Compassion and resiliency are the keys to great leadership

Amit Desai, CMO of KB Home, has had a fascinating career journey—spanning over 30 years across pretty much every aspect of the world of marketing—at companies like American Express, Nestle, Disney, Warner Bros. and (now) KB Home. So, the team at The CMO Club thought that someone with such an interesting and varied professional background would have a few fun stories to tell about his own personal life journey. Here’s what he had to say.

Being the child of immigrant parents

I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. But both of my parents grew up in India—in the city of Mumbai—before immigrating to the U.S. 

It’s pretty safe to say that I was the only kid of Indian origin growing up in Santa Barbara at the time. Was it always easy? No. Why? Because there was literally no Indian representation around me and, other than my parents, no one who looked like me or shared similar cultural values that I could look up to as a role model. At times, I wasn’t quite sure where I belonged or what community I could belong to. That’s not always easy for a kid. 

But I tend to be one of those people who tries to see the positive in everything. When I look back on my childhood, I see my cultural upbringing as something that gave me both strength and a unique identity that I could be proud of. It taught me how to be adaptable. It helped me learn how to be comfortable in any situation. It made me more resilient. 

In fact, I continue to tap into the resilience of the childhood version of me to this very day, especially when approaching challenging situations. I’ve learned through the years to never give up, always persevere (even in times when it might feel easier not to), and stay determined to seek out ways to turn obstacles into real and meaningful opportunities. 

If I could tell my younger self one thing today, it would be…

…to loosen up.

Of course, I say that with a bit of jest. But what you likely don’t know—and admittedly, this might seem strange for a marketer, much less a CMO—is that I’m a fairly private person by nature. I’ve been like that ever since I was a kid. 

If I knew back then what I know now, I’d tell myself to let go of those defenses, break down the walls, and share more of myself with the people around me. Truth be told, that takes a whole lot of vulnerability, which isn’t all that easy for a kid to do. 

That’s why I give my younger self a lot of credit. While that boy certainly could have opened up and shared a bit more with others, he remained resilient through and through. It’s not easy to figure out who you are as a person and who you want to become down the road when the world around you doesn’t necessarily look like you or share the same cultural values as you. That kid had to chart his own course—and he should be really proud of that. 

I’ve learned through the years to never give up, always persevere… and stay determined to seek out ways to turn obstacles into real and meaningful opportunities.

My cultural heritage gives me a huge sense of pride

It’s really hard to separate heritage from who you are. There are a lot of words I might use to describe me as a person. But being Indian is probably at the top of that list. I’m incredibly proud of my culture and am grateful for the unique experiences my parents have given me. And even though, as I’ve mentioned before, I may not have fit in 100% as a kid, that never once stopped me from having a sense of pride in my roots. 

This is even more important for me now as a father of two incredible daughters. Along with my wife of over 20 years—who just so happens to be Indian, too—we’ve instilled in our girls the importance of embracing their cultural heritage and celebrating our unique traditions. And I know it means a great deal to them. Even though they are a generation removed, having both grown up in the U.S. since the day they were born, they’ve embraced their Indian heritage with open arms. In fact, I think this experience has indirectly taught them how to put a modern twist on old wisdom. It’s fascinating for me to see how they’re figuring out how to make their heritage their own. 

As a family, we’ve traveled to India a number of times to expose our kids to real Indian culture in action. They’re so into the food, holidays, and celebrations. You know, what’s truly unique about India, if you’ve never been before, is that history literally surrounds you there. You can’t escape it. There is just so much richness in the culture that it’s even hard for me to sum up how beautiful it is. So, I can understand why my girls have grown to love it just as much as I do. 

Long story short, there’s no question that being Indian plays a huge role in the person I am today. It’s so important to keep traditions alive, as those are unique characteristics that add texture to who we are as people in our daily lives. 

It’s really hard to separate heritage from who you are…I’m incredibly proud of my culture and am grateful for the unique experiences my parents have been able to pass on to me throughout my life.

Wanderlust keeps the curiosity alive

As you may have guessed, family is the most important thing in my life. My wife, two daughters, and I do so many things together: We love going to the beach, biking around Pasadena, trying out new restaurants, watching movies, and just spending quality time together. 

But after family, I’d say my greatest love is travel. I grew up traveling. Because my grandparents and other relatives still lived in India after my parents had immigrated to the U.S., we made a point to go back regularly to visit them. For me, though, these trips I took as a child gave me the perfect opportunity to connect with my heritage in a truly authentic way. 

As a family, we’ve had the chance to travel around the world: Australia, Cambodia, Thailand, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Mexico…and the list goes on. However, one of my all-time favorite destinations is Istanbul, Turkey. The history is so fascinating. It’s like a clash of civilizations all culminating in one place—a true mosaic of different people and cultures.

Role models come in all ‘shapes and sizes’

I have been uniquely fortunate to have had some of the best bosses out there. They’ve all been wonderful teachers and mentors throughout my career. They led by example and gave me the room to grow while supporting me and believing in me every step of the way.  It’s through them that I learned how to be a compassionate leader who motivates their teams to succeed.

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned the importance of establishing a bold vision and setting high expectations for both myself and my team. This is the foundation for creating an environment where people feel truly valued, fulfilled, and motivated. While driving and expecting results is important in any business, that doesn’t mean collaboration and respect get thrown out the window. It’s actually quite the opposite. The best bosses all know this: The only way to build a strong and successful team is to be their team’s biggest advocate.  

This is what was modeled to me throughout my career—and I’ve not only taken this guidance to heart, but I’ve also done my best to pay it forward with the people on my team. For me, having great role models to look up to is just as important as being a great role model myself. 

For me, having great role models to look up to is just as important as being a great role model myself.

The world needs more compassionate leaders

The role of a good leader is actually quite simple. It involves a focus on building relationships and enabling those we lead to feel valued, respected, and cared for—so they can reach their potential and ultimately do their best work.

In my opinion, what sets compassionate leaders apart from others is that they take the time to listen, understand, ask questions (in order to get people to willingly share their perspectives), and build trust with everyone they come in contact with. 

This has been my strategy for every team I’ve led—and the investment I’ve made in them has paid off in spades. There’s always been a tremendous amount of cohesion around what we were trying to achieve as a team. This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t create the space to build unity around a shared vision while also showing them that I truly cared. 

You know, the world is really challenging right now. There’s a lot of stress on people these days for a number of different reasons. Leading with compassion can make a huge difference. 

What sets compassionate leaders apart…is [taking] the time to listen, understand, ask questions, and build trust.

Marketing, the perpetual ‘road less traveled’

When I first started my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, I was pre-med—after all, becoming a doctor was the sensible thing for a young and ambitious Indian guy to do. But after taking my first chemistry class during freshman year, it became pretty clear that science wasn’t my calling. So, I switched gears and changed my major to Economics and History. 

This helped me get a foot in the door at my first job at First Interstate Bank, a regional retail bank headquartered in Los Angeles. My role was to develop relationships with high net-worth customers and position our deposit and loan products to serve their needs. This indirectly exposed me to the discipline of marketing and, over time, is what encouraged me to take a big career leap and get an MBA at Columbia University—which is where you could say my official professional marketing journey began. 

Fresh out of B-School, I decided to stay in New York for a bit and landed a job at American Express. I figured, there couldn’t possibly be a better way to bridge my financial services experience into a new career in data-based marketing and hyper-personalized digital communication. What I loved most about American Express is that the entire organization is marketing-driven; marketing doesn’t just live within the marketing department. This opened my eyes to marketing’s true impact on all facets of a business.

For a guy who was born and raised in Southern California, it became clear after (barely) surviving a few New York winters that location was actually quite important to me. I decided to make my way back to Los Angeles to establish my marketing career out there. That’s when I landed a gig at Nestlé and started on my leadership journey. During my time there, I was given the opportunity to become a general manager of businesses ranging from infant formulas to nutritional supplements. I learned how to manage profit and loss, combine analytical rigor with creativity, and both revitalize and launch CPG brands. 

However, when you live in LA and are surrounded by the entertainment industry, it’s tough to not want to be a part of it. I eventually headed over to Disney to join their Internet Group, at the time when the whole dot com thing was the latest shiny new object that everyone was talking about (which, I know, dates me just by saying that). The concept of “digital marketing” was all the rage. Part of the creative brief conversation seemed to always involve building a website of some kind. Funny to think that websites were such a novelty back then. 

Yet, aside from reminiscing about digital marketing of the past, the really cool thing about working at Disney is that it exposed me to filmed entertainment—which was exciting on so many levels. In fact, I eventually made a big transition to the Studio where I was responsible for developing plans to transform films like Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Lilo & Stitch into evergreen franchises that could drive synergy across the company.

After some time had passed working at Disney, I realized I really loved (and missed) marketing physical products. That made the jump to Warner Bros. (WB) perfect because—and don’t laugh—it was when DVDs were what people were buying. How things have changed since! 

During my early days with WB Home Entertainment, I got to work on classic franchises like Scooby-Doo, Hanna-Barbera, Looney Tunes, and Tom and Jerry. I then transitioned from the world of DVDs to the world of superheroes when I became the Head of Business and Marketing Strategy, Direct-to-Consumer and Global Franchise Management for DC Entertainment’s multi-billion-dollar franchises like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman across virtually all channels, playing a central role in doubling DC’s revenue at that time—something that I am still very much proud of to this day. What an experience!

And now that brings me to today. You might be wondering, “Why would this guy with so much entertainment experience suddenly decide to become the CMO at a homebuilding company?” Definitely a valid question. Here’s the thing: With 20+ years of entertainment experience under my belt, I was ready for a new challenge. 

Here’s what you may not know. KB Home is one of the oldest and largest homebuilders in the U.S. After meeting KB’s CEO, and hearing about his desire to position the company as the most customer-obsessed homebuilder in the world, I felt like this was an opportunity to build something uniquely new that I could hang my hat on. 

I love disruption, transformation, and anything that pushes the envelope to set one company apart from an entire category. I knew it wouldn’t be easy by any means—because homebuilding certainly isn’t entertainment—but it was undoubtedly an opportunity to use my experience to approach KB Home with fresh eyes to position it as the industry leader. Challenge accepted! 

Now, what I’ve learned throughout this journey is that marketing doesn’t have a set path. It’s not like becoming a doctor, lawyer, or any other profession with predetermined start and end points. In marketing, you can control your own destiny, especially if you’re willing to take chances and seize opportunities that may very well force you out of your comfort zone. And when you do, you’ll see it’s totally worth it in the long run. 

In marketing, you can control your own destiny, especially if you’re willing to take chances and seize opportunities that may very well force you out of your comfort zone.

Believe in your personal mantra

This might sound cliché or obvious, but you need to do what you love. Always. I think people can get so caught up in the day-to-day or sometimes in the expectations being placed on them by others that they forget just how important having a passion for what you do is. 

Doing what you love also opens the door to new opportunities to learn and grow. In my opinion, if you’re truly passionate about what you do, then you are more likely to push yourself to take chances that drive new and exciting outcomes. For instance, whenever starting a new job, I see it as an opportunity to not only reinvent myself but also help transform the businesses I work for. I thank my healthy competitive spirit for this; it always lights a fire within me to break through the status quo. It’s about stepping up to new challenges and never (ever) giving up. 

That being said, we really need to approach both our personal and professional lives as a marathon, not a sprint. All too often, we focus too much on the destination. This is especially the case with goal setting. But if you only look straight ahead—failing to embrace what’s actually happening around you—it’s easy to lose sight of the entire journey that got (or is getting) you there. Life is way too short. We all need to take time to enjoy the ride; otherwise, in the blink of an eye, you’ll get to your destination only to realize that life has passed you by. 

This leads me to one final thought: Being present in your life’s journey takes vulnerability, mindfulness, compassion, and a lot of kindness—to yourself and to the people around you. It also requires a good amount of resiliency and a real sense of confidence in your ability to make a positive impact in people’s lives, whether those are the people on your team or the end-users of the products and services you market. This truly is the heart and soul of leadership today. 

If there’s one thing that my younger self taught me, that is still very much alive and well in me today, it’s that we’ve got to cut through the noise and stay true to ourselves, even when the world around us makes it hard to stay focused. That’s what resiliency is all about—and I’m grateful to have learned this valuable lesson at such a young age.

All too often, we focus too much on the destination…but if you only look straight ahead—failing to embrace what’s actually happening around you—it’s easy to lose sight of the entire journey.