This week on the Bright Ideas series presented by Acuity Brands®, Catherine is joined by Karen Holcom: the Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, and one of the first female executives of the company.
THE JOURNEY TO GAIN EXPERIENCE FOR AN EXECUTIVE ROLE
Karen fell in love with her accounting class in high school, chose it as her major at Clemson University, and then graduated to join public accounting firm Deloitte. That job offered her broad exposure to a variety of industries, and she eventually ended up at National Service Industries Inc. (NSI), which was the predecessor to Acuity Brands. She has now been a member of the team for more than two decades.
In response, Karen came to the company’s lighting and controls business of the time to learn everything she could about their products and their innovation. She learned about all their different sales channels, customers, manufacturing, and supply chain. She also had some brief stints with HR and the industrial group; all opportunities to get to know the company and their clientele.
KEY MENTORS FOR THE COMPANY’S FIRST FEMALE EXECUTIVE
Of all Karen’s mentors over the course of her career, one that sticks out in her memory is former CEO Vernon Nagel. She worked alongside him during his entire tenure with the company, and he taught her two key lessons. The first was to know customers well, because companies exist entirely because of their customers. Any CFO can become better by understanding what makes customers happy and what their needs are.
Vernon encouraged Karen to attend sales conferences and NAED events, and taught her also to have a voice and speak up for herself. His faith in her helped to build her confidence in her own capabilities.
Vernon wasn’t the only former CEO of Acuity Brands to have an impact on Karen, either.
Recently while she was going through her basement, she found a note from his predecessor, Jim Balloun. Back when Karen had first started working with the company, he had saved an article from McKinsey Consulting Firm about women in the workplace; and he had sent it to her with the handwritten note, “Karen, it won’t be easy. But we’re all here to help.”
It was such a powerful gesture, knowing that someone in leadership supported her and believed in her, that she kept it for over two decades. Since then, she’s been able to pay it forward as a female leader in a male-dominated industry.
DEVELOPING A LEADERSHIP-BASED LIFESTYLE
After realizing in 2018 that not as many ladies had been fortunate enough to work under some great leaders as she had, Karen started the Women’s Network to give other women the space to achieve their own aspirations in their careers. Many of the ladies on the Acuity Brands team look up to her–– Catherine included.
When it comes to that kind of position, Karen has shared that one of the most challenging aspects of a leadership role is finding the right things to focus on. Any given day might bring a wide variety of messages, phone calls, emails, texts, and every other kind of meeting–– all of which could each be valuable ways to spend her time. However, it’s key to stay attentive to tasks that are most likely to impact change and move the business forward. She often sets aside time to make lists of these items so that she can follow through and check them off as she goes.
With the addition of CEO Neil Ashe to the Acuity Brands team, Karen is looking forward to seeing him apply his expertise with technology to the company’s vision and progress into the future. Her eye for customer service and product delivery from her past roles has given her insight into how bringing more transparency into sales will alter buyer and distributor relationships for the better going forward.
This opportunity for growth is going to affect not just Acuity’s customers, but also their associates as well. And for Karen, any transformation that benefits both her buyers and her team is definitely a win-win.
To learn more about opportunities available with Karen and the Acuity Brands Women’s Network, visit careers.acuitybrands.com. To learn more about business practices and programs that can improve the satisfaction of your customers, stick around for next week’s episode.
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