I met Keanin, the now President and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, in 2009, very soon after he and his amazing wife and two beautiful children moved to Hamilton. We had the privilege of working with him as part of our Hamilton 24-Hour Film Festival team in 2010, and ever since then I have secretly adopted him as my “Hamilton big brother.” It has been so exciting to watch him inspire and initiate change in this city through the Innovation Factory and now at the Chamber. Spending time with him always motivates me to be better and do better.
When I asked him where he would like to go to have cocktails, his reply was “West Town. For beers.” So, on a Monday, we sat down, drank beers, and chatted about life, leadership, family and Hamilton. Grab a drink and be inspired by Keanin, just like I am.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s from Mark Chamberlain, here at West Town one night over beers. What I envy about people like Mark is that he has technical abilities as an engineer, but leadership abilities as a CEO. I’m not good with technology, I’m not an engineer or a mathematician and I struggle with feeling obsolete as things change so quickly. He said that he never has problems hiring engineers or software developers. “But when you look around society, the one thing we are truly lacking is leaders.” I thought, when you look everywhere – specifically at our governmental and private sector institutions – that is so true. That really helped me determine how I can contribute as a person and professional.
The original reason, simply, was because it’s where my wife [Trish] is from. My in- laws were our refuge when I was going through a career transition and after we determined to come back to Canada. I always say that once I started discovering the city, I felt I was let in on Canada’s best-kept secret. Because all of Trish’s family is here, it also immediately felt like home. I have moved 26 times in my life, and Hamilton is the first place that ever felt like home.
Three words to describe Hamilton:
Even though it’s absolutely true, I hate to use the P word that has become such a cliché: potential. I guess I would have to say, “Feels just right.” I love city living, but I don’t want to raise our kids in downtown Toronto, or downtown DC. Raising kids in a big city is hard. Parents are constantly worried about quality of schools and crime. I also don’t want to suburbanize my kids like I was. It’s like “Goldilocks city”” for me.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
Everyday is so busy doing very tangible stuff that actually impacts the city in some way. Either in a small way, by, for example, helping one of our small businesses, or on some of the big things we are making significant contributions to. Things move glacially, but if some of this stuff starts to happen over the next couple years the way I see it happening, that’s going to be huge for this city in 10-20 years, and I just want to be able to say, “I contributed to that.” Small or big doesn’t matter. All I care about is progress.
What’s the worst thing about what you do?
If you’re progressing every single day, eventually you’ll get there, but I think the hardest thing is just accepting that things don’t move as quickly as I’d like. I’m impatient for change and I constantly have to adjust my expectations to fit reality. That’s not to say that I don’t have a role in agitating for things to move faster, and that’s a responsibility in this city that I relish.
What’s your motto?
On my cluttered whiteboard in my office I’ve written a few aphorisms that have come to me since starting this job: “Don’t take status quo for an answer.” and “Commerce is not a four letter word.”
Best thing about 2014.
My wife’s career success. Last year was about moving into our house and me getting this job. This year is really about Trish doing what she’s doing professionally [at Mohawk College]. I am not a 9-5’er and I wouldn’t want my wife to be a 9-5’er either, but because of that, our domestic affairs have become more complicated. We spend a lot of time coordinating schedules and I have to leave work at 5 o’clock some nights (though my in-laws provide us with a ton of help with the kids), but I love that my wife is moving forward in her career. I’m so proud of what she’s accomplished this year.
What has been the biggest learning experience of your life?
Parenting. Professionally, I feel like I’ve been able to eventually figure everything out. Parenting is harder. I think I’m starting to get it; they’re 7 and 5, so I hope I am!
My mother was a single mom, so I’ve always had to contribute at home. It made me self-sufficient and resilient. It also made me appreciate the personal and professional struggles of women and how they are so much more intertwined. The key to women getting ahead is to have men contributing to that cause as well.
If you believe in natural justice, strip away all the various labels that are affixed to every single person, everyone should have the same opportunities.
In a domestic relationship, talking about equality opens a whole different can of worms. There are differences and we have to accept that and talk about them. There are different expectations of mothers and fathers. So you’re trying to achieve equality but also recognize reality, which means that for the first little bit, it was Trish doing more of the domestic stuff; now she’s getting an opportunity professionally, and I have to step up so that she has no impediments.
Do you find it’s easy to leave the office work behind at the end of the workday?
For the most part, my professional duties, especially during certain time frames, come first. But, then, outside of certain time frames, domestic duties take precedence. On the flip side, if I have a parent/teacher meeting at 10 AM or a play at 2 PM, I move heaven and earth to get there. So, I have no problems with prioritization.
But, I can’t turn my mind off once I leave the office. My work is my life right now, because I love it so much, and I find it hard to not be thinking about it all the time.
What is one of the leadership lessons you’ve learned?
I try to treat my staff the way I would want to be treated. I give them space and the ability to determine for themselves where they need to be and when. You get a lot of mileage out of your staff, particularly the high achievers, if you basically give them the freedom to do their jobs while recognizing that our personal lives can’t help but intrude on our professional lives.
I also would never ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t. You can’t be a hypocrite. I get a lot out of my team because they know I’m the one working the hardest. They have to keep up – I don’t always expect them to, but I have to show them the way. If everyone felt they were putting in more work than me, the whole thing would collapse.