Creating a Thriving Culture with Kerry Wekelo

Kerry Wekelo is the Chief Operating Officer at Actualize Consulting, a financial services consulting firm. She is an award-winning author, mindfulness expert, and entrepreneur. Her book and program called “Culture Infusion” is the impetus behind Actualize Consulting being named Top Company Culture by Entrepreneur Magazine, a Top Workplace by The Washington Post, and a “Great Place to Work-Certified” organization. Kerry has been featured on ABC, NBC, NPR, The New York Times, and Thrive Global among others, and her most recent book is called “Gratitude Infusion: Workplace Strategies for a Thriving Organizational Culture.”





Inside this Episode:

  • Identifying Cultural Red Flags
  • Building Thriving Cultures at a Distance
  • The Importance of Commitment and Consistency in Culture
  • Building Connections with Remote Teams
  • Creating a Gratitude-Focused Organization
  • Why Gratitude Starts at the Top
  • A No-Cost Approach to Creating Energy and Enthusiasm
  • The Power of Questions in Creating Organizational Self-Awareness
  • To Grow Your Company, Grow Your People
  • Bringing Mindfulness Into Your Organization

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John Ryan
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 44. Welcome everybody. In today's episode, we'll be talking about how to create a thriving culture with Kerry Wekelo. We'll be discussing creating a gratitude focused organization, importance of commitment and consistency and culture, and why gratitude starts at the top and much, much more.

John Ryan 0:22
Leadership is about vision. It's about creating a vision and sharing that vision with others in a way that inspires them to walk with you towards its fulfillment. Along the way, leaders encourage, motivate, guide and even challenge people to bring their best each and every day. And it's all done through conversations. That's what this show is about better conversations for better leaders.

John Ryan 0:45
Hey, everybody, and welcome to key conversations for leaders. I'm your host, John Ryan, and today we have a very special guest, Kerry Wekelo. Kerry is the Chief Operating Officer at actualized consulting a financial services consulting firm. She's an award winning author, mindfulness expert and entrepreneur. Her book and program called culture infusion is the impetus behind actualized consulting being named the top company culture by Entrepreneur Magazine, a top workplace by the Washington Post and a great place to work certified organization, Kerry has been featured in the ABC, NBC, NPR, The New York Times, among many others. And her most recent book is called the gratitude infusion, workplace strategies for thriving organizational culture. Kerry, thanks so much for being here.

Kerry Wekelo 1:26
I'm excited to be here. Thank you.

John Ryan 1:28
And I wanted to start by asking you what led you to make organizational culture your focus?

Kerry Wekelo 1:35
It really was out of pure need. Honestly, I found myself after the first five years at actualize, not being personally happy and my job and then also facing high turnover, we had 33% turnover. So after looking at that, it was like, you know, how can I want to stay with the organization, I had already invested a lot in helping build out the company, and made the decision to focus on our people, I didn't have a big plan. But focusing on your feet, people first and foremost, that was that was the first start to the culture piece.

John Ryan 2:12
So that was the interest in that 33%. I mean, that's it, that's a huge cost. I mean, I imagine if you look at from an organizational perspective, that could be something that could really cause it to go under it because of the recruiting costs of the training, development, cost loss productivity, are those some of the things that people really need to be aware about, and think about in terms of the problem with culture and retention?

Kerry Wekelo 2:34
Absolutely. And also, you have to think about it, as well, as you know, not only are these costs, but the, especially as a consulting company, we're going from project to project and if we're constantly getting people up to speed is always gonna hurt our reputation as well. Whereas if we have people that have been with the firm for years and years, they're going from project to project, they understand how we work as an organization, and they're bringing our brand to light in a very positive way. So I mean, not only it can hurt your brand recognition as well, honestly.

John Ryan 3:11
So obviously, retention, as you mentioned, is a pretty big red flag for there's a problem in the culture. What are some of the other red flags that leaders and business owners should be looking for? To let them know there's there could be a culture problem.

Kerry Wekelo 3:24
So many of what we were just talking about a disengagement when I was thinking about it, if people aren't engaged, or not providing a high level of enthusiasm to what they're doing on a day to day basis. That is definitely a red flag. I know. Now, it's harder to have events. But we're having virtual events, if you have low participation and activities as well, and people aren't engaging in those types of more team connection. That's another red flag, in my opinion.

John Ryan 3:58
So disengagement and participation, to become aware of that, like, how do you Is it really just simply being in tune with your employees and watching and observing and being engaged yourself? Is that part of the solution?

Kerry Wekelo 4:11
Yes. And that's something that I really spend a lot of time is, is on that engagement, and really making sure that I'm connected with our people and more of an individual level, and we're under 100 people. So that makes it easier for me. But still, if you're a big organization, you can still be very engaged with your team. Right? So I think that's really important, especially in the times that we're in now, that engagement is more important than ever.

John Ryan 4:41
What advice would you give to leaders who are struggling to get people to be engaged and participatory in the culture during the pandemic that we're going through?

Kerry Wekelo 4:52
It's tough because you know, we have people, a realm of things. Some people have their kids in school, some people their kids Home, maybe you're dealing with family members that you're taking care of. So what I always do with engagement is I like to have lots of different opportunities for people to stay connected as a team. So you can't just say, Oh, I'm going to have this one virtual event. And I'm good, I checked that box. It really, and that's why I use the word infusion, you have to provide many opportunities, and a variety of opportunities to connect with your people, whether that's been virtual team building events, we've done cooking, we've done fitness classes, we've done yoga, we've even had magician comedians come in.

Kerry Wekelo 5:38
And it's interesting, nice, some people come to all the events, right. But then you get pockets of people that are interested in different things, we also will have more small group discussions with our partners, just to connect, I try to do small group sessions with each of the different teams just to ask them how they're doing. And to show that, that we care. So I think right now, that more empathy, showing you care, and asking if there's any accommodations that might be needed, that's gonna go a long way to help connect with your people.

John Ryan 6:14
So it sounds like you really have to put this at the forefront of the priority for a youth organization and make it part of the culture to have these events, activities, things to really bring people together. Does that in itself, you know, infuse the sense of gratitude? Or is that a different approach all the other like, how does one go about, you know, creating a culture, that's gratitude focused?

Kerry Wekelo 6:38
Sure. That's absolutely part of it, because you're grateful and bringing people together to connect. But what we really do is, it's more and again, going back to the word infusion, it's something that we do on a regular basis, and a variety of ways. So for example, we have a newsletter that goes out, sometimes it goes out once a month, sometimes it goes out twice a month, it just depends on how much we need to communicate.

Kerry Wekelo 7:04
And that's another thing is making sure during these times you're over communicating the status of your organization, making sure that people feel stable, as well. But in this newsletter, we have, we do what we're grateful for, for people, we have appreciation, we have kudos from the client. And when I started doing it, it would just be a tiny little section. And now it's amazing people are sending in all this gratitude. So we just kind of started small, and it just trickled trickled out into the organization. So that's one thing that we do, we do star player key player awards, which we'll announce internally, and you can recognize your peer, maybe you're on a project with somebody and they're doing such a good job, they helped you meet a big deadline, you can nominate them to get this award. And not only do we announce it internally, we also announce it on social media as well. So you know, a parent or a loved one could see that they did a really good job at work. So it's recognizing them outside of work as well. And I think that just shows how grateful you are for for your, for your people. And there's many other things we do. But those are the kind of the top two, for sure.

John Ryan 8:22
So you having gratitude as part of the leadership team and managers and owners, and then also having structures in place to have recognition and appreciation? And is this part of that chain reaction that you often talk about in terms of the gratitude and how it kind of goes throughout the culture? And what does that like for most organizations?

Kerry Wekelo 8:44
Right? I think because gratitude is so easy, and it doesn't cost anything, it doesn't take a lot of time. And it feels good, right? And the research shows that gratitude can be one of the quickest ways you can pivot if let's say you're having a bad day, you can pivot and feel better. So not only does it feel good, you know, to you, it feels good to give it back, right. So being on that giving side of it. And that's what I've seen in the organization. And I'll give you an example. When COVID hit and we were coming up on our annual retreat where we bring all of our offices together. It's everybody loves it, because we're not we're a consulting company. So even when we are in the office, we're usually at different sites.

Kerry Wekelo 9:35
And then we have, you know, multiple locations as well across the US and internationally. Well, when that got canceled. I was pretty bummed because I had we had collected some gratitude for people and I was thinking about it. We're gonna have this big like kind of nice celebration at the retreat, just like what can I do? So I ended up doing a video or audio clip for everybody and they already And they're actually on our website, you can go look at them. And whenever I was feeling bad, I would do one of those, and it would make me feel better. But what I didn't real didn't even think of because I was just giving, giving, giving, I ended up getting two videos back where they compiled gratitude to me, I'm so it was like a boomerang thing, right? They're just like, oh, then now we want to give gratitude to Kerry. So, um, it felt good. And I think that's just, it feels so good. And everybody feels lifted up. And you feel more like a family than this, like corporate, you know, cutthroat organization. And that's the other thing that I see. Like people really want to help each other out. And I do believe it's because of that more, you know, United culture that we've created over the years.

John Ryan 10:47
Great example of the boomerang effect and the chain reaction and putting energy in and energy comes out or just naturally byproduct of that. So if I'm to hear that correctly, it's not like you're taking everyone through a training and like, here's why gratitude is important. And here's the five reasons you need to have that. And here's how to do gratitude. You're actually just saying, let's just step up and infuse and just be gratitude, like, exhibit gratitude for everything that we have, and the clients that we serve, and everyone is on our team, and then let that trickle through. And that's the training really, rather than a here's the five step process for feeling gratitude.

Kerry Wekelo 11:28
Exactly. You fill it out, and I and I love to teach and I the best way that I can teach you is to have you experience it, and have you feel it, and then you're going to get on board. Do you

John Ryan 11:40
ever have someone because I imagined, do you ever have anyone who is resistant to the idea of gratitude? Does that ever occur?

Kerry Wekelo 11:47
It does and, and I'm totally okay with that. And I know, everybody has bad days, everybody has those moments where you're like, I just want to be in a bad mood. I'm just fussy and you know what, it's okay? Be fussy. Feel what you're feeling. I do really encourage people to feel what they're feeling. And if you really can't find something that you're grateful for. Just Okay, fine. Let's move on. But what I do encourage people in those moments, I'm like, okay, I hear what you're saying. I want to allow you to feel how you're feeling. But do you have? Do you have a house? Do you someplace that you're living an apartment? Do you have someplace that you're living right now? Yes. Okay, well, can you be grateful for that, like going back to like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, like the basic basic needs, if you have those met every day, you have something to be grateful for. So I try to make it super simple, versus anything huge. Like you don't have to be grateful for anybody else. Just that your your your basic needs are met that day.

John Ryan 12:54
It's such interesting matter of perspective, because those first four are deficiency needs. And when they're not there, we want them when we have them, we feel gratitude for a while. And then we lose track, because then I want the next thing and Well, I'm not self actualized yet, so I don't feel grateful yet. And so you just really redirecting their focus, listen, just take a moment, pause. I know there's stuff going on. And there's always stuff going on. So everyone, your belief is, of course, that everyone has an opportunity to have gratitude, it's slowing down and just really connecting to what you have now that that's worthwhile to what's valuable. I like that, as you build, you know, thriving organizational cultures, and look at other companies out there that are struggling to do that. What are some of the conversations that are maybe the top ones that need to happen to shift them towards, you know, positive, gratitude filled organization culture?

Kerry Wekelo 13:44
And I love this this question, because it is all about questions and doing your own self awareness as an organization. And for this, I think, where companies fall short, is they don't want to have the difficult conversations and the open and honest conversations about what might not be going right with the organization. So identifying, okay, what's going well, absolutely focusing on the good, but what's not going well, what's not going smoothly, where are we maybe bleeding money, you know, where can we have some cost savings within the organization? And maybe that is around your people, right. But I think having those open and honest conversations, as leaders, about what's going on with the organization, that's really the first step to understanding where you need to go from a cultural perspective.

John Ryan 14:39
So having the difficult conversations, as you said, What is it you think that holds people back from just being transparent and open and, and sometimes vulnerable, and having those difficult conversations?

Kerry Wekelo 14:51
It's tough to be vulnerable, right? I mean, I think you know, I think as you know, personally, I always want to try to paint the The positive picture. But I'm also very realistic and the fact that things aren't always perfect. And that's just life. And I believe that that's something that we if we're going to continuously do better, we continuously have to re evaluate, restructure, redo our processes. I'm constantly I mean, I grew up as a consultant, I'm in a cook, I run a consulting company. So I'm, like, inherently, like, I'm always looking to improve. So I think other people need to always be looking to improve. So they're not getting stale, right. And I think that's one of the biggest keys with, you know, our success at actualized in our culture, is that we're constantly Okay, what can we do better? And we're asking our team members to what how could we be better? what's holding you back? How can we make you be more successful?

John Ryan 15:54
And that's an important part of leadership, of course, is his role modeling, what are some of the things that you try to be mindful of I know, that's an important part of your message, as well as being mindful and present, that you try to be mindful as a leader to be an example for others in the organization.

Kerry Wekelo 16:11
I guess I really do try to put myself in other people's shoes, like where they are right now. Like, for example, our UK team, right now is back in lockdown, and either probably going to get even further restrictions where they can't even go outside to exercise. And, um, you know, I had somebody want to talk to me last night, and it was 930 their time. And I really didn't have time, but I was like, you know, what, I'm gonna make time if it's 930 their time, like, there's something wrong, like, I need to talk to this individual. So I think, you know, making yourself available, you know, that's a really good way to lead by example, and that you actually do care.

Kerry Wekelo 16:57
But being when there is a challenge, facing it head on. I mean, I think I go by, say that's, you know, how you can, that's the first question to ask your organization, but in the moment as a leader, if you see a challenge, and instead of having 20 conversations with 20 different people about what just happened, just hitting it head on with the people that are involved. I mean, I've seen that, that saves so much time, and I gained a lot of respect from people because I'm not afraid of, of what's what's happening, and if there is a problem. And what I've found is that people actually come to me now say, hey, this just happened, what do I do, right, versus trying to slip it under the rug. So I think it goes back back to you know, just really, as you're going through your handy lindos challenge, being open with your communication, no, really probably be prioritizing your own, like personal wellness to and showing your people that you know what, it's, I'm going to take some time off right now because I need to, but if you're not doing that, then your people aren't going to follow suit. And it's really important right now, to take that mental health break of because we're at home so much, we can work all the time to have to take those breaks.

John Ryan 18:15
I love that so many nuggets there. One you said stepping in other people's shoes, you know, having empathy, seeing from their perspective, being open being present, when people are reaching out, they're reaching out for reason. So show up and be present for that conversation. be vulnerable, be open to hearing feedback, hit things direct on and and also setting boundaries. I think that's a really great ideas and, and how to role model excellence and what it means to be a leader. You know, part of a lot of those things are conversations with self conversations with others, obviously, here are key conversations. We think that's the key. What are some conversations that you've had either personally or professionally that have had a big profound impact on you? Right?

Kerry Wekelo 18:55
Well, the one conversation that really sticks out to me is when we were earlier in our history at actualize and the way we were running the organization, we had a we had a board of advisors, which we don't have right now, but we had a board of advisors, and one of the board members. His name is john Harvey, and he's still my mentor to this day. He was doing an annual survey with us. And we were kind of having the same results. And this is when we had the higher turnover. And I think this conversation helped me like, pivot into like, we have to make changes, but he used Einstein's quote, he said, okay, you know, fine, you guys, do you do what you want to do? Or like whatever. Like he was like, I'm out. Like, cuz you guys aren't listening. He's like, but Einstein's quote is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And that just stuck with me. And I was like, okay, and being the type a like, you know, mover and shaker is like, Okay, well, I'm okay. We're going to do something different. And I really believe that conversation. Maybe To me, and pushed me to want to do something different and shift that focus to our people. So

John Ryan 20:07
Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing. And Kerry, thank you so much for being here on key conversations. What's the best way for our listeners and watchers to get in touch with you?

Kerry Wekelo 20:17
I'm on LinkedIn is Kerry Wekelo, look me up. That's the best way. I write something pretty much every week on gratitude and culture and workplace well being. So we'd love to hear from you there.

John Ryan 20:30
Excellent. And I'll put all the links to all of your social media in our show notes as well. Thank you again so much for being here.

Kerry Wekelo 20:36
It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

John Ryan 20:38
Awesome. And for all of you listening and watching. Until next time, develop yourself, empower others and lead by example. Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host john Ryan. If you enjoy the show, please let us know. Give us a rating or write a review. And if you'd like to connect with me and other like minded leaders, I invite you to join our Facebook group called Develop, Empower and Lead where I deliver free live training every week. If you go to and It will redirect you right there. Hope to see you there soon.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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