A Smorgasbord of Views on Leadership in Kansas City
The evidence of leadership is all around us: A revitalized Downtown. A thriving life-sciences sector. National recognition for outsized philanthropy.
A closer examination of those tangible products of leadership—whether it was driven by corporate executives, personal and family wealth or public-sector figures—tells us much about Kansas City, said nearly a score of current leaders gathered for the first Industry Outlook Assembly featuring past honorees of Ingram’s 40 Under Forty program.
To understand how that leadership is successfully applied, it helps to know about the philosophic and character underpinnings of the leadership that defines this region.
“Kansas City is so fortunate, from an entrepreneurial spirit standpoint, to have great companies like Hallmark and H&R Block and J.E. Dunn,” said Troy Stremming, vice president at Ameristar Casinos. “You have all these huge companies that were started and founded here and we’ve seen such a huge commitment on behalf of those founders in investing this community and continuing to do all the right things.”
Those legacy companies are being followed by upstarts like BATS Global Markets, whose chief operating officer, Chris Isaacson, said the boldness factor was clearly evident here. Six years ago, it was unheard of that a small company from Kansas City could shake up the equities-trading world and challenge the dominance of the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. And yet, it’s happened with BATS, and that’s reflective of the broader community mindset, Isaacson said. “Whether through naivete or maybe out of boldness, we’re able to tackle things that are bigger than most people would,” he said.
Peter Brown of Grassmere Partners, who formerly served as chief executive for AMC Entertainment, noted the impact of a typically Midwestern level-headedness at work here. “That’s what contributes to the environment, to be able to raise a family and live comfortably here,” he said. We have also benefitted from the leadership of figures like the late Stan Durwood, Brown’s predecessor at AMC. “He had a lot to do with what happened in Downtown Kansas City; he was a very one of a kind, though. He kind of had a force of will that isn’t adopted by a lot of the other business leaders in town, and that force was that we’re going to do things, were going to get bigger, we’re going to acquire others and do it right here from Kansas City.”
“Fortunately, my company is willing to go out and find a lot of people and train them to become great leaders,” said Bob Dunn of J.E. Dunn Construction. “Some stay on for a lifetime, others go out and start their own companies, but it’s great that we have the talent pool that we have in this community, and that we have great academic institutions, whether public or private, that really help grow business.”
As an executive with Jeff Smith & Associates, Adam Taff says he’s spent the better part of the past six years working with clients from the East Coast. “Based on what I’ve seen in New York, we have a genuine, inherent goodness about us, and about our desire to help our community,” he said, and to do so without the kinds of egos that complicate things back east.
Christine Kemper cited the benefits bestowed by corporate leaders who have acknowledged the vital role that a thriving arts community plays in creating a vibrant city. “It’s very exciting that business people aren’t now afraid to talk about the arts as important to the economic welfare of the community,” she said.
Surprisingly, a key leadership trait can be found in the value of simply being decent and respectful in our relationships with others. Debbie Wilkerson, chief executive for the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, said her dealings with executives from around the nation often touch on a common theme: You people in Kansas City are nice to work with, and that’s not always the case, she’s heard time and again. “It’s that added plus that nobody ever thought would be,” Wilkerson said.
Julie Browne, president and CEO of PPO USA, a division of Government Employees Health Administration, said that in her role, “we work with more national partners than local, so we constantly have people coming in to visit us from all parts of the country, and that is what they say: ‘Everyone is so nice here’ and they appreciate us. The working relationship is more of a trusting relationship.”
In a similar vein, Richard Wetzel, co-founder of Centric Projects, said “we have a humility and lack of arrogance that allows us to punch above our weight as a community.”
So What’s Missing?
One would think that with so much going for it, Kansas City would be a trouble-free zone. But the panelists just as readily noted the leadership gaps—and potential gaps—that exist.
“I think perhaps our biggest strength is also our biggest weakness,” said Angelo Trozzolo, president of Trozzolo Communications Group. “A phrase I like to use is kind of the One Degree of Kansas City. We see it in this room: If we don’t know each other, we have people we know in common. We’re all connected by just one degree.” That helps get things done on some levels, he said, but “on the other hand, it causes us to perhaps be OK with not being as bold as we need to be.” He noted that Kansas City was once grouped with the likes of New York and Chicago as cities that set the tone for the rest of the country. “We were the first to build two stadiums together, and the airport, love it or hate it, was unique,” Trozzolo said.
Chris Isaacson sensed a void in higher education. “I think one of the things where we struggle with here is fostering entrepreneurship due to a lack of schooling,” he said. “Why does Silicon Valley exist? Because there’s Stanford, frankly. No offense to any of the schools around
here, but we don’t have a Stanford of the Plains.”
The K-12 piece is just as significant, most notably with the Kansas City school district, several participants noted. “That just feels like the albatross around the neck of this community,” said Christine Kemper. “I don’t care if we come up with 10 terrific things we do in this community, why can we not fix our school district?”
That point resonated with Courtney Goddard, associate general counsel for Park University—earlier in her career, she represented the Kansas City district. “It’s going to be very difficult to really move forward when the school district is where it is,” she said. “After working there on a daily basis for a number of years as their legal counsel, I don’t think the general public really understands how bad it is.”
Kevin Kramer, vice president for commercial lending at Bank Midwest, noted the impact of political and geographic boundaries. “Structurally, we’re not set up to have a strong leader,” he said. “The state line runs right down the middle, we have six counties in the area, a weak-mayor form of government—all of that makes it tough from an elected officials’ point of view to become a true leader in the community.”
And yet, he noted, that same lack of public-side influence created a void that had been filled by successful business figures. “What’s happened,” he said, “is folks like the Halls, the Kempers, the Helzbergs, the Stowers—those are the people who helped lead the community, along with others I’ve missed—those are the folks who have stepped forward.”
Others noted a communications gap that too often hinders effective leadership in the community. Christine Kemper told the story of a trip to Omaha involving Joni Cobb, head of the Pipeline entrepreneurship program. When business leaders there told her about an entrepreneurship-promotion initiative they were involved with, in conjunction with the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, “Joni was flabbergasted, because how would she not know about this in her own town?” Kemper asked. “Sometimes I think there’s a lot of energy, but we have to get it focused so that all the right people are talking to each other and not running 300 miles up the road to find out what’s happening in our own community.”
Tom Proebstle of Generator Studio, the architectural and design firm, cited similar concerns. “One great positive for us is the Crossroads right now; I think we have something like 50 or 55 digital Web companies or digital media companies, and I think it’s second only to Austin, Texas. That’s a great thing, but who knows that?” That matters, he said, when talented students graduate from college and look for the place to start their careers. “If I’m a kid in Silicon Valley, and I’m making the call—‘Where do I move to? Where should I set up shop?’—who do they call? Where do they go? Does anybody have an answer for that?”
Joe Sweeney of Ingram’s, moderating the discussion, noted the relative lack of nationally known brands based in Kansas City. A recent trip through Silicon Valley showed evidence of that community’s ability to draw or grow big-name brands. “We need to start thinking more about the perception, our position in the marketplace, and think more about what that region of northern California has done to attract investment,” he said.
Identifying shortcomings is a key step in identifying challenges and setting priorities for overcoming them, and panelists readily addressed some. Stremming, who noted the impact of major philanthropists whose wealth was generated by business growth, posed a key question. “You start to think about who’s next? We can only rely on those families for so long.”
Kramer seized on that, as well, from a different perspective. “When you think about who’s next, what entrepreneurial companies are going to take the place of the Cerners and some of the others, I start to think about who’s next at those companies, those patriarch companies,” he said. While there are great chief executives in place around the region, he asked, will their stockholders and boards future executives maintain current investments in the community? “All of us know that spending time and dollars on community events builds a better community for your employees to work in,” Kramer said, “but it’s hard to translate that dollar for dollar into a company’s bottom line.”
Peter Brown suggested that a significant challenge is a mental one: Embracing the need for continued growth. “We seem to have a mentality, that we’ll get to a certain size and we’ll sell out; we don’t build bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger,” he said. “But we can think bigger. We can be the acquirer instead of the acquiree.” That’s not a tangent to the conversation; without that kind of mega-growth of companies, there won’t be a future Hallmark or American Century. “We’ve got to plant those seeds to start the next generation of businesses that will be tomorrow’s cor-porate oaks,” he said.
For Courtney Kounkel, also a Centric Projects co-founder, a looming challenge is retaining top talent and drawing students back to this region after college out of state. Her own story was a good example of that; she was certain when she left Kansas City for college that she was cutting a cord. Not so. The cost-effectiveness, the competitive salaries, the strong suburban and private schools are powerful magnets that brought her back, she said, but there’s still a problem: “People leave; there has to be some reason to bring them back,” she said.
The need for future leaders is one reason why the law firm of McAnany, Van Cleave & Phillips has engaged in structured efforts to push leadership down, said partner Cliff Stubbs. “If we’ve got new associates starting, they’re going to be involved in something in the community; it’s just expected,” Stubbs said. “Anything they want to do, it’s going to be supported.” That’s important he said, because “when you look at the next group of companies that I think are going to be successful and be the next large players in town, they’re invested in the community and their core aligns with Kansas City’s core, and that’s why they’re successful.”
Equally important, said Rich Reda, a producer for Lockton Companies, is the need to actively recruit out-of-state talent. “When we talk about leadership, we all acknowledge the need, but almost nobody talks about importing leaders,” Reda said. As a road warrior who does a great amount of work in other cities, he often deals with people who are imports to those cities, as well. “There are some things we can do to help out importing some of that talent and not have such a trade deficit of leadership.”
One of the challenges cited was the need to build a “cooler” Kansas City—something that would attract younger workers and foster entrepreneurship. But, as anyone who struggled with a cool-deficit in high school might recall, if you need to be cooler, you probably don’t have what it takes to actually become cool. Asked what kinds of communities have successfully culled that imagery, several participants in unison chimed in: “Austin!” And yet, it wasn’t always the case there, either.
“UT is a great university, but it’s not Stanford,” noted Richard Wetzel. But state and local incentives are in place, he noted, to attract and retain high-energy startups here. “Our company is moving in the next few months, and we got tax credits from the state of Missouri to help. That kept us in the Crossroads. But a lot of companies are so busy selling their product or services, they don’t know to knock on the door in Jefferson City and say, ‘Do you have anything available for me?’ ”
That, said Debbie Bass of the Foundation for Shawnee Mission Medical Center, gets us back to the communication gap. “People get excited when we talk about KC and we love our city, we love the Kauffman Center, we love the Zoo, we love the new Legoland, we love Crown Center—we can go on and on of the wonderful things that we have to tell,” Bass said. “We just need to do a better job of touting those.”
A 40 Under Forty Evolution
Joe Sweeney, who has been involved in the selection of each of the 600 people honored by 40 Under Forty since 1998, posed the question of whether the leadership criterion for selection should be retained. Often, he noted, extremely accomplished young business figures are passed over for consideration for a lack of involvement beyond their businesses and families. How important is the aspect of being involved on non-profit boards, acting as a volunteer through schools or churches, taking fund-raising roles, mentoring youth, serving on church
committees or coaching youth sports?
“I think it’s everything,” said Christine Kemper. “There are lots of people making a lot of money in the community, and that is their reward for business success, but what everybody is talking about are the next great leaders.” She noted the example of the late Adele Hall. “She gave money, but also her time, stuffing envelopes, serving on boards at the highest levels—she never stopped, and I feel like that’s been a huge difference-maker for our community.” If you take that part away, Kemper said, 40 Under Forty becomes nothing more than a competition over who’s the best lawyer or engineer, or who’s made the most money. “What makes you different,” she said, “is how you give.”
To that end, Joe Sweeney posed the question of whether future classes of 40 Under Forty might be tasked with group efforts to address community challenges. As participants noted, decades-long problems facing the region are unlikely to be addressed with a handful of meetings from any small, independent group, no matter how influential they are. But success can be achieved at the margins, such as with concerted efforts to mentor start-up businesses or high-school students, doing more to promote business involvement with non-profit causes, or taking on administration of one-and-done events like Ingram’s CEOpen Executive Golf Tournament. A project overseen by 40 Under Forty alumni, the golf tournament has raised $550,000 in eight years, benefitting 33 non-profits throughout the region.
“There are a lot of smart people in this room,” said Tom Proebstle. “Let’s get together and talk about things. If we make an event compelling enough, we could bring in big-name people and get some sort of funding for an event,” something likely to draw sponsorship support from companies represented by those in the roundtable.
As Kevin Kramer noted, “We’ve all been on groups and committees, but success has always been about the execution: Who’s going to take that idea to the next step? How’s it going to be executed? If we lay that out, we can recruit great support from 600 people.”