Ken Widner grew up immersed in his father’s IT and tech procurement career. During his childhood in the 1970s in Fort Wayne, Indiana, they would develop 3Com networks within their home and build PCs. All the while, the younger Widner wasn’t realizing that he was learning and developing a marketable skill set; he thought that everyone possessed such knowledge. He later realized the contrary when working as a temp for a large telecommunications company after receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the Dallas Baptist University in 1996.
Originally, the plan was to work a temporary job for two years while his wife, Jenny, finished undergraduate school, at which point he would then go back for his masters in family and marital counseling. Although his temp role initially consisted of only installing PCs, his list of responsibilities grew as the IT department became overloaded with work and needed assistance in executing several deployments. While working alongside the business, Widner would overhear end users complain about the setup of the systems and why they could or could not complete certain tasks. Meanwhile, IT complained about the end users being too demanding and constantly breaking items. “It was during that time that it dawned on me that this is like a dysfunctional marriage,” Widner recalls.
He went on to create a solution by first asking the IT team if they could make certain changes to images and allow access to various software packages. Then, he explained to the business the reasons why the systems were set up as they were and showed them how to utilize applications that they were not aware of having. “That’s where this started clicking for me about relationships within the business and understanding their needs in relation to technology,” he says.
Quite similar to a marriage, there are two individuals each having a want and a need, and unless that want and need are successfully communicated, problems are going to ensue. The solution is to clarify and understand the communication while working together to find the answer. The same is true for business.
His temp responsibilities led to a contract role, which later led to the position of full-time supervisor. Widner has been in the IT industry ever since. Today, he is the vice president of IT infrastructure and operations for Tailored Brands, one of the largest specialty retailers of men’s suits and formal wear rental products in the United States and Canada, with about 25,000 employees company-wide and more than 1,700 stores. The company’s brands include Men’s Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank, Joseph Abboud, Moores Clothing for Men, and K&G Fashion Superstores. Tailored Brands also operates a global corporate apparel and workwear group consisting of Twin Hill in the United States and Dimensions, Alexandra, and Yaffy in the United Kingdom.
In his role, Widner leads a team of seventy-five employees that cover service desk, server administration, desktop support, database administration, networking, app support, and data center management. Coming on board in April 2013, his first mission was to address their disaster recovery strategy. The company had active/passive data centers, with all of its live systems in Houston and standby servers at a secondary site, which were not being utilized and were aging. His team was assigned to virtualize 95 percent of the environment and create an active/active data center solution with production systems at site one and non-production systems on site two—both built on standardized platforms, so as to be identical. HP, EMC, and AT&T partnered to design and implement a private cloud solution, as well. Soon after beginning the data center project, the company purchased the stores of Jos. A. Bank. The team reconfigured their stores to the AT&T network, standardized all of the equipment, and made the systems look identical to that of the Men’s Wearhouse stores. Completion for these assignments took a total of two years.
Amidst both major projects, Widner’s team was not yet accustomed to his management style—given that he was still new—and constantly approached him for options and decision-making. Widner took to his background in psychology to empower his team. Now, everyone in the office feels more confident and are working more efficiently.
In order to first understand the reason behind individuals’ actions and to create a baseline to build from, Widner conducted an exercise using “SWAT” forms, an acronym that stands for strengths, weaknesses, assets, and threats. They were able to find the areas that needed to be focused on, with a main goal of developing the skill set for situational awareness. “What you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing might be two different things,” he says. “Situational awareness is key in determining what action should be taken.”
Widner then empowers his team by enabling them to make their own decisions. An employee will not feel empowered if they are in constant need of their boss’s consent, which also slows down work. “Call your own shots, and make the most of them,” he says, adding that it’s important to encourage people even if they make a mistake. “As long as you learn from those decisions and you are constantly improving, I don’t expect perfection. Just try hard and be accountable.”
Contributing to their strong work culture is the philosophy of Ken’s Creed, also known as Ken’s Four Pet Peeves. The first is not to hand him paper. The second is to not tell him you’re waiting on something, but rather give a date of completion. The third is to not give him options, but instead give a recommendation, or say what you are going to do. And the fourth is not to knock on wood—have faith in what you are doing and don’t count on luck. This ensures that everyone takes ownership and accountability for their decisions and actions rather than pointing fingers and pushing the hot potato to another team. When the root of the problem is identified, it is assigned to the right team. Widner can then focus on escalations, resolve resource conflicts, and ensure that the business moves on schedule.
Added to the mix is KWFit, Widner’s health and wellness company, where he teaches fitness classes at Tailored Brands four times a week. His program has helped develop relationships across the business with participants coming in from different departments. Widner also has a book in the works, Management 101, which will entail all of the material he has developed over the span of his career.
Most of all, though, Widner is proud of his team’s communication and problem-solving skills, which are developed by identifying relationships.
“Roles and responsibilities are good, but we’re here to sell clothing, and relationships between teams are built off that,” he says.