FFor most Americans, the concept of family dinner invokes warm feelings of leisurely chatting and lighthearted banter around the table as the day unwinds. Keith Scott’s family, however, did no such thing. With Keith being the only child of a father who spent 40 years working for the National Security Agency, dinner was instead reserved as the perfect time to hone the family’s debate skills.
“I remember sitting around the kitchen table at dinners as a kid, always posing fair, structured arguments about current events or political issues,” he recalls. “I grew up believing that you should always make sure that you can verbally express your message and that you should be able to counter any point in an argument.” Now the President and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, Keith advocates in the interest of business through employing the very same skills of quick wit, articulation, and tenacity that kept him on his toes at the dinner table all those years ago.
The Chamber invests a large portion of its time and resources into one of its main objectives, which is fulfilling its role as a legislative watchdog and combating the threat of over-regulation to ensure that businesses have the flexibility they need to promote innovation. “Our number one issue is looking at legislation and making sure it doesn’t unfairly impose burdensome regulations on businesses. The more burdensome a regulation is, the more it chokes the human entrepreneurial spirit,” he emphasizes. “We believe as a Chamber that the free market system promotes the ability of people to think in new and creative ways. It’s the spirit of business—the economic engine of this country.” Keith and his team continually observe and participate in this spirit by maintaining a constant presence at community events. “We want the Chamber to be forward thinking, present, and known that it is a resource that understands the pulse of what’s going on in the community,” he emphasizes.
The Chamber’s other objective, which fills the rest of its time and resources, is to serve as a networking service for business leaders, lending a human element to the process that is often lacking in today’s networking landscape. “You can have a million contacts on Facebook or LinkedIn, but you can’t truly build relationships until you meet someone face to face, look them in the eye and realize that you have chemistry and trust,” Keith observes.
Because 23 percent of its membership base is located in the city of Baltimore, the Chamber works hand in hand with the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce to accomplish these goals. With member businesses and approximately 210,000 employees, the Chamber is currently seeing its fastest membership growth in the city. “In seeking to expand our membership, we’ve been very proactive in finding new types of industries and in reaching out to new and upstart businesses,” Keith reflects.
While the Chamber used to serve a relatively homogenized sampling of lawyers, accountants, and bankers, it has since expanded its vision substantially to include other industries such as the arts, nonprofits and upstart businesses. This kind of diversity benefits all members by keeping the Chamber strong even as certain sectors face times of hardship. Its vision doesn’t stop there, embracing green and alternative energy businesses while also focusing its efforts on drawing smaller businesses with strong growth potential. Thanks to these innovative and forward thinking efforts, the Chamber has sustained itself quite well during the current economic downfall as compared to other chambers and businesses. “Our ability to maintain revenues stems from careful cost-cutting measures combined with creative collaboration, analyzing our concentrations and figuring out how to tap very nontraditional sources of income,” Keith explains.
These strategies have been further supplemented by the “givers gain” philosophy that Keith so strongly advocates. Rejecting the silo mentality that many businesses and chambers maintain, he and his team have been working with other groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the African American Chamber of Commerce. Such partnerships are mutually beneficial and allow all parties to grow and, in turn, more businesses to benefit. “So many firms don’t realize that, if they’re not part of an organized body, the government is more likely to target them for regulations. The more people and organizations they have to fight for them, the better off they’ll be,” Keith remarks. “You don’t want to be the lone weak deer in the forest.”
Keith acquired his first job when he was 16 years old at a Catholic retreat center, cooking and serving meals to nuns who had taken a vow of silence. His favorite work experience as a young man was working as an overnight camp counselor challenging children to expand their character, and this appreciation likely stemmed in large part from his own intense response to an Outward Bound trip he had participated in during high school. “It was one of the worst experiences I have ever had, but among the best in terms of self development and self esteem building,” he reflects, as he recounts falling out of a canoe and almost getting hypothermia or walking twelve miles just to run out of water and have to eat freeze dried food. “It really taught me the value of what I had and what I could accomplish.”
Keith’s college career was checkered between four different universities, one of which lent an element of international experience through its location in Germany, and he was afforded tremendous opportunity to hone his debate skills through attempting to transfer his credits so frequently. After ultimately graduating from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County with a degree in Political Science, he moved to West Virginia where he ran for a school board on a whim and won the election over eleven other candidates. He later spent some time working for a global staffing company called Adecco, which gave him intimate behind-the-scenes understanding of a vast array of companies and the culture of business behind each.
Keith also spent over seven years working with Goodwill Industries in Frederick and Hagerstown, MD, traveling around the country as he participated in their executive leadership program. “This experience gave me an excellent understanding on how to start and maintain a business, building out the staff and dealing with issues like quotas, industrial needs, and production,” he reports. The wealth of knowledge gained through these positions set a perfect stage for what was to follow.
Keith’s journey with the Baltimore County Chamber began in 2007 when he accepted a position as Director of Government Relations, which was essentially a grooming position for his ascension to the position of CEO. After spending a year observing and partnering with the previous CEO to learn the needs of the Chamber and its members, he had established a level of trust with the Board of Directors and assumed the position of CEO in 2008. “My main objective during that time was to bridge the gap between the old way and the new way in terms of how the Chamber would be run,” Keith remembers. “Because our networking groups had expanded, we needed to prove our niche, as well as the vital importance of incorporating other niches.”
Because he was considerably younger than many of the Chamber and Board members, Keith had much to prove in his early months, demonstrating that the organization could handle a different leadership style and ideas while still turning a profit and maintaining its growth. “That’s the gentle balance that a leader has to have coming in,” he explains. “You have to make sure you don’t alienate the constituency that’s built the enterprise over the years but still implement new, outside-the-box ideas.”
Not only was the Board looking for someone who could instill a sense of balance and trust, but also someone with the tenacity of a true go-getter. “I won’t stop until I get what we need for the Chamber, whether it’s legislative lobbying or funding,” Keith confirms. “If we had a bill that needed to pass, I wouldn’t stop working the phones or visiting the hallways or meeting with people until we got it approved.” This is accomplished in large part through the unusually compelling, persuasive, and motivating qualities in his character—the kind that truly inspire others to act. “The biggest part of leadership as a CEO is inspiring people to greatness and to realize that they can do it. The word can’t should never be uttered—it’s really just a deferred yes,” says Keith. By infusing the spirit of business with this element of steadfast resolve, Keith repeatedly demonstrates that the Chamber can accomplish anything so long as it’s willing to invest the energy and roll up its sleeves to make it happen.
In addition to the tenacity emanating from all aspects of his character, Keith stresses the importance of exercising creative problem solving when it comes to leadership. “You have to constantly pivot,” he explains. “Some days you’ll lay seeds that will germinate over a long period of time, while other days you’ll be dealing with issues that require immediate attention. You have to be able to utilize different avenues, rules, and techniques to get you and your organization to where it needs to be.”
Though his can-do attitude stems primarily from his father’s influence, Keith also traces it to the impact of various prominent historical players. With an ancestry that hails from Scotland, he notes that the fierce determination and tenacity defining his work ethic mirror that which fueled the Scottish resistance to English rule centuries ago. Similarly, his progressive and innovative mindset borrowed largely from the examples set by the Founding Fathers of the U.S., who refused to accept the status quo and instead tested the limits of what life readily offered them. “The dreamers, the people who develop businesses, the people who helped build this country—all were tremendous risk takers who weren’t afraid to test the status quo,” says Keith.
The Founding Fathers, as well, were pioneers and leaders in all that they did, developing a wide range of skills that ultimately made them more well-rounded, influential individuals, and Keith is quick to follow in their lead. In his spare time, he participates in art to promote self-expression and singing to strengthen his public speaking skills in the sense that both activities emphasize a point and create an emotion between the sender and receiver through tonal value. Now a public speaking instructor at the college level, he also engages in improvisation acting, which stretches the limits of his comfort zone through public performance and utilizes the physical body as an important component of nonverbal communication. “I like to do things that get your mind moving quickly because you have to be that way in the business world,” he stresses. “I am a tremendous believer in the renaissance theory of self development because a multifaceted set of talents act as building blocks to make you a better person and leader.”
Keith’s greatest piece of advice to young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, then, is the importance of releasing one’s self-consciousness, even in the midst of judgment from others. “Ego can be a good motivator, but it can also be a huge threat to success by holding us back,” Keith points out. “If you can deflate your ego and always be the first to volunteer, the first to test the waters, or the first to risk embarrassment, you will dive into the dynamic and vibrant world in which we live.” In this manner, one can attain the can-do, will-do, free thinking attitude that Keith has passed on to his own children and that eliminates the barriers between what is doubted and what can be accomplished.