356: Jennifer Kluge—Meet The Leader To Build Your Business Into One Of The Best And Brightest

Hear how planning for the future means loving change

I worked with Jennifer Kluge several years ago on a Blue Ocean Strategy workshop. Her organization, the National Association for Business Resources, was focused wholly on businesses in Michigan, offering important services from insurance products to support with accounts receivables. As CEO, Jennifer has catapulted NABR into a national initiative that supports businesses with best practices, training and development, insights, leadership, and a range of programs reflecting the needs of industry today—such as rebuilding talent, focusing on wellness and burnout, and helping businesses rebuild their cultures in a new hybrid workplace, among other things. I love her message: Don’t be afraid to fail. Something we all need to hear.

Watch and listen to our conversation here

What is the right strategy for an uncertain future?

This is what I worked on with Jennifer and her leadership teams. I remember at the time that my Michigan clients were struggling with talent flight. Students were leaving the state after graduation, and industries were trying to figure out their own futures. Fast forward to the pandemic and now the post-pandemic years, and Detroit, where Jennifer is located, is on the rebound, as is Michigan. Between the automotive industry, Rocket mortgages and loans, and IT incubators, lots of new businesses have successfully made it through the pandemic and are now rebuilding the economy of the state.

But Jennifer learned something very important during the pandemic, namely that the challenges of the past had changed, forcing companies to rethink how they were going to survive into the future. In this podcast, you will hear the journey that she has been on as she has built her association into a major resource for companies across the U.S.

You can connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn or her company’s website, the National Association for Business Resources.

Is your business struggling with change? Give these blogs and podcasts a try:

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I’m Andi Simon, your host and your guide. And remember, my job is to help you see, feel and think in new ways so you can change. That’s not easy because your brain often hates me. I can’t tell you how many clients who hire me immediately hate me, because I’m doing something that the brain says, Oh, please stop, stop trying to make me better. I know I need to be but it’s hard to do.

So I go looking for people who are going to help you do the same thing: see things through a fresh lens. People ask me, What does an anthropologist know? I was asked the other day at a conference, What do you do? I said, I hang out. And they laughed. And I said, No, my job is to help you see things differently, not to necessarily build a new sandbox, but to at least see the edges of what you’re doing so you can see what you might be missing.

And my first book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, was about all my clients who got stuck or stalled. So Jennifer Kluge is my guest today. And Jennifer is interesting to me to share her thoughts with you. I worked with Jennifer and her team a number of years ago. We did a Blue Ocean Strategy workshop. And they were quite stuck or stalled. But trying to figure out, Where are we going? What else could we do? Jennifer, thanks for coming today because I want to share what you did. It was great fun to see you then and to continue to see you now. Welcome.

Jennifer Kluge: Thank you so much indeed for having me. This is fun to talk about our journey and what’s happened and what others can learn from. So thank you for having me.

Andi Simon: Help our video watchers and our listeners on our podcast know more about Jennifer. You’ve had a journey. And it’s always important to sort of set the stage for why people should listen to you. Because it hasn’t just happened, you didn’t jump out there. It was in stages, you have seen it, you built it, you’ve carved it. It’s a big piece of playdough that you’ve made into something big and special.

Just let me add one thing. Jennifer is the CEO of the National Association for Business Resources. Now she’s going to tell you how that has pulled together a whole lot of stuff, Corp! Magazine, Best and Brightest. But Jennifer, a little bit more about who Jennifer is.

Jennifer Kluge: Oh, gosh, that’s a loaded question. Let’s start with a business perspective. You know, I started my career in human resources. And the whole goal was, I wanted to help people, but I wanted to use business, I wanted to be in business. But I wanted to help people within business. So I’ve landed in human resources.

I was one of the first graduating classes where it was actually called human resources. So I’m dating myself there. And then later on, I added strategic planning and marketing to my background. As far as my education goes, I was in the corporate world and it wasn’t talking to me. I wanted to continue that mission of helping people.

So the opportunity came to work for NABR, and I jumped at it, and some 25 years later, here I am. And quite honestly, that whole theme of helping people has been throughout my business career, whether it’s my teammates, mentoring them, whether it’s our clients. During the pandemic, we sat down as a team. I had all my team leaders, and we said, I said, How are we going to navigate this? And we came out with, We’re going to help as many people as possible. And that enlightened us to unglue some things. We were able to launch so many programs that helped thousands of people through the pandemic and I’m super proud of that.

Andi Simon: You know, your personal expression, your brand, your answer to the question, it’s a very powerful one because there’s purpose. There may be profit. And we do need profit so that we can pay our folks and they can all make living. But what mattered most to you is, How do I help people do what they have to do? Not what I have to do.

So talk a little bit about your evolution as a business because when we met, if I remember correctly, your organization was providing some insurance products, some support for accounts payable and receivables. They were also doing tactical and practical solutions that smaller midsize businesses could use. It was an association of businesses helping each other and it’s come a long way and tell me the journey, a little bit about the business, because part of it reflects you, not just them.

Jennifer Kluge: Well, you know, we ignite greatness in companies in their people. And so we kind of pivoted from, Here’s what we’re doing, to Here’s our mission, here’s our purpose. And by shifting to that, we were able to think differently and offer different solutions to companies. So yeah, there’s the pre-pandemic story and the post-pandemic story. You helped us pre-pandemic unglue the brain so to speak, as far as strategic planning.

Everybody on my team knew who André Rieu was. And we used it in every meeting, every board meeting. We built the André Rieu story, and this is what we want to do: we want to change who we are in a way that is tenacious and has ingenuity. So for those that are listening and don’t know André very well, you used the story of André Rieu and how he changed the whole orchestral experience from kind of boring to exciting and fun and a value and got everyone involved in classical music.

So we used that example for years before the pandemic on how we wanted to change. And I think the secret there is that we know that success comes from a series of failures. And I think too, there’s an element of, the more you fail, the more confidence you have. And having an important event, like the pandemic, and then you get through it, and you’re crushing it through the pandemic, I think that builds confidence, not only in yourself, but in your team.

And so it’s the combination of knowing that we have to fail in order to succeed, and releasing yourself from the fear. I think for every CEO, there’s kind of a thing, Not while I’m at the helm, and, It’s not going down with me at the helm. So I think there’s this fear out there for CEOs, a subliminal fear, that you might fail. And once you release yourself from that and have confidence, hey, you’re not going to fail. No matter what happens, you’re going to get through it. I think that releases you to think more Blue Ocean Strategy.

So there’s the philosophical, and then there is the actual doing the work. And doing the work is trial, we did a lot of pilots. So during the pandemic for the Best and Brightest companies we work for, we launched seven new cities. So we pivoted. I hate that word. Now, I hate the word pivot. Everyone hates it. We refocused. We shifted and we had a majority of the things that we did were in person. Across the country, we had conferences across the United States.

So when that element went away, it liberated us to launch more cities for regional competitions. So we had our biggest growth during the pandemic because we were released from fear, I guess you could say, and Blue Ocean does this. It says, Okay, this is something strategic here. But there’s opportunity in it.

Andi Simon: What is the Best and Brightest? I’ve had some clients who are recognized as among the best and the brightest. So I’ll put this in context for the listener or the viewer. Blue Ocean Strategy is not about competing in the market, it’s about creating a new market, thinking about non-users and unmet needs, not simply more of the same cheaper, and then being free to do what Jennifer was talking about: to begin to experiment with new ways to do very important things. Because we don’t know what we don’t know.

And I always say never waste a crisis. I never want another pandemic, but don’t waste a crisis because as you listen to her talk about the Best and Brightest, it went from nice to very nice, and from some people benefiting to lots of people benefiting, all because of a crisis. What is the Best and Brightest?

Jennifer Kluge: So the Best and Brightest is a series of programs that we score and rethink excellence. So there’s the Best and Brightest of wellness and there’s the Best and Brightest companies to work for. We put companies through the gauntlet. How do you treat your employees? We have 10 different scoring categories and we have an extensive survey to the employer. But we also validate that by surveying the employees at the end of going through these companies so they can see how they ranked. They see where their engagement levels are and they get a plethora of tools and services to help guide them with their talent.

Now, that was our core. Since then we’ve launched all kinds of tools and resources. We have thousands of best practices that we now share through the Best and Brightest programs. So thousands of best practices, and then we’ve opened it up to CEOs and thought leadership best practices, diversity and inclusion, team bonding and hybrid work, digital engagement. So we have this whole plethora of what I call deliverables but it would be of value to the business community that came from the pandemic, quite honestly. But, what I like about the pandemic, not that we all had to go through it, but what I liked about it is that it gave you the excuse to go bigger.

Andi Simon: And you didn’t run the other way because I’ve heard of people who went smaller, and they shrunk. And they decided to reduce their staffing and they fled. Instead, you turned fear into an opportunity. And you parked it on the side and said, What do I have to be afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? You know, let’s go help people because those deliverables are really a resource, as you call it. A business resource for people who need to know, How do I do this? Where are they going to turn? To a university when they’re shut down too? And they’re going to go to their association. Well, they weren’t sure what they were doing.

But you filled an unmet need of a huge proportion across the country. And people came to say, I’m not sure who you are, but I really liked what you have to do. Am I right?

Jennifer Kluge: Correct. Correct. And we went, like I said, we got our team leaders together. And we said, What role do we want to play here? When times are tough, that’s when people lean on their associations. And so we jumped in. We were answering legal questions. There were all these mandates and what have you. I mean, we were working around the clock. We felt we had to help as many people as possible…you know, people’s jobs, livelihood, income, food on the table. So we felt a strong mission to help people and we still do. It’s carried on to now. We’ve always felt that as a service organization that we have a significant job to play.

Andi Simon: What’s interesting for our listeners to think about is, here we are, we’re facing a battle. We’re not quite sure if we’re trained for it. But we know that people have unmet needs, and I have a hunch those calls came through. You are a day ahead of them. It wasn’t as if there was a whole lot of time studying the legal ramifications of the mandates that had to be done.

Or what do I do to build a collaborative culture when people are in different places doing it in different ways? How do I keep them from getting phished, and having cybersecurity? And all of a sudden, the questions were beyond and all I bet you could do is say, Hang on, I’ll be right back. Let me find out. Am I right? You were the go-to.

Jennifer Kluge: Right. And I gotta tell you, Andi, no past emergencies prepared you for this. And what I noticed is, more seasoned people that have been through the Great Recession, have been through other hard times within their own careers in their own companies. Those were the ones that were like, Oh, yeah, I know what this muscle is. Let’s roll up our sleeves. I don’t think people realized how long the run was gonna be. We definitely knew that we had to use those muscles.

Andi Simon: Real important point, because people who they didn’t think were leaders rose to leadership, and people who they thought were their leaders didn’t know what to do or how to perform. And so you know, don’t waste them or waste a crisis, even for your own development. So that’s really, really interesting. As you were going through it, was there a case or two that really stood out as something that was quite exemplary, either in a performance by a person or an area that you found was in tremendous demand, and people didn’t know where to go and we rose to that. Something that you can illustrate?

Jennifer Kluge: Well, I think what’s coming to my mind is the themes that are still going on there. There’s a lot of themes around talent right now. Wellness and well-being in the workplace, mental health and workplace burnout, hybrid work. There is a lot that we continue to see in that space that has not gone down at all.

It’s really interesting because some of these business trends are the inability to look to the future and predict things. That’s a frustration at the C-suite level. So different themes are coming out. But they were the themes that were there three years ago; they’re still here. What’s the future look like? We have a lot of space and talent so we see a lot of the woes related to keeping and retaining talent. And there’s been a lot of mergers and acquisition activity, a lot of culture merges and a lot of change. So, I mean, this is a great topic.

If somebody can manage change and thrive and change, they thrive in business. If you are going to excel in business, you have to love change, you have to drive change, and you have to bring others with you to drive change, and you have to make it fun and exciting for them as well. So you can’t be in business and think that things are fine, status quo. Well, it’s weird.

Andi Simon: Well, but just think about the things you just highlighted, because I think they are classic problems. How do you attract and retain people, but it’s on steroids, or to use that expression: the Great Resignation. Your people may have resigned and have second thoughts, but it was a catalytic moment for employers to realize that they don’t really own anybody. They’re not really committed.

And then I have had endless conversations about why did they leave? I said, Why don’t you ask them? And what you find is that what they needed wasn’t what you were focused on. You were focused on what you needed. And we flipped it all. Stop thinking about what I need, think about what we need and what that person is looking for. Because if you don’t understand that, it’s no different than a customer.

You know, they aren’t that different as people and they are looking for something to give them their own purpose and their own reason for staying with you. And they’re willing to go jump off with everyone else and see what else is around. They may come back but the damage is done. They too can say it didn’t work out. So what?

But what’s interesting is that you made a big point: the times, they are changing, I think Bob Dylan sang that in the 60s. I love the lyrics to that song because they’re today. And I think they are always. When you talk about this, though, the National Association for Business Resources is also migrating in some ways. You’re taking your own business, and changing as it comes to respond.

And I love your pilots. I always love pilots because we don’t really know, so let’s try it and maybe we’ll get part of it. Where do you see your own future? Because that’s a big topic for your CEOs. Can you share with CEOs what you see, because you’re a little bit ahead of them.

Jennifer Kluge: In what way Andi? As far as where the business world is going? Or where are organizations going?

Andi Simon: Well, you can do the first after the second. I want to know where the Association is going because you’re responding to what people come to you with. You are anticipating, but you also are growing yourselves where many of you are in your future.

Jennifer Kluge: So we’re going through that right now. We are now finally able to launch our own strategic plan versus what the market tells us we need to do. So it’s refreshing to get back to strategic planning and say, Here’s where we want to go, here’s where we’re willing to drive. So we want to expand some of our work on best practices. We have all these wonderful resource guides.

I do interviews like this with CEOs to find out what their secret sauce is, as it relates to talent. You’re gonna see a lot more quick and dirty tools and resources. That’s where we’re going. We’re gonna probably be launching some new programs. We have some wonderful endeavors that we do at our headquarters in Michigan that you’ll probably see outside of Michigan within the next couple years. We don’t let anything go too long without a big change or a big launch. And there’s a lot of past launches that didn’t work.

I remember around 15 years ago, we did this online digital education and training program. A leadership program for small businesses. And I thought it was gonna be so cool. And we launched it, did a lot of marketing, and it didn’t take. But gosh, if we had launched that this year, you know…we do have some wonderful training programs. We have leadership development, training programs, and what have you. But it’s so funny, if you live long enough, right? You’re in this long enough. That old tie from the 70s becomes a hit.

Andi Simon: To your point, so I have three leadership academies operating, one for the fourth year, one for its fifth year. And when they went pandemic style, we went remote in our pack, and now we’re sort of hybrid. But you know, only 18% of the companies in the US have training programs. And they expect their folks to be learning how to do things.

In healthcare, I was always appalled that we would move a nurse up from nurse to nurse manager and tell her to wing it. I mean, it was like, Oh, how do I matter? Well, that’s different from being a nurse and that’s not. And then the ward manager became the leader. And what’s the difference between one and the other?

So there are some real profound transformations in organizations today, and how we get things done. And I also think, generational transitions. You know, Boomers are not Gen Xs, not Gen Ys. I’ve had folks where the Gen Xers are translating the Gen Ys to the Boomers so they could get along. And then you have the Zs and the As coming behind them. And the world is very complicated. And it’s an interesting time. At one point, I had clients in Michigan and they all were struggling with the migration of people after college from Michigan. Has that changed, are people staying.

Jennifer Kluge: In fact, we’re hosting our National Summit in Detroit so people can see how cool and hip Detroit is now. I think the phrase Comeback City is very accurate. In fact, we moved our offices to downtown Detroit to be a part of the change in the resurgence. There’s so many wonderful things happening in Michigan now.

Again, talk about Blue Ocean, there’s an opportunity right there. The cost of living is lower here. Land is cheaper here. A lot of people took advantage of the low interest rates, and they grew their businesses. So yeah, I would highly recommend that if you have not been to Michigan or Detroit or Grand Rapids in a while, you should come check it out. There’s some pretty cool cities here. And we’re doing some really incredible things.

But to answer that other question that you had about what are the trends we’re seeing right now, it’s very interesting to see this transition right here in this moment. There are some companies that are thriving and can’t hire enough talent. There’s other industries that they’re letting people go. We’re at the beginning of this change of economy, where you have this group thriving and this group not thriving.

So I think there’s going to be another shift soon for employers to really focus on. The other interesting thing is hybrid work, and how that affects culture and creates subcultures. And we are seeing a lot of issues around, Do we have digital employees? Do we force them to come back to the office? Do we not force them to come back? Do we need them to come back because the economy is really hurting our operations and it’s time? Those kinds of questions. I think that a lot of people are swimming in that right now.

Andi Simon: Well, you know, it’s interesting, I had done a podcast with a gentleman who had a book about how to manage a totally remote workforce, Running Remote. There are others that are global, that have been for a long time completely remote. And then I’ve been called to come in and help with a culture of organizations who have a flywheel of hires and fires and hires, and they leave because they think it is a bad culture.

And being an anthropologist who studies culture and helps companies change their culture and knowing that people don’t know what their culture is, they’re not even quite sure what they want to create out of it, which makes it intentional. And that creates a whole new platform for thinking about what it is you’re really trying to do. What is it you missed?

I have a wonderful client and they have a brand new office that was completed in March of the beginning of the pandemic, and nobody wants to come in. And their folks, they have 70 employees, they say to us, Why do I have to drive an hour in and an hour back to sit there to do the same work I can do here?

And the CEO wants to be with people. I mean, he’s a social fellow, and really just wants the socializing part of it. It’s interesting what the pressure is, and how efficient you can be or how social and effective you are. And it really reflects who you are as much as anything. And I don’t want my listeners to underestimate the power of me and who I’m looking for, as opposed to we and what we need to be effective here.

I had a client ask, Why do you think people are leaving? Well, because it’s not the culture that it was before. I mean, nobody left before. Well, they did too, but they seem to be moving faster now. And I said, So, let’s take a look at what’s going on. But these are interesting times, aren’t they?

Jennifer Kluge: Very, very different. So I think we’re at the beginning of a new era of how business is done and how talent works. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see what best practices come out of this. And quite honestly, it is different. You know, there’s truth to both sides, right?

To the companies that want to bring people back in person, it’s much easier to communicate and engage in a group, in person. Training is a huge issue, bringing people in with the right skill sets is much harder now. Training people for their job is much harder. Imagine a supervisor that’s digital and an employee that’s in person. So there are a lot of issues now. And that’s what we’re hearing about.

So what we’re doing as an organization is, we’re saying, Okay, this is what this company is doing, here’s the best practice on that side, here’s the best practice on this side, but you have to fit it for your culture. You can’t just take a best practice from another company and plop it in. It has to be shaped and molded for your company’s personality.

Andi Simon: And it’s important to figure out what your customer’s personality is.

Jennifer Kluge: Well, I’m blessed because the Best and Brightest companies to work for and the companies that we work with, they’re above average, they think differently. They’re more elite thinkers. It’s a community of really smart, cutting-edge companies. So I have the pleasure of seeing the best. But it’s our job to share what they’re doing with others, right? So that’s an expensive expectation. Going through the programs, we’re gonna share your secret sauce, but it’s also a gift.

Andi Simon: And there’s nothing better than the gift of kindness, of sharing, and then celebrating. And I do think that says getting exactly the gift you have. So I’m absolutely having a blast listening to you. I love Michigan, it’s been a good world for me to have clients in and that’s how we met. A couple of things you’d like our listeners not to forget? They always remember the ending even better than the beginning. One or two things that they should keep in mind that you’ve learned in building your business? Or as you work with your Best and Brightest who are building theirs.

Jennifer Kluge: A success comes from a series of failures. Don’t be scared to fail. And it’s about you. It has nothing to do with you. Take the emotion out of it, the emotion out of decision-making, the emotion out of your personal impact and the best road for decision-making.

Andi Simon: You know, years ago I taught. I was a visiting professor at Washington University teaching entrepreneurship, and some of the entrepreneurs I brought in to talk for their case studies said, “I opened three businesses. That one worked, that one didn’t. I never failed”

And that’s a little like what you’re saying. Let’s distance the business from ourselves and make sure that we understand that sometimes things happen for good or for not, that’s part of it, but it isn’t necessarily all of us that’s doing it.

I had two things I didn’t hear from you. I want you to be free from failure. The fear of failure is what impedes you from doing the best things, the right things, or knowing what you could do. And the other thing is that this is a time for rethinking talent. And I think all of the things you talked about, whether it’s well-being, and that’s a really big area, or it’s burnout, or it’s hybrid or it’s culture, people are herd animals. We have survived because of our work together. We’ve evolved because we could really do things better together.

So a great book is called The Secret of our Success. And our success has been because we did it together, not alone. You let that happen. What a gift. Thank you, Jennifer, thank you for joining me today.

Jennifer Kluge: Thank you, Andi. So it’s always a pleasure to chat with you and get your wisdom.

Andi Simon: Well, I’m glad it’s been so impactful for you, but it’s fun for me to share it as well, for my listeners, and my viewers. Thank you for coming. Remember my books, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business and On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights are both available. They’ve done extremely well. They won us awards, and they share the stories of people like Jennifer’s customers, their clients. And they are like Jennifer who have smashed the myths of what women can do.

My new book comes out in September. It’s called Women Mean Business. It’s the wisdom of 101 trailblazing women and it is truly an extraordinary experience to listen to 101 women tell you their experiences, a little like Jennifer has done today. What are the wisdoms that we want you to share so we can elevate you and inspire you and help you get to where you need to go. And I think that it is a time of transformation for business, but also for women in business. So for all of you who come, thank you so much. Have a wonderful day. Stay safe, stay healthy. Jennifer, thank you again. It’s been such fun. Goodbye now. Bye bye.