I try to bring fearlessness into the company culture


Kevin Ford

CEO, Calian

Kevin Ford is the CEO of Calian and was named Ottawa’s CEO of the Year in 2017. Calian offers services ranging from providing health care to military bases, to supplying communications systems to space agencies. The company has enjoyed 67 consecutive profitable quarters. Prior to joining Calian, Kevin worked in professional services for over 30 years, including 11 years at IBM as a Partner in Global Business Services. He has continued Calian’s acquisition streak, most recently acquiring Calgary-based Priority One and Secure Technologies in Ottawa. Calian employs more than 3,000 people across Canada.

I collapsed from a cardiovascular event

I was 52. I was exercising, watching what I ate and my blood pressure was great. I had had a full medical and I was the healthiest I had ever been.

I went out for a run with my wife and when we got home, I started experiencing chest pains before I collapsed from a cardiovascular event. If it had happened a few weeks earlier when I was travelling, and my wife had not been there to help and get me immediate medical attention, it could have ended quite differently.

As it was, I recovered and I am back at work but when you have an incident like that it changes you as a person and it changes your mindset as a leader. My team’s health and wellness has become very important to me now. So, I want to make sure when someone takes a vacation, they disconnect completely and their team has their back. When they are on vacation, their minds and bodies need time to recharge and experience life.

As CEO, I want to make sure health and wellness is more than just a tick box on a Human Resources form.

I counted how many sunsets I have left in my life

I am living the life I want these days. I have an amazing wife, four great sons, and I am running a company that is freaking awesome.

I have thought about my mortality and I counted how many sunsets I have left in my life. I don’t take a day for granted and I want to enjoy my journey.

There is a lot of this world I still want to see. I have not travelled enough because I have kept it on the back burner. I am figuring out how to see the world, have fun and still work and make a living.

My generation made a wrong assumption

I was brought up to go to school, go to university, get married, buy a home, have kids, work your tail off, use debt if required and start to enjoy it all when you get to 55. But I am learning how to experience freedom in life, today, right now, from my boys. I watch them and I learn from their attitude to life because they enjoy living in the moment. My generation made a wrong assumption – we assumed we would be alive to enjoy life when we are 55.

As CEO, I want to build a positive culture

I learned a lot from times in my career when I struggled. When it was hard to go to the office, whether it was through a lack of passion or diminished energy, and I was not myself.

When it was tough, I kept hoping it was going to get better. You try and change things, and then you realize it is too difficult and maybe you stop trying. Then you go to what I think of as the dark side. In some organizations, I probably stayed too long because I thought things would get better but you can end up being miserable and slowly going nuts.

As CEO, I want to build a positive culture where people enjoy coming to work. Most days I have fun; some days are less fun but I think that is the reality of being a leader.

Life can be hard – it does not mean you waver

I am Ottawa-born and raised. My parents worked hard and they gave us a great upbringing.

My mother was the quiet foundation of our family. She taught us you can be a calm leader and not have to be in someone’s face. When you had an issue and you called her, she was there for you. In these days of throw-away marriages – in sickness and in health, in good times and bad times – she epitomizes calmness.

My dad worked in a few different areas such as sales for paper mills and selling cars. I started a business with him and my brother at one point doing maintenance, carpet cleaning and painting. One of the things I learned from those days, which has helped me be successful, is the value of a strong work ethic. At 17 or 18 I was working full-time and everything I have, I have built through hard work. I think the leader sets the pace on work ethic inside the organization. Life can be hard – it does not mean you waver.

I always try to figure out how to do something better

I started my career as a key-punch operator, keying-in unemployment insurance claims. I was straight out of high school with no university education. I got into the Department of National Defence and they sent me on a COBOL course and I became a computer programmer before moving on to project management. Eventually I left the government and moved into Sales for DMR. Through acquisitions, I ended up at IBM as the partner responsible for their defence business.

What is consistent throughout my career are two things – my work ethic and a high propensity for learning. I always try to figure out how to do something better. At one point I decided the way we shut down the data centre at National Defence was very manual and I ended up automating something that used to take half-an-hour into a minute.

At the time I was working at National Defence, a lot of my buddies were in university. I figured I was lucky, because I was getting training, operating one of the largest data centres in Canada and getting paid. I was getting an education, but in the real-world.

I get frustrated with pushy people

If you have a strong work ethic, a desire to keep learning, the ability to work on a team, passion and you can add value through new ideas, you start to shine. I think an important element of life is just to be who you are and let things take their course.

I never grew up wanting to be the CEO of a publicly traded company. It just happened.

I get frustrated with pushy people. It is OK to ask what you need to do to get promoted – it is not OK to ask it repeatedly. I coach my people to work hard, really hard and to do the right things. If you are performing, you are outpacing your peers, you are passionate and driven, you will be noticed.

I try to bring fearlessness into the company culture

There are three fundamental things a leader has to do – have a vision, build the culture and set the pace.

Setting the vision and building the culture take time. For example, how do you make fearlessness part of your corporate culture? As a young hockey player, I was the smallest player on the ice (probably still am) but I was fearless. I would go into the corners against the biggest guys to win the battles. As the CEO, I try to bring fearlessness into the company culture, while still being prudent.

In terms of pace, you need to know if your company can run at 4,500rpm or at 8,000rpm. You set the pace which works and you start to rev it up by tuning the engine.

Sears’ failure was a clear failure of leadership

I was in Regina a couple of weeks ago and we drove by a huge, empty Sears depot. How do you go from being THE retailer in Canada to being bankrupt? My wife grew up in Northern Ontario where the kids eagerly anticipated the Sears’ Christmas Wish Book. It was everything to those kids. Sears’ demise shows that you can never stop evaluating the relevance of your business in today’s ever-changing world. It reminds me to continue to challenge ourselves to get better.

People want to come to work knowing we are trying to lead the pack, not that we are getting overly comfortable.  Too many companies get stuck in the mud and they do not survive. They get over-taken and, all of a sudden, they are no longer relevant. I talk to my team about the experiences of other companies, like Sears, as I believe we can learn from these stories.

I was a young, egotistical, little jerk

People management is a huge part of leadership and you never stop learning and improving. I recall a meeting at DMR where I was one of their top sales people. I was a young, egotistical, little jerk. After one particular lively meeting, my boss, Tony, invited me for a coffee. He sat me down and said, “You know, I get all your points, but I can not believe how immature you were in that meeting”. The fact he took the time to give me honest feedback and basically call me out on my behaviour made a huge impression. It is something I learned from – I not only modified my behaviour, I also give honest feedback to my team, all the time.

As the leader, you have to go with your gut sometimes

When I was coaching a competitive hockey team, I decided to develop the mother of all spreadsheets to assess every player on 20 different skills. We sat down as a coaching team and picked the highest ranked players. The reality was, when I looked at the rankings, I knew in my gut there were two or three players we had got wrong, so I picked the team I wanted. As the leader, you have to go with your gut sometimes and almost ignore the numbers in front of you. Leaders need the self-confidence to know in their gut when things are right or wrong.

You build your gut by exposing yourself to experiences, failures and successes. If you focus only on things that have been successful, you have less ability to identify potential failures.

It was freaking awesome!

I never pretend to be who I am not. Good or bad, vulnerability is about sharing concerns and feelings. I do not pretend to be perfect or have all the answers and I think that drives my leadership. It is about walking the walk. Leadership is not a title; leadership is how you act every day.

There are times in your career as a leader when you get some validation that you are on the right track. A highlight of my career, for sure, was getting the CEO of the Year award last year and being surprised by my staff coming out on stage to congratulate me in front of my peers. I will never forget that moment. It was freaking awesome!