Photos by Marie Ketring + Words by Lisa Dahlberg
John Kemp, the executive director of Neighbors, Inc., has come full circle when it comes to his relationship with the organization where he works. At a recent YNPN Leadership Breakfast, he told the gathered group of young professionals how Neighbors, Inc. had helped his wife and daughter get to medical appointments when they first moved to the Twin Cities years ago. Now, he is the company’s executive director. He knows firsthand the impact his organization can have, and he came to breakfast prepared to discuss his experiences with us. To start off, Kemp echoed a familiar refrain, as leaders from all over the Twin Cities have advised young professionals during the Breakfast of Champions series: find a mentor if you wish to succeed.
“Probably the sagest piece of advice I could give to any of you is find one or two people who you really trust, and you really think highly of, who can be mentors, and let them mentor you. And you will grow faster, learn more, and become much more professional at your jobs if you can find those people in your lives.” Kemp went on to discuss the fact that he never had a mentor in a formal sense, but learned a great deal from a former choir director “who was a great teacher, but who maybe didn’t even realize he was teaching.” Nevertheless, Kemp took value in his relationships with informal mentors and, in turn, has made sure to mentor young people in whom he recognizes potential.
Kemp went on to entertain us with stories of his days working in the advertising business, his love of Major League Baseball, and his lifelong passion for choral music. Eventually, he gave us several of his thoughts on leadership with the joking disclaimer, “I always have an opinion, and sometimes I’m right.” Despite his Midwestern modesty, his thoughts about leadership were worth repeating.
Actions speak louder than words.
A former mentor of mine had a poster up on his wall that I still can’t get out of my head after twenty-five years. It said, “I can’t hear what you you say, because what you are rings so loudly in my ears.” Very powerful learning for me, very powerful statement. And it applies to everything that we do. It’s how you act, it’s how you behave, it’s the things that you do that brand you. It’s not what you say. And so if you’re saying one thing and doing something else, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying. It’s not believable. And people aren’t gonna follow you. If your actions are expressing your leadership, then you’re gonna be fine.
I’ve worked very hard to create a culture in which people know that they will not be punished for making a mistake. The job is to figure out how to fix it, and then we move on. Now, if you keep making the same mistake over and over again, you’re probably not much of a learner, and you’re probably not going to stay with the organization for very long. But it’s perfectly fine to make mistakes: that’s how you learn. We all make ‘em.
That doesn’t mean that you let people get away with things. That just means that you set expectations, you insist on meeting those expectations, you enforce the rules, and if you find that you have folks who can’t meet expectations or won’t meet expectations, at some point, you make a difficult decision and you ask them to go someplace else. But be fair with everybody always, no matter what your personal thoughts might be about them or some of their behaviors—fairness, for everybody, is really critical.
Everybody is an individual. I think the greatest model for that is what you see happening in the dugout of a Major League Baseball team. The manager makes sure he knows the idiosyncrasies of every single person on his team, and he’s able to deal with that person in a way that is most effective for them. And it may be different from how he deals with somebody else, but it’s what’s most effective for them. There are some people that need a kick in the pants. They need a kick in the pants? Give ‘em a kick in the pants. There are some people who need a pat on the back. When they need a pat on the back, give ‘em a pat on the back. Everybody responds differently to different kinds of stimuli. Know the people you work with, and treat them as individuals. Don’t ever think that you can treat everybody exactly the same and make it work.
Maybe one of the great truths (and it’s not about you): it’s about other people, the people you lead, or want to lead. It’s not about “me,” it’s about “us.” Good leadership puts the interest of other people ahead of yours.