Veteran financial leader Kathryn Mikells on navigating teams through organizational transformation
Kathryn Mikells is no stranger to transformation. Having spent the bulk of her career in financial leadership roles for United Airlines, Mikells was instrumental in navigating the company through a three-year bankruptcy, as the Assistant Restructuring Officer to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). She was also the CFO when the airline merged with Continental Airlines in 2010.
Now as the Executive Vice President, CFO, for Xerox Corporation, Mikells is once again spearheading an internal transformation as the company moves to become a primarily services-led organization—a task for which she is well prepared given her previous work experiences.
“There are a lot of general themes around any kind of transformation,” she said, “and even more broadly than transformation, the fact that companies have to constantly reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant within the marketplace and the customers they serve.”
Mikells is utilizing her collective experiences as she guides Xerox and its global finance organization along its evolutionary journey as a successful, strategically oriented services-led company.
Leading by Example
Mikells joined Xerox as the Executive Vice President, CFO, in May 2013, after spending 16 years with United Airlines, as well as serving as the CFO Nalco, a specialty chemical company, and ADT Home Security.
Mikells held several different roles with United, including an instrumental one as the assistant restructuring officer to the CFO while the airline went through a three-year bankruptcy from 2002 to 2006. She was also the Treasurer for the airline and headed up their investor relations. In 2008, Mikells was named CFO of the airline, a role in which she remained until the merge with Continental Airlines was complete in summer 2010.
Since joining Xerox, Mikells has been working to emphasize efficiency and strategy within the firm’s finance organization.
“When I look at the overall hard structure of the finance organization, I haven’t changed that, but I am definitely looking to highlight or focus on some different things,” she explained. “One is the efficiency and effectiveness of the finance organization. Finance needs to be a lead-by-example organization for the company in terms of what we’re looking for folks to do, efficiency overall.”
When she benchmarks the finance organization, Mikells explained that if there is a footprint that is too heavy in high-cost countries, the organization needs to be streamlined to be more reflective in terms of where the company does work around the globe and more reflective of its global business.
“I have asked all the folks in the finance organization, especially the people who work to support the business as business leaders, to be more strategic in their thinking and to spend more of their time helping to move the business forward and make better business decisions,” she said.
For Mikells, this means ensuring the organization has good reporting, compliance, and controls in place. It also means working side-by-side with business leaders to help shape the go-forward strategy for lines of business and what changes need to be made in the business, including changes in the business model or focusing on bigger growth opportunities areas.
It also means laying the right foundation for her employees.
“You will have folks who naturally reach beyond the four walls of their job description and sometimes you need to really lead people to see that they should be reaching beyond the constraints of a job definition on paper,” Mikells explained. “A large part of what I do is teach the right expectations for my people, and I’m pretty straight forward in terms of what I expect from them and how they will be measured. I coach them on an ongoing basis to make sure they’re doing the right things and spending their time on the appropriate things.”
Beyond the finance organization, Mikells is also leading the organization as it aims to become a predominately services-based organization. Roughly 57% of the company’s total revenue today is services-based. The firm aspires to generate two-thirds of its revenue from services by 2017.
“We’re continuing to shift away from services led technology into technology-supported services,” Mikells explained. “That means we have to make sure in the finance organization that we’re appropriately focusing our resources on where the company is moving to and away from where the company has historically been in the past.”
To accomplish this, Mikells says you have to make sure you are investing in areas of growth, moving your best and brightest resources to places where you have the most opportunity in the marketplace, and being efficient in how you cost out parts of the business that don’t have the same growth opportunities to make sure you’re extracting efficiencies to reinvest in the areas that do have opportunities.
“There’s a lot we do around prioritization,” she explained. “That is prioritization of both people and capital to make sure we are achieving all that we can in the marketplace.”
And with such transformation, Mikells is careful as a leader to communicate effectively and regularly with her staff.
“The company needs to make sure it is always communicating with one voice across all levels and audience,” she said. “We are communicating with one voice to the market, our investors, the communities we serve, our customers, and our employees.”
Strong communication, according to Mikells, starts at the top of the house with the CEO and is filtered down through each layer of the organization.
“Myself and everybody in the senior leadership team make sure that when we’re communicating to our employees, we’re starting with the company’s overall strategy,” she said. “Then, what employees really want to understand is where the company is going, how they fit into that, and what they need to do to make sure they are successful and the company’s successful.”
Mikells believes it is important when you are speaking with employees, to actually have a discussion with them about how they fit into the overall picture. She does through both the remarks she has prepared, but also through more intimate discussions with employees.
Mikells holds a lot of one-on-one meetings with employees—and not just with her direct reports but also with employees several layers down.
“I make sure I’m staying in touch with what’s on employees’ mind and that we’re doing everything we can to support them to be successful, which will ultimately make us successful.”
Keep Calm & Carry On
As a leader during both good and trying times, Mikells understands the importance of remaining calm and collected.
No knee-jerk reactions. “When you’ve been through a lot of tough and sometimes stressful situations, you develop a nature of not having knee-jerk reactions to things. More often than not, I just want to sit and hear the information and listen to what people have to say and gather facts, and have a better understanding before we make decisions.”
Gather all of the information first. “I find many times just trying to get more information can diffuse a situation because you’re understanding of the situation can change materially or it can send you in a different direction. A lot of times, people try to take action when only having a fraction of the information they need. If something looks difficult, they feel as if they have to immediately respond. I like to make sure I have enough updated information to at least understand where the company needs to go, then I’m relatively happy to start to move toward that direction and continue to course correct along the way.”
Be calm and action-oriented. “It’s important that, as leaders of a company, you bring a calming influence to the table. Many times, people with less experience will get more nerve wracked about a situation and leaders need to bring a calming influence. At the end of the day, there are few things that are going to be a material problem for the company. You need to be able to identify which ones those are.”
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