Episode 357

Kerry Siggins On Cultivating An Ownership Mindset

The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Kerry Siggins | Ownership Mindset


Kerry Siggins is the CEO of StoneAge, a leading manufacturer of industrial cleaning equipment and one of Inc. Magazine’s Best Place to Work in 2023. Most recently, she was selected as EY’s Entrepreneur Of The Year in 2023 and is regularly keynotes on several business and leadership topics. She’s the author of the new book, The Ownership Mindset.


Kerry joined host Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast to talk about her career, building a top culture and cultivating an ownership mindset on your team.

Listen to the podcast here


Kerry Siggins On Cultivating An Ownership Mindset

Our quote for this episode is from Henry Cloud. “Ownership is the essence of leadership.” My guest, Kerry Siggins, is the CEO of StoneAge, a leading manufacturer of industrial cleaning equipment and one of Inc. Magazine’s Best Places to Work in 2023. She was selected as NY’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2023 and is regularly keynoting on several business and leadership topics. Kerry is also the author of the book, The Ownership Mindset. We’re excited to have her here. Kerry, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.

Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.

I always like to start a little bit with the beginning. Particularly with entrepreneurs, I’m always curious, lemonade stand, what else was there? What do you remember about your life growing up?

There are so many things. From an entrepreneurial aspect, it comes from my grandfather and he was such a huge role model for me. He moved to Colorado, the Western slope of Colorado, where I live now, chasing his dream. He always wanted to have his own sporting goods store. He spent his career in retail. In the ‘70s, he packed up his family of six and moved over to this tiny little town called Montrose, Colorado, which is my hometown. He started living his dream, and he built multiple stores.

He had three sporting goods stores when he finally retired and he started letting me work in his stores when I was twelve years old. I had to beg him and convince him that I was old enough and mature enough to be able to do it. He wouldn’t let me handle the money. I was to help customers and pulled merchandise and put merchandise away.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Kerry Siggins | Ownership Mindset


By the time I graduated high school, I was running the marketing room. All of the inventory would come in from all of our different vendors and I would mark it, put it into the point-of-sale system and then split it up between the three different stores. I loved it. It was such a fantastic job. I owe a lot of my work ethic and I think my entrepreneurial spirit to him because I got to see what it was like to watch somebody go after their dreams, especially when it was a massive risk in the ‘70s. The economy was not good. To pack up your family from Washington, DC, and move him to this little tiny rural town that takes a lot of guts. I appreciated his role modeling for me.

What are some of the key lessons you remember from working with him, maybe on the job or off the job he gave you, that you carry forward now?

Professionalism, first and foremost. Montrose is the feeder town for Telluride, Colorado. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I was working in the store, Telluride hadn’t blown up like what it is, but it was still a hotspot for the rich and famous. Telluride has a tiny little airport that literally goes off of a cliff and Montrose was the biggest airport, the closest airport to Telluride. All kinds of famous people would come land in Montrose and go shopping at the sporting goods store to get their winter equipment or summer equipment.

He would never let us be starstruck. We always had to treat them with the utmost professionalism. We pretend that we don’t know who they are. I appreciated that. I remember Tom Cruise came in and he is that short and it was so hard to keep it together, but I had his voice in the back of my head about, “You’re always professional. These people are not here to have store clerks ask them for autographs.” Back then, we didn’t take pictures, Polaroid pictures, selfies. I appreciated that about him because I’ve always held myself to a high standard of professionalism and that’s a big lesson that he taught me and it was hard to do when Tom Cruise walks into the store and you’re fourteen years old

There’s a business lesson on that, but I think there’s a life lesson on not getting so giddy and worshiping people. They have all kinds of demons and are fallible. I think there’s a good lesson for kids. I never waited in line. If everyone wanted something famous, I was never interested in it. I remember the Cabbage Patch kid craze, sleeping out and all that stuff. Did you ever go into the real job world after school? How long did you last there before you probably learned that you were not employable by other people? I say that because someone said that to me once. They’re like, “You’re not employable.” They meant it in the nicest way possible.

I don’t know that I’m not employable, but I definitely am better doing my own thing, being my own boss kind of person. I had lots of jobs. I went to Colorado School of Mines to Engineering school, but while I was there, I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer, and I wasn’t going to drop out. My dad had so graciously told me that he didn’t think I was smart enough to graduate from engineering school. There was no way I was quitting.

That’ll cause a chip on your shoulder.

Dad caused a lot of issues but we’ve worked through most of them at this point. It was a big, I don’t know if I want to say motivator, but also an anchor for me to stay there. I’m glad that I did. My first job out of college was the worst possible job for a person like me. It’s like living in spreadsheets, super analytical. I’m such a people person. I was sitting in a cubicle by myself and was like, “I hate this. I can never do this job again.”

It added to my insecurity issues, my self-esteem issues because I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had to do a little bit of exploring. The thing that I learned the most from the different jobs I’ve had is what makes a good leader and what makes a bad leader. I worked for some fantastic people and I also worked for some not so fantastic people and that’s what I was observing. What made leaders great and what made leaders poor and I think those were the biggest lessons that I took away from the jobs that I had before StoneAge.

From A Dead-End Lifestyle To StoneAge

I always say when I think that when people lead for the first time, it’s not the best formula, but a lot of what they do is like, “I am going to do the opposite. Here are the things that some good leaders did and then I’m going to do the absolute opposite of Sarah and John because I think they did everything wrong.” It is not super authentic, but it’s a natural. It’s like dating someone and looking for the things that the last relationship didn’t have. You’ve also talked about overcoming some adversity, and I think you described how you lived a dead-end lifestyle before you transformed your life. What does a dead-end lifestyle mean?

I had pretty significant substance abuse issues in my twenties and that’s an accumulation of a lot of different things. It all came crashing down on Labor Day of 2006 when I accidentally overdosed. What changed me from that experience wasn’t almost dying. It was the fact that I could not go to work. I self-identify with my work. I started begging my grandfather at ten years old to let me work. No matter what, I was high-functioning. I always went to work.

I couldn’t get out of bed for three days and that’s when I had to look at myself in the mirror and say this, “You’re living this dual life of trying to climb the corporate ladder but also doing some very destructive things, some self-harm with a lot of the substance abuse issues that I had and insecurities and Imposter Syndrome and all of those things. It wasn’t leading me to where I wanted to be. I knew I had the potential to do something with my life, but in that moment, I knew that if I stayed on the path I was on that I was probably going to die and not do all of those things that I knew in my heart that I was capable of doing if I could get my act together.

Obviously, that was the low point. What got you turned around and how did you end up making your way to StoneAge?

My mom helped me. I called my mom, and I swore I would never go back to the Western slope of Colorado. I spent my entire life trying to get out of the town that I grew up in and my mom had left Montrose and moved about 100 miles South to this cool mountain town called Durango. It’s a much better than the place that I grew up, at least I thought so at the time. I still do, actually.

She was living in Durango and I called her and told her everything and she said, “You can come home but I have some ground rules. The big one was you have to start figuring out why you do the things that you do. You have so much potential and you are such a natural-born leader, but you can lead people in great directions or you can lead people right off the edge of the cliff with you and you have to decide what kind of leader that you want to be and it starts with self-leadership.”


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Kerry Siggins | Ownership Mindset


That was the first time I had ever heard of the concept of self-leadership. It stuck with me. How am I leading myself? We’re doing it every day, whether we’re doing it well or we’re doing it poorly. I was committed to figuring out how to lead myself well. That’s where I started. I was developing much deeper self-awareness and started dealing with my issues with the childhood trauma that had blocked me and caused me to want to numb.

Once I started figuring out why I felt that way, I could start to address them. I could start to figure out what my triggers were and work on myself. That was the starting point. It was at the basic like, “Who am I? Why do I make these decisions? How do I start dealing with the things that are holding me back, the things that I’m angry about, the things that I’m hurt about so that I can heal myself so I can go on to do good things?”

That’s where it started. I think anytime you’re trying to transform and rebuild your life, you have to start within. You have to look at yourself and say, “I don’t like these things. How do I change it?” Do not be afraid to start to examine and explore those parts of yourself that you’re like, “Ugh.” I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to block those things out and not deal with it. It was easier not to deal with it, or so I thought, but that’s where I got started.

Anytime you’re trying to transform or rebuild your life, you have to start within and look at yourself and say, “Okay, I don’t like these things. How do I change it?”

It’s funny as you say that, I’m reminded, that there have been a lot of conversations with everything going on and people looking into the education system and what are we teaching and there’s one school of thought that it’s everyone should be aggrieved. They should focus on what the world has done to them or someone else has done to them or before they were born. It doesn’t work. As you said, all this stuff comes down to agency and self. What can I do? We see a lot of people in institutions putting these philosophies forward, but I haven’t seen anyone happy operating in in any of these ways.

Victim Mentality Disempowers You

You can never be happy if you operate in a victim mindset because you disempower yourself from fixing your problems or you expect other people to fix your problems for you. Unfortunately, you’re going to be waiting for a long time. I tell all of my employees here, “You’re responsible for your career. If you’re waiting to get tapped on the shoulder for a promotion or a new project, but you are not taking your own career in your hands, you’ll be sorely disappointed.”

You can never be happy if you operate in a victim mindset because you disempower yourself from fixing your problems or expect others to fix them for you.

I think that the idea that we should help people see themselves as victims is misguided. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be honest about things that have happened, and as part of the ownership mindset, it is important to say, yes, these are the systemic things that have created this system, but you are not a victim. You can’t empower yourself to make these changes. Is it always going to be easy? No.

I’m in industrial cleaning industry. I think there is one other female CEO in our entire industry and people always ask me, “Do you feel like you’ve been held back because you’re a woman?” I said, “I probably have been but I have never chosen to look at it that way ever because that is the victim mentality.” I’ve always figured out to ignore it. If I can ignore it, if it doesn’t matter to any in my life, then ignore it. If it’s a roadblock, how do I get around it and get around it with joy in my heart rather than feeling bitter or resentful or angry? I’ll tell you that it’s made my life so much better. Yes, maybe I have been held back and I’m sure men in my industry, I know men in my industry have said bad things about me and try to put up roadblocks.

That’s more about them.

Me blaming them or being upset about it. That’s not about me. I’m doing my thing, growing my company and I think I’ve been so much more successful because of it. That victim mentality and teaching people that they should feel angry and resentful doesn’t help them figure out how to empower themselves to get out of those situations. That’s a lot about what my book is about. How do you empower yourself to get out of any situation that you don’t like by owning it?

How did you come to StoneAge?

It was a total fluke. I was 28. I was here in Durango. I was broke and desperate for a job, but I knew that I didn’t want to just work for anybody. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I knew that there was this leadership fire in me but I had no money and I’m recovering from substance abuse issues and working on myself. I applied for a lot of jobs.

The founders of StoneAge were looking for my general manager at the time. Even though I was not qualified for the job, I put my name in the hat because I had an Engineering degree from the same school they had graduated from, the Colorado School of Mines. I had gotten into operations management in manufacturing after I graduated from college after that first crappy job.

I was like, “I’ve done a lot of these things so if I don’t get this position, then perhaps it will be a foot in the door for me for something else.” When I met with them and then met with the management team, they decided that they wanted to take a risk on me. They saw something in me that may be something less intimidating than a more traditional candidate coming in who wanted to change the company. They took this huge risk and hired me, and it was seventeen years in January of 2024 that they came on board. That’s how I got here and how I started my leadership journey. Now we’re 100% employee-owned company. We’ve bought out the founders and we’re doing all these cool things both in the industry and across the nation around employee ownership

By the way, credit to those founders, first of all for hiring you, but second of all, I have seen so many small businesses end because they didn’t find that person to come in and groom them and to take over and sell it to them. It’s such a logical win-win. They either wait too long or they don’t do it or they make it ridiculous like they want to get paid double. It’s such a win-win because you have a lot of people right, who didn’t have the money or the background to be able to start a business and be able to come in, learn the ropes and then be the buyer for those founders.

I give them so much credit. I didn’t know back then how often founder transitions fail or never happen. They weren’t even thinking about it. It was the management team pushed them like, “We have to have some succession plan here.” I give them credit for even listening to the management team and then of course taking this huge risk on me. They taught me how to think and act like an owner.

The president of the company, John Wolgamott, gave me enough rope to learn, but he wouldn’t tell me, “I think you should do this.” He would say, “What do you think? I trust you to make this decision. You don’t need my blessing or you don’t need my approval. If you want to bounce ideas off, that’s fine.” He knew because he wanted to do other things in his life that his success was going to be based on my success. I don’t think this intentional way of cultivating ownership, thinking like what we do at StoneAge now but that’s what he was doing.

He absolutely taught me how to think and act like an owner equally as much as my grandfather did, but in a different way about what being an entrepreneur means. I’m incredibly grateful for it because now I know what I know, it doesn’t work out the way that it worked out, not for me and not for the two of them exiting the business.

StonAge’s Core Principles

As I said earlier, StoneAge won a lot of awards and has been recognized as one of Inc. Magazine’s Best Places to Work. Was it always a good culture and what did you do to define culture and employee experience? Was that a continuance of what was going on or did you have a reboot of the culture when you took over?

I would say some of both. John and Jerry were two engineers. They started it because they were unemployable. I think there’s no way that either one of them could work for somebody else. They had this whole mindset of, “We wanted to create great jobs for people.” That was always what the foundation was. We had these core philosophies of we create great jobs for our employees and for the community, we take care of each other like we’re family and we always solve the customer problems that was woven out throughout our culture. It’s always been a culture of caring.

I think it was set up that way because they wanted to. They wanted flexibility. John was a long-distance runner. He ran 100-mile races through the mountains, and he wanted flexibility in going out and doing three-hour lunch runs and other things like that. He’s like, “If I’m going to do that, I need to let my employees have flexibility and things like that.” He was way before his time in a lot of ways.

What I had to do was come in and build on top of that. What we didn’t have at StoneAge when I came on was this real level of accountability. I had to figure out how to weave that in. How do we weave in accountability and high performance but still keep this culture of caring and caring about each other as a family? I had to be careful about that as I started implementing things that would bring more accountability into our culture but also not swing the pendulum so far that we lost that ability to care.

I think the culture is very different years later. It’s much more evolved, it’s much more intentional but it’s still set on those core pillars of we take care of each other, we take care of our customers and we make sure that we are creating rewarding, valuable jobs that help people create a better life for themselves. That foundation is there, and I have tried to figure out how to build upon it and improve it.

I heard you use the word family and I know there are a lot of strong opinions on this. I have my own. I’ll try not to tip my hand. I ask you the question, lead the witness. I’ve heard some people refer to family, I’ve heard other people talk about team because that’s a different dynamic than family. What are your thoughts on that when you’re talking about the workplace and the people you work with?

I would say that as we’ve evolved, it has been less about the family-type feel. I think it made sense. When I came on, I was employee number 30. We were super small. The company was 27 years old when I came on board and we had employee number 1, 2 and 3 still working for us who literally brought their kids into work when they were babies.

I think that it did have this family feel but I also think that that was part of the accountability issue that we had. It was like, “We’ve got to fix some of these things. We’ve got to be able to have tough conversations and not sweep things under rug.” I always say, “All you do when you sweep things under the rug is you have a lumpy rug.” I think that that is what can happen when you have a family-type culture here.

All you do when you sweep things under the rug is get a lumpy rug.

We’ve moved away from it even though we have a culture that puts family first. We talk a lot about family within our culture, but that’s about how we are supporting our employee’s families and encourage them and them to always put their family first. I think we have something that’s more focused on teamwork. One of our values is be a great teammate. Let’s not be a good family member. Those are very different things. I think that we have articulated that, but what we try to do is create that culture of care where employees know that we’ve got your back.

Family’s supposed to stand by through thick and thin. Not that that always happens. Why can’t companies have the same mentality? That’s how we’ve evolved over time. I hear employees say, “My StoneAge family,” and I’m okay with that. We don’t try to create a family feel around here like you need to treat these people like family members.

I agree with everything you said. To me, family falls into the blood is thicker than water and it’s like the drunk uncle can act like a schmuck at the wedding because he is family. This can go on because it’s family and that’s not what you want in a business. I like high-performance team. If you think of some of the team analogies, and I know people don’t like sports analogies, but I think they hold in a lot of leadership where it’s like this person on your team misses a big shot or whatever and you pat them on the back and you say, “It’s okay.” If they are having a terrible day, week or whatever, they’re going to sit on the bench.

A good coach does not let someone go out there and make the mistake over and over again. You work on it in practice and you see if you can fix it in the game but that’s letting down the other teammates. I agree with you that and my definition of, and I think what’s tricky in a lot of cultures is this culture of how do we love, care and respect people here but have high accountability.

To me, those things are not mutually exclusive. I think a lot of people think that great cultures are super permissive. I think great cultures are where the accountability and people say, “Your light’s been red on our dashboard.” How do you hold people accountable? I build dashboards, because when you have the meeting every week and it’s red, it won’t go on forever. You’ll have a discussion or that’s not okay. If it is okay, then you’re going to have a whole bunch of other problems.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Kerry Siggins | Ownership Mindset


High-Performing Vs High-Functioning

Going back to what you talked about, a high-performing team, we actually put another phrase with it. High functioning, high performing teams. I always say that because a lot of times people think, “High performance is like we’re getting a bunch of stuff done.” However, there’s also this thing about how are people experiencing you? How are other departments experiencing you? I think that’s where the family thing that’s built into the family conversation because a lot of functioning families are dysfunctional.

I always say that we’re building high-functioning, high-performing teams and I think that that high functioning adds that next level of intention to team building that it’s also about how you guys are working together and how you’re making each other feel and how other departments are experiencing you. It might be nitpicking, but to me, it gives me a little bit more clarity, like, “Are you really high functioning?”

I had this conversation with one of our departments, which has a new leader, and they’re in that storming phase. They’re getting a lot of stuff done but there’s a lot of dysfunctions with it. It was like you can’t be performing and getting stuff done. You have to be functioning. I think that that helps give a little bit more clarity on like what success looks like within a team.

You can’t just be performing and getting stuff done. You have to be functioning. That’s what success looks like within a team.

Let’s talk about your book, The Ownership Mindset or Own It, for short. Carrie’s got a big sign behind her. I’m guessing one of their core values are is to own it. It looks like it’s metal.

It is.

The Concept Of Ownership

Your book talks about the importance of obviously thinking like an owner. Hopefully, this will give you a layup here or softball. There seems to be this paradox where a lot of people are like, “Why doesn’t everyone care as much as I do and why am I the only one here laid,” and all this stuff? They’re so frustrated that people don’t think like an owner, but there’s actually no ownership. They own everything. Talk to me about how you apply concept of ownership but actual ownership to employees.

I truly do believe ownership is a mindset. If you think about it, we own all kinds of things that we don’t care about and we can feel deep ownership things about things we don’t actually own. It’s all about how you navigate the world, how you want to navigate your career, your life, your actions. It is about owning it. I think that companies can have ownership thinking within their organizations without having actual ownership in the company.

Having actual ownership in the company is a powerful way to motivate people because it matters to them. It’s more than just a job and a paycheck that they’re coming to, then they get to share in the success of the company as well. There are lots of employee-owned companies who do not take advantage of how meaningful that ownership can feel to people because they don’t cultivate that true ownership thinking within their culture.

I always start with you can teach people how to think and act like owners even if you don’t have an ownership opportunity within your own company. That comes with trusting people to make decisions, giving people autonomy in their work with guardrails. This is what success looks like. It’s about praising people. It’s about giving them opportunities to grow and develop. It can be as simple as saying, “I care about what you think. Tell me what you think. That’s a great idea. Go do that. I give you permission.”

It’s about helping people when they fail. I made so many mistakes, especially in those early days of learning how to be a CEO and John would say, “Now go figure out how you’re going to fix it.” That was long before I owned this company. I was cultivating that deep passion and care because I had somebody who believed in me, who trusted me, who gave me autonomy to do my job. There are lots of things that you can do as a leader, as an owner, as a founder, as an entrepreneur to create that thinking. It’s how you treat people. Now if you want to make it effective. Add an ownership component to your compensation. You can start with profit sharing. Profit sharing gets people to think about the whole instead of the individual.

Profit sharing gets people to think about the whole instead of the individual.

Maybe care about how much profit the company makes.

Make part of their bonus a profit-sharing check. Don’t talk about stock options as compensation. Talk about it as ownership. There are things that you can do that tie individual and team performance to the success of the company and how people are going to be rewarded with it. I think there are lots of creative things that you can do with your compensation structures. If you don’t call it compensation, you call it an opportunity to have ownership in this company.

A lot of people do options. There are lots and lots of different comp structures that are out there, but they focus it on individual performance affecting compensation rather than collective performance impacting the whole of the company and this is how you own it. Those are some of the tips that I give people when they’re trying to figure out how to create more of that ownership thinking within their cultures.


As you said, there are a lot of different ways to do ownership. I think you utilize an ESOP. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and how you executed it and how you made it work?

An ESOP is short for Employee Stock Ownership Plan. It’s very complicated so I’ll try to simplify it as much as possible. You create this trust and then what happens is the company goes and buys the stock from the founders, then it gives it to the trust. There’s a loan between the trust and the company and then the company has a loan with the founders. Stock is given to employees in an annual basis from the trust as the ESOP starts to pay off its loan back to the company. The founders can completely exit the business. They’re usually will have to carry a big chunk of the note between it and the company but you put on a much longer note between the company and the ESOP trust. You give 1/75th of it every year to employees and it goes into a retirement account.

It goes into an ESOP account. It’s treated like a retirement benefit. We don’t talk about it as a retirement benefit because that’s not super motivating for a lot of our young employees. What we say is how you maximize the value of your ownership in the company is stay with the company for as long as it makes sense for you and the company. When you leave, roll it over into an IRA. It’s your money and when you leave the company, you can do what you want. You can pay a 10% tax penalty and you can go use it. In fact, we’ve had two employees leave and take their ESOP money, take the penalty and go start their own businesses, which I’m cheering them on. That’s awesome. We’re creating more entrepreneurs out there. That’s an amazing thing to be able to be part of.

In essence, that’s how it works. There are a lot of misconceptions about ESOPs that they don’t work, that founders can’t get the full value out of their company. There are huge tax benefits for both of founders and for the company. If you’re a Sub S corporation and you create an ESOP trust, the ESOP trust doesn’t have to pay any income taxes. There’s not a pass-through entity like it is. We have to manage our repurchase obligations for exiting shareholders but you don’t pay any taxes as a company.

Not only are there significant tax benefits to a founder, you can also set up warrants so you still get some upside of the future company growth in your payout, but the company has significant tax benefits as well. Once we’re done paying off all of the debt to buy out all of our shareholders, now that we’re 100% ESOP owned, we are going to generate so much cash, it’s going to be ridiculous. Nobody’s going to be able to compete with us because we’re going to be in such a powerful situation to reinvest back into the company.

There are other ways. There’s phantom stock. There’s a bunch of different things I think if owners are interesting. We had Nathan on from ConvertKit who talked about his very unique way of doing it a while back. I think if there’s intent, there are a lot of ways to do it. The one thing I will say in talking to some people who were interested in ESOP, the world is moving fast and different. I think if you’re a business without a lot of assets with high turnover where people coming in, probably an ESOP is not the right solution from what I’ve heard. You need people who are going to stay around and have some assets and have some things that you can lend against.

Surprisingly, a lot of successful ESOPs are high-turnover companies. Supermarkets do a lot of it. They do it as partially for retention, but I think they have longer vesting periods. That way if there is turnover, they don’t have to pay out that employee as much. I talked to someone. You should actually have her on this show. Her name is Gina Schafer and she owned, at the biggest point, nineteen ACE hardware stores. ACE is a co-op, basically. You buy a share into the ACE as the owner. She then had all of these stores, and I think that there were thirteen of them that she put into an ESOP. Hardware stores are one of the industries with the highest turnover. She purposely set up stores in areas that were re-gentrifying and has been so incredibly successful.

I think that a lot of times, people are like, “I can’t because I have this transient or high turnover workforce,” but there are definitely success stories out there with companies who do have those kinds of turnover issues that have been successful. My best advice for people who are thinking about succession and creating a path forward for employee ownership is to talk to people who have been there, done it. Get good advisors because there are a lot of, I think, misconceptions out there that you can’t be successful with when you can’t. ESOPs are not for everybody, that’s for sure, but I think that people stop the conversation before they even have it, then they get into it because someone says, ‘I had this bad experience,” or, “You can’t do it if you have X, Y, and Z.” It stops people from exploring it.

My best advice for people thinking about succession and creating a path forward for employee ownership is to talk to people who have been there and done it.

Find the mistakes that other people made and don’t repeat them.

We made a ton of mistakes setting up our ESOP. It’s why I talk so much about it.

Call Kerry.

Yeah, call me. I do it all the time. I got a person who called me through YPO, and she said, “I’m thinking about doing this.” I’m like, “I’m going to tell you all the things like what to watch out for.” I know it was incredibly helpful for her to talk to ESOP companies who had been there, done it and had been a little bit more mature because if you screw things up, it can be bad.

Employee-Centric Cultures

It’s permanent when you’re talking trust. Throughout your career, I know you’ve advocated for employee-centric cultures. What does an employee-centric culture look like to you?

Employee-centric cultures to me are that you put your employees first. I know that is a little bit unusual because people always say you should put your customers first. I believe when you put your employees first, they’re going to treat your customers better. That is 100% what happens here. In fact, we have customers who come and visit us that are headquartered in Durango or any of our branch offices and they’ll tell me, “How can I get a job here?”

That is the biggest compliment of our culture because they can see that people are happy working here. While we are very customer-focused, one of our core values in our mindset is delivering on the promise to our customers. The two values that are at the top are practice self-leadership and be a great teammate. That is around how we help people develop themselves and then how we help them be great teammates working together. We make decisions based on the employee experience and then build the customer experience on top of that. I think it’s been a successful formula for us, but it is a little bit different where people say customer first. No, employees first. Let’s make sure that our employees are happy and then they will do a better job taking care of our customers.

If we make sure our employees are happy, then they will do a better job taking care of our customers.

3 Core Values

What does your value stack look like? You mentioned a few different things. Were those all core values or do you have something under that too?

Those are three. We have our own mindset, which is our overarching, like who we are and who we be. It’s guided on the philosophy that our founders had set, like I talked about earlier. We go into that. We did want to describe what it looks like to be a successful employee owner here. Let’s face it, most people aren’t employee-owners in past companies and they don’t know how to come into our culture. The first core value is to practice self-leadership.

Underneath that, we explain what that means for us. Keep it real. We give feedback, we take feedback, we hold ourselves accountable, we take care of ourselves. We are responsible for understanding. That’s a huge one for me. You’re responsible for understanding our financials. You’re responsible for understanding our strategy. If you don’t understand, ask questions. As an owner, that’s your responsibility.

We explain what that looks like. Be a great teammate and we talk about what that looks like at StoneAge. We’re humble, we’re relationships builders, we’re motivated. We have delivered on the StoneAge assurance promise, which is our promise to do whatever it takes to help our customers go home safely to their families every night because we’re in a dangerous industry where people can get hurt or die. Those are our three values and every single one of our employees, I speak to it. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t hear the own IT mindset come up within a dozen times within the company because I don’t know, we’ve done this good job of building the structure around it, making it easy for people to understand and articulate.

The owner mindset is the container that sits across those three values. That’s great. Super clear. I remember years ago going to Ritz Carlton or otherwise, and they were talking about their core values at something and they talked about pulling out the index card. I’m like, “If you need an index card to know what they are, you’re not going to operationalize them.”

No way. No one’s going to remember them. We want people to remember them. It’s easy self, team and customer. Those are the components of what make the core of why people show up every day for their jobs. We try to make it very simple.

Lessons From Mistakes

Kerry, last question for you. This is multi-variant. Singular or repeated personal or professional, what’s a mistake you made that you’ve learned the most from?

There are so many. I think the biggest transformation that I’ve gone through as a leader resulted in my COO and I having to part ways back in 2019. We had worked together for eight years. He was my right hand. I was out with customers building the business, and he was back here making sure the operation was running. He was resentful for a lot of those things of like, “You left all of this while you’re out gallivanting around.” It wasn’t quite like that, but that’s a story he had told himself. We were talking about what it was going to look like going forward. We were having some difficult conversations about if he was going to stay or leave. When I told him I thought that maybe it was best that he leave, he got angry with me.

He said, “You think that you’re this disruptive CEO, but you’re erratic.” That stung and I had to keep my composure in the moment. Part of the on mindset is being able to take feedback. We finished the conversation and I went home and cried and I was like, “I’m not cut out to do this. I’m a terrible leader. I’m not a great CEO. I’m not an entrepreneur.”

My husband was good in that moment. After saying some bad things about that person because he made me cry, he was like, “Take the good from that feedback and leave the rest.” I wanted to focus on that word erratic. I started to explore that. I realized because I am disruptive and I move so fast and, and I see eighteen steps ahead of where we’re at, that I wasn’t doing a good job of connecting the dots for everyone else.

People were thinking I was making these willy-nilly decisions and I wasn’t. It fit into this bigger vision that I had for the company, but I was too far ahead of everybody. I’m passionate about what I do, and sometimes that passion can come across as being aggressive, upset or amped up. What I took from that was one, cool, calm and collected. I want to be an unflappable leader. I don’t want people to be afraid to come and talk to me because of the way that I might respond to something. Second, I did not do a good job of articulating the vision. People felt like they were being whipsawed around as we were on this path from going from a traditional manufacturing company into a technology company.

After he left, I sat down and I wrote out the vision, like, “This is what the future looks like.” It’s at the top of the document. I wrote it out and I explained how all of these different decisions fit into what I thought the future was going to be. We still use this document. I wrote it in December of 2019 and we update it every single year. In fact, I updated it with all the changes that we’ve been making. We document what went well, what didn’t, and everybody has this clear vision of where we’re trying to go.

It was such a profound lesson for me, one being reactionary and two not having a clear vision, that it was not creating a good positive experience for my employees. That piece of feedback, while it stung, was the biggest gift anyone has ever given me because it changed how I led and it changed the company. It changed the trajectory of the company and it changed the way people experience that employee experience. I think that’s probably one of the biggest gifts, the biggest struggles, the toughest piece of feedback I’ve ever received and a mistake that I was making for not having that clarity and not thinking about the impact that I was having on others as we were driving the company forward.

That’s an awesome story. I think in cultures that are about learning, have to be about feedback and learning sometimes even if it stings. There’s an adage like there’s stuff on the front and back of the shirt, the stuff that everyone else knows, but you don’t know and you want to get it all in the front. Kerry, thank you for joining us. You have an amazing story and I’m excited for you to get your new book out in the world so that everyone can learn from you.

Thank you so much for having me on the show, Robert. I always appreciate your insights and spending time with you.

Thank you. To our readers, thanks for tuning into the show. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to follow the show to be notified about new episodes. Thank you again for your support. Until next time, keep elevated.


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