Strength is not the right goal, resilience is: Resilience is the ability to whether whatever storm is thrown at you. In 2016, we were on a family vacation in Mexico when my father had a massive cardiac event that resulted in a medical crisis. He was clinically dead for 15 minutes and in a medically induced coma for days after while his body recovered. During that time, I was the point person for our corporate advisory board, his insurance company and doctors, and other sundry persons. While everything was happening, I knew I couldn’t allow myself to feel the significance of the event or I wouldn’t be able to handle what needed handled. Once we were all back in Philly and other people could take over the management, I wept and slept and fell apart. I hate the idea of strength because the opposite is weakness. My falling apart does not make me weak, it means I felt the significance of what what happening but I was able to channel my resilience until the time was right.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, who serves as the COO of Abbey Companies, a family owned network of companies serving a variety of industries worldwide. A social worker, sociologist, educator, and learner, Dr. Donnelly has been fascinated by the interaction between people and their cultures for as long as she can remember and uses that fascination in both her personal and professional lives. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and lot of overflowing bookshelves.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you so much for having me! The simple answer is that my father started the company in 1991, meaning that my brother and I have both essentially worked for it our whole lives. He joined full time in 2011 and in 2013, asked me to consider doing so as well, serving as our in-house social worker. See, we had a theory that the traditional HR role could be tweaked from regulatory and benefits management to more of a social worker role. I have my MSW from Baylor University and was anxious to put it to work creatively. We are an intentional second chance employer, meaning that a lot of the folks who work with us have either made poor choices or had poor choices made for them. We seek to provide a safe and stable environment for them to earn a living. This decision stands across all of our companies, so to have someone with training to facilitate that vision made sense. I joined in 2015 after completing my PhD and the role evolved from there.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Geez, that’s honestly a hard one because my job is so varied — one day I could be dealing with zoning plans for the city of Philadelphia and the next I’m visiting one of our customers who is on the cutting edge of cancer diagnosis. I love visiting our customers and hearing how they use our products and how these seemingly ordinary actions we do affects millions of lives around the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was so nervous to be there full time when I first started. Even though I knew the company and had been involved for over two decades, walking in was so intimidating. I made a thousand small mistakes because I was too afraid to ask for help. Surely, I thought, our employees would be annoyed at me wasting their times with my silly questions! Oh how wrong I was. Instead, they were thrilled to teach me about their jobs and the knowledge they had to help our company thrive. I stopped assuming I knew how things should work and starting asking how they actually do. That changed the game.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out for many reasons, but the two that spring to mind are what we make and who we hire. Our two largest companies manufacture things people use every day but no one has ever heard of us! We provide the dye to color sutures, the stain to diagnose cancer, the ocular marker to diagnose glaucoma, and more. For most of our products, we are the exclusive worldwide supplier and we hold that responsibility as sacred.
We hire people for our manufacturing positions who may or may not need a second chance. They may be in recovery, or just out of prison, or perhaps never got higher than a 2nd grade education. Fine by us. If someone wants to show up every day, on time, and sober, we want to work with them. We are a family business who takes the “family” part really seriously and that has brought both joy and frustration over the years. For everyone we’ve gotten a chance to work with who has thrived, there are many others who haven’t and we carry that grief alongside the joy.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our newest division, called Abbey Research, is where I’m taking my social science and business training and combining them to serve small businesses and non-profits. My partner, Dr. Erin Hinson, and I serve as culture analysts, helping organizations make sure that their people are thriving. We’ve helped international development agencies secure relationships with their donor base, indoor recreation facilities reach new customers off season, and small businesses fix their toxic cultures. Erin and I have the best time taking our training as society analysts and putting it to pragmatic use for these organizations.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
First and foremost, embrace authenticity. Who you are is a much richer asset than what you can do. When you know who you are, you can more easily know your team and then everyone wins. I talk about this in terms of emotional intelligence, using a trampoline as a model. If you think about the four elements of a trampoline — the base, the springs, the bouncy bit, and the net — you can identify the pieces needed to build this. The base are the non-negotiables of who you are, the springs are the ideas and beliefs that are important but more flexible, the bouncy bit is where you test out ideas and new notions, and the net are the people you trust the most to keep you safe. Know your trampoline, know yourself, and then you can serve your team best.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Be fierce with others and gentle with yourself. You will screw up, you will be embarrassed, you will blow the call and that’s all okay. The worst thing you can do is get in a shame spiral about it. Learn what you need to from the blown call and move on. Hold your team accountable for their tasks, actions, and decisions, and get comfortable with bounded delegation! We operate on the “trust but verify” model of delegation in our company and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That list would take up the rest of your publication! I have stood on the shoulders of so many visible and invisible giants that I am often overwhelmed by it all. I literally work in the legacy my father created, so he’s a clear one. The women in my family are fierce and gracious and loving and wise and I would not be who I am without them. The friends who have become family all around the world need to be on this list as well. My graduate school mentors Jon Singletary, Gaynor Yancey, Mike Stroope, and John Brewer shaped my academic works and therefore my professional ones. Eric Keller, Theresa Jenkins, Lynn Fravel, Corinne Gokcen, Deanna Henry … the list goes on and on and on and on. And those are just the people I am privileged to know personally! The number of artists, authors, and public thinkers who have shaped me is incalculable.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
If I haven’t done this, then I’ve completely failed. My hope is that I continue to raise up other women to own their voices in a world that desperately needs it.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Trust, but Verify : I believe strongly in delegation with accountability, which is what this is. I can’t hire people I don’t trust to do their job, but I also need to make sure all the wheels are on the wagon. For example, if a customer files a complaint about one of our shipments, our customer service manager is the point person and I know she’ll handle it well. However, two days after the complaint is filed, I make it a point to check in with her and see how she’s working the plan to fix the matter. Trusting, but verifying.
- Strength is not the right goal, resilience is: Resilience is the ability to whether whatever storm is thrown at you. In 2016, we were on a family vacation in Mexico when my father had a massive cardiac event that resulted in a medical crisis. He was clinically dead for 15 minutes and in a medically induced coma for days after while his body recovered. During that time, I was the point person for our corporate advisory board, his insurance company and doctors, and other sundry persons. While everything was happening, I knew I couldn’t allow myself to feel the significance of the event or I wouldn’t be able to handle what needed handled. Once we were all back in Philly and other people could take over the management, I wept and slept and fell apart. I hate the idea of strength because the opposite is weakness. My falling apart does not make me weak, it means I felt the significance of what what happening but I was able to channel my resilience until the time was right.
- Work life balance is not achievable, but a holistic sense of self and calling is. Lands alive do I hate the idea of “balance”. It’s not a static possibility and therefore is too fuzzy of a goal to shoot for. Instead, I think we should know who we are, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and draw necessary resilience from both of those things.
- Your people are your competitive advantage. I do not care what product you make or how revolutionary it is. The only true competitive advantage you have as an organization is your people. Nurture them appropriately — help them to grow, challenge them, and weed out toxicity. As the adage goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast. You could have the best strategic plan on the planet, but if your folks aren’t a healthy and functioning team, you are but a clanging gong. Your folks are everything. Treat them as such.
- Never be afraid to ask for help. The belief that asking for help is a weakness is a false embed in American culture, where we value the cowboy mentality of solo work. It’s crap. No one knows everything, no one sees everything, no one has the whole picture. No writer is good without an editor, and no one is successful without a team.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My movement would be one of radical vulnerability. Not spilling your business for all and sundry — that’s not vulnerability, that’s oversharing. What I mean is that everyone knows who they are — their strengths and points for improvement and isn’t trying to hide them, but instead just owns them and seeks out relationships that complement them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” When I was 20, I spun a globe and decided to move to where my finger landed. I was afraid I was living too much in my harbor and so I flung open my metaphorical sail and set off for Northern Ireland. The course of my life was completely changed, and so was I. I’m not into safety, I’m into growth, and I’ve never been more grateful for my wanderlust itch as I was that day.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please follow Abbey Research on Twitter, IG, FB, Pinterest, and YouTube at @abbeyresearch. Personally, you can find me on Twitter @klndonnelly or on LinkedIn as Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, PhD.