When I sat down with Wayne Willis, our new Executive Chairman, and Kira Brooks, our new CEO, it was like taking part in a conversation between two old friends. And at its core, that’s what it was. Wayne co-founded the company in 2005. Kira joined HWC in 2007 as our seventh employee. Just for perspective, I’m employee number 174.
Wayne and Kira are new to these roles (and the roles themselves are new), but they’re not new to the company or the business. Both deeply comfortable with their strengths and aware of their limits, they spoke with the easy confidence of people who know who they are, what they want, and how to get there. It’s clear they form a strong team with complementary skills and personalities.
Despite holding their new positions for just a short time, they’re setting into a rhythm that is both good for them and good for the company. We spoke about where we are and where we’re going as a company, and what each of them bring to their positions.
But first, a little background. HWC’s four partners have undertaken a leadership reorganization to support our growth. They’ve established a Board of Directors comprised of the partners, elevated Wayne to Executive Chairman, and named Kira Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Partner Shari Willis has taken on the role of Chief Communications Officer. Partner Philippe Lopez will serve as Chief Operating Officer, as well as Chief Financial Officer.
We’re still the same company, owned by the same people, with the same commitment to our mission. But these new partner roles have already brought greater clarity and focus to the company, making our leadership positively different.
We’re not turning into a “c-suite” type of place.
Why this change?
In a word? Growth. A business of 100 people cannot operate the same way as a business of 10. This change increases clarity, efficiency, and accountability. Decisions that would’ve previously been made by a conference of all four partners can now be made by fewer people, with accountability to the Board.
For many years we’ve run this company as a partnership in a very collaborative fashion. And I think that worked really well when we were very small, but it’s become less efficient over time.
I think we’ll be more efficient in terms of decision-making and speed-to-decision.
This allows Wayne to be at a higher level looking out across the industry. And it allows me to look holistically, but from within the company.
To maintain our successful growth trajectory, we have to be agile. For Wayne, our expanding workforce made it a natural decision:
I do think it’s size… We’ve built a bigger company that requires many decisions to be made in real-time and without a lot of discussion.
And for Kira, it was also about strengthening an already successful partnership among our corporate leadership:
And we also took the beginning of 2018 to pause and… figure out how we could build a stronger partnership among the four of us. This was one of the things that came out of that.
What are the top three things you’ll focus on in your new roles?
Kira emphasized goals and outcomes, casting a vision for where we want to be as a company and trusting our workforce to get us there.
I like to delegate, I like to set objectives and outcomes, and be a little bit more focused on the end-state of what we’re trying to achieve—whether it’s 2019 or [beyond]. We have really talented staff that can figure out how to get there.
Part of trusting our workforce included giving people room to experiment and try new things, building on our existing culture of continual learning and continuous improvement.
[It’s] taking some risks in the sense of failing forward and trying things, and not being afraid to hit a wall and find another way. It’s part of our culture and I’d like to see it be even more so.
We trust our employees because our people’s success is our success. Kira understands the importance of aligning individual and corporate aims to ensure that our people and our business are happy, healthy, and growing.
In [our] staff meeting… I talked about employee motivation and how without that I don’t believe we can be successful. And continuing to focus on play, purpose, and potential… There should be some things that [employees] truly enjoy and have a passion about that are aligned with the company and what we’re trying to do.
Wayne views his role as forward-looking and strategic: exploring new markets and opportunities, evaluating our positioning, and ensuring people know and understand who we are as a company.
For me the top three things are value creation: things like capabilities, long-range positioning; then increasing our visibility in the market; and new ventures.
Despite the short time they’ve spent in their new roles, their differing focus — and the value of turning loose their differing strengths — have already manifested in their work.
Wayne said, “Let me tell you about this cool new idea!” And I said, “That’s great! Now let me tell you about all the stuff we have to get done this week.”
What will be different in HWC’s daily life?
We’ll benefit from the time freed by our efficiency. We can use that time productively. Kira sees great opportunity in deepening relationships within and outside of the company.
There’s more engagement with employees, partners, industry, clients.
What will be the same?
It’s the same people. You know, we’re the same partners, we’ve just clarified things in terms of roles and responsibilities.
Our leadership is positively different, yet our leaders haven’t changed. We have familiar faces at the helm driving us forward with the same strength and determination that got us this far.
The ownership and the woman-owned status hasn’t changed.
Did you see this kind of potential in Kira from the beginning?
From her earliest days with the company, Kira stood apart to Wayne. He’s helped guide her professional development and has relied on her skills and intuition for years. They complement each other well.
One of the biggest things about Kira is she’s very good at execution—getting stuff done… I can come up with ideas and move on to the next one and not have to be as worried about having to go through all the steps. And she’s very good about taking those ideas and turning them into actual things.
This different emphasis on ideas and execution plays to their strengths and allows us to move faster, operate better, and maintain focus. It’s key to our growth.
I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the precise journey we took to get where we are today. And as they were reflecting on that journey and the roles each of them played, Kira said:
I came here because I wanted to see how to run a small company and I’ve been able to do that and a lot more. I’m really proud of where the company has come and how Wayne’s led us here. It’s quite a story.
What makes HWC different and why do you like being a part of that difference?
It’s all about our people. They create and preserve a unique, “unstuffy” culture where all are welcome, egos are small, hard work is rewarded, and fun abounds. We’re a great place to work.
I think people like being here. Working at the company, being around people that they’re around, the clients. We like the work, the people, and the mission.
And we’re not the only ones who feel it. Others have noticed that HWC is a different kind of company.
That’s hard to describe, right? We’ll have partner companies that come in and just say, “It just feels different here. What is that?” I think that is culture, which is hard to concretely define and describe, but whatever we’ve managed to do, it seems to be working.
Wayne thinks the key to it all lies in our diversity: Folks from all walks of life and disciplines coming together to do something greater than themselves.
To me, this is something that has really kind of evolved over time. I think we have—for a company of our size—a really interesting mix of people. A very diverse group of people in terms of skill-sets, and in terms of ages, and races, and you know, you name it. We’ve got a lot of diversity.
What are you most excited about right now?
Opportunities. Wayne and Kira are both excited by developments inside and outside of the company that have potential to make an impact on our business and transform the government for the better.
Kira’s excitement stems from upcoming opportunities and new work, where we have big plans to build on our current capabilities:
I’m excited to show that we can compete and win in any market.
She’s also thrilled about sharing a vision with our team, garnering buy-in, and accomplishing our goals together.
[I like] being able to give some clarity to the director team about what we’re trying to achieve.
What are you most excited about for the future?
As in the beginning of our conversation, growth emerged as a theme. As we continue to grow, how might we evolve as a company and as individuals? How might our work change, and how might it change the world?
Wayne has seen the company come a long way since he co-founded it in 2005. He’s looking forward to seeing where it grows from here.
I think continuing to see the company grow and thrive. Maybe move into some new client spaces, and new disciplines. Actually becom[ing] more diverse in terms of what we look like as a company.
Kira focused on people and impact:
I’m excited to see what people who are in the company or associated with the company do. I’m most excited for the ideas, as well as seeing the impact of those ideas… on government and society.
What I find most exciting as employee number 174, is that so little has changed about who we are and what we believe since hiring employee number 7. We’re just as true to ourselves and our original mission as ever. And I don’t foresee that changing with employee number 500 or 5,000. I think Kira said it best:
I’m excited to continue being who we are and not having to answer to shareholders or anything like that. And keeping some of that culture of how we built the company.… Continuing to be little bit scrappy. Bootstrapping. Doing it our way.
Our leadership is the same, but it’s positively different — and it’s changing our company for good.
Graphic by Christina Wagner.
Photo by Nicole Kim.