Kelly Manthey of Kin + Carta: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
In a word, listen. We’ve learned that people often just need permission to feel the way they feel at work and want to be heard. During the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, we gave employees the safe spaces to self-organize and talk. Leaders participated to listen.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Manthey.
Kelly Manthey is Global CEO of digital transformation consultancy Kin + Carta. She joined the business (then Solstice) in 2006, after a decade at Accenture. She was instrumental in making Solstice the chosen software engineering partner of innovative Fortune 500 and 1,000 companies.
Leading Kin + Carta Americas from 2018 until her promotion to Global CEO in 2022, Kelly was instrumental in building a growth-minded business with a strong, diverse, and progressive culture. She is a contributor to Forbes, founder of the Women in Technology forum at Kin + Carta and a member of the Board of Directors at Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. Kelly has also been named in The Consulting Report’s Top 25 Women Leaders in IT Services, Crain’s Chicago Business Tech 50, and is an active advocate for inclusion, diversity, and raising the visibility of women in the technology sector.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After my bachelor’s in information systems from Kent State University, I began my career at Accenture. This was the beginning of the internet era, the emerging technology of the 90s, so I helped Fortune 500 companies embrace it by building web technology and some of the first e-commerce sites.
My experience with designing and building emerging technology in the context of legacy enterprise technology environments helped me in the 2000s as internet technology became mainstream. A lot of companies were now faced with modernizing both their internal and external facing business applications.
My foundation in software engineering then gave me some valuable perspective as I moved into leadership roles, because it was about bridging communication between the engineering and business functions. This was also where I began really focusing on the key issues of diversity and inclusion as well as mindfulness and empathy. We need the latter to keep ourselves grounded and compassionate to the needs of others in a high-performance business environment.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first took up a management position, I had the misconception that I just needed to pick up the baton and run with it. That’s not enough. You also need to know the change plan for how the business will grow and evolve — a plan for the road ahead.
When I became CEO of the Americas, for example, I was picking up a business that was a well-run machine. But the road ahead included scaling, and that meant changing the new business approach and how we attracted talent. I had to move to the constraint of where the business was and understand where it was going. Businesses are always moving and I had to learn that quickly.
Also, when I first moved into leadership, I was with a lot of younger people I’d grown up with in the business and I wanted to try and be cool and down to earth with them. To show that I hadn’t changed that much, that I could still be one of them! So we were chatting about our plans for the weekend and I said I was planning to ‘Netflix and chill’. I got some very odd looks until they patiently explained to me that it didn’t mean just binging shows on Netflix.
That day, I learned that it’s okay to be me and not try to be something I’m not. I also came to realize that people need a leader, not a peer.
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?
My predecessor as Global CEO, J Schwan, has been a sponsor, coach and constructive critic, both when he was my boss and now. He was great at challenging me and offering helpful guidance. I’m grateful that I still have that and can call him when necessary.
It’s important also to have people outside of my business. There’s a network of peers that I have built outside the company that I use as a sounding board. Your worldview can shrink when you’re solely focused on your own business, so you need that outside perspective from people at all levels and in all industries.
I’ve also spent a lot of time getting out in the business — to see what it feels like on the other side of that Zoom screen. You need to have that perspective and know what’s happening to people in their own patch.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Kin + Carta was born with a very clear purpose of building a world that works better for everyone. The very first thing we did as the business transformed and came together as a single integrated entity was to define our purpose and our values.
All the strategy and tactics sit on top of that foundation. None of the other stuff matters unless you have established your purpose and know why you exist — why you do what you do.
At the individual level, people have to connect with it as well. It’s no good if people don’t buy into what the business is doing. So I put a lot of focus on making sure people were able to understand how they connect their own personal purpose with the purpose of the business. I had to ensure that people understood how they can achieve what they want to achieve. When personal and corporate purposes aren’t aligned, you run into issues.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Going back to Covid, which was by far the most uncertain time in recent memory, our team dynamic changed. My style is to zoom in quickly and have fast communications, so the leadership team started meeting daily instead of weekly. We had to protect the business, listen to our clients and protect our people. We needed to know where each pocket of the business stood and what decisions needed to be made.
From that I learned that in a crisis, you can’t wait. You have to dive in, keep communicating and keep assessing until there is stability and things calm down.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Give up because of a challenge or crisis? Never — absolutely never. I firmly believe those times are when leaders need to lead. That’s when you need to step up, even at the risk of your own personal burnout.
Personally, I got into consulting because that’s my mindset. I want to solve things and fix things. That’s what we do. Where can I add value and where can I fix it? If problems arise, we solve them.
In a crisis, it’s also about taking care of people. They need to know that we see you and we’re in this together. We might not have all the answers, but if we work together we can do it.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Books can absolutely change your life, which is why I try to read/listen to 25 books a year — even with all the demands of work and family.
The one that really changed my life was by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun — “The Places that Scare You”. It’s only 150 pages and I started leafing through it as the cover caught my eye. It sent me down a journey of empathy and understanding the impermanence of life and the value of feeling. It all starts with empathy for yourself and I realized I had been operating for a long time without thinking about myself.
Since then, I’ve read everything she’s written. Her newest one — “How We Live is How We Die” — talks about how everything passes and we should just be grateful for the life we have.
I bring these ideas into leadership and how I respond to everything I face. It changed my life.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Pause first — even if your bias is for action. Listen and absorb, then prioritize actions and stem the bleeding. Assess the challenge first, and then act afterwards.
Ben Horowitz’s discussion of the ‘wartime CEO’, which I re-read often, compares and contrasts how leaders operate during crisis and peacetime. They can’t use the same tools. I personally lean towards being a wartime CEO — it’s all about change, adaptation and constant motion. When there is a crisis, you have to have a certain rigor.
That’s why I refer to it often to check myself and understand what tools I need to use.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Leaders need to focus on what we can control. It’s all we can do.
That means checking in on each other and taking care of clients by delivering and showing up. They need us now more than ever to be great partners. So what we can control is the quality, skills, expertise that we bring and how we engage with our clients.
If you focus on being outstanding at what you control, good things happen. We have to continue to be adaptable, of course, and there is a certain level of being comfortable with uncertainty. Pema Chödrön reminded me that nothing is certain, but people still need to feel safe.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Brevity — often — and candor are the watchwords. You need to be brief and to the point, as well as honest and transparent.
We’ve transitioned to video calls and Zoom in the modern world, and during Covid I was doing videos weekly to show I was there and visible.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
If you put a plan in place, it will probably need to change — so you need to be adaptable.
In the near term, your plan can be specific as you have more line of sight, but three-year plans send me mad as you’re just casting the net. It’s important to have a long-term vision, but the detail of how you get there is more important.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Flexibility and adaptability are vital. Leaders have to be comfortable with uncertainty and know that what was true today is probably not going to be true tomorrow. It’s not always an easy one for the planners and strategists to wrap their heads around.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The first is the difference between reacting and responding. It can be easy to react to a crisis and move too fast without a clear plan and intention.
The second is communication. Leaders end up not communicating with employees often enough and/or not doing so in clear, simple terms. It can lead to confusion and uncertainty.
And third, a related note to this is having a mechanical response that lacks empathy. Being human and bringing a sense of empathy and understanding alongside your decisive action are important qualities of leadership. You’re still dealing with people, after all.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- In a word, listen. We’ve learned that people often just need permission to feel the way they feel at work and want to be heard. During the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, we gave employees the safe spaces to self-organize and talk. Leaders participated to listen.
- Communicate and do it often. During COVID, I posted videos or communications weekly about the health of the business, what impacts we were seeing and what we were doing to manage through it. That way everyone could see what was happening and not feel additional uncertainty during such a troubling time.
- Say what you are going to do and then do what you say. In difficult times it’s best to be clear, concise and to the point. Don’t sugar coat the situation. People just want to know the truth and what to expect, even if the truth is that some things aren’t clear yet. Communicate what you know and when they will hear an update.
- Be human. Don’t lose sense of the humanity of the situation. In difficult times people want to know someone cares, so it’s the leader’s job to bring empathy to the situation.
- Take care of your own wellbeing. Some of the best guidance I got during COVID was from our chairman, who reminded me to take care of myself to avoid burnout. We can get so busy navigating in crisis mode and caring for others that we forget to listen to our own needs. A leader needs to recharge and take care of themselves so they have the endurance needed for the difficult times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The only way out is through.” In tough times or even when you are procrastinating, you need to go through to get to the other side. Avoidance, or trying to go around things, only prolongs the inevitable or makes the situation worse. Buckle up, be brave and push through it.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Like many of my peers, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn so send me a connection request! I’m also part of the Forbes Business Council.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Kelly Manthey of Kin + Carta: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.