Episode 94: Cultivating a Culture of Success—with Kerry Wekelo

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. In this episode, we're going to talk about culture. We're going to talk about how you within your consulting business can make decisions about, take action on, and sustain the culture that you most want to have. Now I brought somebody on who does this at a firm. Kerry Wekelo is the COO of Actualize Consulting. And they just keep winning awards for being a fabulous place to work. They just got one from the Washington Post for being one of the top places to work. She talks about how they very, very deliberately do things to ensure that they're investing in their people, and they have the right culture and how that helps them from a business perspective.

Now if you're an independent consultant, what we talk about today also relates to you because there are things that you can do within your consulting business to mirror some of what we talk about. But if you are at a firm or you are thinking of starting a firm, this is a must-listen because this can help give you the guidance of how to ensure that you have a culture that's actually feeding your business goals. And if you put a number of other things in place, which she also talks about, that's going to set you up for success. So let's get started.

I want to welcome my guest today, Kerry Wekelo. Kerry, Welcome to the show.

Kerry Wekelo: Thanks for having me.

Deb Zahn: I'm very excited to have you here because you are part of a firm that sounds like it just keeps winning awards for best places to work, and I think there are so many lessons there. But say a little bit about what you do in the firm that you work with.

Kerry Wekelo: Well, I work for Actualize Consulting. I'm our Chief Operating Officer. I've been with Actualize for 15 years. And out of those 15 years, 10 years I've been very focused on our culture. Putting our people first. Creating programs that allow us to be a place that people want to come to work each and every day.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And how did you get to that personally, in terms of your past experience, And what brought you to the place where culture is one of the main things you focus on?

Kerry Wekelo: I've always been more focused on people in general. And the first five years we were busy setting up Actualize operationally, making sure that we're financially stable as an organization. And then I just realized that being more of a specialty firm, we are financial services advisors. More on the consulting business process systems. Implementations. And so focused...I mean, our people are basically our business. That's how we make money, and we weren't focused on them. And I just had this aha moment that needed to be the focus, and luckily the partners agreed to it. That's just what I've been focused on for the last 10 years.

Deb Zahn: So, from a business perspective, obviously you're in the business of making business as a consulting firm. But what do you see specifically that “focus on your people” does to help the financial solvency and growth of your consulting firm?

Kerry Wekelo: Well, it does a few things. I'd say the number one aspect is the loyalty of our people. When they know that we really, truly care about their career growth, and what they're aspiring to do. Those are the conversations that we have with them each year. And actually, we do those conversations twice a year because we do reviews and bonuses twice a year, which I really think helps us keep in touch with our people because six months goes by pretty quickly. And sometimes what I've found is that people, what they want and what they're aspiring to do, it's going to change year-to-year based on their circumstances. So really having that check-in and supporting them. Maybe they want to get promoted this year. OK, let's work on a plan. Let's make sure that we're supporting you with your goals. Maybe they just got a new puppy. Or a new cat. Or had a baby. And they're like, "You know what? I just want to focus on my client work this year." And that's totally fine as well. So that understanding of each person at an individual level, I think is really key.

That's what I've heard over and over that people feel like it's more of a family versus this really cutthroat corporate environment. That their voice is heard. And we talked to our people a lot about, “What do you think we should be doing to grow the business? What do you think we should be doing differently? Internally? Operationally with our clients?” So we really do listen to their advice and feedback as well. And they're really a part of the growth of the company. So between making sure that they are getting what they need personally and in their career and then allowing them to be a part of our growth. It really helps them with their loyalty. And you know they're jazzed up about coming to work every day because they're making a difference and people want to make a difference. They really do.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And if they're jazzed about coming to work, that then translates to how they engage with a client. And one of the other huge benefits I see of it is...so I've been at a firm before. And I know lots of folks, lots of consultants that are in them. The time it takes to onboard someone new because you lost other people. That's reduced revenue because it's going to take them a while to get cooking and figure out if they're a fit. Figure out how they're going to get clients and all of that good stuff. So that continuity from a business perspective, I think makes a lot of sense. And you've obviously been working for 15 years figuring out the secret sauce. But let me ask this. So culture isn't a single thing. You obviously have to make decisions about what type of culture that you want to have. And it sounds like you make very deliberate decisions, which makes me happy.

So how did you decide that? Especially because I know you're in a few different geographies. So even the culture within those geographies is different. So how did you say, “This is who we are”?

Kerry Wekelo: Well, that's a really good question. And I'd say that if you focus on even different cultures...I mean, like for instance, we have an office in the UK and it definitely is different. But the more you listen to your people and you really ask them what they need and want, you can figure it out quite easily.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kerry Wekelo: I think it's really just investing the time. And even like word choices can be different. I mean, I know when we first opened our UK office, there was a disconnect. Somebody said “appreciate,” but that didn't mean like, I appreciate you. It meant like I didn't understand.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Kerry Wekelo: This person was super mad. “I didn't appreciate you saying that.” And she's like, "What did he mean?" And I was like, "You should ask him." And he was like, "No, that means I don't understand." So that's why I always go back to like, "Don't get riled up about something unless you really have asked the person what did they mean? And let's get some clarification around it." So that's one of my favorite U.K. stories.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's a great story. And how do you get that? So I know that part of what you do is you decide ahead of time and then you do different, very specific things to borrow your word. To infuse culture throughout the organization. So what are some of those very specific things you do to infuse the culture that ultimately you want?

Kerry Wekelo: So definitely we've already talked about our goals and our performance review process. Really aligning those goals to performance. I think that's number one, for sure. We're also very focused on our personal wellness of our teams and making sure that we're doing activities year-round that encourage being balanced. And really just being as good a person both physically, mentally, and nourishing your body with the right things. Whether it be food or even what are you looking at from a social media perspective. Or news. Even more this year. Really being more selective. So we do a lot around that. And going back to that word infusion. It's a constant thing. I'd say we also do a lot especially with this year and the pandemic. We have been doing more virtual events to keep our teams connected at an individual level. From comedy to cooking to...we even had a magician come in.

So I think it's like you have this business side. But then how are you making sure that you're OK as a person? I really think it sets us apart, for sure. So that's really key as well. And then providing that intentional leadership where we are leading by example and being our best as a leadership team. And all of us are on the same page. And allowing open communication. That's another huge one. We constantly are communicating what's going on with our organization. Through newsletters. Through emails. Through all hands calls. And I think especially with your workplace being in lots of different areas and now we're 100% remote, that's really critical as well.

Deb Zahn: And so for some folks who have either been at firms or they only know what they've seen on TV, this might sound like the wild west of startups. Silicon Valley. Ping pong tables. Ideation rooms. All of that stuff which personally sounds very cool to me. How do you take that? What I think is really important is grounded in wellness. And people being able to bring their whole selves to work with accountability. Because I think people think it's an either or. And I definitely don't. So how do you play with those two things to get them in the right proportions?

Kerry Wekelo: Well, that's actually one of our biggest principles is accountability. And that's being...So let's say you want to be promoted this year. OK, I'm going to be accountable for giving you the opportunity. Making sure that you have the support you need, but you also need to be accountable for what you signed up to do without a ton of hand holding. So we will provide you the support that you need, but you also have to be accountable. And the other thing too, like for us, we are billable. Our consultants are billable. We call it utilization. And if you aren't fully utilized, being accountable to helping out on internal initiatives as well. So we have this very open door, fun culture. But in the same sense, we also are expecting you to be accountable as well. So I think you have to have that as one of your founding principles if you really want people to be serious about it and the people that are accountable and take charge, they're the ones who are going to be the higher performers.

Deb Zahn: That's right. So you can have a great time, but you got to get stuff done.

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly. It's a balance.

Deb Zahn: And I know you have other principles that...again, I love because I read an article you wrote about them. They're not just fluffy principles. They are very clear and actionable. Say what the other ones are, and what that means for the biz.

Kerry Wekelo: OK. So we talked about intentional leadership and prioritizing your personal balance. I also have one on like work-life balance. And I think that...I know I've gotten some slack on the word balance. But I do believe you can have balance because it's going to always be teetering. So it's just if you're mindful about it, aligning your goals and your performance together, serving your people, and encouraging team connection. I might have missed one, but those are the majority of them.

Deb Zahn: Those are great. And then how do you know if folks are responding to them? Or if there's concern or confusion? How do you keep track of it so you know what needs care and feeding?

Kerry Wekelo: Right. So in the goal template that you do each year, and then when we check in on performances, there's actually a self-reflection piece at the beginning that you fill out at the beginning of the year, mid-year and at the end of the year. I used to send out like a year-end survey. And I keep tweaking things along the way but I felt like it was more powerful for me to check in with people. Like if it's going to be in their actual goal templates and their performance reviews, they're probably going to spend a little bit more time on it versus if I just send out a survey. So we're asking things like how can I better support you? What ideas do you have that can help improve Actualize in general? What are the roadblocks that you're facing?

So we're asking them to really reflect on what they need and want, what's going well, and what could we be doing better. And that's where I get a lot of nuggets. And then throughout the year I do send out surveys if I have specific questions. If I'm sitting in my office, wondering about what people think, I'm just going to ask. And I'll send out a one or two question survey so it's not overwhelming. And I find that that's where I get most of my information and it continues to support our firm.

I also do...I mean, we're under a 100 people too, so I do have this luxury. But I do check in with people. If I haven't talked to somebody in six months, I make a point. I have like a little tickler of when I've talked to people. And I find those one-on-one times is when I can really find out what might not be going 100%. And right now, I have two people that are working on...They're like, "We had this idea on how to better manage projects." So they're working on what that might look like. I'm like, "Great, sounds perfect." That was their idea. I would have not known that unless I was doing those one-on-one conversations.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Democratize good ideas.

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful.

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: And then how do skills fit in? So there's the what they want, what they desire, roadblocks. Things like that, that you may be able to work on or things that will help them. But then, there's also the skill part, which obviously mastery matters tremendously to people. So how do you help them with that?

Kerry Wekelo: Right. And that's actually part of what their goals are... And we use the word acumen on how you are strengthening that. We also give them a $2,000 training budget each year to...I mean, they used to go to conferences. Now everything's virtual. But do you want to get another certification? Do you want to go to a class? Do you want to learn a new skill? So we really are focused on that.

And then, depending upon which projects people are on, there might be some specialized training that they need. We also internally have a lot more on the softer skills like consulting skills. Like what does it take to be an excellent consultant? And we have programs that we're constantly...Pretty much monthly we have a new theme that we'll roll out. And I just basically choose those themes based on what I'm seeing within the organization and go from there. Like for example, what are some ways you can increase your clients’ satisfaction?

Deb Zahn: That's a good one.

Kerry Wekelo: Yeah. And I feel like it's shifted a bit with everything going on. So it was just a good way to say, "OK, let's try to continue moving our clients forward, like we've been trying to do."

Deb Zahn: That's right. And during COVID, it's going to look a little different. They may need and want different things. But you don't just stop and wait.

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And then, because I love all of this and I imagine...so the partner said yes at the beginning. How have they been involved throughout the process so that they see that this investment is worth it and worth continuing?

Kerry Wekelo: Well, our turnover's been less than 4% for the last four years. We have gotten certified as a top place to work by the Washington Post as a great place to work. And then, we just got another award called the Best and Brightest. So I think they're seeing things like that. They're seeing how invested our people are in their projects. And actually, even though we're 17 years as an organization, we still are very entrepreneurial. So they see that coming out, and, for them, they trust it and they've seen how successful it continues to allow us to be.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Yes. I noticed, I think from the last time I looked at your website to this time, there's a new award. I'm like, "Oh, they got another award." That's wonderful.

Kerry Wekelo: Yeah. And the other thing too, is that it helps on the recruiting side as well. People want to come work for our firm. I used to have to sell it a lot more. I don't really now at all because it's out there. You see our culture. It's right in your face when you look us up.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And there is sadly so much to contrast it with because a lot of what you're describing, which I think sounds intuitive if you want to invest in people which comprise your organization and your business strategy. These are all really smart things to do. But it doesn't sound like a lot of the ways that firms, whether they're boutique or a little bit bigger, tend to operate. So if you were talking to someone who is thinking, "I'm going to be a consultant. Or I'm going to start up my small boutique firm with me and a few other people, and we're going to grow and it's going to be great." At the very beginning, what would be the advice you would give them to start off on the right foot?

Kerry Wekelo: I would come to agreement on how do you want your firm. The vision of...and so for instance, for us. It was like that we were going to be very specialized in a few markets. Capital markets. Treasury. Mortgage and fixed income. And we've been laser focused on that. So that was our initial. And then we said, "OK..." Five years later, we're like, "OK, but we're going to really focus on our people." And everything is centered around that. And if you agree on that upfront and you just kind of put all your programs around your vision and keep it very tight, I think it just makes it easier to make decisions.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. If I had a T-shirt it would be “You will succeed if you focus.” Because what I see, and I'm sure you've seen a lot, is the desire is to be everything to everyone. Because you think that's how you're going to get business. But if you do that, you burn yourself out. You burn your people out. You don't deliver excellence. You don't build a reputation. I mean, it's a domino effect that I think leads to unsustainability across many, many domains. So I think that's wonderful. And as you've grown, have you had to change any of the ways that you've done things? Because now you're at another plateau and you're looking at whatever the next one is going to be?

Kerry Wekelo: Luckily, I have a consulting mindset, and I'm very big on business processes. I'm overly focused on streamlining our operations. So we've really leveraged technology. I'd say to help keep us very lean internally but using...We were very early adopters of the cloud. Like we've never had servers or anything like that. I mean, we adopted that super...As soon as we could. That's what we were using. Those technologies. And now, we're going into using Fintech. Robotics Process Automation. So we're constantly looking at how we can be most innovative from a technology perspective. And buttoned up from operationally is like, "Is this the best use of our time?" So we really...we're consultants. This is what we do for our clients, but we also do it internally. And I think it's an advantage that that was my background. That I had that consulting background.

Deb Zahn: Well, and you haven't fallen prey to the cobbler's children has no shoes.

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: Wait a minute, we do this with our clients. Perhaps we should do this with ourselves. I love that. So is there anything, if you were again giving advice to folks just starting out, anything you'd flat out tell them do not do this?

Kerry Wekelo: Oh, goodness. It wouldn't be do not do this. It would be, is this the most efficient way I can set this up? Have I done my due diligence? Have I done my research? And just treating any decision you're making internally as if you were a client and you would...say you want to implement a new system internally. Let's say like customer relationship management. Your CRM tool. Have you done your due diligence? What is going to be the most cost effective, streamlined way you can implement it? And do an RFP. Like do a request for a proposal. Be very intentional about every decision that you make internally.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And I love the idea of “treat yourself as you would treat one of your clients.” Because you wouldn't ever just...well, no good consultant would ever just pick something randomly for their clients. They would do the due diligence. That's great.

Now I want to ask you my question about balance. But because what you do with your firm is so unique, I want to ask it in two ways. So I want to start with, what are some of the things that you promote among your consultants to help them have balance? And then, I'll ask about you personally.

Kerry Wekelo: I'd say my top way that I promote it is when I am speaking with people. And I talk about this a lot. What are you doing for yourself each day? And sometimes people will say, "I don't have time to do anything for myself. I have kids. I have family. I have this work." I get so many excuses. So I always say, "Well, then take five minutes for yourself." And what I've found over the years is that five minutes are like, "Oh, OK. I can squeeze in the time." And then it gets more and more. So I always go back to, what are you doing for yourself? Because if you aren't fulfilled personally, it's going to be hard for you to show up as your best self. So that's pretty much my go-to that I coach people on, for sure.

Deb Zahn: I love that. Because I think people think they have to have big chunks of time, which you don't. You can do little chunks. My husband found me out on the back porch standing and just staring forward. He came out and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm taking five minutes to look at some trees." And, he thought it was…

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: ...odd. But he got it.

Kerry Wekelo: That's exactly what I'm talking about. Taking that time to reflect. Just do you. For sure.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Now what do you do personally that brings balance to your life?  However it is you define that. And I like balance by the way, so we're allowed to say the B word.

Kerry Wekelo: Thank you. I'd say my number one is that movement is my go-to. If I'm feeling a little wonky, if I go for a walk. A run. Do some yoga. Just do anything to move my body. That always brings me back into balance. And that's my go-to. It's easy for me.

Deb Zahn: I love it. And it is something you could do quickly and anywhere you are.

Kerry Wekelo: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you could do 20 jumping jacks if you're...I ran a really big pinch.

Deb Zahn: All right. So this is a challenge for everybody listening. 20 jumping jacks. Right after the show.

But I also wanted to ask you...because I think we talked about this when we first spoke. So the word balance has gotten a bad rap recently. And I find that frustrating. I will be honest. Because I think the notion that things just happen naturally in the worlds that most of us live in is...I don't think it's realistic. And so to me, balance is a verb. And I need to know it's a verb because I need to know that I can do things. And that it's my responsibility to do things to create either integration or the proportions I want. But why do you think it's gotten such a bad rap recently?

Kerry Wekelo: I'm really happy to hear you say it because I just did another version of my culture and fusion. I was going to change it. But then I was like, "I'm not changing it because I do believe you can create balance." It's on you. It is a verb. I totally agree. And I think...I don't really know why, honestly. And I've done a lot of thinking about it. I think people are like, "Oh, you need to make sure that you can kind of compartmentalize things a little bit more." But I don't believe that either. I believe you need to show up the same way everywhere. So I don't really get it honestly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I was talking to someone about it recently and her point was she's got kids. She's got responsibilities. And she said, "If I don't think about it in terms of balancing, then everything goes haywire." And so I was describing to her another conversation I had with someone who doesn't believe in balance. And it's all just integration in life. And her question was, "Ask him who does his laundry because I assure you it's not him."

Kerry Wekelo: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: And I thought, "Oh, so there might be a secret behind not necessarily worrying about balance." And that is that there are other folks around you either by default or by delivering design that are picking things up for you. But truthfully, I think those are balanced actions as well.

Kerry Wekelo: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: I have a virtual assistant. She helps bring balance to my life. And she helps me focus on the aspects of my business that only I can do. But that's a balancing exercise.

Kerry Wekelo: It absolutely is.

Deb Zahn: OK. We need the t-shirt.

Kerry Wekelo: Yes. It’s important that we have that.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Kerry Wekelo: Yes. I think balance and focus.

Deb Zahn: I think if it's balance and focus, we've got like the key part of the formula right there.

Kerry Wekelo: I think you're good.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's wonderful. Well, Kerry, thank you so much for joining me on the show. This has been so helpful and I will tell you, I worked for a firm. I worked for a very good firm that cared about its people, but how you're describing how deliberate you are with creating a culture that people are so happy that they're willing to stay with it and serve their clients well. It just makes my heart sing. So I was so delighted to hear about how you did it.

Kerry Wekelo: Aw, well, thanks for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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