Leadership: Profile of a Top Performer

sam_katz_400Sam Katz is the guest this week on Leadership Development News. Sam is a serial entrepreneur. He has dedicated himself to excellence in every part of his life so that he can better serve others. He’s played many roles in his career including being labeled a politician; he ran for mayor three times. He was also named a thought leader on commercial campaigning. He is in fact, a game changer. Sam’s succeeds as a game changer today, succeeding as an Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker at the highest level. We’ll talk to him about that switch and change that he has done.

He has real knowledge and an authentic raw understanding of what it takes to motivate and inspire TV audiences to tune in and not only be entertained, but to be “infotained.” He strongly believes that the more people you help to succeed, the more successful you become.

Sam started his own documentary movement with history making films in his home town of Philadelphia. He does that with his son Phil and his daughter Lauren and is gaining national recognition. History Making Film Productions is featured on ABC and has quickly made it up the charts to become known as one of the premier documentary film companies in the region and continues to attract attention all over the country as the team ventures into subjects including the coming of the Pope in 2015.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Sam, we have got a couple of questions that we want to ask you. What differentiated you from the typical political candidate and the rest of the politicians in your circle?

Sam Katz: Well I guess that the assessment of that would be a little self-serving and perhaps greatly self-delusional. My background was in public finance. I had spent 25 years working with states and local governments around the US to raise capital for major infrastructure and to deal in some instances with financial stress. When I ran for the first time in 1991, I actually ran three times, the city of Philadelphia was undergoing a severe fiscal crisis. So the professional background that I had was I guess important to making an argument that a first time candidate should be given serious consideration against some more skilled and seasoned politicians.

I think one of the things that I will argue that is important about public life and pursuing public office which is something we are kind of rejecting in the general public life today of being a politician, is being a professional at being a politician. I think we have a lot of people who are saying, oh, I’m not a politician so elect me. But in fact, what we are electing when we elect people to public office, are politicians. Politics is the art of both imagining, visioning and compromise. The absence of the capacity to compromise, which frankly characterizes much of what is happening in the federal government and often in many state governments, and certainly in our state in Pennsylvania, and in local government—is not what government is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be up front; be about problem solving.

I think that I brought two things to the table. One was a professional skill and experience in public finance, in financing cities, in financing governments and secondly an appreciation for and an aspiration to be good at politics.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: One of the things that we always try to find out about many of our guests is a little bit about them and who have influenced them. I have to say the times that you and I have gone to a couple of outings of some kind, whether it’s a meal or just to a public place, people flock to come over and say hello to you. I remembered that we were in a restaurant one day and the gentleman that owned the restaurant even brought a photo album over to show you the photos that he had taken of you over the years when you were running.

You have a lot of fans. But I want to know, who has and maybe continues to be, influential in your life? Somebody you are a fan of who has helped you in your career.

Sam Katz: Well, I mean a career is like everything else. It’s something that you look back on. While a lot of people think about planning it and trying to execute it, it’s really the compilation of what you have accomplished as an individual. Throughout all aspects of my career different people have helped me accomplish a lot of things because I have shifted my careers so frequently.

In public finance I had so many mentors, but I had a colleague on Wall Street who’s name is Lee Barba who is a very successful guy, who was a consummate investment banker and who was the most creative guy. I aspired, in my role as a financial advisor, to be creative.

In my political life there are so many people who I have looked up to, but frankly, the person who most inspired me was someone that I never really got to know; the former mayor of Philadelphia, Richardson Dilworth, who I met as a kid. And frankly on meeting him as a kid I am seeing him in his role as a mayor is what impressed me about something that I knew nothing about but I decided as a young person I wanted to do, unfortunately never got the chance to do it.

In film, I have so many people. I watch films now with such a different eye towards the creativity of filmmakers. Initially, Ken Burns, who is a documentary filmmaker and probably the premier person. He was the person who got me interested in this, not personally, but just watching him. I’ve developed a style of documentary which is decidedly anti-Burns. Burns is pensive, slow, lots of words and our approach is to recognize that most audiences, even educated audiences, have attention deficit challenges and you’ve got to stimulate them to drama and visuals and fast-moving story-telling. That is a style very different than the say the traditional PBS style.

Last but not least, my family. My parents were great. They were supportive of things that I wanted to do. My wife has put up with all of these pivots in my professional life. I have four wonderful children. Those are the foundations that make for whatever success we have in life.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s great Sam, especially now that you have your family involved with what you are doing. Tell us a little bit about how you got into film making and what do you think this generation of filmmakers really needs to care about.

Sam Katz: Well I think the truth is that while I know this program is about success, my experience in life is that most of the things that I have learned I have learned through failure. When I have been successful, I’ve always thought well maybe I’m a smart guy and I know what I’m doing. When I have not been successful I’ve had to really do some serious introspection and think about, well, what did I just do and why did it turn out differently than the way I envisioned it?

I had envisioned a very different outcome in the late 1990’s and early part of this past decade. In my aspirations to be Mayor of Philadelphia and it didn’t work out. Frankly it worked out in the third case rather badly, because while I was in a close election—short, quick, story: A Federal investigation into criminal activity led to the planting of an electronic device in my opponent’s office who was then the incumbent mayor. What was a close election turned on it’s heals against me because my opponents were successful in painting this device as the nefarious tool of the President Bush administration to embarrass the mayor. It went from being a close election to being blown out.

It was very much unsettling, emotionally and professionally. For a while I retreated from the fast lane, if you will, and when I was in the slow lane I was looking for something more intellectual to challenge me. I thought about writing a book, and I thought about teaching, and I also started watching documentaries. When I stumbled upon a series of urban documentaries; The History of New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans and others, I went looking for Philadelphia and there wasn’t one. So, I thought, aha!, I can do this. This is probably, by the way, a person who doesn’t ever remember taking any history in college and whose best films were of his children which of course no one ever wanted to watch. So, I had neither filmmaking nor historical experience. So I spent quite a number of years wrapping my brains around all of that stuff and slowly but surely with the help of my son and later with help from my daughter, we’ve developed, I think, a very high quality product that is both entertaining and educational.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I want to just share a moment with the audience. When I was invited to sit in on one of the I guess they are called previews of the 30 minute programs in one of the documentary series, it was fascinating to me, Relly, to watch this team of people around Sam. They are all young, they are all very bright, aspiring, future filmmakers. One of the things that really touched me was the empathy that they have for what they are watching given what the audience will want to watch. Sam said he’s dealing with an ADD challenged audience and he is. What is fascinating to me is that Sam sits and he watches what is going on in the room and he lets these young people really carry the ball. I’d like to talk about how you Sam, have learned to give these young people, including your son and your daughter and many others, the opportunity to learn through doing when you have so much experience and how you do that as a leader.

We were talking about the dynamics of our generation working with this young group of fascinating, smart, brilliant, folks who really do give you insight into the kind of ADD challenged community of viewers that you have stolen ratings from. If we look at where your programming is ranked, regionally, you have actually beat out shows like the Big Bang Theory. So, let’s talk a little bit about how you let these young, smart people help you engage in what you do best.

Sam Katz: Well, thank you. First of all, by surrounding them with more experienced people. Having the young writer work with the more experienced writer; having the young editor be surrounded by an experienced cinematographer, having a young director be surrounded by a more experienced producer. But not stifling creativity, not stifling the mistakes that young people are likely to make and are inclined to make, but helping them see those mistakes and then correct them so that they get better because after all, that’s the learning process that I think, personally, I continue to go through myself. I learn from mistakes, I learn from failure, and I learn from disappointment.

But secondly, clearly envision what we are trying to do—to convey change and criticism in a constructive way as best I can. It’s wonderful to work with young, creative people. It’s also frustrating. These are kids that have not had the same kind of professional upbringing, if you will, that somebody with a 30, 40, 50 year career is going to have had having gone through an environment of more professional services and competition in investment banking and politics. So, that can be a little frustrating and difficult. I wear that frustration sometimes more visibly than perhaps I did the day that you were in there, but the fact is that if you want to get the most out of people, you have to trust them, you have to help shepherd, and you have to give them room to make their own mistakes, which hopefully they only make once.

Our team is very creative, very committed to telling the history of Philadelphia in a way that will grow audiences. Yes we do art, but our business is not to be artists but to be audience acquirers. I think the nature of content production today whether its broadband based, or broadcast based, is about audience acquisition. Those who let audience acquisition get away as a mission of their vision, are going to fail because there is too much stuff out there that people can watch.

Last comment I’m going to make is that this ADD problem is not unique to use. Think about that every meeting that we all go to. The first thing that happens is that everybody at the table takes out a mobile device or a smart phone and wants to be someplace else. And generally speaking, is. Everybody is doing 50 things at the same time. It’s the same way we watch content. Some people sit with the remote control device and some people swipe a tablet. But if they are not captivated instantly, they are off to the next thing.

Be sure to listen to the complete interview above, without commercials, to hear more of our fascinating interview with Sam Katz.


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