What are they
Managing Director of Business Strategy at Digital Agency Huge
What were your early years like?
I grew up in New Jersey, but both my parents were formerly in the CIA, so we traveled pretty regularly and I always dreamed of having my own great adventures. After graduating from Yale, I traveled to Moscow on an independent-study fellowship. I had planned to examine the influence of political change on the arts community. Then, just a few days before I arrived in August 1991, a coup happened. And suddenly, if you spoke a little bit of Russian, you were employable by media companies looking for local stringers. It was an incredible opportunity. I started freelancing for ABC News and that’s how my career began. I ended up working as a producer at ABC for more than eight years.
How did you transition from journalism to consulting?
I literally went from living in a tent in Afghanistan to sitting in a classroom at Columbia Business School. In many ways, I was probably the least expected strategy consultant. I had loved producing foreign news. But as consolidation took over the industry, things changed and I didn’t see a long-term path for myself as a journalist. I had this idea that I could reinvent myself by getting my MBA at Columbia. And I was fortunate to be accepted as a “J-termer,” which meant I started in January 2002 and still finished in May 2003. As graduation approached, I had the opportunity to interview with a number of consulting firms — largely because they tend to pride themselves on looking for people who might not have prior business experience but who are intellectually curious, are willing to work hard, and have their own way of thinking through problems.
I chose Strategy& (then Booz Allen Hamilton) because it had an incredibly strong media group, which was where I hoped to focus, and I loved the people I met. It was clear to me from the beginning that the firm hired self-motivated people who were personally invested in their work and devoted to making it as good as they possibly could.
Would you share some of your most memorable projects?
I worked with a number of traditional media organizations, helping them figure out how to navigate the approaching digital world. We explored a lot of questions around how data could inform editorial decision making. I remember doing an early, then controversial, analysis to quantify and compare the [online] traffic that journalists’ stories had driven.
What are some lasting lessons you learned at Strategy&?
I learned how to take on a big, thorny, Gordian knot kind of problem and solve it by identifying the problem’s major drivers, then thinking about how to isolate them or integrate them. Practicing that process gave me an enormous amount of confidence. And if you have confidence, you can take on almost any challenge. Consulting was definitely a formative professional experience. I’m proud to now be considered somebody other people can count on to figure hard things out in a way that takes into account their specific circumstances.
What do you look for when you hire?
I look for right brain/left brain people who demonstrate rigor — they’ve put in the time (maybe at a consulting firm, a bank, or a large corporation) to learn process and structure — and who are confident in their ability to do excellent analysis, but who are also empathetic human beings and people who have creative drive. Rational analysis is important, but there’s real power in creativity. What we try to do at Huge is connect inspiring thinking to business drivers and business outcome.
How do you do that?
We work with constant cross-pollination. Every team at Huge is cross-functional, with the exact combination varying from project to project. But a business transformation team, for example, might include at its core a strategist, a designer, a technologist, and a data scientist. Personally speaking, I have visibility into all the work that’s done across the agency, so I try to make sure that people are benefiting from what we’ve learned in other places. It’s my job to make sure that the quality of work across our network is as high as it can possibly be. In addition, I do a lot of client work myself, which is one of the things I love about Huge. Advising senior clients who are managing large-scale digital transformation initiatives — to feel like their success is resting on your shoulders — that’s still an incredibly humbling experience. More generally, the combination of work I get to do, the super upstream thinking while helping through downstream execution and organizational capability building, makes connections between creative work and business outcomes. It takes all the pieces I’ve done throughout my career and puts them together.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think the best way to describe it is [in Kim Scott’s phrase] radical candor. I believe in being direct and transparent, whether I’m giving someone on my team praise or criticism, because I care deeply about people’s development. I have high expectations and I push hard, but I simultaneously advocate like hell for people on my team to ensure they’re on the right projects and being stretched in the right ways.
When and where are you happiest?
Spending time with my family, especially when I’m talking to my 11-year-old son. I love trying to understand how the “digital world” looks from his point of view because it’s so unencumbered.
Who do you admire?
People who are genuine, authentic, and kind. People who are generous spirits.
What do you value most in friends?
Empathy, loyalty, and flexibility.
What career and life advice would you offer to recent college graduates?
Make the most out of every single opportunity you’re given.
Jen Swetzoff is the founder and CEO of Closeup Content Studio, a strategic communications firm that focuses on sharing important, influential, and inspiring stories. She formerly worked as the deputy managing editor at strategy business magazine.