DEI Advisors Podcast

Kelly Kuhn, Non-Executive Director & Special Advisor interviewed by Dorothy Dowling

November 28, 2023 David Kong
DEI Advisors Podcast
Kelly Kuhn, Non-Executive Director & Special Advisor interviewed by Dorothy Dowling
Show Notes Transcript

In an enlightening interview, Kelly Kuhn’s global executive journey in travel management is explored. She champions inclusive leadership, empowering leaders in Asia to develop their careers. Kelly’s legacy lies in her team’s success. Her guiding principle is asking questions, allowing her team to find answers. She serves as an independent director and advocates for growth and learning.

Dorothy Dowling:

Greetings. I am Dorothy Dowling, a principal of DEI Advisors. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to personal empowerment. I am delighted to welcome Kelly Kuhn, special advisor to CWT and a public board trustee. Kelly, welcome to our show. It is an honor to have you with us today.

Kelly Kuhn:

Thank you so much, Dorothy. The honor is all mine. I'm absolutely delighted to join you and have a great conversation.

Dorothy Dowling:

Wonderful. Let's get to it. So Kelly, the first question I'd like to have you share with us is really your leadership journey. You've had this amazing global career where you began in the U. S. And then you took on very significant leadership roles in APAC and EMEA. So I'm just wondering if you would mind sharing your career history with us and how each of your positions enhanced your journey to becoming such an important senior executive in our

Kelly Kuhn:

industry. Thank you Wonderful. Thank you. And, it's fascinating as I think about your question. In that 35 years this next year, since I began my journey in the travel sector in Chicago with a privately held travel company, which led to being acquired by Navigant, running our military and government business in Washington, as you said, then relocating to Singapore leading our Asia Pacific business, Then to London where I live now, originally responsible for our EMEA role responsibility. And then ultimately as the chief customer officer for CWT leading up to the COVID pandemic. Now as an advisor, still enjoying the work that I do with CWT and in helping mentor and coach and some key relationships with customers, as well as growing. my advisory portfolio with a few other companies. And as you said, a non executive director for two public companies, one here in the UK, as well as one in Denmark. It has been just a fascinating journey. And each step of the way, I thought that I wasn't qualified. And in fact, the opportunities that were presented to me were quite extraordinary and seemed a bit farfetched. that I wasn't the right candidate. I didn't have the experience and but took the leap and trusted the my bosses trusted folks around me who said you absolutely are ready. You should do it. And in each case These opportunities for the next step for advancement for growth were as much personal growth for me and personal adventure as they were for career adventure. And so finding that right balance and fit, I think, is such an important part of success over my 35 years.

Dorothy Dowling:

I do think that balance and fit, Kelly, in terms of how you assessed, and I'm wondering if we can. Look at that in a little deeper way because you took some pretty big bets with those international moves. That is a huge transition. So I'm just wondering how did you really assess those career opportunities and, take those bets. You must have had a process around that.

Kelly Kuhn:

The first one, when I was leaving Chicago, where I lived for more than 20 years, that's really my adopted home. And when our CFO at Navigant at the time called me, and it was actually this week, gosh, a long time ago, 2004, the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, Bob said, I'd like you to noodle on this idea. Hang up the phone if you're not ready for an opportunity. Because as soon as he said it, I knew he was going to offer something that I probably might be afraid of, but I absolutely could not imagine myself ever saying no to Bob. And so he was the most extraordinary mentor and coach and friend and advocate for me early in my executive career. And so when he asked and I, and he told me that the company needed me to take this leap. I, of course, I took a little time to think about it, but I didn't really need any time. And I said, yes. So that was my first entree into leaving what I knew, which was business travel, commercial travel and moving to the military and government sector. And then shortly thereafter is when CWT acquired Navigant. So not only was I in a sector that was new to me. But now I was responsible for putting the largest two military government entities together in one. Again, a journey and the experiences that I had led me there. On the surface, I didn't know it until I was in it. And the same was true moving to Singapore, the same coming to Europe. And I think that the theme of all of those adventures were that I knew that I was ready. Because I was getting too comfortable and I have always taken the approach that it was really good to be uncomfortable. So that moral to the story for me was get really comfortable being uncomfortable. Be okay not knowing all of the answers. Be okay not being the smartest person in the room and surround yourself the old adage with people who are smarter than you are. And so my journey really was these opportunities. Which were going to make me really uncomfortable again, but trusting my intuition and my, years of experience to my advantage to hopefully be successful. And I think each step of the way I have been

Dorothy Dowling:

I think your story of actually having the courage one to be uncomfortable belly and to make those kinds of international moves, because they are very substantive to. You personally and professionally to, take on all new cultures and as well as all of the work that is different. But I think that element of embracing change and being a transformational leader really speaks to that journey that you've been on. Now, I wonder if we can also explore a little more deeply about your allyship with Bob and the mentorship that you've had in your careers, because I do fundamentally believe that. Someone that takes those kinds of bets that you have, you've had someone in your corner that has. Championed you and pushed you, but I'm wondering if there's any stories that you would be able to share with our audience in terms of what some of those experiences were like and how they did really shape you as an executive.

Kelly Kuhn:

You're exactly right. And in my early career, there were probably examples. The owner founder of the first travel company I worked for, he was, he trusted me implicitly. This was his company. It was privately held. And the trust that he instilled in me was such a huge. confidence builder in that anything was possible. His style was very different than mine. And I probably learned a bit about myself through that portion of my career and some things I wanted to emulate and others that I didn't. And then when Navigant acquired us, both Bob and Ed Adams, many will know in the industry really just gave me every possible opportunity to be successful. And in fact, it was Bob and Ed who asked me to move to Washington. And I thought they were a little crazy at the time, but they knew exactly what they were doing. And then, fast forward a handful of years, Hubert Jolie, who was CWT's president and CEO at the time, and then ultimately, Doug Anderson asked me to move to Singapore. And in fact, Doug will remember, The first time he asked me, I said, no, and because it wasn't the right time personally for me. And I thought, gosh, this might be career suicide, right? When we say no we might limit our opportunities, but Doug continued to have faith and confidence in me and came back around again about 18 months later. And then the timing was right. And. Honestly, I had finished what I started in Washington, which was so important to me personally that I completed and honored the promises I had made. And so the timing was just really right to go to Singapore. I remember thinking, and the team in Asia would probably laugh to hear me say this, but I wondered. Was the crazy American woman arriving in Singapore and in Asia, was it the right fit? And I remember Doug saying it's exactly the right fit. And the opportunity Doug's belief in me the inherent experience I had is what led him to the conclusion that I was the right leader at that time, which was a massive growth opportunity post the financial crisis. And. What was fascinating. I learned at that point more than ever before to listen more than I talked. I was learning new cultures, new ways of doing business, new leaders, new languages, new everything was new. And we were exploring personally as well as professionally throughout that whole adventure. And and I also realized these teams Across Asia deserve the right leaders in the right jobs. And so we did go through a bit of transformation in hiring new leaders in many of the countries, and that was such a wonderful experience for me as a leader to hire the future leaders of the region each in the local markets, speaking so many different languages, representing the depth and beautiful cultures of these countries really celebrating the uniqueness But creating an inclusive environment. And I think it was my time in Asia that really led me to this personal commitment around inclusion and why building a diverse team, but with an inclusive environment has become such a personal passion and commitment for me. And so I brought that experience with me to Europe, where again, Doug asked me to move to Europe and bring together. CWT's region of 26 countries plus our global partner network again, this really complex and diverse set of countries and leaders from all across the region and globally in the partner network. Doug then left CWT and our, my next mentor and wonderful advocate Kurt Eckert arrived and we agreed, let's globalize the company and build a new function. the customer organization to bring together all of our customer leaders around the world, really now fully embracing the fact that we were one CWT, one company and the industry really wanted global consolidation. So he provided me an opportunity to build and create a role. And an organization from scratch that didn't exist in our company. Again, just an incredible amount of trust and confidence in me. Even when I'm confident that I didn't know exactly what I was doing most of the time, but I had the most extraordinary team of leaders around me and a group of peers who were incredibly supportive all with. The customer first, the user first as our North Star and having that central vision for what was right helped us and led us to a place, I think, of great success. In each case, these were leaders who had an innate ability to see in me things I didn't even see in myself until I was in the rhythm of those new roles.

Dorothy Dowling:

I Think that's a thread that we hear through some of our advisors Kelly is that having someone that is in your corner that is championing you and seeing the kind of competencies as well as the personal personality attributes that you have. But I also just think your ability to listen and also take note of all of the individuals that were part of your team that journey from being a North American executive to moving into a global role, I think, really speaks to your ability to. Bring the best out of everyone and take all of their contributions and empower the company in a different way. So kudos to you on that journey. And I'm sure that you have empowered many people in your career, just like you were empowered by some of the wonderful allies that. Continue to advance your career so that is a perfect segue because I know that you have amazing followership in the industry and you have amazing followership from the teams and I think you're. story of how you have invested in listening and learning and making sure that you're putting individuals that are leading with all of the culture competencies that they bring, but also the business competencies really speaks to how you have built great teams. I'm wondering if there's other pieces of that team leadership that have really allowed you to become the brilliant executive that you are today.

Kelly Kuhn:

Thank you for that. I, someone asked me recently, my proudest. Career achievement. Now it's hard, right? You and I both know hard to choose one over decades of career. But if I think about the theme through my whole career, what am I the most proud of? It has been the success of those that were part of my teams at many levels within the organization and watching their careers grow. Watching them be promoted, having their roles and responsibilities expand, whether in their area of expertise or in new scope. And so having their success is really my legacy. And what really gets me out of bed every day, still in the work that I'm doing in my new portfolio career, I would say that the empowering. Success around leadership is truly not being afraid to put folks who are smarter than you in the room and then also recognizing that you don't need to know all of the answers and you certainly do not need to get to the answer first. And I think that asking more questions than having answers is a skill that some leaders miss along the way. And that's where you are a manager in the detail rather than being a leader. Managers are still in the detail with their teams doing the work. Leaders are stepping outside of that responsibility and allowing their teams to thrive. And I, that's a hard lesson. And often you've been promoted because you're super smart and you've got the experience and the skills. And therefore you want to keep using them and you want to keep doing the work right? And it's hard to move out of the direct responsibility. into a leadership role. But I've often guided others trying to make that step into more senior roles to say, you really do need to sit on your hands. And even if you know the answer, let your team reach the conclusion. Let someone on your team draw those conclusions. Because if you know the answers all the time, your team isn't going to develop. And unless you have leaders on your team who can step into your seat. You are not promotable unless you have successors ready to go, you're not promotable. And that was the other part of my career that I realized when I had managed myself out of a job, I knew I was ready for the next step. And maybe that sounds cliche, but it is absolutely true. In my case, when I had folks ready to step into my role, I was then I could move on to the next opportunity with, an open heart and mind to say that The organization was going to be in really good hands with whoever that next leader was going to be, and I think that many leaders forget. That just because I'm doing great work, then I'm promotable. You need to have successors in place to be ready to move into that next role. And so I think that's how I've created my followership in that folks know that I have put their advancement. Honestly, ahead of my own, knowing that their advancement was my advancement. Because they would be ready, therefore I would be ready.

Dorothy Dowling:

I do think that's an amazing piece of wisdom for everyone, Kelly. And you're right. We've all heard that story before, but I think you contextualizing it just in terms of your personal success, but understanding organization success is really driven by having all of the right people in those leadership roles. So developing leadership when you move into. More senior roles requires you to continue to advance others in their career. So thank you for sharing that. The other part that I loved about this story that you shared is really this element of allowing others to do the work in their own way, which I think is really a principle of diversity and that many people. Will lead differently and they may look different in that role and they may do the work in a very different way. They'll get to the same, but it is allowing for that flexibility in terms of the how piece as opposed to having people do it. Exactly the way you would have. So I appreciate you sharing all of that. And I'm certain that your global development really empowered you in ways to see that in in a pretty significant way.

Kelly Kuhn:

And I would also say that, Thank you. Allowing and creating, as you said, having diversity is the 1st step, but then creating that inclusive environment for everyone around the table to have a voice and making sure that the extroverts in the room and the introverts in the room All have a voice and that everyone is heard in how they are organizing their thoughts and how they're contributing because that's not easy to do, and it requires intentional behaviors, and I think that if you take for granted that it will happen naturally, that's a mistake that quite a few leaders make in then the same folks always have the loudest voice, so to speak, and being intentional about creating inclusion has been important. One of the most wonderful learnings for me, as well as I think one of the areas of my greatest personal satisfaction and success in seeing those flowers really blossom

Dorothy Dowling:

around the world. No, I agree with you, Kelly. I think allowing others to contribute in the way that they are most comfortable and bringing that out in them is really it's a very rewarding as a leader. So I'm wondering if we can dig a little deeper in terms of challenges and adversity. I would tell you, I made one international move in my career from Canada to the U. S. and it's really hard. It's really hard to get your life organized again. But you've had amazing resilience in your career, Kelly. I just look at the moves that you made, the job transformations that you've taken on, and just your positivity and the way you shine the light on others is, it's incredible. I love being in your presence because of that way that you light up the room and light up others. But I'm wondering if you can speak to your resiliency and, how you continue to build upon that because we know our industry has had. Tremendous ups and downs, and you've been able to power through all of those and be very successful.

Kelly Kuhn:

It, you're exactly right. And sometimes I have to, I have had to put on a positive face. And I think back now, gosh, how did I work, from seven or eight in the morning until seven or eight at night in Asia time, and then zoom home, eat something and then start the day again because it was Europe and U. S. time. And those were challenges. I think that I was a lot younger, first of all, and I had just this incredible, honestly, excitement about the opportunity that somehow the adrenaline keeps you going. It doesn't come without cost, however, right? And it's either personal sacrifice, physical health sacrifice. We all know in our industry, living our life on an airplane, sleeping in hotel beds, as wonderful as some of them are. They're not home, right? And I've learned in, in, in hindsight, in retrospect, that some of those decisions probably meant I was sacrificing other things, even though I didn't know it in, in real time looking back. And so I, I would advise anybody now considering those moves. Think about your life plan, which includes both your personal, your family life, as well as your career life. Because the more senior your role, the more integrated those lives become. One has to give and take, even though sometimes we feel like there's 25 or 26 hours in a day. There really are only 24. And so you need to really map out that career plan. What do I want in the next year or two? What do I want in the next five or 10 to make sure then the, that those goals are achievable. You may not know all the steps along the way, but really know what makes you happy. What motivates you? Where do you get your personal energy from? And I will tell you that the people around the world have always been where I got my personal energy. And so I didn't need a lot of food or sleep or although the food in Asia was extraordinary, the same in Europe, the most beautiful places you could ever imagine. I've gotten to visit and experience. It was the people that I got all of my personal energy from. And so I would just say that having, though, that career plan and folks have asked me for a template of it that I don't have. I don't have a template. Everyone needs to think about what's most important to them each step of the way and then make sure that they have a plan that can help them achieve that. Global moves are not easy. Absolutely not. When I moved to Singapore, we didn't take much with us. Because I didn't know where I'd live, how much space I would have, and so we didn't take a lot of furniture and all those things, so we got to build from scratch in Singapore. When we moved to Europe, however, I had a, a whole apartment full of stuff, and I moved some things from the United States that were important to me. And then when... When Kurt arrived and my role changed again and he asked me if I wanted to move back to the United States or stay living in Europe, the whole thought of moving again, just, I thought I might cry. In fact, I hadn't even unpacked a box yet. And so I said, Kurt, I think I'll stay in the middle time zone. Because then it's easier from Europe for a global role. And in fact, it was the best decision. And in the home I live now in London I've been here just eight years. Which is the longest home I've ever been in other than the house I grew up in. And so I feel settled now and hoping that if I move again, it will be by choice and maybe a vacation home of some kind. But not because I'm probably relocating for a career any longer. And that I can do my various roles from here now. But it does require a village. I was not alone. CWT gave me incredible support each step of the way. My partner, all of those things. You cannot do it on your own. And the one other bit of advice I will give is that get really good insurance. Because when you move, stuff will get broken and stuff will get lost. You can't believe that a table is missing, but in fact the table is just gone. It doesn't exist anywhere. And so that's what insurance is for because relocations globally are just hard. Anyone who says they're not is probably not telling the honest truth because it is. It does. It is not for the faint of heart. I will. I will say

Dorothy Dowling:

I think just your advice in terms of that career plan and making sure that you understand where your joy comes from so that you can fuel your soul on a regular basis is really important. I agree with you on the resiliency and I do agree on the tip on insurance because even just moving Canada to the US, I have had a few things that that I valued that didn't arrive. It's very good advice. Thanks. So Kelly, do you have a personal mantra that has really shaped you in terms of your business and personal success?

Kelly Kuhn:

A couple of things and much from my family, from my mom and dad, number one, anything is possible. I just believe that in my whole heart and soul, that if I can imagine it, it should be possible. My parents instilled that in me from a very young age. I grew up in a small town in Kansas. And so to imagine the life I've had from that beginning to all of these years, it is really remarkable. I think I am living proof of that mantra. And then, as I mentioned earlier, it's okay to not know all the answers and to be uncomfortable. And I think that's where the magic happens. That's where the best learning happens. And lastly, I would say just looking forward, we can look backwards and learn from that, I think. But I really try to take the approach of just looking forward because that's where the next adventure will come from. And in that adventure. Doing what's right is never the wrong thing. It's always right to do the right thing. And sometimes when you're at a crossroads, just think about what it, your heart tells you is the right thing to do. That will lead you to the right decision in my life and in my career, that has always been the case.

Dorothy Dowling:

I Think. Those three elements of guidance in terms of how we continue to shape our lives and our career decisions. Those are very impactful. So thank you for sharing those with us. Kelly, I'm wondering if we can also talk a little bit about your advocacy and just the way you have continued to invest in our industry. And it's always very impressive to me when senior executives that have so many demands on their schedules really invest back. Thank you. And the association work and the collaboration in terms of advancing the industry, I guess from my point of view, I'm wondering if you can share how you've set up some of that prioritization and what's important to you, you are a role model in this industry, you are a woman that has blazed trails, you have taken so many risks in your career and in your life. So I just, I'd love to understand how you also have found time. To give back in so many ways to we connected through GPTA and win it. Because your mentorship and your voice I know is one that. Many career professionals, men and women love to hear.

Kelly Kuhn:

It is, as I mentioned earlier, it's fuel and food for my soul. I recently, as you mentioned, we are part of win it by GBTA together on the advisory board and our recent summit and gala was such a great example of celebrating all of the incredible work all of these female leaders and male leaders are doing around the world to advance. female leadership. We need more. The numbers tell a very sort of challenging story. And so there's so much room for growth and opportunity in this space. And in fact, I was with Mark Kusheri, who's the president of GBTA just today, and we were talking about what an exciting opportunity we have to grow, win it. in Europe and in Asia Pacific. And wouldn't it be exciting if when it was able, if we were able to bring win it to Asia first at the spring conference where, and then followed again by the U. S. And by Europe, because there's so much desire and so much interest in bringing together this global organization around empowering and growing leadership for women around the world. So I, of course, pledged my undying love to Mark for his commitment to this as well. And I think we'll see some great things. I'm also quite involved with Whittle, which is the worldwide organization focused on the hospitality, travel and leisure sector, bringing a voice to any Group of individuals that need amplification, whether that's women, the LGBTQ plus community, elderly workers. There's so many different components. And I recently spoke to 90 women who are in manager and director level roles. Who are trying, wanting career aspirations to get to the C suite. And so I spent about 90 minutes with them talking about, as we've done today, my journey, advice, how to frame your career for the future. And one of them asked me exactly your question, Dorothy, how do you find time for us when you're doing so many other things? And I said, I wouldn't have the space or the motivation to do the other things. If I didn't make the time for conversations like these, this is where I get my inspiration. They all told me how inspirational our time together was. And I said, I agree. I was just as inspired by all of them as they said they were. And so that giving back that paying it forward, whatever phrase you want to use feeds my inspiration for doing it the next time. And I hope that I'm bringing all of those voices into my decision making in my both advisory work and in the role that I have sitting on 2 public company boards, which both of these companies have enormous employee. propositions, value propositions around the world. And so I think the work I do in advocacy for our industry only makes me a better non executive director. So I think I'm getting far more than I am giving for sure.

Dorothy Dowling:

I Do think that narrative around that, paying it forward and giving back, it really speaks to purpose. And I know that's what employees want today. It's what leaders want today. Because it does, it fuels our soul and it does give us the juice to continue our journey. So I thank you for your eloquence, Kelly. I also thank you just for the way you give back and the way you shine the light on so many, but also do it in such an impactful and graceful way. So I sincerely appreciate being in the room with you. And as I said, the way you shine the light on others is always something that I enjoy seeing you do. So thank you. Thank you. So we're coming up to the end of our time together. And the question we always ask every DEI advisor is final words of wisdom. So I'm wondering, as you think about your successful career, where you have, where you are today, if there's any final words you would like to offer to our audience in terms of Thoughts that they may want to consider on their own journey.

Kelly Kuhn:

I Would say jump into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. Taking a chance, taking a risk, even if you make a mistake, there's such great learning in that event, that part of the adventure, number one. I would also say, make sure that you know what's most important to you at different parts of your life. Different things are important, right? It might be family. It might be career. It might be children, parents. All of those you need to take into consideration as you make decisions about your life. And then I think I've said it a few times, but it absolutely is the way I hope I've lived my life and my career, which is to just be really comfortable. being uncomfortable because it is such a special feeling to learn and to grow. A long time ago, Hubert Jolie called me a turtle. And I remember thinking, Oh my goodness, where's he going with this? I don't think I'm slow, right? We think of turtles as being slow. He said the turtle only makes progress. When it's willing to stick its neck out, and that is absolutely my words of advice to anyone that you need to be willing to take a chance, and I promise you, you will be rewarded many times over

Dorothy Dowling:

when you do that. I love the story of the turtle, and I love Hubert Shelley. I love his book on heartfelt leadership. I'm sure having him as part of your network, Kelly has been impactful for you, but thank you for sharing that story. Thank you for all of the words of wisdom you've shared with our audience today. It really has been a pleasure to be with you. So thank you again. Thank you. And if I may as we close out the interview, I would just to remind our audience that we have a lot of wonderful advisors like Kelly Kuhn that are on our portal and through our podcasts and they all impart a lot of wisdom that I know will empower your career and continue your growth journey in terms of knowledge. So we hope to see you there. Thank you again, Kelly, for your thought leadership today and to our audience for participating in this interview

Kelly Kuhn:

with us. Thank you so much, Dorothy. My pleasure.