The Most Valuable Leadership Lesson I Ever Learned”: Jeffrey J. Kaney Sr., Founder and CEO, Kaney Group, LLC
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Episode 166 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated — enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And sitting right across from me, as always, is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s always a pleasure to join you for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. And as always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves — and their companies — to their next level of game changing innovation, growth, and success.
So, Pam, top leaders have told us for quite a while how much they value what they’re getting from listening to our conversations about leadership with game-changing CEOs of successful companies.
Pam Harper: Yes, they’re telling us that it helps them spark new ideas about similar leadership issues that they face every day in their own companies.
Scott Harper: So, with that in mind, that’s why we’ve put together this special series of Growth Igniters Radio episodes that we call “The Most Valuable Leadership Lesson I Ever Learned.”
Pam Harper: Of course, peers sharing stories is a time-honored way to get new perspectives and grow. But with the business environment changing so rapidly, it’s more important than ever for people to stay connected. And it’s also more challenging than ever for people in any organization to stay connected. And that’s why every leadership team needs to share their stories among themselves and their organization in a way that enables everyone to grow together through all the twists and turns that lie ahead.
Scott Harper: So this helps them stay on the same page?
Pam Harper: That’s right. And our guest today reflects this belief and is a true game-changer in the aerospace industry. He is Jeffrey J. Kaney, Sr., founder and CEO of the Kaney Group, (LLC. Now, Kaney Group is a collection of interrelated companies. This includes commercial real estate, Kaney Aviation Properties, LLC), aerospace engineering, (Kaney Aerospace Incorporated), precision manufacturing, (Ardekin Precision, LLC and Kaney Aerospace Repair Station, LLC), aerospace and medical products, (which is BVR technologies), and capital funding, (Kaney Capital, LLC).
Scott Harper: My gosh, that’s a handful.
Pam Harper: I know. It’s a mouthful, and it’s fascinating. The Kaney Group has holdings in eight states and offices in Rockford, Illinois and Dayton, Ohio.
Prior to forming the Kaney Group, Mr. Kaney’s background included being a combat military veteran. He served as a US Air Force pilot for 10 years, including combat in desert storm, attaining the rank of captain. He also served as a pilot for a major international airline. Mr. Kaney has a bachelor’s degree in business with an aviation management minor. He’s continued his executive MBA studies at Harvard Business School and The London School Of Business. You can find out much more about him by going to growthignitersradio.com episode 166.
Jeff, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Jeff Kaney: Well, thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Pam Harper: You know, it’s a fascinating collection of companies that you’ve formed over the years. Very unique. Tell us what inspired you to start your company in the first place?
Jeff Kaney: Well, it started actually, believe it or not, back in kindergarten. I brought a piece of paper home to my mother and father that said, “When I grow up, I want to be a farmer or an airline pilot.” And although I grew up on a farm, as I got older I realized I probably was not going to be a farmer.
My lifelong dream was to be an airline pilot. I was single focused on that, but I dabbled in a little bit of business. My first business actually was when I was eight and with the help of course, of my parents, I bought my first calf and I raised calves. I would have two or three at a time and I’d raise them for a year, a year and a half, bottle feed them. And I did that through the time I was 16 years old.
Pam Harper: So you’re an entrepreneur at heart.
Jeff Kaney: Yes. And Both of my parents were entrepreneurs. So I learned a lot at the dining room table. I also had a small business with a friend in fourth grade where we had the Mattel football game — little white thing that if you’re old enough you might remember. And the only problem with that game was there was no on/off switch for the volume. Therefore you couldn’t play it in the library. But we figured out how to cut an on/off switch into the side. It’s soldered in and we sold that modification. And I always was doing little things like that.
Pam Harper: Okay. So how did you get from all of that though, to the Kaney Group?
Jeff Kaney: I spent 10 years in the Air Force, and 10 years as a pilot for an airline. And I had an overlap there of about five years. After I had fulfilled my time with the Air Force I decided it was time for me to move on to other things. Although I was still flying for the airlines, I decided I would dive into real estate and started buying small pieces of property, condominiums, apartment buildings, little small office buildings. And I really liked it. In fact, I love real estate. I didn’t see a lot of income coming on a month to month basis, but I saw what it was doing to the family net worth, that it was growing our net worth.
Interestingly enough, after a lifelong dream and lifelong goal, a single focused goal of becoming an airline pilot, I just didn’t enjoy being an airline pilot and I wanted to figure out something else that I wanted to do because the longer I did it, the less I enjoyed it. I love flying airplanes, but I just didn’t care for the lifestyle. It wasn’t for me. So, therefore, I was desperately searching for something else to do and I thought, you know, if I started an operating company, maybe I’d have enough current income to replace my airline income and then I’d have this real estate kind of as a retirement, as a wealth-building thing.
So quite simply, that’s why I started it. And I started it in an empty hangar at the Rockford airport with no employees and I like to say a sketchy business plan, which is not the way to start a business.
Pam Harper: We’ll talk about that. So you started it as a combination of your entrepreneurial drive, having it in the blood, and also then just starting in one place and continuing to grow. What I find interesting is that you kept growing it. What inspired you to do that?
Jeff Kaney: Well, there’s a of couple angles. One is I just really enjoy surrounding myself with fantastic people and seeing fantastic people grow through what I like to call their own genius — whether it’s the janitor or the CPA, or the attorney that I work with or at the time my office manager, the first engineer that we hired — these types of things — to watch them grow and accomplish alongside them was wonderful and it really kind of filled my spirit. It really filled me up.
And the other thing is — to me, this is the ultimate challenge. It’s starting with a blank piece of paper and making something out of the blank piece of paper. And because in reality, being a business, it means that you have to be very creative and love the creativity that goes into it. And believe me, there have been some pretty bad times.
There were some tough times. Not everything was perfect, but it’s been an exciting ride so far and very positive. And you know, I love lifelong learning and I learn every day from the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes along with leading a business.
Scott Harper: Okay. So with that in mind, and all the things that you’ve done, what is the most valuable leadership lesson that you’d say you have ever learned in being a lifelong learner?
Jeff Kaney: So when I graduated college, three and half weeks later, I was accepted in the US Air Force as a pilot. And because I didn’t go to the Academy or do ROTC in college, I had to go to Officer Training School — some people call it the “90-day wonder.” At that time, I went to San Antonio for 90 days. And you were learning leadership for 90 days. How to speak, how to write, how to give speeches, how to write papers, and how to lead not only peers, but everyone.
And in that there were these leadership labs that were outside and they were little puzzles, so to speak, where you would be outside and you’d have broomsticks and some rings and these other things, and they would pick. You’d be in groups of six, I think six or eight. And they would pick one person and that person would be the leader and you’d have say 20 minutes to solve this problem. You get the laminated piece of paper with a little scenario. So you were graded on your leadership ability. But what wasn’t obvious and where the learning was, you are also graded on your followership. And to me that was kind of a breakthrough. And to be a good follower is just as important as it is to be a good leader.
Scott Harper: Absolutely.
Jeff Kaney: But it’s a different skillset and a different discipline. And if you can’t be a good follower, you probably can’t be a good leader, but you can be what you think is a good leader and you can be an awful follower.
I’ll give you a scenario very quickly. You have someone, say Joe Blow — it’s his turn to lead. And as he’s reading the scenario out loud to the team, I’m sitting back and all of a sudden it hits me for whatever reason, I can see the answer in front of me. I know what we should do. How do I handle that? How do I handle guiding the leader to what I think is an approved solution, but not stealing his authority, belittling him, butting in, these types of things? And I watched people struggle in different ways and very few people really struggled with the leadership, but a ton of people struggled with the followership. So why is that important?
Pam Harper: Okay, why?
Jeff Kaney: Well, thank you for asking. [laughs]
Jeff Kaney: It’s important because as the CEO of this company, everyone works for me. So who do I work for? I work for everybody. I work for the whole organization. Really, I work for them. Everyone from the assembler to the engineer to the program manager. I work for them. It’s incumbent upon me to have a healthy, safe, growing place for everyone to work. So I have actually got to be a good leader and I’ve got to be an outstanding follower because I have 110 people that I’m really kind of following their lead, especially my executive team. I need to know how to follow them.
Pam Harper: So how does all of this … This particular approach to leadership — you’ve called it something like leadership by alignment, correct? —
Jeff Kaney: Yes.
Pam Harper: How does this approach to leadership benefit you and your executive team and all the teams really?
Jeff Kaney: Well, there was a fantastic paper written by a gentleman named Noam Wasserman in . He talked about “Do You Want To Be King Or Do You Want To Be Rich?” I really didn’t like the title of it, but what it was, it was also called “The Founder’s Dilemma.” So if you look it up, you’ll probably find it online. The Founder’s Dilemma. And it really had a huge impact for me.
And what it talked about was someone like, for example, myself, and I’m an entrepreneur, I started the company from scratch as opposed to … There’s different challenges with a family business of course, or a hired CEO. But if you think about the founder, generally the founder of a company is the technical backbone of the company at the first part, whether it’s computer science or welding or fill in the blank, whatever it is.
And generally she’s got to figure out a way to transfer that knowledge, let other people take over what she does, and then she or he has got to transition to being a leader of the company and starts to transition from working in the company full-time when you’re in the garage portion to working on the company. And that transition’s very difficult. For me, it was very easy because I am not an engineer and I started the company as an aerospace engineering company. I don’t know what to do. So I instantly had to be working on the company the majority of the time because there really wasn’t much I could do in the company.
Pam Harper: What you’re saying is so important, and it’s something that we see a lot when we’re working with leaders, especially the founders. It’s hard to get yourself out of that if you have that technical knowledge. So, you really started at an advantage, didn’t you?
Jeff Kaney: Well, what it was, ma’am, is my disadvantage was really my advantage. I had no choice but to hire the best and the brightest and the most expensive people I could find. So we talk about this leadership by alignment, and I believe that the only way to be successful in my situation, and I believe it’s my style of leadership, there’s probably other ways to do it, is to create a very, very, very strong and convincing vision of where you want the company to go, and then you sell that vision to your executive team. And you create a very strong alignment around the central vision and the mission of the company. And then you get out of the way.
Pam Harper: And we’re going to talk much more about that. We’re going to take a break right now. And when we come back, we’ll dig deeper with Jeffrey J. Kaney, Sr., founder and CEO of the Kaney Group, LLC about a few of the elements of leadership by alignment that have enabled his company to change the game in their industry. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, where we focus on enabling visionary leaders to ignite, sustain, and boost the momentum it takes to achieve game changing results. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper — that’s me — and Scott Harper. Today Scott and I are speaking with Jeffrey J. Kaney, Sr., founder and CEO of the Kaney Group, LLC about the most valuable leadership lesson he ever learned. Jeff, how can people find out more about you and your company?
Jeff Kaney: Well, www.kaney.com is our company’s website. And I guess LinkedIn.
Pam Harper: Okay, and you can see Jeff’s full bio and other resources for this conversation by going to growthignitersradio.com, episode 166.
So back to our conversation; you were starting to tell us in the first segment about the vision and how you get out of the way. But let’s take it a little further because we also want to talk about the fact that so much right now of the conversation we’re hearing is about the purpose of a business and we’ve got the business round table and everything else. Everybody’s focused on purpose. How does this leadership by alignment that you’re talking about with the vision, everything else, how does that help people in your company connect with your company’s purpose?
Jeff Kaney: Well, that’s a very interesting question. And to be quite honest and transparent, I don’t have an answer for that yet. And so I’m going to have to do some thinking on that.
Scott Harper: Think away…
Jeff Kaney: Yes, I think that I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Pam Harper: You know what, that’s great. Because I think these are the kind of important questions that we’re, all of us, faced with answering. I think that it would be interesting to have you come back at a later date when you have come up with that answer, because it’s important.
But your people are connecting with the vision, so let’s talk about that. You were talking about that you actually had data, so tell us more about that.
Jeff Kaney: Sure. You know, I think that we have data that shows they’re connecting with the vision. One, the data is that we’ve survived. We survived the great recession. We survived customer concentration issues where we lost our biggest customer overnight. You know we’ve had a series of emergencies and grown. The other thing is we have a 2% turnover rate of our employees. I think that that helps show numerically, empirically that our team members are connecting with the vision.
One of the other things that we do differently — and I find it interesting how few companies do this — we are an employee first company. We need to have a motivated, educated, cross trained workforce that believes in the mission of the company and it shows in the work that we do and we try our very best to promote from within. And when we have done that it hasn’t just been good, it hasn’t been great, it’s been magical to watch people step up.
And when we promote from within and we watch people step up to their new position and then we watch the other team members watch that person step up, it gives them hope and drive, I believe, to help move forward. So a safe, healthy work environment with cross training and promoting from within to our best that we can shows that we take our employees, team members first and our customers second because if we don’t have this fantastic work environment to put out fantastic products and services that our customers want, that’s the way it goes.
Scott Harper: Okay, so building on that, the fact is that you have so many different companies, you’re constantly adding, you’re innovating in those. How does this concept of leadership through alignment ensure that people are willing to continually innovate, to challenge the norms, to go out into places that may not be comfortable?
Jeff Kaney: That’s a great question. So what we’ve done, the interrelated companies now… They’re integrating. They’re completely integrated. We are all under one roof with exception of real estate, which is just a small non-operating company. But all our operating companies now are all under one roof. Our latest acquisition is under one roof. Everybody’s co-located co-branded, so that helps. So everybody feels like the alignment’s better. People are pulling on the same oar. We have a profit sharing program that is company-wide and is equal to everyone on a percentage basis. And there’s no silos. We don’t have people who are incentivized for A and then other people incentivized for Z and they’re not in alignment. So our bonus way that we do is to stretch goals for our company and for our team members. So that helps. It’s developing trust.
In the end, Scott and Pam, it really is about developing trust and the best way to do that in our opinion, and I say our, the leaders of this company, are to do what you say you’re going to do. Quite simply.
Pam Harper: Absolutely. So Jeff, let me ask you, you’ve got so much going on — I think it’s fascinating the way that you have everybody in these different companies integrated. It also is true as we said at the beginning that the world is changing so fast and alignment is probably one of the toughest things to keep. You know, you can look at something and say we’re aligned today, but how do you keep that alignment going as everything is happening so quickly and these companies are somewhat in different directions, aren’t they? I mean they’re dealing with different issues.
Jeff Kaney: Yeah. Not so much anymore. We have streamlined and we have vertically integrated all of our processes and then the cross training. I’ll give you a simple example. We have a machinist. When we have a lot of machining, the machinist is is … She’s working the machining. But let’s just say all of a sudden we have a lot of assembly work coming in and we don’t have as much machining work. She’s cross trained to be an assembler also. So we might take her and bring her over and have her work on assembly, whether it’s mechanical assembly or electrical assembly. And through the cross training we’re able to flex up and flex down different areas based on market conditions, economic conditions. So it helps de-risk the company. And I believe when the team members feel like they have alignment and the leadership is engaged and the leadership feels secure in the direction of the company, that just flows down to our folks. Again, it’s trust.
Scott Harper: Okay. So, you have robust flexibility and a lot of redundancy and that’s actually really good because then people can flex as they need to.
Pam Harper: And trust. Most of all, people have to trust that somebody’s got their back and it goes two ways.
Now we’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back, Scott and I will speak more with Jeffrey J. Kaney, Sr., founder and CEO of the Kaney Group, LLC about immediately useful ideas for how you can adapt the concept of leadership by alignment in your company. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: We’ve been talking about the concept of leading through alignment. This addresses the very real challenge that so many companies and their leaders face in ensuring that all the moving parts come together for greatest value.
Scott Harper: And that’s why we’ve created our special assessment, five questions to ask when you need to move even faster. It’s a perfect perspective builder for fast moving C-suite leaders who need to meet current commitments and move fast enough to respond to new opportunities. Our questionnaire will help you find out where to begin to focus your energy so that what should be happening really is happening as fast as it has to happen.
Pam Harper: We’ve developed these questions based on our work with fast growth clients in over 30 industries. We’ve helped them scale faster, make innovation happen faster, and more quickly respond to new opportunities. This has generated millions of dollars in top and bottom line growth. Now you can have this resource free just for joining our Growth Igniters community,
Scott Harper: So go today to growthignitersradio.com, select episode 166. Scroll down to “resources” and click the link, “Download five questions to ask when you need to move even faster.”
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been speaking with Jeffrey J. Kaney, Sr., founder and CEO of Kaney Group, LLC about the most valuable leadership lesson he’s ever learned. Jeff, how can people find out more about your company?
Jeff Kaney: It’s www.kaney.com, and about me personally through LinkedIn.
Pam Harper: Okay. And remember that you can also see Jeff’s full bio by going to growthignitersradio.com, episode 166.
So Jeff, this is the part of Growth Igniters Radio where we talk about the immediately useful next steps that leaders can apply as they’re considering ways to improve, in this case leadership by alignment to their own companies. Let’s start out with one thing that somebody could do as soon as they’re done listening.
Jeff Kaney: Well, I think it’s a mindset. And to understand that a business is an organism that’s always moving and a business is not a train on a track. The other part of this is is that almost everything has two sides of the coin, or the yin and yang. And they’re constantly in tension. For example, we make life-critical components for the aerospace industry. Actuators that move flight controls, life or death type of things. In the medical business, we make the components to go into components that are used in surgeries, actuation projects that are going in there and the way they’re designed. So we need to be very, very, very, very process oriented and we’re governed by lots of federal regulations. So it sounds like then the tension happens to be is well, how can you be unique? How can you move with the times if you’re such a process oriented company and it is hard, it is hard. But I think understanding that although we’re process oriented, that the actual business itself is an organism that’s always moving and morphing and hopefully getting larger and more profitable. And it’s not just a train on a train track. We didn’t set off and just going to go straight ahead and we’re on rails because I believe that that sets it up for failure. I really do.
Pam Harper: What’s interesting too is that we’re also seeing that as the environment is changing, more companies are starting to look at how else can they grow to serve stakeholder’s new needs, customer’s new needs. So I would imagine that even as regulated as you are, that the customers are saying, we need this, we’re going in this direction, we’re going in that direction. Is part of your growth coming from that? Because on the surface it would seem like these are unrelated companies, but they are very related.
Jeff Kaney: Yeah, and everything is related a lot more now and that is why we’re an organism. We’re not looking for the next great thing that’s going to lead us down a different path. We are on a path. It’s just it’s a winding road. That’s where I get the difference between that and a train track.
Jeff Kaney: I have another point that goes right along with this. I have a mantra in my life that is not very eloquent, but it’s shake it up or break it up. And that is “if it’s not working, either make it work or stop doing it.”
Now it sounds pretty cold; you can’t put it any other way. And sometimes it is. And it goes to making decisions. My belief is that businesses are really run on making the best decision you possibly can. And that includes the machinist making the best decision that she can make on the machine, my executives making the best decision, and myself making the best decision. And making the hard decisions … If you have a strong vision and you have alignment and you make decisions based on the mission of your company, in other words, mission backed decisions, even the hard ones that aren’t popular will be accepted.
Scott Harper: Yeah. So if you know where you’re going, you know the outcome that has to be achieved, then the decisions become relatively clear.
Pam Harper: So the immediately useful ideas then so far one is the mindset. So it’s a shift of mindset. And even what we’re talking about here with decisions is shifting your mindset to say we have to get in better alignment. So if somebody were to stop listening, it might be to say, how aligned are we. And how do you get that? By asking questions to get information. Have you ever seen where people get surprised and they think they’re aligned and they’re not?
Jeff Kaney: Well that’s happened to me where I thought we were aligned, and a decision has been made and I come to find out we weren’t. And guess who wasn’t aligned. Me. Everybody else was aligned and when I looked back, they were aligned on the mission. I was the one who became misaligned. It happened to me so bad one time. I will give you some insight that I wrote a handwritten letter of apology to each one of my executives and I put it on their windshield wiper. So when they left for work that day, it was an apology from me saying, “Hey, it took me a while. I realized I wasn’t following our alignment. I wasn’t following our mission. I realized that I had stopped following my own advice.” And it struck me like a hammer on the back of the head, like, you dummy, you’re screwing up. How do I regain alignment? And I felt that the best way to do it was a handwritten letter of apology to each one of my people to tell them that not only do I realize it that I’m going to change it and I changed it overnight.
Scott Harper: So, a practical piece of advice is have the conversations that are necessary frequently enough with the right kind of people so that you don’t go so far off track that you can’t get back.
Pam Harper: And the other thing I’m hearing is the willingness to go off and really get perspective and say what’s happening and to be willing to include yourself. I’m a big believer that if you don’t question your own assumptions, how can you ask other people to question theirs? And so it’s a wonderful thing that you’re talking about. Is there a final point? I know you are filled with so much insight and we would love to keep talking with you.
Jeff Kaney: Some people don’t call it insight. I will tell you that. [laughs]
Pam Harper: Okay. What’s one more thing that somebody could immediately do to keep moving?
Jeff Kaney: I think you need practice making decisions. So joining organizations or volunteering, putting yourself in other leadership roles so you can make more decisions and have a track record of making decisions and watching other people are very, very, very important.
But the last thing is I invite the listeners to look up the “OODA loop.” And that’s for “Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act” loop. It is a method that was an Air Force method of making decisions. But the point is, it’s a loop because as soon as you make the decision and as soon as you act on that decision you go back and observe what happened. So I’ve made decisions or our team has made decisions that the very next day we’ve changed. Sometimes 180 degrees. Because we thought about it or we’ve seen the reaction and say, “Whoa, this was wrong. We need to change this immediately.” And the faster you go around that loop, the faster you can move your mission forward.
Scott Harper: Absolutely. This is also called an action-feedback loop; that is another way to look at that. So you do something, then you check it; it’s experimentation.
Pam Harper: It is, but on the other side of it too, I think what’s important here is that as everything is changing so quickly, I’m hearing we have to have … It goes back to that mindset again of the willingness to look and get that feedback and say we have to change. Can’t just stay stuck on one thing. If you have to flex, you have to flex.
Scott Harper: It’s that organism thing back at you.
Jeff Kaney: It really is.
Pam Harper: It absolutely is. Well Jeff, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for joining us. Before we sign off, is there one final thought you’d like to share about your most valuable leadership lesson that you ever learned?
Jeff Kaney: Enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to enjoy it.
Pam Harper: Don’t forget to enjoy it. Excellent. Well Jeff, thanks again for joining us.
Scott Harper: Thanks Jeff and thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To get show notes and resource links for this week’s episode, go to growthignitersradio.com, select episode 166.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success and leaving you with these questions to discuss with your top leadership team:
Scott Harper: How confident are we that our organization is aligned to create the greatest value for our stakeholders? How will we stay aligned to sustain our momentum through all of the twists and turns ahead?