Six SMSports and Leadership Lessons from Industry Luminary Amie Kiehn

Social media and sports roles didn’t exist when most of us were born. We couldn’t list Social Media Manager for a sports team as a dream job for the fifth-grade yearbook. So the pathways, the lifestyle, the strategies — everybody is still trying to figure it all out as we build it.

So it’s instructive to hear from those continuing to pave the way, leaving legacies in their path. Amie Kiehn has been one of those trailblazers. She didn’t start in the smsports stone age (that would be me), but what she accomplished in her 5+ years with the Carolina Panthers and what continues to do now as the Head of Community at Gondola has touched the industry in meaningful ways. I recently spoke with Kiehn on the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast and came away enlightened and inspired.

Here are six big lessons for social media and sports (and beyond) from the thoughtful, reflective Kiehn:

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there

Kiehn talked about making her own breaks — sending countless cold emails to pros in the sports space, getting replies back from only a few. Years later, she runs into many of those people as peers, many of whom were too busy to get back to ambitious Amie back then. Reaching out is free, and doing so instantly separates you from 90% of aspiring students and young professionals that don’t.

“It took a lot of [bravery] to just reach out to people and be like, it’s okay if they don’t reply,” Kiehn told me. “So that’s what I would tell a lot of young people — if they’re willing to put themselves out there, the universe will reward them with hopefully good things.”

Learn to lead in different ways for different people

The best social media staffs in sports have a lot going for them — creative talent, resourcefulness, buy-in, and strategy — but leadership and strong, cohesive teams are underappreciated and integral. Great social media squads also require a diverse set of players, all working together in harmony to manage the output, the brand, and the short-term and long-term strategy. Before beginning her sports and social media career, Kiehn spent years teaching through the Teach For America program. She talked about the important lessons she learned from her time in the classroom, where not every student learned the same way and could be instructed the same way. She took that to heart with the panthers

“So once I realized that, and where I felt like I was hitting my stride, was when I was leading where not everyone got the same Amie,” she said. “Some people just wanted to be like, ‘Hey, I’m good. Approve my budget. Let me go.’ And other people needed some nurturing, which was fine because that’s the type of leader I am…I’m an empath, I really care about people deeply. So that was an easy thing to click once I got it…That’s how I felt like I was being my full self, when I was leading and helping others.”

Don’t take this all too seriously

When every tweet, Story, and TikTok will reach tens or hundreds of thousands or millions, it may be natural to feel a little intimidation. You’re part of a team that works hard and plays a game among fierce competitors where winning is everything. You’re part of a multi-million or billion-dollar business with big budgets and impressive production teams. But you can’t get bogged down in all that, can’t be afraid of failure and taking healthy risks. Sports are supposed to be fun, social media is supposed to be relatable. Kiehn and her team embraced a spirit of innovation and a dedication to, well, fun.

“I think sometimes we can take things too seriously in the content space and that’s okay,” Kiehn explained. “At the Panthers, I always felt like our voice was something that you could kind of poke fun at yourself a little bit. So we often would make content that maybe wasn’t super-polished and didn’t always have the most pristine look, like it was a meme that we saw…We really tried to have fun with it.

“I think that was how we had so many (social media) home runs… is because we tried to have fun ourselves and make our team laugh; then we had set the precedent that like, okay, we’re going to try it. The Panthers team always would hear me say this: ‘Okay. Let’s try it. And let’s watch the comments like hawks’ We would post stuff…[being] like, let’s [just] post it. But let’s immediately get feedback from people. And if it’s not a hit, let’s just take it off. But if it is a hit, let’s find out what we did there that we can try to capitalize again on.”

 Sometimes you need to reset and that’s okay

It’s very easy to get addicted to the routine. You kind of have to, at times, in the social media and sports world just to keep up and keep your sanity. But that doesn’t mean teams should eschew a consistent pursuit of progress and keep everything the same even if it feels stale, stilted, or no longer suitable. This was key insight Kiehn picked up in her time as a teacher, where classrooms could get chaotic at times and everybody just needed a reset.

Said Kiehn: “If I felt like things were not grooving in the right way, I’d be like ‘Alright, let’s all get together, let’s talk about it. Is there something that I’m doing? Is there a process that needs to be rehashed out? [Does] someone just kind of need a break? Let’s talk this out so we can fix it and it’s not that big of a deal. So I started trying to make those conversations happen more often.

“So that’s a big thing of [being a leader] for me was [to be] someone willing to call out [when] it seems like either morale-wise, content-wise, just the process of how we’re managing projects — do we need to reevaluate something? So I always was fine with re-evaluating something, even if it was a process that I loved and [others feel] this isn’t working.” 

What comes first — the buy-in or the measured success?

Okay, it’s kind of a trick question. Because each begets more of the other. In learning from Kiehn and what drove such a great reputation and results with the Carolina Panthers social media, she attributed a lot to the trust and buy-in. That included her immediate supervisors all the way up to team owners David and Nicole Tepper. And that trust gave them the agency to continue to take chances, have fun, and continue to build the social media brand of the team to the point that fans came to anticipate each post and poke.

“Our team really felt pretty empowered that — if the ownership group is being like, yes, you guys are kind of funny, keep it up — then it really enticed us to keep momentum,” Kiehn reflected. “When you’re organically making fun content and you’re hopping on trends that make sense for the brand, it shows up in the numbers.

“And we had [created] such an established voice on social that people were like, oh, I want to see what the Panthers do…We were getting great numbers because we were doing something that was fun and different, and people really liked that.”

Work-life balance is possible in sports, it’s just defined differently

The last couple of years has seen the sports industry face a reckoning amidst the broader ‘great resignation’ happening in the US. Kiehn herself is among them, becoming the Head of Community at Gondola, where she can continue to support creatives and pros in social media, and at a job that also affords her more time at home and with her family. Most everybody accepts that sports business happens during business hours AND during non-business hours; sports are weekdays and weekends, sports happens on holidays, and there will be early mornings and late nights. But sustainability is more possible when the working hours are more a series of peaks and valleys, and not excessive with no end. Kiehn gave a thoughtful perspective on the challenge of work-life balance in the sports industry, who says the working hours in sports are ‘like a pendulum.’

“I honestly don’t believe there can be work-life balance in how people imagine it, [as in] I do work 50% and I live my life [50%]; I don’t think that works,” she said. “I think people in this time right now are craving flexibility. So I hope that in this new workforce we could have something where you both work and life can be flexible and that you can finally hopefully maybe have more of an equilibrium.

“I always try to remind people that…it’s like a pendulum a little bit; some days with more heavy work, some days heavier at home…I think all people should have…as much of an equilibrium that works for you as possible.”

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Thanks so much to Amie for lending her thoughtful, articulate insight and expertise! We will continue to learn from her and leaders like her for years to come…

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH AMIE KIEHN

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