Contact Kevin Powell:
Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network Podcast. I'm here today with Kevin Powell. Kevin has created success throughout the supply chain from manufacturing to sales and distribution with over 20 years of business and community leadership, including management and board roles. In addition, as an engineer with an MBA, his career encompasses engineer sales and leadership roles. Kevin, welcome to the show.
Kevin Powell: Thanks, Lisa. I'm looking forward to our discussion today.
Lisa Ryan: You have a background that if I told everybody what you've done in your career, we would be here for 20 minutes just talking about that. What is the Cliff notes version of your career when and how did it lead you to do what you're doing.
Kevin Powell: At 32 years old, I was in a position of being named President of my first company, and, quite frankly, it was because I was the only choice they had. I was the one that was prepared, I was the one that was affordable, I was the one that they were willing to take a chance on, and I was excited about the business and my career. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of great mentors and made the most of it. I became CEO of four different businesses, each of which had different challenges or states of concern, and created success in each case. We've been blessed with the fact that we got to take a lot of people along. We created a lot of success along the way.
Lisa Ryan: Before we started the podcast, we talked about lots of topics that we were going to cover today in our conversation, and the subject of diversity came up. The fact that you are a white male talking about diversity is such an interesting angle because it's not one that we normally see or relate to. Still, in your working with leaders in traditional companies and traditional roles, it sounds like you've made some strides in helping people to understand the need for diversity and how that impacts company culture and overall productivity. Would you please share what you're doing and what's working when it comes to that changing of culture?
Kevin Powell: One of the things I learned through wholesale distribution was that it's pretty clear that people are your product. If you're buying somebody else's product and reselling it for a profit, adding value along the way, the value that's added is from the people that you have. If the people are all identical, you limit the value you can add and sell to a diverse community.
You're often singularly looking at it from your lens instead of the lens of the variety of people that exist in the country in the world today. So that combined with our manufacturers, who were fortune 500 companies because of their publicly traded positions, they wanted to do the right thing.
They looked at some of the smaller family-owned privately held distributors and said this doesn't look like we want it to add the value we always wanted to. How can we improve? I partnered with a couple of major manufacturers to help work on changing the Channel. You talked about it from a white male perspective. One of the things I learned along the way, as if you want to change the culture of any organization, you've got to first start with a change in the current cultural leadership of that organization and not have them be drugged along. So I worked within myself to become a leader and treat people as individuals, not as groups.
Lisa Ryan: So what do you think are some of the mistakes that leaders are making when it comes to understanding diversity in their culture: What are the things that they believe they may be a little bit off course on?
Kevin Powell: I think the biggest one is that that if you're leading an organization. That everybody within the organization in your customer base feels like you, and it's easy to get caught up in little progress and miss the big picture. For example, you and I talked earlier about the story of diversity that was one of my eye-openers. I had a young lady who was in a relationship with another lady, and we became friends. My wife and I and the two of them would go out with them. I thought that I was doing excellent. I thought that I was so open-minded. I thought that I was this worldly leader of diversity and acceptance and everything else and that I had created this utopia within the office I was leading.
I had somebody pointed out to me one time to go back to her desk and see if she has a picture of her significant other on her desk. And sure as heck, she didn't. So I went back the next day and looked around, and everybody else had pictures of vacations, family, everything else, and she had a photo of her horse on her desk. So what I learned at that moment was that, even though she knew that I was personally accepting, I hadn't created a culture around the office that made her feel comfortable enough to share that personal side of her life with everybody else around her. So even though her situation may have been publicly understood around the office shooting, I feel comfortable talking about it.
Lisa Ryan: When you are paying attention to those types of details, pictures on the desk, and some of the steps that you would recommend for leaders to pay attention to and little by little to start making those changes.
Kevin Powell: People genuinely want to be listened to, not talk to. It's practicing the adage of the leadership of listening twice as much as you speak and look around twice as much as more twice as much as you command. If people feel like you're listening to them, they feel valued, whatever the topic is. I see so many leaders walk into a room and instantly command the attention of others. The best leaders are often the quietest in the room.
Lisa Ryan: You've done a lot with manufacturers, turning them around and seeing the value of having lots of diverse ideas, where not everybody is thinking alike. What are some of the things that that you've seen? Some of the productivity increases due to companies that focus on people's diversity and thought within their organizations?
Kevin Powell: It understands that if you're in the electric business like I was for a long time, or the swimming pool business that I was in for a while, or today, working with some startups that are doing Internet marketing and others, knowing that your customer base is not you and creating a workforce that understands what their customer base is and caters to them is a lot of the key to success.
If you're trying to create a situation where your business is only focused on who traditionally is bought from you, as opposed to being buying from you, you're missing a huge market.
Lisa Ryan: Right, and you and I had talked about that of just the opportunity for salespeople to make sure that they're getting it. If there are two parties involved a husband-wife that they're not just focusing on the person that looks like them, the other male in the room that they're making sure to figure out who's the decision-maker and pay attention to that many to that person, because how many sales have been made, because that salesman talked directly to the husband, knowing that the wife was the person who was going to be making that buying decision. These are just some of the little things you mentioned - the photos on the desk and the attention that we're giving to people and just going outside of maybe our comfort zone.
Kevin Powell: We always tend to stereotype around groups, and it is human nature, and it's the self-awareness that breaks of that and even within the white male population, we do that, for example, I look at another white male and my assumption tends to go towards an upbringing very similar to mine, and I was raised in a farm community by parents who had gone through the depression and didn't have much money. I could be looking at somebody who led a life with two professional parents and had more than enough resources to do anything they wanted. You assume that people have gone through the same things you have. What you learn is that we're all individuals. As a leader, you need to lead the individual, not any one group.
Lisa Ryan: When a person listening to this podcast is thinking about things that maybe they can do in their plan to make it a people-first environment to focus on people attending, of course, it is one thing. With some of the turnarounds you've been involved in, what have those leaders done to engage their employees better to bring them in and make them feel valued and appreciated, so that they are more productive to the organization?
Kevin Powell: I think the biggest mistake people make is that it's a money game and having worked with many turnarounds. I've learned there is the power of your words is far, far greater than the power of your budget and that a great example would be if you want to show appreciation to somebody, you can get them an Amazon gift card for 200 bucks, but if you get to know that person and find out that they have a passion for knitting or a passion for fishing. So you get them a knitting kit or a fishing kit that every time they use, they think about you. You've now taken your words and made them more important than your budget.
Lisa Ryan: That's one of the things that I talk about in some of my programs. It's through something simple like a survey, call it the all about me sheet, where you're finding out your favorite gift card, favorite hobby, sports team, candy bar, whatever it is so that you can personalize that recognition. Many times, that employee is not going to remember filling out that form six months ago. If they knock it out of the park and you paid enough attention to realize that they like knitting, it's like, wow, he's paying attention to me versus, you know, throwing another generic gift - though you can buy a gazillion things on Amazon. In the scheme of things, it's not as personalized as your knitting kit would be.
Kevin Powell: If you're not building lasting relationships, and financial success you have will be short-lived. You don't make those through grouping people together. You build those by getting to know people individually, and it's harder with covid. People aren't sitting across the desk from you. They are in a collaborative situation there zooming, or they're on conference calls or otherwise. I think leadership requires outrageously more effort in the days of covid than in the past. The companies that will be successful in this are the ones that did treat people as individuals, as opposed to groups, even in this environment of electronic communication versus in person.
Lisa Ryan: Communication is such a big thing right now because we think people are fine and fine on their own with all the technology. It's that that personal connection that picking up the phone or sending a text or going and seeing that person in their office personally. Whatever it is, but even in this game in this age of remote workers, that attention to not only connecting with them from the aspect of how's the business going but how's your job going? How are you doing? You're making a lot more of those personal connections.
Kevin Powell: You can't create more time. Our success is defined in how we spend the time we have. One of the mistakes I've seen in the remote work environment is people hunker down and do their work. You miss that communication. That interaction creates a collaboration that grows a business, as opposed to just getting some paperwork done. The success and leadership in both the remote work environment and a diverse work environment all come down to making sure as a leader you genuinely know your people and that they feel valued, and that doesn't happen by accident. It occurs by an intended purpose in getting to know what creates a situation where somebody will do something they otherwise wouldn't.
Lisa Ryan: Exactly. In one of our previous conversations, you told me a bit of the first company when you were President of that the company was pretty much going bankrupt, and by utilizing some of these things of building relationships, building that culture, and getting employees engaged and excited, that you were able to turn that business around four years later. Please share with us again a bit of the journey. What did it look like from an employee engagement standpoint? What are some of the things that you did to change that environment? You're in manufacturing, you're in distribution – whatever - we all want to make money, and we all have to figure out how to do that. Sometimes we're so focused on the widgets that we're making and making those better that we don't look at the product, which is the people, which seems to be your specialty.
Kevin Powell: Making sure that people feel valued, you know the company that I took over had a gang in the warehouse. They had a Unionized environment and were almost bankrupt. The bank forced the sale of the business. Four years into our journey, we became one of Minnesota's best places to work.
That didn't happen by accident. It happened by working, not as an individual, but with a team of leaders that understood that our goal was to create something that created a future for everybody involved, not just the leaders, not just the owners.
We created a future and showed people a path to what that future looks like, to the point where our Union, which in the upper Midwest to decertify a union, doesn't just happen. We ended up decertifying the Union because they looked at their contract and said, why should we have a union? We have confidence that the client is looking after our best interest. We don't need to work against each other. We can work with leadership directly as a group and make that happen. There's a place in every work environment for those organizations, and where they apply, God bless them. But, in our case, we created enough individual relationships that they felt trust that we were looking after everybody's interest, not just our own.
Lisa Ryan: It sounds like it was a pretty toxic environment when you came in there, so things like getting the gang out. Did you put together inter-departmental meetings, putting together teams of employees together? What was your process that started that turnaround and then ended up snowballing into decentralizing the Union?
Kevin Powell: It created a situation where people felt that they could win and had a path to win. When people understand that their work translates to good for them and support each other, the biggest thing for me was hiring the right people. If you're looking to hire somebody, I'd ask what community activities they are involved in? Suppose they're interested in building a habitat for humanity home, and they're willing to give up a Saturday of their time to pound nails for a family to move in. In that case, they're never going even to meet. Imagine how they treat the person next to them at work. They'll have a relationship with that person. So starting to find the right people and then creating a work environment of engagement is different from a work environment of satisfaction.
Kevin Powell: When employees are satisfied, it could mean that they're shopping on Amazon all day. They may be satisfied with that work environment, but it doesn't create a situation where the company wins, and the individual wins. It creates a situation where people are just happy. I don't believe that they're genuinely happy because they're not fulfilled. Engagement means they are supporting each other, and they are keeping the company. They are supporting the cause. Do they understand the link between their success in that?
Lisa Ryan: What are some of how you allowed people to showcase those personal successes so that they felt a part of that company mission. It was everything from the vocabulary we used to the cadence of our work, for example, on vocabulary. We used to have a monthly meeting. We changed that to a celebration meeting. When we change that to a celebration meeting, we also had people showcase their successes each month, a different person or group got to do so, and we'd also celebrate some support that we provide outside the four walls of work. For example, at habitat for humanity, we would showcase the work that a group did at the habitat for humanity house the month before.
It's the vocabulary and then the cadence that the leadership is commanding versus the leadership by collaborating. It wasn't unusual for us as a group of leaders to change the jeans and go pick orders at three o'clock in the afternoon because we wanted to make sure that a warehouse person knew that we would do it. We were lousy pickers. Occasionally, if I had a driver that would call in sick and route needed to get run, we had a choice between contracting out, or if I had a lighter day, sometimes I'd go in and drive the truck that that morning and then come in and do get caught up on the work in the afternoon. It was a great way to know people then knew that you weren't above them and that you were genuinely there to help them. You were there to help them be successful at their job, and their job was essential.
One of the stories that I tell is that if I had a warehouse person call in sick or a counter salesperson or a customer service person call in sick, what happened, what happened is is that every ten other people were affected, customers might not have their product delivered. Others had to work overtime. There's all this chaos that happened when one team member on the front line called in sick. As the business leader, if I went to a conference that lasted a month, sometimes people wouldn't even know. So whose job is more important? Just understanding that a person who is that frontline worker is the one adding value. As a leader, your job is to organize that value in a most effective way to the customer. Making the customer competitively better than doing business with somebody other than your business is important.
The other thing I'd tell you is that feedback is outrageously critical and delivering it in a way that can be received well is important. Another story that I suggest is that I've got two kids, and they mean more to me than anything in the world. As a parent, I'm the one that's there cheerleading for them the most. I cheerlead for them 100 times more than I ever give them critical feedback. But, I do give them critical feedback, and I do so because I care about them. I want them to succeed and taking that type of attitude to your employee base and making sure that, through your everyday actions through your listening, through your caring through your behaviors, they understand that you're there to help them succeed as opposed to telling them what they did wrong. It is so essential, and that breakthrough comes from listening to a few times in this podcast, but it's listening and genuinely feeling, genuinely knowing; having an employee know that what they say matters that neither one of you are always right and that we're in this together for mutual success. It doesn't happen by sitting behind your desk.
Lisa Ryan: There were so many good tips. I love changing meetings to celebration meetings because