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 Kerry Wekelo, MBA, Chief Operating Officer at Actualize Consulting, a financial services firm. Her book and program, Culture Infusion: 9 Principles for Creating and Maintaining a Thriving Organizational Culture and latest book Gratitude Infusion, are the impetus behind Actualize Consulting being named Top Company Culture by Entrepreneur Magazine, a Top Workplace by The Washington Post, and Great Place to Work-Certified. In her leadership, Kerry blends her experiences as a consultant, executive coach, award-winning author, mindfulness expert, and entrepreneur. Kerry has been featured on ABC, NBC, NPR, The New York Times, Thrive Global, SHRM, Inc., and Forbes.
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 grew up in a family business, so I’ve been immersed in a business setting for as long as I can remember. It was my grandfather’s company. Once he passed away, his kids, including my mom, stepped in to save the firm. During that transitional period, I have seen first-hand how stressful things can get in times of crisis and learned just how sensitive certain matters can become. From that, I learned not only how to pivot out of challenging situations, but also how resiliency can get you anywhere in life. I personally feel my upbringing has made me a better person and given me a strong work ethic. Now, I feel like I am well equipped as I help lead Actualize.
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?
When I was in college, my mom encouraged me to pursue an accounting internship. I was never really interested in accounting, so I was miserable the whole time! I just didn’t have an interest in it and on top of that, I wasn’t very good. I learned that everyone will have opinions and suggestions on what you “should” do, but you need to only take them with a grain of salt and follow your own desires and passions first. If anything, it was great experience and I learned what career I did not want. I gained a newfound appreciation for accountants!
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?
John Harvey was one of the members of the board of advisors here at Actualize. We no longer have this board, but he continued to be a mentor to me personally and has always seen potential in me. He has guided me through each challenge and helped me become the leader I am today. He has even helped out with our family business.
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?
Our vision is to be niche, specialized, and strive for client satisfaction. Our focus on our people and their well-being has made this vision possible. When you have happy employees, they show up each day ready to do great work and it shows in each and every client interaction.
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?
Actualize’s finance manager of thirteen years quit with only two weeks’ notice. She was a key employee in our organization and we had become dependent on her. Even though I was working to document and streamline her responsibilities, I was not at a good spot for her to leave so quickly. To amplify the stress I was already facing, accounting is my least favorite aspect of the business. I had to deal with my own personal hurt (because I trusted her), quickly pivot and hire a new manager, and ensure coverage to make sure everyone got paid and that we paid our invoices on time. This loss was felt throughout our whole organization and many employees had to step in and help. We got through it by focusing on gratitude for what was going right and our small wins throughout the weeks. We started an email chain of “Inward, Outward, Wins” where we share inward gratitude (something we are grateful for about ourselves), outward gratitude (something we are grateful for about others) and wins (successes we had). Without that positivity, it would have been hard to push through.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have never considered giving up… for numerous reasons. I grew up in a family business that regularly had to push through challenges; that taught me that hard work can get you through any crisis. My childhood best friend passed from cancer at age 17; that taught me that life is fleeting and you have to cherish every moment, even the hard times. If she can have a positive attitude while she is facing terminal illness, I know I can keep a positive attitude through any challenge I face. My grandfather even had a school named after him because of the way he cared for others and encouraged them to be their best. What a legacy! With these three reasons in the back of my mind, giving up has never been an option and it sustains me as I keep tackling my goals.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Always, but especially during turbulent times, a leader needs to act as an example. Everyone looks to the leader first, so it is important to remain calm and set a positive tone for the organization to follow. Be open in communication and keep an open-door policy where employees can come to you with any struggles they are facing. Trust and respect are invaluable in times of crisis.
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?
With everyone working remotely in the pandemic, team connection is as important as ever. Foster team bonding with virtual activities and check-ins. Ask how everyone is doing at the beginning of meetings and spend time connecting instead of getting straight to business. Share employee accomplishments in a newsletter. Try to help encourage a sense of comradery in the virtual office that gets everyone excited to collaborate with one another and provides some social interaction. It will make a world of difference in morale!
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honesty is always the best policy. Whether it is good or bad news to share, stay open in communication with the firm. Try to keep things to the point and concise, and of course be empathetic with what you do share. Hearing the difficult news from leadership is much better than speculation and hearsay.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When the future is unpredictable, it is better to break goals down in to bite-size chunks. For example, instead of planning for a year into the future, try smaller 3-month or 6-month goals.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Ensure a proper work/life balance. When people take care of themselves and their own needs, they are better able to show up for each task in their life. Parenting, team leadership, and relationships are all reflective of how well we are taking care of ourselves. If we are stressed at home, we bring that to work and vice versa. Encourage every employee to do things that light them up and bring them joy — it will help them “reset” and feel refreshed. Self-care should always be at the fore-front of everyone’s mind. When employers encourage self-care, they are encouraging the peace and well-being of each employee.
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?
- Not being open in your communication: Sometimes, firms think it is best to only communicate essential news. But when you don’t communicate regularly with those at your firm, it can lead to speculation and even anxiety for employees. Strive to over-communicate when possible.
- Not checking in: As a leader, it incredibly important for you to have a pulse on everyone in the firm and what is going on in their lives. People should feel safe to come to leadership with any struggle they are facing to ensure it gets resolved. You can encourage an environment of accountability and empathy by caring about each employee at the individual level. If your firm is too big to do so, delegate people to check in with different teams.
- Sugarcoating: when it comes to giving news, you need to be as clear as possible and avoid making things sound better just to save face. Chances are, the news will come out eventually and people will be upset if it doesn’t match what they have been told.
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?
Understanding what your clients and customers need is incredibly important — it can help you shift your current offerings to be dynamic to industry needs. Reach out to ask how you can help support them in their transition during turbulent times. It is likely they will appreciate you checking in and accommodating their needs, keeping bonds strong.
Internally, do a deep dive of operations and what you can cut — I’m not talking about the people on your team, I’m talking about different software that you might not need anymore. For example, our director of human resources looked at our existing relationships with all vendors, systems, agreements, and current methods used internally to see where we can save or reallocate funds. Even small savings really add up.
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.
- Keep open communication: With the state of the economy at the start of the pandemic, people at Actualize were feeling very uncertain about their employment status. Many companies were laying people off and furloughing, which can be very unsettling for everyone who relies on a paycheck to feed their families. No matter what you have to do to keep your business afloat, it is important to make sure your employees are aware of big picture decisions being made. Actualize is very lucky that we still had new business coming in and that we did not yet need to think about reducing our team. We sent out a firm-wide letter from leadership to make sure everyone was aware of this — it was a collective deep breath for many of our employees, especially our newer hires who were feeling stressed.
- Share gratitude: It is so easy to get swept up in negativity during uncertain times. Our annual retreat got cancelled, so instead of giving verbal, in-person gratitude, I opted to make a video for each person on our team describing my appreciation in detail. In return, my teams even made two videos for me!
- Encourage Team Connection: The phrase “The team that plays together, stays together” is very accurate. When your team is connected and having fun, they build trust and feel safe. There are many ways to do this, but one example at Actualize is scheduling “mindful breaks” or monthly themed video calls that are not centered around a work-related topic. We have done virtual yoga, cooking classes, and more!
- Share empathy and understanding: You never know what someone else is going through. Be sure to check in regularly with each person on your immediate team and let them know you are there for them no matter what the issue is. For example, some employees were having trouble balancing taking care of their kids at the start of the pandemic. I helped them define a new schedule that would work better and even gave tips from my own experience working remotely with young children.
- Allow Humor: Some people have different ways of coping with trauma. Humor is one of these methods that we found success. We now have a Google Group dedicated to jokes and memes where people can post and share funny stories, videos, and photos. It might not seem like a major addition to our firm, but it does allow for some fun and reminds us that there is always light in the darkness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they are supposed to help you discover who you are.” — Bernice Johnson Reagon. No matter what life deals you, you can rise above and learn from every challenge that strikes. There are valuable lessons that come out of every challenging time. For example, in the midst of the pandemic, we saw people focusing on what truly matters, like time with your family.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I send out regular tips, stories, and ideas on my email list. If you’d like to be placed on it, you can shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also use that email to contact me with any questions or comments! Otherwise, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @kerrywekelo or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerryelam/
You can check out my wellness company, Zendoway, here: http://www.zendoway.com/