March 30, 2021
Kueker's Keynote

Honest Leadership

For some time, I’ve found it difficult to escape the divisive politics dominating state and national news, and coming across my inbox, television and other social media channels. As I listen, I can’t help but think to myself, “Why are we so divided across party lines, and how did we get to this point?”

This is a complex issue decades in the making, and not one that I’m particularly qualified to solve. However, as a voter and business leader, I do feel that I can comment on what I believe to be a consistent lack of leadership on both sides of the aisle that has contributed to the severity of the current political landscape. More specifically, I believe that too many politicians focused on near-term elections tell their constituents what they want to hear in the moment, rather than what they truly believe is right for the long-term health of their region, state or country. This has led to too many political leaders shifting stances on policies and getting caught speaking out of both sides of their mouths. All of this has made it difficult for many to trust political leadership, thereby leading to further division.

While business leaders – Kenway leadership included – are far from perfect, I know many companies that do a great job of instilling trust in employees. And, at Kenway, I believe we build trust by being completely transparent and honest in the seemingly “small moments,” so that employees trust us in “the big moments.”

2020 was a tough year full of “big moments” that put leadership to the test, and it can offer some insights into building trust. For many, being honest in all of the “small moments” is easier said than done. Fortunately at Kenway, our Guiding Principles are the foundation that supports us, and they serve as a beacon to guide us through both small and big moments.

A few of the Guiding Principles on which we leaned heavily in 2020 were, “To communicate swiftly and effectively through all channels, at all levels, internally and externally, whether sharing positive or constructive news,” and, “To focus on the means and not the outcomes, always in line with our Guiding Principles and always with integrity as our cornerstone.” Further, we make it a point to take time at company meetings and other forums to literally play back the decision-making process in some of the moments, both small and big, that come up over the course of the year. We open up to employees about why certain decisions were made and seek their opinions about what could have been done differently. By doing this, we may not always agree but, far more often that not, we gain a common understanding that leads to trust.

Even with this solid foundation of trust, 2020 still posed substantial challenges for us. April and May saw significant drops in booked business, and a once robust pipeline shrink and stall for several months. But because of our existing foundation of trust, we were able to communicate frequently with employees via many channels, and I think two key themes particularly helped to navigate rough waters: balance and seeking help.

Regarding balance, in tough times, it is important to communicate the honest realities of the situation, but with optimism that we will prevail. This balance, in particular, is an area where I believe our political leaders can improve. Leadership should not simply tell people what they think they want to hear with overly simplified messaging. Instead, assuming leaders respect their employees, constituents, stakeholders, etc., I believe they owe them the full truth, even if it may cost them a drop in popularity.

The other key theme I referenced was seeking help, which is in our DNA at Kenway. Our “Why,” or mission, is “To Help and Be Helped.” With trust between leadership and employees, we have great comfort in admitting when we do not have all of the answers. 2020 posed unprecedented challenges, and Kenway has the greatest people, so why not seek their help in navigating some of these tough situations?

We have put this to practice many times over the years, including involving the whole company in writing our Vision. Again, my experience has led me to believe that too many politicians think that voters expect them to have every single answer to every question, which is not possible. Even worse, they try to build confidence by making bold statements of opinion masked as if they were fact. Best case scenario, this makes leaders seem out of touch, and worst case, can lead to eventually changing positions which can seem like lying. Especially in times of uncertainty, I believe a far better path to trust is to admit the situation is changing rapidly and seek help by inviting various opinions. This is a strong signal to stakeholders that leaders are trusting, which will make it more likely for others to give trust in return.

In order for people to follow leadership, they first must trust leadership. This trust is built by inviting collaboration and then allowing for an open and honest exchange of ideas and thoughts that actually lead to healthy debate. If leaders trust employees with open, honest and balanced communication and seek their help in the decision-making process, they will then be rewarded with trust and support even when employees do not agree with some of the decisions being made.

Trust is a two-way street, and I’ve found it most successful when leadership makes the first move.

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