7 Questions with Steven M Keisman
Name: Steven M Keisman
Current title: Senior Vice President
Current organisation: Identifor
Steve is Senior Vice President at Identifor and an independent Transition and Neurodiversity Employment Specialist. He advises think tanks, advisory boards and roundtables, and universities in matters related to neurodiverse employment and travels internationally showing young adults, parents, teachers, child study teams, clinicians, agency representatives and employers specific ways to help individuals transition to “real life” and reach their highest potential. Steve has a master’s degree in Special Education and a second master’s degree in Education Administration with a specialty in Special Education Law and holds multiple teaching and administrative licenses in both NY and NJ including Superintendent of Schools. Having worked in Transition for the last 45 years, he brings a unique, granular, perspective helping students with special needs transition from school to careers and college. He is credited for creating and providing expertise to best practice programs, partnerships and school restructure initiatives and for starting the first independent education consultancy specializing in Transition working on the local, State and national level. In addition, he has taught as an adjunct professor and is often invited to present to students and professors alike in the US and abroad. Steve’s writing, “Using Technology to Provide Transition Support for Neurodiverse Young Adults” included in Neurodiversity: from Phenomenology to Neurobiology and Enhancing Technologies (Stanford University and American Psychiatric Association Publishing) will soon be released and he is completing Automation, Robotic, and AI-Proof Jobs for Workers with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities: Strategic Initiatives and Handbook.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Identifor is a 6-year-old international award-winning tech startup that develops artificial intelligence based and other technology and big data solutions for supporting young adults with neuro differences in user friendly yet sophisticated ways. Just as we were finally climbing out of the early and secondary stage growing pain phase, CoVid has shifted our game plan in ways no one could have predicted. Literally overnight, developers, end users, partners and schools, agencies, universities and employers went dark or shifted their priorities. I needed to work double-time and try different approaches and new ideas, often on the fly, to reunite past resources and reignite the spark of our platform in new ways, all while managing the severe impact the virus was having on my own family.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
After a 33 year career working in academia, I was looking at new opportunities that I could try my hand at something completely different. A friend, who knew my background in applying cutting edge technology in creative ways, suggested that I contact the US division of a leading interactive advertising and experiential marketing company he worked for. When the company spun off an edtech vertical I was asked to shift and be part of the development team. Having two children with cognitive disabilities, and a great deal of involvement in the special needs community, I serendipitously came across a software developer that was in the alpha stage of testing Identifor, a free product for people with neuro differences. I contacted the co-founders to share my amazement and offer my two cents and to learn more about their plans since they were local. At the end of a three-hour meeting, I was offered a job which I was never told existed nor, at the time, wanted. So impressed with the product and the company’s future plans, I explained that if it worked for my daughter I would sign on. More than six years later I am as excited as the day I began. (By the way my wife wasn’t very thrilled at the beginning).
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
7 days a week I get out of bed at 5AM. I begin the day poring over different aspects of the latest world, national, state and local news. I especially drill down on the latest information taking place in the disability world, especially in technology, employment, housing and transition. Having set up a fine-tuned system, that allows me to personalize and aggregate my news feed, I am able to consume a great deal of information efficiently. I next hit my attack stationary bike for 30 minutes of high intensity training followed by a short weightlifting exercise session while watching some mind-numbing show or movie or listening to a podcast. I keep two To Do lists, one Personal and the other Professional. Anything not crossed off either list, from the day before, I use the “If it takes less than 5 minutes to do; do it right away” approach. I find this works well for both odds and ends around the house as well as work tasks like sending short emails, making appointments and other small items. From there I move into the big stuff working around set meetings, presentations and appointments. I make it a point to keep to the same ending time each day, whenever possible, unless I need to participate in a meeting or conference in another time zone or something comes up that just can’t wait. Most weekday nights I prepare dinner with my wife while we catch up about more interesting events of each day. We are both huge booklovers and like to watch movies and shows together when we have the time.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
During unplanned times of crisis, it is important to be able to shift approaches on a dime to keep things running as smoothly as possible. Identifor designs cutting edge tech products for people with autism and other intellectual disabilities. The co-founders and CEO set the tone for me and the entire company from day one: no two people are the same and we will do everything possible to make working conditions as comfortable and as productive as possible for every employee. This approach has given us a great advantage before and during the unforeseen upheaval caused by the pandemic: flexible work schedules was just the beginning.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I have read quite a few books that have impacted my leadership. I take a little of each of the ones that resonate with me. The last worthwhile one I read was Principle: Life and Work by Ray Dalio. A point Dalio makes that I often think about is: ‘My painful mistakes shifted me from having a perspective of “I know I’m right” to having one of “How do I know I’m right?”’ That adjustment in thinking has served me well. It challenges me to put things into perspective in ways that often pushes my knee-jerk thinking aside to something much more valuable. It catches me lying to myself and motivates me to think more rationally and face reality, regardless of how painful it may be, about any situation and prioritize steps and set clear goals. I also like the author’s rational approach and his appreciation of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that considers different psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
What works for me is to always look for ways to build long-term relationships with every person who touches your company in any way, whenever possible. It is well worth the effort to genuinely care about each person individually, learn what makes them tick, where their strengths, abilities and interests lie. What do they need to make them more engaged, productive and happier employees? What can they teach you and the C-Suite as well as their colleagues? Using this approach, coupled with a light hand on the touch whenever possible, allows employees to feel trust and appreciation and can motivate them to work at their highest level and never think twice to step up their game when times get rough.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
When the pandemic first shut down in the New York area, the many disruptions and complications caused great doubt whether we would be able to meet our obligations to our partners, supporters and clients. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when I turned on my computer, the first Monday after the initial shock, to read dozens of emails I received. Each was a letter of support, from people from many areas inside and beyond the walls of our company, asking me to drop a line or pick up a phone, if there was anything I needed. It reinforced my thinking that at the end of the day, so much of what we do is transactional and personal.