Daniel Houghton made headlines two years ago when he took the helm of iconic travel brand Lonely Planet at 24. Houghton, less than three years out of Western Kentucky University's photojournalism program at that time, had amassed some interesting experiences in his time after graduation--including working as a photojournalist, a tenure at an advertising agency, running his own one-man marketing and photography shop, and acting as digital media adviser for WKU's student publications department.

But it was his co-founding of NC2 Media in Franklin, Tennessee, in 2011 that led the young man to become CEO of 40-year-old Lonely Planet when NC2 purchased it from BBC Worldwide in 2013.

On the heels of recently publishing my own list of "Don'ts and Dos" for twentysomethings who find themselves in a leadership position, I recently chatted with Houghton about some of his own.

Taking the Reins

"When we bought Lonely Planet, I wasn't thinking much about what I was going to be doing," Houghton said. "I was just happy to be part of it."

However, Houghton said the company needed big changes in leadership. In the end, Houghton kept only the CFO and, in the process, found himself in a more public-facing role. "That was 18 to 20 months ago," he said. "I feel like I'm 65 at this point."

One of Houghton's first tasks was to get rid of a little less than 20 percent of Lonely Planet's work force around the world. From there, he sought to bring new ideas for retooling the organization for the modern media landscape. And he did this while being one of the youngest employees on payroll.

"You can imagine what it's like with a 24-year-old taking the reins," he said. "I decided early on I couldn't worry about things I couldn't control. I can't control my birthdate. I can't control my background. I have to be me."

Instead, Houghton focused on bringing fresh perspective to an organization that needed a shakeup while also learning from his team.

Vital Leadership Strategies

Over the course of a few years, Houghton went from running his own business to co-developing a company with five employees to taking the helm of a media organization with hundreds of employees. And while Lonely Planet now has several employees younger than Houghton as the company once again grows, he remains the youngest member by far of his leadership team.

In the course of his journey, he's developed a few key strategies that have guided him as a young leader:

  • Focus on the people: "You need to like the people you're doing business with. When I ran my own business, I took the time to handwrite notes, to stay with clients and show them something they didn't know or to invest in helping them out. Spending extra time with people goes a long way."
  • Delegate: "Get a routine down. I have my day structured in a specific way, and I stick with it. I started off firefighting, but you have to move from defense to offense pretty quick. That means that you should delegate and trust people but also keep checks on everything."
  • Think carefully about how you staff your leadership team: "People who are incredible executers don't always transition well into being the best leaders. You have a responsibility to the rest of your staff to have the right people in the right position."
  • Surround yourself with trusted veterans: "There was a quote that my age wasn't an issue but that my lack of experience was. However, I'm not doing this by myself. I have a group that is understanding and supportive. And I'm surrounded by some very talented people who really believe in what we're trying to do and who have my back."
  • Listen, but trust yourself: "Everyone has an opinion. You have to decide which ones to listen to. But follow what your gut tells you to do."
  • Be as forthcoming as you can be: "Treat people with respect. You should always be honest. And, while you can't always tell people everything, as often as you can, be open with people."
  • Remember, the only equalizer is time: "Everyone has the same amount of time. Don't ask people to work harder than you're willing to work yourself. I know no one here puts in more hours than I do."

I had the opportunity to meet Houghton when we both spoke on a panel of WKU humanities alumni, where we chatted with current students about potential post-college paths. He humbly offered students insights into what's possible for them after they leave the university if they push and dedicate themselves. And his openness about his own experience as a nontraditional CEO of a long-known brand has taught me a thing or two as well.

Published on: Jan 29, 2015