Practice a gratitude mindset. It’s important for executives to accept their team members as a whole package — strengths and weaknesses together. Never focus on the weaknesses alone or expect that people will do things exactly as you would. It’s easy to go down this negative path, but it’s utterly unproductive and hurts the culture. Nobody’s perfect, and remembering to be grateful for how the company got to this point and for everyone who helped get it there is key.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Barry Kelly. He is CEO of Kelser Corporation, an IT consulting firm based in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Barry has been a driving force in the company since its inception in 1981, and has led the firm to serve some of the largest, most well known companies in New England, as well as small and medium-sized businesses of all types. Most recently, Barry and his team developed Defend Forward, a truly comprehensive cybersecurity-as-a-service offering to help organizations protect their data and stay ahead of cyber threats. Supporting the community has always been a priority for Barry, who shortly after becoming CEO in 2010, created the Kelser Foundation, which has donated over a million dollars to nonprofits in addition to countless volunteer, clothing and food donations.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The IT industry didn’t exist when the opportunity came up for me in the early 1980s. My brother was a consultant working at Cigna and had the idea that he could start a company to help small and large businesses with their IT. I was in my 20s and doing roofing jobs at the time. That was hard work, so I jumped at the chance to try something new and exciting. I was the second or third employee. We bought some home computing equipment, and from there, the business grew in all sorts of ways we didn’t initially expect. Ultimately, it came to be pretty close to what my brother initially envisioned.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we first started out, we were struggling. Our big break came in a dramatic and unexpected way. In 1982, my brother thought it would be a good idea to become a dealer for AutoCAD. We were the first dealer in the area, and a referral came to us from AutoCAD for one of the major insurance companies based in Hartford. The meeting was a whirlwind. It turned out the buyer didn’t want AutoCAD after all, but had quite a few other needs. We scribbled them down as fast as we could and left with a handwritten list of 30 pieces of technology to get for her. It was the beginning of a fantastic client relationship — one that continues today! It shaped the direction of our business, and it’s funny — we never did sell AutoCAD to anyone.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
A few years ago, we could see that cyber attacks were increasing and that businesses found it overwhelming to protect themselves. As a response to this trend, Kelser set out to create a truly comprehensive cybersecurity-as-a-service offering. Our vision was a robust and proactive solution designed to put companies one step ahead of the hackers. It had to be extremely effective, affordable for small and medium-sized businesses, and entirely predictable from a cost standpoint. We named it Defend Forward, and as far as we know, it is the most comprehensive cybersecurity-as-a-service offering available anywhere.
The key to good cyber defense is layers, and Defend Forward is set up for our team to implement and manage every type of protection layer you can imagine. The service is customized to each client — not all clients need all layers. It packages the cybersecurity measures that makes sense for a given client into a monthly service managed completely by our team or in collaboration with the client’s IT staff. Part of the package is almost always cybersecurity awareness training. We keep up with the latest techniques hackers are using and educate our clients using quick modules and lessons to minimize the time impact.
According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
Over the past few decades, the type of work done in the US has shifted to a more service-based economy, with an increasing number of people not producing anything tangible. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to keep employees happy and engaged in a service business, it takes a more conscious effort. In the absence of that instant satisfaction of creating a physical thing, it’s easy to forget that what you’re doing matters. Our default approach to workplace culture in this country hasn’t caught up to this shift.
Compounding the issue is the wealth gap. When workers feel disconnected from the purpose of the company — and simultaneously see their income staying level while executive pay is exploding — it can breed resentment.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
In my experience, productivity, profitability and employee wellbeing all increase when employees feel they are a part of the momentum of a growing company. Ideally, that momentum carries over into their professional development as well. When employees feel they are doing good work that’s having an impact, they are being recognized for it, and greater opportunities for them lie ahead, the company benefits as well. On the other hand, when employees aren’t able to see how they would share in the success of the company, it puts a drag on the trajectory of the business.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
1. Everyone has a voice. Everyone at every level of the company should periodically have the chance to feel that they were asked for their opinion or ideas on the company’s future and that they were heard. I do this informally, chatting with employees around the office and encouraging other senior executives to get input from the areas of the company they manage. It’s key to let everyone know that their input was considered, even if it’s not acted upon. Not too long ago, I let this practice slide a bit, and the change in workplace culture was immediately apparent — some key employees even left. The experience renewed my commitment to this idea.
2. Practice a gratitude mindset. It’s important for executives to accept their team members as a whole package — strengths and weaknesses together. Never focus on the weaknesses alone or expect that people will do things exactly as you would. It’s easy to go down this negative path, but it’s utterly unproductive and hurts the culture. Nobody’s perfect, and remembering to be grateful for how the company got to this point and for everyone who helped get it there is key.
3. Expose your team to your greatest strength. I know that I’m a people person. Kelser’s workplace culture is strongest when I find opportunities to be in my element, having light-hearted conversations with employees or engaging in activities such as fundraisers. When I get too serious or I’m absent, the culture lags. Other CEOs may have different strengths. In order to trust their leader, it’s important for the team to see him or her doing what they do best — whatever that may be.
4. Build momentum with rewards and compassion. When the business is doing especially well, we have been known to pay out small bonuses quarterly to all employees in addition to the company’s larger bonuses at the end of the year. This helps employees see the fruits of their labor quickly and inspires them to continue to help the company thrive. Employees on the lower end of Kelser’s salary spectrum get larger bonuses by percentage because it makes the biggest difference to them. We also want to show appreciation for them being the backbone of the company in many ways.
5. Connect to causes your team cares about. Each year, Kelser hosts a charity golf tournament to raise around $25,000 for a cause. For 20 years, the cause was the American Lung Association. A few years ago, we took an informal poll of employees and learned that a surprising number of them had loved ones living with Alzheimer’s disease. That inspired a change. Over the past few years, the golf tournament has helped launch and sustain the Hospital for Special Care’s Center for Cognitive Health. This is a brand new program at a unique and highly respected nonprofit in Kelser’s backyard. Enthusiasm for the golf tournament increased dramatically, and we’re now always on the lookout for ways to support causes that matter most to the team, particularly when tangible results can be seen quickly.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
Each CEO can really only influence the workplace culture of his or her own company, so I think the solution to making a shift in society as a whole is for companies that succeed at being about more than their products or services to team up with other companies that do the same. We proactively seek out other organizations that have a healthy workplace culture for our clients, partners, suppliers, and vendors. We support each other and collaborate however we can — whether that’s getting involved in each others’ charity events, bringing forward stories in the media that highlight our relationship, or just consistently doing business over a prolonged period of time. By creating small ecosystems of companies that are stewards of a new kind of workplace culture, we can eventually make this way of doing things the norm.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I know what my role is — and what it isn’t. I strive to do a good job at what I’m responsible for and leave room for others to do the same. This is also what I expect from my team.
I give people a level of freedom and flexibility to define their role within the company. I want people doing what they’re best at. I look to them to show me where they can make the biggest difference, and then I give them the space to do it.
By default, I trust and believe in the people we hire. However, if they let their responsibilities slide or fail to deliver on what we both know they’re capable of and what we both agreed to, it’s very hard to get back into my good graces. I give people a real shot to succeed on their own terms, but second or third chances are hard to come by.
I don’t fault someone for saying, “I need help with this.” I fault people for not seeing a problem coming and not getting the help they need to avoid it. If employees find themselves concerned about delivering on expectations, the key is for them to speak up and make changes before things come to a head. That applies to me too. For nearly a decade, I was president and CEO of Kelser Corporation. In spring of 2019, I passed the title of president on to an employee of 20 years. It became clear that the company needed another leader to facilitate collaboration and communication. I realized I needed to empower someone else to be the champion of the culture and future of the company — that I wasn’t cutting it on my own. For this new role, I chose someone the rest of our team trusts and finds easy to talk to. He inspires confidence, and delegating some of my role to him has led to a boost in morale across the board.
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?
My brother Bruce gave me an opportunity to join his new business that completely changed my life and I’m incredibly grateful to him. I took the opportunity he gave me, threw myself into it, and was the driving force in building something that has greatly benefitted both of us.
In addition, I’m very grateful to my wife Cindy for supporting me on this path as an entrepreneur. Her trust in me and her unwavering belief that everything would work out for the best carried us through some nerve-wracking times — like when we took out a 7-figure loan to buy the company from my brother. She’s always been upbeat, and that faith in me, and in us, has made all of this possible.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Soon after I became CEO, I established the Kelser Foundation. Over the years, we’ve raised over a million dollars for a wide variety of causes, as well as countless volunteer hours, and donations of food and clothing. I’ve always believed in giving back to the community, and creating a formal organization to facilitate that goal has helped us never lose sight of it.
In addition, we have many employees at Kelser who have been with us for decades. I take pride in the fact that, for some, this company becomes a family.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do not allow negative thoughts to enter your mind for they are the weeds that strangle confidence.” — Bruce Lee
I find this to be true on so many levels. First, maintaining positivity is required of a leader, because if the leader succumbs to negativity, the organization is adrift. Second, it’s important to focus on the positives about your team in order to build their confidence — expressing approval of something is a great way to see more of what you like. Third, when I see negative “weeds” growing in the organization, I try to eliminate them before they spread by opening direct communication to anyone who is unhappy about something. Finally, maintaining an upbeat attitude is key to my leadership style, which relies on light-hearted conversation and fun to bring people together. I don’t always have a positive mindset, but I try to minimize negative thoughts and I certainly don’t share them.
If you could inspire 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. :-)
Everyone wants to be useful and contribute to something bigger than themselves — it’s human nature. We spend so much time at our jobs, that I think the way to do the most good for the most people is to transform the way we work so that every level, it’s not just something we do to pay the bills, but something that is also fulfilling. The movement I’m working to inspire in my own small way with one technology consulting firm in Connecticut and a group of companies around us is to build a culture where everyone shares in the success of what we do and takes pride in the impact that we have. Kelser isn’t just about technology. We help businesses do what they do better. We help them stay safe from cyber criminals looking to take and destroy what they built through hard work. Along the way, we give our resources and energy to nonprofits that make our community a better place. We need to constantly remind ourselves of what this is all about and why we come here every day. We need to make sure everyone can see that they’re an integral part of a growing business, and ensure they feel they are benefitting from that growth personally and professionally.