Photography by Hillary Ehlen
When Sandy Kjelvik talks with young people starting out in their careers, she always tries to make them understand one thing.
“I tell them, ‘Your career might not go in a straight path, and that’s okay,'” says the SVP of HR for Fargo-based benefits administrator Discovery Benefits.
If anyone knows about curved paths, it’s Kjelvik.
After graduating high school early to attend basic training, a brief foray into computer science at North Dakota State University eventually gave way to nursing school and a career as a nurse. After a divorce and single motherhood proved too difficult to juggle with the chaotic schedule of an RN, Kjelvik joined the military full-time, where she attained the rank of chief master sergeant over the course of nearly 25-year career in the North Dakota Air National Guard.
After retiring from the Guard in 2004, she eventually found her way to Discovery Benefits, a company that she says, much like the military, lives its core values each and every day.
“If you have a foundation and you work at building relationships that create trust, oh my God, you can accomplish a lot,” says Kjelvik, who describes herself first and foremost as a servant leader. “That’s where I feel like our company has been successful. I think the team I have trusts me, which removes the (assumption) of any kind of hidden agenda. That lets you move mountains because you’re together, standing side by side.”
Kjelvik says that while she didn’t see a lot of overlap between military and business when she was serving, she now realizes just how well her time in the service prepared her for the professional world.
“It was the discipline, the work ethic, the attention to detail,” she explains, “but it was also how you simply HAD to do certain things. You didn’t have a choice in something not getting done because lives depended on it.”
Q: You’ve been a leader in two pretty different worlds, so I’m curious to get your perspective on leadership. What does the word mean to you?
A: What we teach at Discovery Benefits is that it’s your influence, or ability to influence. And that’s obviously in a positive way. Leadership, in my opinion, is not your title, and it’s not ego.
It really is about how you help — servant leadership. I truly believe that. It’s about: What can I do to help my team function and remove barriers? To me, that’s the secret sauce of leadership.
I just had a meeting this morning with one of our teams that’s at their peak busy time right now — stress levels are high, and everyone is putting in extra hours with customers. They have a lot of work, and some customers are even yelling at them. So I went in today specifically to say, “Everyone in this company understands that you have a lot going on. They may not know what it takes to do your job, but it is our No. 1 priority right now — from the president down — to support you. Because we care, and I’m here to tell you that.”
Sometimes, when people come in to the company, it’s really hard to get them to understand what we believe in. You don’t come in and start directing people; you need to come in and listen and understand what they’re experiencing and what they need.
Q: Many successful business leaders tend to be big-picture, visionary-type thinkers. Given your operations background in the military, I’m wondering if you fit that mold or if you think you bring a different perspective to the Discovery leadership team?
A: We definitely have visionary people in the company, and yes, my perspective is different from some other leaders given my military background. As far as the great ideas, though, you have to figure out first: Is that where the company is going? Is it possible? Is it going to break our foundation? Because you shouldn’t break your core values or sacrifice the foundation.
Something also might be a good idea, but it might not be its time. One thing we say a lot is: Let the best idea win. There are a lot of people, and it’s not just about one person’s idea. We want innovation — one of our core values is continuous learning — but we’re going to choose what makes sense and aligns with our company strategy.
Q: Do you think it’s important to have veterans in positions of business leadership? Why or why not?
A: I think it’s wonderful. I appreciate diversity of thought, and I think everyone has a different mindset to bring to that “best idea.” I think it’s definitely a unique experience going through the things vets go through, and I feel there’s a lot they have to offer. But it also shouldn’t just be because they’re vets; it should be because of what they have to offer. It’s about what you have to bring, and vets bring great experience, knowledge, dedication and loyalty.
One thing I will say is that the skills you have in the military don’t always make sense to people in the business world. I had to do a lot of work to prepare myself and figure out where my skills would work in the community.