Keeping a top workplace humming in a strong economy is one thing, when employers can hand out raises, throw cushy perks at their workers and make them happy with social outings and on-site beer taps. But managing a virtual workplace during three major crises — an economic recession, a health pandemic and social unrest amid widespread protests over racial injustice — is a monumental, unprecedented leadership challenge.
The Washington Post’s Jena McGregor spoke with four leaders from the region’s businesses over two conversations at the beginning and end of the summer about their careers and how they’re leading their organizations through unparalleled uncertainty: what they’ve done to remain flexible, how they’ve talked to workers about race, and what changes they see lasting in a future that seems harder than ever to predict. They also shared what they’ve learned about leadership in these difficult times, with listening skills and empathy a common theme.
Our winners are a former government executive who now leads one of the largest nonprofit membership organizations; a longtime consulting executive; a top international trade lawyer; and a start-up founder and former venture capitalist. We selected the winners using our annual survey with partner Energage. The study asks employees at hundreds of Washington-area companies to evaluate their bosses and selects the highest-ranked leaders from each category. The excerpts from our discussions have been edited for length and clarity.
The winner in the largest-employer category is Jo Ann Jenkins, chief executive of AARP, the nonprofit membership organization that advocates on behalf of people age 50 and over. Jenkins, who joined AARP in 2010 as president of its foundation, began her career with the Department of Housing and Urban Development before moving on to the Transportation Department, the Agriculture Department and the Library of Congress, where she was chief operating officer.
Steven Gunby, winner in the large-employer category, is president and chief executive of FTI Consulting, the business advisory firm. He joined FTI after 30 years at Boston Consulting Group, where he served as chairman of North and South America, as well as led the firm’s global Transformation and Large Scale Change practice.
Midsize-employer winner Kathy Cannon has worked at Kelley Drye & Warren for more than 30 years, becoming chair of the law firm’s International Trade & Customs Practice in 2012 and then managing partner of its Washington, D.C., office in 2015. Before returning to full-time work, she became the firm’s first previously part-time attorney to be named a partner.
The winner in the small-employer category is Alex Kinnier, who in 2015 co-founded GetUpside, a start-up that connects brick-and-mortar businesses with consumers seeking to save money. The former Google and Opower executive has also been a partner at the venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and New Enterprise Associates, or NEA. He was inspired to create GetUpside and make a more efficient market for local businesses after a visit to his hometown of Doylestown, Pa.
Jo Ann Jenkins,
chief executive, AARP
Q. How has the work of the organization changed amid the pandemic? What are your employees facing that they didn’t before?
Our members, and people over the age of 50, are coming to AARP as that go-to voice of reason about what it is they should or should not be doing. Our staff has had to adapt. The workload has been enormous. If, in fact, you’re someone who’s working on the website or the magazine, [you’ve had to] turn on a dime to totally focus on [the novel coronavirus], with information and stories and content about what our members need to know in the moment. The staff has had to adjust to what might have been a deadline of two weeks or four weeks, to deliver that in hours and in days. We’ve also seen our members come to us by the hundreds of thousands through our tele-town hall meetings. I think it’s been exhilarating and fast-paced while at the same time stressful. In many ways, what the covid pandemic presented us with was a no-options opportunity to transition faster in how we deliver digital content.
I think staff has found a lot of fulfillment in really trying to meet the needs of our members in this time of crisis and helping them make decisions, whether it’s about [novel coronavirus] or doctor’s visits or visiting their family at home or even learning the technology. We did an online video training [in the spring] with a company partner that normally would have 800 people online. We sent it out and 18,000 people showed up.
Q. Many workplaces are grappling with how to talk to their employees about the protests and about race. What has AARP been doing?
This is a continuous conversation — we’ve always been in the forefront of the conversations around social justice. But [in June] I held a conversation with our entire senior leadership team for about 90 minutes. As an African American woman myself, with an African American son and daughter, I know firsthand about how it feels to be Black and be an American. I told them I think this is an inflection point, that we have to have authentic conversations with each other and the staff about what we’re feeling about unconscious bias and about how we and the organization need to adapt and have serious conversations internally. But also, what does this mean for [AARP’s] social change agenda, and how can we as an organization address disparities?
I shared with the leadership team the fact that [recently], my son was going to drive his sister back to Pennsylvania, where she’s in grad school. These are adults, they’re 30 and 28. We decided that it was safer to put my daughter on an Amtrak and risk being exposed to [the coronavirus] than to have my son, a Black man, be in a car at night driving from Philadelphia to Washington. I can tell you, every African American mother in this country has probably had that same conversation with their sons. I heard from almost half of the leadership team members by email or text afterward saying how important it was for me to share that conversation with them, and wanting to know what it is they could do.
Q. What do you think is the most important leadership attribute amid so much uncertainty?
It’s about empathy and listening to others and listening to them tell their story. Not all [have] agreed with whatever I said or I didn’t say in terms of how we’re going to move forward. But to know that I was going to listen to them and hear their voice and hear their pain and listen to their ideas — I think that’s what’s so important. We are fortunate at AARP — we’re a group of advocates and we’re constantly fighting for something. And so this, I think, comes naturally. But at the same time, people come with very strong personalities and opinions about how we need to do things.
CEO, FTI Consulting
Q. What kind of practices have you introduced amid the pandemic to help employees navigate working from home?
Some segments juggled so that the people with two kids at home didn’t have as many demands on them, or if they could work and wanted to work from 8 to 11 at night and have the middle of the afternoon off, they could. It means people are not sitting there worried that they’re going to get fired if they don’t bill enough hours in a week. There were a bunch of changes about [expectations for billable hours]. Absolutely. There’s been an attitude of flexibility that has been embraced.
I would like our company to come out of this as strong as we can, and I think we will come out of this stronger than we went into it. That requires something of our people. But it cannot require something that people can’t give consistent with their family obligations. What I’m asking people to do is to do what’s right by their family, to do what’s right by their broader family. And then where they can, to throw themselves in and contribute.
Q. Have you had to do any job cuts since the outbreak began?
Q. Did you make any pledges that you wouldn’t?
I didn’t put a time frame around it. I don’t want to be critical of other firms. If you’re running a cruise line, your company’s presumably on the brink and you have to do what you have to do.
My company is not on the brink. My company was soaring going into [the pandemic]. I believe we’ll be soaring coming out of it. I don’t have the wolf at my door. There are lots of things that our people are nervous about that I can’t reassure on. I can’t reassure that I know when [the coronavirus] is going to end. I’m not sure anybody in the world has all the specific solutions to the George Floyd situation. But you know something, I can get rid of the anxiety of somebody feeling like their job is just going to get erased because of a couple bad quarters.
Who the hell knows, if this goes on for five or 10 years, what we will have to do? But we have zero plans — zero plans — at this point for layoffs. And I am going to do everything in my power to keep it that way.
[In a video call with employees,] I quoted a poem I read in fourth grade, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. The only line I remembered was the first line: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . ” And I think that’s my job here. If our company is in crisis, I have to act. Short of that, we have to, as a management team, keep our head and protect our people and protect our future.
Q. There’s been a lot of pressure for companies to take action in response to the protests. What are you hearing from employees and what does the firm plan to do?
You hear everything from just incredible outrage about the deaths — not just George Floyd’s, but the litany of deaths over many, many years — to people wanting to share their own personal experiences. If you open it up what you hear are some hair-raising experiences that many of our people have had or witnessed themselves. We’ve had informal forums and [in June sent out a note] to set up as many as 50 or 100 small-group meetings. I’ve never had the level of conversations that we ended up having on race in the workplace. The level of candor, the willingness to talk, the level of engagement — there were tears. It was amazingly emotional.
We’ve made more progress on diversity and inclusion initiatives over the last three to five years than ever in the history of our company. But you can’t lose this as an opportunity to turbocharge those efforts. If you don’t take this as an opportunity to challenge and say, look, what can we do more, what can we do better, then you’re not doing the right thing. There’s a lot of senior-level ownership.
Q. Amid so much uncertainty and unrest, what has been important when it comes to leading FTI?
One is, I think. you’ve got to be willing to step forward. I agonized over doing a 6,000-person call early in [the pandemic] because I didn’t have anything perfect to say. If somebody’s got a father-in-law in Spain in the hospital on a ventilator, I don’t have the right words to say. We all like to be perfect for everybody. But you can’t. I think you have to step forward and be in front of people.
You have to be authentic. And you’ve just got to be a little humble where you don’t have solutions.
Kathy Cannon, managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office, Kelley Drye & Warren
Q. How did you end up leading the D.C. practice of Kelley Drye?
My trajectory was probably a little different than that of many others. After I was with the firm for a few years, I had my first child and the firm was kind enough to let me go part time, which was pretty unusual. My son is [now] 33 years old. I remained in a part-time capacity with the firm until my second child, my daughter, went to college [in 2008].
I was given really good cases. I wasn’t relegated to secondary citizen status. I was the first person to go part-time in the firm, and I was also the first person to be named partner as a part-time attorney. One of the reasons that I wanted to step into this position [as managing partner of the D.C. firm] was to be able to show to the firm in a very visible statement that the firm was supportive of women, and supportive of these flexible arrangements.
Q. How have you been working amid the coronavirus to help people navigate working remotely?
We’ve been really sensitive to the certain people in our groups and our offices who are raising young children. They may not be available in the normal 9-to-5 time clock that you would work in an office because they don’t have child care. We have dialed into this a lot more because of the length of the coronavirus pandemic, as a lot of our parents have been faced with schooling children at home. We announced a policy that the firm would be amenable to adjusted work hours or altered schedules, or reduced hours, if people needed that. We’ve set up an arrangement for emergency backup child care, as well as resources for nannies or elderly care.
I’ve been a big promoter of millennials and of telework. Last year, even before coronavirus came along, I had proposed rolling out a more formal telework policy. I think the millennials sometimes get a bad knock [regarding their work ethic]. I’ll tell you what: You see the hours that the millennials in my firm are working — it is amazing. And they’re doing this juggling little kids. They are so committed and they are knocking it out of the park.
Q. What do you think has been the most challenging thing about adapting your workplace to the coronavirus?
Hiring is hard. We had deferred [that] because we wanted to be able to bring them in in the normal course. But we had the need for a couple of people. So we’re bringing them on virtually.
I think the main thing is people just miss getting to see each other, getting to spend time together. We have so many nice activities that have bonded us together. All of those, of course, have been scrapped. We are doing our work. We’re able to meet the deadlines and meet our clients’ needs. But the day-to-day interactions — not being able to see people, wandering into somebody’s office and go to lunch — that’s all been replaced. It’s doable. It’s workable. It’s just not as fun.
Q. What do you think this whole period will mean for women in the firm and their advancement?
I think that’s a good thing. Drawing back to where we started — I needed that flexibility. I needed that ability to sometimes be able to do my work from home. I do think this whole pandemic has reinforced all the more how well people can function in that environment, how very hard people work in that environment, even if you aren’t seeing them physically in the office. I’m hoping that that will get others to think more broadly.
Alex Kinnier, chief executive,
Q. You work with various merchants, including restaurants and gas stations, to help them build their customer base by giving consumers cash back. How did the pandemic impact your business, particularly when restaurants were closed, gas prices so low?
What does the world need right now? The world needs a vaccine. We can’t help there. But after that, [there are] a lot of consumers that need more purchasing power. They need to be able to afford the things that they need in their life, like groceries and gas. There’s a tremendous number of physical commerce merchants, like restaurants, that need more profit. We fit exactly in the middle of those two things. Because we sit in that intersection, business is booming. That’s great for our business, but it has also been this clarion call, this aligning factor for our team. And so it’s really focused us.
Q. What’s the most important thing for managers to practice amid so much uncertainty?
The world we used to be in — things could be standardized. Everyone came into the same offices. Everyone had the same schedules and the same routine. [Employees’] personal lives were on the same schedules and routine. School started at the same time. They took vacations like normal people. That’s all gone. But the way it’s gone and [how] it’s affecting each person is unique. And so what we’ve had to do is really focus and listen and learn for each individual employee.
We’ve hired our first chief people officer. She’s come in with a complete eye on helping people thrive in this environment. As part of that, we’ve rolled out a concierge medicine program that does includes telehealth. We pay the fees for our employees, spouses and dependents. We’ve also dramatically increased investment in enabling people to have home offices. We’ve given every employee a list of essentially everything that we can think of that they might need to be productive at home — office furniture, equipment, speakers, cameras, anything you can think of — it’s paid for by the company.
Q. How have you been thinking about reopening the workplace?
Until everyone, from a legal perspective, can go back to the offices and two, from our own judgment they can go back into office and be safe and healthy, we will be a remote-first work environment. What does that mean? It means that you can work from home if you want to and if you are productive. And if you come into the office it’s because you want to or you need to be productive.
We’ve surveyed our employees several times now and the answers we’re getting back are very clear. The large majority wants to come back to the office. I think it makes sense if you think about it. They signed up to work for a company that has offices. So it’s natural the majority of them will want to continue that.
Q. Are there some things you could see being permanent in terms of the changes that you make?
There are definitely employees who have relocated that I think will become permanent. People who have young children and who moved to another city so they could be closer to family — they’re not coming back.
We need a place for people to congregate when it’s safe, because [there are] many of us who have a deep need and derive energy from being around other people.
On the spectrum of purely office [based] to purely remote, we will be closer to office-centric, but we will still always honor and incorporate remote workers. The center of gravity from our employees who are talking to us is still about being in an office. When we get there is unclear, but the direction is clear now.