Effective Leaders Execute!
She grew up on a dairy farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, going to a two-room schoolhouse. She had daily chores to do, like any farm kid. But when her dad died when she was only eleven years old, Annette Verschuren had to carry even more responsibilities working in the barn, lugging heavy milking machines on the concrete floor until her arches dropped. As a teen she dealt with four kidney surgeries, but also won the milking competition for seven consecutive years at the Cape Breton County Farmer’s Exhibition.
Who would have thought that this Cape Breton country gal would one day become one of Canada’s most respected CEOs and dynamic leaders?
Fast forward a couple of decades after earning a MBA. After working at mining company Imasco, she decided to enter the competitive retail business. She approached Michael’s, a do-it-yourself craft supplies company, offering to invest her own money. This led to her becoming the first president of Michael’s Canada. Verschuren’s operational approach to work meant having a very succinct plan–all on one page as she notes in her new book Bet on Me. With no pretense, she talks about her mistakes and learning by doing, especially inventory control, an essential skill for retailers. During her tenure she opened 17 stores in just two years.
From Michael’s she moved to The Home Depot in 1996, and later became Division President from 2006 to 2011, with additional responsibilities for building the company’s presence in China. Her Cape Breton roots prevented Verschuren from hiding in head office. Instead, she made a point of regularly visiting Home Depot stores, showing up in jeans, baseball cap and untucked shirt. Quick to establish a rapport with store employees, she didn’t just talk business but also showed an interest in people and having a few laughs. The Home Depot’s number of Canadian stores exploded from a mere 19 to currently 154. And all from at the time a 39 year-old woman who knew nothing about the lumber and hardware business.
She also served as the Chair and CEO of NRStor Inc., a new venture focused on improving the commercialization of energy storage technologies. She’s also on the boards of Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, Air Canada, Saputo, Icynene and the North West Company. She donates her time as a board member to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation (CAMH) and the Conference Board of Canada.
Outsiders who admire Annette Verschuren as a corporate leader say that they wouldn’t want to work directly for her. Her strong work ethic, fast pace, demanding style and ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach represents a leadership style not for the faint of heart. However, one has only to look at her impressive results in less than two decades to realize that this female corporate leader is as tough and smart as they come.
As she said in an interview with Canadian Business magazine in May 2016, your job as a leader is to produce results. It’s wonderful to conceive ideas and concepts and to engage in conversations with employees and stakeholders. However, the essence of leadership is to initiate action for the benefit of the organization (or community). Verschueren explained it this way with Canadian Business:
“Results aren’t the byproduct of thought, but of making decisions and taking action—quickly. Whether you are an entrepreneur launching a new business, a leader within an established company trying to improve operations or the executive director of a non-profit trying to get maximum results on a shoestring budget, the ability to quickly bring solid ideas to fruition will determine your success. Anything that prevents you from deciding and acting isn’t helpful.”
The notion of action and execution versus paralysis-induced consultations and reflection is appropriate for a highly competitive, global street-fight for market share, combined with the need for governments at all levels to get their acts together to respond to the needs of their constituents. For national governments, it means not just responding but indeed anticipating trends and getting out on the leading edge to support business and to generate the needed wealth for their nations, whether it’s rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, financing social and health programs, or strengthening the country’s human capital (read that as skills, training and education).
Take some time to think about Annette Verschueren’s approach to leadership. And then take action on what you plan to do in your own context.
I believe that 80% of your overall efforts as a leader should be directed toward execution, toward making things happen. Only 20% of your time should be spent planning.
– Annette Verschuren
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