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Noticing Neighbors Sly James & Joni Wickham



It’s a Thursday afternoon when I sit down with Sly James & Joni Wickham, and we’re inside the cozy oasis of HITIDES Coffee. These two have a long experience working alongside each other, and this working partnership has lasted 10+ years. During Sly James’ tenure in office, Joni Wickham spent time as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, where both discovered just how efficiently the projects ran when working together. Since then, they have opened the consulting firm Wickham James Strategies & Solutions as partners and continue the work of enriching the greater metro area through tangible results. After sitting down with twisted Pineapple-Vanilla Dole Whips, we got the chance to discuss their longevity as working partners.


Hayley: Can you explain the mission of your company, and how you decided to open the firm after leaving office?


Sly: After you, you do it so much better. Joni:

Well— Sly: This is my way of asking, by throwing in a compliment! (all laugh)


Joni:

So Sly was mayor for eight years, and I was his Chief of Staff for about six years. It's pretty unusual. Even more unusual is that when we were wrapping up our term in office, we decided we both liked each other enough to start a business together. We've always had very complementary skill sets, and see the world similarly. Sly: Yeah. Joni: So we started our business in August of 2019. That is unreal! Sly: It is ridiculous, and it's even more than three years now. It is just that, boy, time really does fly. Hayley: Absolutely.

Joni:

We spent about 14 months trying to figure out what we wanted to do, what we didn't want to do, the types of organizations and people we wanted to work with. We knew the types of organizations of people we didn't want to work with.


We also both wanted to have more control over our life. When you're the Mayor and the Mayor Chief of Staff, you don't have much control over your schedule or your life.


Hayley:

Sure. That makes sense, I didn't think about that.


Sly:

Well, the other thing about it too was we recognized that neither of us would be very good workers for other people. We're both really type A personalities. She's very driven, and creates lots of post-it note lists. Hayley:

Oh, I get it!


Joni:

But now, what have you started doing?


Sly:

I've been forced to make lists on post-it notes! Okay, but I get the big ones with mine, and use the big cheap pencil and tablet.

The other thing about it, too, was we wanted to do something that had variety, where the variety included following up on some of the things we'd become very attached to during office. Hayley:

Sure.

Sly: We wanted to do things that mattered, that still had impact. And we also knew that you could have an impact out of office, in some respects, almost easier than you could in office. Of course, because you're not limited by all the other crap that has to go on. So we decided that we would do things regarding public policy and fantastic communications. We just really said: we're going to use our skills and enhance them, then turn those loose and monetize them by doing stuff that doesn't bore the crap out of us and has some meaning.


Hayley:

Absolutely. I was reading about your focus, and it sounded like you cover both internal and external processes. Things like internally consulting conflict-resolution within businesses, or empowering the staff to handle what's coming their way. Could you speak a little bit on that?


Sly:

Sure. Joni does a lot more training and things of that nature with companies, but really our main focus is in the name—it's ‘strategies’ and ‘solutions.’ How do you get what you want and how do you measure it? Barista:

Here’s that cappuccino, and the second Dole Whip for you. Sly:

This is great. This Dole Whip is the stuff. I need a lot, I think. Could I get it in a container that travels? So I can take it home?


Barista:

Absolutely, I’ll get that to-go!


Sly:

Thank you.


Hayley:

But like you said, it's in the name: ‘strategies’ and ‘solutions.’ That's the real point.


Joni:

I think most people would view our firm as a public affairs firm, which is true. But I have to say that over the course of my career, and I think he would say this too, I see that there are common gaps in skill sets in leadership. To the point where if you don't train people on some of these things, like—what is a leadership vision, how do you communicate internally, how do you sell your vision externally—you can't be effective at public affairs. So yes we do traditional public affairs, but also have a component for equipping those leaders.


Hayley:

How do you feel like your time in office and public service prepared you for this?


Sly:

It certainly brought us through. We learned how to put together gigantic projects.


Hayley:

Definitely.


Sly:

The airport is a huge issue. It's seven, eight years of work. The hotel, another being the streetcar. Our efforts to expand universal child-care or early childhood education. The tax initiatives that we got passed, some of which I think were very creative. The work that we did with women and on behalf of women in setting up structures that still exist outside of the office today, the work that we did in education will Turn the Page KC. These are huge projects, remind me of your question?


Hayley:

How did that prepare you for this role?


Sly:

Well, first of all, it exposes us to the subject areas, and I think that we do have some subject area expertise. And second of all, it taught us how to move from idea and concept to reality. Then how to sustain it and how to marshal people in order to move it, and build collaborations.

We had 18 elections during the eight years we were in office. We were 16-2, every one of those required us to put together a group of people to move the needle forward on those specific things. So this idea of ‘how do you get things done,’ to break it down to its barest root, is exactly what we learned how to do and exactly what we do now. It’s that question: How do you get things done?


Joni:

Yeah, I think the skill set for being in elected office is really transformative to what we do. When you have had to manage high profile projects under the high profile pressure that we did, and you have had to jump over 30 hot potatoes—it makes other things a bit easier. Like when you have dealt with literal matters of life and death, it puts you in a good position to be able to deal with other projects and other issues. I had a client call a couple weeks ago and they're like, “Do you think you can put a press release together by tomorrow morning?” She kept apologizing, but I told her I'm literally used to doing five a day. Don't worry, I will get you a press release by tomorrow morning.


Hayley:

Yeah! It's right now, it's being responsive, being adaptable. Joni: Yes. Hayley: That's incredible. One thing I've wondered just from the outside, being a Kansas Citian and loving living here, it seems like the culture of the mayor’s office probably had to be really good to be able to get things done like that, right?

Sly: Yeah. It was. Hayley: Do you ever feel like when you work with these companies, you're helping to improve their staff culture in a meaningful way? Sly:

(laughs) I was just thinking of one!


Hayley:

Oh yeah?


Sly:

Sometimes, yes. Joni: I think our experience allows us to see things a bit more clearly than what folks who are in the middle of those organizations may be able to do.


Sly:

Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. I do a lot of mediations, and I can tell you that as a lawyer representing a client, my mindset and thought processes were totally different than being the mediator because I'm not as engaged in it on the same level. You can see things clearly. There's no emotional engagement, there's no commitment made, and there's no statements that you have to eat because you said something stupid or did something stupid earlier. Hayley: Sure. Sly: But I think anytime that you can look at something from the outside, you're going to see it differently than if you look at it from the inside. Sometimes you're able to let people know about some of those things such that they can change it, and sometimes you see that the dysfunction is so deep that it impedes your ability to get things done with them. But it also gets to be really dicey to try to change it internally because you figure if it's that dysfunctional, it's been that dysfunctional for some time. It's that way because of things that are there that you don't know about, so you have to be real careful where people blow up on you or things that blow up on you.

But yeah, we've been able to. I also think she's been able to help companies and people do things and see things a little differently and make an adjustment here and there that will be more beneficial to them achieving the goals that they have.


Hayley:

That's neat, and you mentioned earlier that you both have complementary skill sets. Could you share what strengths you both bring that make this so successful? Joni:

I'm right all the time and he knows it. (all laugh)


Sly:

Could just be the country accent, but what I thought I heard her say is that she's white all the time and I know it. (all laugh)


And that's absolutely true!

She's very detail oriented. She's very organized. I'm more big-thought, and she's execution.


Joni:

(points to Sly) Engine, (points to herself) Brakes. Sly: I think that's part of it, and also the goals are aligned.


Hayley:

Yes.


Sly:

The approaches are similar, but complementary. She's much more tactical than I am, and I am not tactical. To me, it's a waste of time. Joni: I don’t necessarily think that for you— Sly: I’m strategically not tactical sometimes, let's say that.


Hayley:

Sure.


Joni:

What did I write in my book? That you can throw a strategic spectacle when you need to, to make a point.


Sly:

Yeah.


Hayley:

Love it.


Joni:

We have different communication styles, too.


Sly:

We do. The interesting thing is that as much as she's a little more thoughtful, I am more reactionary, so to speak. And again: engine, brakes. But the approaches that we have, although very different, don't seem to be off putting to many people. We still have a certain level of popularity and a lot of good friends. But one thing I can say is I don't think either of us had ever blown smoke up somebody's butt just in order to do something, we pretty much tell it the way it is in different ways. We get people to understand what we think.


Joni:

Have you ever heard of Gallup StrengthsFinder? Hayley: Yes. Joni: So that's a tool that a lot of companies and organizations use to identify individual strengths and the strengths that groups bring to the table. So you can figure out like, do you have someone who probably their work style and communication style is not going to jive with somebody else? We did this at the mayor's office, and it was probably like 2018, when we were right in the middle of figuring out what we wanted to do. The StrengthsFinder is a diagnostic test and it takes about 15 minutes to do. The theory is that there are 34 strengths that everyone has, but you have certain strengths to a much higher degree than others. They give you your top five, and then they will tell you how your top five appears with other people. And our top five appear exactly complimentary. Hayley: Wow! Joni: Then I made my husband take it, too. 3 out of 5. Sly:

Well hey! Joni: It’s not bad! Hayley:

That’s so meaningful. I am wondering, in the positions that you've had both being in office and with your company, how have you been impacted by the positivity of Kansas City? Is there any positive way that you've been changed by these positions?

Sly: Oh, wow. I don't know how you could do what we did and not be changed by it, but change might be too drastic of a word. I think that we have had growth as a result of the various things that we've done. You don't get a whole lot of time to learn on the job in that position. You get in it and the stuff starts quiet. When we came into office after the previous mayor, there was a lot. It was kind of like a dam had been built, and as soon as he was gone, the dam broke and we had a lot of water we had to deal with. So we learned on the move.

I think what happened is that some things were unlocked. I had not had to do some of the things that we wound up having to do. And I'm sure she had not either, although she had been in politics longer than I had. But I soon learned to recognize my own weaknesses and make sure that I had people who covered those weaknesses, and learned how to work with people we selected in order to get what we wanted to get done.


Joni:

Well, here's something good. There are a lot of communities out there full of people that, for good or not good reasons, are very distrustful of elected officials and folks that are in charge. Whatever ‘in charge’ means in their perspective, they do not necessarily embrace change. So I found it really interesting that in Kansas City, to Sly’s point, we ran 18 elections and won 16 of them. It was interesting to me that Kansas Citians were willing to listen, learn, and for the most part be objective and evolve their thinking. A year before the airport vote, the community was at 20% yes.


Hayley:

Wow.


Joni:

I just knew that we had had enough experience educating people on issues and getting them to think differently about things. I just knew we had enough resources.

We could do it. I just knew it, and so I think that's really why we got 76% of the vote.


Hayley:

Yeah.


Joni:

So I think it is really cool that, when led with a bold, strong leader that they believe in, by and large Kansas City will change—because that's not the same for all cities.


Sly:

We were able to talk to the city and tell the truth as we saw it, which didn't always mean that we were telling people what they wanted to hear. But we built up enough credibility that they listened to what we had to say. They kind of knew what we were about. We were able to capitalize on early successes. We believed that if we didn't tell our own story, nobody else would or they would tell it poorly. So we used that and tried to make sure people knew what was going on, but we also tried to make sure that they knew that it wasn't a matter of taking credit or an ego thing. It was a matter of trying to get everybody in the city to realize that if we were able to work together on various things, we could get a lot of stuff done. Look what we did here, and look what happened over here, and over there—hey, do you want to be part of this too? Because people like success. Hayley: Right. Sly: Our first goal was to change the attitude because if you can change the attitude, you could change the action. So we set about changing the attitude. The way you change the attitude is you tell people how good they are, and you show them what that goodness can actually produce. We were looking and had Google right off the bat. It's very high profile and I don't want to say monetized it, but we weaponized it.


Hayley:

That's a really good point. If you call out the positivity that you see in people, you're kind of bringing a different version of them to the table. That's their best self.


Sly:

We did that not only outside of the city hall, but with the people inside the city hall. We moved to a database decision making model that was, frankly, the hit of the country. When Bloomberg Associates came to Kansas City and saw what we were doing with KC stats, they wanted to export it to other places. They loved the Kansas City model. When I see them in New York from time to time, they still talk about how much fun and how rewarding it was being in Kansas City for 14 months. Hayley: How did this show during those meetings? Sly: When we would have our quarterly or annual reports on the citizen satisfaction survey, et cetera, it was really cool because the City Manager and I, we would always want to push out the people who had actually achieved. So we had the solid waste people come to take a bow, let them get a little spotlight, make sure that people knew who they were. And what was interesting was that the comments from citizens about city services and the people who delivered them then changed from very negative to much more positive.

To the point that people were getting compliments. We read those compliments to them at gatherings and said: this guy, they said this about you, come up and take a bow! And all of a sudden, when people feel like they're being recognized, then they want to do more good. Hayley: Yes. Sly: It worked very well. We have a very motivated City Hall and very motivated workers. In a time when salaries were somewhat stagnant and there have been a lot of layoffs, the data-based approach allowed us to do things with a lower number of personnel.


Hayley:

I mean, it's strong leadership, but it also sounds like conscious leadership. It's empathetic leadership, in a way. Sly: Very much so. But it's leadership that is designed to promote those who are the, quote unquote “followers,” as opposed to promoting the leaders. Joni: It’s servant leadership. Sly: That's the way you say it. And frankly, the one thing that you should take away is that even though we started a business and we're really good friends, this was a team from day one. Very tight. Nothing happened without her being involved. Nothing that she was doing was something that I didn't know about. We worked very well together, and we were always focused on making sure that we were aligned and moving forward. I couldn't have done stuff without her, she picked up the ball on certain things. She ran certain projects without me having to be there, et cetera. It allowed us to cover more ground in a seamless type of way. Then we had a staff that was predominantly women that worked very well together and got things done. So it was a very good situation. And as chief of staff, she got to deal with all the problems, and I ignored them! (all laugh) I’m kidding, I didn’t ignore it. There were times where I bet they wished I would have ignored some things!


Hayley:

Well hey, that brings you up to now. You're bringing it with you, and it’s that strong foundation you built during office!


Sly:

Yes. Just the two of us.


For the latest on Wickham James Strategies & Solutions, check out the website and LinkedIn. All media originally published by Wickham James Strategies & Solutions via their online platforms.


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