This interview is part of a new series where leaders in influential positions share their leadership journey – how they got to where they are today. I believe we all have a lot to learn from our stories of where we started, our successes and struggles, and important lessons learned on the way.
This interview is with Kindred Motes. He has more than a decade of communications, social impact, philanthropic, and digital strategy experience, including impact campaigns for or in collaboration with some of the most prominent names in the social justice, technology, policy, and philanthropic sectors. He is the founder and managing director at KMSG, which is a boutique strategy, social impact, management, and communications consulting firm. You can find Kindred on LinkedIn here.
KMSG leadership brings more than a decade of communications, social impact, philanthropic, management, and digital strategy experience to its practice, including impact campaigns for or in collaboration with some of the most prominent names in the social justice, technology, policy, and philanthropic sectors: The United Nations, The Obama White House, USAID, ACLU, Global Citizen, Netflix, Participant Media, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Google, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Vera Institute of Justice, the Foundation for Louisiana, Wallace Global Fund, and New America, among others.
1. What do you like about the work you do? What do you find most challenging?
Being a social impact, advocacy, and communications strategy consultant who works with various clients across sectors is really interesting because it forces me to constantly immerse myself in many different issues simultaneously. A typical day for me (though there really are none!) can involve a lot of things, but here are some of the most common: advising clients about trends in philanthropy; creating an engagement strategy for reaching high net worth individuals; designing a campaign to bring elected officials, influencers, activists, and policy experts together as part of a live event; running infrastructural or peer analysis projects and then designing a new organizational or team structure; building an audience growth strategy for Twitter and monitoring its success; and creating Google Ads campaigns to drive client referrals, fight mis- and disinformation, or build support for a cause through SEO.
And just as the services and tasks are diverse, the issues are, too – from vaccine equity and medicines access to ending extreme poverty, fighting hate and extremism, supporting local communities of color and building resiliency through community-based philanthropy, empowering women and girls worldwide, and building a pipeline of tech professionals in the private sector and government who are trained to put people before profits. It’s an amazing, amazing way to learn about different areas while driving strategies that I’ve already shown are fit for purpose through prior and existing projects.
The beauty of the work – its diversity, scale, and scope – is also what makes it the most challenging, particularly from a small business perspective. I’ve had to become really diligent about my time, my energy, and being realistic about what is feasible and what isn’t, and when I either need to pass on a project or bring on additional support to make it happen. It’s a really fortunate situation to be in – a good problem to have, as the saying goes – but it’s really important to me that the people I work with are pleased by our collaboration, because I think your reputation is really one of the few things that you have as a small business owner. That matters to me.
I’ve had to work on reining in my natural instinct, which is to get excited and say yes to a project just because the organization’s mission or vision aligns with mine without first considering my own likelihood of burning out from continual 16 hour days. Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore!
2. What are you passionate about?
I care a lot about making sure that people understand the messages and calls to action that are important or essential to realizing a better world, and that’s what initially drew me to the world of communications and then took me into strategy, social impact, partnerships, and investment theories.
Reading is a lifelong love, and I travelled through books long before I ever set foot on a plane or went to another state, region, or country. I’m passionate about understanding the state of the world, so a lot of my time is spent listening to podcasts or audiobooks while taking long walks.
I’m passionate about leisure, too, including tennis, baking, cooking, and hosting dinner parties for friends on a large scale (once that is possible again!). But I’m most passionate about learning new things, having discussions about issues I don’t understand with people who do, and/or getting into discussions with people who feel differently about something than I do.
I love travelling and hope to better figure out how to do so in a way that feels healthy both for me and for the places and communities I visit. I’m passionate about building a community of social impact professionals who want to take issues of access, equity, justice, sustainability, and empowerment to the broader world through innovative campaigns, messaging, events, and collaborations. And I’m passionate about creating a workplace and company that respects and values both its clients and its staff and sets a tone that is aligned with the nature of the work we’re trying to do.
3. How do you manage pressure, stress, and fight the risk of burnout?
Burnout is something I think a lot about. I worked anywhere from 50-80 hours per week last year on average because I was in startup mode, and had to do client work while also managing every element of the business – from accounting, business development, web design, marketing, legal outreach, LLC registration outreach, tax payments, etc. – completely alone.
I wanted to learn the fundamentals myself, but I also just didn’t know if it would last, so I didn’t want to spend a fortune outsourcing those things. It was incredible, exciting work, and I’m so grateful to have been able to have the experience and learn everything that I did, but once I had some time off at the end of the year around the holidays, I slept for entire days and realized that my body was really telling me to slow down.
So this year, KMSG is implementing a 4 day workweek and requiring any current or future staff or contractors to make time for their own rest, relaxation, and creativity by asking them to take a minimum of four weeks per year in paid time off. I wrote about why in a piece on our site.
I was a bit nervous at first that clients would respond negatively or find it difficult to work around, but everyone has been very supportive – which also underscores for me why it’s so important to have alignment between organizational missions and personal values when choosing who to work with.
This trend of reducing workweeks to match the modern world, not the Fordian factory floor era, is finally starting to catch on, and I think the pandemic has shown that flexibility can be and must be a key part of office and workplace strategy and adaptation moving forward. As a manager, and a business owner, I don’t care where in the world you get the work done or what time you’re working on it as long as you’re communicative, responsible, and hit your deadlines.
Stress and anxiety are something that are a bit more persistent, especially for people who work in social impact, social justice, human rights, and/or advocacy campaigning. Everyone I know who works in this space is either burned out, jaded, hopeless, nihilistic, or some combination of them at one point or another.
My fiancé tells me all the time that my perspective of the world and my own sense of how things are going is far too shaped by the things I read daily to keep up with work, my political podcast consumption, and discussions on Twitter. He’s probably right, but I can’t become irrelevant in my own sector for the sake of optimism, so I’ve had to develop other strategies to mitigate that stress.
Walks, for me, are essential to my own emotional, mental, and physical health. As anyone who knows me can attest, it is not unusual for me to walk 8-12 miles on any given day with good weather (and when I have time in my schedule). Fall and winter make that tough, especially this year because I was travelling most of the fall in Europe for client work at the G20, COP26, and a few other events, which left little time for much else.
But if I’ve had a stressful day, I’ve realized that, for me, time with my fiancé or close friends is restorative, long walks listening to audiobooks or podcasts can help me reset, cooking dinner myself is calming, and a nice cup of tea can fix almost everything. Long weekend trips with friends or my partner are restorative, and I still enjoy an old-fashioned phone call.
4. Who has had the most influence on your leadership? What have they taught you?
Honestly, there are way too many people to mention here, and I’m getting anxious just thinking about it. So many people influence and inspire me. But if I had to give a shortlist and give brief lessons that each gave me, I’d start here:
My parents: They are both incredibly hard workers who always stressed the power and importance of accountability, humility, and admitting when you don’t know something – and then working to figure out the answer to it. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something; we should normalize admitting that we don’t know things because most people are faking it at one point or another and that lack of honesty can be really harmful to teams, communities, and society at large.
My parents inspired my own entrepreneurial spirit from watching theirs, and one of the biggest things they told me that has stuck with me is that time is the ultimate judge of something. Time will show whether you were right, even if it isn’t clear to someone at the moment. There have been times when I felt like someone else in a work setting did something unjust, or cruel, or harmful, and I wanted to push back or make a different case or prove to them and others that they were wrong.
But, most of the time, my parents’ words always helped me pull myself back and realize that my job was to keep my head down, do good work, and let the results speak for themselves. Time will tell. And in virtually every case, it did. That thinking is kind of radical these days, and that’s why I think it has so much power. It can really allow you to distance yourself from toxicity in a way that isn’t just avoidance.
Mary Crowley: One of the best bosses I’ve ever had. She encouraged creativity and individual thinking, advocated for her teams to get what they needed, and never saw the growth or success of a team member as anything other than something to be celebrated and steered in a direction of mentorship. She trusted my expertise, asked questions, and made me feel like I was actually leading something, not just being told what to execute on.
She also gave credit to her team rather than keeping it to herself, which showed a level of investment that was entirely to her credit. In my experience, too many managers are afraid of letting their direct reports shine, excel, grow, or try new things – I guess because they need control, are afraid of their team’s long-term intentions, or maybe just insecure in their own leadership. It’s probably some combination of those things.
But Mary showed me that it was possible to be successful, driven, ambitious, and influential while also being kind, empathetic, empowering, and humble. It’s a mix I try (and fail) to emulate every day, but any successes in my own management, past, current, or future, are due in no small part to Mary. I’m so honored to have benefited from her support and encouragement and am grateful to call her both a mentor and friend to this day.
Paula Januzzi-Godfrey: Paula was my boss and mentor during my time in the Episcopal Service Corps, and inspired me early on, at a young age, to think of success in a role as being about more than a title or money – because, as a stipend-based fellow, I didn’t really have either of those things! She brought such positive energy, joy, and love into her work, and affirmed my desire to try new things and learn from them. Some of the days we spent working together are among my happiest memories from that time in my life.
Anna Hall: One of my most inspiring colleagues. Anna taught me to dream big, plan big, make big asks, and then do everything you can to turn them into successes. I met Anna early on in my time living in New York, and to me, she came to represent everything about the kind of career I wanted to have.
She was the first in-house consultant I’d ever worked directly with, and I was so inspired by our conversations about negotiations, strategy, client outreach, event planning, influencer outreach, and every one of the many jars Anna had her hands in. She was the first person I met who made it seem realistic for me to someday try and pivot to a big, bold career in social impact, social responsibility, sustainability, and public engagement strategies. She made it real because she made it visible and accessible. I’ve learned so much from her and am so proud that we have kept in touch as friends.
5. What are your goals or aspirations for this year?
I’ve been really fortunate to have gotten to work with some amazing clients since starting my practice, and I’m really excited to continue working with many of them this year on issues of equity, impact, and justice. I’d like to do more work around sustainability and impact investing, and am excited that I’ll soon be announcing a partnership with one of the leaders in that space.
On the business front, I’m working with some close friends, advisors, and former colleagues to think about what it would look like to scale up KMSG and really hone in on particular needs within my client base to assess why they’ve found so much value in our work together and how I can replicate that in a way that doesn’t compromise on the fundamentals. I’ve been in conversation with a few other amazing professionals I’ve worked within the past who are interested in branching into this work, so I hope 2022 is the year that KMSG can take the things that made last year so successful and build on them to create an even stronger foundation for long-term success.
On a personal level, I’m building in time to recharge, rest, think, and ideate. I think too many people prioritize productivity at the expense of giving themselves time to experience true creativity. If you’re never free to let your mind rest or wander, your creative juices can deplete. In my field, that’s a major liability, because creativity is the majority of the job requirement! And yet, I think depleting creativity by working too much is sadly way too common in my field.
So I’m aiming to have more time to myself and with friends and loved ones that are not tied to some pseudo-restful, productivity-driven activity. Anything tied to a goal, professional development, financial wellbeing, intellectual advancement, etc. doesn’t count as leisure. That’s my new rule. There’s time for those, too, and I definitely love and plan to do them (from business podcasts on a walk to professional development certifications or taking a language course), but I’m trying to reframe how I think about rest and leisure to remove achievement metrics from that time.
I’m also getting married in October, which makes me incredibly happy. I can’t wait.