Managing Complexity w/ Kari Kennedy

This episode features Kari Kennedy. She manages flight operations projects at FedEx and draws on her experience chasing hurricanes as an Air Force meteorologist and managing operations Southwest Airlines to lead high stakes projects with tight deadlines. In this conversation, we talked about leadership, how to draw on unlikely sources to become a better leader and how to manage high stakes teams. 

While this is primarily a science podcast. I thought Kerry’s background in project management and operations would just be a great background to showcase because the principles that she uses in her career can really apply anywhere. 

Audio Version:

Podcast Transcript

I would really love to kick it off by learning about your early experiences in meteorology. How did the interest first begin? And when did you know that that was the direction you wanted to go?

Kari 1:31
It’s funny you asked that, Matt, because it’s sort of found me. In fact, my whole career has sort of been a Forrest Gump sort of situation where I’ve just fallen into stuff. Luckily. So I was sort of a math and science nerd in high school, and I wasn’t quite ready for college just yet. So I joined the Air Force and ended up in meteorology. And so I became an observer and then of weather forecaster. And then after nine years, I got off of active duty and ended up getting into the Air Force reserves chasing a dream of all dreams. For a lot of weather nerds. It’s ended up going into chasing hurricanes out of Biloxi, Mississippi. Yeah. And so I know people ask, you know, how do you how do you get into that? And they generally think of the tornadoes and if anybody’s seen what was it Twister from? What, 1520 years ago? Yeah, you know, they remember the cow. Yeah, so tornadoes are scary. Those those people are just nuts. But hurricane chasing is a lot of fun. We ended up and it’s important to track where the eye of the storm is. And so we actually flew into hurricanes flying the pressure waves and track the storms. And so pretty much anywhere you we’d been where there was a little red.on The Weather Channel is where we had been and track those storms and sent data in.

Matt Benson 2:54
Yeah, so were you in the actual aircrafts tracking this?

Kari 2:59
Yeah, actually we were. So there’s six crew members on board at the time, and two meteorologists. And so one is doing the the horizontal part of the storm. So we’re the ones helping track to get to the eye of the storm or get through things. And then there’s another position in back, called the drops on operator and we’re in the back doing the vertical positioning of the storm. So we’d release these instruments out, oh, man, I should have brought one home. Anyway, we’d really like total nerd sorry. We’d release these instruments out and they measure the temperature and pressure and humidity and winds of the storm as it drops through. And we’d get that information back to the airplane and send it off to their hurricane center, usually within about 15 minutes 10 to 15 minutes of being in the eye of the storm. So it’s very fast paced. Yeah.

Matt Benson 3:46
So I imagine like, I know you briefly mentioned this on the last call we had but like, I imagine there’s probably pretty strict safety measures when you’re doing that kind of work. Like what was the risk like, did you

Kari 4:01
That’s a great question. So obviously, most people avoid thunderstorms. You know, when they’re flying. We’re purposely flying through them, which is a little odd. Yeah. So we’ve got, you know, some great pilots. There’s not a huge amount of additional training that the pilots do, but there is some to be able to manage through these things. These pilots are skilled no matter where they come from. And so, we do manage the risk through thunderstorms, you know, if there’s some really extreme updrafts and downdrafts, we’ll avoid those. But for the most part, we’re just plowing right on through safety measures wise, you know, everybody’s strapped in and ready to go, but I tell you what, I’ve seen severe turbulence and it’s, it’s interesting, for sure. I feel like the tiniest bump on my flight to New Jersey and I’m freaking out. And I’ve slept through a few

Matt Benson 4:57
cool, so I also I see on your LinkedIn that you are stage manager or have some experience in that. So what’s that all about? Oh, that’s interesting too. So that kind of came about from. So let me take a step back. I’m passionate about leadership and I have been for a long time. And so I’m always trying to figure out how to refine how I work with people and how I manage my own teams.

Kari 5:24
So generally, and this may spur another conversation down the road, but generally, I like to understand people very well and what makes them tick. And so I’ve been dealing and working with meteorologists and pilots and lots of software engineers over time. And generally those folks are very checklist driven or very, very, you know, direct in their in their ways of doing approaching things and and have have a certain way of doing things and so I wanted to kind of explore How to work with creative types as well. And so I got into theater when I first moved here to Memphis a little bit just to meet some new people and look at this, realize that I wasn’t any good at learning lines. So I thought, you know, let me let me take some skill sets that I’ve already got and see how we can reapply. So, in this case, stage management is very much like project management. It’s just managing creatives as opposed to the pilots and engineers. And what was interesting is I found out that it’s all about teamwork. It’s all about trust and it’s all about really making sure people know and understand who they are and and and how to work with them and their space. Yes, still managed to to come up with the final product looking looking good. And it is it’s all about teamwork. And so yeah, it’s been a fun adventure learning for sure. That’s, that’s a great philosophy. I mean, it’s, it’s like the value in applying you know, cross disciplinary things and taking principles from one eight and applying it into the business world and vice versa. Right?

Matt Benson 7:03
Exactly. Yeah. And I, I can resonate with that too, because I moved to Austin. I came here from New Jersey, just a couple years ago, I went, I like got connected into the improv scene, and I didn’t, you know, pursue it for longer than a year or so. But I can say it was definitely like a great landing spot. And it It taught me a lot of stuff that I didn’t know,

Kari 7:22
what kind of things Did it teach you?

Matt Benson 7:25
So a lot of it is something we talked about, like the principle of Yes, and especially in a business setting, I think, to kind of emphasize on teamwork and building on something together is something that that really helped me a lot. And then also, you know, when you’re on stage, especially in doing improv, you really need to be attuned to what everyone else on stage is doing. And you need to really have presence with everyone. So I think it’s easy You know, in our, our day to day at work, to really we get in our lane and we stick to it. Yeah. And when someone else comes in with a need or something they need from us. It’s easy to kind of either shoo them off or put it on the back burner when, you know, it helps to have a bit more outward facing view and just be mindful and say, Hey, you know, maybe we need to readjust the priorities here and kind of the same page.

Kari 8:28
That’s fantastic. Yeah, that’s exactly kind of the same sort of things I learned to the Yes. And really forces you to listen to what other people are saying instead of already formulating what your, your your thoughts and your plans are. So a great team will listen and pay attention to each other. And the one thing that you can learn from that is you have to trust a process. And so you have to know what the other person is doing in order for you to deliver what you need to do. And so, one of the big things in teamwork is Making sure yeah, to your to your point, you’re staying in your lane. But at the same time, you know what your what effects you have going downstream from you, whatever your widget is that you’re making or your idea or your concept, how is that affecting people downstream from you. And likewise, if you know what’s happening, before something gets to you, you can better anticipate that and so teamwork is really critical, not just for your space, but for an entire organization. And improv definitely is a great way to learn that kind of thing. Plus, it’s just fun.

Matt Benson 9:34
Yeah, exactly. Like there’s so many benefits of that. And I think like live comedy is a hugely underrated, like, extracurricular. Yeah. Especially in today’s society. Yes. And I’m sure there’s so many more opportunities and people realize to just get involved at a small level. It is it is but but I like what you said there about, you know, like listening to listen and not listening to respond. I think it’s just a great life skill. I know my girlfriend tells It all the time, but and then I think like, I just kind of want to keep harping on it because it’s, it’s making it as I’m talking, it’s making me think about it, then I think having a like a light hearted activity outside of work, and not just usual like fitness or you know, your typical things, or maybe just sitting in front of your TV and watching Netflix to unwind, but really having like a community based activity where the goal is to laugh, that can that can actually like add a lot of energy to your day, and the productive things you’re trying to get done. I think it kind of feedbacks off itself when you have that in your life.

Right. Right. And you’re absolutely right about that Matt and you know, they always say that it takes more muscles to smile than it does to frown and I know that sounds really silly, silly, but it does. Right. And so, you know, I think that the other thing that laughter brings is is trust, you know, so if you can laugh with people, you know that you’re you’re starting to break down some barriers to some extent. And laughter can be toxic if it’s not used correctly. So if you’re laughing at someone, yeah, that’s one thing. And so you’ve got to be really careful about where that goes. But laughter is such a great equalizer and think back to how many times you’ve been with friends or with teammates or something. And you’ve been through a really ridiculous experience, like COVID. Say, and there just becomes this certain amount of bonding that you get because you’ve been through the ridiculousness. One thing when we first set up our war room in my office for COVID, early on in this we, I worked for a big shipping company, and our pilots were had been exposed to the COVID stuff way back, when in when it was hitting China, so in January and February, so we set up a war room to kind of handle all the day to day problems that we’re having. And we were so intense and we were working seven hours or seven days a week and many, many hours and, and we just had some really ridiculous moments. I mean, we even got one of those penguins, which is supposedly the creature that spread this virus. We had pictures of it all over the wall, and we were shooting rubber, you’re gonna say you have a lot of laughter we built the team even more, even though we were exhausted.

Yeah, that’s interesting. how is that changed like dealing with that at your company? Have you has the procedure evolved? Is it Have you seen things like opening up a bit or how is that going?

Kari 12:42
Ah, great question. So it is it is going up as much as anything else is. So we’ve seen where obviously China has been opening up a little bit sooner and now Europe is opening and now the US is opening and so the US has just been a couple weeks behind everybody else to some extent but The the original initial lockdowns were just crazy because nobody really knew what was happening knew what was going to happen. And so things, things changed on a daily basis. And one thing that we realized in building these teams out this this war room team is that really nothing was getting done. And so once we finally got our feet under us and put down some, you know, here’s our cadence, we’re going to have two meetings a day. And here’s the expectation and here’s who needs to be here. And who needs to do what and we had checklists? You know, again, it’s aviation is a very checklist driven organization or to keep it going. And once we finally got settled through that we realized, okay, you directors, you guys, we need you to go be directors and go lead, big, big thoughts. We’ve got the managers and senior manager levels, let us handle things at our level, and make sure that everybody else is taken care of and things are getting done at the at the tactical level. And so we really had to forcefully separate the strategic and the big decisions from the tactical and the everyday decisions and and in the thick of things. It was very difficult, but I don’t remember who started it. But as soon as we did, we all kind of went, yeah, we’re not getting a lot done. And once we did that, it really started opening things up. And we were working much better as a as a team, knowing that things were getting done. Yeah. Yeah. It’s very fascinating, right. I mean, I think it’s always a challenge to separate the strategic from the tactical. All right, especially now when it’s almost like an existential Yes, you’re solving.

Matt Benson 14:37
Yes. Wow. Interesting. So I’m also really curious to hear about your time out Southwest. Like that. It seems like you were there and the time when that it really elevated the brand. Yeah. And kind of became you know, the juggernaut it is today. So like, what what was that experience like, across the longevity that you were there?

Kari 15:00
That’s Oh such a fun it’s such a fun place to work. If anybody can get on with their I’ll just just honestly say it’s it’s a really fun place to work. I spent 15 years there, started right after 911. I was surprised I got hired there during that time, but they were ramping up realizing that a lot of change needed to happen, especially in the IoT world. And I stumbled into it through there. I remember I said earlier, I’m kind of Forrest Gump to my way through my career. Yeah. And this was a Forrest Gump moment I got into it. I didn’t even own a computer. But they needed somebody with my background in aviation, in particular, in this particular area, flight planning and stuff and meteorology. And so I got into it, um, and things were so siloed. And so, you know, systems didn’t talk to each other and everything was very siloed. And we did things because we’ve always done it that way. So this was in 2001 2002. And over the course of the 15 years as management and leadership changed as technology changed the culture and the company just turned along and and made huge huge, innovative, exciting changes and stopped doing this is the way we’ve always done it. Now what did stay and what’s super important to that company is Southwest Airlines is known for its culture, you know, of being the love airline and getting stuff done and it’s warrior spirit and and servant’s heart. And those things at the core haven’t changed. And growing and growing up so to speak as a leader there you learn that you know, you take care of your people and they’ll take care of you. You build out clear communication and tell people as much as you can. You know, sometimes you can’t tell them everything but try to do what you can Yeah, be as transparent as you can trustworthy As you can you build trust you you probably the biggest thing is if you care about your people, so find out stuff about your people, I mean, know their kids names. I mean, there’s simple things that people can do as a leader, that will, that will drive people to do whatever it is, you need them to do to go above and beyond and accompanies the culture that is all of that at its core. I mean, it really, genuinely people care about each other and the company and to keep it going, and I really miss it some days. That’s nice. And it’s cool that you got to witness that. Yeah, I think, you know, anytime a big national brand kind of goes through that transition period, and how it goes from point A to point B, where it’s, you know, one of the top brands in the populations I think is very interesting process. Yeah, it is the hood, you know, it is it is and it’s and it’s interesting to see how rabid a lot of the country are about being so loyal to them. And I’m you so today over on, you know, Twitter and and other forms of social media people will actually defend the brand more than, you know snipe at it, which is huge marketing and and, you know, loyalty to the customers as well. Yeah, sure for sure. Cool. So, given all of this, like, do you have a couple, maybe one or two leadership lessons that you’ve learned that really stick out that you use in your career?

Matt Benson 18:30
I do. Um, so everything again goes back to how do you build a team? And there’s there’s very clear ways to do that. Again, you have to build trust with your team. And that takes time. So isn’t if you’re a new leader or new to your position. It’s going to take some time to build that trust. You don’t walk in and day one and everybody goes, Hey, you’re the best person ever. You know, it takes time and you build that trust by being transparent following through with what you say you’re going to do and being accountable, and then and then keep the open communication. All of this, you know, goes back to showing people that you care. And I think that’s probably the most important thing when people know that you care about them. They’ll go over and above to to get things done. And yeah, that’s, that’s great. I mean, I, I’m a relatively new leader myself, and I’m like, this is my first time kind of running my own team. So I definitely resonate with what you’re saying. And I even I brought someone on board who I’ve worked with in the past, and like, the, the amount that I trust them and the mutual trust there is really helping me you know, more than I thought it would. And, and yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s, uh, I’m like on that journey right now, the very beginning. So I’m always learning as I’m going, but it’s a lot of fun. That’s fantastic. And as people see, you trust you to trust each other, that trust is going to spread as well. And that’ll just build your Team even more so, so good for you. Yeah, that’s exciting. It’s tricky, but it’s exciting.

Kari 20:07
It is. And it’s so easy to lose to that’s the other thing is, is the first time that you aren’t transparent or the first time that you aren’t holding yourself accountable to getting things done, you know, and owning a problem is when people will start going, Hmm, maybe, maybe that’s not the right thing to do. That’s why trust is so huge. And I’ve even had that experience, like I brought someone on in the fall. And it just didn’t work out, you know, the communication wasn’t working. And then they actually left the company in a couple months. And then we found like a replacement for that early on in 2020. And it’s just been great. It’s been like polar opposite, because I’ve internalized the lessons that I learned and the mistakes that I made and was able to like, fix that. And when I catch myself maybe slipping into old patterns, or even I think it’s easy, it’s easy as a manager when you’re training someone new to like be reactive to just kind of

Matt Benson 21:00
Be more patient be more thoughtful with how I communicate, it’s just you can see how long way it goes. Because that’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. And you know, the more especially early on that’s a great point. Learning about that person early on and and how they work and, and making sure that they have the right guidelines as you go. allows them to really grow with a team as well, because you’re being the new guy, and it’s so hard to go Yeah, where are my boundaries? What am I supposed to do? And if that’s not clear, it’s tough. Yeah. And always learning always learning Good for you, man. Always and that and like, it’s almost a I don’t want to say it’s a blessing in disguise because it stinks that the coal pandemic is happening but like having, I feel like my communication with other people and like learning from people like you who’ve who’ve, you know, accomplished a lot and seen a lot Like, that’s all taking place more and more, because we’re all isolated and being able to communicate remotely. So it’s the more that we can share information. And honestly, like, I think people probably overestimate how polished you need to be to maybe like put out content on LinkedIn or something like that. But it really is becoming like the modern day trade show ish type experience. You know, it’s a lot more decentralized. It’s not one big event with a bunch of people. But there’s people having little breakouts and there’s people communicating in groups and there’s there’s little keynote things that a bunch of people like and engage with. And you can see a lot of parallels. So I think the more people put themselves out there, the better with that stuff. What’s your suggestion for getting people to go out there and and dive in, especially, maybe that’s somebody that’s like an introvert. Um, so I think if you pick whatever your niche is, if whatever field you work in that you like, If there is a network of people that you’re like, I want to get more known and learn about people in this community. Just start reaching out. And actually like one good way, surprisingly, is to search hashtags on LinkedIn.

Kari 23:14
So if you find like a term on for example, if you were to do this and you searched like shipping or logistics, you kind of like wade through this feed of just general like company postings, or you know, a bunch of stuff. And then every like maybe five to 10 posts, you’ll see a person who’s like maybe putting something thoughtful or engaging out into the into the LinkedIn world. Those people are great people to target. And then another kind of trick I’ve done on LinkedIn, to find people it’s got me a couple good podcast guests and introduce, like, introduce me to people who have introduced me to people is to when you’re doing the hashtag stuff, if you see one of those posts, and you actually click the likes, that’s going to show you people who are engaged, and then you can go to their profiles and look at it. Their activity and just kind of have the spiral out through there. That’s interesting. I’ve been using hashtags a lot and, you know, on LinkedIn happens to be really good. I think LinkedIn networking algorithms and the way it’s all set up how you you can see if someone’s liked something in your newsfeed, like, there’s a lot of ways to go, like within the six degrees of separation and all that. Right, right. Yeah, I found it really interesting to see, especially through this pandemic, how many people have really started putting their own thoughts out there as well. So it’s finally been one of those things, these catalyst points where people decide they’re going to go right or decide they’re going to go try something new. And maybe it’s time for for sure. The kicking off point, right. I just saw a quote earlier today on one of my, one of my news feeds that comes through and it was Kevin I think it was it said Vladimir Lenin It said, a lot of nothing can happen in 10 years. And a lot, and nothing can happen. Oh, shoot, let’s edit this out. Forget that. I gotta remember the concept of like long periods of time, but not a lot of change. And then yes, and then and then in weeks, 10 years can happen. Yeah, that’s what it was, in 10 years, nothing weeks can happen.

Matt Benson 25:22
I saw something about like, a graph of ecommerce adoption. And there was like a very slow, you know, like 2030 degree incline. And in the since, like, 2009. And then it jumped, like, doubled in the last eight months.

Kari 25:40
Wow. Yeah. I mean, it’s probably gonna go back at some somewhat, but I think that’s how it all works. And I’m not a biologist, but I think that’s how evolution works, too. It’s like those big toes and then these, these events that move things forward. So we’re kind of like peering into the future. Yeah, yeah. My particular department skews in a 50 to 60 range pretty heavily. I can say we’ve got a handful of millennials, maybe five or six, you know, that are that are below 30. And so we had some real struggles when everybody was kicked out of the office and had to start working from home. Imagine, yeah, so people had to learn how to use teams and learn how to use even just being able to VPN in you had to teach these people and so it was really scary for people at first and now Boy, you can’t get them out of teams or that it like my mom is a tutor and she was she’s never that tech savvy, but she’s like learning all these things about zoom and I’m teaching her a lot. That’s a good way for me to bond with her more stuff. But yeah, I see that happening a lot. Yeah, it’s definitely given rise. It’s been good.

Matt Benson 26:57
Cool. So I think I mean, we We’ve covered a lot of good stuff. Is there any Are there any, like parting words or anything you want to give a shout out to?

Kari 27:06
Ah, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate this. This has been exciting for me too and a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed your your podcast as well, I can’t wait to see where you grow and, and learn some more about But yeah, I think this is just such a fantastic time for people to grow and learn as leaders and and try out new things. I mean, this is a perfect time to do stuff that’s outside of your wheelhouse. And you never know where it’s gonna lead you and take you and maybe you might find, you know, much like you, Matt trying, trying to dip your toes into podcasts and see if this is really your thing and it may spur you off on a whole different world You didn’t even imagine. So I’m excited to see where people take this opportunity. You can either treat this whole COVID thing is as a disaster or an opportunity and and i hope a lot of people take it as an opportunity to grow.

Matt Benson 27:56
Yeah. Thanks for coming on the show.

Kari 27:58
Thank you so much. And you have Great Day

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