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Kerry Wekelo of Actualize Consulting: How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness

An Interview with Tyler Gallagher

As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.

What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?

One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Wekelo.

Kerry Wekelo, MBA, is the Chief Operating Officer at Actualize Consulting, a financial services firm. Her book and program, Culture Infusion: 9 Principles for Creating and Maintaining a Thriving Organizational Culture and latest book Gratitude Infusion, are the impetus behind Actualize Consulting being named Top Company Culture by Entrepreneur Magazine, a Top Workplace by The Washington Post, FORTUNE Best Small & Medium Workplaces™, and Best and Brightest ELITE National Winner in Communication and Shared Vision category. 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.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?

When I went to college, my mom encouraged me to pursue something “practical.” While I did enjoy what I studied, I ended up with a double major in finance and marketing based off that suggestion. I also made room for something I really enjoyed, psychology, with a minor. Right out of college, I got hired by a big consulting firm, which is how I got into consulting. Consulting was a good mix for me, allowing me to use my business acumen and knack for people. Then, in 2005, when my brother founded Actualize, he asked me to help build out the internal operations of the firm. I always joke I have three kids — my biological children, and the other child I helped raise, Actualize. Actualize was like a passion project for me. Even after the internal operations were built out and we were externally becoming successful as a firm, we still had high attrition rates. Internally, I saw this as a failure. We really strived to transform the culture of our workplace by focusing on our people. I’m happy to say that we took our attrition rate from 33% to a steady rate of 4% after implementing numerous changes. That’s exactly what I wrote my book, Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture, about. It’s the case study of how our corporate culture came to be as successful as it is today, by infusing the same principles I value in my own personal life. I’ve really found that my passion lies in making our workforce mindful and leading by example with balance. I’ve also been inspired by gratitude, which I consider a piece of mindfulness. I’ve found success by being grateful — I spend less time worrying, less time stressing, and overall, I am happier. It has totally changed my life. So much, in fact, that I was inspired to write a supplement to Culture Infusion, called Gratitude Infusion. It details the foundation of gratitude we have at Actualize Consulting, and shares many of the practices I swear by to inspire and motivate.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

While working at Actualize, one of our clients was actually my family’s business. They hired us to help internally and with their infrastructure. Growing up and watching them run their business, to then going home and helping with theirs… it was pretty surreal and cool to go “back to my roots.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Brené Brown said, “I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness — it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.” This is so true; happiness is everywhere. My internal team and I practice weekly gratitude in an email chain: we share inward gratitude (what we are grateful for about ourselves), outward gratitude (someone or something we are grateful for) and any wins we’ve experienced in the past week. It really helps start the week on the right foot and with a fresh mind. Focus on the moments you have and not what happens next — stay present.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute. This was one of the first things that helped lay the groundwork for improving Actualize Consulting’s corporate culture and led to Culture Infusion. It is a book that talks about the power of taking accountability in all situations and recognizing every side of the story. I knew after reading it that one of the main issues Actualize was facing was that we were not aligned as a leadership team. Once I had this “Ah-ha” moment, I asked the firm’s partners to read it as well. From that point on, everything shifted. Our company culture is as strong as ever, and we have this book to thank as the catalyst.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Actualize has been remote in some capacity since its inception. As we are seeing a shift to permanent remote and hybrid work settings becoming the norm across the world, I am starting a new project to share my experience and actionable tips I have learned from 16 years of remote leadership. It’s an addition to the Infusion series, called Workplace Infusion. Any change to tradition is hard in an organization with lots of moving parts; I hope that this book will inspire other leaders to get creative in the way they tackle team connection, streamlining processes, and motivation.

Additionally, we are constantly realigning our wellness programs — coming up with new and unique challenges to keep the teams inspired. We have really found a groove that works for us, and our teams always talk about how much they enjoy the friendly competition. It serves as an effective way for everyone to join together to focus on healthy living.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

John Harvey was one of the members of the board of advisors here at Actualize. We no longer have this board, but he continued to be a mentor to me personally and has always seen potential in me since I started working with him 16 years ago. He has guided me through each challenge and helped me become the leader I am today. He has even helped out with our family business. John helps me to see my blind spots and asks leading questions to guide me. When I was on a project in which I needed expertise and assistance, John was kind enough to provide not only his support, but the support of his mentor as well so we had many ideas to move the project along.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?

Najma Khorrami, founder of the Gratitude Circle app, recently posted a quote on Instagram: “Gratitude brings us to our knees mentally, helping us to see the grander view.” Gratitude helps us shift out of the challenges we are going through in the present moment so that we can see things from a different perspective. It goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — after securing basic needs like food and water and building self-esteem which can be done through staying positive, we finally reach self-actualization. An act of gratitude doesn’t need to be huge to be effective, either, so it is easy to practice daily.

Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?

Some evolutionary theories suggest that focusing on the negative, or having a “negativity bias” has evolutionary roots. Humans had to look out for predators, so staying aware of what could go wrong and what was going wrong was essential to survival. Now we don’t need to do that but it is a natural tendency. It takes practice to pivot out of those instincts to be negative.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?

In a 2017 study conducted by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, participants were asked to write gratitude letters over the course of twelve weeks. At the end of the twelve-week study, gratitude had even greater effects on the participants than at the four-week mark. The more gratitude they shared, the better participants reported their overall mental health to be. Gratitude helps to ground you in what matters.

Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?

In Robert Emmons’ research, he found that gratitude increases self-esteem, enhances willpower, strengthens relationships, deepens spirituality, boosts creativity, and improves performance. Brené Brown, in her 12 years of research on 11,000 pieces of data, said that everyone who described themselves as joyful actively practiced gratitude in some way. Gratitude invites positivity in our lives; everyone has struggles, but there are always positives too — you just need to look for it.

Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Receiving: I think there is a lot of importance placed on giving gratitude, yet receiving it is just as important. It helps us to stay grounded in appreciation for ourselves. Often when I receive compliments, my initial instinct is disbelief, or feeling like I don’t deserve what I have been given. I am practicing saying “Thank you” and acknowledging my worth instead.
  2. Focusing on internal gratitude: To help self esteem and build confidence, it is so important to recognize what you bring to the table. Try to do this regularly. You could even practice affirmations as a way to give gratitude to yourself.
  3. Sharing external gratitude: Lifting others up is a great way to help them build confidence and feel appreciated. If you’re a leader, sharing gratitude with those on your team is essential to keeping them motivated. When their work is acknowledged, they feel inspired and ready to do a good job. At Actualize, we strive to give kudos in our newsletters, awards, and daily in regular interactions.
  4. Giving back: Helping others is a great way to shift your perspective. I regularly volunteer on my own and encourage the firm to do so as well. In fact, most of our wellness challenges are tied to giving back in some way — for example, every September, we participate in Alex’s Lemonade Stand’s Million Mile. In addition to encouraging people to get their miles in, we also raise money for childhood cancer research.
  5. Practicing daily: To create a positive habit, practice a little bit every day. Whether through keeping a gratitude journal or pivoting out of challenges with a positive thought, strive to circle back to gratitude. You can even do this at meals, especially if you are with other people. It is powerful to see how gratitude can elevate the mood of everyone nearby.

Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?

Personally, when I am feeling down, I like to focus on giving back. For other people, the answer might depend on what they need in that moment. Maybe it’s humor, maybe it’s distraction… When the pandemic started, we had to cancel our annual retreat. Everyone, including myself, was feeling lost in the uncertainty. I pivoted and distracted by curating gratitude videos for every single person on the team. I highlighted everyone’s strengths, thanking them for their contributions to the firm. It was a verbal thank you card of sorts. Whenever I was feeling down, I would go to that and it would help me focus and uplift my day.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?

Brené Brown is a great resource and has done a lot of interesting research on empathy and vulnerability. From her podcast to her books, especially Braving the Wilderness, there are a lot of great tips to live and lead authentically.

Robert Emmons and his work are great resources as well — he is one of the leading researchers on gratitude and provides a lot of empirical research into the effectiveness of a positive mindset.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Continuing on the theme of this interview, gratitude is a free and efficient way to bring your attention back to the moment. This is a movement I would definitely like to start. If we could get everyone to focus on the good, there would be a lot less of the bad in the world. Our lives are told through our perception; if we remain optimistic, we will spend a lot less time spinning on situations or issues, and more time living and appreciating what we have.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

I send out regular tips, stories, and ideas on my email list. If you’d like to be placed on it, you can shoot me an email at kelam@actualizeconsulting.com. You can also use that email to contact me with any questions or comments. Otherwise, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @kerrywekelo or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerryelam/

You can check out my wellness company, Zendoway, here: http://www.zendoway.com/

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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