Chief Strategy Officer
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Industry: Business Consulting/Marketing
On occasion, Denise Kohnke said she has told her direct reports, “I’m a lousy manager.” That’s because managers look backward, while leaders look forward, she said.
“I personally am always looking forward, looking from 30,000 feet, seeing future paths,” said Kohnke, the chief strategy officer for Merit Marketing. “The greatest leadership lesson I learned is that I can’t do it all, even though doing it all is probably the greatest training ground ever. Entrepreneurs, especially, usually begin by doing it all. But then there’s a point that you have to recognize when there are people better than you, and give those people control of what they do. Including managing.”
Before joining Merit Marketing, Kohnke started and ran two advertising agencies. One was absorbed by a larger, well-respected agency in 2008. Kohnke continued to work for eight years at that agency, where she established a strategy department and instituted and ran quarterly all-day retreats with the entire company (150+ people) to teach them about innovations in marketing and strategy.
She was eager to branch out on her own again, and founded a one-woman shop that grew to six employees, mostly working for other agencies as their strategy and creative extensions. They handled about $20 million worth of other agencies’ clients in business strategy, brand development, creative activation and new business leadership.
Merit Marketing eventually reached out with an offer to serve as the company’s chief strategy officer. The time was right, and Kohnke seized the opportunity. It’s a company “I absolutely love,” Kohnke said.
Things at Merit Marketing are changing fast. “We’ve honed our business strategy and philosophy, refined our process and our product offerings, and have been able to switch from lead generation outbound sales to managing inbound inquiries because prospects saw a podcast, read one of our books, attended a seminar, was impressed with our LinkedIn content, or were referred,” Kohnke said. “And that is just the beginning.”
Kohnke leads the planning and is involved in the strategies and organizational shifts driving the company forward. She outlined a vision for Merit Marketing that she called “simple, but audacious.” The highlights include: Work only with clients that the company’s consciousness values. Make decisions that are not based in fear. And “live in higher vibrations of goodness.”
The company’s strategy works. “We have a long list of clients who have moved from challenger in a crowded category to a leader in a sector that we, together, created,” Kohnke said.
Back in the day, I head coached a Little League baseball team of mostly boys. They were adorable.