After working in consulting for nearly two decades, Amy Howe WG99 — a former partner at McKinsey & Company — was ready for a new challenge.
“I’ve always subscribed to the theory that you should never give up but also know when it’s time to move on to your next chapter,” she said. “I had a hunch that an operating role would suit me well, but until you make that leap, it’s very difficult to prove that.”
Howe left McKinsey in 2014 for Live Nation Entertainment, where she is now president and chief operating officer of the company’s Ticketmaster North America division, overseeing innovations that are poised to reshape ticketing. She caught up with Wharton Magazine to discuss adapting to the challenges of COVID-19, advice she’s relied on throughout her career, and the alumna she can always count on for fresh perspectives.
Wharton Magazine: In a Politico podcast late last year, you discussed the importance of being comfortable with ambiguity at work. What advice would you give to people who are now experiencing levels of ambiguity and uncertainty that they hadn’t previously faced?
Amy Howe: There are very few people in life that plot a course that works out perfectly. There are so many things in life and business that you don’t have control over. Individuals who are not just comfortable with that, but can embrace it and figure out how to create opportunities in those situations, tend to be more successful.
Before the world shut down due to COVID-19, never before had the live entertainment industry come to a screeching halt. Since then, we’ve had 30,000 events that have been canceled, postponed, or rescheduled, which is more than had been impacted in the last 10 years. We spent all this time carefully planning our priorities for 2020, and all of a sudden the goals we were working toward and the problems we were solving for literally changed overnight. For leaders being thrown into new, unanticipated realities, you’ve got to be decisive, transparent, and honest, but that has to be coupled with really great communication to employees. And the ability to very quickly pivot an organization is extremely important.
Early on in one’s career, what matters is being open to opportunities that you may not have otherwise thought were interesting, and putting yourself in circumstances that are going to push you in unexpected ways. I’ve learned the most from situations that I either wasn’t necessarily excited about or that I knew were going to be incredibly complex, uncomfortable, and would generate healthy debate.
It’s also important early on to be able to pick yourself up when you get knocked down or when the direction you thought you were heading in changes, because that’s just life. My husband and I have three young boys, and I tell them all the time that it is a muscle to be able to navigate through challenging times. One of my favorite books is Grit by professor Angela Duckworth, and it talks about that ability to get up and keep moving — and knowing that you’re going to get to the other side, and that you’re going to build character along the way.
WM: Ticketmaster’s SafeTix technology has been one of the company’s most anticipated new developments. Can you talk a bit about the technology and its wider roll-out?
AH: The ticketing industry has a fundamental imbalance between supply and demand, which is what drives the $15 billion global resale market. Any time you have demand that significantly exceeds supply, it creates an incentive for bad actors and fraudulent activity, particularly on the secondary market. We’re solving that with SafeTix by addressing the problem of “identity,” meaning that for years we knew who bought tickets but had no idea who actually entered the venue. In other words, we didn’t know who the real fan was. At its core, think of SafeTix as a rotating entry token that refreshes every few seconds and is tied to your device — your identity. Unless you give your phone to somebody, that ticket isn’t going to work for anyone else. So it does a few things: It shuts down the fraudulent ticket market and also enables true one-to-one personalization. You now know every person who has actually touched a ticket. Our ability to customize to fans grows exponentially.
A piece that is also going to become increasingly relevant in a post-COVID world is the technology’s potential to improve venue operations, safety, and security. For venues that are driving close to 100 percent digital adoption, you now have a lifeline to every fan inside the venue, so obviously this is a big part of where we’re spending our energy now. Contactless ticketing will also grow exponentially important in a post-COVID world, and so will contactless mobile food and beverage ordering, merchandise selection and pick-up, and even timed entry and egress. Our technology will enable all this functionality and more.
WM: Is there anyone in your Wharton network — fellow alumni, professors, etc. — who you’ve turned to during this time for brainstorming or to get new perspectives?
AH: Let me first just say that the Wharton experience changed my life. There’s something about the environment that Wharton creates that is really special. I’m biased in thinking we had a particularly strong class, but the experience really helped me mature as an individual and a leader. I developed lifelong friendships and bonds that have shaped me in ways that I truly couldn’t have imagined.
But in terms of an individual, I don’t know if you know this, but my twin sister, Kelly Ungerman, was in the class of ’99 as well. We graduated at the same time and both started at McKinsey after Wharton. She’s still there and was just elected senior partner, which is very difficult to do, particularly as a mom — she had twins herself along the way.
I’m very fortunate that when I’m having a tough time and going through those ups and downs in my career, I always have her to lean on. We’ve had the good fortune that we can be each other’s support system. And, ironically, she is one of the leading digital experts at McKinsey, so I’ve actually leaned on her for some professional insights as well.
WM: What important advice have you learned from mentors over the years, and how have those lessons influenced your work?
AH: I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had unbelievable advocates and mentors who have invested in me personally. At McKinsey, I learned the value of true apprenticeship and advocacy. In the same way that professor Adam Grant talks about “givers,” McKinsey thrives on apprenticeship. You learn the art of solving complex problems because you have senior partners, associate partners, and engagement managers who invest in helping you and giving really tough feedback along the way. And many of those individuals are the ones who are creating opportunities for you that you couldn’t otherwise create yourself.
From Live Nation President and CEO Michael Rapino, I’ve also learned the importance of making the complex simple. He forces all of his leaders to have a short to-do list and a long don’t-do list. There’s so many things you could do, but at the end of the day, what are the things that are really going to matter?
And a phenomenal senior partner who has since retired from McKinsey taught me the notion of costly versus costless time. When I became a new mom, and even especially as the kids get older right now, when I’m home helping them with homework and having family meals, those precious hours are really costly, and I don’t want to miss them. When you’re young and single and it’s the weekend, you don’t want to be in the office all weekend, so those weekend hours are costly. While perhaps no time is costless, if I have to jump back online after the kids go to bed, that’s less costly than not spending critical time with them after school. Your definition changes over time, and being comfortable vocalizing that — in some cases with your team and your boss — is really important but hard for people to do, especially in the early parts of their career.
Right now, I’m incredibly grateful for the good fortune I’ve had, and it’s my time to pay it forward. One of the most gratifying things a leader can do is figuring out how to use their position and influence to advocate for others, to create meaningful learning and growth opportunities, and to foster a dynamic work environment based on integrity, inclusion, and collaboration. As we look at what’s going on around us in the world, it’s important that we don’t just give lip service to these things, but really use our platform and our voice to make a difference.