Brenda Dunn Kinney is CEO and founder of BDK & Associates. She consults with organizations on marketing, corporate strategy, building customer relationships, call centers, technology and operations, partner/alliance marketing, mergers and acquisition, and management. Dunn Kinney has more than 20 years of hands-on executive experience.
What was your business experience before BDK & Associates?
I started out working for ATT as an engineer. Most of what I learned between college and that job was about innovation and strategy. I had the pleasure to work for some extraordinary companies. After ATT I was part of an organization that really was the foundation of interactive shopping on the Internet. I was vice president of marketing for a very large shopping center REIT (real estate investment trust) called The Mills Group.
What I learned from the Internet work I did around customer experience in the early days was that being able to have a relationship with your customer was everything. That was exciting. I worked for several large consulting firms, always in the innovation area in customer service and branding. I led a team that built the first car tracking concierge service, called GM OnStar.
Had you planned on an engineering career?
My degree was in food chemistry. I got out of college I thought, “I don’t want to do this.” One of my friends’ fathers said, “We’re hiring engineers. We’ll train you.” I thought, well, OK, my mind works that way. And I never looked back.
Was there a pattern to your movement between jobs? Was it always for opportunity, or pay?
It wasn’t always me making a move. It was people I had worked with who liked like working with me and liked what I could produce. When I showed up I could get a lot of energy going. You can innovate together a lot more easily when there’s a lot of joy going on.
So I think I brought that feeling to what I did and people would take me with them when they started something new. It was always exciting work; I was never told to go sit in a cube and write code. My [skill] is about seeing what’s possible and bigger.
It sounds as though you let nothing keep you from pushing up, correct?
Well, I’ve sat on several panels about “breaking through the glass ceilings.” I don’t know what that is. I’ve always been blessed to work around men—usually all men–and they cut to the chase and saw the real me really quickly and saw how I could execute. I moved up channels very fast. I’ve been an officer at big consulting firms, started companies and been on the cutting edge of revolutionary changes. I just fully show up.
I don’t think it takes “climbing your way up on the ladder” or “scratching your way to the top.” There is your physical life, spiritual life, mental life and your physical health. You have to show up fully in all those areas or you’re just a quarter baked.
My husband died when my son was very young, and my son’s a remarkable young man. He has worked since he was 11. Neither of us waited for something to happen. We made it happen and I taught him that skill. When he graduated from college and got the job of his dreams, I felt I’d done everything that God had brought me here to do, to raise a socially responsible person.
I believe in “raising” business teams that way. I still have friends back from the beginning of my career. I nurture my relationships. I’m connected and a connector. I try to feed my environment by asking, “How are you doing?” “How can I help you?” “What’s happening?” I believe that when you share that way you get a lot more back. That to me is breaking through.
Were there ever times when you felt you were taken less seriously or not listened to because you’re a woman?
Never. Never ever. Even today I have a seat at the table just as I did when I was in 20s because I had something to say that was worth hearing. I wasn’t just “blah, blah, blah.” My father was like that; he had things to say and he didn’t “blah.”
You can’t be all about you. Nobody gets very far by being all self-serving. I’ve all been a servant-leader. I was brought up that way and I feel it has served me well.
How and why did BDK & Associates begin?
I formed BDK in 1992. I had been doing little things on the side and my accountant said I should just form an LLC and see how use that as a tax base. I did little projects, fun things outside my norm, but where it served me best was when I wanted to step outside the corporate world. When I needed a break, I could sit in BDK and it would be my think tank. It was my safe place where I could take a breather and not get caught up in layoffs. I’m always employed, just employed by me!
At the time when you were working for others you could have used the sort of coaching you provide now?
I think I really got it, actually. I remember when I was 23 and working for AT&T and I had to join the AFL-CIO union. I had to work with people a lot older than I was and they didn’t want to train some young girl. They busted my rear end believe me. But I learned how to work with them and they were a lot of fun. There was a lot of joking. One guy took a hankering to me because he knew I was smart and I think he did what he did to keep moving me forward. In the military you learn to push yourself forward. I learned that in business.
I understand things differently than most people but I also don’t depend on others to make me happy. I find my happiness.
I made a huge investment to work on myself every day. And not by being hard; just to look at all points of my life that may be out of balance. As you get older you keep asking yourself what you want to be when you grow up.
I ask where is the next exciting place to be. Now I want to build America like in the 1990s. We were building great companies and having great revelations and big strategic “ahas.” It was just a great time. I benchmark myself off that period. I’m under the BDK banner but I like to form partnerships with people. I like people. I’m not loner.
Why did you opt to leave the corporate world?
My son turned 10 before 9/11. I was an officer at a very large consulting company. I had the nanny and all the support systems. After losing my husband and then my parents two years later, I didn’t want my son to “lose” his mother as well. I decided I was going to take a break and get some more education because if I could get executive coaching skills I could do major work. I was out [of corporate life] from when my son was 10 until he was 15. I was there when you need your parent. I went from a high-paying job to almost nothing doing my own thing.
In 2003. I was coming home and a truck hit my car. I almost died. So there have been things in my path that literally stopped me in my tracks and caused me to reexamine what’s important and where I need to be. I listened carefully.
When you counsel people, what help do they most often want from you?
They’re getting a lot out of me. I had a couple come ask me to help with their business. I started checking around and asking smart people if it was viable, if they’d buy into it. If I go to good sources and they say no, I don’t waste the energy on something. But I always do know someone who can help. It may not be me but I won’t leave people in the lurch.
I tell people the truth. I’m not going to enable someone. I’m going to be me and if that’s what you expected great, but I’m going to keep going.
Are you working with people who are unhappy with their jobs or their lives or both?
There’s a lot of ego out there. If everyone got more real about how they could support one another and build this country back, we’d be moving a lot faster. I remember doing that in the ‘90s.
That’s how I built my network. It was through having conversations with people and companies about how we could expand our ideas and build together. Now everyone’s so selfish.
You’ve had experience finding a way to balance work and life. Is that something others need counseling about?
I had to work on it and continue to now. I don’t think we’re going to be done with it until we leave the planet.
What’s your next goal?
I want to keep BDK & Associates growing but there’s one more home run out there where I can accelerate something to another level. I have some ideas. But I’m waiting a bit.
And meanwhile I’m selling my house. I think it will open doors for me because I’ll have a lighter load of responsibilities. Even my volunteer ideas will be different. I feel there’s something I have to do around the volunteer piece of my life. I just haven’t figured it all out.