Leadership is all about testing your limits

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A senior IT executive in the traditionally male world of brewing capitalized on her project management and problem solving skills to generate value for a new and unfamiliar part of the business.

By Teresa Van De Bogart, Vice President, Global IT Solution Delivery, Molson Coors Brewing Company

When I was growing up in Alabama, you couldn’t buy Coors beer. People would leave the state to bring it back and that created a lot of mystique around it. Today, having spent the last 35 years at Molson Coors, I have to say that the company is still something that you’d go out of your way for. It’s a pretty great place to be.

I started working for Coors as an accountant and held various positions in finance and accounting for nearly 20 years—corporate reporting, sales and marketing finance, planning and forecasting, and supply chain finance, to name a few. When I took a role leading finance for the supply chain, I put together a business case for a new inventory system. We were the world’s largest brewery but we had been taking manual inventory counts weekly. And there was a lot of inventory! It was going to be a massive SAP project and the brewery vice president and company controller suggested I run it. Even though I wasn’t the most technical person on the planet, they were both rather insistent. It was my first IT project management role, but it wouldn’t be my last.

It was a big risk – and it turned out to be one of the best career moves I could have made. When I moved into this area I wasn’t an expert—far from it.  I had to move from being a manager to being “leader.” In my previous roles, I knew accounting and finance from the bottom up. But IT was new to me. I knew how to ask questions, listen, and leverage ideas, but I had to rely on others’ knowledge and experience in order to do detailed problem-solving and get things done.

The project expanded and soon replaced some of the Y2K work we were doing. I wound up overseeing the largest ERP project implemented at Coors up to that point. (We’ve done bigger ones since then!)  After we successfully completed the project, I had the option to go back to finance, but the CIO asked me to stay in IT. He thought I could leverage my approach and my problem-solving skills to get benefits of the kind that we had been struggling to achieve from our big technology projects.

A Fresh Approach

Ultimately, I created a business case for delivering technology projects differently. In the past, the company had approached them as a technical exercise. They didn’t look at the role of change management, process transformation, and business ownership in deriving value from these implementations. I created an internal change management and process design group inside of IT, a strategic move that still exists and today serves the company well in terms of project execution.

I left IT for a couple of years to lead indirect procurement for Coors, leveraging my leadership and process skills. But when Molson merged with Coors in 2005, I was tapped to set up a global portfolio-management office for IT, and I’ve been in IT ever since. Our approach to projects now extends beyond IT projects to any “project,” whether a new product introduction or the entry into a new country market. This has become the basis for what we call “Brilliant Execution” across our company, and it is core to how Molson Coors does things.

In IT, my in-house delivery team consists of program managers, organizational change experts, solutions designers, technical architects, and business intelligence professionals. We outsource all of the development to our IT services providers.

Incidentally, I would never be able to tell my team members how to do their jobs. I’ve never programmed a thing in my life or configured a system. But I know how to gather facts, how to listen, and how to stretch and support people. And I have learned enough to be able to challenge certain assumptions and to stretch others to think outside of the box.

I also have been able to leverage my financial background to create the kinds of business cases that get big transformational projects approved. The financial approach has been a huge factor in the success we’ve had. And I know how to deliver projects. That’s my reputation.

The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

I’ve learned a lot from the leaders around me, both as role models and in some cases as mentors who have coached and guided me. I’ve learned how they deal with challenges, how they deal with conflict, how they influence. That’s been particularly important because, in my role, I need to keep everyone going down the same path without it feeling like I’m hammering them. It’s important to take the time to learn from how successful people do these things.

One of the biggest challenges we had was a post-merger project that sought to centralize and standardize systems and processes for what had been three operations – U.S., Canada, and Europe – that had run independently. This represented a big cultural challenge. Ultimately, I was able to work with the CEO, who helped us engage some of the division presidents to garner support among their peers toward this bigger company mission. Driving change at this level was another stretch opportunity.

Ultimately, I’ve found that, in this job, the soft stuff is the hard stuff. I know my teams can figure out anything technical, but the difficult part is getting everyone lined up behind you to embrace the change.

Doing the Thing That Scares You

I love big, transformational projects because I like seeing the significant impact they have. But, in the beginning, they were scary. I didn’t think I knew what I was doing. I was worried about what would happen to my team if we failed. I wondered what would happen to me if I couldn’t deliver. But in the end, we didn’t fail. Although we’ve had some tough projects that had some pretty ugly go-lives, we ultimately did deliver. And we have learned a lot! So not much freaks me out any more about projects. My calmness helps relieve anxiety on the team and bolsters their confidence and ability to do a tough job.

I know teams can be scared, particularly on their first project. The most important thing I can do to help them succeed is provide air cover. I want to be able to make them feel like they can take the smart risk, and if it doesn’t work out, to know they’re not going to get destroyed in the process. Of course, we don’t want to repeat mistakes. But getting people comfortable taking a smart risk is a big part of my leadership responsibilities. I know that it’s only when they take a risk outside their comfort zones that they’ll really stretch and grow. So I give people support. I try to reduce their anxiety level because fear can paralyze people – not to mention the extreme stress it creates on folks.  Everyone knows they can come see me or call me up, regardless of their level on the team. That’s important—to be approachable and be invested. It literally takes a village to deliver big projects.

Don’t Let Life Simply Happen

I’ve always had a can-do attitude. Fearless is too strong a word, but I am fairly tenacious.  As a woman in my field, I’ve always been in the minority. When I was hired, I was Coors’s first female accountant. I have a handful of VP women peers, but I’m often the only woman at the table. It doesn’t intimidate me. I enjoy working with all types of people. Different approaches make the entire team better.

I do take the opportunities I have to use my position and experience to help other women – and men. I didn’t dream of becoming the VP of a Fortune 500 company. When I got out of college, all I wanted was a job. But throughout my career, I figured things out as I went. It isn’t always easy – we have a long way still to go as women. But the higher up I got, the more of an impact I realized I could have. So I stick with it.

I’ve always felt it was up to me to figure things out. My mantra is, “What do you want? And what do you need to do to get there without sacrificing what’s important to you?” When I meet women through my work with women’s leadership organizations, I say: “Don’t let life happen to you.” Make a plan, build a road map, and make things happen for yourself – while realizing that sometimes things happen that aren’t on the road map. And that this isn’t always a bad thing.

I do believe my biggest success is what I enable in the people around me or who work for me. It’s all about what you can do—and what we can do to help each other. No one gets there without figuring out what she wants and having help from others along the way. When you get that help, you want to pay it forward to the next generation.

The Takeaways 
Know how to ask questions, listen, and leverage ideas. And rely on others’ knowledge and experience to solve the problems you can’t.
The soft stuff is the hard stuff. You can always find someone to help with the technology and implementation, but it takes special skills to garner support when trying to drive change. Learn whom to ask for help, and how to get everyone lined up behind you.
Don’t let life happen to you. My mantra is, “What do you want? And what do you need to do to get there without sacrificing what’s important to you?” Make a plan, build a road map, and make things happen for yourself.