As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Chambliss.
Kelly Chambliss is the Managing Partner of IBM Global Business Services (GBS) Americas. In this role, she leads one of the largest professional services organizations in the world, providing enterprise clients across North America and Latin America with consulting, business process outsourcing, and application management services fueled by artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud.
She previously led the Distribution and Industrial Markets in GBS North America. Prior to that role, she served as the Global Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for IBM GBS, with a focus on the development, marketing, sales, and delivery of cloud-based solutions. She also previously led Application Innovation Services and the Retail Industry within GBS North America. Kelly joined IBM through the acquisition of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Consulting. Her experience at PwC included living and working in Australia for three years; leading technology enabled programs across Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America; and serving as an application developer, application architect, and data analyst on customer engagement and supply chain programs across consumer industries.
Kelly serves as an Independent Director on the CoreSite Realty Corporation (NYSE: COR) Board of Directors and is a member of both the Governance and Compensation Committees. CoreSite Realty Corporation is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) and leading provider of high-performance data center and interconnection solutions. She also serves on the advisory board for Amicus.io, a fintech start-up that enables banks to participate in the charitable giving market.
She graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Management Science and a specialization in Decision Support Systems. Kelly’s leadership has been recognized by Business Insider, Fortune, and Consulting Magazine.
She currently resides in Chicago, Illinois with her husband and two children and is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. Beyond business and technology, Kelly’s interests include running marathons, drawing, and writing.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) after graduating from Virginia Tech, where I was a student-athlete and on the volleyball team. I say that because playing team sports shaped how I work and how I lead. It is also interesting that my favorite classes at Virginia Tech were Artificial Intelligence and Neural Networks, which is now being applied to change nearly every business process across every industry. Early on, I saw working in professional services as an opportunity to learn a lot in a short amount of time, while seeing and experiencing the world. I loved that I was able to be part of a team focused on solving big, complex problems for some of the most established and innovative companies across the world. I like getting to know a client, their business, culture, strategy and goals and, at the heart of things, finding ways to solve problems, together.
I am a big believer in saying, “yes” to new opportunities. Having that mindset has really opened up experiences I don’t think I would have had if I overly analyzed every move. I was able to live in Australia for a few years and work with clients in different industries, starting with insurance and retail, and then after IBM acquired PwC Consulting, expanding this to include travel, hospitality, and electronics. Those diverse experiences gave me a greater depth of understanding across a range of industries, while also realizing many issues facing businesses are universal.
In early 2018, I became the leader of Global Business Services for North America and earlier this year that grew to include the Americas, one of the largest professional services organizations in the world. During that time, we’ve grown the business and helped some of the largest organizations in the Americas stay up and running during a global pandemic. It has been an exciting, challenging and constantly evolving experience. And when I reflect on my career, that’s what I like, constantly learning and being part of a team that solves complex, meaningful problems in innovative ways.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A few years into my career, a Partner at PwC and I were meeting with a client. As soon as the client entered the conference room, I looked at my notes and quickly got down to business. After the meeting, my colleague and mentor, reminded me that we are in a business where clients often choose to work with us based on trusted relationships. He recommended that I start meetings by asking simple questions like “How are you? Or “How was your weekend?” as they provide the opportunity to connect on a more personal level. In retrospect, I am embarrassed that I was so focused on being efficient and on achieving the outcome that I didn’t stop to show interest in getting to know the people I was working with on a more personal level. Every business is a people business at its core. I reflect on this experience and advice often.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have a hard time pinpointing just one person that I am grateful to in my career. When I look back, it has been a series of relationships that have helped me get to where I am now. Growing up in a small farm town in Central Illinois, I learned early on from my family the importance of a strong work ethic; from my college volleyball teammates, I learned that anything is possible when you set goals as a team and then work together to achieve them; and from my work at PwC and IBM, getting to work with tremendous leaders, like Ginni Rometty and Arvind Krishna, and within incredibly diverse teams has broadened my appreciation for the value of diversity and inclusion.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I have the privilege of working for a company that has been in business for over a century. When IBM first started, it was a tabulating company. What has allowed IBM to succeed for so long, has been its commitment to our clients and our ability to constantly innovate to solve the world’s most complex problems. Earlier this year, as the world and our clients were navigating the pandemic, we teamed with a county in southern California to create a solution that helped their homeless population receive support, while our teams in New York helped mobilize thousands of tablets for at risk children to use when schools moved to remote learning. These are just two of many examples of us doing work that matters in the world. At our core, our purpose is to help our clients and the world work smarter.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
There are so many stories of leading during uncertain and difficult times from this year alone. One story that comes to mind is back in March, when we knew things were quickly accelerating with the Covid-19 pandemic in the Americas, there were a couple of weeks where every day seemed to bring multiple updates on closings and travel restrictions for our clients and our employees. When we made the decision to move most of our employees to working virtually, that was a significant shift for our team. To quickly navigate the challenge, we built and executed plans, coupled with consistent communication and a focus on the care and safety of people.
For me, when I look back on that transition, it was important to lead with empathy, while balancing the need to continue to deliver results. It was important to establish a series of constant connections or touchpoints with the team, to help everyone move forward in a way that they felt supported. I hosted daily stand-ups (calls) with our team to check-in and talk through any issues or concerns. And, during the summer we implemented flexible hours to help people juggle the needs of work and family. Collectively, I think all of this created a sense that we are all in this together.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I may get discouraged and I may have my down moments, but I do not give up. I am a marathon runner and I think to get through this year, and any tough time, it is helpful to treat a challenge like a marathon, not a sprint. You need to focus on moving forward, taking a big problem and breaking it down into smaller, achievable goals. That way, we are able to celebrate little victories and milestones along the way, confident that we are making progress. And, it certainly helps to have a great team beside you.
The biggest motivator for me is that I genuinely believe in what we are doing and why we are doing the work we are doing together. For me, our shared purpose drives a sense of comradery and sense that we are all in this together, and that our collective experience, drive and resilience is more powerful than any of us alone. That mindset helps me work in an open and transparent way, communicating often and relying on each other. I seek council and input across the team and welcome people sharing ideas and challenging each other — in the end that makes all of us better and stronger.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think it is critical for leaders to provide a clear, honest, and transparent view of a situation and the challenges, then provide a path forward that builds confidence in the future. And you can’t just be optimistic — you need to be specific about why this path forward will work, so people have reason to be optimistic while also understanding the role they each need to play.
As I think about this question, honestly, to be successful in a challenging time, so much of the work needs to be done before a crisis arises, so you’ve already created a team that trusts, and believes in, each other.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think it starts with recognizing success at all levels in an organization. There is a leader on our team that sends short emails highlighting a team member’s success at least once a week. That gesture mattered to the individual, the team and the business. Success and positive feelings are contagious. Other leaders within the team started doing the same and the improvement in their results was noticeable. As I think about leading a large, geographically dispersed team, our human connections make the business and team feel smaller, which makes people feel more connected to our mission. It can be as simple as picking up the phone and checking on a colleague to see how they’re doing. Those connections can inspire, motivate, and boost morale.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
When you have to communicate difficult news, I think it is best to find ways to create the best possible human experience. I find the way to do that is in the highest touch way as possible. I say the highest touch way as possible, because not everything can be face-to-face, videoconferencing or a phone call may be the best option. Then the news needs to be shared honestly, in the way that you would want similar news shared with you.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As a leader, you make plans based on the best information available at the time, and while there are some assumptions you may make, you also need to be able to adapt and be agile. If we’ve learned anything this year, it is that things are going to change. Be decisive, and as you learn and know more, adapt and change. And as you make plans, communicate clearly and often, making sure to answer “why” you are doing something before people ask as it is easier for people to embrace change when they understand it and can put it into context.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Consistent, transparent communication is at the heart of navigating turbulent times. Open Communication builds trust. You do this by giving people an opportunity to engage in two-way conversations and empowering them to be a part of defining the solution. When people trust each other and believe there is always positive intent, that is a combination that can weather a lot of ups and downs.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I think some common mistakes are:
- Not recognizing the need to adjust and change fast enough. This requires focusing on the facts, removing emotion, and being honest about what is working and what is not working. It also requires a firm grasp of the market within which you operate. With a strong focus on the facts, client/customer expectations, and the competitive landscape, you can move with speed and confidence.
- Lack of clear direction. It is critical for a business leader to outline a clear path forward in good times, and it is especially important during difficult times. You need everyone on your team working toward the same, common goal. If you are ambiguous and unclear, people make assumptions and may move in different directions at a time when you need to be executing a shared plan, without hesitation.
- Being paralyzed by uncertainty. It can be challenging to chart a course forward during uncertain times. However, it can be devastating when businesses churn and struggle to make decisions. It is important to make the best decision you can, then adjust as you learn more. Do you need to make a couple of tweaks to take into account a fast-changing landscape or do you need a complete overhaul? There is a fine line between reviewing and weighing your options and overly analyzing every decision. It is best to be both decisive and willing to change as you learn more or the landscape evolves.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I have spent a lot of time recently creating a culture that supports acting with agility, simplifying our ways of working, and prioritizing what focus on. This starts with keeping client/customer expectations, priorities, and needs at the heart of the decisions we make. For example, many of our clients are shifting their focus to initiatives that reduce costs and improve efficiency in their business. Thus, we are shifting our focus on offerings, capabilities, and ways of working that help our clients realize these goals. When we keep our clients at the heart of our decision-making, we maintain growth traction even during a difficult economy.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t wait for a turbulent time to build trusted relationships with clients, employees, and business partners
- Ask for feedback, ideas, and suggestion from across an organization
- Be open, honest, and transparent
- Communicate often and with consistency
- Be an agile problem solver and open to change — what worked five months ago, may not work today
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This question makes me think back to my bedroom growing up. I had two posters on my wall that still resonate with me. The first poster had the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”, and the second poster was of a runner and simply had the word, “Determination” across the top. I believe that adversity makes us strong when we choose to learn from it. When you get knocked down, you get back up, and more often than not, you learn so much more from your struggles than your successes. Everything will not always go as planned or hoped. However, it is through the tough times that we learn the most, build strength, and form the most meaningful relationships.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way to follow me is on LinkedIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kelly-chambliss-7472201/