Steve Hamill worked at New York City Hall for 10 years—through two mayoral administrations and three city council speakers—before he was ready for a change.
“I had learned all about politics under the hood, how the sausage is made and why some priorities advance and why some don’t. I saw ugly political battles and what motivates politicians to act. I loved my job, the politics, getting things done and impacting the city, but it was time to get out and do something different,” he said.
When it looked like Steve had landed a new job, he asked his former boss at the City Council, Sandy Mullin, to serve as a final reference. She invited him instead to come work at a tiny start-up, World Lung Foundation (WLF). One of Vital Strategies’ predecessor organizations, it had just procured its first major grant, to establish a global tobacco control social marketing program. Excited by potential of global social impact Steve jumped, becoming WLF’s seventh employee.
“It was a crazy and wonderful introduction to global public health. It felt like our small team did everything… It was a mad scramble for a modest team to both start a global health program and make WLF appear bigger and more credible.”
Steve and his colleagues were quickly involved in major victories. Among his first responsibilities was supporting Türkiye in implementing national tobacco control legislation that is now among the world’s strongest. A revolutionary provision provided for free prime-time government advertising and Steve supported the development of Türkiye’s first-ever national anti-tobacco campaign. The campaign ran for two years as the legislation came into enforcement, and consumption of cigarettes dropped by 20%.
At the same time, Steve was leading work in Egypt, where efforts were not as successful, and the program was eventually sunsetted after the 2011 revolution. “Looking back, I learned as much from what didn’t work in Egypt as I did from our success in Türkiye,” said Steve, “particularly around the importance of partnership and strengthening local leadership.” Later, in 2012, Steve brought these lessons to bear in Indonesia, working to support the Ministry of Health in launching their first national tobacco campaign, which was evaluated to have prompted more than 1 million people quit smoking.
In 2016, World Lung Foundation merged with the Union North America to become Vital Strategies. Steve and Sandy led the rebranding to establish Vital’s new identity—including a name that reflected a vision beyond lung health to strengthening public health systems globally across a number of leading drivers of death and disease.
“I never imagined I could be at this organization for 15 years, but over that time we’ve grown from just a few employees to several hundred. It’s felt like completely different jobs, and I’ve had the opportunity to grow with the organization. I still feel like I’m learning and interested in the next big thing—How can we use technology differently? How can we keep our big PAC team motivated, coordinated and learning? How can Vital capture the attention of other thought leaders?”
Steve grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved to the small town of Lansing, New York when he was 13 years old. His parents were both academics who encouraged him to explore his many interests.
He developed into a cellist, an artist and a performer, who also liked science. When it came time to apply to college, he chose architecture to bring together his interests in art and science. He was accepted into an intense five-year master’s equivalency program at Syracuse University, characterized by six-hours stretches of studio time most days, accompanied by Socratic critiques with professors and peers.
In his third year at Syracuse, Steve took a job going door to door fundraising over the summer for a local environmental and consumer rights nonprofit. This led him off the path of working as an architect after graduation. He became a community organizer, running the statewide canvass operation over summer months, and organizing on college campuses during school months.
“I had thousands of conversations, trying to get people to take action on health or environmental issues, and it helped me understand what motivates people in real life, he said. “It was a cornerstone experience that I still rely on in my communication work.”
From this time, Steve also gained experience managing offices and teams and tracking work methodically. Every day included a motivational speech for his team going out to canvass. And, whenever he could, he designed flyers and leaflets, eventually parlaying this experience into a job at the New York City Council setting up their first design studio and on to working in the press office. Among his most memorable moments from this time there was working for the city government during and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At Vital, Steve is proud of all the “firsts” that he has been a part of, but also new projects, from Vital’s response to COVID-19 to the first national overdose campaign and supporting the new communication work on alcohol policy. Steve is also proud of how methodical Vital’s external communication strategy has become, investing in systems and people and promoting the entire organization’s portfolio. “It’s not just what we’re working on, but how we are working,” he said.
Now that this approach is built out, he is eager to keep increasing the visibility of Vital’s experts, focusing on the most important moments of the year and making sure Vital is using strategies like podcasts and short videos to tell our story.
In 2018, while working at Vital, Steve graduated from Columbia University’s Senior Leadership Program, an executive education program he describes as transformational.
“It taught me to be a much better manager. I was stressed out. I learned that my stress was coming from juggling too many balls. I wasn’t helping my team work to its highest potential. I had to learn to delegate and trust and manage better.”
If Steve wasn’t in his current job, he says he would be returning to his roots in art and design—maybe running his own furniture design line. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his family—including his wife and two kids—and focuses on trying to bring more art into his life, whether that is through visiting museums, playing his guitar or drawing.
“I have spent a couple decades working to be high performing and results driven. I feel like the pandemic also made me appreciate how I get happiness in the process of exploration—at work, at home and in my personal interests—especially with others. It may be trite, but the journey is as important as the destination. Bringing that perspective ultimately helps me maintain rich relationships, curiosity and motivation as I am going forward into my next stage.”