June 29, 2021
Kueker's Keynote

Long-term Lessons from COVID-19

Last weekend, the weather in Chicago was beautiful, and many people were out and about. Stores and restaurants were crowded, and my family and I enjoyed a street festival. I even went to a baseball game that Saturday night to watch my St. Louis Cardinals lose to the Cubs in front of a full house at Wrigley Field. Despite the less-than-ideal outcome for Cardinal fans, I had a wonderful time enjoying something “new” that was once so normal.

Yes, thankfully, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to finally be coming to an end, as even our traffic gridlock in Chicago has returned seemingly overnight. As I thought about how much I enjoyed COVID-19 “traffic” (or lack thereof), I considered what else I might miss about the last 16 months if it were to also go back to “normal.” Like all tests, I spent some time reflecting on what I can take away from this past year and a half to improve going forward.

The first lesson that was not new to me, but something that was reinforced during the pandemic is to always be transparent with my colleagues and include them in the decision-making process. 2020 posed unprecedented challenges and, at times, I felt tempted to turn inward thinking that people would appreciate “strong” leadership dictating the course of action. That would have been a terrible mistake. In truly unprecedented times with no clear path forward, I found it far more productive to admit to not having all the answers and to lean on my wonderful colleagues in trying times. Fortunately, our Why, or mission at Kenway is “To help and be helped.” I found that by being completely transparent about the situation at hand and seeking input on the path forward, even more trust was built between colleagues. In times of great uncertainty, gathering input proved to lead to not only solid decisions, but also timely ones. Going forward, I plan to continue this practice, and not only during times of crisis.

Another takeaway from last year is to always be proactive and intentional about checking in on the well-being of others. In June of last year, when the weather improved and we started going outside more, I noticed that people seemed happier and more polite to those around them. I know I felt that way, because of a greater appreciation of things that were temporarily taken from me. At work, I was very intentional about reaching out to colleagues individually to catch up and see how they were doing during quarantine. As I mentioned earlier, our Why at Kenway is “To help and be helped,” and we have a Guiding Principle to treat each individual uniquely. Even though we are no longer isolated, I plan to continue this practice of connecting with colleagues regularly with the only purpose being to see how they are doing and how I can help them. While I found this necessary during quarantine, being considerate of the well-being of our colleagues is not a practice that should wane with the virus, and I also believe that human connection gives work an even greater purpose. In having these conversations more frequently, I learned that many of us have stress and challenges that were unrelated or only loosely related to COVID, and just the act of reaching out can make a major difference in a person’s day. Given that I did not see all of my colleagues in person, even before COVID, this is a practice I plan to continue.

The third lesson I learned is that virtual work can be very beneficial for many people, and we should support hybrid work arrangements of all varieties when possible. Prior to COVID, I had never worked remotely. Not because I thought it was bad, but because the thought never crossed my mind. I enjoy working with our clients and Kenway colleagues, and I felt collaboration was both enhanced in person and provided opportunities to connect with colleagues on an ad hoc basis. All of that still holds true. In fact, my appreciation of clients and colleagues has only grown in the absence of seeing them regularly, and Kenway will again collaborate in person with clients and each other as appropriate. However, I also found great benefits of working from home at times. On some days, I’m simply more efficient, and I’m sure others feel similarly. On days where I need “heads down” time, an open office environment can be challenging. More importantly, working from my home office allowed me to spend more time with my family and be more helpful and supportive of them. I’ve learned how much I enjoy being able to pick my daughter up from school occasionally and how much that helps my wife. Going forward, I see no reason to give up these benefits completely, and I plan to support colleagues who feel similarly, just as we will support colleagues who thrive in the office daily.

Last but certainly not least, I will rely on core values – mine and those of Kenway – in all situations requiring a tough decision to be made. Kenway’s Guiding Principles center on integrity, quality, respect, and focusing on the means and not the outcomes. For so many people, the global COVID-19 pandemic was an unbelievable exercise in resilience. Nobody asked for this to happen, but I think life is about who we choose to become because of what happens to us, and will help to dictate our future.

As we emerge from the pandemic, I’ve heard many people say something to the effect of, “If we can get through this, we can accomplish anything.” While I agree, this will not be the case if we do not take the time to reflect on the many lessons learned over the past 16 months and commit to improving as an outcome of the struggle. While many aspects of pre-pandemic normalcy like baseball games and collaborating in person with colleagues have been great, I’m committed to not reverting to “normal” if normal could have been better.

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