December 8, 2023

Corner Office: Kathleen L. Flanagan: Kathleen Flanagan of Abt, on Making Confident Choices


Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. The first time I was really a big boss was in 1989. I was 29, and I had been at Abt for about seven years. The new executive vice president called me and said: “Can you fly up to Boston tomorrow? I need you to take over this business unit. Take the challenge.”

It wasn’t until after I agreed that he looked up my age in the personnel files and said, “Whoa.” But the advice he gave me for my new job was: “You’ll always want to have butterflies in your stomach. Plan for success. Create your goals and your strategy, and go with your gut. Have confidence in yourself. You’re good at what you do.”

So I went in front of 35 people who were now my direct reports to talk to them about my vision, and most of them were older than me. I remember wondering whether they were going to take orders from this young whippersnapper. And a couple of them had pretty much determined that there was no way I was going to be able to pull this job off, and they said that to me.

So, the first year, I constantly had butterflies in my stomach, but I realized that you have to go with your gut. You’ve got to respect people. You’ve got to listen. You have to be willing to get input from everybody.

At the end of the first year, one person actually said: “O.K. You’ve proved me wrong.” I felt pretty good about that, but I realized quickly that there’s no blueprint for this. There’s no recipe for it. You have to make a plan and be goal-oriented. Be flexible along the way, but listen to people. I give them the opportunity to give me feedback, tell me what worries them, what they are thinking about, what part of the strategy they think is risky.

It’s not about being smarter than anybody else. It’s about being able to connect the dots and being the glue for a business. I’m constantly saying to my colleagues: “Let’s put the puzzle together. Let’s use people with varied experiences who are wired differently to get the job done.” I believe in asking people at every level of the organization for their input. It’s amazing, this new generation, what makes them tick and how they think about things, and I always learn something very interesting when I ask for their input.

Q. Can you elaborate on that point?

A. I think the younger generation obviously wants to move a lot more quickly in positions than maybe the more senior folks like me. They’re constantly curious about what they can do next. They’re almost impatient about sitting in a job for any length of time, and they always wonder about the next opportunity.

When I became the C.E.O. a couple years ago, they said, “You’ve got to have a blog, Kathleen.” And so I had 5 or 10 fairly junior employees giving me advice on how to blog, and now I use Twitter. And that younger group is likely to go on my blog and write back to me to ask: “What about this? What about that?”

Q. And what are your thoughts about people being impatient in their careers?

A. There’s obviously tension there. You want somebody to commit for 6 or 12 months to something, but my objective is to build a culture that allows people to move when it’s right, or at least to have those discussions. So the coaching has to be there. The managerial talent has to be there so that they can have that discussion with somebody and say, “Here are the pros and cons of this,” and then allow them to move quickly, as opposed to just saying, “You should stay in that job for three to five years.”

This generation isn’t going to do that. They’ll go somewhere else. So keeping talent at our company is a real priority right now. It’s very competitive so we’ve got to think about ways to keep that next generation growing, learning, excited.

Q. When you first got that big management job, were you told why you were getting the job?

A. I think it was my ability to work in teams, my ability to collaborate. I was actually in a different business unit altogether, so I demonstrated an understanding of how to connect business units, leverage all the capabilities of the company, not be turf-conscious, and listen to people.

Q. As your company has grown, have you noticed a change in culture?

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