Welcome to the latest installment of Q&A, our regular series of one-to-ones with some of Greater Vancouver's leading business figures.
Our subject this week is Kirsten Sutton who, alongside her role as Senior Vice Chair at GVBOT, serves as Chief Technology & Information Officer at Vancity. In our wide-ranging discussion, we spoke to Kirsten about the challenges facing Greater Vancouver and how harnessing her inner rebel has helped her career.
What inspires you?
The fact that anything is possible. I truly believe this and it inspires me everyday to take risks and take care. If anything is possible, then there are no limits to the ideas that you can come up with. So go crazy! As any good design thinker knows, when we believe in any possibility, we break through to new innovations. Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm a worst-case-scenario person. Because anything is possible, I like to be ready for anything…even the bad stuff. That way, I am either ready for what may come or, more often, pleasantly surprised that the worst didn't happen.
How do you relax?
Confession: I'm addicted to TV. If I ever need to decompress, distract, or delight, I watch TV. I LOVE TV – I admit it. It's my total pleasure that I indulge in whenever I want to relax. I do love a good book or a warm bath as well, but TV is my go-to treatment.
What is the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?
Harnessing my inner rebel. I've always been a rebel. In high school, let's just say that my teachers did not appreciate this aspect of my personality. Back then, my rebel ways compelled me to break free from both the school system and authorities. I constantly pushed the boundaries and patience of those trying to guide me in order to execute whatever wild idea I had that day. But, given my rebel reputation, if I brought forward an idea – even if it was a great idea – because it was mine, it was immediately suspect. I've had to find a way to channel this energy to work within a system rather than consistently trying to break it. If you embrace authority you can gain sponsors. With support from sponsors, you will be able to implement many more ideas because they're excited about the creativity you bring to the table. Now, I'm being called upon daily to share my ideas…my high school teachers would be so surprised!
What is the biggest challenge facing Greater Vancouver?
Growing up without losing what makes us special. I remember feeling both giddy and terrified at the prospect of hosting the 2010 Olympics. I was so proud how we showed up in that moment for the athletes and the world. In 2020, connectivity and coordination across the region requires that same difficult task to focus locally on what makes us special while ensuring that we address some of our greatest challenges such as affordability, and that we continue to be leaders climate action.
What do you like most about doing business in Greater Vancouver?
The diversity. Diversity drives innovation and the strongest, most innovative and high performing teams are diverse teams. When we bring the diversity across Greater Vancouver together, we are a powerful and innovative force focused on helping each other and the planet.
Where do you see untapped potential in Greater Vancouver?
We are bursting with innovation. Our work at Vancity really focuses on small and medium-sized businesses that are working hard to support local communities and employment. SMEs in our region are pioneers, especially in the clean tech sector. Key to the realizing the potential of these enterprises is labour market development.
What is the most important lesson, business or otherwise, life has taught you?
Every interaction matters. How you sign your emails, how long you take to respond, how you react to feedback, how you handle conflict, meeting someone for the first time or meeting them every week. Never forget how much influence you can have.
What do you think makes a great leader?
Knowing the people on your team. As a leader, I believe this is the key. Look for ways for everyone to shine. We all have an innate desire to improve and be better, but we are also all really good at some things and if you can identify those things for each individual and for the team as a collective, you can all move forward together and do great work.
What do you think Greater Vancouver needs more of?
Opportunity for all. While the area is an incredibly diverse and beautiful place to live, we need to make sure it remains an attractive and affordable place for everyone, from all backgrounds. This work will involve increased and affordable housing stock, a continued focus on climate and healthy communities, and innovation.
What do you think Greater Vancouver needs less of?
Inequality. Vancity works every day to address inequalities that exist in our system. Rising inequality was a pre-existing condition of the economy before the pandemic, but the problem has been laid bare by Covid-19 and our efforts must continue to be focused here.
If you could leave one professional legacy behind, what would it be?
A successful succession plan. It is our job as leaders to build bench strength on our teams and help to grow the next generation of leaders. We identify successors and slowly and meticulously work ourselves out of a job so that they can take it over from us. Seeing the person or people you have been supporting for years take on leadership positions, knowing that they are ready, and you had some small part in their journey is the legacy I aspire to.