ronkitchensFor today’s profile, we have another special episode of the podcast. I’m honored to introduce you to someone who’s been a mentor to me for more than a decade. More than anything, he taught me how to consistently study and apply leadership principles to my own life. Today, Ron Kitchens is the CEO of Southwest Michigan First, a team regularly recognized for their excellence in the workplace.

In this in-depth interview, Ron shares his personal leadership philosophy and the unique ways he applies it to the workplace. From rugby scrums to planned cheating, there are plenty of useful surprises that you can apply to your own organization.

Click here to play the interview in a new window.

How do you define success personally?

For Ron, “it’s about maximizing impact and influence with the resources I am provided with at that time.” He references a story in the bible about using our talents. A man gives three men three different amounts of money and tells them to maximize it. The story basically teaches us that we all have responsibility to maximize the resources we have at that time period for the greatest benefit. For Ron, that’s what he focuses on. You can’t measure your impact against those with different resources; you’ll never be happy. You need to do everything you can with what you have. And when he does that, he sleeps pretty well.

Can you tell us what a typical day in your life looks like?

“I don’t know that there’s a typical day, but I’ve started in the last few years using a system.” Like a lot of leaders, Ron worries about balance or about checking off so many boxes in a day. He has started to use a spreadsheet each year. It allocates all of his time, both personal and professional, and he treats them like he would a budget. There are five different areas in which he divides his time and each year he decides how many hours he can commit to each area. When someone comes to him with a commitment, he really looks to this spreadsheet to see if he has the resources to give and if he can allocate time toward it.

Recently, CEO Magazine named your company the best small business in America to work for. I remember a decade ago that you had some unique approaches with how you work with your team. Can you tell us more about how you achieved that?

Ron sees that award as such an honor and explains that its crazy to think that the magazine looked all over and found that they stood out. The fundamental place it all starts is his willingness to admit that he’s not the smartest guy in the room; he’s just the leader. To be a great organization, everything they do has to benefit the creation and development of well-paying jobs. That may be working with companies to grow them or starting companies.

They believe that you have to have the right people on your team to reach that goal. Not only do they psychologically see if their possible employees are capable of success in their field, but they also test their fit with the other people already succeeding in the company. Every person who joins their team has to interview with every other person on the team for fit to make sure that they will do well together. Everyone works better as a team and when you all choose who will join you, you’re committed to continuing to succeed together.

Ron continues to explain how people can go work for companies day to day and not be engaged. Ron then further explains his company’s engagement score and how they engage and support each other on a weekly basis. He also teaches his team cheat to on work with their families, rather than giving up family time for work.

How hard was it to get your team to actually adopt the philosophy that when a choice between home and work comes up that they need to choose home and family?

“It starts at the leaders.” Those things are already on the calendar for Ron, and the whole team can see when his daughter has a match. He lets everyone know where his priorities are so that the employees are able to feel like they can treat their lives the same way whether it be family priorities or priorities to his own personal wellness. He continually models his own behavior for his employees when it comes to exercising during the work day and stocking the kitchen with healthy snacks.

So how do you also get people to continue learning and growing?

Ron points out that continuing to learn and grow is very important. The company’s wellness strategy includes physical fitness and then they also have something they call fundamentals, which is their book club. As a team, they read 6-10 books together per year and discuss them in a relaxed setting in different sections of the book. They use this tool to teach each other ideas and principles and facilitate the discussion. They also, on a monthly basis, watch leadership videos together that are nominated by the team. They use a diverse group of knowledge, and if someone is not learning-centric, they won’t work well on the team.

Pretend you’re sitting across the table from another CEO that wants to get started with this approach? What are the first steps you recommend they take?

Ron tells us that the first thing that must be done is committing to being vulnerable, which is something that men typically have trouble with. They have an open-door policy and treat everyone as though they are the CEO of their own responsibilities. This includes accountability to the team but also, everyone else on the team knows your goals and knows when you’re getting behind. These people are going to help you pick up the slack. Its key to have open communication, but its also important to write it down and execute it. It’s about believing in people, believing in their abilities, and also asking them what it is that they need to be successful. Its important to not only say these things, but you also have to live up to them as a leader.

To learn more about Ron and read his “always forward” essays, visit


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