As a co-op student working in Copperleaf’s marketing department, I had the opportunity to interview Judi Hess, Copperleaf CEO, as part of my UBC Sauder School of Business co-op work term assignment. She shared her experiences as a student at the University of Waterloo, her early days as a software developer for an aerospace and defense company, how she climbed the corporate ladder, and the valuable lessons she’s learned through her many years of experience as a CEO.
When you were a university student, what did you see yourself doing as a career?
When I was in university, I didn’t think there were many jobs that a woman could do. I thought I could only do things that I saw other women doing, therefore I could be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. I was studying math and business administration in university, and excelled at it, so I thought maybe I could be a math teacher when I graduated. I never imagined I would go into business. You are affected by what you see, which is why it’s so important to increase diversity in leadership positions in business.
Who were your role models when you were growing up?
I admired my mother who was very independent and strong. She believed that women could do anything, even though she didn’t have those types of opportunities for herself. She didn’t want anything to be denied to her children, so she encouraged us to persevere and excel in the world.
You're known as an advocate for women in the business world. What made you take on this advocacy?
After I graduated from university, I became a software developer. When we needed someone to lead the team, I said “well, I can do that!”, and the manager agreed, so I became the team lead. Then I became responsible for the entire project. After a few years, I began managing the technical teams delivering solutions worldwide. Looking back, I was actually very young to be leading those teams. But the company gave me the chance to step up, and I took it.
I think it’s so important to give young women the chance to lead. Diversity brings different perspectives to the table, enhances the workforce, and ultimately brings success.
How is your role as a CEO different from your days working as a manager or team lead?
As a CEO, you really need to understand the big picture and calculate the risks you're taking. You have to appreciate how the decisions you make affect the entire organization. Having said that, I draw on my previous experience in management positions all the time. You have to use what you’ve learned in the past to help shape your future decisions—it allows you to step back and say, “Instead of panicking, let’s think about this. Let’s look at the bigger picture. What are we trying to achieve and how can we get there?”.
It’s also important as a CEO to be determined to make things successful. I just don’t take “no” for an answer. Instead, tell me how we could do it. Some challenges are tough and might even take a long time, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
How did you develop such perseverance?
It’s partly shaped by experience. Over the years, you see that you’ve overcome things you thought were impossible at the time. I think I’m a realistic optimist—I believe as a team, we can make success happen through creativity, persistence, and choosing the right strategies.
In addition to perseverance, what are some other traits that a CEO must have?
Strong communication skills
Being able to communicate well, while being succinct. Research has shown that it’s much easier for people to absorb information when it’s brief.
Being a great listener
People don’t want to work for someone who never listens to them and only tells them what to do. If you hire a bunch of really smart people—which is what I strive to do—then why wouldn’t you want to listen to their ideas?
Building a strong team
You need to have an eye for talent and build a solid team around you. It’s also important to know how to inspire people to do their best.
In general, being analytical and logical is important when making decisions as a CEO. These skills also help you take calculated risks, which can result in unforeseen future opportunities.
“Why?” is the most important question you can ask: Why are we doing this? Why can’t we do this? Why is it done this way? And you have to be curious about human beings: how they work best on a team and how to inspire them to push further every day.
Being comfortable with ambiguity
You are never going to have all the information all the time, and you have to make important decisions based on ambiguous information. You have to choose the direction you think is right, even if every small move along the way may not be correct.
What are your thoughts on pursuing work-life balance early in one’s career?
Malcolm Gladwell said in his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, that you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. So if you want work-life balance, you won’t reach those 10,000 hours as fast. I believe you have to put in your time in order to reap the rewards, so I didn’t have any work-life balance when I was starting out. I try for work-life integration, meaning I work as much as I possibly can while still enjoying the things I love.
What does a typical day look like for you?
At any time of day, I have to make decisions on how much risk we’re going to take as a company. I want to interact with people as much as I can, and typically have meetings lined up with a lot of different stakeholders. I like walking around the office and talking to different teams to understand what they are currently working on, how things are going, and what we need to improve. As the CEO, I need to think long term and strategically. Therefore, I am taking all these inputs to decide how we can drive future goals.
You mentioned interacting with all levels of staff to get input on decisions. What value do you get out of speaking to a co-op like myself?
A person in my position needs to listen to the new generation. I’m interested in whatever ideas you might have, what’s important to you, and how we could do things better. I’m curious what a young person’s perspective is because our company needs to include all perspectives if we want to be successful.
A Co-op’s Perspective: Why This Interview Was So Interesting For Me Personally
I’m originally from South Korea, where most organizations operate in an extremely hierarchical manner with a huge emphasis on job titles and seniority. That type of culture creates an invisible wall between executives and employees. In fact, you hardly ever get to meet a company’s executives and if you do, you would never dare to initiate a conversation with them.
It’s no wonder I experienced culture shock when I first began working at Copperleaf. Our CEO, Judi, walks around the office and introduces herself to new employees. She makes a conscious effort to break the authoritative and unapproachable stereotype of a CEO I was used to. Yet, I still felt nervous when requesting an hour of her time for this interview. When she accepted, I was again amazed by her generosity and openness. After our interview, I not only gained a lot of respect for Judi as a human being, but also gained invaluable advice that I can apply throughout my career.