CMO to CEO: The science of communication

Australian Museum's new director, Kim McKay, shares her love of creativity and communication and how she's bringing it into her leadership strategy

The Australian Museum’s new director is on a mission: To transform the way the scientific and cultural institution positions its product offering, and communicates with local and global customers to drive better visitor experiences. So it’s rather fitting she describes her leadership approach with a quote from one of the best-known natural historians of them all.

“There is a Charles Darwin quote I used at my staff meeting this morning, which is: ‘It’s not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best adapt and manage change’,” Kim McKay tells CMO.

“We are going to thrive here, and the way we’re going to do that is by managing and adopting to change well. This means we need to embrace change and transformation, and everyone has to be able to do that. I have a lot of wonderful people on-staff, some who have been here for 35 years, but everyone has to be on the same page, working to transform the museum to make it sustainable for the future.”

Communications lead

McKay’s career history, as well as the fact that she was chosen as the new chief of the Australian Museum in February, are certainly proof of the museum’s willingness to embrace change. McKay is not only the first non-academic to be appointed to the role; she’s also the first woman to do so in the museum’s 187-year history.

Over the past 25 years, McKay has forged a successful career in Australia and abroad that stretches from public relations and communications to events management and sponsorship, global marketing, citizen science programs and community projects.

“I said to the board, ‘Well gentleman, congratulations, you’ve finally found your woman’,” she jokes. “Timing by the way is everything, and I was in the right place at the right time, ready to take on a challenge like this. It’s like everything I’ve done in my career has led me to this point.”

After completing a Bachelor’s degree majoring in journalism, public relations and sociology, McKay started her professional life at a Sydney-based PR firm, spending several years working on internal and external activities on behalf of its clients.

A love of big projects saw McKay take up a role running the Australian end of the BOC solo yacht race challenge, and then global events management. As well as learning how to organise large-scale events, McKay says she gained valuable experience in corporate sponsorship and communications, as well as her first step into marketing. Her work in the sailing community led to a partnership with Ian Kiernan to organise a clean-up of Sydney Harbour, and so Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World were born.

“Ian was very worried about all the waste he’d seen sailing around the oceans of the world. So I turned the skills I’d learnt on the big sporting events towards the community,” McKay recalls. “We had the first clean-up of Sydney Harbour on 8 January 1989, where 50,000 people turned up. It was an incredible high to think that for a very small amount of money, we could get community support and change things.”

McKay worked on Clean Up Australia for the next 10 years as a volunteer while running her own business, Profile Communications. A turning point was helping to launch The Discovery Channel’s Eco-Challenge in Australia in 1997.

“I’d been running my business for more than nine years when the president of The Discovery Channel asked me to work for him in the US,” she says. “I like to make a big career change every decade or so, so I went off to the states, running the Eco-Challenge along with several other projects in Morocco and Argentina for the next two years.”

In 2000, McKay joined the National Geographic Channel as head of global marketing and communications, spending four years in the position. When her by-now elderly parents became ill, she returned to Australia but retained a consultancy role with National Geographic and focused on its citizen science initiative, the Genographic Project.

“Spencer Wells, a population geneticist, and I had been working together and jointly came up with this idea of creating the project, which turned into one of the world’s largest citizen science programs,” she says. McKay secured IBM as a multi-million dollar sponsor for the project, a highlight in her sponsorship career.

Back in Australia, she launched a business with Jenny Bonnin, called Momentum2, providing social and sustainability marketing and communications. The pair also wrote five books under the True Green series, communicating the sustainability message. Another major achievement was securing the contract to bring Oprah Winfrey to Australia.

McKay was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 2008 for her services to the environment and the community and in 2013, received Australian Geographic’s Lifetime Achievement in Conservation award.

In more recent years, she has joined several boards including Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand and Sydney Institute of Marine Science boards. Two-and-a-half years ago, she was appointed to the Australian Museum board. When the director’s post was advertised, she was keen to apply.

“This organisation at this particular time needs a strong communicator and marketer,” she comments. “It’s so incredibly important to have a director who likes science, who can be a good advocate for the organisation, and also who is able to raise money and change and engage with the public. Yet I was probably a left-field candidate for the role. I fought hard to get this job.”

Leadership smarts

It’s no secret the Australian Museum has suffered a turn in fortunes in recent years, losing funding, staff and visitors. As well as professional communications and science experience, McKay says she brings a much-need team mentality to the top job.

“The common thread through everything I’ve done is collaborating and partnering with people,” she comments. “I’m a great believer in the fact that you can’t do anything alone; you need teams of great people around you. I have always tried to work on that basis.”

Having been in the role for just over a month when she spoke with CMO, McKay has spent her initial time working with the staff, listening to their views and ideas, as well as sharing early plans for the organisation’s transformation. As a CEO, shebelieves demonstrating an ability to lead change is a key part of the day-to-day job and vital to her own success.

While it’s early days for specifics, McKay is firmly convinced the Australian Museum needs to work harder to put the customer first, a priority she admits has been in and out of focus over the years.

“We have to create a product here that serves the public well,” she says. “Politics is an interesting thing that plays in organisations like this. We are a major science research facility. We also have one of the best natural history collections in the world, with more than 18 million objects, the best Pacific collection in the world and one of the best indigenous collections in Australia. Part of our remit is about collecting for the future and keeping that collection for the people of NSW and Australia.

“Museums are all about shaping us, referencing our history and who we are as people. We fulfil a very important role and we have to keep doing that while ensuring the visitor experience is front and centre of our thinking.”

One of the key tools for achieving this is digital, and McKay is preparing several projects and looking to technology to help transform engagement over the next year. The museum launched its first iPhone app in 2011 for its DangerOz exhibition of Australia’s most dangerous animals. Its latest Tyrannosaurus exhibition app has been downloaded 600,000 times – proof of the need for both growing digital smarts as well as an international mindset, McKay says.

Marketing and a clear communications strategy are also important, and McKay sees every staff member as an ambassador and communicator for the organisation. “We need to ensure that what we say and think translates out into the public arena,” she says.

“Marketing and communications touches every division of the museum and the mantra of ‘communicate, communicate, communicate’ is key here. To do so, we need to improve our internal communications before we can improve our external ones. We’re working to strengthen our overall messaging and getting that clearly defined, making sure everyone knows what that is so we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

“I want all staff to know what’s going on, what’s happening and to have a voice, so we can take a stronger communications program to market.”

Data, not surprisingly, will play a massive role in the Australian Museum’s ability to better understand what its customers’ expectations are. McKay flagged plans to install a new CRM database this year to help the museum interact with customers more effectively.

“We have people who have relationships with the museum at all different levels,” she continues. “Currently, people come to the museum when they’re a kid at school, or when their parents bring them to look around when they’re children, and then they don’t come back until they’re parents themselves or grandparents.

“I have to change that; we’ve got to create the museum as a place we all come to regularly and that’s a meeting place where there are dynamic ideas exchanged, things to learn, and it’s a great place to visit.

“There are a number of ways to do that... but it really goes back to the product we’re offering to people and building the relationships and products with customers so we understand what they want and what they expect.”

McKay notes a rise in attendance to museums around the world, highlighting the fact that China recently opened its 4000th museum, and the US has 16,000 such institutions today.

“Why are we seeing people visit museums and cultural venues as much as they’re going to sporting events?” she asks. “It’s because these organisations provide a context for the societies we live in. They explain who we are. We have to engage with people not just in the physical sense of coming into our museums, but also digitally. We join the dots between the society in which we live and the context of who we are and what we learn.”

Being a business chief

Having been a business leader for many years, and a marketer to boot, McKay is quick to point out the many benefits of having a marketing professional at the helm of any organisation.

“Most marketers are natural communicators,” she says. “If you look at every CEO survey done around the world, and read the leadership books, they all say communication is the most fundamentally important aspect about the top job and that’s what marketers can offer.

“I also think creativity is incredibly important and if you’re a creative marketer, which is where I classify myself on the spectrum, you tend to be able to inspire people through good ideas. That’s really important as the leader of an organisation. Ideas and creativity drive a lot of things in a business and are the catalysts for innovation.”

One of the stumbling blocks for many CMOs looking to secure the top job is their lack of experience in financial and business operations and management. As the marketing function increasingly becomes driven by data, and CMOs gain an executive seat at the table, this will start to change. But McKay also believes the priority organisations place on a CEO having “number smarts” is short-sighted.

“Get a good CFO, and get good people in the different divisions to work as a team,” she says. “A good marketer in the leadership role can inspire those people to do better.

“One person doesn’t possess all the skills required for business. Having a leadership team where all those skills are well-represented is vital. What I’m trying to build at the museum is a good, strong leadership team across the disciplines so it becomes a pleasure to lead that group.”

Today, every employee must contribute to change and help bring new customers through the door if the Australian Museum is going to remain relevant locally and internationally, McKay says.

“I have told the staff that no matter who they are, they need to think about new ways we can generate revenue,” she adds.“We’ve got to also be highly targeted in what we do. I’m only a month into it, so I’m looking very carefully at what it is we do and how we do it, so I know where we can plug the holes.

“The good news is I have a great leadership team already and I’ll be working with them closely to make this happen.”

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