Leadership in Practice: A Conversation with Lisa Flavin, Vice President of Audit, Emerson Corporation
Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are now?
A: My first job out of college was at Ernst & Young. I stayed for about 8 years and left as an audit senior manager. From there, I went to the Hüls Corporation, a German holding company that had the majority ownership of MEMC here in St. Louis. I was the CFO for the US holdings. It was an exciting job and I worked there for about 3 years. I was just getting ready to take accelerated German classes. About the time I started the classes, the parent company in Germany went through a merger. It was going to require relocation, so that is what landed me at Emerson. I started here as the Director of Audit and was promoted to the Vice-President of Audit. The initial plan was to stay in audit for 2-3 years, and then rotate out to be a CFO at one of our divisions. But, when that time came, they asked me if I wanted to do that or be the Vice-President of Audit. I chose the Vice-President of Audit because there were more things that I wanted to do with the department at the time.
Q: How have you seen leadership style change over the years? What sort of things do you feel like you have learned?
A: Probably one of the biggest evolutions came when I left Ernst & Young and started managing people in industry. One of the most important lessons I learned was that people are motivated by different things. As a leader, you have to determine what motivates each individual, what makes them happy and most productive so you can properly manage them. For one person, extra time off may be more important than the next promotion level. Someone else might be driven by additional responsibility and challenge. Each of those people plays a unique role in the organization and you have to figure out what motivates them so you can manage them; you can’t manage them in the same way.
Q: Along this journey who have your mentors been? What sort of impact have they had on you?
A: I am fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best minds in business, not only at Emerson but on our Board of Directors, and in particular our Audit Committee Chairman. From observing these individuals, I have learned how they conduct themselves and handle different situations. I have learned some lifelong lessons from them, which include never compromising your ethics and integrity, always doing what is right. I have learned that you can build trust and integrity by admitting your mistakes. I have also learned from them to keep it simple. The more complex you make a transaction or a situation, the more prone it is to error. Another thing is be decisive and be able to summarize and boil issues down to black and white.
Q: What role does mentoring play in your leadership style?
A: It is important to constantly have someone that you view as a mentor, observing how they handle a given situation, and being able to seek their feedback on performance. After I give a presentation to our Audit Committee, I like to go back to my boss and ask him, “How could I have done things differently? How could I have made a bigger impact?” It is a continual learning process.
Q: If you think about the Audit organization at Emerson, how would you describe the leadership culture?
A: I think our leadership culture in Audit is very much the same as it is in Emerson as a whole, which can be best described as driven and passionate. What is interesting to me is that no matter if I am in Singapore, Germany, Brazil, Thailand, the United States, or any other multitude of countries where we do business, you see the same culture. You see people with the same type of drive, the same type of passion, the same people know that the company culture is one where integrity and ethics is first and foremost. It is really understood that we make mistakes but if you make a mistake or make a wrong decision and try to cover it up you quickly lose credibility.
Q: What do you do to maintain that culture?
A: I think a lot of it is leading by example. We have focus meetings where we engage all levels of the department on developing new initiatives and new goals and new focuses and making sure everyone is part of that. We have a mentor program, although it is more along the lines of getting people familiar with the work place and business and their career path than it is learning necessarily leadership styles. I think that comes mostly through observation and having the opportunity to work with and network with individuals at all levels of the organization. We make sure we give our staff access to senior executives so they can observe and learn from their activities as well.
Q: Are there other ways that you explicitly try to develop the next generation of leaders?
A: Emerson has a great leadership program. Each year the company brings together a class of high performing individuals from all around the world and they are given training from the senior officers of the company. It is really a forum to network, not only with your peers, but also with the top executives of the company. They each talk about characteristics they think is necessary to succeed within Emerson. In my class we met again 2-3 times after that initial meeting, so we stay in touch with each other. I think it just helps us understand and observe our current leaders and what has made them successful. You can take that to heart and internalize it and see how you may want to modify your characteristics.
Q: Is there anything else that you think of that you do in Audit to develop the next generation?
A: In Audit I think again it goes back to just putting our staff in situations where they are dealing with successful people within the organization, whether that be at a division or here at corporate, and making sure you have opportunities to interact with all levels of management.