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The Globe and Mail

FedEx Canada chief finds strength, comfort in her work

Lisa Lisson, president of FedEx Canada

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

From the moment they became high school sweethearts, Lisa and Patrick Lisson were a golden couple. They married, had four children and, by their late 30s, held great marketing jobs, Patrick with a big building materials company and Lisa with the Canadian arm of FedEx Corp., the global logistics giant.

Everything was fine with their world, until one August night in 2007, when the family returned to its Burlington, Ont., home from a cottage vacation. In the middle of the night, Lisa heard a loud thump, and first thought it was one of the children.

Then she looked across the bedroom and saw her fit, 38-year-old husband sprawled on the floor, having suffered a massive heart attack.

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"I quickly realized he wasn't breathing, so I started CPR," she recalls, as vividly as if it were yesterday. As she worked on Patrick's limp body, she was too frantic to think what would happen next, but her life had clearly changed.

Patrick Lisson did not die that night. He lived on in a vegetative state for two years as his wife desperately searched for a miracle - perhaps, a drug or treatment that would stimulate his wounded brain back to life.

It did not happen, but she did find another kind of miracle. She went back to work at FedEx where, after about 16 years, she had risen to vice-president for marketing and customer experience. As she oversaw Patrick's care, she found strength and comfort in her work, its routine and discipline, and in her colleagues' support.

Last fall, she was appointed president of Federal Express Canada Ltd. - a year after Patrick died. It was an emphatic confirmation that work and life are not conflicting concepts. They are not necessarily locked in irreconcilable tension, but can play off each other in ways that sustain a life in crisis.

"It felt good for me to come back and be with my second family here," says Ms. Lisson, interviewed in her corner office in FedEx Canada's head office in Mississauga.

Ms. Lisson had joined FedEx as an entry level marketing person out of Guelph University, attracted by founder Fred Smith's mantra of "PSP" - that people, service and profit are intertwined, one leading to another. Today, she is FedEx Canada's first Canadian and first female president, but also, at almost 42, a single mother raising three girls and a boy, all under 14.

Her experience has taught her to focus strictly on the present. "I train my mind not to go back into the past, when my husband was healthy." That would only make her sad, which would divert her from her purpose and her work. What's more, she says, "I don't worry about the future because we can't control that." Instead, "what got me through was staying focused on here and now, and trying to find happiness in the moment you are in. I talk to my children about that - with that attitude, you can find happiness in the most difficult situations."

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Asked about her darkest moment, she manages to extract herself from the present, however briefly. The low point was not that night when she was cradling Patrick's inert body. It wasn't eight days later, when doctors advised her to let him go, and she retorted, "Don't miracles happen in this hospital?"

The nadir came as he approached death, when his body kept refusing the feeding tube and she realized it was over. "During that 18 months of trying to bring him back, I was so optimistic. I never for once questioned he wasn't going to come back. That's how I lived my days, which helped me get through it."

She doesn't regret the decision to keep him alive, or to bring him home every Sunday from hospital for time with the family. "He didn't know me or the kids at all. But to them it didn't matter - it was 'Hey Dad, how are you?' I think those two years prepared us for his death."

In the end, she knows his death was a blessing, because "it was hard to see him like that."

She acknowledges that her experience put things in clearer perspective. It is a common refrain in the workplace that people worry too much about the little things, the petty indignities and glitches, believing they constitute life-and-death trials. Ms. Lisson saw life and death hang in the balance every day, and that made it easier to rise above the noise at work.

Always organized, she maintains a rigid discipline, as she balances four children, the interests of 5,700 FedEx Canada employees and eight airport hubs, which feed into the worldwide network that handles eight million shipments a day in 220 countries.

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She is by nature an early riser, which allows her to get into the office at 6:30 or 7 a.m. And she doesn't sweat the fact she is not at home as the kids get their breakfast. After all, breakfast time for a young family is not exactly quality time. But she is home for dinner almost every night, usually by 5:30 or 6 p.m., when she is not travelling - which is about half her work time.

In her case, it is essential to have a strong backup team of family and a nanny who has been with her 10 years. She keeps telling the nanny: "Your job is way more important than mine: You're helping to raise my children when I am not there during the day."

While Ms. Lisson works hard, she is not a slave to her job. "You hear about these people who work very, very long days and you just come to a point when you are not effective. It's important to get a break and be well rested."

Being based in Canada has helped her cope, but in fact she would be open to any global assignment. "It would be good to work in another international region. It would be good for my children to explore another culture," she says, adding that, when her father retires, her parents would be able to move with her.

Ms. Lisson often hears people ask how, during the dark times, she could get out of bed every morning. Those comments only feed her candour. "If I can only help one person who reads this, if I can help make someone's life better, to show how I coped and went through it."

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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