As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Manthey.
Kelly Manthey is the Group Chief Executive at Kin + Carta Americas, and previously the CEO of Solstice. Kelly received her Bachelor’s in Information Systems from Kent State University and began her career at Accenture, where she helped Fortune 500 companies embrace the internet era, the emerging technology of the 90’s. She built web technology and the first eCommerce sites for some of the leading brands. Her experience with designing and building emerging technology in the context of legacy enterprise technology environments helped her in the 2000s as internet technology became mainstream and companies were now faced with modernizing both their internal and external facing business applications.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Going all the way back, I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I went to Kent State University and studied management information systems, which was a blend of business, technology, and computer science. When I graduated, I took a job at Accenture, which was Anderson Consulting at the time, and jumped headfirst into software development. That was really my first taste of consulting and solving hard technology problems inside the Fortune 500. It was great to get exposure early on in my career.
As I progressed through my career in consulting I leveraged my engineering experience and know-how for building software into more senior functional roles — business analysis, project management, program management. I really enjoyed having that solid foundation in technology and knowing how things were built, to then lead and manage that work being done and serving as the bridge between business and technology.
The business of consulting has always suited me really well. I love the fast pace, the dynamic nature, and adapting to change. Looking back I can appreciate the benefit of getting inside a variety of clients and seeing how the same problems can look different in different companies or industries. There is no field that can accelerate career growth faster than consulting — the network building, exposure to a variety of industries, solving some of the hardest problems core to a business strategy for clients. It’s been really rewarding and a lot of fun.
I’ve been here at what is now Kin + Carta, for almost 15 years. My journey really started when I moved to Chicago and connected with a colleague that I worked with at Accenture, J Schwan, our Global CEO now. He was beginning to launch a product engineering business at the time. I became the first full-time employee and worked alongside him, growing what was Solstice and then has now become the Chicago headquarters of Kin + Carta in the US.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting story than what’s been unfolding since COVID hit. The things we have had to weather as a business and society in such a compressed amount of time is unfathomable. It’s been a lesson in personal humility, gratitude, and accelerated my leadership ability.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Given my tenure in the business, I have history with many of the employees in K+C. When I was first promoted into a CEO role it was important to me that I remained connected, approachable, and maintain my authenticity. I will never forget trying to flex how cool I still am and impress the Millennials in a meeting by loudly proclaiming on a conference call that I love to “Netflix and chill” on the weekends. After the shock and laughter subsided I was educated that “Netflix and chill” does not mean binge watching shows, alone, on your couch, in sweats, with wine.
Lesson learned. The transition from peer to manager to new levels of leadership is filled with uncomfortable moments of growth. Embrace growth and the shifts in relationships that come with it. Trying too hard to be something you aren’t, to stay at the same level, is actually a disservice to yourself, the people who are looking to you for leadership, and to the company. And, in this case, you sound foolish doing it!
I also learned that I am who I am. My authenticity, passion to connect with people, empathetic nature are all assets that can’t be promoted away or held back. These attributes only make me a better leader and I should focus on how best to apply them rather than worry about losing them.
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 about that?
For the last 14 years the most influential person in my career is my current boss and mentor, J Schwan. He’s always been there along the way, helping to push me and drive me, and helping me see what I am capable of. He’s a master at assessing people’s strengths and putting them in positions to play to those strengths. That’s the mark of a true leader — someone who drives results by making other people successful. I have learned a lot from our years working together.
Early in my career, there were always women in leadership roles around me to give me an example of what was possible. I spent 5 years working at Bristol Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical company in my late 20s before I joined what is now Kin + Carta. In my time there I was surrounded by strong women. I wanted to be like them. They showed me the art of what’s possible. At the time I didn’t realize how rare and formative this would be to my career. But seeing so many women and women of color in executive leadership roles showed me what was possible and gave me a template for the type of environment that attracts and retains women. It was in this job that I met some life long mentors and friends who to this day I still confide in.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I always make sure I have space before a meeting. I need space to collect my thoughts. If it’s first thing in the morning, I always make sure I’ve got a block of time, an hour or so, to glide into the day and destress. I also like exercise and running to clear my head. That helps me get the cobwebs out and decompress to get myself in a space of readiness. If I’m rushing from one thing to another, then I’m not really thinking. I’m reactive and I don’t feel like I’m in a good place.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Having a diversity of opinion and backgrounds to add to the conversation and bring a new perspective is so important. Otherwise, you get caught in an echo chamber of everybody having a similar experience. Diverse teams create a richer environment. It creates more empathy in an organization. It creates a more welcoming environment for employees, and it helps you make better, more well-informed decisions and adds more dimension to the business.
We’re always working on improving, and the diversity makeup of our leadership team and our business as a whole will continue to improve over time. We’ve made a lot of strides, and I meet with a junior level team member on a regular basis to help gain a fresh perspective on the company and discuss any questions I may have, similar to a reverse mentorship. She’s become somebody that I can be myself with and ask the hard questions. I don’t have to be afraid to get her opinion on something. Having those channels and trusted relationships to hear diverse opinions and bounce ideas off of like, “How does this sound? What am I missing here? How would you change this?” It’s been hugely beneficial for me as a leader and a person.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
It’s such a big thing, but it starts with small steps. We put a plan together. We define, and ask what does that look like? For our business, it’s striving for a diversity profile that is representative of the communities that we live and operate in. How are we going to get there? Where are we starting from right now? What do our numbers look like? What do our percentages look like? What’s an incremental improvement that we think we can make next year that’s achievable, but feels a little bit uncomfortable, feels a little bit aggressive? That’s how we set goals.
You have to set measurable goals that you can march against so that you can see progress. It takes intentionality. I think that’s the key. In addition to setting goals, you have to also be intentional about weaving those practices into everything that you do and have enough people asking the questions at the moments that matter. So when we’re hiring people across any role in the company, one thing that I’ve seen happen in our business is people asking, “Did we see enough diverse candidates?” or “What kind of diversity do we need to add to our team?”
This isn’t HRs job. Impactful change happens when everyone feels ownership for driving change, at the point of where a decision can be made, and everyone feels a responsibility to ask the questions to actually drive the change that we want to see in the business.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I don’t know how different it is. What my experience has been is I think sometimes people think CEOs sit in an ivory tower or behind a big mahogany desk or look like the move-fast-and-break-things start-up entrepreneur. There are some CEOs where that’s actually the case, but I think people would be surprised that some of the best leaders are in it with their teams — coaching, mentoring, listening, and facilitating.
I’ve learned that you need to have a tool box of leadership styles ready so that you can call upon the one needed based on the situation. When a coach is needed, a driver, a facilitator, a directive decision maker is needed. The ultimate job of a CEO is to find the right decision, not to unilaterally make all the decisions. The best leaders know they don’t know all the answers but if you have a quality team and can harness their energy effectively, you will find the right path. The art of facilitating other people’s greatness is something I practice everyday.
I spend a lot of time on team dynamics and making sure my team understands and trusts each other so that we can move fast.
I do office hours every week to hear from people at all levels in the organization. You must not be out of touch with what’s actually happening in the business. I hear it from my team who are close to it, but there’s nothing like hearing it from the seat of the front-line employees who are interacting with our customers directly. What does it feel like to be a new hire? What does it feel like to be somebody that has five years in the organization? What does it feel like to be an engineer versus a designer versus someone in operations? That is hugely beneficial for me to get that perspective. So I think really good leaders at any level, and particularly CEOs, need to have the mechanism to be in touch with people in their organization.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
At the end of the day we are all human beings. We all put our pants on the same way. We have feelings, insecurities, make mistakes, are beginners at something, and struggle with something. I can be commanding a board meeting in the morning and emptying the dishwasher, struggling with 7th grade math, caring for an elderly parent, or folding laundry in the evening. These aren’t sequential lives, they are concurrent.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
We are a business in transformation. We serve a high growth market and that means we need a certain agility and nimbleness. This means I’m still very in touch with the key inner workings of the business. I’ve got great leaders that own different areas and are driving things forward, but I’m still plugged into what we’re doing and play a role as connective tissue across the executive leadership team. We have to navigate change and make decisions quickly. I focus on the constraints. And as the constraint moves around so does what I focus on. Sometimes that means participating in tactical problem solving sessions.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Resilience, vision, and conviction are key traits. You have to have vision for where the business is headed and speak from a place of conviction to get people behind you. Resilience will take you through the downs and help you navigate the storms ahead.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find a tribe, a support system, someone or multiple people you can call on when you need them. Everyone needs a support system and an exhaust valve. You need different people in your lives for different reasons. I have a peer group of professional colleagues turned lifetime friends, and we have a text chain going that would make any reasonable person insane. It’s hard to follow, and hard to catch up if you missed a day of texts, but I know there are 6 people waiting for me to reach out. Invest in an executive coach — someone to hold you accountable to what you want to achieve in life and work, and to help you avoid the ‘drift’. And to bring more self awareness to your strengths and how to improve what holds you back. I got a coach this year after dabbling in different things and it’s been a game changer. She’s been like a mirror that I both love and hate to look into.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Being part of an organization with a mission that aligns with your values is a slam dunk for driving impact beyond the day to day work. Kin + Carta’s mission is to build a world that works better for everyone. Breaking this down:
The “build” acknowledges that we are ‘builders’. We build digital and technology solutions to support some of the largest companies’ digital transformation goals.
A world that works better means that everything we build we have a responsibility to remove bias from through diverse teams, responsible code, accessible UI, and ensuring AI and algorithms don’t propagate legacy bias.
For everyone means we will focus on ensuring the diversity profile of our business mirrors the diversity of the communities we live in.
We spend a lot of time at work, it’s important to make sure your work drives impact beyond task completion.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Wear sunscreen everyday. I think of all the careless days wasting my perfect skin. Just use a good tinted moisturizer with sunscreen on your face every single day. You will thank me.
- Everyone feels like an imposter. Every new hire group that comes into our business has asked the same question: “How did you deal with imposter syndrome”. The simple answer is, I deal with it everyday and I keep going.
- Feeling like a beginner or being uncomfortable means you are learning something new and growing. Even today I sit in some meetings soaking up everything and taking notes, and I take those learnings into the next time to build on. I hate feeling new and uncomfortable but I hate feeling bored and irritable more. The latter tells me I need to move on, the former keeps my attention and tells me something exciting is about to happen
- Move 6 days a week. I received a great book from a friend when I turned 40 — Younger Next Year. Spoiler alert: to fight the tide of age you need to keep moving. Exercise everyday is the key.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It’s so cliche but if every person did one good deed or focused on gratitude more the world would be a better place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The only way out is through.
Nothing ever goes away until it teaches you what you are supposed to learn.
I discovered Pema Chodron and Buddhist teachings about 6 years ago when I was going through a difficult transition in life. The messages calmed me and instilled in me the impermanence of absolutely everything in life — the good, the bad, the joy, the sorrow, the highs, the lows — everything flows like a river, it comes and goes. Be present, cherish the good, it won’t last. Sit with discomfort, it won’t last either. And the only way to get to the other side is to go through. You can try to short-cut but eventually you need to deal.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!
Marc Benioff and Bobbi Brown.
Two business icons living in two different business worlds doing it their way. Unapologetically authentic and forces for good.
Marc showed me how to use business as a platform for change. The responsibility and power businesses have for driving the change we want to see in the world. And how to run a large publicly traded company in an unapologetically authentic way. He has blended his own personal belief system into everything the business does and stands for.
Bobbi Brown is a serial entrepreneur and a proud mom and wife. Her clean beauty products are an extension of her and focus on accentuating our natural beauty and the imperfections that make you you, over heavy make-up that turns us into someone unrecognizable. She owns the no-make-up beauty market. Her latest business, Jones Road Beauty, is a game-changer for clean beauty and embracing the beauty you already possess. Her businesses have been built on her strengths and her beliefs. She’s fierce, real, and she’s taught me about re-invention and life starting at 50.