Kerryn Fulton, CEO, C.S. Davidson, Inc. (Transformation)


Part 2 of 3

“… we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are the expectations, and armor is not necessary or rewarded.” – Brene Brown

In this post we continue the 2016 interview with Kerryn Fulton when she was COO of C.S. Davidson, an engineering firm headquartered in York, PA.

Geoff: What would you say are your greatest challenges?

Kerryn:  My patience.  I have to be patient and not have knee-jerk reactions.  I’ve learned to sleep on things and relax my mind.

When faced with difficult challenges, it’s hard to stick to your values.  We had a very good employee who was lured away by a competitor.  I don’t believe in counter-offers.  Even for that guy, I just stared down the barrel and didn’t counter offer.  He decided not to go.

Delegation is another difficult challenge for me.  You can’t do everything yourself.  You have to let people do their jobs so I can do mine.  Set the vision and direction of the company.

Geoff:  What’s your greatest success story?

Kerryn:  The day I decided company performance was my priority.  I took ownership of getting us on track.  I wrote a business plan that was realistic.  I repeated our goals until they grabbed hold.  In 2014 we weren’t doing well; we were over-staffed and morale was down.  We set and I introduced our stretch goals.  I remember slamming my fist on the table and saying, “These are what we’re going to achieve.”

People said they were great ideas but that there was no way to do it.  We refined our core business and got better every month.  We hit the tipping point where the staff count was right.  We began having record-setting months each of the first nine months and are on track to reach our goals.

Geoff: What was your greatest failure?

Kerryn: Not taking ownership of my job sooner.  I was trying to be more respectful of others.  On the Senior Leadership Team, I wasn’t the best teammate; I could have been better.  I wish I could have made it work better. At times I struggle with not getting things done the best way I could.

Geoff: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about leadership?

Kerryn: You have to listen to your gut.  You can’t ignore it; the answers are there.  I’ve hired people where I got excited with the process.  I should have listened to my instincts and not gotten carried away with the process.  Grounding my assessments has also been an important learning for me.

Geoff: What’s one thing you wish you knew how to do that would make you a better leader?

Kerryn: How to handle personnel issues.  They cause me a lot of heartache.  It takes a long time to sort through issues with people – how to navigate conversations about people and be the master of conversations.

Geoff: What’s your purpose in leading?

Kerryn: To enrich everyone’s experience who’s involved, including my own experience.  Everything’s so messed up in society.  I want to become one of those who believe in making things better.

Geoff: What’s the kind of culture you want to create?

Kerryn:  I want to feel good about it and have others feel good about it.  Treat each other well and professionally; talk to each other directly about problems; be a cohesive, well-functioning, healthy team where people feel secure.  Create a place where people do their jobs and feel good about what they’re doing.  They hold themselves accountable.

Geoff: What do you believe about people and how is that reflected in your leadership?

Kerryn: I believe people want to do a good job, be heard, and desire to be good.  Everyone can achieve happiness, but so many people focus on the wrong things.

In leadership, I err on the side of trusting people – I assume that others are trustworthy.  I given the tools they need and get out of the way.  I always want people to feel like they matter.  I love getting their ideas.  I cradle ideas like a newborn infant and am hypersensitive to ideas.

Geoff: What’s the one thing you see where leaders get it wrong?

Kerryn: They think the title makes them the leader.  It becomes all about their egos and not the “why” of what they’re doing.  If it’s about them and their ego, it’s not good.

Sometimes leaders ignore and don’t want the real facts.  They stick their heads in the sand and don’t have the courage to act – or have the conversations with people that they need to have.   I used to call these “soft skills,” but have come to realize they’re really the “hard skills” that, if we don’t master them, are a disservice to the people we lead.

Geoff: How do you develop your personal competency and leadership fluency?

Kerryn: Coaching has had a big impact on my life and my career.  If you want to be a better leader, you hire a coach.  Read a lot, but that only takes you so far.  Coaching helps you put it into practice.  You actually have to do something.  It’s important to have someone from outside the organization coach your skills and how you show up.

Geoff:  What would you say are the key skills and abilities that leaders need to have?

Kerryn:  Set the vision.  See what’s possible and what’s beyond your current constraints.  Master the hard skills – the art of conversation, conflict, moods and emotions.  Understand the keys to your business.  Realize discipline is necessary.  Figure out how to take care of yourself (this should probably be the first one).

Things at work have to be good.  Things at home have to be good.  Be vulnerable.  Don’t sacrifice everything at home for the job.  My support system at home is awesome.  I couldn’t do this without my husband.  He’s willing to give up his own ego to support me.  He’s very selfless.

Next post, we’ll look at how Kerryn continued her transformation in leadership when she was named CEO at C.S. Davidson and what changed in her view of leadership – and some of what stayed the same.

© Geoff Davis 1/25/19

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