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Tips From The Top: One On One With Jeremy Kroll

I spoke to Jeremy Kroll, co-founder and CEO of K2 Intelligence, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Jeremy: Thanks for the opportunity to share my story. I have a background in the arts and actually aspired to be an artist. Before college, I was fortunate enough to take a gap year and live in Italy, where I learned the language, worked in a kitchen in Florence, and discovered a love of painting in a region home to many of history’s great artists and creative minds. During that experience, I was also able to witness history by being in Berlin the week the wall fell. Being there at that time in history was truly remarkable and shaped my world views. 

Taking this time and a path less traveled and enabled me to define myself in a way different from my peers.  Learning how to communicate with strangers, build relationships internationally, and fully comprehend the impact of world events through seeing, touching, feeling, all helped to build a solid base for my longer journey.  

Adam: How is running a business with your dad? What are the best lessons you have learned from him?

Jeremy: Working with my dad over the last 23 years – including 10 years as partners – is the best professional asset I have. Personally and professionally, it’s almost like I’ve had two lifetimes with him. I never take for granted all the extra time together business building, receiving his mentorship, and also being able to teach him a bit along the way. 

Jules’ capacity to be creative and find a way to make an impactful, different business or product that is commercially successful is an artform, being creative in solving problems is central to our business.

He always demonstrates to me, one should never miss an opportunity to connect on a human level with the people you work with. It’s easy to be the boss, but that’s not leadership. Leadership is about making meaningful connections with your colleagues. 

The company or the investment will never be successful without a comfortable, engaged, and stable team. Your job as a leader is to, often times, be supportive. How do I help you? How can we help you? 

Having “vision” is an oft-heralded leadership quality – I take that as a given. However, while solving problems for/with your colleagues is less sexy than the vision thing, it is absolutely essential to fulfilling a leadership role. 

Adam: What are your best tips on making family run businesses work personally and professionally?

Jeremy:  You have to have an “Al” – a third person who is deeply trustworthy, can understand different perspectives, and say or hear things more easily than the two parties can. For us, this is Al Bernikow. He allows us to both be better, individually and together. He is pivotal in our partnership and relationship, helps mitigate conflicts that come up, and really fosters the best out of us. 

I also cannot underscore the importance of a strong partner outside of business, specifically a strong marriage to somebody who is smarter, stronger, and has a different vision or perspective. The voice of that person is so fundamentally different in business. Watching the partnership between my mother and father from a business perspective was an amazing modeling opportunity, and I am truly lucky to have that with my wife. She pushes me out of my comfort zone and challenges me to get stuff done. Results are a lot more valuable than words.

Adam: Your brother is a well-known actor and comedian. What have you learned from his journey and success? 

Jeremy: As I mentioned, I started out in the arts and actually had a brief, perhaps failed year in the movie business – it clearly was not for me. I think that makes me appreciate my brother’s journey that much more. I’ve admired his professionalism, work ethic, creativity, and ability to push boundaries across multimedia. He is an incredible leader, very collaborative and supportive, fostering a team environment in an industry that can be unforgiving and cutthroat. He lifts people up, and despite his own creativity and talent, he succeeds by helping others succeed. 

He has taken a path that I don’t think I could have taken, so I admire him and relish in his success and know that he deserves it. He’s completely built this on his own. There’s a lot of pressure to do that and succeed, and he keeps at it every day.  

As a family, from our parents to my two sisters, to our respective spouses and now all of Nick’s nieces and nephews (12 in total), we are all so appreciative of Nick’s talent. It’s frankly remarkable how he is relevant across all of our respective age and peer groups. 

Adam: Your company has worked on numerous high-profile projects. What advice do you have for leaders interested in cultivating relationships with prominent organizations and then effectively executing when hired?

Jeremy: For the work we do, whether high-profile and public or not, we rely consistently on one factor: it really comes down to the human element. For example, following Hurricane Sandy, we helped protect taxpayers and communities from fraud, waste, and abuse in the reconstruction process – the people we were working with were deeply impacted financially, emotionally, and physically. We had to make sure we were there for them, and showed empathy in everything we did, going above and beyond to earn their trust during a very sensitive time. 

Our business is fundamentally based on trust and integrity. That’s not just in our work product, but how we actually build our relationships with our clients. Whether it’s being appointed by a federal or state regulator for an AML (anti-money laundering) monitorship on behalf of a global financial institution; providing data analytics litigation support to the Bernard Madoff Trustee overseeing the recovery of assets stolen in this fraud and unprecedented Ponzi scheme; or identifying hackers who gain access to a high-profile entertainer’s varying online profiles, we have to go beyond just sending the bill and really build a relationship to earn that trust.  

Connecting on a human level, demonstrating that we care, we’ve thought about what their challenges are, and getting a result – it’s not a complicated “secret sauce,” but it is a differentiator. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jeremy: In today’s day and age, authenticity is in rare supply, but has never been in higher demand.

If you strive for excellence and expect to hold people accountable in your organization, it is even more essential than ever to be transparent about shortcomings. Be open to quickly admit to making a mistake. Be vulnerable, it’s the best way to learn, or improve. Fallibility isn’t a crime, and no one is perfect.  Always take the opportunity to confront the mistake and grow from it. Bottom line. “Lead by example” as they say in the U.S. Marine Corps.  

And by the way, SPOILER ALERT: there are no secrets today, and eventually, these instances are going to be uncovered no matter what. If you admit the mistake in an open way, and people are confident enough, they know they have permission: they’ll be given the opportunity to learn from a mistake, too.

Even if it’s not your own mistake, take accountability on behalf of your organization – “I made a mistake,” “We got this wrong.” Effective leaders should identify opportunities to share with a coach, mentor, or therapist to help recover from mistakes and learn from them.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Jeremy: 

1) Accept early that you won’t, and can’t, know everything – if you go in thinking you are better than everybody, you are going to fail. To this end, decide whether you’re a specialist or a generalist, and fill out your team in a way that helps you address your blind spots. 

2) Foster the right environment for a team. Create an environment where they are able to support you, and you are able to support them. Always seek constructive criticism from those that you work with, and those that you don’t work with but respect.

3) Build relationships with the right kind of investors. Only you know what this looks like, and often times, it’s not what you expect. Find an investor that understands that capital today is fungible, but culture is not. Pick the investors that when the chips are down, you feel confident they will be constructive and be your partners instead of jumping back to the other side of the table. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jeremy: From my late Grandma Florence (“Flo”): “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Also, from Grandma Flo: “Cheap is expensive.”

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Jeremy: Never miss an opportunity to counsel someone in their career and make at least one meaningful introduction a week without any strings attached. 

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Jeremy: I really enjoy art, I used to ski and golf. But now, my favorite hobby is really cooking with my wife – and I wish I did it more. I recognize that with a very full family life and full work life, I found a career that I get to activate what makes me happy and engaged on a daily basis. I run home every day after work to be with my family, and run to the office because I enjoy learning from my team and what we do. 

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Jeremy: In life and your career, take the time to find your true voice. It is your greatest superpower, but you have to be vulnerable and have had to struggle through challenges in order to truly access it.  

I didn’t have a linear path: I took a gap year, studied art, worked in a kitchen, thought I could work in a field that resonated from a consumer perspective (but wasn’t right for me), and then organically discovered a field that fascinated me and I got to work in it with my father…completely unexpectedly.  After working for 11 years solid helping to build our former family business, take it public, and sell it, I needed to spread my wings and returned to school at 36 years old to continue discovering who I was as a person and professional. 

While it’s kind of full circle that I came back to a career in international business, taking all of these experiences to understand the fundamentals of cross-cultural communication and how to create deep, meaningful relationships helped me more than I can imagine. And I am still learning every day.

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