Practice gratitude: There is always something good to look for in every situation. Sometimes that could even just be a lesson you learned. During this pandemic, I am grateful that Actualize employees are already accustomed to working remotely. I am glad that as a service provider, Actualize still has stability because it can help clients in many different ways. I am grateful that our employees have stepped up for clients during this transition too. They are asking how they can better assist with current projects, even if the scope of work may have changed.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Wekelo.
Kerry Wekelo is the COO of Actualize Consulting, a financial services consulting firm, and founder of Zendoway, a company dedicated to holistic wellness. After feeling burnt out at work, she realized she needed to infuse wellness into all aspects of life, even her leadership style. Because of this infusion, Actualize Consulting is certified as a Great Place to Work and was identified as a Top Workplace by The Washington Post.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Kerry! 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?
When I went to college, my mom encouraged me to pursue something “practical.” While I did enjoy what I studied, I ended up with a double major in finance and marketing based on that suggestion. I also made room for something I really enjoyed, psychology, with a minor. Right out of college, I got hired by a big consulting firm, which is how I got into consulting. Consulting was a good mix for me, allowing me to use my business acumen and a knack for people. Then, in 2005, when my brother founded Actualize, he asked me to help build out the internal operations of the firm. I always joke I have three kids — my biological children, and the other child I helped raise, Actualize. Actualize was like a passion project for me. Even after the internal operations were built out and we were externally becoming successful as a firm, we still had high attrition rates. Internally, I saw this as a failure. We really strived to transform the culture of our workplace by focusing on our people. I’m happy to say that we took our attrition rate from 33% to 1% after implementing numerous changes. That’s exactly what I wrote my book, Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture, about. It’s the case study of how our corporate culture came to be as successful as it is today, by infusing the same principles I value in my own personal life. I’ve really found that my passion lies in making our workforce mindful and leading by example with balance. I’ve also been inspired by gratitude, which I consider a piece of mindfulness. I’ve found success by being grateful — I spend less time worrying, less time stressing, and overall, I am happier. It has totally changed my life. So much, in fact, that I was inspired to write a supplement to Culture Infusion, called Gratitude Infusion, which will be available this summer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Honestly, the outbreak of COVID-19 is one of the most interesting things to happen during my career. This is something that I and many others have never experienced. With this new territory also comes new challenges. Although our firm has a lot of experience working from home, there are some new items all of us had to juggle. For example, with school being canceled, both my kids and the kids of our employees are home during the workday. There is also more isolation in the workday than ever before because we cannot be in our offices. The question many firms are now asking is, “how do we keep our teams feeling uplifted during these uncertain times?”
Lucky for me, I thrive on creative problem solving and have enjoyed coming up with different ideas to support our team and our wellbeing. We’ve started incorporating Zoom mindfulness breaks and virtual happy hours — a fun way to make us feel less distant as a team. Many years ago, I created a tool I like to call the 3P Method: Pause to Pivot to a Positive. You pause to allow all feelings and pivot out of the negative spiral by focusing on something positive — like gratitude or a lesson learned. This is a tool we always use at Actualize, and I find we are getting a lot of good use out of it now. Although times are hard, it has been amazing to see how we are still pulling together as a team.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Workplace culture is created by leadership — so it’s up to the leaders to create a good one. I am a big advocate for self-care. Taking time to focus on our well-being has an immediate effect on our demeanor and our leadership style. Think about it — when we are stressed, how do we interact with others? It is likely that we are unkind or impatient. When we are in a good mood, we see the best in people. We as leaders need to take care of ourselves because that trickles down to our employees.
Self-care also means employing self-awareness. It means identifying our goals, aligning our leadership style to those goals, and taking accountability for how we reach them. It means engaging effective communication techniques like active listening so that we can spend more time reaching an understanding and less time arguing about feeling misunderstood. All of these are pieces of the puzzle when it comes to a great culture. And the best part is, once you put all of these things into practice, you are leading by example and encouraging your employees to do the same. It has a domino effect that leads to happier team members.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute. This was one of the first things that helped lay the groundwork for improving Actualize Consulting’s corporate culture and led to Culture Infusion. It is a book that talks about the power of taking accountability in all situations and recognizing every side of the story. I knew after reading it that one of the main issues Actualize was facing was that we were not aligned as a leadership team. Once I had this “Ah-ha” moment, I asked the firm’s partners to read it as well. From that point on, everything shifted. Our company culture is as strong as ever, and we have this book to thank as the catalyst.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
For me, being mindful means staying grounded at the moment. Subconsciously, we are constantly bombarded by thoughts. It’s human nature — but to bring your attention back to the present can be really powerful. It can stop any anxiety or worry and remind us of the here and now. For example, place your feet on the floor and take a moment to notice your surroundings. What do you see? What do you hear? That’s mindfulness! It doesn’t have to be hard — it’s actually really easy!
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Personally, since incorporating mindfulness, I find myself less stressed, happier, and more able to cope with life’s challenges. Mindfulness has given me more time overall as I spend less time focusing on things out of my control. But actually, the benefits of mindfulness are empirically sound as well. The American Psychological Association cites multiple studies of people using mindful techniques who reported ruminating less on issues, increasing their working memory, having the greater cognitive ability, and more!
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Practice gratitude: There is always something good to look for in every situation. Sometimes that could even just be a lesson you learned. During this pandemic, I am grateful that Actualize employees are already accustomed to working remotely. I am glad that as a service provider, Actualize still has stability because it can help clients in many different ways. I am grateful that our employees have stepped up for clients during this transition too. They are asking how they can better assist with current projects, even if the scope of work may have changed.
- Breathe: There is nothing “easy” about this pandemic. It has brought us collective trauma and isolation because it affects everyone. To bring your attention away from this and back to the present, breathing is extremely effective. We recently incorporated this at work as we have started scheduling 15–30 minutes for a mindfulness Zoom call. In our latest call, we did an exercise that my teacher, Sonia Choquette, taught, which is a four-part breath. First, ground yourself and notice your surroundings. Next, take the tip of your tongue and place it on the roof of your mouth as you breathe deeply. This activates the vagus nerve and sends signals to our brain to calm down. Then, make an audible exhale as you breathe. Lastly, smile.
- Focus on what you can control: So many things are out of our hands right now. More variables are being thrown on us than ever before; kids must stay home, we cannot leave our homes… the list goes on. But no matter the situation, look for things you can control. For example, my son is struggling with doing his math now that school is being held virtually. It is hard for me to double as his teacher and keep him accountable, so I decided to hire a virtual tutor to supplement his class time learning. I also have a team member who was struggling to keep her child entertained, so I suggested she see if there are virtual classes or teachers available. Since her child is really interested in music, she ended up finding a virtual music class.
- Take time to reflect on what is truly important: My kids are usually very busy with sports and other activities. Now that those are canceled, I have more time to see them and learn sides of them that I couldn’t before with so many things in their schedules. For example, my kids are very creative — they’ve now reorganized their rooms to make space for their virtual learning. We’ve even gone through our previously untouched craft room and spent time tie-dying white clothing.
- Focus on being your best self: Set some goals for yourself during this free time. For example, since sit-down restaurants are closing, use this time to learn how to cook if you do not know how to already. Making healthier choices in our day-to-day life and turning them into habits can enhance our mental wellbeing greatly. Additionally, be helpful to others — find a way to give back where you can. Reach out to those who need a helping hand or someone to talk to. Even virtually, there are ways to give back. My son and I tag-teamed a video for our local homeless shelter to keep the kids entertained. I read a book aloud while he acted out the scenes.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’ll give you an extra step! I often teach 6 principles in my seminars and coaching:
- Complete an activity that you love each day: This is self-care at its most basic level. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes, spend some time doing something for yourself.
- Openly communicate: This is especially important since we are confined to our homes and those we live with. When conflicts arise, focus on listening and sharing feelings with others instead of assigning blame. Additionally, utilize video calling to see and connect with others outside of your home.
- Pause and breathe: Always strive to stay mindful of the present moment instead of worrying about the future.
- Move your body: Try out yoga, virtual workout classes, or walks around your neighborhood. Anything to get your blood pumping and clear your head.
- Nourish yourself: Choose healthy fuel whenever possible and feel the difference!
- Monitor your thoughts: Times are tough right now. Pivot to being your best and stay optimistic.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Breathing is a free, fast, and effective way to be more mindful and present. Even just taking one deep breath can do wonders. If you want to get more creative in your exercises, I actually created a Zendoway Cube, which is a cube made out of stress ball foam, just for breathing. Each side has a mindful breathing prompt. You can roll it, toss it, or just pick a side to land on an effective breathing exercise.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I love this affirmation from Louise Hay: “All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation, only good will come.” I think this is relevant to all of us right now — we all need to stay optimistic and trust that everything will work out. No matter what happens, we will come out of this with a greater appreciation of life. Since being forced to shelter in place, I have begun to see all that I took for granted. Now, at the very least, even if no other good has come from this situation, I know there is a lesson learned.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
In addition to breathing, gratitude is another free and efficient way to bring your attention back to the moment. This is a movement I would definitely like to start. If we could get everyone to focus on the good, there would be a lot less of the bad in the world. Our lives are told through our perception; if we remain optimistic, we will spend a lot less time spinning on situations or issues, and more time living and appreciating what we have.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I send out regular tips, stories, and ideas on my email list. If you’d like to be placed on it, you can shoot me an email at [email protected]. You can also use that email to contact me with any questions or comments! Otherwise, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @kerrywekelo or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerryelam/
You can check out my wellness company, Zendoway, here: http://www.zendoway.com/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!