Kerry Wekelo: “Listen to Their Perspective”

Be Honest: Don’t beat around the bush. It is more productive for you and the other person if you be upfront and honest about your decision or reasoning. People are often understanding if you pinpoint the issue at hand. In my experience, I prefer direct feedback so I am not left wondering “what-if.” I can identify […]

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Be Honest: Don’t beat around the bush. It is more productive for you and the other person if you be upfront and honest about your decision or reasoning. People are often understanding if you pinpoint the issue at hand. In my experience, I prefer direct feedback so I am not left wondering “what-if.” I can identify the issue, fix it, and move on from there.

Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Wekelo.

Kerry Wekelo is the COO of Actualize Consulting, a financial services consulting firm based in Reston, VA and the founder of Zendoway, a company dedicated to supporting holistic wellness. She blends wellness into her leadership style to create an organizational culture based on respect, empathy, and positivity. She has authored two books on leadership: Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture and her newest title, Gratitude Infusion: Workplace Strategies for a Thriving Organizational Culture.

Thank you so much for joining us! 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?

Igrew up on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. My family had its own business, too, so I grew up learning the ropes of so many different positions within the firm. Despite having that business background, I was inspired to study psychology when I went to college. I was always drawn more personal topics and I have a knack for relating to people. My mom did encourage me to study something business-related, so I ended up double majoring in finance and marketing with a psychology minor. But even still, I am glad that I have always found a way to weave in empathy and lead with a more personal touch. I feel true to myself when I lead from the heart.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Actualize, we have a deep focus on our culture. A lot of companies are all about profit and the services they offer, without realizing that employee wellness plays a large part in the success of the organization. After I went through a personal journey working with my own wellness, Actualize began to focus on the holistic wellness and happiness of its people. We now have the lowest attrition rates we have ever had, and we have two books, Culture Infusion and Gratitude Infusion, that are actually case studies of this focus on our people. I think it means a lot that — especially as a financial services consulting firm who is known for its hard skills like Software Implementation, Business Process, complex financial instruments and Data Management — we blend softer skills and have a personality outside of just our expertise. Now, culture is one of those areas of expertise and it is truly something that we practice, not just preach.

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

Back when I was working for a government consulting firm, one of our clients was the Army. We were doing vendor demonstrations in a hotel, but there was a sales meeting next door to our meeting room where they were trying to hype up the crowd. The sales meeting was so loud, we couldn’t hear our own demonstrations. One of the higher up officers in the army told me that I needed to get the other room to quiet down. At first, I went to the front desk and asked if they were able to control the crowd next door. I went back to the demonstrations, but the crowd was just as loud as it was before. The next time the officer told me to get them to be quiet, I told the manager about the issue — but it still didn’t get fixed. Next thing I know, the officer gets in my face and yells at me, telling me to get them to calm down — “NOW!” At that point, I walk into the room next door and pretend to be an audience member. I raised my hand as if I had a question, and I, in the midst of this huge crowd, tell them we cannot hear our meeting next door. Everyone in the room laughed at me, but they did quiet down. When I came back to the demonstration room, the officer called me the nickname “Killer” for the rest of the day because of the way I pacified that crowd. I gained his respect — it’s a funny story to think about to this day.

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?

One time as a team outing at Actualize, we rented a bus and went to different wineries around Virginia. We had delegated tasks and let other people plan the event, and it was going smoothly… until we showed up at one of the wineries, the one we had planned to eat at, and they didn’t have our reservation! Everyone was so hungry, but because they had had a few glasses of wine, we were able to laugh about it. The winery was nice and found some crackers and cheese for us to snack on to tide us over, and once we got back on the bus, we found someplace to eat on the way home. It was humorous, but at the same time, it was a good lesson that you shouldn’t delegate without double-checking that a person will follow through. You really need to be diligent with event planning!

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Take time for yourself, communicate, and set appropriate boundaries. When you take care of yourself, you are better able to attend to the needs of others and you have more room for patience and empathy. Be sure to openly communicate and encourage others to do the same, like if you just need some time off or if you have something you are dealing with. It is unrealistic to expect employees (or even yourself) to be on A-game all the time… sometimes, life just happens. Lastly, setting boundaries is immensely important, especially when working from home. Strive for work/life balance, and keep a sense of schedule to your working hours. For example, what time will you start work and what time will you end each day? Are you taking regular breaks?

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership isn’t just having a position of power — it is guiding and encouraging others to be their best. I think leadership also means having empathy for those you work with. Especially when tackling challenges or conflict, it’s important to handle it effectively and immediately, but also to remember to use empathy in every situation. Respect goes two ways — be sure to talk openly with your team to ensure you are all on the same page. Try not to take anything too personally, especially if something goes wrong or if someone makes a mistake. It is highly unlikely that your team would strive to do poorly. Often, it’s an accident or even something they are dealing with in their private life. Take every situation as a lesson.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Before a stressful meeting, seminar, or decision, I take time to breathe. I set my intentions to help serve people to their highest good. I lower the stakes by setting the intention to be my best self and remembering that even if I help just one person, I have made a difference. I find that the combination of breathing and setting intentions eases my mind and helps things go smoother. On days when I don’t do this, I feel less effective.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I joined Actualize Consulting in 2005 to help build out the internal operations, so I’ve had experience managing a team and giving feedback for over 15 years. In my time at Actualize, we have worked to build a culture of mutual respect and accountability. We look after each other at the firm, and that has immensely helped in the managing and giving of feedback — everyone knows that our feedback comes from a genuine, kind place. We do reviews twice a year and we have questions that ask our team to self-reflect. It’s like a discussion — we move forward by seeing what isn’t working, what is working well, what they enjoy, etc. Instead of pushing for someone to do tasks that he or she doesn’t care about, try finding items that more align with their goals and their talents. For example, we ask questions like, “What aspects of your position do you enjoy?” and “What aspects of your position challenge you?” This helps us better delegate tasks in the future.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

The biggest benefit to giving honest and direct feedback — and doing so as soon as possible — is that you save time. When you tackle the issue head-on, that clears up space in your mind for other tasks and helps to make sure the issue gets resolved going forward. People on your team will also have better relationships with one another when there is more open communication. Your team will know you support them when everyone is looking out for each other.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Start with Gratitude: Say what you are grateful for or what they did well. Receiving negative feedback can be hurtful to self-esteem, so it’s important that you also give the person some good to focus on. It is more encouraging than hearing only what was done incorrectly. At Actualize, sharing in gratitude is the first step we take when there is a conflict or if the feedback is necessary. It helps diffuse the situation and bring everyone back to the present moment.
  2. Be Honest: Don’t beat around the bush. It is more productive for you and the other person if you be upfront and honest about your decision or reasoning. People are often understanding if you pinpoint the issue at hand. In my experience, I prefer direct feedback so I am not left wondering “what-if.” I can identify the issue, fix it, and move on from there.
  3. Listen to Their Perspective: Many times, people have the tools they need to rectify the situation. Ask them what they would have done differently and see what lessons they have learned. This technique is something I practice with my kids. They know how to make a situation right or what they did wrong. Every conflict is a chance for a lesson.
  4. Use empathy: Nobody is perfect; people make mistakes. Everyone at some point in their life has been on the receiving end of negative feedback. Don’t make things a bigger deal than they are; chances are, most employees aren’t out to spite you. A mistake is just a mistake. Treat people how you would like to be treated.
  5. Look for a Lesson Learned: All we can ask of others is that they strive to be their best. Once you have identified an area for improvement, it is most important that they are working towards fixing or correcting that issue. When I use my 3P Method, Pause to Pivot to a Positive, I encourage others to take time to pause and center themselves and start pivoting to positive possibilities or a lesson learned. There is always some good that comes out of something negative, often you just need to look for it.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

In general, it is best not to give feedback over email. If possible, you should discuss it over the phone or in person. Words don’t tell the whole picture — you often need body language or tone to pick up on the meaning behind a conversation. If email is your only option, follow the same 5 steps mentioned above. Start with gratitude and keep it short and to the point. Be honest, listen to their perspective, and have an open conversation about how to move forward.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Feedback should be given as soon as possible. It can potentially wait a day or two if you need time to collect your thoughts but don’t wait until their performance review to tell them the situation. When we give feedback regularly and immediately, it is easier to help redirect to the right path.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

When I was in government consulting, I had a boss who made me do a lot of writing. Instead of her updating or enhancing the work, she made me do it myself. She made me strive for perfection. Although she was a little harsh at times, I now have a lot of skills that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. She also assigned projects based on personal interests. For example, the post office was one of our clients at the time and I was able to work directly with the marketing and graphic design department. It was my favorite project because the design was something I was interested in. Now, I try to do the same as I assign projects. When people work on something they enjoy, they end up doing a great job and they let their passion fuel them!

You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂

Especially with everything going on in the world right now, we all need to be more kind. Employ empathy when you can — you never know what someone is going through. Kindness also has a domino effect — the more you radiate, the more others will follow suit.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’ve decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

I think it really takes effort to actively hate or be unkind. When we love other people, we don’t get bent out of shape over small things. We can be at peace in our own hearts by accepting other people for who they are. Life is more meaningful that way.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter — my handle is @kerrywekelo

If you’d like to be placed on my weekly email list or if you have any questions on how I can assist you or your organization, send me an email at [email protected]

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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