INTERVIEW: CARRIE TANGUAY / PHOTOGRAPHS: BHAV PATEL & ALEX ROZAND
Kerry Walsh is a Senior Manager of Professional Services at Achievers. She was interviewed as part of Tell Her Story’s ongoing partnership with Achievers Women’s Network (AWN). The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.
Kerry is the first to acknowledge her fortune – she grew up in a tight-knit and supportive family. From an early age she knew she was university bound and her parents instilled philosophies of hard-work, thoughtfulness and planning from a young-age: combine that with Kerry’s intrinsic motivation and she truly seems unstoppable.
What I admire most about Kerry’s story is how aware and conscientious she is of her privilege. She never uses it as a crutch to coast. Instead she leverages all she’s been given to drive herself further, push herself harder and holds herself personally accountable to help elevate those around her..
Her story is for the tenacious, driven woman who is always striving to do better, do more and inspire everyone around them to do the best they can.
CT: Tell us about where you grew up and your family.
KW: I was born and raised in Brockville, Ontario, a city of about 30,000 people. It’s very community oriented, and it’s very safe – people never lock their doors. There’s not a lot to do in the winter except maybe hit up hockey game, or drive a couple hours away to ski. This city is the best in the summer – you go out on the St. Lawrence River to boat, water-ski or jump off one of the 1000 islands. I was very fortunate to have a family cottage, and both sets of grandparents nearby growing up, so it was one of the best place to be raised, and it definitely has a small-town feel.
I have one younger brother and both my parents were very involved in my life. My dad owns his own business and my mom was the secretary at my high-school so I got to see them a lot growing up – we were always a very tight knit family. They were incredibly supportive of me and whatever I wanted to do, so I dabbled in a lot of things; I danced competitively, I sang, I acted, I curled (something I still do today), and I was part of committees at school. I was just really involved in the community – it’s something my parents instilled in me at a young age – the importance in being involved in things you can and taking every opportunity as it comes.
My mom is from Montreal originally so she had the “big city” background; she loved to travel, cook, paint and taught us the importance of diversity. She planned many family vacations abroad and introduced us to exotic foods, so my love of those things comes from her. My dad is a “meat and potatoes”, small-town guy with deep roots in the Brockville community, so I got the best of both worlds from them. I find opposites attract, and that was definitely the case for them. They had different approaches raising me, which helped shape who I am today. My focus on saving from an early age and being self-sufficient is because of my dad. So is my project management and my frugal side. My love for food, travel and my creative side comes from my mom.
CT:Where do you think your motivation comes from?
KW: I’ve always been intrinsically motivated. I have a high desire to succeed. I had such a great life and I was very fortunate growing up. My parents instilled in me to be grateful for everything I have, and they would remind me that others “weren’t born in Canada, don’t have free health care, can’t afford to travel or don’t come from families that love or support them.” I always felt fortunate for what I was given, so I wanted to make sure my life turned out well and I set myself up for success.
They instilled from a young age that each person is responsible for their own success. They didn’t have wealthy families growing up and they worked for everything they had. My dad would quote, “if it is to be, it’s up to me” – and it’s one of motto I live by. Internal motivation was something that was driven into me at a young age but it’s also just part of who I am.
CT: How did you get into the Tech space?
KW: I didn’t really have a career path in mind, so when I got into Commerce at Queens, I just thought that it would give me a great foundation. After your first two years in the program you choose a specialization, so I chose to go into Marketing, and as an elective I took Management Information Systems (MIS). It introduced us to technology and how systems and processes work together. I was really intrigued by it and was just fascinated by technology in general.
It was 2008, so social media platforms like Facebook were still on the rise, not to sound ancient [laughs]. I was intrigued because it was fast moving and things were changing a lot at the time. Computers and social media were really taking hold and I knew jobs in tech were going to be the next big-thing. I thought; “How can I set myself up for success? Technology, the internet, computers aren’t going anywhere so how can I dip my toe in the tech space?”
Queens School of Business has a fantastic career centre that matches you with a councillor to help you prepare your resume, interview, and connects you with alumni to help you get a job after graduation. In fourth year, I did informational interviews with a number of Queens’ alumni who worked at various tech companies. I was also looking at Great Places to Work. I knew I wanted to work somewhere that supported work-life balance and SAS institute is one of the places that came up in my research. Fortunately, the informational call I had with them in February of my final year turned into a contract role with their Marketing department right out of school.
CT: What do you love most about working in the Tech industry?
KW: I love the pace of change, to see how quickly technology can completely eliminate or transform an existing industry. Look at a company like Uber that completely reinvented the taxi industry within a few years, or applications like Foodora that allow you to order food to your door without hardly interacting with another human being, it can fundamentally change industries.
I’ve always been a fast-paced individual. I like to see the results of my efforts quickly, and working at a SaaS company allows me to do that. We can change the end-user experience daily if we wanted to, or if we get important feedback from a customer, and that’s so awesome to see. I would feel very constrained working at a company where it took months or years to see any movement.
CT: Tell me about your current role as Senior Manager of Professional Services?
KW: I lead a team of Implementation Managers that project manage, consult, design and deploy employee recognition and engagement software across organizations. The team works closely with a group of Technical Consultants who configure and test the solution, and many other internal stakeholders to get our programs live. They share best practices with our clients around program set up, budgeting, communications and rollout to their employees. We work with customers that range in size from 800 to 250,000+ employees. Another big part of my job is working with Sales and educating prospects about the implementation process.
I find it rewarding when I see people succeed, learn from their mistakes and grow in their role. Prior to leading the team, I was an Implementation Manager myself, and worked with some of them as a peer, so it was tricky at first to make that jump. I’ve learned to stop, reflect and appreciate your teams’ accomplishments. It’s extremely rewarding when you have a coaching conversation and then get to see them apply your feedback in action.
The most challenging part of the role is being pulled into a million different directions at the same time and trying to find the best way to prioritize your day…and then re-prioritize it. You could be in the middle of a sincere one-on-one conversation and the next minute you’re involved in a client escalation and need to get an issue resolved.
CT: What have you learned since taking on this role?
KW: What I’ve learned the most is that there is not always one ‘right answer’ and everyone is just trying to do the best they can. You need to use common sense, business judgement and prioritize very quickly because you can’t be everywhere at once.
I would like more time to focus on being a leader. When you have great manager you appreciate them but I don’t think you appreciate the extent that they’re “spinning plates” until you’re in the role yourself. When you have 6 or 7 direct reports plus your day job, it’s a lot. Because I’m internally motivated I want to accomplish everything I set my mind to and being a leader, you realize you can’t be in one-hundred places at once and you need to prioritize the things that will make you most effective, make your team most successful and that allow you to stay sane. Because there’s always work – finding that level of work where you can say “okay, I’ve done what I can for the day” go home and be at peace with that is what I’m working on.
CT: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in tech today?
KW: I’ve been extremely fortunate – I’ve never had a work experience where I felt disadvantaged or ostracized, but I’ve also been fortunate to have a lot of strong women leaders. We need more women in tech, so we can have strong women tech leaders and they can influence women to remain in tech. I think I’m in the position I’m in because I’ve had strong women vouch for me, give me the opportunity to shine and that’s what I would like to continue to do for other women in the space – to be that role model and example.
CT: Is there a woman in your career you attribute your success to?
KW: My peer, leader and eventual VP at Achievers, Debbie Lillitos. She was one of the most influential people in my life to get me to where I am today. She gave me the opportunity to be the Operations Manager of Professional Services and then she encouraged me to apply for the Senior Manager position. There was a Director who left and she asked, “have you ever thought of leading a team” and I said I wasn’t sure . Her reply was “ I think you should go home and talk to Alex (my husband) about that”. When I did, he told me I’d be crazy not to take this opportunity, and really had nothing to lose. So even though I was scared sh*tless, I decided to go for it.
She was such a hard-worker, always advocated for her people, and cared deeply about the team and its success. She’s an incredibly powerful force and someone who’s extremely bright and resilient. She was hugely influential in boosting my confidence early in my career and solidified for me that you can do anything you set your mind to.
CT: What are the key takeaways you want readers to get out of your story?
KW: Take every opportunity that’s presented to you, even if it’s a lateral move. If you’re learning, then it means you’re growing and at the end of the day that means more than a title. So if you have the opportunity to expand your knowledge and skill set, that’s what matters. When I entered business school, I didn’t even know that the job of an implementation manager existed. There are probably jobs or career paths out there you won’t even know exist until you take an opportunity to learn.
One of the benefits of seizing opportunity is meeting people and creating personal connections. Remember, people still do business with people and all “networking” means is building healthy, strong relationships with your colleagues and peers. For as large as a city Toronto is, the tech space is very small, so make sure you continue to foster those relationships because they might open doors to your next career path.
Another quote drilled into my mind as a child was: “Life is like a path of new fallen snow, be careful how you step in it, for every step will show.” What I take from that is, if you are purposely mean or disingenuous with other people, or you’re not accountable to what you commit to, people will remember. If you try to get a job somewhere but have burned bridges in the past, it could hurt future career opportunities. I firmly believe that if you do the best you can, live morally, and try to do the right thing with the information you have at the time, that will set you up for success.