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Killian Hemmy of ATSG Corporation: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the bes”

Maintain quarterly counseling and annual performance reviews that accurately reflect efforts: This should be a desirable thing for all employees but is a necessity for anyone to whom you delegate. You have to be able to qualify and quantify their work product and their efforts. I’ve had employees in the past whom, for a variety of […]

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Maintain quarterly counseling and annual performance reviews that accurately reflect efforts:

This should be a desirable thing for all employees but is a necessity for anyone to whom you delegate. You have to be able to qualify and quantify their work product and their efforts. I’ve had employees in the past whom, for a variety of unacceptable excuses, I did not engage in meaningful reviews of their performance in a timely fashion. When some of them stumbled or failed in meeting their work goals it became a herculean task to get them back on track because we had to go through and review their entire work history to figure out where the wheels came off the track and then fix it. And for those who did not falter, a lack of meaningful feedback was equally damaging to the organization because it prevented us from making their efforts even more impactful to our mission.


As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Killian Hemmy.

He is currently the CEO of ATSG Corporation, a knowledge-based services provider to both the private and the public sector with staff placed all around the world. While at ATSG, Killian has helped further grow the company internationally by opening corporate branch offices in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica. Killian’s ability to lead and effectively delegate comes, in part, from hard lessons learned during nearly 20 years of service in the Marines and in the FBI.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

Absolutely! I have a bit of a different background than most others working in leadership positions in my industry and across others. I spent nearly 20 years working in the U.S. Government as a Marine Officer and an FBI Special Agent. Although my journey to where I am now isn’t the typical path that most of my contemporaries took, I am extremely grateful for the attributes and qualities I have developed along the way — particularly when it comes to leading people.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Over the course of my career (or careers depending on how you look at it!) I have encountered many difficult times. Leading people during times of war is particularly difficult. There are the obvious perils that come to mind but there are also countless intangibles that matter to your people that will absolutely determine whether you succeed or fail in your mission. A few examples — how do you keep the momentum going in the face of adversity and build resilience in your people, your processes, and your organization? During the years that I spent working in hostile and unfavorable places, I learned quite quickly that if you lost momentum when faced with setbacks, obstacles, or failures, the likelihood of succeeding was almost always zero.

This is absolutely as true in business as it was for other parts of my career.

It is your job as a leader to help people understand their own “why” for what they are doing. If people can remember their “why” for what they are doing, no matter how difficult (or mundane) the task, they will be able to get it done. The only way for you, as a leader, to help people understand their why is to practice empathy and engender open communication not just between you and those junior to you but amongst everyone in the organization.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When I first started at ATSG I made the mistake of holding an all hands meeting where I, and other leadership in the company and in subsidiary companies, made all sorts of prophetic proclamations about what was surely going to happen to our companies in the coming year and the exorbitant growth we expected. Mind you, I did all of this while still being new enough that I wasn’t 100% certain where the nearest bathroom to my office was or how to get to the lunchroom! We work in a very fickle industry where clients can change their needs and contracts can be awarded or modified as often as the wind shifts. Immediately following this meeting and through no fault of our own (client priorities shifted, and the federal government shut down for a long period of time) we experienced a massive contraction in our revenue and staggered for nearly half a year.

The lesson learned is one that I was actually taught when I first went into the military. “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” It is always good to have a healthy sense of optimism flowing through your people. However, you need to balance that with an equal dose of planning for disaster. When you plan for disaster you help blunt the pain and are able to respond more deftly and effectively when it does happen.

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

Our biggest standout is the fact that we, as a small business located in Northern Virginia, have successfully created, incorporated, and currently run branch offices in five Central American countries. This was not a light undertaking — it took the better part of a year and a whole lot of frequent flyer miles to make it all happen. Not many businesses with a corporate (non-contract) staff of less than 20 people can say that they have navigated these outlandishly difficulty waters.

We learned so very much from this undertaking that we now feel confident making it happen anywhere in the world where it will give us a competitive advantage.

More importantly, it gave us the opportunity to do something that few American chartered companies have the opportunity to do — hire local nationals from a foreign country, as employees and not consultants, and provide them with all the benefits they deserve and are entitled to in their country.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

There are plenty of people who have come before you, perhaps not in your exact specific field, who have tried to do what you are trying to do. Take the time to walk the graveyards of those who have failed before you and learn from what they did wrong. Next, look at the successes around you and emulate their good habits and processes. Lastly, constantly seek out ways to improve upon what you are doing. This will keep you operating as efficiently and effectively as you possibly can — all the time. Empower your people to do the same.

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?

I can trace the majority of my successes back to a handful of leaders I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years. One in particular was my last commander while I was in the military — Julian “Dale” Alford.

On a trip to Afghanistan in 2004 we realized that we were going to be working under the command of an Army General. We all thought that we would be relegated to the most mundane and least impactful role as the only non-Army unit there. However, Dale’s mantra that we all had to recite was “we’ll do windows and we will do them better than anyone ever has before”.

His rationale, which proved to be incredibly insightful and led to our success, was that we must all be willing to do whatever task was asked of us by the Army (our client) and do it so well that they would be anxious to see how successful we could be with the more difficult tasks.

Because of this attitude that was instilled in all of us, our unit ended up taking control of operations in nearly a quarter of the country and helped create a peaceful and productive democratic election for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?

Delegation is an extremely important skill and is one of those things that is most often overlooked by leaders and business owners. Today’s culture has created the illusion of the effective leader being the “hustler” who is always “grinding”. While being the hardest worker in the room has its merits and should always be the goal, that should not translate in leadership terms to being the person who intimately involves themselves in every single process or decision.

No one person can effectively be the best at every single task your organization has to accomplish. If you are doing your job correctly, you will have hired people who are in fact the best at their respective task. Rely on them. Moreover, empower them to do their job without your constant oversight or interference.

When you effectively delegate tasks to competent individuals you free yourself up to look at the path ahead. You can see opportunities on the horizon and figure out how to capture them. You will also be able to anticipate problems in the future and plan mitigation or management strategies to handle them appropriately.

Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?

Business, and other facets of life where you are called upon to be a leader, can be frightening. It feels much safer and more manageable to believe that you are in control by being intrinsically involved in the all of the decisions being made and actions being undertaken.

Ultimately you are responsible for what your business (or whatever element you are in charge of) does successfully or fails to do. If you are just starting out, your business may have to shutter the windows and pack it in based on your actions. If you are in an established position, you may have to answer to your board or shareholders for your decisions. With that level of responsibility for actions and those significant of consequences, it is seemingly very difficult to delegate your authorities to individuals who may not face or understand the same kind of repercussions.

In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?

It all comes down to trust, communication, and accountability.

Without properly trusting your employees to whom you have delegated administrative, operational, or financial decision-making authority you will never be able to have your organization advance and grow.

Trust, however, is built on communication. You must create an environment where you and the person or people to whom you have delegated responsibility know exactly what they are supposed to do, how to do it, when they are supposed to do it, and why they are doing it. Both of you must feel confident in their ability to perform the delegated tasks and in their understanding of why they are doing it and how it impacts the overall business.

Lastly — accountability. The point of having established trust and open communication is so that you can receive honest and timely feedback on whether or not the tasks you intended on having them accomplish by delegating to them are being accomplished in the way you intended. Accountability means that they receive routine (quarterly at a minimum) informal check ins on their performance and that they receive structured annual assessments that fairly and comprehensive assess their performance and provide feedback that specifically addresses deficiencies (and successes) and provides a clear path for improvement.

With all of these in place you will know if the person to whom you have delegated is doing what they should be doing. And, in so doing, you will be able to free your time and attention to growing your business.

Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.

1) Create defined roles and responsibilities for your leaders:

  • This is a lesson that pays dividends when it is put into practice. I currently have five of my employees running our branch offices throughout Central America. They are bestowed with nearly limitless authority and are responsible for the employment and wellbeing of nearly 100 employees amongst all of their offices. Even before the pandemic I was never able to visit the offices as often as I would have liked. However, they have a very clear understanding of what they are supposed to do in terms of employee management, what their obligations are to our clients, and what their limits are before they have to engage corporate. These clear definitions were put in place from the beginning, modified as necessary over time, and reviewed for improvement on an ongoing basis. Without these defined roles and responsibilities managing our branch offices would have been exceedingly difficult during this pandemic.

2) Maintain quarterly counseling and annual performance reviews that accurately reflect efforts:

  • This should be a desirable thing for all employees but is a necessity for anyone to whom you delegate. You have to be able to qualify and quantify their work product and their efforts. I’ve had employees in the past whom, for a variety of unacceptable excuses, I did not engage in meaningful reviews of their performance in a timely fashion. When some of them stumbled or failed in meeting their work goals it became a herculean task to get them back on track because we had to go through and review their entire work history to figure out where the wheels came off the track and then fix it. And for those who did not falter, a lack of meaningful feedback was equally damaging to the organization because it prevented us from making their efforts even more impactful to our mission.

3) Engender two-way trust:

  • As I stated earlier, the trust factor is absolutely critical in being able to appropriately and effectively delegate. We as people yearn to be trusted and most people want to experience autonomy in their efforts. As leaders, we want to be able to delegate with the confidence that our trust is appropriately placed. Earlier in my career I worked for a manager, not a leader, who would give great lip service to the concept of delegated authority. However, in practice this individual would far too often “parachute” into situations before I had the opportunity to actually do my job and try and “fix” things. Inevitably this would cause issues because our approaches to solutions were different and when two solutions to the same problem were being exercised at the same time it tended to exacerbate the initial problem. The final outcome of this type of management (not leadership) was that I felt as though this individual didn’t trust me despite my exemplary record of performance. When this person made empty statements about trusting me but didn’t back it up with actions that were synonymous it made me doubt and not trust anything ever said in the future.

4) Clearly communicate intentions and desired outcomes:

  • One of the things I learned in the military was “commander’s intent.” The commander’s intent is the desired outcome that is communicated to and understood by all members of the team. With a clear commander’s intent, even if your team encounters obstacles, loses communication with one another, or has to act swiftly without the time to seek approval in order to preserve momentum, they will know how to pivot or adjust their actions in order to accomplish the fundamental goal.

5) Take care of your people’s needs and they will take care of your work needs:

  • Again — an old adage adapted from military usage but equally appropriate for the business world. Everyone’s life is different, and each person has a unique set of needs. This is especially relevant at this moment in our history. Take the time to figure out what your people need (Flexible work schedule so they can homeschool their kids? Full remote work because they have a high-risk family member?), what they are working for (Health insurance for their family? A steppingstone to a job in management? Extra money to pay for their children’s school?), and what they need to do their job as well as they can possibly do it. Then — make it your job to help them as much as you possibly can to meet those needs. Those efforts will not be unnoticed and their loyalty to you and the mission of your organization will be unparalleled.

One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?

I personally do not believe in this saying. Quite paradoxically, I think this saying comes from a place of a deep-seated lack of confidence in one’s own abilities as a leader. If you are an effective leader, or willing to work to become one, you will have confidence that you have: a) picked the right person to do the job, b) trained them in order to succeed at that job, and c) held them accountable for whether or not they succeed in that position. When you have these things in place the job will be done right.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. 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. 🙂

I want people to learn how to become more resilient. Life can be tough, and obstacles abound. We learn resilience through experience but typically those experiences come only after something sets us back. I want to help people learn to navigate those crucibles in life before they get to them.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’m on LinkedIn and on Twitter and Instagram at @killianhemmy. I am also writing a book entitled “Reflections on Resilience” and have a podcast by the same name coming soon!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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