Valerie Keller: “I want to redefine leadership”

·4-min read
Photo credit: A.Pennefather
Photo credit: A.Pennefather

Valerie Keller’s career history has been anything but conventional. Having grown up in a Christian cult in rural Indiana, the oldest of seven girls, she was encouraged to marry within the sect aged just 18, and subsequently to take back her husband after he had an affair. Against her family’s expectations, she chose to leave the marriage and pursue a career, starting in the finance world as the protégée of a regional bank CEO, then gradually working her way up to executive vice principal level, before leaving the job to go and work in homeless shelters. “I just had this strong sense that there had to be something more,” she recalls. “And it was there that I realised I could be an entrepreneur.”

Keller went on to run social enterprises tackling issues including homelessness, drug addiction, housing and healthcare, and at one point even had the opportunity to run for political office, but decided that her vocation lay in enabling businesses to take on projects with a social conscience. As the global markets executive director at Ernst & Young, she oversaw a programme focused on ‘purpose-led transformation’, while in her own capacity as the founder of Veritas and Beacon Institute, she worked closely with company executives pioneering conscious capitalism. Most recently, she co-founded the organisation Imagine, where she remains co-chair, with the goal of helping leaders use their power for good.

“I want to redefine leadership,” says Keller of her work, which is predicated on the conviction that progress is possible and achievable, as long as you have the right people working together with the right mindset. Her achievements speak for themselves: she was instrumental in creating the Fashion Pact, the global coalition of leaders in the fashion sector who collaborate to meet key environmental objectives; and she is now seeking to drive similar change in the food-production industry. (“We want to transform the system at every stage of the supply chain, from soil and seed all the way to distribution,” she explains.)

Here, the Young Presidents’ Organization member and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader shares her personal lessons in leadership…

The three most important qualities for a good leader are…

First, the ability to adapt and be flexible – you’ve got to be able to sense what’s out there, to see the way things are going. Second, an understanding that leadership isn’t about the self, it’s about service. You’re taking people’s most precious thing – their time – and they’re trusting that you’ll help them use it in a productive way. And finally, an entrepreneurial spirit, because to be a good leader, you’ve got to see possibilities where others don’t; you need to be able to mobilise them around a dream.

My personal strength as a leader is…

Having the firm belief that a few good human beings can change the world.

The biggest priority for my business right now is…

Accelerating the work of disruptive innovators. I’m interested in working with people who have the business ideas and the technological solutions, and just lack the wherewithal to make them happen. I want to support them not only with financial but also relationship capital.

I keep people motivated by…

Giving them a sense of belonging – they need to feel cared for and that they’re in a safe space.

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as a leader…

It was not closing things down when I needed to. I was trying to focus on homeless shelters and drug-treatment centres and housing developments all at the same time, when actually I needed to end one project to do the next one well. I realise now that it was my job as the leader to say, “No, we're not going to do that now; it can be done later.” You have to think of the human cost, because otherwise you burn people out and you don't end up accomplishing your mission.

An effective leader will always…

Sequence and prioritise things, and wait to have the right-sized team for the right mission.

An effective leader will never…

Let themselves be talked over. Always respect your own expertise and make your voice heard.

My role model for leadership is…

Oprah Winfrey. She suffered so much adversity as a child, and she overcame trauma and adversity to become a successful entrepreneur, all by listening to people.

The one piece of advice I’d give to a new leader is…

Have a vocation you feel is making a difference.

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