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

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Part 3 of 3.

Leadership is a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.” – General Stanly McChrystal (US Army, Retired)

In 2016 Kerryn became CEO of C.S. Davidson.  On January 9, 2019 I conducted a follow-up interview,  interested in seeing how her view of her job and leadership had changed and what had stayed the same.


Geoff: How would you describe your leadership?  What’s one word that would summarize your approach?

Kerryn: A work in progress.  I don’t know what it’ll be in the future, but right now it’s “adaptable.”  I show up and lead as the situation warrants.  Sometimes my job is to be calm and reassuring, sometimes tough, sometimes with compassion.  It just depends.

So the one word is, “Adaptable.”

Geoff: Tell me about the biggest difference between being the COO and the CEO.  What does that one letter difference mean?

Kerryn: The difference is focus.  As COO I was focused on the internal; as CEO I’m the external face of the company – the face of the company to the external world.  As COO, I had a big umbrella of responsibilities.  I thought it wouldn’t be much more when I became CEO.  I was wrong.  Having the responsibility for the entire company is different.  I didn’t think my day-to-day would be all that different, but I was surprised at how different it was.  It had a big impact. Global problem-solving vs. operational problem solving.

As COO I was focused on solving internal problems.  One day after I became CEO, there was a shooting on the street outside the building.  My job now was to take care of all the people and make sure they were safe.

My focus is the whole company and how all the parts and pieces come together – how marketing and business development interact with operations, and with human resources and with technology – how every part of the company interacts with every other part.

Geoff: What was the biggest surprise you’ve experienced being the CEO?

Kerryn: When you’re the CEO, “the buck stops here.”  When there’s a tough decision to be made, no one can truly understand what it takes to make tough decisions until you’re sitting in the seat.  When I wasn’t in that seat, I thought it would be easy.  But I didn’t understand.  It’s never easy with tough decisions.

Geoff: What’s the biggest breakdown you’ve experienced in this position and how did you deal with it?

Kerryn: Last year, there was a fire in York and the building collapsed and two firefighters were killed.  Our firm was wrongfully tangled up in that situation.  Initially, we were the firm incorrectly named in a lawsuit and the press had a field day with it.

The morning that story hit, I remember I felt that all my skills I learned in coaching kicked into high gear.  I could see very clearly that I needed to surround myself with the right people.  I needed to get communication out to my managers and clear instructions down through the ranks about what we should and shouldn’t talk about.  I hired a PR firm that constructed a clear message to the public and engaged the right people to help me with the situation.  I took full ownership of the situation and protected the firm.  I followed it closely and kept communicating internally to reassure people.  Our communication went into high gear. Eventually, once the facts came out, we were cleared.  It was painful for about a month, but we were able to clear our name.

Geoff: What’s your view of community involvement and what do you encourage?

Kerryn: “A rising tide floats all boats.”  I love that saying and it summarizes what I believe.  I encourage all of our staff to give back to the community – anything to do to make the community better.

Corporately, we’re doing things all the time.  A lot of our people serve on non-profit boards in leadership positions. We have a contributions committee and give generously.  We’re big supporters of the United Way and always participate in Day of Caring.  We’ll collect food for food drives.  At Christmas, we went shopping for kids who are part of a local charitable organization.  In November, we fixed up a local park and installed equipment.

Why wouldn’t you want to give back, improve the area in which you live?  It’s just the right thing to do.

Geoff: How do you deal with the stress of running a business?

Kerryn: I’m not an expert at this yet, but I can deal with the stress as long as my energy is good.  I try to keep my energy level high.  I do that by doing restorative activities – exercising, eating well, sleeping well, interacting with my family.  I try to make sure I’m at a high energy level.  Maintaining my energy takes a lot of discipline.

We have a wellness program at work.  We have a health coach that comes in and has really gotten to know our staff.  People work with her to become healthier.  We run a number of programs – right now we’re running a “Biggest Loser” competition to lose weight after the holidays.  We keep healthy snacks in the office.

I need the staff to be healthy because they have to be at 100% so they can do their best work.  The old school thinking was to “tough it out” when you’re sick.  You need to get yourself healthy before you can do your best work.  I send people home who are sick and tell them I don’t want to see them until they’re healthy.  People matter.

Geoff: What was the most important thing you’ve learned about leading?

Kerryn: You have to start by leading yourself.  You’ve got to be really clear about what you believe in and what’s important.  If you’re not clear about that, why would people follow someone who doesn’t know what they believe in?

It’s not just at work – it’s your whole life.  If you’re a mess at work, you can’t be your best self at home and vice versa.  You have to be your best self at both places.

Geoff: Biggest mistake?

Kerryn: I feel like I make mistakes every day, so it’s tough to come up with just one.  I try not to beat myself up too much.  I look for patterns so that I can improve.  I’ll get grouchy, impatient, be too abrupt with someone.  If I do that too many times, I take a time-out and determine what’s going on and how to make it better.

I believe everyone’s human and makes mistakes.  I’m fine with people who make mistakes and own up to them.  I’m less fine with people who don’t own up to them.  That changes my viewpoint of people when they can’t own their mistakes.

I’m not as forgiving of my own mistakes. I have high expectations of myself and don’t like it when I screw up.  When I do make a mistake with another person, I apologize.  I hate apologizing but am getting better at doing it.  When I make a mistake, I own up to it, apologize, and try to fix it.

Geoff: Greatest win?

Kerryn: What was really gratifying was when we set the strategic plan when the company wasn’t doing well.  We set goals and achieved them a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule.  It was so gratifying to see the company achieve that.  It wasn’t my win, it was the company’s win.

Geoff: What advice would you share with someone taking on a leadership position?

Kerryn: Understand that you’re a beginner so that when you make a mistake, you can make it quickly, learn from it, forgive yourself, and move on.

Spend time in reflection – as much time as you can carve out – as opposed to getting bogged down in busy work.  It’s easy to spend all day putting out fires but not doing the bigger job. The only way to do the bigger job is to spend time in reflection about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Like new moms, it’s certainly noble to take care of others, but you have to take care of yourself first.  If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not able to lead.

Surround yourself with good people.  There’s no way that a single leader has all the answers, so being able to have the right people around you who can help you while you’re learning the job is absolutely critical.

Stop doing your old job.  There’s going to be a temptation to do what you’re good at (and what probably got you promoted).   You’ve left behind your old job and someone else has stepped in.  The temptation is to go back and help them – because you’re good at it.  But you can’t do that.  You have to let them learn the new job, just like you have to learn what you’ve been promoted to do.

Get comfortable with discomfort.  If you’re not, you’ll spend all your time trying to avoid it. You could become a micro-manager and try and control every situation.  It’s not possible.

Unfortunately, the way forward is always filled with VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity).  If you’re the CEO, you’re going to be faced with VUCA all the time.  The more time you spend in VUCA, the more comfortable you’ll get with it, so embrace it.

Sometimes you have to chart a course where the end result is not clear.  You don’t know if the thing you’ve set out to do will work or not.  You have to have courage and faith that things will work out.  If they don’t, if you’ve done the other things right (like surrounding yourself with the right people, being clear about your values and goals), you’ll be able to adjust the course.

The fear of the unknown holds us back.  It’s never as bad as we think it will be.  There’s always a way to create a positive outcome.

Listen to your inner voice.  Don’t ignore your gut.  When you’re faced with VUCA, there’s a little voice that guides you.  If you’re going down the wrong path, and your little voice is saying, “Don’t do that,” listen to what that little voice is telling you.  Don’t ignore it.

© Geoff Davis, 2/1/19

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