KJT: Our Founder’s Vision
‘A Visionary.’ That’s how colleagues describe KJT founder and former CEO, Dr. Kenneth J. Tomaszewski. It was the strength of his vision that convinced the company’s first employees to follow Ken from their established careers to start KJT Group in 2007.
Over the years, those individuals strived and thrived alongside Ken, including Michaela Gascon (current President and CEO), Lynn Clement (current EVP of Strategic Research Services) and Amy Allen (current VP of Qualitative Research – and Ken’s sister!). Together, along with many other key staff additions in the early days of the agency, they built an evidence-based consulting firm, with a staff of more than 60 research professionals serving a diversity of clients across multiple healthcare sectors.
Hear from Ken on his foundational philosophy, his views on research design and the importance of work/life balance in producing quality outcomes:
Tell us what you were thinking when you left an established research career at a big firm to start your own company.
Ken: The original idea was simply to conduct research in a smarter way…to basically build a better mousetrap. Because I have always maintained one foot in academia and one in business (including peer review work for scientific publications), I wanted more academic rigor and business efficiency baked into the KJT process.
Science pervades a design-thinking perspective. So, five or six years in, we started to codify our scientific approach and give it a name, thereby formally integrating service-design-thinking into the KJT model. This ultimately evolved into our Insight by Design, methodology, which places five, core principles at the heart of all our partnerships, enabling transparency and driving alignment throughout the process.
As one of the five principles of Insight by Design, can you provide more insight into the concept of co-creation?
Ken: Co-creation is an important domain of service-design-thinking, and it’s all about getting inside the culture of the client – spending more hours than our competitors in understanding what the ‘real’ questions are and how a specific research solution can answer those questions.
That up-front investment really pays off on the back end in terms of determining what implications are the most important and how they will be used in driving actionable outcomes.
Ultimately, we’re aiming for buy-in vs. sign-off, engaging with our clients as co-creators and co-owners of solutions so that all stakeholders understand and are ready to implement once delivered.
Consultants such as KJT must serve a diversity of clients that hold different roles and responsibilities within their respective organizations. By definition, this influences their research requirements and expectations. How is KJT set up to manage the specificity of each engagement from start to finish?
Ken: There definitely is a huge variation in clients. Some are new to the process, while some might be 30 years into it and set in their ways. They may be driven by annual commitments or looking for verification of their assumptions. In certain instances, clients may just be looking to describe something vs. looking for new learnings. Sometimes they can’t quite articulate what they want to achieve through research.
The key is to have high-quality, extremely competent lead people on every team. A good researcher is engaged and interested. They dive in enthusiastically to understand the question and get their clients jazzed about new insights and opportunities.
How did you pick your original team?
Ken: When I left Harris, I thought I would just go and be on my own completely. About one month in (although I can’t remember the exact inflection point), I realized my skill set was more suited to working on the design piece. I needed help with the delivery piece.
Michaela [Gascon] originally came on 20 hours per week, while she was finishing up her MBA. We had a good connection right from the beginning. Lynn [Clement] was out on maternity leave at that same time. She had already left Harris and was starting to consult independently. Lynn and I had worked together a ton in the past, so her joining KJT made a lot of sense.
There was a great deal of trust underpinning that little team. We knew we could all work together toward KJT’s mutual success because everyone was confident in each other’s work ethic, diligence and foundational morals.
How did KJT’s unique corporate culture get its start?
Ken: I never wanted a sweatshop, big market research firm mentality at KJT. I didn’t want to be so driven by financials that we were just grinding stuff out, never stopping to question what we were doing or why we were doing it.
So, once we had reached critical mass by growing our staff to 20+ employees, it made sense to establish a Wellness Committee (now called ‘Wellness by Design’). In the beginning, just about everyone was on the committee! We started out by participating in the local 5K, an annual fundraising event in Honeoye Falls. Then we started focusing more on the balance of mind, body and spirit.
We subsequently launched the Social Committee, which was more focused on team-building events and fun activities, freeing up the Wellness by Design group to take mindfulness and self-awareness to the next level. Around 2019, with the increased wellness-specific focus, we started talking about self-awareness at a senior level and I ended up offering a self-awareness and mindfulness course along with meditation sessions at the office on a regular basis. Clearly, meditation is not for everybody! That’s why our committees work hard to offer a diversity of wellness and social activities that everyone can enjoy and benefit from. We continue to evolve with initiatives and incentives such as the KJT health awards and hydration challenges.
What about being 100% employee owned? How did that happen?
Ken: In 2013, KJT became a 20% Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) company. Then, in 2019 I sold my remaining share and KJT became 100% employee owned. This enabled our people to become full financial participants in KJT’s long-term success, which had always been my goal. ESOP is aligned with our wellness philosophy and our core values of Balance, Mutual Respect, Empowerment, Empathy, Integrity, Mindfulness and Ever Better, which were codified in parallel with the ESOP designation.
There’s a heavy emphasis on personal growth and development throughout – as well as an active pursuit of work/life balance and a commitment to the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of KJT’s employees.
What have been some of the biggest changes at KJT since it was first founded?
Ken: My original vision was focused on individual practice leaders, kind of running their own practices under one KJT roof. That isn’t really scalable, though. As we’ve grown, we have embraced a more fluid model, where certain resources and skill sets – from the strategic leadership level on down – can easily move and flex as business needs warrant. And where we were once more focused on the marketing side of things, the agency is now more involved on the science side of things, working more with real-world evidence and patient reported outcomes than logos and taglines.
Data sources are different now, too. Technological advancements continue to come at a fast and furious pace. Back in the day, we had to do research via phone and paper – and now even email surveys have become outdated. The whole science behind research is incredibly dynamic.
What are you most proud of?
Ken: I’m always proud when KJT makes a good hire. It’s immensely gratifying when new people come on board and start to immediately make a difference, enhancing the team and boosting its capabilities – while also being a good fit for the culture. I’m also proud of our retention apparatus and the way we’ve kept employees satisfied and engaged over the years.
I feel pride when KJT is recognized by the local media or when we’re ranked on the top 100 lists. And, it’s wonderful to see our talented employees receive individual recognition for their hard work and contributions. (On the flip side, I’ve been devastated the few times great employees have chosen a divergent path – away from KJT!)
Lastly, I’m very proud and very happy to see the KJT leadership team today taking everything we’ve built together and moving it forward into the future. I am confident in their ability to continue on this growth trajectory, providing opportunities for KJT’s employees and delivering high-quality, differentiated insights to KJT’s clients.
You’ve accomplished so much – and you’re still a young man! What’s next?
Ken: I’d like to find new ways of helping people. I’m interested in long-term care for America’s aging population, and I’d like to do more in public healthcare and public policy. I’d like to keep doing research that helps make the healthcare industry ever better – while, at the same time, working with individuals seeking healthy, balanced minds, bodies and spirits.