Part 1 of 3
“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” – Peter Drucker
In my ongoing search for ordinary leaders doing extraordinary things, I’ve interviewed a woman who exemplifies so many of the characteristics of leadership in a field where finding women in senior leadership roles is uncommon. I’ve worked with Kerryn for several years and have seen her focused, committed, and open to new ways of thinking and doing things. She is a talented, committed leader who is not afraid of making courageous decisions.
Kerryn graduated from Juniata High School and earned her Bachelor of Science in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. She and her husband, Wade, an outstanding teacher and writer in the Dallastown School District, have two sons, Thomas and Theo.
In 2001, she began work at C.S. Davidson, an employee-owned engineering firm founded in 1923 with offices currently in York, Gettysburg, and Lancaster, PA, and became Chief Operating Officer in 2013. She became Chief Executive Officer in 2016. I first interviewed Kerryn on May 5, 2016 when she was COO, then conducted a second interview with her in January of this year, seeing how her view changed once she had become CEO.
Geoff: Tell me a little about your background.
Kerryn: I grew up in an incredible, stable household in Juniata County, with parents who lived the strong values they had. My dad was a blue-collar worker and spent a lot of time teaching values. Mom encouraged us to reach and do something better. For her, anything was possible and she encouraged me to explore and not be afraid.
I had the opportunity to go to the University of Pennsylvania. It was a big leap from Juniata County, but my mom said, “Of course you’ll go.” She saw what was possible and that’s where I went to school.
Mom’s career started out in a public health center. She took a management position when it became available and worked in Harrisburg. She eventually oversaw all the health centers in Juniata County. She kept reaching and challenging herself and climbed the ladder when she could have settled for the easier role. Eventually, Mom became the Acting Deputy Secretary of Health in Pennsylvania. She started at the bottom and went out on top. She was a heck of a role model
Geoff: How did you get into leadership?
Kerryn: I do it because I love working in teams. In junior high, I started playing basketball. When I was a senior in high school, I was captain of the basketball team. We were average, but we cared about each other and loved to play. No one from my team went on to play in college, but that year, we had a very good season. All our values aligned, we all cared about the same things and each other, and were committed to taking care of each other. It was remarkable because there was no infighting on my team. They’re some of my fondest memories of high school.
My first job out of college was in structural engineering at C.S. Davidson. I liked math and science and I didn’t want to be an architect. I had a good manager who cared about all members of the team, had a vision he wanted to reach, and delegated responsibility.
Geoff: Why are you a leader? Why do you do what you do?
Kerryn: When we win as a team, the reward is great and there’s a real sense of accomplishment. Pulling the team together and putting the details in place to get that team to effectively reach goals is rewarding for everyone. It’s not me doing it; I just clear out the roadblocks. For me, leadership is setting direction and reaching for something more than we think is possible.
Geoff: What do leaders do?
Kerryn: Act the way they want to see others behave and lead by example. Know and stick to the core values. Set the reach goal for the team. Work hard to achieve buy-in. Give them the tools to succeed. Get out of the way but keep an eye on progress to keep it on track. Find the right people.
Geoff: Who influenced you in your leadership?
Kerryn: Leadership occurs at all levels of the organization; just look around. David Davidson shared values and philosophy of what’s important and what’s not. I learned a lot from our (former) CEO, John Klinedinst. I remember we had a particularly tough stretch where we had to lay people off. Donna, one of our secretaries, stepped out and took care of people. You can learn a lot from everyone around you; there are plenty of examples of what to do (and not to do).
Geoff: How do you lead?
Kerryn: I believe it starts with a high level of integrity. Establishing trust is critical. I do what I say. When I make a mistake, I apologize. I’m always thinking of the well-being of people. I talk to people a lot to get everyone on board, flesh out ideas, and make decisions. I’m highly organized. Sometimes I just step back and watch.
Geoff: What’s your “Leadership Philosophy?”
Kerryn: Servant Leadership. We’re in the service of the people we’re leading and, as leaders, take on the care of the people we’re leading. I believe you have to lead by example. Making a proclamation and being an old-style leader doesn’t work.
Finding the right people is essential. Surrounding yourself with “A” players who share your beliefs, values, and direction. A good leader gets in the trenches with his or her people.
Getting in the trenches and being willing to be the first to jump in is an important part of my leadership. After Hurricane Sandy came through and ravaged New Jersey, we did flood inspections in New Jersey. We didn’t know what shape things were in. I was on the front lines and left my family for a time to do the best job I could. The first three weeks we spent getting protocols in place. We had to go out and figure it out. When we sent people out to do the inspections, they were well-equipped.
Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus and getting the wrong people off the bus is an important part of leadership. I sit in on every final job interview in the company. The easiest way to keep the wrong people off the bus is not to let them get on in the first place
Next Post: We complete the initial interview with Kerryn.
© Geoff Davis, 1/18/19