Advice for new leaders from Kirt Walker: Communicate early and often

Katy Smith
Kirt Walker, CEO, Nationwide

New people are stepping into leadership roles everywhere you look in the Columbus region. The first year in the role can be a whirlwind—learning about the company or organization, either for the first time or learning about it from a different vantage point; getting to know lots of new names and faces if you came from outside; and perhaps finding some things you would like to do differently.

Columbus CEO's April 2020 cover package, "The Great Leadershift," featured advice from six leaders in their first few years. Here is what they shared.

Kirt Walker

CEO, Nationwide

Initiating change: I believe the ability to adapt to change, and bring others along, is a key trait of successful leaders. My advice is to communicate early and often. If you don’t communicate, you’ll leave a void, and people will fill the void with the worst possible outcome. Share what you know when you know it. Be visible with your stakeholders. Lead by example and help others get comfortable being uncomfortable. In my first year as CEO, I’m focusing on communicating in a variety of ways: monthly videos for associates, town hall meetings, a CEO intranet site, Yammer, LinkedIn, monthly small-group “Coffee with Kirt” sessions and skip-level one-on-one conversations.

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How to use time: Start with having a 100-day plan. Work your plan and measure your plan. Prioritize your time and activities by focusing on what’s most important. For me, it’s about the 4 Ps: People, Planning, Performance and Partnerships.

People are the first priority—attracting, developing, engaging and promoting the best people with diverse backgrounds, experience and skills. In addition, honest, regular dialogue with employees is one of our most important jobs as leaders.

Planning tells us where to focus our time, energy and resources. 

Performance is about putting our plans into action, measuring results (internally and externally), sharing progress and adjusting plans to ensure future success.

Partnerships are internal and external. Inside Nationwide, collaborating and working as one team fuel our success. We succeed or fail together. External partnerships include those related to business, philanthropic and governmental efforts. I’ve personally valued the opportunities to work with other leaders in the community. We’re proud that Columbus is our hometown, and we’re excited to do more in our city.

During the first 100 days, what was productive for me was reaching out to current and retired CEOs. I asked them if they were to do it all again, what worked well that they’d repeat and what would they change? I took away the importance of focusing on the foundation during the first year. You’ll never fully understand the CEO role until you’re in it, so take time to understand your stakeholders and their expectations, align your team and set the strategic direction for your organization’s path forward.

Balancing your personal life with work: It’s about knowing your priorities and recognizing you only have so much time in a day. Controlling your calendar is a priority.

Protecting your health: Like using an oxygen mask on a plane, we can’t take care of others if you haven’t taken care of ourselves first. In order to be our best – at work and at home – we need to focus on our overall wellbeing. That includes physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.

Growth and development: As a new leader, you may feel like you need to focus on everyone else. Be sure to focus on your own development, too. I’ve always found value in having a “personal board of directors”—people I trust to give honest feedback and advice. I also feel fortunate to replace someone I had worked with for 34 years. He helped develop me and others through coaching and feedback along the way.

Advice from other new leaders:

Jonathan Moody, CEO, Moody Nolan

Lori Gillett, CEO, Corna Kokosing

Dr. Steve Markovich, president and CEO, OhioHealth

David Holladay, president, CoverMyMeds

Lisa Courtice, CEO, United Way of Central Ohio