By Suzy Strutner(opens in new tab), managing editor at Grow Wire
⏰ 5-minute read
Consulting firm Kenway Consulting operates via Guiding Principles that prioritize “means over outcomes” in everyday decision-making.
Founder Brian King recommends the strategy to all types of businesses, though doing so doesn’t always translate to immediate growth.
The firm’s ethos requires taking a long-term approach to customer relationships and hiring employees who generally share its views.
In 2004, Brian King left consulting giant Accenture and started his own firm with one mission in mind: to do what was right by his clients and employees, no matter the cost.
His firm Kenway Consulting(opens in new tab) runs on a strict set of Guiding Principles(opens in new tab) -- internalized by all employees -- that are meant to "guide decision-making," even if it means dips in revenue.
The principles’ overarching premise is “means versus outcomes,” or the idea that doing business justly (i.e. treating employees well or refusing to overspend on a project, even when a customer begs for it) is more important than, and usually results in, positive outcomes (i.e. high retention or long-standing customer relationships).
And by many standards, Chicago-based Kenway has proved its model. Its long-term customers include Northern Trust (15 years), AT&T (12 years) and CDW (eight years). It has grown from its one founder to a team of over 50. And revenue has increased each year, despite a recession and the usual market hiccups.
King credits his firm’s success to its ethos and said all companies could benefit from the Kenway method, though doing so will lead to unorthodox decisions.
Kenway's Guiding Principles
A little over a year after he started Kenway, King hired some of his former Accenture colleagues to join him. The founding team felt the same way about how the company should operate and worked with an “unspoken culture,” a way of doing things that was different from the methods they’d seen at their old firm.
Soon, Kenway started hiring beyond its core group of existing employees. At that point, “Things that were unwritten needed to be written,” King said.
Thus, he drafted the Guiding Principles(opens in new tab) in 2009, five years after the firm’s founding. The aims, which are grouped into sections like “integrity” and “communication,” include “To recognize and encourage the potential of every individual” and “To engage employees to help build Kenway via involvement in internal operations.”
Last year, Kenway hosted a company golf tournament to fundraise for a local animal shelter. (from left to right: Kenway's Managing Director Matt Kueker, CEO Brian King and Bianca Parra of Alive Rescue)
The Principles echo the broader company motif of “means versus outcomes.” One of the final Guiding Principles reads, “To always, under all circumstances and under all economic conditions, do what we believe is right, even when what is right may directly lead to less business and lower revenues.”
To King, it’s logical that “doing what is right” leads to growth.
“If you just do what is right for clients regardless of revenue, you’ll have successful relationships that lead to outcomes like profits,” he said. “And if you just treat employees the right way, attrition will be low and word of mouth will get people to join.”
When good isn't great
Of course, this doesn’t always work out so seamlessly in real life. Kenway has lost business as a result of sticking to its Guiding Principles.
In one scenario, a client asked the firm to staff a project in such a way that would cost the client more than Kenway’s recommended method, which was less expensive and more efficient, according to King.
“The client was spending too much money on us to staff the project,” he said. “We could’ve staffed it a different way and saved them a third of the cost. But they still didn’t want us to do it.”
Kenway hosted discussions over many months to present its point of view, but the client wouldn’t budge. Eventually, it became clear that a particular individual at the client company was pushing for the more inefficient method as a way to assert power after a spat with colleagues.
The Guiding Principles came into play. One reads “To be a financial steward of Kenway and our clients, and scrutinize decisions in order to maximize return on investment.” To King, this principle made the deal a no-go. The individual at the client company wasn’t stewarding well, so Kenway couldn’t participate.
As a result, the firm lost its highest revenue-generating client of that year.
It’s a heralded company example -- along with a few others, including the loss of a major project and potential hires left untouched due to their lack of integrity -- that Kenway consultant Amy Ehrmantraut remembers well.
“The outcome wasn’t one a lot of people would desire,” she said of the scenario. “But for us, you sleep better at night knowing that you’re doing right by your clients and your employees.”
Kenway employees volunteer at Chicago nonprofit Share our Space, upholding a company aim to "help and be helped."
“We have their back”
Deciding between means and outcomes isn’t always easy, King said.
“When you’ve got fifty some-odd employees, and when you know that short-term decisions will impact revenue which in turn affects salaries and bonuses, it doesn’t come without thought,” he said. “... I have to push those thoughts down and say, ‘Those are all outcomes. I’m going to do what’s right.’ In the long run, employees have greater respect for their company when they know we have their back in the right way.”
When possible, Kenway hosts discussions with employees to ensure their support of major company decisions, said consultant Sarah Welch. But once a verdict is reached, it’s final. After all, one of the Guiding Principles reads “To debate options prior to decisions, implement the selected option without second guessing, but make necessary changes as experience and knowledge increase.”
Hiring under the Guiding Principles
To keep Kenway’s culture strong, Welch carefully vets potential hires to ensure they’re comfortable prioritizing means over outcomes.
“For some people, this is hard,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing, but it may mean they’re not a cultural fit because they do care more about the outcome, and that’s what they’re driven by. And that’s okay.”
Once onboarded, employees review the Guiding Principles at quarterly meetings and talk about them daily, King said. The principles serve as a measuring stick for employee performance, making Kenway’s metrics different from many other firms’.
The Kenway team recently took a cooking class together.
For the win
Welch said that flexing the Guiding Principles has led to more success than loss for Kenway.
“I would say we’ve succeeded as a business more so because of it,” she said. “You pivot and focus your attention on clients who want to be your true partners and have the same principles.”
Plus, it boosts morale.
After making a tough decision based on the Guiding Principles, “Normally it feels very good,” Ehrmantraut added. “It ends up being a big weight lifted off people’s shoulders, because they were in a situation that wasn’t good to begin with.”
The Kenway way
King emphasized that the secret to the firm’s success “is not so much Guiding Principles as it is what they say. Focusing on means over outcomes is a philosophy that’s so successful for us, and I believe others ought to embrace it.”
“It’s the most liberating thing, because it takes so much pressure off when there are critical, complex decisions to make,” he continued. “Your emotions might steer you in a certain direction … but if you let go of those fears and just do what’s right, it’s so liberating.”