I have found that mental wellness is key to thriving and being your best in every aspect of your life. It is the foundation for your success and balance. I think, as leaders, it is important that we have empathy, be open, and let our team know that we care about them. From a leadership perspective, this is the greatest thing we can do for the health of our employees. Many times, I feel like you aren’t allowed to be a person at work. At Actualize, we allow that, and it has translated to employee satisfaction and even higher client satisfaction. People flourish when they feel supported.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country’, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Wekelo.
Kerry Alison Wekelo is the Chief Operating Officer at Actualize Consulting, a financial services consulting firm. Her book and program, Culture Infusion: 9 Principles for Creating and Maintaining a Thriving Organizational Culture, is 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. She just published her newest book, Gratitude Infusion: Workplace Strategies for a Thriving Organizational Culture, which is available on Amazon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia on a farm. To this day, I consider nature to be one of my most influential teachers as I have seen it flow and breeze through its seasons — just as life does. My parents divorced when I was younger, so both my brother and I had a lot of responsibility at an early age. My mother, who had full custody of us, worked full time. We both learned of business and hard work from my family’s manufacturing business and the value of compromise and trust from each other. I would cook dinner for us before my mom got home from work and he would tutor me in math. These values that we learned from childhood shaped both mine and my brother’s leadership as we work together to lead Actualize Consulting.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. This book is powerful because it explains the relation that your thoughts have on your ability to succeed — it’s all about what you put your mind to. It really speaks to the power of our intentions. I love reading and I love learning about the connection between our bodies and our minds. Books are great for a change in perspective.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Dr. Robert Emmons, a researcher on gratitude, once said, “You are never too old, too young, too rich, too poor, to live gratefully.” To me, gratitude is immensely important — so much so that I wrote a book, Gratitude Infusion: Workplace Strategies for a Thriving Organizational Culture, about its role in my personal life and its role at Actualize Consulting. Having gratitude as a foundation was one of the key factors that took our attrition rates from 33% to less than 4%. This quote is a reminder that anyone can practice gratitude anywhere for anything.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is all about setting an example. Anyone can provide direction and dictate tasks — but a truly successful leader shows clear direction. If you expect employees to work overtime for an important deadline, your team would be much more inclined to do their best if you also stay and contribute. This will add to the success of the firm instead of giving them a reason to blame you for the extra hours. More recently, when COVID-19 caused a lot of shutdowns and stay at home orders, many employees were feeling overwhelmed. From a leadership perspective, I knew that if I was displaying signs of anxiety, everyone else on our team would too. We sent out a letter from our partners to outline what our employees could do to take care of themselves, and assure them that we as a company are in a good place financially. We even increased our monthly internal newsletters to semi-monthly — that way they could see the new projects we were bringing in real-time.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Mental health. I have found that mental wellness is key to thriving and being your best in every aspect of your life. It is the foundation for your success and balance. I think, as leaders, it is important that we have empathy, be open, and let our team know that we care about them. From a leadership perspective, this is the greatest thing we can do for the health of our employees. Many times, I feel like you aren’t allowed to be a person at work. At Actualize, we allow that, and it has translated to employee satisfaction and even higher client satisfaction. People flourish when they feel supported.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think a large reason we are seeing burnout across the board in our country is lack of balance. We live in a society that celebrates the “hustle” and glorifies overworking. Because of this, we are seeing people struggling to take breaks and time away from the office; they are not prioritizing themselves. One good thing, I think, that has come out of the pandemic is reorganizing priorities. People are beginning to see what truly matters — our friends, our family, our relationships with ourselves.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
I joined Actualize Consulting in 2005 to help build out its internal operations. In my first 5 years at the firm, we were experiencing financial and operational success, but we were not successful from a culture stand point. We had high attrition as our employees were constantly feeling burnt out, and I myself was exhausted. I did not even take a proper maternity leave for either of my children in that 5-year span. In 2010, I finally made the decision to focus on my own wellbeing and encouraged our leadership to take accountability for that of our employees. We started encouraging and supporting their personal wellness. As a firm, we took our attrition rates from 33% to less than 4% — an amazing feat. To me, this is a testament that our employees are happy and feel supported. I, myself, feel the same way. I am proud of where I work and I am proud to have seen such a shift in my own mood and leadership style. I am taking care of myself and being true to who I am. I know to prioritize myself, and I don’t feel as burnt out as I once did.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Be an example: Like I said before, leadership is all about setting an example. At the firm, I lead with gratitude, positivity, and empathy. We are bombarded with so much negativity every single day of our lives. I want people to focus on the positives and for them to see all that they bring to the table. When we feel supported and appreciated, it truly changes the way we show up each day. One study done by the University of Warwick found that happiness makes people 12% more productive!
- Educate yourself: It is our job to truly listen to the stories of others, do our own research, and learn about the issues we are currently facing in our society. In light of the recent protests, I have learned that anti-racism work never sleeps. We must continually educate and strive for understanding. I’ve been reading books, watching movies, and listening to podcasts to do my part in the anti-racism movement.
- Focus on gratitude: Stay positive and remember all that there is to be grateful for. I make this a daily practice. My internal team and I love to start out with sharing a list of things we are grateful for, called “Inward, Outward, Wins.” You share one thing about yourself that you are grateful for, one thing about others or things that you are grateful for, and any recent victories you’ve experienced. It helps set the tone for the week.
- Having empathy and compassion: Many times, we can get trapped in our own bubbles. When we are focused solely on ourselves, we are not present in the world around us. We can learn by listening to others and their story. At Actualize, we always have an open-door policy, but I find that it is more important than ever that our employees know this is available. Everyone has challenges and there is no greater way to show you care than listening and giving a helping hand where possible.
- Giving back: Try focusing on how you can give back in a meaningful way. I am a large supporter of hands-on giving and seeing the impact first hand from the people you are helping. Actualize Consulting is a very small firm, but we have been very mighty in how we give back. We encourage all of our employees to get involved and we do it as a group — whether it’s through sewing scarves or making lunches for a local shelter, it is a reminder of how lucky we are. Most recently, we have donated money for computers for The Doe Fund, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated men return to the workforce. This way, they can keep their programs going online during the pandemic.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
Everything starts at home. This is where the true leadership begins in leading by example. Whether you have kids, family members, coworkers — everyone has someone who looks up to them. Ask yourself, what can I personally control? What can I do in this moment to make the world a better place? Show up and make change by identifying the role you play in society, and make sure it aligns with the change that you want to happen. I like to start with my kids and our immediate community. My son and I make lunches for students at his school to take home if they cannot afford to have food over the weekend. We live in one of the most affluent counties in the US, and it is shocking that around 85 families in my son’s school alone do not have the means to take care of their basic needs. Giving back to your local community is a really eye-opening experience. You can have an immediate effect on the people you help.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
There are always going to be mental health issues and daily challenges… I don’t think these will ever go away, but I think that we can learn how to successfully support ourselves and minimize the toll they take on our lives as a whole. I teach 6 Principles of Breath (taking a breath throughout the day), Movement (taking time to stretch or exercise), Nourishment (being mindful of how we take care of our bodies), Challenges (Monitoring how we feel), Communication (expressing our feelings), and Routine (adding one thing for yourself each day to your routine). These are things that can improve your life as they support your overall wellbeing. When you are laser focused on a mindset of self-care, you are also setting a great example for others. Everything is interconnected. When we support our own happiness, we will exude positivity and gratitude. And when we give those things to others, they will feel it too.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I think we often assume that change has to be big for it to be meaningful. This isn’t true at all — just take time to see people, ask questions, and listen. Don’t be afraid to start small because it is the small things that really add up. Even if you only help one person, that is already beginning a chain reaction.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Alicia Keys. I recently listened to her book, More Myself: A Journey, and loved it! From an early age, she was so focused on giving back and helping other people. She follows her intuition to becoming her best self. She truly puts in the work every day to be her best — and you have to. She is such an inspiration because I feel that she practices what she preaches.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerryelam/
And on Twitter and Instagram here: @kerrywekelo
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!