'What Do You Do Best?' SIPA 2020 Keynote Don Harkey Sees a Clear Path Forward

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Even before Don Harkey, CEO of People Centric Consulting Group, and I started a Zoom conversation on Monday—you are in for a treat when he keynotes the first-ever SIPA 2020 Virtual Conference on June 1!—we both laughed. I think it was because each of us used "pivot" in the first sentence that we spoke.
"That's the word of the month for me," he said.
It's probably the word of the year for all of us. Funny, when I looked it up in Webster's just now, the noun appears first—"a person, thing or factor having a central or major role, function or effect." The second definition reminded me that it's what we call the center in basketball, almost an antiquated term now that the game has changed so much and centers matter less.
But I digress. It's the verb pivot that we have all been living the last two months—turning, changing to something new. And accepting.
"My favorite story is that my 75 year-old mother-in-law is teaching piano lessons on Skype," Harkey said. "If you would have told me that at Christmas time, I would've said no way. But she's doing it and liking it and said she will be offering it to her students in the future. It's things like that that are fundamentally changing. The key, as always, is listening to customers and putting fear away.
"The challenge we all face is the new situation we're in—the stress and the fear—and that we've had to pivot from all of [our normal] positions. This is outside of our comfort zone and at the same time it's interrupted all our habits. But now we have a common enemy so to speak. In a way it's like an unintentional experiment. There are positives—my mother-in-law's new outlook—and negatives that can come out of this. I own a business, and I'm stuck and it's hard to pivot—oh, I said I wasn't going to use that word again. None of us would choose this crisis."
Harkey has an easy-going style. When I asked him how presenting from a box on a screen rather than in person might change his style, he hesitated. "Oh, no, I'll be standing, moving. I won't change anything. But that's a good tip for others."
He has found that he is able to feed off the energy of chats and comments taking place while he speaks. That's one of those positives of our brave new world, he said.
"We do a live group every month here—60-70 people—so the question became, 'how do we recreate that?'" Harkey asked. The answer, of course, is virtually. "I was the speaker and all these conversations were going on on the side. But it wasn't distracting. It was actually fun to interact with that. There was energy being created. And it related to what I was talking about. You felt part of the community.
"When you're at a live conference, you go to sessions, briefly meet someone, but maybe miss those people later on. Or you might be sitting in the front row, and you can't pull up an article that something the speaker said triggered. At an online conference, you can pull up this article, or talk more virtually with a person you met or heard."
Identifying With SIPA Spirit
Harkey said that as a "recovering engineer," he can identify with the entrepreneurial spirit of SIPA members. He was working for 3M and saw some teams being successful and others not so much and why. So he decided to start a company and apply what he learned. All has been going well, and then a pandemic hit.
"There was a moment for me. All of this started happening, and the new revenue targets for the year for our company [seemed worrisome]." He thought to himself about the various scenarios and most weren't good. Would he have to go back to engineering?
"I didn't sleep too well that night," Harkey related. "But"—as a believer in being very open with his employees—"I brought it to the team the next day. I said, 'the best case is we're fine, but the worst is really, really bad.' They all circled around the problem and rallied. 'Okay, now that we know that, what decisions do we make? We can focus on moving forward and helping clients.' It's like on planes when you're told in case of emergency to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others."
As an engineer, Harkey also knows innovation. He has met business owners who are just so focused on the fear that they can't innovate. 
"When it comes to Innovating, it just doesn't happen magically," he told me. "I can't tell you, 'Okay, go be creative now and write,' while we're talking. Or everyone go innovate. It's a creative process. You can't do that on command.
"So you try to look for opportunities. What do you really know? What do you do that's unique? What do you do best? Remind yourself of who you really are. Don't walk in and just talk [to customers]. Listen. Have conversations. You don't have the answer right away. Collect information. Then if there's a circle of what you do well and where they need help, [see] where they intersect."
He offered an example of one client that helped people sell items online through Amazon. They were having horrible backlogs, like 7-8 weeks for guitar strings. "The customer looked at themselves and said, 'We're really good at helping customers solve problems,' so they started looking for solutions and found ways to get past those lead times.
"Sometimes we're afraid in these situations and we shut down. But this is not a time to circle the wagons. It's a time to listen. We had a meeting with a large nonprofit that have a location that people [like going to], or that's what they thought. We asked, 'What are you great at?' 'Well, we're great at bringing people together.' 'Okay, what does that mean [in this environment]? The core of what they do well is not the building. Then if the building isn't the key, what is? We can do different things to bring people together.
"Usually when we hear innovate, we think, 'What can I do with technology?'" But it can go way beyond that, he said.
'We're Coming Together More'
We returned to his mother-in-law and the idea that certain positives will come out of this. He pointed to a restaurant in his area—Springfield, Mo.—that has discovered that they really have a knack for doing takeout. "So now they're focused on delivery. Pick up food on the way home—it makes sense," he said.
"Another example is that I think [as a whole], we feel tighter as teams. We're coming together more. But we're working apart, so what's happening? Well, we have a clear purpose and clear objectives. We're communicating clearly with each other. Maybe even more than before. It's improving esprit de corps. So don't stop accidentally doing that."
It's also true that Zoom offers a strangely effective dynamic, where it's tough to look away from the other person or people, as opposed to in face-to-face conversations.
Harkey admits that, of course, it's far from perfect now, but in line with his upbeat nature, he said that we will, ahem, pivot from some of the bad. "Even bad things that have happened to you, we're learning lessons from that, good and bad, and can use them to move forward."
Join us on Monday, June 1, and hear much more from this visionary leader. Register this week to get the lowest rate! Every registrant will be entitled to on-demand listening of all sessions.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…