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Annette Verschuren has never been afraid of charting new territory. The CEO of NRStor (a renewable-energy storage company with its first facility in Harriston, Ont.) has enjoyed a career of firsts including becoming the first female CEO of Home Depot Canada. She made the move into renewable energy because she sees it as a major growth market, and growing companies is what she does best. Verschuren is the keynote speaker at an upcoming Women of Influence luncheon at the Telus Centre in Calgary. Here, she shares some of the secrets to her success, including why a little cow dung under your fingernails isn't a bad thing.

Sometimes you have to get away to see the big picture

When I left Home Depot there were a lot of people who wanted me to go into retail again, but I had been in that business for 20 years and there was a feeling for me of been there, done that. I knew that I wanted to do something different, but I didn't know what. I also knew that the only way to really get away and have some time was to travel. I remember [TD Bank deputy chairman and former New Brunswick premier] Frank McKenna said to me, Annette, whatever job offers are out there, they'll be there when you get back, and so off we went. My husband and I had a bucket list of places we wanted to go, so we decided to just do it. I think we went to 17 different countries in a year and I enjoyed the time so much, being with my husband and learning about different countries and economies was just fascinating. Of course I was thinking about the next step and I noticed over the course of our travels that there was a lot of potential for renewable energy. I started discussing the idea with some of my contacts and about 18 months after I got back we launched NRStor.

If you can run a farm, you can run anything

I'm a farmer's daughter from Cape Breton, N.S. – dung beneath my fingernails. Coming from that background taught me so much about the importance of hard work. It's something that should be obvious, but so much of business is just being committed to working really hard. When I was 10 my father had a serious health setback. We were going to sell the farm, but then myself and my two siblings said that we could keep it running. We did, but it was not easy working for a few hours every day before school started, smelling like manure. It was really about rolling up your sleeves and figuring out what needed to get done. That's been the pattern with all of the businesses I have worked in. I don't necessarily know a lot about the specific industry going in, whether it was the coal mining or crafts at Michael's. In terms of management, the skills are really the same. I think I could run a school board, a hospital or a startup, which is what I'm doing now.

The greatest risk is not taking risks

Fifty per cent of being a leader is being a teacher and it's a part of the work that I really love. I'm not a micromanager. I believe in giving people a big sandbox to play in and giving them the freedom to make mistakes. Canadians are a bit risk-averse, but I believe there is a direct relationship between taking risk and the amount of success you have. Creativity and innovation come from a risk-taking environment. The other great thing about making the sandbox big is that more people can play in it. When everybody contributes to decisions, you make good decisions because you've looked at the issue from multiple perspectives. I really don't care about title or seniority – good ideas come from everywhere. If you encourage and invite people to participate rather than diminishing them for their mistakes, you get so much more.

Being tough doesn't mean being stubborn

I've always been comfortable with constructive criticism. To me, the most generous people in the world are the people who have told me things that are uncomfortable. At Home Depot we did these 360 reviews, and my review from my senior staff was negative. I wasn't spending enough time in the right places, and it was really valuable to hear that. It's so important to be able to adjust and always keep learning throughout the journey. There's a big difference between being tough and being stubborn. I'm tough enough to let go, which is so important. Being stubborn can get in the way of your ability to see when you're wrong and to fix your mistakes. I don't fall in love with my ideas. When I was running Michael's or Home Depot, I never fell in love with a product or a product line. You have to use the data as your measuring stick. It's about what the customer wants, not about what I personally happen to like.

Take life one thought at a time

I've worked very hard to really be dedicated to being in the moment. I have the ability to have one thought at a time, which is not as easy as it sounds, especially nowadays with all of the technology that keeps us connected 24/7. I am always completely focused on what I'm doing, whether it's a professional task or something I'm doing in my personal life. If I'm talking to a person, I'm not looking over their shoulder to see who else is in the room. If I'm solving a problem, I'm thinking about just that problem and not 17,000 others, if I'm canoeing on the lake or playing golf with my husband I can cut myself off from whatever is going on in the office. There's no point in being a worry wart when it's not productive. It's not easy. It's a skill that took me many years and a lot of discipline to master, but it is so valuable in terms of being able to live life to the fullest and enjoy special moments.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.