In celebration of October’s National Arts and Humanities month, we caught up with Mr. Brian King ’88, CEO of Kenway Consulting, who has used his experience in theater to create the company he always wanted to work for.
In the summer of 2014, Mr. Brian King ’88, CEO of Kenway Consulting, received some feedback that humbled him. He had asked a group of CEOs to assess Kenway’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. After completing their assessment, the group informed Mr. King that his employees wanted more. They wanted to know where Kenway was heading and how the company was different. So, faced with this unexpected challenge, he did what he had been trained to do – he improvised.
Mr. King called the company together, divided the employees into four groups, and challenged each group to write a narrative of “a day in the life” of the company five years hence. Mr. King coalesced the four narratives and produced the Kenway 20/20. This strategic plan has vaulted Kenway Consulting, a management and technology consulting firm, to enormous success. Kenway earned a place on the “Vault Consulting 50” list, was honored by Inc. magazine as one of the “nation’s fastest-growing private companies,” and has been named as one of the “Best Places to Work” by Crain’s Chicago Business.
Improvisation might not be in the typical skill set of a CEO. But then again, Mr. King isn’t the typical CEO. After majoring in theater, he acted professionally before entering the business world. Since establishing Kenway, he has used the skills learned on stage to create the company he always wanted to work for. His acting experience instilled in him confidence, awareness of others, and the desire to continuously improve. These skills have helped him create a company that not only receives accolades for performance, but is also lauded for the environment it creates for employees.
“My experience acting taught me to improvise and to think quickly on my feet if things didn’t go as planned,” said Mr. King.
That knack for improvisation led to Kenway’s founding in the first place. While working for a large consulting firm, Mr. King felt unsatisfied and disenchanted with the competition he felt existed among employees. In 2004, Mr. King imagined the company that he would like to work for and set out to create it.
Like a one man play, Mr. King played all roles as Kenway’s only employee for the first year and a half. This experience has only enhanced his leadership style. After hiring a cast of new employees, Mr. King was able to focus his attention on being CEO. However, his solo experience allowed him to see the company from all angles and this has provided him flexibility. He can view any situation through the lens of CEO or the lens of consultant. As any good actor does, Mr. King constantly critiques his own performance and looks for ways to be better.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, his career path started in 1985 at Catholic Memorial. Influenced by his friends, Mr. King decided to join forensics as a sophomore. It may have started as a whim, but soon he realized he loved performance. He later landed a leading role in CM’s production of Twelve Angry Men. Friends convinced him to try out for the musical his senior year. After auditioning with a rendition of a Billy Joel hit, Mr. King was cast.
“I was always told I couldn’t sing,” said Mr. King. “But I decided to give it a shot.”
Through these experiences, he realized he not only enjoyed the opportunity to perform, but also relished the opportunity to challenge himself to be better for the next performance.
Mr. King’s forays into theater and speech had a formative impact on the teenager. Performance invigorated him and instilled in him enormous confidence.
“I wasn’t a shy kid per se, but theater and speech gave me the confidence to be more assertive,” said Mr. King.
After graduating from CM, Mr. King enrolled at Boston College. Theater was still on his mind – but it would be something he would try to do in his spare time. Mr. King enrolled in the Business School and soon found his way on stage. The more he acted, the more he liked it. So, Mr. King sought more formal training and added theater to his marketing major. Soon, he dropped the marketing major.
Mr. King performed in several performances including Equus while at BC. As a senior, he was awarded the Player Award for Outstanding Stage Performance.
After graduating in 1992, Mr. King moved to London to continue his acting career before moving to Chicago where he performed in three plays including William Mastrosimone’s The Woolgather and produced two. He also established his own theater company which produced local shows in Chicago. While spending his nights acting and enjoying success, Mr. King needed something to fill his days. So, he joined Anderson Consulting as a temporary employee. There, he met Scott Sargent who would become an important mentor and lead Mr. King to bring his repertoire into the world of consulting.
Scott offered Mr. King one of the most valuable things he could – a willingness to take the time to listen and chat. Although he held a more senior position, he spoke to Mr. King as a peer. Informal conversations have influenced Mr. King throughout his life. He recalls many important ones from CM with Br. Anthony Bechner and Br. Anthony Cavet, the moderators of the theater program and speech and debate team. They influenced him as an actor and performer, but they provided wisdom a teenager sorely needed.
“They didn’t speak as teacher to student. They spoke as one human being to another,” said Mr. King.
Mr. King recalls spending time in their classrooms and having far ranging conversations. These conversations taught Mr. King to think of situations from other people’s perspectives. His time on stage only enhanced this awareness of other people.
“With acting, you have to know your audience. You have to recognize if they need more energy and tweak your performance.”
Having this awareness and being able to read other people has served Mr. King well in his current role. Kenway has stayed true to its founding philosophy of “always doing, under all circumstances, what is right.” And that goes for both clients and employees. He has blended this philosophy with the desire to improve with each performance to give Kenway a unique corporate culture. It is a culture that challenges each employee to offer the best performance, yet consistently makes them feel valued.
In a blog post, Kenway employee Mr. Kevin Sechowski wrote, “We continuously examine ourselves and our market, and we do that with extremely talented people. We create an environment for our people to excel by respecting and rewarding the individual. How long you’ve been there, who you know, what you look like, or what you did two years ago are irrelevant factors in a merit-based organization. Your performance, contribution, and effort today are what matter.”
When asked about which accolade he is proudest of, Mr. King doesn’t hesitate.
“The Crain’s award because it is based on employee feedback.”
As we approach 2020, it is time to write the next chapter. Kenway’s employees have written the Kenway 2025. And if the previous version is any indicator, it will be received with glowing reviews.