interviews with gurus

Interviews with Gurus: Kevin Smith


IWG Logo

Our featured Guru this month is Kevin Smith!

Kevin Smith

Kevin is a retired Customs professional with a 35-year career which began as a US Customs officer and ended as Global Director of Customs for General Motors Corporation, with responsibilities for Customs matters in 22 countries. Kevin held several key positions in private and government advisory groups including Department of Homeland Security and World Customs Organization. He testified on three occasions before the US Congress on Customs and trade matters and was an invited guest to the White House to discuss the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

How did your International Trade Career begin?
My career began as a US Customs Officer.  My position with Customs peaked my interest in this industry and provided me with a great deal of wonderful training and experience.  While the payment of duties and import/export requirements has existed since people first began trading with each other, it has been only in the last forty years that we have had a global economy. Fortunately for me this coincided with the beginning of my career.

If you could time travel back to day one of your career and have 5 minutes with your former self to communicate any lessons you’ve acquired, with the intention of saving yourself mistakes and heart ache, what is the one thing you would tell yourself?
During my career there have been a number of experiences that, at the time, I wished I could have avoided. At this point in my career I now realize that the bad as well as the good moments helped make me the person and professional I became and I now do not regret the bad experiences. One of the secrets to a good career and life is to learn from the bad moments as well as the good.  Make yourself a better person and professional based on your experience, learn from them and always move forward.

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work-life balance?
I maintained interests beyond work.  I love history and have been a lifelong learner and reader. I also love the outdoors – hiking, camping, fishing and hunting.  I maintained these interests even during the times when work demanded the most from me and I had little time for them. When I could not do them I would at least read about them.

Kevin Smith quote 1


What is the best advice you received in your career?
I worked with and for a lot of great people. It is hard to pick out one piece of advice. At this point in my life thinking back and picking one, I would say it was learning how to deliver bad news to your leadership. Customs is a compliance business and you frequently will find yourself in a position where you have to tell people things they do not want to hear. Compliance frequently costs money and makes companies do things they do not want to do. How you tell people is equally as important as what you tell them.

What is your favorite “career” memory?
Being surrounded by team members and enjoying the successful completion of a project or event.

What do you think your greatest accomplishment has been?
No one succeeds on their own and my success, like many others, was the result of having a great team around me. Assembling a team and providing them a vision and direction was my greatest accomplishment. This applied to everyone, direct employees, contract workers as well as service providers. Their success was my success.

What were some of the biggest lessons that have impacted the way that you work? 
1. Deal with your problems. Do not run away from them or try to hide them in a closet.  This applies to all issues – compliance, professional and personal.
2. The world is full of managers, what is needed is more leaders. Your job as a leader is to ensure that team members get what they need. They are not there to serve you – you are there to serve and provide for them.
3. Treat everyone with dignity and respect, even your worst team member, but that does not mean any free rides. These problems, like others, must be addressed and do not shy away from it. Teach, coach, mentor but if in the end those do not work, you need to step up if for no one else then the rest of the team.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently? 
I have been very blessed throughout my life and I now realize that it was God’s hand directing my life and I would not change any of it because I would likely screw it up.  If I was to attempt one thing it would be to have delayed my retirement.  I now realize how much it impacted the lives of some other people.  If I had not retired when I did, some of their lives may have been better. Then again maybe not.

Kevin Smith quote 2

What habits helped make you successful? 
1. Take advantage of every learning opportunity whether it is training, work or life experience or just observing people and the world around you. Read and study even that which may not be important to you today because it may be the most important thing you know tomorrow. I look at this habit as investing in myself. It is one of the most important investments you can make.
2. Hold yourself accountable. One of the easiest things to do is to blame others for your personal or collective mistakes. I did this myself and instructed people working for me that before blaming others, go home at the end of the day and look into the mirror and ask yourself what more you could have done or done differently to reach a successful outcome. I would only listen to someone blaming others if they also brought to me a list of things they may have done to reach a better outcome. The hardest person to hold accountable is the one in the mirror.

What mindsets do you feel helped make you successful?
1. There are a great many people smarter than me but there is no one who will work harder.
2. Learn at least one new thing every day whether it is technical, professional or personal.
3. Never give up – be persistent. If you do not immediately succeed try again.

What was the biggest risk you took in your career?
Personally, changing employers is always risky. For me, sometimes it worked out, sometimes it did not.  Never compromise your honesty or integrity, beyond that at some point you just have to make it work.  Professionally, I have had a number of people tell me I was a risk taker and made risky decisions when I could have done things that were safer or easier. These observations always surprised me as I never saw these decisions as risky but simply a matter of doing the right thing.  I am not sure why but I always saw placing the best interest of the company a ahead of how much work it meant for me or if I would have someone else to blame or if was a safe course of action.  Some people saw me as risk taker while others I am certain saw me as naïve and/or stupid but I honestly never considered the amount of work or risk in making a decision, just whether it was be best decision.

What do you think were the top three factors in contributing to your successful career? 
1. Invest in yourself.
2. Learn from your successes and mistakes and those of others. Make and keep a list of things you will and will never do or repeat based on those successes and failures.
3. Plan ahead and do not put off what needs to be done and likewise do not rush decisions or actions. Timing!!!!


This interview is part of a series from Pisani Recruiting. If there is a topic or guru that you’d like to see featured, email[email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *