Challenge leads to innovation. If we continue to lean forward into experimentation, we will see dividends. Challenges like the ones we are facing right now force innovation, and that in turn leads to improvement. I believe that stasis and paralysis are the enemy — agility and action will help us get through this crisis and lead to some better outcomes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Kinnebrew, a senior business leader with over 18 years of experience in strategy, innovation and systems design. Currently she serves as CMO & Head of Growth Strategy for Waggl, the leading Employee Voice platform that crowdsources real-time insight to drive faster action and alignment around critical business topics. Previously, Alex designed and launched a global innovation lab network at Citi, bringing a strong lateral innovation focus to the bank’s diverse businesses. Prior to Citi, she directed corporate innovation strategy and capability building initiatives in healthcare, consumer goods, and education at Monitor Doblin (now Deloitte). Alex began her career at Gensler Architecture and pioneered a (now thriving) design strategy group charged with aligning business objectives and workplace design. Throughout her distinctive career she has focused on finding new ways to apply design thinking to solve a wide range of business challenges.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
My backstory is a bit winding — one that only seems to hang together in hindsight! I studied Russian and Environmental Science in college, then in my 20s worked in the fine art and creative publishing worlds. By 30, I landed myself in a specialized graduate degree program called Design Planning. I exited the program as part of an early wave of design trained people being injected into the business world. Within a short time frame, this intersection emerged as the practice of “innovation.” Eventually, I joined Monitor Group (now Deloitte), and helped Fortune 100 companies design new products and services, and implement innovation strategies and build innovation capabilities. I went from there to Citi, where I continued to focus on the application of design strategy and systems design by helping to build and scale a global innovation lab network. After the birth of my second daughter, I realized the one thing I had yet to do was to “build something from the ground up.” I began looking around for start ups where my unique professional experience could add value and was extraordinarily lucky to come across Waggl. Over the last 5 years, I have helped to build Waggl into the industry’s leading Employee Voice platform for HR leaders. My current role as CMO is a synthesis of many of my previous roles — growth, strategy, creative and innovation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
In 2017, Waggl decided to host its first ever customer event, Waggl Harvest, at a spectacular ranch retreat in Napa wine country as a way to energize our customers, raise brand awareness and launch a platform for thought leadership. My team had worked tirelessly for 8 months on event programming and production, as a labor of love and the pinnacle of our creative achievement to date. It was a Sunday night in October, and every last detail was ready to go. Half our company was just hours away from driving to the ranch site to welcome guests flying in from across the country. But at 4:00 am that morning, I woke up to the oppressive smell of smoke in the air and frightening news of massive wildfires closing in on the exact area where Harvest was to kick off in 36 hours. I remember getting on an emergency phone call with our CEO while it was still dark outside and making a swift and heartbreaking decision to cancel Harvest. Minutes later, I set in motion a complete reversal of everything we had worked toward for nearly a year. In retrospect, we were extraordinarily lucky not to have had the safety of 150 people at grave risk — especially when the devastation affected so many. I will also never forget the outpouring of gratitude and support from customers and friends of Waggl who kept our eyes forward and our spirits high. The following autumn, we were proud to host what became known as the “First-ever Second Annual Waggl Harvest,” and we now host the event on an annual basis.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Funny enough, this ties directly to my story about the 2017 Waggl Harvest that never was…! After two years of successfully hosting our event in 2018 and 2019, and catalyzing a passionate community of game-changing HR leaders, the global Coronavirus pandemic has presented us with another existential reason to cancel an in-person Waggl Harvest. My team is now focused on designing an interactive virtual experience for top industry leaders and strategic HR executives to dialogue with one another and share best practices about the topics that matter most to organizations right now — like work-life balance, productivity and engagement, and physical and emotional well-being of employees. Waggl is committed to helping organizations recognize the agile superpower of Employee Voice and building community amongst inspired leaders — even more so in the midst of difficult times.
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 father is a working artist, so I’ve always had an ‘in the trenches’ perspective on the business side of fine art, but growing up I was more drawn to the applied practice of design vs. art. One of my father’s contemporaries, and also a close friend to him, held what I’ve always described as a ‘proto design strategy job’ at Herman Miller. In the 1960s and 70s, he played a pivotal role in building and scaling that company into the icon it is today. His name is Robert Blaich (Bob), and he went on to have a highly influential career as a preeminent design executive and thought leader in the converging fields of design, strategy and business. Bob had known me from the time I was a baby and it was a special day in my late 20s when I reached out to him to ask his mentorship in traveling down the same career path. To start, he pointed me to a superb Masters program at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and I never looked back.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
As we all know by now, parents face a unique set of challenges when trying to work in a shared space with their families. It’s not enough to simply redirect young children — you need to be actively engaged with them on some level, and it can be difficult to do that while simultaneously concentrating on work. I feel very fortunate that my husband is actively engaged with child care, so I don’t have to shoulder that responsibility alone. And yet, I think there’s a swelling sense of anxiety for parents in general, and mothers in particular, about our children’s well-being in the face of this pandemic. It forces us to constantly weigh our family obligations against our work obligations, in order to ensure that we are giving our children the right amount of support, and those choices often feel more stressful and mutually exclusive than they did prior to the pandemic. I want to do a good job caring for my loved ones, without sacrificing my commitment to work, but it’s less clear how this is possible in our rapidly changing contexts.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We are definitely spending more time together with our kids. At Waggl, we’ve added some additional wellness days to our holiday schedule, offering an additional day around Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends so that employees can have 4 full days off with their families. We also added Juneteenth as a new annual paid day off. We are consciously trying to develop flexible, innovative ways for employees to structure their schedules to support overall wellness. For example, it’s critical that employees take their vacation time and unplug from work completely, even if they don’t leave their homes. I’ve been insistent on that point with team members that would otherwise stay ‘semi-plugged in’ simply because they can.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
I wish I had 12 more hours in each day, along with unlimited energy. I have an enormous amount of passion about my role at Waggl, and a huge commitment to the people I work with — I consider them my friends, as well as my colleagues. So, if I’m not showing up 100% at work, I feel I am doing them a disservice. And now, with the increased focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), I feel a sense of responsibility to be even more engaged. I feel the pull of needing to step in even more, as opposed to sitting back and watching or hoping that others take action. It’s giving me the desire to be bold and active in other spheres beyond work, as well. But there are only so many hours in a day, and an ever expanding list of things that should and could be done.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
It’s important to be realistic. In the beginning of the pandemic, many employees were trying to do the same amount of work in the same way they had once done it in the office, but found that it wasn’t possible. For example, many of us found ourselves falling behind on work due to the volume of Zoom calls that we suddenly needed to attend on a daily basis. It’s almost impossible to multitask when you need to be visibly engaged on Zoom all day and you are trying to home-school your kids, as well. So, we need to be realistic, in terms of our expectations.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
We are entering into a new work/life reality in which employees require greater flexibility in terms of when and how they complete their work, along with a revised set of expectations about how that work should be presented, as everything becomes more collaborative and real-time. There is less necessity for things to be 100% complete or highly polished before sharing them with colleagues. And there is a continuous re-prioritization of each task we take on, as we ask ourselves why we are doing it, and how it will serve our collective goals. It may not be a perfect balance, exactly, but it is headed toward a more harmonious co-existence. I also think it’s important to find some dedicated space in your home environment that you can call your “office,” even if it’s just some space at a table. Saying this is “my focus area” really helps.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Working from home can be difficult. There are always distractions big and small, and simultaneously it often takes on the feel of the movie “Groundhog Day,” where everyday feels exactly like the one before. Sometimes it’s hard to make meaning or measure progress without in-person meetings, trips and other events to punctuate the work week. Personally, I think it’s crucial to try to inject some fun into the work week. For example, our family has a new tradition we call the “Hot Lap” — we have a bell near the door, and when I ring it, we all run out the door (dog and all) for a quick jog down the street in between meetings. It always makes us laugh. And one of our team members has organized a trip to the Beach every other Wednesday afternoon, so that we can see one another in a safe, socially distanced way with our families. This kind of planned down time is critical.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- We have an opportunity to deepen our relationships. In the current pandemic mode, we’re almost forced to deepen our relationships with others (family, friends, colleagues, and more). This requires a more open, transparent, and vulnerable approach to communicating. Regardless of whether we are spending more time at home with family and loved ones than ever before, or whether we are going through this pandemic alone, we need to recognize all of the ways we are inextricably linked.
- There is massive acceleration behind the movement toward social justice. For me, the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movements are like an electrical node on a circuit where two elements — racism and sexism — intersect. It’s electrifying to experience a mass awakening to these issues, but it’s also frustrating that it’s happening in the midst of a pandemic, when we are so logistically challenged to get out of the house and take action. But there are many things we can do to help advance toward social justice. For example, at Waggl, we’ve started an innovative giving program, in which we offer a matching gift for any employee who wants to donate to a non-profit cause of their choice. We’ve also created a working group to address things like Board diversity, hiring practices and a DEI rubric to guide day to day business decisions.
- We are working on solutions as we go. Many of these trends were already underway before the pandemic, but now there is less emphasis on perfection and more on momentum. Design thinking teaches us that things get better in iteration, when you do them again and again, incorporating new learning as we go. I’ve been in my career long enough now that I know this discipline of convergence and divergence is ingrained in how I see challenges and work toward solutions.
- Challenge leads to innovation. If we continue to lean forward into experimentation, we will see dividends. Challenges like the ones we are facing right now force innovation, and that in turn leads to improvement. I believe that stasis and paralysis are the enemy — agility and action will help us get through this crisis and lead to some better outcomes.
- Adversity can make our commitment stronger. Adversity often makes the mind sharper when it comes to prioritizing activity. When you are operating in crisis mode/triage, you recognize what’s most important, and are able to very quickly and decisively take the right action. This can create a clarity of purpose that isn’t always available when we are stuck in a comfortable routine.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Active listening is the key. Part of working through the problems we are facing is the need and compulsion to share. We all need to listen with empathy. Our experiences are continually changing as we go through this global pandemic, the protests against social injustice, and other history-shaping events, and it’s critical that we keep the lines of communication open. Whether we are talking about work, parenting, homeschooling, health worries, economic problems, social unrest, natural disasters, or other challenges in our environment, as human beings we have more commonality in our experience than difference. We are all going through these things together, and we need to listen to one another in order to solve things collectively.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a few in mind but this one from the surrealist, Salvador Dali, always makes me smile: “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.” It seems especially apropos these days because, given that the world has been turned on its head, I think we’ll need to let go of many rigid assumptions and expectations of what life’s supposed to look like. Also, the quote causes me to think about where in my work or personal life I’ve become too focused on one idealized outcome — and thus close-minded to other alternatives. As my ten year old recently informed me, my King’s English grammar is not the only right way to speak! Finally, I like Dali’s quote because the quintessence of design thinking favors iteration over completion. Looking back, this has given me confidence in my career to try new things, whereas the pursuit of “perfection” has often been an unhelpful goal, when it comes to getting started and enjoying the process along the way.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can always find me on my personal LinkedIn account, as well as interviews and articles published on other 3rd party media sites. And my creative thought leadership is infused across Waggl’s content and brand development, including the Waggl blog.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!