Karen Ross and the Value of Speaking Up

Sharp Decisions, a business and technology consulting services firm, has been around for 25 years, but it’s as lithe and agile as ever—it was part of the Inc. 5000, a list of the fastest-growing companies in the US, for three consecutive years. Find out how CEO Karen Ross got the company going, what being “truly established” means for her and what advice she has for future leaders.

Sharp Decisions (Opens Overlay) was founded in 1990, in what was obviously a much different business environment. What were some of the challenges you faced in getting the business off the ground and running?

I noticed that there was a need for a professional service that would be able to accommodate the needs of financial institutions, to grow with them and to make a difference. Financial services firms were looking to work with partners who understood them—who could come in and understand what their needs were, what their challenges were and who could work alongside them to help support their growth.

I decided to go off on my own and turn this idea into reality. I knew I could do it, and I knew I could do it with a level of integrity that I felt was missing. I also knew that, with the right people in place, this had the potential to be a global operation. Because you’re only as good as your people; you may have a skill-set in one particular area, and you need to have strong people surrounding you who can tackle what you can’t.

The main challenge was that this was a brand new business—we had no credibility when we started out. We struggled with breaking into the field, setting up meetings and differentiating ourselves, as most new businesses do. But unlike businesses today, we didn’t have the Internet or email—we had pagers! So we networked and went to meetings or introductions anywhere, any time we could.

How long was it before you felt like the company was truly established?

Ultimately, I don’t think you can ever say to yourself, “Oh, well now we’re really established.” I don’t think you can ever sit comfortably when you’re in a service business—the needs of your clients can change so quickly, and you need to be able to adapt.

When global trading was established, one of my clients said, “You need to have an operation in the UK for me to consider maintaining our relationship and keeping you as our vendor.” I said, “I will introduce you to our UK office within two weeks.”

Having the ability to adapt to support the needs of that particular financial client within two weeks—when we had no relationships in London—was a daunting task. But through relationships, through networking, through talking to everyone I’d ever met, and by everyone in the organization doing that, too, we were able to launch a UK office within two weeks, as promised.

How would you describe your leadership method?

As long as the goals are set, I don’t rule with an iron fist. I think communication and collaboration are critical to any organization. I talk to everybody, because every job is important. And if the trash needs to be emptied, I’ll empty the trash. It is not beneath me. You spend so much time at work, and you have to think like a team to be successful—we are a family, we are all on the same page, and we should all be shooting for the end goal. It sounds cliché, but I really do believe it.

It’s important to me that the people who work with me know that they have the ability and freedom to make decisions—because I will not tolerate mediocrity. You can’t sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do—if you’re doing that, then you don’t belong here. I think people stay here because they trust that I don’t waiver in that domain—if you make a mistake, you won’t be penalized because you took an action. You’ll be penalized if you do nothing.

Too many people settle for mediocrity. “It’s good enough.” “It’s okay, I don’t have to put the extra hours in, I’d rather go home.” The level of complacency is all around us.

But “good enough” doesn’t get you to “great”—“good enough” gets you to just “okay.” And “okay” doesn’t get you to the next level as a leader. “Okay” doesn’t help you with the ability to reinvent yourself every day. In the service industry, there’s always someone who can do it better, cheaper or more efficiently, and you still have to remain on top. How are you going to do that? You have to reinvent yourself, reinvent the way you do business and reinvent the message you’re delivering.

You’ve talked about the fact that when you started your career, there weren’t a lot of women speaking up, and that your challenge was to be “heard above the noise.” How do you encourage your employees to speak up and lend their voices to the conversation? To not settle for mediocrity?

When they’re hired into this organization, my core staff knows that there’s an open door policy, that I’m okay to be wrong and that we can agree to disagree. You may not always be right, but you’ll always have the opportunity and the right to speak up and say what you need to say.

I think it’s important that we raise the next generation of leaders to be willing to speak up and take a chance. And not behind a screen, over email or text—take a chance in front of people, face-to-face. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone says no? Thinks you’re foolish? It’s okay if they do—people have been called foolish since the beginning of time. Think of Aristotle and Newton. It’s okay! Be different. Dare to initiate change. Figure out how to turn a “no” into a “yes.” It requires passion and energy, but if you do, people will listen to what you have to say, because they’ll believe in you.

Recruiting for technology jobs can be notoriously difficult. How does Sharp Decisions ensure it’s finding, recruiting and retaining the best talent?

It’s hard to retain the best of the best. But ultimately, it’s not about money, it’s about the kind of opportunities you can present. When I’m hiring internal staff, I make sure they know how I work and how I think. They know that I’m one of the first people in to the office and one of the last people to leave. They know that I practice what I preach—I go out and meet clients and consultants, and I don’t live in an ivory tower—they know that I have a good understanding of what it takes to be successful. Because people work for people, they don’t work for companies. They have to feel like they belong to a team and are valued. It’s not about the money, it’s about the culture.

Can you talk a little bit about Sharp Decisions’ Vocation Education Training for Service members (V.E.T.S.) program? Why is this an important mission for you?

V.E.T.S. came about because I looked at the veterans who were coming back from Afghanistan, post-9/11, and they couldn’t find work. I decided it was time, as a private citizen, to make a difference.

I heard a lot of other companies saying they were hiring veterans, too, but they were looking at the problem differently than I was—their programs didn’t address the fact that veterans who are coming back from active service probably don’t have a whole lot in common with their peers who hadn’t fought in a war. A program that hires veterans into positions with people who don’t have the ability to understand what it’s like to serve in a combat zone is probably going to fail.

So, I decided to start a veteran-training program. We put three or more vets together in boot camp-like technology training courses and “deploy” them together to a client who is willing to take on these trained young veterans. Their training probably equates to two-to-three years of experience.

It’s just smart business. Veterans have unique skills—they are mission-driven, deliverable-driven, and they are trained to leave no person behind. They don’t walk away, either—our retention rate is 94 percent.

Currently, we have 70 vets working with us at Emblem Health in New York, Freddie Mac in Virginia and Experian in LA, among others. We’re looking for other clients to step up, though—we need help to find the right organizations that will give this program the opportunity. It’s a program I’m very proud of, and it needs to take on wings, because it’s mobile—it can go anywhere in the country, as there’s no shortage of veterans in any state.

I am looking to bring jobs back to America, and I believe that we each, as private citizens, need to do our share.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned as a boss and a leader?

Never settle for the status quo.

Push people to do more than what they think they can achieve, because they can handle it.

You can do better. You can think bigger. Never be afraid to try.

Surround yourself with talent, and know your limitations. What I don’t know, my CFO or my resource manager knows. I don’t have to be all things to all people. I have enough people within my organization that I can pick someone who can best accomplish a job.

Make mistakes—that’s how you get better. Try something, and if it doesn’t work, ask for help—someone will step up.

Don’t be afraid. So many people are afraid, so they don’t know how to do things—how to present in front of a crowd or even how to take initiative. You have to fall on your tush a little bit to figure out what the next step is, and it’s okay not to know something, it truly is.

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