind of thing. I had fun and built a career and saw the world. I just felt really fortunate to have that ability.

It's not for everybody because a lot of people don't want that level of discomfort of being a foreigner or being a minority or not speaking the language necessarily, but I really enjoyed it. And, importantly, at a young age, it allowed me to deal with clients at a very senior level, more senior than I would have had the opportunity had I gone along the hierarchical path in the United States at the same organization.

Beth: So you mentioned that there was a point when you were ready to come back to the US after you were about 10 years at Ogilvy...

Greg: Six years overseas, 10 years total.

Beth: Why were you looking to come back to the US?

Greg: There were a couple of reasons. I saw a dynamic among fellow expatriates, particularly in a place like Indonesia, that over seven years, that was kind of the figure that I identified, after that you can't come back. You get used to the lifestyle. You get used to the package. You stop learning about what might be going on, the trends in a particular industry in the United States or in Europe.

I would have been happy to go to Europe. And I kind of raised my hand for that, and that didn't happen for one reason or another. Raised my hand for a couple other things didn't happen for one reason or another. Took the opportunity on my 10th college reunion to be in the US, drop off some resumes, had an interview in New York, a couple in LA, because I was familiar with those two cities, and I said, "Why not go up to San Francisco?"

Had an offer from New York. Had an offer from San Francisco. Took the San Francisco offer and it was with what is now arguably the most famous agency in San Francisco, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Well, I guess that's what it's called now. At the time it was Goodby Berlin & Silverstein. I'd never heard of them, but I knew a guy who worked there and he said, "Oh, why don't you come in and interview while you're here?"

It's kind of a funny story. I go back to Jakarta, didn't have the job yet. I was told, "If we win the Sega business, we'll hire you to run it." So I get a call one morning from my father and he's reading the Wall Street Journal. He says, "Goodby just won Sega. I guess you have a job," and that was how I got it.

Beth: One question more about Ogilvy before we move on to the new job. You mentioned that you were looking for opportunities to come either to the US or to Europe, and you weren't finding them. How did you not process that, or did you process that, as rejection? Because here on the other cases you had raised her hand and gotten a "yes" and it had opened doors, but you weren't getting it this time.

Greg: That's a really good question. I found that this company in particular, and many American companies, are not great at repatriating. I think one of the main reasons for that America is so American-centric that many people don't understand the value of the overseas experience. So when I left, I was an account supervisor and in the mind of the people that I left, yeah, I'd been gone six years, but I was still an account supervisor. I wasn't managing director of 120-person office.

Beth: Yeah, they didn't process your growth.

Greg: Exactly. So I processed the rejection as not really a rejection of me so much as a lack of appreciation for the experience that I'd had. And there were reasons for each. There was a reason because the American Express client in Europe, it was a pan-European job, wanted a European, not an American. Okay. I appreciate that.

In LA, with Ogilvy, it was a job to run, at the time, the Microsoft account. I met the client and they thought I've been in literally in the jungle for the last three years, what does he know about computers? And again, that's a fair assessment, but that was when I realized, "Okay, I can wait for an opportunity or I can take matters into my own hands," and that's what I chose to do.

It's just funny to note, again, the way a global company works and when you need to sort of take control yourself. I remember the head of International coming into my office in Jakarta and saying, "Greg, the next job for you, you should choose on the basis of what's right for the company, not just personal action."

I said, "Really? What's that job, Alex?" and he said, "We want you to run Venezuela."

And I'm thinking. "I've been overseas for six years, three years in Jakarta, and you want me to go to Venezuela? That's not next on my list. That's not what I want to do." So, I was not a career expat. And like I said, I took matters into my own hands and it all worked out

Beth: And they got the Sega account, so you got that job. So, you go to Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Tell me about that transition. What was it like starting at a new firm after really 10 years of knowing so well the firm you'd been at?

Greg: It was a lot harder than moving overseas. For a variety of reasons. Again, one is there's little appreciation for the overseas experience and that's fine. So people didn't know. "You're coming from where? Jakarta? Chicago? What?" It just didn't really register, but that's okay. That was my own personal experience. They didn't need to appreciate that. And I don't mean "this company" didn't.

But I also was running an office the size of the company that I just joined, where I was decidedly not running that office. So that was also a challenge, a personal challenge, but it's also where I met my two partners and they educated me, along with Goodby, in the ways of creative advertising, which was not something that I was particularly experienced in, particularly in six years overseas. I'm talking about really knowing the difference between great work and okay work. And that was a tremendous education because that paved the way for the values of the firm that I then started with my two partners.

Beth: So the three of you had all been at Goodby together?

Greg: Yes.

Beth: And they are the ones who planted the seeds to go out on your own?

Greg: They left about four or five months before I joined them. They left, they were a creative team that went back several years prior as a partnership, John Butler and Mike Shine. And they'd been working in New York, then they came to Goodby together. We worked together on the Sega business among others, and they left probably middle of the year or July. Were freelancing out of John's kitchen.

We went on a boat trip on Halloween, salmon fishing, where we caught a barracuda instead of salmon, and they showed me a little lab book that said, "Look how much money we're making. If you join us and we keep making this money, we're going to have this amount per person each month." I bought it, and I joined them, and literally January 1st we added a name to what had been Butler Shine. It became Butler, Shine & Stern, and we launched. And we launched with enough naivete and ambition and luck. We were very, very fortunate in a bunch of ways, just circumstantial, that it ended up working out.

Beth: Was there anything you needed to do as you were leaving Goodby Silverstein & Partners to not burn bridges there? You were there maybe a little over a year, and I could imagine some people saying to you, "You need more time there. You have to put in some time there and be a good soldier there before you leave." Was there anything going on with that exit?

Greg: As I recall, I gave them eight weeks notice. And one of the last things I worked on was a shoot in Chicago in November for Sega for Sonic the Hedgehog (I think it was, maybe something else) and freezing my butt off in Chicago at an outdoor shoot. So yeah, I gave them notice and I was fair.

Beth: You're like, "Okay, that's it. I paid my dues. I'm outta here."

Greg: Exactly.

Beth: So as you're starting the new firm with your two partners, if my math is right, you're in your early thirties at this point. Any hesitation about starting a firm at such a young age?

Greg: I'll tell you what I did before, because it speaks to the international experience. I took a trip back to Asia and I saw friends in Singapore and friends in Indonesia. I remember diving off the coast of Candidasa and deciding, "What the hell, why don't I do this? There's literally nothing to lose." But, I thought about at the time, "Maybe I'll go back to Asia and do that."

The night before I was flying back, I was with a bunch of expats and they were all like, "How did you get back?" They were all sort of in this gilded cage and they wanted to know how I actually made it back to the US. So, I realized, "Okay, maybe this isn't the place I want to go back to." And again, different strokes. Some people are very happy to have a 20-year career and life or more there. Retire there.

I had no hesitation because again, we were naive enough that it worked, but also I always said to myself, the worst case scenario is it doesn't work in a year and I will have learned a lot. And then I get a job.

Beth: Any messages from others in your life, like a parent saying, "It's not stable enough. You should stay with an agency"?

Greg: Not at all. My dad was an entrepreneur. He supported it from the beginning.

Beth: So you built that business and it did succeed in spite of your naivete. So you guys obviously had some skills and did some things right for 25 years.

Greg: 27 now.

Beth: 27 now. How did you keep yourself interested in that field and that business for such an extended length of time?

Greg: Mainly because the business continues and did continue to change so much at the time. If you think about when we got started, our very first contract was to produce two radio commercials a month for Miller's Outpost. We would then do print advertising for other clients and we'd do television, but that was it. It was TV, radio, print, and out of home, outdoor. And that literally was it.

And then the internet came along and there was digital advertising and creating websites. In '03, we acquired a company right after the dot-com bust. We acquired a digital company and integrated SF Interactive into our offering. We acquired a design firm not long after that. That kept it fresh: adding disciplines, growth, adding media buying, and strategy as a practice as well.

But I would say what made it interesting is what kept my attention in advertising for the extent of the career, over 35 years, and that is every client is a different business. So whether you're working in pharmaceutical or financial services or automotive or travel, you get to know their business. If you're on the client side, you get to know their business deep, but that's the only business you know. If you're on the agency side, it's not so much that you're dabbling, but you can get pretty deep in the strategic understanding of a very wide and diverse range of businesses.

Beth: You talked about how advertising has changed over the years, and as it's become more and more digital and the various businesses too that you served as clients, what was your strategy for continuous learning? Clearly you couldn't rest on the skills that you built at Ogilvy when you first started. You had to stay fresh. How did you do that for yourself? What was your philosophy?

Greg: Well, one of the difficult things, and you asked about starting at a pretty young age, and there are advantages, but there are distinct disadvantages as well. You stop having mentors pretty much. I mean, you can have mentors outside of the industry, and I sort of did, not really. But, there's no one in your company above you anymore who's going to teach you things. There are people below you who will teach you things, and you have to be receptive to that and recognize that. The other thing starting at so young as a disadvantage, although I'd been dealing with a more senior level of client overseas, because I was running the Ogilvy office there, that was a different situation. And here I was 31, but the CEOs of the companies were generally in their forties or older, and I didn't necessarily have the experience of them as peers.

And I saw other companies, competitors of ours, who started 10 years later when they were 40, 42, who immediately were able to jump into a peer-to-peer role with the leadership of their client companies. So I would say that was a disadvantage that I only saw in hindsight.

But you asked how did we continue to learn. Partnering with others. Reading. I tend not to read business books, but I read a lot of trade press. I got very involved, and remain very involved, in the industry trade association and that provided an opportunity for continuous learning through professional development, exposure to agencies and talent well beyond the size and scope of BSSP, and on a national and international level.

Beth: It's almost like you could find your mentors in that agency. So somewhere along your journey, growing the firm that you started, you did get involved with SFJAZZ. How and why did you decide to pick up your Board position with them?

Greg: One of the first people that I met when I moved to San Francisco was Randall Kline, artistic director. So I was always a fan of the shows. I became aware of the organization through him. I was a patron. I would go to shows. I was a donor.

We – BSSP – in fact, John Butler and Mike Shine before I joined them did a pro bono spot for SFJAZZ, just coincidentally. Then after I joined them, we continued to do some work with them. One of the spots we did won a Gold Lion at Cannes, which was nice. Good recognition for us and for SFJAZZ.

I had just stayed in touch with Randall. Eventually I was invited to be on the Board. Before that I think I was on the marketing committee as a non-trustee. So I just stayed involved. I contributed my time.

Once I was invited to be a trustee, it was in the middle of the campaign to build their own building. So I saw tremendous transition from SFJAZZ as a nomadic presenter to one where they had a first class center in which to present, which also increased the frequency of concerts that they were able to present as well.

So I just had stayed in touch and it was just something that was, as I said at the beginning, a jewel in San Francisco that I always loved, and once I had the opportunity to get more inside, I took advantage of that invitation.

Beth: One of the things people always ask about is work/life balance, and how to find time for things that are important to them. I imagine somewhere along this way, too, you did start a family. How did you get the time? How did you create the space and that balance for what was your avocation at the time, which was being involved with SFJAZZ?

Greg: I found time to sit on a variety of boards: school board, the 4A's industry trade association board, and the SFJAZZ board. It's possible all three overlapped at once. Maybe it was only two at a time. You know, you find the time. You hire good people to do their jobs. I found with my partners, John Butler and Mike Shine, a mutual interdependence, and what that means is they did things I couldn't do. I did things they couldn't do. And we relied on each other in a very positive way. I continued to learn. Mike has since retired and John and I are the primary owners of the company, but with other partners I continue to learn from those partners. But because we had our areas of expertise, we were able to rely on each other also, which allowed for a work life balance and allowed me to devote the time to the other areas of interest.

Beth: You mentioned you're now co-chair of BSSP. How did you communicate to them and manage this idea of, "Hey, I'm going to be now CEO of SFJAZZ." Tell me about that conversation or transition. How did that work out?

Greg: Well, before that happened, I had brought in a successor about two and a half years before the SFJAZZ opportunity ever came up. So I was co-chair at that time and John Butler, fellow co-chair, remained more involved because he didn't have a successor as chief creative officer. So he was a little bit more involved in the day-to-day at BSSP. The two of us moved off the main floor. We were sharing an office, not coming in all the time. I was coming in four or five days a week, but a few hours. That was when I had a really nice work/life balance. There was a lot of yoga involved, a lot of music involved, a lot of reading.

And then the SFJAZZ opportunity came up. As it turned out, the first successor did not work out, but I brought in a subsequent successor who started March 3rd and basically has been doing a fine job running the company from her home because two weeks later it was Shelter in Place. She is an alum of BSSP. So she knows us. She knows the culture. Point is the company is in very good hands. I had not been involved in the day-to-day for well over two years. It was an opportunity for me to say, "This isn't disruptive. I'm not involved with clients. I will continue in a co-chairman, advisor, mentor, coaching, strategic consultancy role, and I'm taking this other job and it's not gonna cause a hitch in our day-to-day operations at all."

Beth: It really flips the time allocation that you were doing before, where the firm had been the day job, the volunteering on the board was the side hustle. And now almost having that flipped.

So, I'm going to ask you a question kind of that I asked you earlier, but a little different this time. So I said before, did people say you were a little bit crazy to be starting a firm at age 30. So now here you are. You're winding down having been the CEO of an advertising agency. You're getting to relax more. And now you're about to sign up – this is now kind of going back a few months ago – about to sign up for a CEO job. Full time. All in. Do people now say to you, "What are you doing? You're supposed to be easing out at this stage? What are you doing taking on a role like this?" And how did you answer that?

Greg: No one has said that, actually. I think that people recognize the ability to turn a passion into a job is rare and to take advantage of that opportunity is a unique opportunity that I couldn't pass up. I think now there's more scratching of heads as to, "You sure you want this?" just given the circumstances.

Beth: Sure. There are a lot of people, especially even people who are young in their career, who really want to make their avocation, their vocation. What advice do you have for people who are trying to figure out how and when to do that?

Greg: It's not always possible. It just isn't. I don't think planning a career is necessarily the best thing to do either because the best opportunities come from nowhere and you need to be aware of them enough to take advantage of them. My entire career is an example of that. I understand my career might not apply to everybody, but I didn't plan it. Like I said, at the beginning, this is my inadvertent career. This cherry on the top of working in the performing arts industry in a genre of music that I love, I'm just the luckiest man in the world. So I don't think that can be planned.

That isn't to say that you can't take your passion and turn it into a career. One of the things that I am now more aware of in this job than I ever had been before is the amount of passion of people working in the nonprofit sector. It shouldn't be surprising to me and I've certainly partnered with nonprofits before. I see it in education. And I see it in the trade association, which is a nonprofit. And I saw it to some degree with SFJAZZ. But I mean, there is a load of talent within the organization that could be applying their talent and skills elsewhere, but they love this organization. They love what we do from education to presentation, and that's why they're doing it.

Beth: Question for you about the arts. So this is, as you said at the beginning, a really hard time for the arts and especially the performing arts. For people who are younger in their careers and thinking that they want to build a career in the arts, as we sit here today, all these things we can't plan (nobody could have planned where we are today), what advice would you give for somebody who's passionate about a career in the arts and in this field?

Greg: Understand the opportunity of digital presentation. Be flexible, nimble, agile, iterative. Know that the previous and traditional way of doing things does not apply.

Depending on what area a person might want to work in the arts would also affect my advice. There will always be room for development professionals. It's very interesting. There are people with a passion for the strategy of raising money, and there are other people who say, "I could never do that. Don't make me ask," but it's a fundamental part of any nonprofit organization and it requires professionals and there are professionals who do it. So whether you want to be in performing arts or some other nonprofit, if that's your passion, you will always have a role. If your passion is business strategy, that applies as well. It's just right now, the challenge, because the earned revenue whether in SFJAZZ, our organization, or any other performing arts or many other nonprofits for that matter, is so compromised right now that we need to find other ways of doing things. Present ourselves digitally. Make sure there's a revenue stream from that. Have a robust, solid plan for survival so that in our philanthropic efforts and development efforts, there's a solid response to that as well.

Beth: It really goes to what you said when asked about avocation of keeping yourself open and not over-planning your career, which is a big part of why we're doing this podcast. So many people are looking for a linear career path, and I don't know that they've ever existed, but the more interesting are the career curves, which are like, "Look, the bends in the road are going to come and so be flexible to the bends and enjoy the bends. In fact, they're far more interesting about what's around that next corner."

Greg: I couldn't agree more. I think, and I will emphasize, I've already said this, the opportunity to spot these opportunities where you might not have expected them is what will make your life and your career interesting.

The good news is younger people today in the workforce are anticipated to be in five to seven different industries, not just jobs, but completely different paths over the course of their career. And I think that's great. I think that's fantastic. I feel fortunate that at the end of a long career, in one industry, I was able to translate my skills into a new one, but to have the opportunity to not always look for the promotion and look for the raise and hop onto another company in your industry, because they're offering you a few thousand dollars more, that's just not what it's about.

Greg: Instead, find a place you love with people that you respect and then find another place that you love with people you respect.

Beth: Absolutely.

Greg: And if you can find purpose in what you're doing as well, and it doesn't need to be capital P "purpose" in that you're changing the world – all the better if you are – but just your own sense of purpose. A lawyer can find purpose. An architect can find purpose. Certainly in the nonprofit world there might be more sense of that, but it doesn't need to be as overt as that. You can find purpose in any commercial activity, depending on what turns you on really.

Beth: Wonderful. I've got four more questions for you. My first one is what would you say is the smartest career move you ever made whether intentionally or accidentally?

Greg: Two things. One, choosing to go overseas and challenging myself that way, which I think was smart from a personal point of view, not necessarily from a career development point of view. From a personal career development, but not necessarily external perception of that. And saying "yes" when John Butler and Mike Shine invited me to join them.

Beth: Making that leap.

If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?

Greg: Possibly taking even more turns. Like I said, I had 37 years in one industry. It served me well. I served it well. There was expansion in it through my board service and chairman of the trade association and acquiring companies. But because we started something early and never sold it and we still are independent, there weren't a lot of options unless I was going to leave my partners to do something else. So I don't regret that, but that was a long path and a very gratifying path and one that I'm fortunate that I was on. But had there been an opportunity for more turns...

Keep in mind, I started my career in the advertising business two weeks after graduating college. You know what my regret is? I was talking to somebody about this the other day. I went to school back East and I grew up in California. I've never driven across the country.

Beth: Oh, you should that.

Greg: I know I should.

Beth: Oh, Oh, you absolutely should do that. It's a fabulous country.

Greg: I know.

Beth: If you could go back in time and give one piece of career advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Greg: Find more purpose within the commercial area and pivot more aggressively around 2010, 2012. What I mean by that is we started in '94. We acquired a company in '03. We acquired a design firm shortly after that. Around '10 or '12, we had the opportunity where the industry was shifting to a much more data driven methodology, if you will, or service offering. We offered it, but not in the same level of depth that we could have either with an acquisition or just maybe greater investment. And just looking back, that's kind of a tactical thing, but we probably could have made more of a strategic move in that.

Beth: And my last question, how do you define success for yourself?

Greg: I'm going to use the word that I've said again. I'd call it two P's. One is purpose. And that purpose is very individual and one person's purpose does not necessarily apply to another.

The other P is peace. If you can find some inner peace in what you're doing, it doesn't matter if you're making money. It doesn't matter if you're getting accelerating titles. It matters that you have some mental calm, and that comes from purpose. That comes from satisfaction in what you're doing. That comes from balance. And that will then be reflected in your family, in your friends. Not living a life of anxiety, not striving for more, whatever more is. And I think that that's possible to achieve.

And part of that is avocation. Part of that is outside interest. You can't expect all stimulation to come from what you do at work. Whether it is meditation, whether it is swimming, whether it's running, whether it's yoga, whether it's reading. All of those things can contribute to the inner peace. If you can find something that takes the bulk of your time, meaning your work life, that doesn't detract from that, then you're lucky.

Beth: Well, I am very lucky that I got to spend this time with you today. So thank you so much for spending the time with me and sharing your story. It is very inspirational and I wish you great success with SFJAZZ. I think they're going through a curve right now because of COVID and I look forward to watching what you do with the organization as it comes out of the curve. But thank you so much for spending your time with us.

Greg: Thank you, Beth, I've enjoyed it so much.

Beth: A quick epilogue…We’ve posted links to SFJAZZ and BSSP on our website, careercurves.com. While there, you can find a full transcript of this episode, past episodes, and resources to help you in your career. 

If you enjoyed this episode, we hope you’ll subscribe and tell your friends. 

Finally, be sure to like us on Apple Podcasts and we’d love it if you left us a review. 

That’s it for this episode. As always thanks for listening.

Greg Stern