At the age of 57, I took over a manufacturing company. My husband died suddenly, leaving a leadership gap and 15 families relying on employment from his company.
So, following a 35 year career in nursing, the last 24 years as a professor of nursing, I took over the leadership of a small manufacturing company in Baltimore, Ontario.
Why did you feel it was important for you to do this?
While the company had many long term employees, there was no one in the company shadows who could immediately step up to the plate and keep the company running. My father, a long time entrepreneur who still works full time at age 82, took me by the hand and assured me that I could assume David’s position. He would give me the support I required, but with my background, I could transfer my skills from academia to CEO. (Really? I thought)
I suspect that without his support and encouragement and my need to keep David’s legacy alive I could never have taken on this role. I met with the staff & discussed the 2 options we had: close the place down, or work with me and make a go of things. As you can see, they were willing to follow me in an attempt to keep this little panel making company alive.
What was the risk for you – what worried you about going forward?
A long and successful career at Fleming College had permitted me to become very competent in the skills of a professor. For my last 4 years at the college, I had practiced as a curriculum consultant, developing programs for an array of schools and sectors.
I had developed a reputation for my energy, commitment and willingness to adapt early to new practices. I had pursued ongoing education and completed 2 master’s degrees and a doctorate in nursing. I was working towards the legacy I would leave behind at the college. One of my last deliverables was a programme quality assurance process that was adapted throughout all of the campuses. I walked away from all that.
The competence that I had developed over many years was to be put aside as I humbly assumed a role I had no preparation for. I was a woman who didn’t know what a P&L statement was and had no idea about Accounts Receivables and its impact on your business line of credit.
Just about everything I had to take on worried me. I didn’t have the language of the sector, I didn’t have the financial background, I didn’t have the network of contacts and I was a woman in a primarily man’s world.
The only things I brought were my soft skills and courage.
The risk was that we could have totally failed. The team could have decided that I was the wrong person to lead them (in some ways I was the wrong person as I have already mentioned) and sabotaged me in my hopes to succeed. The economy could have been even worse and we could have taken a nose dive because there were not enough sales to sustain us. While the economy was not wonderful, it was good enough for us to find the customers who needed us.
How did you overcome the worry (emotionally)?
In many ways, the worry about the path I was to take was overruled by the loss I had experienced. As a new widow grieving over the loss of my husband, I leaned on my family and friends a tremendous amount. They allowed me to vent and cry. They fed me (I don’t cook), they kept me over night when I needed someone in my life. My son and his wife saw me daily to provide the support and comfort that I needed.
I also connected with many other widowed people in an attempt to go forward past this great loss.
In addition I was grieving the loss of my position of competence in my former career. Nothing was familiar to me and everything I was responsible for was brand new. I felt like a child in kindergarten with an irrelevant doctorate. Colleagues from my former workplace kept in touch with me and gave me an opportunity to vent my worries.
Dealing with the worry about the actual business was, in some ways, a diversion from my personal grief. I knew that I could never do this alone so reached out, not just to the team I worked with, but to many experts in the area. From accountants, to business advisors, to local business people in the area, I made the connections I needed to advise me about how best to forge forward.
I think I saw my accountant more than my children.
In a very short time I was connected with so many competent business people that I had to be selective about how much help I could accept, there weren’t enough hours in the day.
The hours were another way that helped me overcome my worry. I had no real reason to go home, work was a good diversion from feeling sorry for myself, so I would arrive long before anyone at the plant and stay until late in the evening. It is amazing how much one can accomplish when you never go home!
How did you physically mitigate the risk (as opposed to overcoming it emotionally)?
The tasks I was taking on took me three times longer than a person of experience. On a weekly basis, my father sat down and went over various business activities that I needed to tackle. The challenge was complicated by the fact that my husband was not one to write things down. So many of the business practices were in his head, not recorded.
We began by developing procedures and policies. We became fluent in health and safety legislation, we developed business plans and we joined organizations that support business and entrepreneurs.
We enlisted an Advisory Board. We had regular staff meetings that would give opportunity for everyone to contribute to the direction of the company. When new ideas were presented, we listened. We made changes that the team identified as having the potential to make things operate more efficiently. We all went to take courses to learn new skills.
We celebrated things in small ways. Our sense of team grew by our ability to appreciate the accomplishments of each other.
What did you gain from the experience?
I sometimes laugh when I think of who I have become.
Imagine a fashionista with work boots and safety glasses climbing up on the roof to figure out what the issue might be with the extractor unit. Imagine me taking people through my production line like I was the host of “How It’s Made”. Imagine my company being the winner of the Business Achievement Award after just one year of service. Imagine being nominated as RBC Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year after 2 years in business. Imagine me on the Board of Directors of the Northumberland Manufacturing Association.
What I have gained from this experience is a strength and competence that I could never have imagined would ever be in my life. It is funny how something so terrible can have such incredible results.
What was the actual risk outcome?
No one could have ever imagined just how things turned around. My team pulled together and put such an effort into the company. It would make any leader proud. One of my staff told that she felt like it was’ her company ‘ now. She had “never taken on so many new things or felt so empowered” by what she was asked to do.
Our first 6 month goal had been to get into the black. Well, we achieved that. The next year we increased sales by 50% and we did the same thing last year.
We are a stronger company than we could ever have hoped for. We are now a profit-sharing company with a team who respects and needs one another. We are excited about the possibilities of continued growth. We are a company that says ”how can we do that?” not, “it can’t be done”.
What should you have done differently, if anything?
I might have been a lot smarter to have just hired a CEO who could have taken the lead and done it in a competent manner. It might have saved the staff from having to take on new roles, new challenges and having to deal with a leader who has more energy than a battery first off the line. But I’m glad I didn’t.
Would you do it again?
At this point I can say I am glad I had the opportunity to discover things about myself that I did not know existed or that I was capable of doing. The feedback I receive from co-workers and business members makes me feel that I must be very lucky to achieve what I did.
Last year I completely gave up teaching. I had done small contracts since I left the college, just to keep my hand in academia. But each time I took on another contract, I realized that I was growing further and further away from something that had taken up most of my working career. It was not without some regret that I could no longer make the best contribution to a profession that I had given so many years to.
Did it inspire any further adventures, accomplished or planned for future?
Our plans for the future are ambitious. My sons are preparing themselves to take on increasing leadership roles within the company. In a few years I will be tackling the next set of life’s challenges taking me to who knows where.
You might see me sailing off shore or climbing mountains in Peru.
What are the 3 most important pieces of advice you’d give someone else interested in doing this?
Ask for help