Learning to Be a Leader


Ron Kitchens from Southwest Michigan First joins us to discuss the need for leaders to learn and how it led him to create Catalyst University. Today’s podcast is required listening for anyone that wants to work on personal development by increasing their leadership skills. Money, I’m Home!



00:00:   [music]

00:06 Lynne Jarman Johnson: Money, I’m Home, from finance to fitness! Hi, everybody. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson with Consumers Credit Union. Hear these words: Leadership, dynamic, motivation, a moment’s maker. These are the words that came back from Catalyst University this year from our team, at Consumers Credit Union, who were so privileged to attend. Joining us today is Ron Kitchens, the CEO of Southwest Michigan First, who has been instrumental in bringing an amazing event to Michigan, really to the entire United States. And I’ll tell you what, it’s all because of your mission at Southwest Michigan First. Ron, welcome in.


00:57 Ron Kitchens: Oh, thanks, thanks for having me.


00:58 LJJ: I’ll tell you what, everybody just buzz buzz buzz, whenever there is Catalyst university. I’ve been honored to attend a few times. I’ll tell you what, it’s just amazing.


01:07 RK: Thanks. We are blessed with a community that supports leadership and growth, and the belief that if we just focus on business we can be prosperous, but if we truly want to be great, we have to also lift up, not-for-profit, the faith-based community, local government, education. When this idea that rising tides lift all boats is not true; rising tides lift all boats if those votes are prepared to be lifted. And if you’ve got one group that’s not doing well, we’ll lose companies, we’ll lose jobs because companies don’t want to be in communities where the local government’s not great, or their church is not great, or schools aren’t great. So we’ve got a lift to everybody up. And that’s really what Catalyst is about.


02:00 LJJ: Catalyst is just one component of Southwest Michigan First.


02:03 RK: It is.


02:04 LJJ: If you close your eyes and you think back, even let’s say a decade ago, the landscape was very different.


02:12 RK: Yeah.


02:13 LJJ: What did you do to foresee how you could help lift people up in the companies?


02:18 RK: Yeah, so we live by the belief that the greatest force for change is a job. It isn’t just having employment; it is the psychological change that a job makes on families and communities and future. If you have a job, you think about the future, you think about a home and owning a home, you think about giving to charity and volunteering for your children’s programming. If you don’t have a job, there’s not much hope. So by focusing on jobs we’re worried every day, “Well, then what does that look like? How do we compete?” Too many people think, “Well, the good jobs, you have to have a big empty building.” Well, that’s a good thing to have, but that’s only one part of it. In today’s world, the communities, the places, the organizations that thrive are all about the talent. And when we looked at Michigan and we lost two million people in Michigan, but most were in the middle, early part of their career. So when we look back 10 years ago, we know that there was a gap coming; this gap had already started of younger leaders having to deal with much more sophisticated issues than they would have had to have dealt with had there still been that layer who moved out of state because their jobs went away in our one state recession.


03:39 RK: So we really create a catalyst on this idea in the heart of the recession, what are we going to do to prepare leaders to thrive? And we frankly thought if we could get to 500 people, it would be nice, and we could have an impact. Catalyst this year was 2,600 people. Over the course of a year with all our other programs that have come out of that, we’ll have between 6,000 and 8,000 people that will go through some kind of capacity development for those people because we know they will do great things, companies will thrive, and thus the community will thrive.


04:19 LJJ: Consumers has found it to be one of the most engaging opportunities for our team at every level, which I think that’s the key right…


04:31 RK: It is.


04:31 LJJ: It isn’t about, “Oh, you’re a leader, already. So go attend.”


04:35 RK: Yeah, no, no, we… Although, we want those senior leaders in the room because it shows leaders that are below them on the ladder that, “Oh, developing yourself and continuous improvement is critical.” But we really want to build a continuum of leadership. If people are burdened with the same kinds of knowledge, then they can grow and thrive together, and which is why we have some companies that completely shut down for the day and send their entire organizations because they want everybody to be on the same page. Now you’re going to process that information differently, but you were going… But we’re all have going to heard those stories and that leadership and be on that journey together, and in our other cohort-based programs are the same way, it may be emerging leaders, we have a program that’s just for leaders in their first two years of employment.


05:29 RK: So your first two years of employment, we want to get you in this program to build a cohort, but to launch you. But we have programs that are then just for CEOs, and we have everything in between because great communities, great organizations, great places all have highly engaged leaders at a continuum of ages, experiences, and socioeconomics.


05:55 LJJ: When did you sit back when the recession was taking place? And it really was something that everybody listening was impacted somehow, whether it was they were growing up and felt it and saw it or themselves. How is it that you decided this is the way that we can not only survive but thrive?


06:18 RK: It was as much an epiphany. I was at a leadership conference, a faith-based leadership conference in Chicago, put on by the Willow Creek Association, and there’s 4,000 or 5,000 people there. And as I was talking with people I discovered that the vast majority of the people were business people there, and that the faith-based community who this conference started for, in fact, we’re a smaller percentage because the business or non-faith-based people had a hunger for learning, a hunger for leadership, had time on their hands because things were so awful, there wasn’t a lot of growth opportunities, but they needed the nurturing of their soul and the fire within them. And so, it became clear to me that where we weren’t going to be able to do thousands on day one, the reality was that we had a need and it made huge sense to take that risk. And so we went to a couple of companies and said, “What do you think?” And everybody went, “Oh, yeah please, please come on board. This is truly a felt need,” and it has served us brilliantly.


07:39 LJJ: Technology has changed so much that I think one of the caveats of what makes you real is, the person-to-person.


07:50 RK: Yeah.


07:51 LJJ: And the other component is the fact that you’re not afraid to start new items that are really traditional like 2-6-9 magazine; that’s a traditional… everyone’s digital now. What made you think to yourself? “Okay, wait a minute, we need to go back to the beautiful color magazine that tells leadership stories?”


08:13 RK: It really started because this idea that we were going around doing small group meetings all over seven counties that we primarily work with on a daily basis. And people would say, “We are doing great. But the guy next door, oh it’s terrible over there, don’t tell them we’re doing great, we don’t want him to feel bad.” And then we’d go, “Actually we were just there and they’re doing great. And you’re not really doing that well; you don’t really understand what the opportunities are.” A it dawned on me, we’re one of the few regions in America that doesn’t have a sole source, single source media center. So, in our seven counties, it’s three different media markets.


09:02 LJJ: Right.


09:02 RK: And we have a Chicago South Bend area, we have a Jackson Lansing area, and we have Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo that are all drawing. And so, nobody had uniform messaging. The people in the far southwest corner of the region never even see ads for Michigan politicians and campaigns, because all their media is coming South Bend or Chicago. So, we had figured out a way to tell stories to people that let them know how their neighbors were doing, how to lift up leaders, how to create messaging for next generation leaders. As much as we like existing CEOs, our future or those folks kind of under 40 as a region, that’s who everybody in the world is fighting for is that group.


09:55 RK: The regions that get them and engage them will be those that thrive, and so we had to give them power of story to understand what’s going on to see people that look like them. So as much as we like the print magazine and we continue to do it, we now know that we’ve established market credibility, we’ve built a tribe, and that tribe tells us they want more. Well, you can’t have daily print magazines, so we’ll go with the daily version called First and 42. First, being that we want this to be the first place you think about. We want to be first in the nation, and 42 is our latitude.


10:36 RK: And so you know we named the magazine 269. And then that shows how old I am, because I thought our area code was relevant. And then about a year ago, I looked at our staff cell phones, we had a list of every… And I realized half of them don’t have area code 269, and you’ll never change your cell phone number. So it’s not really going to be relevant for the future. So, First and 42 it will have…


11:04 LJJ: Change is good, Ron.


11:05 RK: It is good. I love it. I’m a junkie for change. And so it’ll have kind of cool things going on in the community, features on leaders, and really a daily knowledge transfer. We will launch middle of July, then and go three times a week until we get more of a pipeline of stories. So, once people get used to seeing it, they’ll begin to forward those things, but we want to know, “What are the cool things going on?”


11:32 LJJ: So, what’s interesting is this is all about collaboration.


11:36 RK: Oh, absolutely.


11:37 LJJ: And obviously then you’re going to be searching for stories for people to give, business stories, leadership stories?


11:45 RK: All kinds of stories. I’m a trustee at Western Michigan University, and until I became a trustee, I thought I kind of knew what was going on there. And then once all of a sudden, I’m on the inside and I realized the amazing speakers that they have that are open to the public, the problem is the public doesn’t know about it. And there’s access to the great artists they have in, and the live performances. And so, there’s one thing we can do is say, “Here are the cool things going on.” And without a true daily newspaper, and most communities don’t have that today, and those that do have it, they’re so small and shrunk, people want information presented in a different way. We’re huge fans of the skim in our office, and they want it presented in a storytelling format, not just hear the facts and figures; some things will give facts and figures, because data is important, but mostly we’re going to tell you why you should care as much as what’s it about.


12:49 LJJ: Sounds like golden nuggets to me. I like to call those golden nuggets, where you just really want to capture and help people understand it. The world is so busy, so fast. Have you found that when you take the time with all of the different programs that you have, when you take the time to have those one-on-ones to meet with individuals face-to-face and then deliver in different ways that has changed the way that people are thinking about West Michigan, Southwest Michigan, and leadership?


13:24 RK: Absolutely. I think people remember how you make them feel, not necessarily what you tell them. And our role is to curate experiences, to curate people’s opportunity to thrive, to lift them up. Everybody has in them a seed of greatness and we want to be Miracle Grow to help that seed of greatness explode and blossom. And it means that we have to bring water sometimes, and sunshine sometimes, and fertilizer sometimes, but if we do that and lift people up, and then stand back and watch them explode with opportunity, for us that’s the success. And when we do that, things go pretty well.


14:14 LJJ: Individuals and businesses can contact you through the web, phone…


14:17 RK: Yep, at soutwestmichiganfirst.com. All of our contacts on there, you can get me at ronkitchens.com or email me at Ron@ronkitchens.com.


14:28 LJJ: It’s that simple.


14:28 RK: That simple.


14:29 LJJ: You’re a connector. Thanks so much and thanks for announcing. This is a big deal.


14:34 RK: Yeah, it’s a big deal for us.


14:35 LJJ: I can’t wait to get it in my email. I’m assuming that’s where I’m going to get it.


14:39 RK: You’re going to get in your email.


14:40 LJJ: Awesome, Ron Kitchens, Southwest Michigan First. We’re also going to talk to him about his amazing book, Uniquely You, so you have to just keep on listening to these podcasts because you will not want to miss it. Lynne Jarman-Johnson, Money, I’m home! From finance to fitness. Like to thank Jake and Aaron, our producers, and Consumers Credit Union.


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