Even before being named president of FedEx Express Canada eight years ago, Lisa Lisson started building a repository of career lessons that served her — and her teams — well. That experience was shaped by the loss of her husband, which she shared along with ideas from her life playbook in her 2017 book, Resilience: Navigating Life, Loss, and the Road to Success. Access connected with Lisson in her Toronto office to learn more about her unique perspectives on leading, learning and overcoming life’s biggest challenges.
As the president of FedEx Canada, you probably get this question a lot — but how would you describe your leadership style?
I try and adapt a servant leadership style. I love this definition of servant leadership from the Servant Leadership Institute: “Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy. Traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid.’ By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down, which puts the customer service associates at top of the pyramid; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees.”
Servant leadership involves effective listening.
Servant leadership involves effective listening — we were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason, so we need to listen twice as much as we speak. It involves the ability to deeply understand and empathize with others, it involves recognizing and accepting people for their uniqueness and different points of view, and it involves understanding strengths and areas for development — not only for others but for ourselves.
Servant leadership makes complete sense, given the size and breadth of your team. Are you in the field often?
Yes, because I also subscribe to the theory that a leader must wear out their shoe leather. I try and be visible and approachable with our employees as much as possible. This allows me to keep in touch with the pulse of the organization while allowing our employees to engage in a dialogue on our vision or whatever is on their minds.
As much time as I spend with our team members, I dedicate an equal amount of time with our customers. It is imperative that leaders maintain a customer-centric lens on all decisions and actions. I challenge myself and our team members to live the Purple Promise — that we make every FedEx experience outstanding — through the perspective of our customers.
Given your job’s scope, you surely have your fair share of challenges. Tell us about a couple — and what you learned from them.
The two biggest challenges I’ve faced as a leader was learning not to say yes to everything and giving myself permission to carve out “me time.” We all have careers we want to excel in, we all have families and friends we want to spend time with, and we have ourselves to take care of. Many of us try to stay healthy, eat right and hit the gym once in a while. We usually have calendars packed with soccer games and ballet recitals, homework to oversee, and budgets to balance. Sometimes that idea of having it all can feel like having too much.
Figuring out what you need to do to prioritize yourself and then making it happen are key steps to personal growth and development.
Carving out “me time” is something I have had to learn and have had to keep on top of. The reason is because saying yes to everything leads to burnout, exhaustion and even anger. I know that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of others and I’m not performing at my optimal level.
Part of how I manage this is by adopting three small but game-changing habits into my weekly routine. One: I try and make sure I get seven hours of sleep a night. Two: routine exercise. I hate exercising, but I know it’s good for me physically and mentally. And three: carving out white space on my calendar both personally and professionally for “me time” to pause and reflect.
When I do these three small things, I feel like I’m in balance. When I let one or all of them go, that’s when I feel like I’m going off the rails. Figuring out what you need to do to prioritize yourself and then making it happen are key steps to personal growth and development.
Personal growth and development seems to be a theme for you and your team. Do mentorships play a role in that?
Yes, whether it exists on a formal or informal basis, I have always found the practice of mentoring to be a source of personal power. Both as a mentor or a mentee, you should always pick the right counterpart and use your moments together productively and have an agenda of topics. Otherwise, it will be a waste of both your time.
My mentors have helped me become the leader I am today because they have allowed me access to what you’d call their “career playbooks,” which has allowed me to develop traits, habits, skills and practices to become more effective and efficient in my job. Further, I have learned not only from their abilities but also from their own sense of confidence and personal belief. They’ve taught me many things, including the fact that believing in ourselves is one of the most important things we can do. And that every interaction with someone in a higher position than us is a “mini-interview” and to use that time very wisely.
Knowing what you know now, if you had one piece of advice for your younger self just starting out, what would it be?
I would tell my younger self how important it is to visualize every goal — to write them down on paper and then figure out what baby steps you can take toward them. Visualizing our goals and believing in them is like having a personal trainer in our minds.
We all have goals and dreams. However, turning them into reality can be daunting. That is why I am a firm believer in focusing on the destination — not worrying about the path but determining what baby steps you could take tomorrow toward your goals that you didn’t do today. Breaking down the achievement of our goals into baby steps helps make them less daunting and helps us move forward in achieving them.
Looking at the current global conversation taking place regarding the role of women, gender equity and inclusion, what has been your experience with the movement, what does it mean for you and where do you see it going?
I have used my position to advocate for the advancement of women, and in the eight years I have been president of FedEx Express Canada, I see a real change for the better.
In Canada, there is a gender gap among corporate boards of all sectors — public, private and charitable. There are a lot of boards missing out on leveraging terrific leaders when you consider that research shows having women in the boardroom can improve financial performance, help attract and retain top talent, heighten innovation, enhance client insight, increase performance on nonfinancial indicators, and improve board effectiveness.
I am fully cognizant that I am among the highest-ranking women executives in Canada’s transportation sector. I have used my position to advocate for the advancement of women, and in the eight years I have been president of FedEx Express Canada, I see a real change for the better.
Tell us about a difficult point in your career. How did you handle it, and what did you learn?
While I was a vice president at FedEx Express Canada, my husband suffered a massive heart attack and lived the final two years of his life in a coma. Throughout this time, I faced many periods of doubt, fear and an overwhelming sense of loss. There were times when I was even angry. However, we were parents to four children who needed their mom to adjust to a new normal. I made a conscious decision to look for the good in every situation, focus on positive thoughts, pay close attention to my inner voice, and continue to work towards the life Patrick and I envisioned for our family.
It was not easy, but I received tremendous support from my parents, my friends and from FedEx. During this time, I learned some valuable lessons that remain with me today. Perhaps the most valuable lesson was learning to focus my energy on what we can control and letting go of what we can’t control. Often, we waste invaluable energy focused on things we simply cannot control. For example, most of us get very upset when we are stuck in traffic, even though there is nothing we can do about it. After the experience with my husband, I have learned that this waste of energy takes away from what is truly important. A bad commute home no longer influences my mood when I walk through the door at home and greet my kids. I have learned to live life with a grateful heart. Each day is a blessing. We need to be grateful for what we have in our lives and not focus on what’s missing.
Doing this has given me the realization that while many things are beyond our control, our reaction to any situation is always within our control. Life is not about what happens to us; it’s about what we choose to do with what happens. This realization has helped me to grow both as a mother and a leader.