Twists and turns
Kelly Services CEO Carl Camden trod a winding career road to reach the top
Shifting economic tides and life’s inevitable vagaries mean few people nowadays can expect a clearly marked career path in one organisation or industry that leads from junior level all the way to a nicely cushioned retirement.
Instead, it is essential to accept change, take charge of one’s own destiny, and be open to any and every opportunity. Adopting this approach has helped Carl Camden, the US-based president and CEO of Kelly Services, to rise to the top tier of international business, where he runs one of the world’s largest recruitment firms which handles hundreds of thousands of job placements a year.
Camden’s approach has allowed him to enjoy success in several other fields, including academia, advertising and applied research. Latterly, he has even been a respected adviser on economic policy and an advocate for the concept of “free agents”, an employment model which encourages self-determination and lessens the dependence on single employers.
“I have taken a very non-traditional career path, a critical element of which was being prepared to make non-traditional choices and some left turns,” Camden says. “My father was military, so [when I was young] we moved around and there was no ‘home’ as such. I grew up poor and was on food stamps and public assistance at one time, but went on to get a degree in speech and psychology and, by the age of 30, had a fast-moving academic career and a tenured university position.”
By then, he also had a PhD in psycholinguistics, having submitted a thesis on Freudian slips. As a result, he developed an interest in the use of words in marketing. That led to setting up a small company with a few colleagues to explore applications for psycholinguistics in the world of business.
“Everything you learn about a person comes from the words they know and how they use them,” Camden says. “In terms of marketing, we wanted to understand what was really going on in consumers’ heads. Some marketers say people just look at the quality and ingredients. That is important, but I was interested in the emotion and argued that you ‘eat the brand, not the food’, and in what it says about you when you make a certain choice.”
For example, he says, a mother buying baby food would prefer to be seen as “caring” or “choosy”. An ad campaign or slogan which included the right word triggers could spur a significant jump in sales. “That struck me as more effective than saying we have better peanuts,” he says.
A lengthening list of big-name clients made the firm an obvious buyout target and, when it was sold to an ad agency, Camden decided, after due reflection, that the time was right to leave academia and become co-president of the purchaser.
“As a professor, you get funds to do a study which maybe 42 people then read,” he says. “I wanted to know, did the theories actually work? Out in the advertising and marketing world, companies would walk in and say, ‘Here is the money; give us the language to sell our products, because you can’t tell them apart by taste.’ You would then do a study in two weeks, the company made changes, and you would know the results in two months – that is intoxicating.”
From advertising, Camden was recruited by a bank holding company – not an immediately obvious move for someone already well set and secure. The appeal, though, lay in being able to branch out in a new direction and master the hidden intricacies of balance sheets, profit and loss statements, financial strategy and economic theory.
It also paved the way for the switch to Kelly. “Initially, I thought I would be here for three years to ‘check the box’ for global experience and then move on to be a brand manager for a company like Unilever – but I stayed. Great opportunities kept emerging and the company kept growing,” says Camden, who has now chalked up 18 years in a variety of roles with the firm.
“In moving up from the starting point of vice-president of marketing to my current position, my career clearly took on more of a traditional pattern. It all turned out fine. I can’t say it was all well planned, but people who lay out a career path at the age of 18 lose out on all sorts of opportunities.”
Beyond expanding in new and developing markets and keeping shareholders happy, Camden says that for his next step he is keen to contribute more in terms of public service and helping employers adapt to the changing economic landscape.
“I still owe,” he says, referring to the sense of obligation that springs from receiving an excellent education, largely funded by state and government loans. “I was fed and clothed all the way through college to get a PhD. I want to give something either in academia or through government service.”
MEASURING THE MAN
A brief history of Carl Camden and how he has answered Kelly’s call
Serving the stakeholders His current duties mainly entail dealing with the board, the investor community and the “external audience”.
Socially plugged in The Kelly Services CEO is an active user of social media, which he sees as a key tool in shaping the culture of the company.
Working man In the US, Camden previously served on the Labour Advisory Council
for the Federal Reserve Bank.
Industry player He has won recognition for significant contributions to improving the
workforce development system.
Font of wisdom Camden is frequently invited to address students and business-school faculties on issues in today’s workplace.