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Sales Director Ken Rahn on Learning and Leadership—From the U.S. Navy to Medallia

Medallia: Ken Rahn

What does the Medallia Sales team have in common with a Navy aircraft carrier’s nuclear power plant? Ken Rahn says there are more similarities than you might think. In this interview, he explains how military service shaped his early impressions of the Medallia platform—and how the same growth mindset that carried him through his Navy career is now helping him take on new challenges.

What do you do at Medallia?

I’m a sales director, so I spend a lot of time looking for companies that would benefit from Medallia. There are plenty of them, because it’s a pretty amazing product—but since we’re on the cutting edge of an industry, most people don’t seek us out. No one just sits down and Googles “how to shift the culture of my entire organization to be customer experience-focused.” The part of my job I love most is being a teacher or educator, when I get a chance to explain what we do. You can see the light bulbs go off as people realize what a huge impact we can have, both for them personally and for their company.

Tell us about your background, and why you joined Medallia.

After four years of ROTC during my undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill, I spent eight years in Navy leadership working on surface ships. For much of that time, I ran nuclear power plants, which power essentially all of the Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers. After I left the Navy in 2008, I did a lot of work in sales—mostly in solar and other renewable energy, which was similar to working at Medallia in some ways, because we were doing something that had never been done before. None of us were experts. We just built a team of multi-talented, smart people who were all wired the same way, worked hard, and backed each other up. It was a lot of fun.

John Garand and I had worked together in solar, and he joined Medallia as a sales director about six months before I did. I remember we grabbed coffee and I told him I wasn’t really interested in switching companies. Then he showed me the Medallia Voices app, which executive teams use to get a daily sample of customer feedback. I immediately recognized the value. When a CEO sees a positive review, for example, they can email a 22-year-old sales rep with one simple click and say, “It’s people like you who make this company what we are.” That resonated with me. I knew from my time in the Navy that when you’re that age and the captain of a 5,000-person ship tells you “good work,” and knows your name and your specific accomplishments, it makes a lasting impression. I realized Medallia was more than some cool piece of software; it’s an empowerment tool that can really move the needle.

I also liked the way this software breaks down walls between departments. I’d spent four years at a Fortune 100 company and seen firsthand how painfully siloed things can be. The exciting thing about Medallia is it can help people in marketing, sales, operations, product, pricing—everyone along the entire customer journey. It helps all those teams connect. In a way, I feel like I’m giving them a gift I never had.

How does your Navy background inform your work at Medallia?

When you’re the head of a Navy nuclear power plant, it’s your responsibility to keep it safe and running smoothly so the ship can maneuver appropriately to launch and recover aircraft, but you also have a division of 50 people to manage. You spend eight hours executing, and then you still have to review evaluations, celebrate the wins, and address the problems. It can be tricky to balance those dual roles of operations and leadership, and I think that experience comes in handy in my role here, where signing up a partner is far from a transactional sale, and takes quite a bit of operational chops.

The other parallel is Medallia’s emphasis on growth mindset. I remember seeing that phrase during the interview process and thinking, “I’m going to love this place.” Part of that inclination comes from how I grew up. My mother was a teacher, and my parents raised me to constantly learn and improve. But there are a lot of similarities to my experience in the military, too. In nuclear power school, for example, I started out as a liberal arts major in a room of engineers, with no relevant experience, and had one of the lowest incoming test scores in my class. But I ended up bonding with my other non-engineer classmates who were in the same situation, because most days we’d be there from 5 a.m. until they kicked us out at 11 p.m. And by the end of the year, the five of us who’d started with the lowest scores were the first to complete our studies and graduate from a highly academic and operationally intense curriculum.

At Medallia, I have a similar group. We all joined around the same time, many of us without a SaaS background, and we’ve formed a sort of learning team. We do role-plays where we’ll try out new ways to phrase a pitch or different ways to present slides so that we’re ready when we’re in front of clients. Just like in the Navy, it’s important to drill and rehearse, and to recognize that you can’t know everything. You need your team to back you up.

What’s most exciting about your work right now?

I’m coming to the end of some deal cycles, which is exciting because I get to watch our ideas come to life. Sometimes I’ll be watching from the sidelines, and sometimes I’ll be getting in the weeds to help a customer launch. And while I can’t be on-site with a single client for weeks at a time after a deal closes, I get to stay involved enough that I can help them use Medallia to its maximum potential. I’m excited to see those early moments—it’s kind of like watching your kids open a Christmas gift and run off to play with it—but I’m also excited to see those partnerships grow over the years.

What stands out to you about Medallia’s culture?

I never have to wonder what someone’s truly thinking. People are genuinely focused on getting the big win for the team, and they’re willing to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing. I think people here also have a tendency to embrace change, rather than let it stop them or slow them down. I’ve lived through a lot of big shifts working in the startup world, and it can be a scary experience that can stop a whole company in its tracks. But I’ve learned to stop hoping change won’t happen and start focusing on who I want to be when it does. I see that same mentality in my teammates. Some of our biggest accomplishments have happened during the quarters with the most change.

I also appreciate the emphasis on work-life balance, especially as the parent of two young kids. I’ve worked at companies before where few people even had kids, but here, I’m in good company. The number one goal is to do your job well, but our leaders understand we have lives outside of work. If you need to be offline one morning for parent-teacher conferences, that’s okay. We closed a big deal recently, and one of our teammates video-conferenced in with her client and Medallia leadership, and celebrated from her living room with her kids. Things like that make me want to be at Medallia not just for a few years, but for a long, long time.

This story was created in conjunction with Job Portraits, a San Francisco-based creative agency that helps teams scale using culture-focused content.