What Being a Professional Communicator Means as a Leader with Keri Keeling

In this episode of The B2B Leadership podcast, best-selling author and leadership coach Nils Vinje speaks with Keri Keeling, Global Head, Customer Success Innovation & Intelligence at VMware.
In this episode...

0:23 - Keri's background - Keri explains her role at VMware.
1:39 - Keri's first leadership position - Keri takes a trip down memory lane to explain where it all started.
5:18 - A successful transition into leadership - How did Keri successfully navigate her way into a leadership role, starting with nothing?
7:05 - Building your own baseline - Keri realized that company structure was necessary, even if she had to build it herself.
14:37 - Professional communicator - What does it mean to be careful with your words, and how can you best take this approach?
21:42 - Key leadership characteristics - What leadership traits stand out to Keri among the leaders she has observed?
27:00 - "Hire great people and get out of their way" - Keri shares her interpretation of this quote.
32:29 - Keri's advice to herself - What advice would Keri give to her younger self?

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Why do leaders have to be professional communicators?

How important is it to be a professional communicator from a leadership perspective?

Keep reading to find out.

Keri's background

Keri Keeling is the Global Head of Customer Success, Innovation & Intelligence at VMware, a leading provider of multi-cloud services for all apps, enabling digital innovation with enterprise control.

She has three different responsibilities which include the customer program, customer intelligence, and customer success.

Keri's first leadership position

In the early stages of Keri's career, she was an individual contributor in charge of product management. Her job was to figure out how to keep their customers and grow their contracts.

She was considered a senior member at the time but had no team. The person that she was working for at that time, their CTO, told her to scale up her operations and to hire more people to work under her.

Keri was scared and hesitant at first because her boss told her that leadership is like raising children and Keri couldn't fathom having kids at that time of her life.

Later on, her boss explained to her that she needs to develop a skill set to grow her career in the company. Keri understood and took the offer. This was her first leadership position.

If you really want to continue in leadership, you have to be able to lead people.

A successful transition into leadership

Keri had no idea how to be a good leader. She didn't know where to start.

How did she get through that transition from an IC to a leader?

Keri initially attached herself to other people managers around her. She wanted to learn and the only way she could think of at that time was to learn from other people managers.

So she tried really hard to bolt herself to the senior staff, their CEO, CTO, and the VP of Marketing. But then she realized that she didn't have the baseline for what good looks like. She depended heavily on other people to show her the ropes of being a leader but wondered if she was really getting the right information.

Being a leader requires a lot of intuition. Do not take everything for gospel. You have to know the baseline for what good looks like and start from there.

In the B2B world, sometimes the organization isn't set up to provide that baseline or structure for you. So you have to build your own.

Building your own baseline

Keri realized that company structure was necessary to be a good leader. So she had to build it herself.

It took her 10 years into people management to take stock of different leadership styles, different processes, and different philosophies. Then LinkedIn entered the scene, and that was when she started to learn from other people who were thinking differently about leadership.

These people were talking about servant leadership and growth and development for their employees. This became an eye-opener for Keri. She realized through the power of social media that there's so much more to leadership.

Leadership looks different everywhere.

In the startup world, being resilient and flexible is really important for leadership. Being able to share what you are doing as a leader is also critical.

When you switch gears to a larger organization, you need to become a professional communicator on top of being resilient and flexible. Patience is also critical because you are dealing with so many people.

Professional communicator

What does it mean to be a professional communicator?

When you're communicating with your people, your message should be well orchestrated and clear. You have to make sure that you know the words that you're using and it should not confuse your people.

Keri on the other hand has a tendency to speak in colloquialisms and she loves using sports metaphors, especially those involving baseball.

She realized later on that she has people from multiple countries that don't know American baseball and have no idea what she's talking about. So anytime she finds herself using a sports metaphor, she would stop and define it so her people could understand her.

Do not assume that everybody else knows what you know.

Another piece of advice is you have to take inventory of all the people you are communicating with. You have to be thoughtful with who you are communicating with, not just what you are communicating about. Avoid involving people that are not supposed to be involved in your agenda.

If in any case, you make a mistake about this, it's okay.

It happens. It always does. As long as you are working with people and with yourselves, you'll make mistakes. It is part of human nature. People mess up especially in leadership, but it's okay.

As leaders, you are not your mistakes. Instead, you learn from them and improve by them.

Key leadership characteristics

One of the key leadership characteristics that Keri looks for in a good leader is humility.

As leaders, you should know that you are not your mistakes, but there are still many leaders out there who would rather die than admit that they made a mistake.

Another important leadership trait is somebody who doesn't take themselves too seriously. They're the type of leaders who think that "I could have done it better" or "I'm going to take some of this experience and combine it with the other to get a better outcome".

A leader with a high EQ is also important because you're dealing with people and people have feelings. If you can't relate to that as a leader, it's going to be really hard for you to build deep and rich relationships with the people around you.

The last key leadership characteristic on Keri's list is being a good communicator. You have to be very clear and transparent with how you communicate with your people.

"Hire great people and get out of their way"

What does Keri think about this quote from a leadership perspective?

Do not micromanage your people.

Nobody needs their boss to be in their business, inspecting every minute of their day.

You have to allow your people to make mistakes. Allow them to grow, to learn, to experiment, or even fail quickly.

These types of environments are great for your people and the leader bears the burden of creating these environments and coping through these environments.

Accountability also plays an important role in this.

The greatest and most productive people in the world have people that partner with them and coach them to set incredibly aggressive goals and objectives and then hold them accountable.

People love to be held accountable, regardless of the fact that most people will tell you they don't want to be held accountable. It just depends on what you're holding them accountable to and how you're doing it.

Accountability is one of the things that drives people forward. It is why the best people are at the top of their game. That's why they have coaches. They want people to drive them and to hold them accountable to achieve what they set out their objectives to.

Keri's advice to herself

What advice would Keri give to her younger self?

She would tell her younger self that it's going to be okay. You're going to make mistakes but they're not going to define you. Learn from your mistakes instead. Stay on the learning side of the education and you're going to grow.

Also remember that employees are not like kids, no matter what people say. Don't demean your team.

Another piece of advice is to trust yourself.

There are people who say leadership can be a very lonely place, and it can be a very lonely thing because it's hard to share what you're thinking with the people that you work with.

Sometimes, leaders don't always know what they're doing. They have a tendency to overthink things. That's why you have to trust yourself because leaders have good instincts and good intentions.

If you lean in with the best that you can possibly do for your team, and the best that you can be for your team, the days when you're not your greatest become easier. And that makes it okay.

Remember, your team needs you.

If you lead with their best interests in mind, you can't go wrong.

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