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the ladder

Karen SheriffThe Globe and Mail

Karen Sheriff, 58, is president and CEO of Q9 Networks, Toronto, and former CEO of Bell Aliant. Bell will acquire the remaining 65-per-cent stake of Q9 by end of 2016 for $675-million.

When I left Bell Aliant, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to run another company but I wanted a turnaround or growth CEO role. I connected with some guys in the United States and one turned out to be an owner in Q9 and this opportunity came up. It was hysterical for me because I wanted to buy Q9 about 10 years ago at Bell Canada, since I wanted to get into the business with the best data centre brand in the country. When I wasn't able to buy Q9, we built a data centre from scratch at Bell. The data-centre business is definitely my wheelhouse.

I love being hands-on. I like spending my time with the most exciting opportunity or the most exciting problem. I like knowing the details, but I also like letting my guys run their own thing. I run the top and help set the strategy but I know how to go deep and make sure things are moving well. I ask the right questions at the right time and appreciate the detail of what should be happening to make sure things stay on track – without getting in the way.

I believe in "rigging success." That means adding some extra safety nets to a project to improve the chances of success. On a large project at Bell Aliant, I convened my entire senior team once per week to help the project team. Any roadblock could be cleared instantly because all the decision makers were in the room. Sometimes, it's people, sometimes it's funding or other additions. Not only does this lead to greater success on projects, it helps the team build confidence that they can accomplish amazing things.

I get my kicks from success. I love to make things happen. I love working with great people. In about 18 months, we have changed the trajectory of the company, launched new products – which the company hasn't done in years – and launched a separate line of business. So, the best part, is making that happen. The worst is learning how to function with a team of 200 instead of a team of 6,000, which is what I used to have. There is just so much that people can do so it can feel limited, but the great stuff far outweighs the bad.

I've learned a lot along the way. In the last couple of years I learned that running a small company is different than running a big one, and can be harder. You don't have the same physical resources and smaller problems can often feel bigger because of scale.

Focus on results, not on tasks. I worked at United Airlines for 10 years. I loved it. It was such a kick to work for an industry that was poor, so we had to be really smart. I had a $100-million budget for advertising and no staff. It taught me how to think quickly, think smart and execute like crazy. This was before voice mail. I had no secretary. I would come in and have 14 inches of mail to go through and I had to do it all on my own. I was also a relatively new mother so I had to juggle a lot, but it made me very efficient. One day, I came in and hit the point of overload. I looked at the mail and messages and I realized that being successful is not reading all the mail and messages. So I gave myself five minutes and chucked the rest in the trash and never responded. It gave me about an extra hour a day. It made me focus on what's important to the business.

The ability to think divergently and creatively helped me. When I was in college, I took psychology, economics and math, and I thought I should transfer out of liberal arts and get a business degree. The dean of the business school persuaded me not to do that. He said get other skills now and a business degree later. For me, that was incredible advice. I minored in metal smithing in the arts school. I'm a problem solver, so I loved that creative side.

Many companies are evolving how they manage their data. These cloud and application businesses are growing so fast that they themselves have a need for data storage. A lot of our customers are going to be evolving and we can capture that opportunity. There is a huge potential for growth in this business. It makes me feel good that in 18 months we have accomplished a lot. I'm really proud of what we done.

I think talent is one of my greatest learnings as a leader. Surrounding yourself with great talent makes you a better leader and will drive better results. Nothing matters more to success than great people. Nothing.

As told to Leah Eichler.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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