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Kellie Haines on How To Navigate Uncertainty.

Kellie Haines is Chief Executive Officer of Axios HR and is a thought leader on the topic of leadership. In this interview, they share insights with The Industry Leaders about how to navigate uncertainty as a business leader.

Could you please share a bit about yourself, your background, and the journey that has led you to become an entrepreneur? What makes your perspective unique on the subject of leadership and navigating uncertainty?

My name is Kellie Haines, and I was born and raised in a small town in mid-Michigan (Owosso). My mother was a teacher, and my father started his career as a firefighter but transitioned into entrepreneurship when my brothers and I were very young. My parents were the most influential in my going into business and entrepreneurship.

My mother was the oldest of five children of which she helped raise because her family owned a farm. When my grandfather took a good job with General Motors in Flint, Michigan, my grandmother was left to manage the farm with my mother and her brothers and sisters. This instilled a strong work ethic and the belief that accumulating wealth involved owning property and generating income from it. Eventually, my mother became an artist and ultimately an art teacher. While she taught nine months out of the year, we spent summers building clay birdhouses and selling our creations at craft and art fairs. We were taught very young that imagination, creativity, work ethic, and calculated risk taking are some of the best assets that take you far in life. My mother found something fun for us (playing with clay) and turned it into learning how to generate income and the freedom to spend it on whatever we wanted as kids.

My father took these values further and demonstrated how building and owning your own business not only built wealth but also allowed for you to craft a vision and execute your dreams. He owned and sold three to four businesses during his lifetime, all of which solved unique challenges.

Their lives demonstrated to me that even when there are ups and downs in business cycles, market demands, and cash flow, if you allow yourself to be creative, collaborative with others, and work hard you can ultimately solve any challenge and be successful. It is up to you to take the reins and not wait for others to tell you what to do.

You and your business have presumably faced some interesting challenges and changes over the years. Can you describe a key moment when you felt uncertainty was at its peak?

I have had several moments in my career when I felt like I was 100% uncertain about my next step or if the business would survive.

Three big ones come to mind. The first was during my pregnancy for my second child. The doctors told us our son had one non-functioning kidney. The good news was this was not life-threatening in itself, but it could’ve resulted in life-threatening illness. They wouldn’t know until after birth. At this time, I was just three years into the startup of a new business line. There was no question that if I needed to step away from business 100% after the birth, I would. I lived for the next three months with a lot of uncertainty, which ultimately taught me that you always need to plan for your replacement—You cannot be the only reason people do business with your organization. I had a great team at the time, but frankly, I learned that I hadn’t developed them enough, and if I needed to walk away (for however long), the business could be in jeopardy. I spent the next four months ensuring that if I could not come back, the entire team was in a position to run and grow the business. The major takeaway was to always hire people better than you, train them, and get out of their way. Let your team fly. Also, I’m happy to say my son was just fine, and the business was better off after that experience.

The second example was during the 2008 financial crisis. Our revenue dropped 75% in a matter of three months and the business needed to be diversified more. The bank got nervous and asked for a lot more guarantees. It became stressful because credit and debt were never an issue, but now it was. The lesson learned here is that you must have solid relationships with trusted advisors. If they know and trust you, they will come through for you. We executed every single milestone in our agreement and even paid off all debt early. Do what you say you are going to, and it will all work out. Use your creativity to build contracts with everyone’s interest in mind and remember to continually communicate the progress along the way.

The last and most recent was the COVID-19 pandemic. This time was the most uncertain from a business perspective—No one had solid information, speculation was happening, and fear was prevalent. The lesson I learned is simple: trust your experiences and gut. If something doesn’t seem right, it likely isn’t. Be open to learning both sides of situations and collecting diverse feedback and opinions. Simultaneously, don’t back down on what you know is right for your organization and employees. Ultimately, you will make good decisions that not only meet your needs but the needs of others. Do the hard work to educate yourself and others for the greater good.

From your experience, what are the core principles or values that guide a leader during uncertain times?

I’ve developed a few key principles that have guided me through uncertain times, and some are even core values for Axios HR: • Team before self – The power of many minds is much better than one. Serving the interest of all has a far greater impact that the interest of one or a few. • Do the right thing – Never stray from doing what you know is right. • Find a better way – Uncertain times call for creativity, imagination, and new processes. Be open to change and finding a new way. It takes practice. • People first – Serve people first before you serve yourself. • Believe in yourself – People look to you for support, vision, and outstanding communication when things are uncertain. Know that you have the capability to bring strong leadership to your team or community. • Steady and slow is better than erratic and fast.

How do you cultivate a culture of resilience and adaptability within your team? Can you share a practical example where this culture made a significant difference?

I believe you cultivate a culture of resilience and adaptability by leading by example and practicing outstanding communication along the way. Encourage taking calculated risks and celebrate the lessons learned even when new ideas, ventures, processes, or products don’t work. If people see you are willing to take calculated risks and celebrate the lessons learned from failure, they will feel comfortable that even in uncertain times, things will work out in the end. My most recent example of this is from our most recent acquisition. Generally, acquisitions are complicated and bumpy along the way, but having a culture of resiliency and teaching new team members about what it means is what ultimately made our acquisition highly successful. Two excellent companies with similar (but not the same) cultures have become stronger together than each was when they were apart.

Many aspiring leaders struggle with the fear of failure, especially when the path ahead is unclear. What strategies or mental frameworks have you developed to overcome this fear and embrace uncertainty as an opportunity?

I use the power of my team to seek out information, opinions, and points of view. When I can gain insights and information from others, I am generally much more confident and comfortable that the decisions made will be successful. Also, I vocalize my fears with others to solicit advice on how to minimize my doubt. Humility is crucial when you’re not sure of the next move. Having very close trusted individuals who will always be honest and push my thinking without any judgement is essential to success.

In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes leaders make during uncertain times? Can you offer a real-life example where recognizing and avoiding such a mistake led to success?

Lack of clear communication is number one. Even if all you can communicate is uncertainty, communicating something is much better than nothing. My experience is people are not always looking for answers—They’re just looking to be assured the team is analyzing all options to pave the best path forward. In addition to communication, honesty goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to tell people you don’t have all the answers. Ask for help (even when it’s hard) and solicit the opinions of those you trust.

Looking towards the future, how do you plan to continue evolving your leadership style to meet new uncertainties and challenges? What advice would you give to others looking to do the same?

My advice is simple: ask more questions and listen more. Always be open to learning new things, talk to many people, leverage the knowledge of others, hire people much better than you, and let them soar. There’s always something to learn from others. Take calculated risks, try new things, and fail fast. Don’t let yourself get in your way.

You've clearly demonstrated a willingness to learn and grow through experience. Are there any books, mentors, or resources that have particularly influenced your leadership style? How would you recommend others to approach their leadership development journey?

There are so many great books and resources. Harvard Business School has so many great articles and case studies. University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chicago School of Business, and many others have many great resources.

Other material and mentors that have influenced my leadership include:

• The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and Good Leaders ask Great Questions by John C. Maxwell

• The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni

• What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

• Peter Drucker’s Management Theory

• Greg Mutch at AG Collaborative in Grand Rapids, Michigan

For those who want to learn more about your leadership philosophy or explore the products and services offered by your company, what's the best way to connect with you or find out more about your work?

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