My Biggest Lesson: Katy Thorbahn
There I was, working in my window-less office in the middle of a high rise in Philadelphia, when my boss’s boss stopped by my office. This was circa 1993 and at the time I was an account manager on The Wall, a new line of record stores owned by WH Smith that we had launched in the US. I had been with The Weightman Group for about three years and had worked on a variety of accounts though this one was where I had the most responsibility and accountability. Paul Burger, who ran client services for the agency and ultimately became the COO, sat down in my office and we started to chat. Paul had interviewed me when I joined the agency right out of college and had always been a supporter of mine. He is a smart, warm, but kind of gruff man, who I deeply respected at that time (and still do) and always appreciated the opportunity to speak with him.
That said, it wasn’t typical for him to find his way to my rather out-of-the-way office to chat. I can’t remember how the conversation started or whether there was something that precipitated it, but I have always remembered what he told me that evening: “Keep taking things on until someone tells you to stop.” He followed that up with saying not to worry…once I got into someone else’s territory or stepped on their toes they’d let me know. But until then if I saw something that needed to be done to just do it.
The conversation probably lasted a total of ten minutes. But here, almost thirty years later, it still sticks with me, and I can literally feel myself back in that airless office sitting across my desk from Paul. And, thankfully, I took his advice to heart.
One of the reasons I did is that, while I was always a good soldier and did whatever was asked of me, I wasn’t confident in my abilities or thought I could have a larger impact. I don't know why Paul felt compelled to give me that advice, but I suspect he saw that in me and wanted to give me license to step out of that comfort zone and do more.
From then on, I really embraced the idea of taking accountability to get things done, tackle problems, or explore opportunities that I saw, rather than worrying about it “not being my job.” As my career progressed and I left Weightman for other agencies, I held onto that advice and put it to good use. When I started at i-FRONTIER (which eventually became part of Razorfish) in 1999 I was hired to lead and grow the client services department. What I quickly realized is that a fast-growing digital agency, in the time when that was still a relatively novel and unknown thing, offered a host of opportunities to take things on that needed getting done. So while I built out Client Services, I also started turning my attention to other areas of the business that needed tending and oversight. That led me into more of an operations role, eventually taking on a Managing Director position, and ultimately to starting my own agency, Shiny, with two Razorfish colleagues.
Paul’s words of advice didn’t end with me. I have found myself repeating them numerous times throughout my career, in individual conversations like he had with me, when speaking to university students or new graduates…anytime I believe there is someone who needs to hear it to give themselves greater latitude to contribute to the maximum of their abilities. I hope it has been as helpful to them as it has been for me.