The president of National Journal talks success, adversity, and the zeal for ‘iteration’ that keeps him moving.
Kevin Turpin II does not like to sit still. In the summer of 2005, having barely waited for his grad cap to hit the ground, he took a job at Atlantic Media as a Senior Business Affairs Associate. Three years later, he was promoted to Assistant Sales Manager. One year after that, Manager. Then Associate Director, Director, Executive Director…you get the point. In just 11 years of employment with Atlantic Media, Turpin earned eight promotions, a streak culminating in 2016 when he became President of National Journal, AM’s political intelligence subsidiary. He was 32.
“The assumption was that I was a reporter,” he concedes, referring to the initially skeptical eyes of fellow executives. His tone isn’t bitter, perhaps because, well, who could blame them? The flip side of precocity is inexperience, and giftedness alone doesn’t translate to the expertise required to run a company.
But Turpin isn’t so much a prodigy as a disciplined protégé. He has a student’s mind, a curious restlessness that’s always leading him in the direction of new possibilities. He outlined this for me in a recent interview over email. In discussing the reasons for his success, he also shared his thoughts on a variety of career-defining efforts—from leading as a Black executive in a white industry, to encouraging generosity within the workplace, to navigating a company through the COVID-19 pandemic. His mentality is clearly inseparable from his trade, which is why before we get to Turpin, it’s important to note National Journal’s own metamorphosis.
“I think as a Black man I carry the extra pressure to succeed. I feel that if I fail, it will be difficult for another Black man to rise to the same level in my company or industry.”
With its 2012 rollout of Presentation Center, Journal commenced a transition away from its editorial past and toward a future in advisory services. Eight years (and several platforms) later, the company has transformed into a leading media brand, a feat all the more impressive when you consider the tectonic shifts—re: social media, digitization, fragmentation of news outlets—that have occurred in the industry over the last decade. Guiding this transformation has been Turpin, whose steady rise through Atlantic Media both coincided and precipitated Journal’s changing output. And just last month he announced a new product, Vignette, a database of profiles featuring key figures—at the federal, state, and local levels—making and influencing policy today.
“More decisions are moving to the state level,” Turpin says. “And so the need for advocacy professionals to consistently engage with state and local government officials has increased.”
Vignette offers a cornucopia of information on any single policy influencer, from work history to areas of policy interest to personal details like hobbies, career accomplishments, and family background. With so much turnover on Capitol Hill and in executive agencies, knowing who is who and what they stand for can be overwhelming; Vignette offers a system of organization.
Though all the platforms offered by National Journal are distinct, when viewed together, their diversity suggests an ethos that Turpin has championed in his role as president. “Static businesses do not last,” he says. “To keep an organization growing, you have to always stay connected to changing challenges.” For Turpin, that means new products and new ways to engage with stakeholders. “I’ve always been confident that the changes we make are the right thing to do for our business. However, sometimes we need to adjust and further iterate if we want to reach a more successful future.”
This idea of iteration, of continual re-defining in the direction of success, is the process that has launched National Journal to the forefront of its industry. It is also the process by which Turpin himself has ascended.
“I believe a professional should always seek to evolve their skills and knowledge,” he says. “To never lose curiosity. I look at every conversation as an opportunity to learn something new.” Opportunity, learn, new—these are more than buzzwords for Turpin; they are pillars of his outlook, suggesting the possibility for give-and-take in any moment. And he’s fostered the same outlook at National Journal, where it is encouraged that new staff query those with experience and experienced staff make time for the new. “The learning and sharing go both ways,” he says. “Growth becomes easier in an environment that values generosity.”
Sometimes this growth comes quickly, and others have to be caught up. For instance, recall those executives who thought Turpin was a reporter. Even with an deep résumé sporting seven previous positions at Atlantic Media, he was met with skepticism. One can only imagine the doubt he faced at earlier stages of his career, when his résumé was shorter, and he was younger.
Still, it would be more than naïve to presume that for Turpin, a Black American, youth has been the most salient distinctiveness on his mind. “I think as a Black man, I carry the extra pressure to succeed. I feel that if I fail, it will be difficult for another Black man to rise to the same level in my company or industry.” This specter has trailed Turpin since his first job, and with each new role that followed came the new pressure in being that role’s ethnic outlier. “Being the first and only person at anything binds your success to the likelihood of future opportunities for people like you.”
“I’ve been stretched as a leader. I’ve had to maintain a culture of support, generosity, and excellence, and I’ve had to do it virtually.”
Despite the heavy weight of this load, Turpin is not dismayed. In fact, he’s using the load to enact change. “As President, one of my goals is having representation at every level of our company, so I’ve prioritized an inclusive environment that will attract a diversity of talent.” He adds, “I am so committed to what we are doing here, and I’m going to stick around as long as my boss will have me.”
You could say that commitment to a set of values is what allows Turpin to reach new heights, both in himself and his organization. It is the compass he uses to hold bearing in an industry notorious for its stormy changes and susceptible climate. Throw a global Pandemic into the mix, and it is no surprise Turpin is staying fixed on the dial. “In thinking through our company’s return to the office, I have found that having clear guiding principles helps cut through the noise around difficult decisions.”
But as with any challenge, Turpin sees the COVID-19 pandemic as something more, as an opportunity for professional growth, for reaching that next iteration. “I’ve been stretched as a leader. I’ve had to maintain a culture of support, generosity, and excellence, and I’ve had to do it virtually. But our staff is staying connected, we’re monitoring workflow, and we’re ensuring that our products continue to change with the changing times.”