A conversation with FleishmanHillard’s Kevin Welman (Part 1)

A curiosity of Kevin Welman’s career, in the context of today’s fluid job market, as he has been with global communications agency FleishmanHillard for just over 20 years. Now the general manager of its Johannesburg office, Welman spoke to Media Update about his career and management style, among other topics. This is part one of a two part series.

By Adam Wakefield – Media Update

Why Welman sits in his current position is immediately perceptible when conversing with him for the first time. The calm energy Welman projects while he listens suddenly switches when it’s his turn to speak, his keen eyes a speedometer of mental activity smoothly pushing through the gears.

“What did I want from a job? I wanted diversity, I wanted diverse clients, I wanted not to be stuck in one area, I wanted the ability to make my own decisions and execute against them. I wanted to travel the world much earlier in my career but not so much now. I wanted to be exposed to very smart people, I wanted to be able to engage with people, to talk with them as human beings and as business people.”

Lining these different aspects up, Welman never felt the need to move on. His first client, which he inherited, after joining FleishmanHillard in 1996 was General Electric.

“It was at the time the biggest company in the world, the most exciting company in the world I could work for and it was absolutely terrific. From there, three or four years later, I moved into the Jeep and Chrysler brands of Daimler-Chrysler, so as a 24-year-old guy in charge of 25 motor cars, I travelled the world and took journalists all over the show,” Welman says.

His next major client was LG Electronics, followed by the client who turned out to be the most rewarding for Welman.

“I moved into the FirstRand stable. Of the four clients, that sounds like the most boring. I worked for a bank. It was by far the most fulfilling work I ever did,” he says. “I worked at the shareholder and analyst level, worked at a bank, managed a really big team of people, by far the biggest account in the agency, built a big group of people around it and through that work I landed up becoming general manager.”

Welman, named as general manager at 30 and invited to be a shareholder a few years earlier, says between those four major pieces of business he has worked on, and many others in between, he was exposed  to different industries, different thinking, and was afforded to travel overseas more than 50 times over the last 20 years.

“Exposure, that’s all I wanted. I was well looked after. I was always able to take the leave I wanted. There’s very smart people here, the people here are really, really nice as well. What else could you want? It’s not too difficult,” he says.
Asked about his management style, Welman makes it very clear he has no time for yes people or sycophants.

“I like people that are prepared to challenge, but at the same time that respect a bit of experience, because you’ve got to get that balance. I like people that are go getters, that want to make decisions, that want to push, that want to put a bit of skin in the game,” he says.

Emphasising the importance Welman places on balance, he also wants employees “that actually have a life”.

In interviews, Welman asks about families, what applicants do on weekends, why they do certain things, and what makes them excited. “I think that’s very important. It’s very important that somebody has the ability to have a conversation, a conversation just about anything and you feel good about that conversation,” he says.

“There’s a thing, not quite a management theory, but would you want to sit next to that person at the office Christmas party? We can’t employ people that you don’t want to sit next to at the Christmas party.”
In the exercising of his responsibilities, Welman believes very strongly in transparency, and sharing the ins and outs of how the business is doing, where it’s going and even its failures, including his own.

Welman repeats a comment he once heard: “‘We have to create the environment for staff to have the confidence to make promises and to have the expertise to keep them’. I think that is a nice way to put it.”

This article was originally published on Media Update 26 January 2016

Watch out for part two.